Sunday, August 22, 2010
Climbing and the Rules of Engagement
Debate rages within the editorial department here at the Lloyd Climbing Blog over whether the following post is at all enlightening or if it is mostly stating the obvious. Either way here it is.
Tomorrow is the first day of school for my students, and each day of the school year I will find myself asking "What's the best way to make this lesson engaging?"
The answers I come up with vary from lesson to lesson, and I try really hard, but often I'm not able make certain subjects as engaging for students, or for myself, as I would like them to be. It can often be difficult within the school setting, but when I'm climbing I always feel engaged. I'm frustrated that English doesn't seem to have a suitable word for how engaged I sometimes feel. But often I'm totally immersed in the moment both mentally and physically when I'm climbing. As John Gill once said "Bouldering is a form of moving meditation." I completely agree, and one of the reasons I feel climbing is more enjoyable than stationary meditation is that you don't have to make an excruciating effort to stay in the moment. It's a side effect caused by the nature of the activity.
Both "B3 Bouldering" and the "Mountains and Water" blogs have recently done posts discussing the rules of bouldering and the problem of defining just what it is that we are doing. As I look at the development of climbing, including bouldering, I see a system of rules that were consciously or unconsciously developed to promote and preserve the high level of engagement found within the sport.
So what are the rules of engagement? Here are some thoughts.
1. Fear promotes engagement- Nothing heightens the senses and makes one focus on the moment as much as fear. As the rules and technology of climbing have developed, climbing has become safer, but the element of fear always seems to remain in the game. If fear wasn't considered a part of the game, we'd just toprope everything. Bolts, pads, and cams make climbing safer, but they don't remove the possibility of falling. And it is the uncertainty of the fall, even if it is a safe one, that adds much of the spice to climbing. If climbing was just toproping, many would start to find it bland. This situation creates a conflict between safety and engagement within the culture of the sport. Climbers disagree on where the line should be drawn and this conflict is more at the root of the trad versus sport climbing debate than the environmental/aesthetic concern of whether the rock should be altered by a bolt.
2. Appropriate difficulty promotes engagement- The harder you're trying the more engaged you are. The true value of the climbing rating systems is that they let you plan what climbs to try so you can spend as much time as possible at an appropriate difficulty level. If something is easy, it isn't very engaging, and if you can't even imagine doing something, you won't be able to summon everything you've got when attempting it. To be fully engaging, it should be possible that you will succeed on a climb but also possible that you will fail.
3. Nature is engaging- Whether you're in a beautiful environment or trying to descend a multi-pitch climb in a thunderstorm, nature has a way of getting a climber's attention.
4. Both the body and mind should be engaged - Some activities provide physical activity but leave the mind wandering. Other activities occupy the mind, but leave the body inactive. Climbing requires the engagement of both which leads to a higher level of engagement.
5. Choices are engaging- One of the things that makes climbing engaging is the freedom that we have. You can climb what you want, where you want, when you want. A bit of conflict erupts when one climber's choices affect another's. When one climber feels a line needs bolts, but another thinks the line would be more engaging without them is one example. The first ascentionist's principle, where subsequent climbers leave a climb as the first ascentionist left it, seems designed to allow the most dedicated climbers to decide where the line between fear and safety should be drawn. Future climbers are free choose what lines they want to repeat, but shouldn't alter established lines.
6. Accomplishment is engaging- Climbing gives you the feeling that you did something. In climbing the feeling is often enhanced because the accomplishments feel quite permanent. The rock will be there for a very long time. This is one reason, beyond safety, that most climbers prefer rock that is solid, and also want a climb to remain unaltered by subsequent climbers. When the rock doesn't change, we can get a strong sense of what other climbers accomplished, even if the climb was established decades ago.
7. Sacrifice enhances engagement- It's a little disturbing, but I believe that it's true. Just like people in scientific studies enjoy the same wine more if they're told that it was very expensive, and people find groups more exciting if they need to go through hazing to join them, a climb feels more meaningful if you have to suffer to do it. This is one of the reasons people travel to the ends of the Earth to climb when there is plenty of good rock closer to home. This is why the 5.12 you had to train for is more memorable than the one that you flashed. Climbing is so engaging that most climbers are willing to sacrifice things to do it, and the more that is sacrificed the more important it feels. This creates a cycle towards obsession that most climbers follow to some degree.
Those are the rules of engagement I came up with. Feel free to post others if you feel I missed any important ones. Some of the rules I came up with can be used in my Science classes to promote engagement, like providing choices, making learning active, providing a sense of accomplishment, and creating an appropriate level of difficulty within my class. But I can't use fear or require monetary sacrifice in 7th grade to promote student engagement, only colleges are allowed to do that :-)
So what's the point of engagement in what's often seen as a pointless activity. Well... climbing has side benefits such as physical fitness, but I think the main point for most of us is that, when we're the most engaged we feel the most alive. Another side benefit is that once you have learned how to fully tune into the moment, and your activity within it, while climbing, you find it easier to "tune in" when you're in other challenging situations or even in your normal day to day life.