Climbing… with philosophy

Lightness: the beauty of climbing

A TRUE STORY by Giorgio Bonomo – Written 23 September 2023

I’m not good at climbing. In the gym, it’s already a success if I manage a 6a; if conditions are particularly favorable, maybe I can struggle my way up to the chain on a slightly easier 6b.

Yet, I find it indispensable to go to the gym as often as possible and, when the chance arises, to the mountains (on some easy route with someone leading the way).

I’ve often wondered, therefore, how one can develop a true passion for something they don’t excel at. That is to say, what makes the act of climbing so appealing and fascinating, beyond the “athletic” results that can be achieved?

When I climb, the first thing I feel is my weight. Putting aside any thoughts about my many dietary “transgressions” and therefore the idea that my weight is “too much,” what I mainly sense is that I have a body and that my body cannot escape a universal law (gravity) entirely beyond my control.

Upon reflection, this awareness of one’s body belonging to a whole that neither physical strength nor thought can dominate is already a significant achievement, especially when you think about that “delusion of omnipotence” that we humans have reached through our cultural history and that is easy to measure, unfortunately, in many manifestations of our “civilization”.

It’s not that when you grip a hold, push with your legs, and pull with your arms, the thought immediately turns to the illusion of dominance over nature that we have constructed over time. But it takes very little to get there, perhaps by conquering a downsizing of one’s own pretensions and a more gentle and “open” view of things, less aggressive and presumptuous…

Giorgio in the gym in Cortina

While climbing, you’re also compelled to feel, inevitably, that your muscular strength cannot go beyond certain limits, the objective ones of your own power and resistance. Thus, you experience a “boundary,” very tangible in this case, placed between your aspiration, your desire, on one side, and on the other, a reality that ruthlessly frames the possibilities of realization.

Even this sensation, although sometimes felt with discouragement, contributes to making us feel more concretely attached to our reality, removing any presumption of strength, and ultimately results in a reassuring process of reshaping and accepting our world.

Then there are the sensations related to the dynamic aspects of climbing. The continuous search for favorable positions of the limbs and pelvis, allowing better balance conditions or energy savings, engages every segment of the body (which must be coordinated with the others to achieve the goals) and simultaneously engages the mind, called to react instantaneously to stimuli and regulate the necessary nerve impulses.

It’s a good test, a fertile ground to plant always new seeds of self-knowledge and relationship with one’s own identity. Here, in fact, in addition to the purposeful movements of the body and that part of the mind that governs them, there are also at play and measured, willpower, determination to perform a gesture, self-esteem, the ability to take risks surpassing one’s specific threshold of fear.

You come out very tired (that goes without saying), but also much, much enriched and gratified.

The issue of technique should also be considered. Like any other sport, climbing is based on a heritage of techniques, more or less codified and in constant evolution.

Some of these techniques are basic, simple, others sophisticated and complex; however, they are all inevitably transformed by the subjective interpretation of the climber: in short, you never climb anonymously, standardly.

If you watch two friends (maybe skilled ones) climbing the same difficult route, you’ll surely observe differences, not only in the interpretation of movement sequences and in the quality of determination to reach the goal, but also, perhaps above all, in the fluidity, speed, use of strength, and the apparent lightness with which the effort is made, finally in the overall “aesthetic” effect.

Sometimes you might say: “how beautiful it is to watch that fellow climbing!”

Few things can be associated with the concept of beauty as fully as a body that, in motion, expresses power, balance, coordination, harmony, lightness.

The friend you watch climb, while offering your reading the open pages of his identity (written in the language of his body), often also offers you a privileged entry into the world of beauty!

Finally, there is at least the mention of the aspect of sharing, which in this activity appears very important.

First of all, there is the relationship with the one who belays you (or whom you belay): if you don’t fully trust your partner, you don’t climb at your best; insecurity increases, sometimes fear. Even in the relationship between the two, there is always a dynamic in progress, which most of the time leads to a refinement of understanding and an increase in mutual trust.

When we finish the session in the gym or reach the end of a route, we always find ourselves grateful to our companions.

Not only do we feel that we share a joy often inexpressible in words, but we also experience, distinctly and deeply, the effect of one of the foundations of the constitution and evolution of our identity.

This doesn’t consist of an object we describe, statically, once and for all, by looking within the boundaries we set between us and the world, but rather it consists of what we recognize as our belonging within the ever-dynamic relationships between us and others, which each time send us different images of ourselves.

So, at the refuge or at the gym’s bar, the beer drunk together always tastes extraordinary.