10 - Sharp End

Posted on: April 5, 2011

Vertical Words | Michael Kennedy

"The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out," wrote Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception. "He will be wiser but less cocksure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend." Huxley was describing his famous May 1953 experiment with the psychedelic drug mescaline. But without resorting to any mind-altering substances, many climbers have undergone similar shifts in perspective, merely through the visceral immediacy of a particular route. Doug Robinson depicted the process in "The Climber as Visionary" (Ascent 1969): the same sharpened focus that we apply to each successive landscape of rock, snow and ice also enables us to see "the objects and actions of ordinary experience with greater intensity."

Indeed, the continuous search for that wondrous feeling of lightness and calm— on those days when the world narrows to setting your crampon points just so on a smear of ice; to coordinating your breath, pace and concentration toward that oh-so-distant summit; to moving your hips a few millimeters so you can pull precisely this way on an insecure bump—forms a large part of what makes the act of climbing so enthralling, even addictive. It is also, perhaps, the one element that we share across all disciplines, ability levels and generations. "There is a communication which transpires between [climbers]," Michael Tobias proclaimed in 1975, "an immutable mutuality of experience heightened by hallucinations, limitless anxiety, pain or jubilation, and continuously uncertain reckonings of mind and body forged together on an edge" (Mountain 44).


Genuinely transcendent moments are rare (in nearly forty years in the mountains I can count mine on the fingers of one hand) and almost indescribable to the uninitiated. Therein, of course, lies the challenge for writers, photographers and artists (and for us as editors): How do we transform the vertical realm—as we see it, feel it and hear it—into words and images that reflect the heightened understanding of ourselves, the universe of thought, action and emotion that is "climbing" at its best?

Climbers have always shared their stories, both with each other and with a larger audience, and yet, as Huxley noted, "We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves." With every issue of Alpinist, we strive to provide new glimpses, however fragmentary and oblique, into the "mystery" of ascent. For beyond the rapid proliferation of numbers, lists, elevations and logos that predominates in so much of today' s climbing world lies another, deeper, more essential history of our pursuit: the evolution of our imaginations; the ever-changing, creative synthesis of vision and act, of mountain and climber.

As Katsutaka Yokoyama declares in this issue of Alpinist, "The speed of the ascent and the grade of the climb don' t tell a story. The core of the experience lies elsewhere." To him, the immense southeast face of Mt. Logan is an opportunity to live by the Japanese phrase, Ichi-go, Ichi-e ("Once, for this time only" ) and to exult in the simplest of rewards for his commitment: "My heart was more open than ever before." Yet these instances don' t only arise from the great new lines. Tony Riley describes an

otherwise minor climb of an unnamed peak in Pakistan: "For once, I was completely connected to the present: the airy walls and buttresses, the impossibly hanging snowfields, the overflowing glaciation. That moment is still there, now, pristine inside me."

Tobias called such expressions the "vertical word," a concept within which we' d include the most compelling forms of photography, film, art, cartoons, campfire stories and new media. While the distance between experience and expression remains, it' s the intensity of effort to cross that gap that matters. And it' s the purity of intention behind that attempt that makes the difference between marketing a commercial brand and forging a genuine narrative of human adventure—with all the fears, doubts and rare moments of transcendence of real people. "The perfect story is that one that' s never told," Cory Richards concludes in this issue' s Wired. "In the end...the great, imperfect tales are all that we can strive to create, and all that we can hope to share."

We all go through that Door at some point in our climbing lives, whether it' s during a backyard scramble up a mossy granite crag or a single-push ascent of a cold, remote wall. Something—the minute texture of a crystalline hold or the light of the sun on the snow—makes us pause, and truly, briefly see. But what we bring back from that other side of perception and how we choose to share it defines us as climbers, artists and human beings.

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