The Threshold Effect
What kinds of thresholds are at work in climbing and how can we reach them? For example, common sense would indicate that there are probably responses to types of visual or other stimuli that can radically aid or hinder the act of climbing but which can be rapidly overridden mentally. As a specific instance, consider that beginning climbers are notorious for perceiving sections of rock as "blank." Was it the case that climbers of an earlier era were much more inclined to accept the overall concept of blank or impossible rock than most climbers would be today? It's not only the actual achievements of harder climbs that have changed this perception. The game changes again when climbers who have repeatedly seen 5.15 or V15 in online climbing videos then go out and try routes.
Consider also the limiting aspects of grades. Although they seek to give an objective frame of reference to climbs, they also distort our perceptions of them. By setting up categories, they artificially create barriers, fictitious frontiers of a sort. Whether alpine ED or YDS 5.14, we all have a response to the presence of these signs of, well what exactly? It is highly unlikely that any two climbers experience a climb the same way. The feelings and emotions that are an essential human part of climbing are persistently changing and adapting both to the climb and to reactions of others. What would happen if we altered our attitudes toward them, working with grades positively instead of as exclusionary? How many times as climbers have we responded positively to others' positive emotional states and acted with more confidence, reducing the perception of difficulty.
It seems clear that certain kinds of climbs and climbers are more effective at changing perceptions of difficulty. One of the contributions of a Chris Sharma or an Ueli Steck is to put a friendly face on the seemingly impossible, to create the impression that this kind of climbing is accessible to everyone if they can make the commitment to try harder. Older attitudes of elitism and arrogance towards outsiders helped limit progress across the climbing world by restricting access to information and creating the impression of superhuman ability on the part of top performers. The legends of the past cultivated auras of exclusivity and superiority, whether in Chamonix or Camp 4. In particular, with the push for media exposure, more climbers are able to see the best in action than ever before and make up their own minds. Better protected routes have certainly changed the attitude towards all kinds of climbing. In Great Britain, scary E8 or E9 routes have become commonplace because of the emergence of sport climbing and the fitness and technique training it allows. Alpinists find local dry-tooling spots that force a revision of what is possible with crampons and axes. And all along the numbers of people practicing the sport increases and the conversations among them foster a sense of belief and solidarity, not isolation and privilege. The articles and essays about the stagnant Yosemite scene in the mid-80s and 1990s, a time of incredible change and progress in climbing elsewhere, illustrate the point.
I think that this topic deserves closer study as research may reveal that the most important factor for advancing technique and ability is not gear or training but something much less tangible and much more subjective, that is the relationships climbers have with each other within a larger community. I wonder if the more aware we all are of these relationships and how we can contribute to helping all of us become better climbers, we may become more sensitive about caring for the natural environment and becoming better activists on its behalf. Instead of being preoccupied by battling imaginary opponents or overcoming primarily psychological limits through brute force, we listen more carefully to the complex realities of the act of climbing.
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