Thursday, December 22, 2011

Climbing and the Olympics: Will Climbing Lose its Soul?

About a month ago, before I went on unplanned hiatus from writing this blog, I read a very interesting commentary at on the Olympics and climbing. There has been a consistent push in recent years for the inclusion of competition climbing in the Olympics, perhaps in part because the potential resulting higher profile could bring bigger sponsors on board for events such as the World Cup. Here are some thoughts translated from the French, originally authored by Jean Pierre Banville:

"Elle va y gagner la perte de son âme ! La perte des valeurs qui ont fait de l’escalade et de la montagne des sports totalement hors-normes. Je ne suis pas Luddite et certainement pas contre le profit, contre le juste retour de l’investissement. Mais l’escalade s’est toujours positionnée au-dessus des valeurs purement mercantiles. L’escalade est un sport de passion dont les valeurs et l’histoire sont ancrées beaucoup plus profondément dans le psyché humain que la lutte, le golf ou le rugby.

Il n’y a pas de héros dans la lutte ou le golf. De vrais héros. Des géants hors du commun, des êtres hors-normes. Et, non, Tiger Wood n’est pas un être hors-norme. Par contre Cassin et Preuss et Dulfer et Desmaison… ce n’est pas la lutte ou le ping-pong. Guido Lammer, ce n’est pas le curling! C’est l’antithèse du curling… franchement !
On va me traiter de vieux crouton, à ressortir ces figures oubliées. Vous en voulez de plus récentes? Berhault, Bonatti, Arnold… ouvrez les magazines d’ici et d’ailleurs et vous retrouverez ces personnages d’exception qui ont fait et font la montagne mythique !
C’est notre âme collective et c’est ce que nous avons à perdre.

What it will win is the loss of its soul. The loss of values which have made climbing and mountaineering sports completely out of the mainstream. I am not a Luddite and certainly not against profit, against a fair return on investment. But climbing has always placed itself  above purely mercantile values. Climbing is a sport of passion where the values at the history are anchored much more deeply in the human spirit than wrestling golf or rugby.

There are no heroes in wrestling or golf. No true heroes. No heroes beyond the everyday,no superhumans. And no, Tiger Woods is not superhuman. By contrast Cassin, Preuss, Dulfer, and Desmaison...this is not wrestling or ping-pong. Guido Lammer, this is not curling! It's the antithesis of curling...obviously!

You could call me out of touch, to refer to these forgotten figures. You want more recent examples? Berhault, Bonatti, the magazines here and elsewhere and you will find the exceptional people who have made mountaineering mythical.

It's our collective soul and it's this that we can lose.

In essence, I agree with the author of this piece, in the sense that climbing has always set itself aside from other sports in a number of ways. Initially, this was seen in the sport's location, the peaks and glaciers of the Alps which had been rejected as desolate  and frightening wasteland in Western culture for centuries. There was also the ever-present risk of death in this environment which made the game much more serious than most. Finally there was the deliberate search for difficulty, seen in the ever more closely refined definitions of desirable objectives, from unclimbed summits to unclimbed ridges to unclimbed walls and so on. To play this game in any serious sense meant a total commitment of mind and body.

This set of rules was more or less consistently understood until after the First World War when new technologies and an expanding leisure class began to transform the sport, turning it away from the heroic age. In the present era, adventure has had to be even more carefully defined, lending a certain paradoxical air to the enterprise. For example, Tommy Caldwell's epic efforts to free climb the Dawn Wall hinge upon microscopic flakes of rock, with his attempts broadcast to the world straight from the portaledge via Facebook and Twitter. There is no question this is a serious climb with an uncertain outcome. But does it pass the hero test when compared with the aura-laden landmark ascents of the past? Perhaps there is literally too much baggage these days for such a climb to exist.

Maybe a look at the antics (and tragedy) surrounding the first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger will illuminate the issues involved. Similarly high-profile, observable from the safety of a hotel balcony, the climb, which closed the book on the pioneering age of alpinism in Europe, became the object of mass media coverage and its ascensionists were feted by Adolf Hitler. Indeed prior to the 1936 games, Hitler had promised Olympic medals to the first party to climb the route. Ironically, the groundbreaking, even heroic, ascent of the Matterhorn North Face by Franz and Toni Schmid was rewarded with an Olympic medal in 1932. According to most histories of this "golden age" of modern alpinism, much was made of this heroic, even mythic, mode of climbing by fascist governments in Italy and Germany, a phenomenon that may have contributed to the IOC not awarding further medals in climbing.

All of which is to say that the issue of the relationship of climbing to organized sports, indeed organizations of all kinds, is an old one and the heart of the debate is still alive and beating. It seems unlikely that the face of climbing in the Olympics will be anything other than competition climbing as we already know it, in all its sanitized, athletic and commercialized senses. I am not sure that inclusion in the Olympics will change anything in climbing from what it is already, a multifaceted game with all kinds of players and places and ways to play. I am not saying that climbing being in the Olympics will be the huge benefit to the sport that some claim but I doubt it will be the downfall of climbing as we know it. The history of climbing seems to show otherwise.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

About that Citibank Ad (or why I will never be in an Outside Magazine Top 10 list)

In a previous post, I discussed my feelings about the transformation of climbing into a luxury sport, at least at a certain end of the socio-economic spectrum. I posted a Youtube Video of an ad made by Citibank that features Katie Brown and Alex Honnold.

Here's the video:

Given the dismal economic picture in the US right now and the fact that big American banks in particular have had a great deal to do with it, it was natural that the ad would spark a certain degree of controversy. A forum post on Mountain Project and another on Super Topo both alluded to Alex Honnold selling out to the "1%", an argument that was roundly quashed by most of the people who bothered to respond.

I thought to myself, this is interesting. Since when did climbing become so capitalistic? Obviously climbers have "sold out" before. We all have to some degree. But that a cadre of apologists for squillionaires in suits would praise their economic masters in a climbing forum caught me a bit off guard. A remarkable number of posters stood up to defend Fortune 500 companies (and thank heaven for that) because, somehow, without them we would be unable to, well, do pretty much anything. And this was offered up without a trace of irony, nor any suggestion that such a state of affairs might be less than desirable, especially given the self-image of climbers as individualistic, self-reliant, or independent. I saw a few posts suggest that somehow because Alex and Katie received compensation for this ad, that the money was (paraphrasing here) "going back into the climbing community" and this was a good thing. Not sure exactly how that was going to work, anymore than Jay-Z's T-shirts are going to help anyone but Jay-Z himself.

Now I am not suggesting that Alex should do anything in particular with his own money, though we may all want to think before we put our money there. This video provides a useful corrective to the consumerist (and fairly sexist "what girl wouldn't need new shoes?") picture of the world that Citibank would love us to believe in.

To me the bigger and more important question is that of meaning, both in our lives and in the sport of climbing. In other words, is climbing about striving for something outside commodification and marketing? Are there actually values worth sacrificing our material well-being, even risking our lives for? Alex's incredible achievements in the realm of free-soloing, to name but one example, seem to indicate there are. The commercial he was in indicates the opposite.

As I see it, climbing, and on a broader philosophical level, Western capitalist culture itself, is on a collision course with materialism in its deepest sense. The problem with materialism, philosophically speaking, is the basic equation between input and output. Expenditure of power equals a predictable determined result. Basic physics stuff. No sense of moral engagement or ethical questions about the well-lived meaningful life. In the end we are presented with a multi-sensory fantasy of endless and meaningless power played out in all its forms, from political to physical, applied in ever-more spectacular but increasingly hollow actions, creating ever more empty, even hopelessly self-contradictory, forms.

For example, I don't know if anyone else noticed the ironic position of Katie Brown at the end of the ad, a position intended to convey a sense of excitement and desire. She stands suspended over a seemingly infinite expanse of, well, emptiness, perched on a tower of visibly eroding sand, a point that appears to be a dead-end, a place of no hope or return. Maybe this image, intended as the perfect consummation of consumerist desire, is also an apt metaphor for the unsustainable and vertiginous trajectory of the Western economic system, of which Citibank is a prime example. The sport of climbing would do well to think a bit more carefully about how far it wants to go down this path.

Now I know this kind of negative thinking runs against the current of most climbing writing out there on the Web. A climber new to the sport, given the virtual amusement park of videos, blogs, news items, and so on, would think that all was well in the sport. And truth to tell, there are a lot of cool rides out there. But there is a lot of selling going on as well and I wonder if we are all really aware of what we are giving up long-term in our quest to fulfill our short-term desires. Going pro has its cons.