Posted on: October 15, 2009
Royal Robbins in 1965. [Photo] Glenn Denny
ONE SUMMER DAY in 1949 a fourteen-year-old boy found himself moving over oceans of granite. Growing up in Los Angeles, without a father or a sense of place, he felt haunted by a "gray fog of nothingness." He would later recall in his autobiography, To Be Brave, "It was as if something had been amputated, and I had been made less whole because of it." By age fifteen, he began to consider suicide. Something stopped him: the memory of his first climb resonated with half-conscious promise.
All around Fin Dome that morning, pale slabs and spires reflected the High Sierra light. Deer and marmots flickered between boulders and pine trees. When he touched the stone, "[it]...in turn touched my spirit, awakening an ineffable longing, as if I had stirred a memory of previous existence, a happier one.... I looked through a magic window and found something of great depth and wonder, something I was made for."
Royal Robbins became one of the world's greatest climbers. But that vision, first glimpsed as a boy, remains just as seminal as the legendary ascents that expressed it. Venturing onto expanses of unknown rock, Robbins sought an even greater uncertainty than that of the lines he would trace: the courage to explore a corresponding vastness within his own mind. At times he risked his life to leave the stone as pristine as he could—and to commit to an adventure that was deeply, purely wild.
JULY 2009: The Salt Lake City sky pours its white-hot light between buildings, reflecting off concrete and glass. "This is the future of competition climbing," loudspeakers blare between explosions of hip-hop. Spectators pack the hotel roof; it's after hours at the Outdoor Retailer Show. Athletes twist in sculptural dances to fit the bright-colored patterns of the holds. Whether the competitors pitch off—or whether they link each improbable sequence to the top of the wall—the outcome is the same: a swift plummet to the soft, thick mat.
The MC keeps track of the rankings and provides a running tally of the quantities of suspense each athlete might be feeling. The vast sky cools to purple dusk. Spotlights switch on. Beyond them, through the steady flow of traffic and humanity, pools the quiet of the night. When the comp ends, arcs of forceful movement hover, still, in the darkness, like the afterglow of fireworks against closed eyes.
Somewhere, a seventy-four-year-old Robbins, who spent the day inside the crowded trade show, signing copies of his new book—nods, gently, off to sleep.
TWO SUMMER DAYS, six decades apart: it's too easy to say there's no comparison. Each year the disconnect between climbing's modern forms seems more striking—at least on an external level. Does a kid bouldering in a Florida gym encounter anything similar to what an alpinist swinging tools on a remote peak experiences? Can we even talk about a single pursuit anymore? Robbins insists we can: "There is certainly a common impulse, which I would loosely call the 'spirit of climbing.'"
Within Alpinist 28, it's that elusive "spirit of climbing" that our diverse contributors set out to find. Each has his or her own definition. Ed Douglas calls it "the spark of creativity, the shift in perspective that changes the way you—and others—view the world." Joanne Urioste speaks of it as a quest to forge magnificent creations. Scott Cosgrove names it the "Crazy Eyes" of the bold who see "through bullshit and death." John Bachar's friends portray his climbs as reflections of its purest form, while Greg Landreth urges us to look beyond the act altogether—to find the spirit in its periphery, within a wider, more existential vision of wilderness: "The show that is." Phil Broscovak states it most succinctly: "We climbed simply to be."
Every climber, every writer, every artist turns dreams into reality, enacting a perception of existence, a brief visual assertion of his or her being within the world. Naturally these expressions take different forms. But by following a line of beauty, linking hands, feet, holds, thoughts and feelings, each one creates—and then commits to—some composition out of the arbitrary materials of our environments and our lives. This arrangement becomes our story, even as it connects us to something larger than ourselves.
The rise of commercialism, as Douglas argues, has endangered climbing's "creative edge." Yet, almost magically, this edge persists. For, Robbins tells us, that "common impulse" might be the "love of adventure" after all. "'Adventure' comes in many forms, including the adventure of finding out about oneself...."
As we move higher, our gaze sharpens and expands. The art of climbing, Doug Robinson wrote in his timeless Mountain essay, turns us into "Visionaries." Small ripples in holds and shifts in sequences become heightened with urgent meaning. The air and the ground unfold their immensities. And then, on those best and unpredicted days, another vista opens, too: an "interior landscape of joy and wonder" that can bring us, as it brought Robbins, suddenly, unexpectedly, "far, so far, from the heart of the city."