“Ok Bria, I might actually fall on this pitch” I say as I unclip from the anchor.
“I am with you” she replies, looking down and checking the action on her GriGri once again.
The crisp, varnished rock, slippery underfoot, actually inspires confidence. It is the quarter inch bolts stamped with a “C” that give me pause. And the distance between them. In various spots the varnish has chipped off and exposed a textured, frictiony surface. It is good for my feet but its well rounded surface doesn’t provide the handholds I like. The wind picks up and my upturned face is pelted with a few drops of untimely precipitation. I look at the distance between the bolts and wonder how a solid whipper, seven pitches up, on small bolts would feel. I look down and see the canyon spilling away below, its depth, making the seven hundred and forty feet seem all the greater.
Climbing takes on many different forms. It is work: I lead pitches, set top ropes, rappel, and generally teach/guide climbing for work. It is exercise: I travel up to Sinks canyon a few times a week after work in order to “stay in shape.” It is habit: I move over the rock because that is what I know how to do. It’s fun/social: I make trips to The Creek to hang out with good friends in a place I love; climbing merely a way to spend time together. It is challenge: I make sojourns to various mountains or climb alpine rock routes, pitting myself against light, time, weather, and physical and mental difficulty. Occasionally I project a hard sport route to see if I can figure out the moves and do them.
From its beginnings, risk was an inherent part of climbing. Only recently has physical risk been engineered out of climbing. The sport climbing revolution of the mid-eighties and nineties developed a breed of climbers for whom physical risk was almost non-existent. Even more recently a surge in the number of climbing and bouldering gyms has reduced risk even more. It is now possible to call oneself a climber and not have ever touched real rock, placed a stopper, or coiled a rope.
For me though, risk is an integral part of climbing. I am not an adrenaline junky. I don’t get off on the rush and don’t seek out the adrenaline related offshoots of the climbing world such as high lining or BASE jumping. I don’t, as a matter of course, free solo or choose R/X rated routes. It doesn’t interest me now, nor has it ever have.
That being said I spend a couple thousand dollars every year to make a sojourn to the alpine testing grounds of Patagonia. I have spent hours rappelling in storms, had friends die in the mountains and been scared enough to swear it all off. Yet I keep going back. I travel known terrain, topo in hand, the risk reduced ever so slightly. I sit in tents at the high camps, satellite phone at the ready, waiting for a friend to text me the latest weather report; the risk reduced once again. I climb the easy routes or the descent routes, lowering the commitment even more. And I feel no shame.
But I also have ventured into the unknown, both in Patagonia and closer to home. I have done so both with long time fiends and partners holding the other end of my line and with novice NOLS students in that position. Venturing out on the sharp end into unknown, unclimbed terrain is always a calculated decision. There is risk involved but I justify and mitigate it where I can.
With climbing playing so many different roles in my life and taking on so many different forms, risk does too. I see no point in risking a ground fall on a sport route in Sinks Canyon, so I stick clip the first two bolts, but will cast out on an unclimbed granite wall in a remote valley on the other side of the world; go figure. It doesn’t make a ton of sense to me either.
The best I can tell is, that ultimately, in climbing I need risk. It has been said without risk there is no reward; I am not sure I agree. Sometimes I get reward from challenging myself against the physicality of a sport climb or hard trad route; the risk I face in these situations is merely one to my ego for maybe I am not as good as I think I am. Just because there is no risk in clipping bolts on a sport climb does not mean it is not climbing or not fun or a worthy endeavor. It gets me outside. I stay in shape. I spend time with good people. In climbing risk is eschewed when feasible, mitigated where it can be and finally tolerated. If it becomes to much, I bail. Then I swear it off, promising a god unknown I will never do that again.
Minutes later I find myself up on the face, somewhere between the second and third bolts. My breath comes even and measured. The thin, balancy moves on crimps and finger buckets play to my strengths. I have assessed the likelihood and the consequence. I know the reward of this not particularly risky endeavor is merely a boost in confidence and another data point for my self-awareness calculations, but have decided that I am well within my abilities. At the most basic level though, my reward for this risk is knowing I have actually just taken it; for me stepping up to the plate is usually at least half the battle.