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It is not unusual to see rock climbers hanging around the valley in Yosemite National Park, peering through binoculars for hours on end at the half-mile-high canyon walls. If two rock climbers are shoulder to shoulder, eventually one will say to the other, without taking his eyes from the eyepieces, "There's a route." Such a cryptic conclusion to an afternoon of staring will sound anticlimactic to any tourists within earshot, but the other climber will know exactly what the first one means. He might reply, "No chance, there's nothing there." The first climber might not say anything more, but an imaginary line zigzagging up the face of the wall will be stuck in his mind like a recurring dream, and as he goes back to the valley with the binoculars, again and again, maybe for weeks, the line will grow until it reaches the sky at the top of the wall. From bottom to top, ground to sky, over and over, the climber will traverse that line in his mind until he can picture every inch of it on the bedroom ceiling when he's lying awake at night, thinking about climbing the wall.
Eventually he might convince his friend that there actually is a climbable route on the wall and they will go for it. The line becomes a reality to the climbers. If it should prove to be a false route, if the line should end, if it should fade away at 1,000 feet, they will fail. But if it is a good route, and if they are good climbers, they will move up the rock face with a fluid grace, the leader performing a slow-motion ballet to music that only he hears, to a routine he choreographs on the face of the canyon wall one step at a time. It may take three or four days and nights for the climbers to reach the top, but if they do, and if it is in fact a first ascent—a route no one has climbed before—they will be struck with a strange and powerful sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that will be part of them for the rest of their lives.
The question pondered by climbers far more than "Why?"—climbers leave that one to etiologists—is "Why not?" Take a board 12 inches wide and place it on the ground. Many of us could do pirouettes on the board without stepping off. Now put that board across a ravine 100 feet deep and watch what happens: insecurity causes us to be terrified of trying to so much as crawl across the board. We know it is a simple act, yet we cannot do it. We have, in effect, lost control of ourselves. Which proves? That it's all in the head. Climbers refer to the ability to control oneself as "mental balance."
Climbers tend to give considerable thought to mental balance. Perhaps they think about it too much, but a lack of mental balance can cause even expert climbers to blow moves high on the face of a wall that they could make blindfolded were they near the ground. Good climbers deal with climbing from a mental standpoint rather than from a physical one. Look at it this way: a climber's physical balance on the face of a canyon wall may be precarious, but his mental balance must, by necessity, be as close to perfect as it may ever have to be in his life. "Almost" falling doesn't count; almost losing a solid sense of control of yourself when you're 1,000 feet above the ground and gripping a rock with little more than your fingernails counts for everything.
Many climbers contend that both the challenge and the reward of climbing lie in the problems, and their solutions. And in fact, rock climbing does appeal to people with mechanical and technical minds, professional problem solvers such as scientists, engineers, even psychologists. A climber may be temporarily stymied at any point on the face of a cliff (the problem), and he may spend as much as half an hour at that spot, searching the rock around him for toeholds and fingerholds, weighing the possibilities of body positions for his next move, running each through his head (the solving process). He might attempt four or five different moves before he finds one that works; when he does find it, there is a strong feeling of both relief and satisfaction. It's not unlike the feeling one gets from balancing a checkbook after an hour of juggling numbers.
But rock climbing also requires a continuum: one correct solution is not enough. In that respect it is more like a chess game. In chess, a player may pay for the wrong move three or four moves later because he had committed himself. The same situation exists in rock climbing. A climber must plan his moves ahead, so as not to climb himself into checkmate, because there is usually no backtracking. Climbing down is more difficult than climbing up.
One climber tells this story of a deflating revelation: "I live in a third floor apartment, and the other day I bought a 60-inch oak schoolteacher's desk at an auction. I had to carry it up to my apartment alone, up a narrow staircase, and I found myself challenged by this task the same way I am challenged by rock climbing. First, it was physically difficult; I had to use my strength and energy carefully, not waste an ounce. But mostly, I found myself engaged in the same sort of problem solving that I find in rock climbing. Before I moved the desk around each corner, I had to consider every option, because the desk was such a tight fit that only one way would work. 'Should I tilt the desk on its side and pivot it, or should I put it in the doorway upside down and flip it?'—that sort of thing. I had to find the best leverage points, and I had to decide each move in advance—no wrong moves or the desk might get wedged. When I finally got the desk to my apartment, I felt the same sort of satisfaction I feel when I reach the top of a climb.
"That bothered me. I thought to myself, 'Is that all there is to rock climbing? Moving furniture! If that's the case, all I have to do is get a job as a piano mover and I wouldn't have to go to the mountains every weekend.' "
Climbing rocks is more involved than moving furniture, of course. There are two basic ways to tackle an ascent. There is free climbing and there is aid climbing. A free climber will not support or assist himself with any artificial device, although he will protect himself by anchoring his rope to the rock in case he falls. An aid climber will use any tool it takes to get to the top, including pitons, the steel spikes that can be pounded into the rock.
Ten years ago pitons were standard equipment; today they are spurned and scorned by many climbers because of the ecological and esthetic damage they cause to the "vertical wilderness," as climbers are fond of calling their rocks and mountains. Pitons are almost always left behind in the wall, and the leftover pitons reduce the challenge of finding a route; when a path is marked by tiny metal signposts from a previous climb, the problem of which route to take is [9/10] solved. Also, rusty old pitons take some of the insularity out of climbing; they rudely remind a climber that someone has been there before and has already done what he is doing—sometimes decades earlier. Such reminders may keep a climber humble, but they spoil the fun.