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But I soon began to notice other kinds of discussions beneath the valiant tales: scornful narratives about "mad bolters" and "bolting on rappel," in which "hangdogging" was prima facie evidence of weakness of body, while rappelling to inspect a route demonstrated a clear sign of weakness of spirit. The voices of some of my erstwhile heroes took on a mixture of nostalgia for an idealized innocence and a hostility toward new ideas that grated on my ears. I became ambivalent about both extremes, and unsure about the meaning of climbing in my life.
My youthful faith in the redemptive power of the sport became more complex. There was still beauty and solace in the practice. The immersion in the forms of nature, the aesthetic shapes of stone and the challenges of their features, remained an end in itself. But I couldn't sustain my faith in the myth. Had I believed too much? Was I asking too much from the stories, depending too much on a human construct?
I STILL GRAPPLE with these problems. I can't deny the validity of the Golden Age as a powerful, deeply felt experience. The time between the first ascent of the Nose (1958) and the first ascent of the Nose-in-a-Day (1975) was an unparalleled age of discovery for American climbing. The context of those events has long since vanished. Back then, national parks such as Yosemite weren't the environmentally besieged, crowded, regulated and expensive sites they are now. The Golden Age stories paint pictures of entire seasons spent in Yosemite free of rangers and rules. Most of all, climbing, in those days, was a lesser-known quantity. There were no guides to technique on big walls when Warren Harding and his partners set up the 2,900-foot sweep of El Capitan's great, unclimbed prow. They made it up as they went along.
But nobody needs to saw up old stovelegs to climb the Nose anymore. The development of technique, grading, equipment and guidebooks became standardized, in part, because of the successes of the Golden Age. In an irony of history, the pioneers' freedom resulted in much of today's regimentation. The 1960s and early 70s were, in fact, a time when so-called traditional climbing was anything but.
Those young athletes were just carefree kids improvising on rocks. How did they slowly turn into legends, icons and for some of us, even gods? Their figures may have become imbued with the nostalgic images of boundless opportunity and eternal youth, persistent all-American dreams. They might seem to convey an age of undiscovered realms and unexplored frontiers, when the blank on the map appeared to be actual and not imagined, a time when America was an undisputed world leader, not the confused and divided nation we see now, after the traumas of 9/11 and the meltdown of the global economy.
For a while, within the microcosms of Yosemite and Colorado, it seemed as if American climbers were also showing the world the future. But the future turned out otherwise: the trends in climbing have shown a much more heterogeneous mix of demographics, destinations and styles. Climbing is no longer primarily the domain of white middle-class North American or European men. The vision of extreme stylistic "purity" touted by Royal Robbins and John Bachar has been largely replaced by a more pragmatic, diverse and flexible approach. The prophets of this new era might have been, instead, the Golden Age outcasts like Ray Jardine, who saw the need to work out difficult moves without returning to the ground—or then-suspect characters like Todd Skinner, who embraced both hard traditional routes and all-out sport-climbing.
THIS IS ONE OF THE PARADOXES of cultural history: the meaning of seemingly trivial contemporary thoughts, decisions or ideas may not be revealed for many years. Only the distance of time gives any clear relief. That same distance allows us a certain freedom to imagine what the past was, with no clear guide to correct that image. Our memory re-shapes long-ago experiences, adding and taking away portions, for ends that we might not yet recognize.
Caught between the confusion of a bewildering present and the illusions of a fancied past, we take refuge in the creation of myth and heroes, seeing evidence and meaning where there may have been none, and veiling the potential significances that were. In time, a work of art replaces the truth, whatever that truth might have been.
Eventually, we can no longer recognize this artistic realm as fictional, for we have become too attached to its apparent beauty and meaning. Even its once-everyday objects have been elevated to relics. Painter's pants, EBs and Swami belts are transformed into emblems of a simpler, pure, heroic age, liberated from their mundane, technical considerations of safety or performance. At the time they were invented, they were handy and inexpensive, though hardly perfect, solutions to problems that are now obsolete. Today, accustomed to gear of which our predecessors could only dream, we may perceive the older equipment as embodying an era when climbers relied not so much on calculated technology but on the incalculable power of the human spirit.
Great things were done with these primitive tools, but does that mean they can no longer be achieved with more advanced gear and a closer understanding of technique? The "murder of the impossible," as Messner put it, can take many forms, not just through the misapplication of technology.
The essence of the problem, at least as I see it, is that the mythopoeic impulse holds at its heart a potentially destructive impulse: the desire to know something of the past necessitates a re-creation that alters and eradicates our understanding of it, while obscuring a present that calls out to be lived.
Have I ceased, then, to believe in the myth of the Golden Age? Not entirely. Perhaps that vision, acquired in my youth, has made me what I am today: a hopeful skeptic who sees the contemporary scene as holding incredible opportunities for climbers of all ages and abilities, but also someone who mourns, in some way, the passing of time and the loss of memory and experience that inevitably follows.
But maybe we are always living in a Golden Age of the present, one that offers a constant time of renewal and discovery, even as the past irretrievably recedes. For therein may lie the chief difficulty of relating this history: climbing exists in its best form as a wholly present-oriented activity, free of recollection. If we cease to try to experience the present moment, but choose instead to memorialize an invented past, then that choice is neither beautiful nor true, but ultimately tragic.
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