When you think of freedom, what do you see? This is one of those funny questions where the answer often doesn't fit into society. “Freedom is self-reliance!”, cries the dedicated adventurer, gesturing wildly with tanned hands, grubby clothes evidence of their latest venture into the wilderness. I’m not so sure. In our complex world, escaping the influence of society is nigh-impossible, short of striding into unmanaged backcountry stark naked and fending for yourself. The lone wolf goes hungry, and humans are much more pack animals than we’d care to admit. Isolation, therefore, is not freedom - even the hardiest adventurer will carry a knife, or a flint, or a box of tinder. Why then do we climb mountains?
by Mischa Hawker-Yates (Instagram) - professional Climber.
Why then do we climb mountains? There can certainly be no logical reason, no purpose beyond a desire to see what can be achieved, to grind against what the world assumes is possible. Having successfully made the first ascent of ‘The Nose’ on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, Warren Harding was once asked,
“Why on God's green Earth do you guys climb mountains?”
“Because we’re insane,” replied Harding, frankly. “There can’t be any other reason.”
Nowadays, the thought process has moved on somewhat. Most climbers will give you a few sound, logical reasons for pursuing an increasingly safer and widely recognised sport; fitness, adventure, a new way to experience nature. Climbers around the world are pushing the boundaries of difficulty, searching out new lines and discovering boulders tucked away in quiet corners of the earth, or forging paths up huge cliff faces in the true wilderness of Greenland.
Climbing is freedom of choice. In reality, it makes no real tangible difference whether or not you climb a cliff face or a boulder - except in your own mind, and the minds of others. Through testing ourselves we can change the perspective on what is possible.
Climbing is the freedom to challenge yourself. Humanity needs challenge, feeds on it. It gives us purpose, gives us identity, gives us hope and passion and hunger - hunger for further, greater, beyond impossible. It is a lust for that elusive feeling that lies disguised somewhere between comfort and fear, where physical strength and mental control combine perfectly into a subtle, supple being that flows up the wall, immune from failure and unaware of success, walking the knife edge between serene calm and utter panic, processing reality into a clean, clear filter where the only thing that matters, the only thing that exists are the holds and the moves and the distance between dreams and reality.
This state, this utter focus where nothing else could ever intrude is known as ‘flow’. When a climber finds themselves climbing perfectly, effortlessly, moving across the rock like a drop of liquid mercury, they have found flow. Flow is total isolation, where the only thing in the mind are the moves and the rock. Flow, therefore, is freedom from self-doubt.
Climbing is freedom to interact with the world on a simpler, purer level. When climbing at your limit, every single movement, every single descision can be difference between fight or flight, grip or fall.
When climbing, the only person in control of what happens is yourself. This, somehow, is also a freedom. Freedom to succeed or fail. Freedom to make the move, or to fall.
But enough with the generalisations. Let’s talk personal freedom. Climbing gave me freedom because it showed me a path that would never have otherwise been presented to me by society; a pathway with new people, amazing landscapes and truly unique perspective on the world. It allowed me to view everything in a different way; from cliffs to buildings, trees, weather. Where once I would have seen a rock face I now see a passage, a way to move - the more tenuous, the better. It’s as if another layer of reality has been added onto my vision, with every new experience put through a filter and analysed. Could I climb that? Maybe yes, maybe no.
Climbing has made me more analytical, more focused, more willing to work hard to achieve a goal. It’s shown me that hard work is effective - something, strangely, that school never managed to instil. It’s given me a motivation and framework within which to plan travel. I’m all for a good aimless wander, but real adventures take time, effort and religious planning. Climbing has taught me this.
It has taught me that being afraid is ok, and that by putting ourselves in positions where we are really afraid we can understand the level of self-control that we truly possess. It’s also taught me that there’s a place that I can go to where fear doesn’t really exist, and where emotions are trapped outside and can’t fully reach in.
What is climbing? Climbing is a path to freedom.