Over the Top

When I was in Scouts, at eleven or twelve years of age, I went to the Cumberland Mountain Climbing School with the rest of my troop. I really hadn’t wanted to do it, but Dad was something of an outdoorsman, having backpacked extensively in the Smokies, and since Troop 283 was doing this, and Dad was one of the adult leaders, well, there you go.

It was not a positive experience for me — on my first pitch, I was halfway up a slab — maybe 30 feet or so — when I realized I was halfway up a slab. I freaked out and froze. All I knew is that I wanted to be back at the bottom. My dad said later that I likely could have walked up the face had I not panicked — I didn’t see that as an option. They wouldn’t give me the slack on the rope to go back down, and I was told that if necessary, I could be dragged the rest of the way. I eventually finished the pitch, and that was the last slope I encountered that weekend. I watched the other kids and adults climb and listened to the theory of rappelling and prusiking, but was not going to put myself in that position again. Of course, I felt like I let Dad down, but he never said anything about it other than “You probably could have done fine. But it’s just not for you. And that’s okay.” I certainly agreed with the second sentence. But while I know Dad meant all three sentences, I still wonder about the third one.

But I maintained an academic interest in the subject, and when I was in high school, I found a book Dad had checked out from the Boone County library, about the first generation of big wall climbers in Yosemite. I read about guys like Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, and Yvon Chouinard, and phrases like “turswiry cap” (a short skull cap, worn by mountaineers who were invariably described as “terse, wiry leaders”) became part of the family lexicon.

As it happens, my colleague David Rachels went out to Yosemite a couple of weeks ago. I asked him if he was going to free solo El Capitan. He demurred, but went on to mention a documentary he had watched on Netflix, called Valley Uprising, about the climbers. I mentioned Robbins and Harding, and he said they were the first generation guys, but that the documentary also talked about the subsequent practitioners of the sport, and that it included some pretty vertiginous photography. I made a mental note of it, and got around to watching it this evening.

It’s an interesting movie, and pretty well done, but one of the things that struck me was the outlaw ethos the climbers seem to share. Apparently there has always been tension between the climbers and the “civilian” visitors to the park, and there are several episodes late in the film that deal with the cat-and-mouse games between the later generations of climbers and the park authorities, particularly as climbers have begun to add activities like highlining and BASE jumping to their repertoires. And I’m sure there are very good reasons for the restrictions the Park Service has imposed on the climbers, but I have to admit that my sympathies in the matter are with the folks who are willing to risk their lives in order to do the things they choose to do. (In fact, a prominent figure in the movie, Dean Potter, died in a wingsuit accident a year after the film came out.)

And that in turn led me to think about an article I read at Reason earlier today. Lately we’ve seen a rash of stories about busybodies who insist on raising the hue and cry for such antisocial activities as outdoor grilling, water or lemonade sales, and similar heinous activities that while basically harmless, may violate a local ordinance about permits or the like. (I may be a bit biased, as I remember the police in Lexington, KY threatening to confiscate my band’s gear for disturbing the peace when we were practicing on a Sunday afternoon.) As the article notes, we seem determined to become a “nation of narcs.”

There always have been Mrs. Grundys out there, and I suppose there always will be. Still, I think I’ll keep cheering for the harmless outlaws, from the BASE jumpers to the lemonade entrepreneurs to the guys making music in their garages. But I’ll pass on the climbing, thanks.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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