“Free climbing is a specific rock climbing term that was created in contrast with aid climbing. It refers to climbs in which climbing protection such as ropes, tri-cams, nuts, and other aid-climbing equipment, may be used to protect against injury during falls, but cannot be used in ascending the climb. The term free climbing originally meant “free from aid”.
The White House post on friday (15 january) a tweet of Barack Obama congratulating Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson for his free climbing at El Cap Dawn Wall. After 19 days on the wall this talented climbers reach the summit of the mountain for the first time on this wall free climbing after 44 years aid climbed from Warren Harding. Some years ago, Tommy start to try to free climb this route, saying that it would be a great project for the next generations. He was thinking to small, don’t need to wait to next generation climbers, he did-it. In the summit, waiting for them with Tommy’s son it was Alex Honnold. He did climb Half Dome in solo last year. Will next generations free solo El Cap? Harding, Caldwell or Honnold has been climbing the same walls, touching the same rock, which is the difference of all this evolution? Climbing more free, being more free.
To feel free is the most common answer of mountaineers to the question “Why do you climb mountains?” is simple, freedom has been the purpose of conquest for humans from the time we could allow ourselves to worry about finding food and not being hunted by other animals. We has been trying to discover unknown destinations to feel this freedom. From Socrates to Nietzsche philosophes has been thinking what is freedom. Every week we hear politics talking about freedom, many economists call for a free economy and activists for the freedom of X thinks. And climbers has always been to the mountains on the research of freedom.
Interesting that it was The White House who promotes this freeing up act. Gouvernements are laws and rules and mountains are, still for the moment, one of the rare places where we can avoid rules. We can feel free on mountains because we don’t have a code to follow, they’re no rules written by humans, and the ones of nature (see gravity, physiology, endurance here) are those that mountaineers has sought to break. Mountains are so, the ultimate space of anarchists. Where we can find our freedom.
I’m not sure of this last thing. First climbs on Matterhorn was a battle between Italy and Switzerland to be the 1st country to conquest the summit, when all the Alps mountains had on the top his flag (or cross) patriots was focusing on higher conquests, every nation must have his flag on a 8000m peak ( probably if in May 1790, French scientifics decides that the length of the meter would be equal to the length of a pendulum with a half-period of one second but the length of the arm of Louis XIV (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metre#History) 8000’14ers will have much more work today), Obviously, all this expeditions wasn’t thinking much about freedom but about conquest. Ok, you will tell me that before that, in early 1900, Paul Preuss stablished some kind of “ethics” for climbing, and from there, Comici, Maurice Wilson, Bonatti, Mesner, Claudio Barbier, Bill Tilman or Dean Potter has been thinking more about the way to freedom than to conquest the mountains. And probably, if you consider yourself a alpinist, a climber, a mountaineer or someone who likes to spend time on mountains you will be inspired from one of them. We all like to pronounce philosophical words and pursuit the (our) utopia talking about our existential lifestyle in the mountains. But climbing, other than the spiritual-experience-to-find-our-nirvana, is also an execution, a practical and earthly practical fact. In general, the mountaineers we have a high opinion of ourselves because we are practicing a spiritual activity. Really spiritual because from Terray we all are Conquistadors of the Useless. Many times we think more about the thoughts of climbing summits than the practical way to climb it. Many times, this spiritual way serves to hide the methods we use to climb. Climbing summits has not often a lot about increasing freedom but increasing the ego. from Harding in El Cap or Maestri on Cerro Torre climbing on the basis of drill, many people has been climbing to reach something, because, is nice to climb, is better to be able to say “I climb X summit”. Reach the summit is more important than anything. Drugs as Pervitin, Dyamox, Oxygen, fixed ropes, drilling, paying porters to carry all we need, is just the way to reach the goal.
However, if it’s free, if it’s no rules, if mountains are the utopia of anarchism, what’s the problem of using all this staff to climb. Can not somebody be free to reach the summit? Probably yes, it’s place for everybody on the mountains, it’s place for freedom, anything you want to do…or. Is freedom a kind of Carpe Diem? Or is it something about deleting the links that attach us to something? Is it to be free to be able to be out of the system? To have not material attachments? Are not this attachements to gear that makes us capable of reaching a summit a wall to the freedom? I think freedom is not about doing anything you want, is not about making a red point or using A or B gear, is not about free climbing or aid climbing (I can not see a bigger expression of freedom as Silvia Vidal solitaire aid climbing on Kinnaur valley, a virgin wall located in the Kailash Parbat massif. “Naufragi” in 25 days on the wall without communication). Freedom is about a feeling. Today we can see climbers like Alex Honnold, who is able to climb Half Dome walls without any equipment, Ueli Steck on Annapurna south face without any gear more than the progression tools. It is a recalibration of human capabilities to perform climbs in the most clean, fast and light. This climbers are stronger, have more endurance, technical and psychological abilities to make possible this climbs. Freedom is not about climb the same routes of Alex or Ueli, Be free is, on my opinion, feel the same as they feel there, on our Half Dome or Annapurna, going as light as you can accept, as your capacities and confidence say it is possible. Move to enjoy the movement, to enjoy the mountain in all his amplitude.
But probably if it was me, that has not the technical capacities of Alex Honnold climbs on solo Cocher-Cochon nobody will pay attention, I will be nobody. So I can climb Half Dome, using aid climbing, I can climb Everest, using Oxygen and fixed ropes, I can do anything I want, using anything I can pay. If in the XXI century the “battle of nations” doesn’t exist anymore, we are now on the era of personal branding, we are all not any more only a person but brands who need to act to be liked on a global social world. Today the nuts of freedom are others. We could follow on streaming the ascent of Tommy and Kevin on the Dawn Wall, TV’s was there to show images, but more than that Tommy and Kevin themselves was posting on Facebook and Twitter his impressions thoughts, feelings. We could climb with them from our smartphone! Myself the first thing I do when I finish a activity is to post my trainings on movescount and Strava, tell my feelings on Twitter, post a nice picture on Instagram and say something stupid and existential on Facebook. Everything is linked today. Isn’t this another wall to stop our freedom, is being watched, interpreted, judged, analyzed of any act we do a brake to our freedom? Be not humans but brands, be lidded or disliked, be linked to exist, be unlinked to disappear, is exist to is not exist to be free? Or maybe this ultra linked world is the finally essence of alpinism, be linked all together. The symbol of alpinism is the “cordée” the rope team, the nuts that attach us to each other, to the life. The tibetan symbol the Endless knot, this symbols represents a path of a flow of time and mouvement, where all existence is bound by time and change to ultimately reach serenely the Eternal. Most part of alpinist can consider that climbing is, groso modo a uncertain path across the mountains or walls to find something existential, something eternal.
But maybe we need to undo some knots. I start mountaineering when I was a kid because my parents, I enter to racing in ski mountaineering and from racing I come back to mountaineering. Probably one of the most influent persons on me this time it was Stephane Brosse. He was a racer, he was an alpinist, he was a steep skier, he was to much on the limbo to be something, probably he was free. He says that a free man is someone who choses his path, like when you’re in the mountains you pick your own line. A free man is someone who choses his path in life, who choses to move forward, start a family, do thinks in his life. In mountains is a lot of parallels in fact. That’s what I like about being on the mountains, a kind of freedom because is you who choses, it’s you making your track. Having a choice, that’s the most important really, freedom is having the choice. That’s why I go into the mountains because I want to chose wich way I will go up, to chose witch way I will go. You have to think about it, you have to ask the right questions to make the right choices, sometimes you can get it wrong. It’s the same in life, to be free is to be able to choice. And that’s important.
To choice is hard, when we chose we close many doors, and on today’s competitively world we need to be at least good on many things. People don’t chose, people do everything, sorry, people try a bit of everything, and because we have not the time to follow a long time a activity we can only do a little, so we do the most well known, is about reaching as much thinks as we can, the success percent must be close to 100%, because we have not time for failure, we have not time for exploring. So when I personally think that the freedom on the mountains is the in the failure or the success, those moments when I am in the limbo between our animal instinct to preserve the life and the intellectual instinct of approach death to understand our life. And this limbo is, of course, the most plastic and evolving thing that exist, since it depends on what we have discovered of our life before and the need to preserve this life we sat at that moment, all in the diferent technical and physical context of each person. Like the poets who write marvels must have lived a hard suffering life, climbers… Ok, I’m getting to much existential, damm!