Friday, May 29, 2009

Master of Rock: An Appreciation

In 1977, two seminal books in the history of rock climbing literature were published, Climb! Rock Climbing in Colorado by Godfrey and Chelton and Master of Rock by Pat Ament. Both have become classics, even seeing later editions published, but I am beginning to think that the first edition of Master of Rock was the most significant book published about climbing in the U.S. since Chris Jones Climbing in North America. Its significance lies in its innovations and its sense of pointing forward rather than backward, but also in its peculiar homemade feel, its unique mixture of the mystical and the mundane, the surreal and the ordinary. (This may be a merely personal view but the second revised edition lacks much of the magic of the first.)

I am struck particularly by the contrast that exists between John Gill as a biographical subject and the typical climbing biography that preceded the book, the likes of Hermann Buhl, Gaston Rebuffat, and so on, in other words the hero par excellence who eventually faces the existential sublime on the high peaks, returning with frostbitten extremities, if at all, reticently muttering words with faintly ironic implications. Ament wrote about a college professor of mathematics who explored a world of microscopic dimension by comparison, whose struggles were within the ordinary confines of human experience. By way of example, recall that Gill's legendary ascent of The Thimble, a formation named after a diminutive household implement, presented its most formidable hazard in the shape of a parking barrier below the hardest part of the climb.

Even more striking though was the extraordinary series of images that include so many mundane aspects of mid-60s suburbia. Iconic in this regard is the famous image of Gill doing a front lever on a child's swingset, the chains of the swings pulled around the uprights, the profile of a slide visible in the background.

And there is an image of Gill doing a one finger pull-up, his torso intersecting with the curving contour of a camping trailer. The same trailer shows up in a photo labeled "Fort Collins, Colorado, late '60's" with Gill doing a one-arm pullup with two weights added on. In the background are a chain-link fence, a utility post and folding lawn chair, their ordinariness standing out against the imagined intensity of Gill's athleticism. 

Today in the age of Instagram, Youtube, and Facebook such images are accepted as the inevitable result of everpresent cellphone video and digital cameras, now as common as air and water. Yet the sheer mundane quality of much of the photography in the book anticipates a new aesthetic for climbing that refused the consciously heroic and crafted images of an earlier age as here:

Master of Rock emphasized the domestic, the intimate, the unrehearsed and in so doing unleashed the potential of a new psychology that saw climbing for what it was, simply the act of moving across rock. Ironically the master of alpinism and big walls, Yvon Chouinard, saw it clearest, "I think it's going to be Zen and the art of rock climbing...When it gets to the point where we can, at will, conjure up these exceptional days, there'll be some incredible things occurring. It'll happen in the boulders before it happens in other areas of climbing." Yet to get there, a lot of baggage had to be dispensed with. In fact you can see it in Gill himself. The heroically static and poised photos of the 60s give way to a more dynamic and relaxed vibe in the 70s, my favorite being a pair of photos of Gill on the Ripper Traverse wearing a funky fishing hat. The future lay not in the existential agony of climber versus big wall but in the small scale laboratory of a suburban backyard in mid-60s Colorado and nearby boulders. Ament deserves credit for not merely seeing this but articulating and expressing this new mode of climbing. Master of Rock documented the beginning of the sport of climbing as we know it today.

1 comment:

chuffer said...

nice piece ... very nice, in spite of how thoroughly this subjects been covered.

taking it to a new level over the summer months?