Pat Ament has written poetry for forty years. In the mountaineering genre, his writing has produced 30 published books and over a hundred articles. His essays have been selected for various international anthologies of mountaineering literature. A pioneer rock climber, Pat was the first to climb 5.11 grade routes in the Boulder area and in Yosemite. Pat has won the "Best Spirit" Award at the Telluride MountainFilm Festival, and his films have won recognition from the University of Geneva. Pat lives in Fruita, Colorado, with his wife and three children.
"Look To Your Soul, By Which You Might Be" another essay by Pat Ament
Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Royal Robbins, king of iron logic, was in control during his days on Yosemite's granite walls. His ideas about rock climbing during the 1960's are often thought to have been the master concepts of the day. They had an austerity. They were severe and pure. That spearhead spirit, condescending and serious, has given way to a friendly, more relaxed one—a quality these days almost childlike. Other meanings for him now are at their dawn of time. Hardly does a vestige remain of the competitive specter who pioneered the great routes on Half Dome or who was the master spirit of the Salathe and North America Walls of El Capitan.
With 20/20 hindsight, I see Royal always having had a child's zest and sense of merriment—the hopscotch of those steep, no-hand boulder routes at Stony Point, the magic-lantern adventures of Sentinel Rock, the jacks of sorting gear, and that follow-the-leader chicanery of the friction slab of the Salathe Wall. With its puppets and wires, The Salathe Wall was for Royal a huge playhouse of rock. The man of that play is a blend, I think was always, of an elegant seriousness mixed with skip-rope revel. Call it jocular grimness, what with his punning and gallows humor, his dark comedy and grins. In bouldering, he applied all the trickery in his soul to gain advantage. After he walked down Half Dome's steep descent route, he wrote in his Summit Magazine column: "Even one man went down without touching his hands." Humorous and falsely modest. Yet, I remember the conviviality of bouldering. Royal's merciless, bellicose stare had in it a certain popgun, roller-skate feel. The master up there on lead, the great climber of our generation, was, behind the dark glasses, Robbins on a tricycle.
The partners he chose all were laugh-a-minute people: TM Herbert, Tom Frost, Joe Fitschen, yours truly, etc., with their monkey shines, pranks, Vaudeville, sparkle, their own smirky or sour looks. Chuck Pratt, Royal's greatest partner, had the air of a circus performer, juggled wine bottles, walked slack chains, and performed his unprotected tight-wire ascents of ferocious off-widths, often with a cynical grin. When Layton Kor took on a serious stare, it only made us laugh because it was so out of character with the Tarzan, frenetic imp we knew him, at the root, to be.
On almost every rock Layton climbed, he went up in a violent hurry—almost as though to race to the edge of life, or sanity, and look over, then race to the next. He risked his life and everyone else's in such humorous and compelling ways that all his friends, to this day, feel his colorful energy radiate outward from the depths of their souls. You could not help but love that little child who came to live in such a huge, imposing (six-foot-seven) frame. At Lakeside Amusement Park, in Denver, his long body stuffed into a bumper car, his legs and knobby knees pointed upward out of the car, I see him eating carrots, with a certain Bugs Bunny demeanor. His vegetarian diet helped battle a mysterious lung condition. He sometimes fell from the rock because he raced up it too fast to realize he was four moves into climbing beyond anyone's ability—including his. In his wilder days, some of his climbs were punctuated by marginal belay anchors and on occasion in hanging situations where there was no ledge. He'd race to get off those anchors, as they shifted. That I allowed myself to be placed in such circumstances, incidentally, says something about me.
I think of Layton's climb of the Diamond in winter, that brave, very cold achievement, and entering the psychedelic age, as did many of us, for a few months in the late `60s, then taking up painting, doing a few psychological full gainers, which culminated in his becoming a Jehovah's Witness. He married, raised a family, divorced, and re-married. Later stories had him sea diving and fishing in the Philippines—and Layton was one of the sane ones.
I do not exclude myself from having needed much revision along the way. I'm happy to report I've witnessed progress in the lives of quite a few acquaintances, and in my own life. I've seen life and rock climbing smooth people to a fine gloss, sometimes turn meanness into intelligence.
I visited a climbing shop recently and met three young, dedicated climbers. Not one of them was familiar with the name Royal Robbins. The names of these young climbers will, in turn, one day blow away against the rocks. As Royal brings himself to the mezzotint, to the woodcut, of life, to the absurdity of his place in it now, some of the mystery and exhilaration of those prime (primal) years as a rock climber still hover about him. He left a spirit in those rocks and took away from them something in exchange—some of the serenity of Half Dome, some of the strength of El Capitan. What is Royal involved with at the moment? A cancer scare with his wife, Liz, early in 1999, was more agonizing than the worst predicament of any climb. The prognosis, fortunately, has proven to be good. Each year, he continues to do his summer trip of several days down the Middle Fork of Idaho's Salmon River. I had imagined these kayak adventures to be something along the lines of the movie Deliverance. Royal shattered my illusions with a description of how other members of the trek would boat ahead, so that at the end of each day he arrives at a beach where tables await him with wine, salmon, and steaks. People cater to him, like royalty… so to speak.
Royal's first climbs up the 3,000-foot walls of El Capitan were done in a spirit of festivity. Climbing, above all, was play. Climbers are, in essence, children. French philosopher Denis Diderot described children as essentially criminal. According to Diderot, it's our good fortune that the physical powers of children are too limited to permit them to carry out their destructiveness. We wouldn't want a child to be in charge of the nuclear arsenal, for example, although world wars have been the result of people who, as adults, hadn't progressed beyond the selfishness of a child. A vision of the child taken from scripture suggests that children are innocent and follow their hearts as best they know how. This kind of child, a vision of receptiveness and purity, of honesty, and simple play, seems an appropriate model for the climber.
Alfred Binet, a French psychologist, at the turn of the century introduced the notion that the mental age of children could be measured. He outlined norms of accomplishment for different ages of childhood. A child a year old is able to place a square block into a square hole and a round block into a round hole. A climber today is expected to do a climb, to place his round head into a square chimney. It's interesting how we give the older climber a reprieve. Very little is expected of Royal anymore. If he climbs anything, no matter how moderate, he's complimented. People are mystified when he conforms his slightly more rickety body to a glassy alcove. In the face of physical age and decline, the older climber imposes upon himself his own norms. He begins to act free of certain definitions of himself. He invents a new idealism.
The climber gone over the summit and now lost on the far side of the great mountain of his prime becomes like a figure in a drawing by Maurits Cornelis Escher. He walks one way, while other figures of life walk in completely contradictory ways. Somehow the figures fit together. The whole picture feels impossible, yet the figures continue their hypnotic, almost sinister, march in and around one another—each without an awareness of the others. The drawing conveys a feeling that all the figures are the same figure seen from different perspectives all at once. Among the mysteries is that we are each other. I've seen Royal transform his face into TM's countenance, and TM suddenly bring to his own face the odd glare of Royal Robbins. Somewhere in myself I know I'm Royal, and I think he would admit, begrudgingly, to a likeness deep in himself of me.
If the geezer—already I have run out of ways to say "older climber"—if the "endangered species" were at one time an extraordinary member of his society of climbers, his friends and peers may not want him to show weakness. They may wish that he retire in style, or, in Scottish writer Tom Patey's words, "climb gracefully down." To be a beginner again would tend to tamper with the illusions a climber's friends have of his greatness. Thus, he must strike a balance, move slowly, and direct his efforts with care to blend old and young. Time conscientiously takes from him a little more strength and lucidity each year, and the process happens faster and faster, but he's able to set to work a more relaxed, innocent strength. A more obscure, or removed, application of ability becomes his play. He no longer attempts to be the first at anything. He no longer struggles to lose weight.
Every thought or step for a child is a test to see what works. Life is there for the taking, and a child quickly learns. He learns, for example, that screaming gets a response. So, screaming it is, even though the child is perfectly happy. We scream (at least quietly) on our first climbs, until we realize the rock will not bend to such noise. We realize, contrary to appearances, that we're destined to live and need not scream—at least not for the moment. As a child, Royal probably did not scream much. With his characteristic serious glare, he was an outward expression of his quiet, inner way.
The playfulness, innocence, and goodness of children are brought to bear upon our adult lives. As the scripture instructs, "to become as little children," we undertake to identify the qualities in children to which the scripture refers. With a threatening tone in my voice, I ask my two-year-old daughter: "Who messed up the house?" She answers: "Baby." She's honest, referring to herself. She has no concept of the malice of which I'm capable. For a child to possess such honesty and purity does not presuppose she is without selfishness and self-centeredness. As I learn from her, I have the extra facility to try to incorporate certain qualities but not others.
To become like a child must be to go back to an early contact with nature, a sense of the glory of a world completely new—when we confronted for the first time the beauty of the outdoors, when enough consciousness existed to discover and to realize the incredible worth of life. Climbing never does get too much better than one's first days at it, being on the rock, or near it, the feel of air, the sense of adventure with a friend. An article of mine begins: "From the moment life called on my spirit to make things interesting, there was rock." There's an unusual, unforgettable magic when we're young. Things are so wonderful we don't know how to act. We do mostly what's natural. We reach for holds and cling to rock. Our first climbs burn into our souls with a power equal to falling in love.
The older, mature climber must get back to that—to where things are new. It's not such an easy task. To start, he allows himself to drift out of shape. Then, there's a sense of accomplishment again to climb 5.6 or 5.7. He masters easy moves and keeps it a secret from himself that he was a proficient climber in some geologic past. He feels the challenge of easier routes and lets their surprise flow through him, as though life were beginning anew. It's his calling to make something of this marvelous play-dough called rock. In fact, things are fun when we have less or no experience. It isn't always so happy when we're strong and in possession of a lot of majesty and skill. We get a second ride through love and magic when we shake off a little of the sense of height that our lives gain through the years. The beginnings are high places in and of themselves.
The child puts a premium on play. When it doesn't feel right, it ceases to be play. Fear is, more or less, his guideline for safety. The child's fears are not cultivated, however, and he reacts more out of instinct than from a rational understanding of danger. Later, we know exactly what we're afraid of and back away from places that don't send the right surge of feeling through our veins. We play with the way things feel. Fear has its allure, as we begin to face ourselves in it. We defy our instincts somewhat and become cunning. We develop ability and knowledge.
By definition, the very young child is not too sensitive to the needs of others. He finds delight in doing things for others but cannot always communicate his good spirits to others. Life for the young child is total dependence. He depends on others to supply virtually everything. This requires a full concentration on those needs. One of the first things a child learns he can do by and for himself is climb.
The child is loud sometimes. Most self-respecting climbers prefer to be in the quiet of a tranquil setting. At the same time, we don't wish to go "quiet into that good night." We make our little noise, almost by necessity. We remind ourselves we're engaged in life in an actual and living way. I recall a climb with Royal when he didn't say a word the length of the climb. Yet he spoke in his manner, somewhat bluntly, with his silence. We speak, and sometimes we sense the joke of our noise. We're quiet, and thoughts transmit in spite of our silence. Our thoughts travel back and forth between souls. As adults, our conversation is subtle and practiced. We hope to be pure, innocent, and happy, yet we know things. An adult has had his or her disillusionments, yet "to become as a child" means to continue to believe in sun, sky, rock, and play.
When I think of Royal, I think of his youth. As a teen, he already had a sense of art and classical music that would have belonged to a more settled and considered person of about twenty-five or thirty. He had a sense of organization, also of protocol. I was beyond my playmates in terms of spontaneity, had more than my share of creativity, but was behind in understanding of the formalities, rules, and conventions of social interaction. Now, as I try to become more like a child, in the good, spiritual way, and as I look for joy and newness of life, it seems I, too, always have had a flair for a certain comedy. Many of my actions and activities can be identified, with a certain pride, I might add, as those of a child.
During the `60s in Yosemite, pioneer climbers and their companions seemed to be in a fight as to who would be the youngest of them. With cannonades and banners in their souls, they carried themselves and their beautiful eyes. They looked upward into granite, into its blacks, grays, and boundless whites.
Dave Rearick was the silent one, the man who came to Colorado from California. To the chagrin of Colorado climbers, who had been denied permission to attempt the sinister Diamond wall on Longs Peak, Rearick was given permission—along with his partner Bob Kamps. If there were a right hero for me, it was Rearick. His personality was more suited to a monastery than to climbing, but he could enter the spirit of play when in the company of the most immature of us. He climbed often in the simple way of a child. I may have inspired some of the play in him by the notion (so visible in me) that suddenly I'd made myself his friend. His restraint, as well as his detachment, accounted for a measure of the humor. He had none of the shrieking, childlike craziness and laughter of Kor, yet he smiled. You had to put a little effort into seeing to it, but Rearick did smile. He took on the costume of the climber and acted out the part but in fact was a climber and, in his day, one of the best. He methodically proceeded through the steps of each climb, as though to act out some formula in calculus.
That Rearick should be a math professor was an older, less desirable part of him. He was open to what I said, even though in high school I had twice failed general math. He tolerated, in a humble, childlike way, much silliness and absence of logic that resulted from my attempts at conversation. You have to remember the sun was shining. There was a lot of green. There were pines, which would make a person forgive almost anything. The sky's blue was as rich as the deepest, brightest lake in summer, and in Eldorado Canyon the wind rushed at you at amusing, unexpected times.
As climbers in the early 1960's, we were free to use those Eldorado and Yosemite rocks in the way we wished. Caught up in sandstone and wind, frightened at times, ecstatic other times, panicky and giggly, the pleasure of our thoughts included friends. I wanted to have absolute friendships. I don't know how many of that kind, if a single one, I achieved. Royal befriended me and was the best possible teacher and companion. We had a friendship born in part through the tests of climbs and through the oddities we noticed about each other that made us chuckle and muse. There was a sense from the beginning that our friendship was eternal. We found in one another all the light of Eldorado or Yosemite or Longs Peak to make us our richest selves. On rock, we were our most luminescent. It already was bright enough without us, but we went up there and took with us our spirits.
My various Boulder partners and I became joyfully lost in the steep, vertical, shrine-like coves of Eldorado. We were, I suppose, men in trouble. We didn't exactly know where life was supposed to take us. We didn't know what to think. We settled for each others' jingle-jangle company and shared each others' fortunes. We weren't able to share so well our fortunes with the world—for much of society took our joy to be a statement of happiness, something not permitted in some circles. They didn't like the suggestion of alienation. It was a menace to their sense of conformity, a bad contrast to their absorption into regular, more approved behaviors. It's for the very reason that climbers do not fit well into the comprehensive community of the world, that they strike upward, alone, into the solitude of rocks.
In time, a number of my friends and I would, more or less, abandon one another. Yet the few years we had together remain in memory. (I'm sure I'm not the only one who remembers.) I cherish those years, those people. We were in love with the ease of the climbing, the ready existence of finger and hand holds. From a distance, the rock always appeared holdless. You could show off for your family, who, on rare occasion, came to watch and, from the road below, to wonder at what magic held you there. It was a joy to see the right holds appear in the right places. It was a fertile aspect of the experience to see and identify those holds and how they worked together. To use those holds as we flowed past them was similar to how the years of youth passed.
We were amazed at how abundantly able to make first ascents we were, how many climbs were given to us. In some cases, they were discovered simply by our starting upward in a certain direction. We let rock show us the way. When, by our ascent, we drew a line up the rock, we saw the creativity. Such a creativity had been there, on and in the rock, alone, and had waited for us to come and give it human implementation and make its existence, and ours, official.
Life has much to offer, and I was perplexed, disturbed, and worried about how I was going to have it all, take it all in, take everything apart, and put it back together, in the few years I'd be permitted to live. Eldorado is very impressive environment. The forests around the Flatirons, the airy summits, natural rock shelters, caves, mornings, afternoons, storms, and starlights, were complex terrain. They showed me their deep mysteries, as I began to learn of my own. Any ledge, any foothold there, was a place to be a child, yet autonomous and alone. In fact I was becoming an adolescent. A child is very dependent upon others, whereas a crucial turn of experience for an adolescent is to begin to realize his independence.
All those times, as a child, I stood beside my mother, the person I most loved, I was unable to grasp, nor perhaps could she, how quickly life would be climbed, how fast the earth was to rotate and bring us toward a descent. I felt safe in her company, under her care and guidance, and she loved that I climbed. She understood what it meant to me. The world was strange enough, and she didn't press me to explain what I felt—which would be stranger. It was enough for her to feel in me the secrets I'd been finding up there in dihedrals and on airy aretes and corners in the high exposure of Eldorado.
What my life should be about was answered promptly, as a climber. I would do all sorts of other things in life, too—such as writing—but climbing was a catalyst. It would open to my soul the world and let it teach me about myself so I could apply whatever principles I might glean—the principle, for instance, of going and doing and being alone among friends. I suppose I do not need to point out the contradiction of those words, "alone among friends." A climber, by definition, has acquaintances who, in a sense, teach him—when they're not subjugating him to their wills. They have their instructive perceptions, their lives, their own aloneness, and their mortal probation—which are worth the effort to observe, if you're their partner. Each of us knows life, at least a little, through the eyes of others. It was possible for me to move somewhat beside the footsteps of friends. They did the same for me at times, allowing me to teach and help them by what I was and am. They wouldn't, however, wish to admit now that the most difficult thing each of us could know, because we were so young, was the extremely delicate and sacred nature of our relationships.
I didn't have to grow into the world very far before I sensed and saw the spiritual carelessness and sometimes viciousness of the climbing world. There were poisoned spirits in the Boulder community and also in the larger world of climbers—the jealousy of one, and the smallness of another. C. S. Lewis said, "We must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment." Such a statement attaches itself to the way things began to exist in and around climbers, as I began to make that transition out of childhood into adolescence.
All my life, I've been plagued by the stares of those in an ongoing campaign to note that I'm not of their society. Yet they never let me join their society, for deep down they know my spirit is not of them. They never allow themselves to be compromised were I to be of them. In the end, the members of such a society will not know each other well enough to know who is currently of them or who is alive or dead. They don't mourn the loss of one from their midst. Climbers of this sort are more like jackals than a community of friends. They have families and group feeds. They bite at each other, are competitive and ruthless. They're cunning and able, yet are fundamentally the scourge of the higher, more sane, and beautiful world of beings. By the time I'd dug all the javelins out of my back and been judged and lied about and defamed in every possible way short of altogether destroyed, which appeared to be the goal of a number of whom I never had met, I began to replace sincerity and imagination with reality. It didn't take too long to lose my childhood.
If climbing is some type of tool placed on the earth for our benefit and through which we might grow and perfect ourselves as children of God, then there are ready candidates by the thousands whose general state of character fits the description of being very much in need of improvement. The carnival of the climber procession is a bit like the old movie King Of Hearts, where the insane take over the streets. I never intended to cast my own questionable light on anyone. It seemed others were capable of being moved by deep insufficiencies of their own. I went about my business and climbed. I argued and had nightmares about certain things various enemies had said. Always I returned to the pure experience of climbing. It wasn't climbing that caused those darker, spiritual conditions. Most people are removed from their evil selves during the course of a climb. It's after and before that the devil owns them.
I get to the truth when I think about the Canyon's voices that have found me and found in my heart what is good there. Mutually-sustaining friendships have survived. I speak of Royal, for example, and I speak of those who once fell under each other's spell—under the spell of climbing—who saw or sensed in one another the genius, the beauty, the worth, and who had a sense of imagination and childlike play. There are individuals who completely rose above the muck and mire. John Gill and Chuck Pratt come to mind, two individuals who stayed relatively removed from the climbing community but were blessed with child-like gifts.
It's wonderful to discover people who now have more kindness in their eyes, who are children—the kind we desire. The sponsored-climber, pierced and tattooed, goateed, Madonna, Marilyn Manson, levitating in ecstasy, bolt-happy manifestation of climbing appears to have gone right past play into banality. I make my playground solitude in a last few private environments of memory and imagination. I create around and in myself. While we long for something that once was and never can be again, while we wish for a true feeling or slight redeeming reverence, or purity, in today's climbers, we note also their greatness. A few are possessed with the grace and qualities of good people, with abundant gifts, so much ability, and simple, child-like humility as to represent all that climbing wishes it was or could be.
I'm content now to act out new joys with my wife and kids. We were in a tent in a remote campsite of Yosemite a few years ago. My wife and I snuggled close, as we settled into our bags. It was an awkward situation to feel romantic, what with the kids in the tent. Fortunately, they fell asleep and slept well. I realized in that tent an important element of truth: Life had presented us with a sacred opportunity for our family to be together in Yosemite, and in life, to see what we could make of the materials at hand. It felt like a beginning, an innocence, as happy as when I first climbed. Robin kissed me, and the fear of bears began to diminish.
There's nothing better than the love your child generates in you. At age two, my daughter Maren listened attentively as I said to her: "You and I will go up on the rock and climb. We'll spend the night on the rock and eat dinner. We'll look at the stars, and then we'll sleep, and the sun will come up. Then, we will continue to climb…." She said nothing. Two months later, to my astonishment, Maren, eager to fulfill the little prophecy of the universe her life is, said to me:
"Daddy, I want to go up on the rock and climb and spend the night and look at the stars and eat dinner and sleep on the rock, and the sun will come up…." She'd internalized those images, to my amazement.
A few days later, Maren said she wanted to climb. It was snowing so I asked, "Can you see the rock? It's right here?" We were in our living room. I pretended to reach for holds and to pull myself up. She did the same and acted out the part with her hands and face. She put on the demeanor of struggle and made a small grunt of strain. To my surprise, she walked over to a lamp on a table and turned off the light. "The sun is going down," she said. The couch was a ledge, and we sat together and readied ourselves for sleep. "Do you see the beautiful stars?" I asked. "Yes," she said, looking up at the ceiling. She then hurried over to the light and turned it on. "Sun's coming up," she said with a happy, beaming countenance. She reached for the holds again, strained her face, and we repeated the process two or three times. What my daughter and I shared then was everything climbing had meant to me. I was with a friend. We were able to have an adventure. We were in a beautiful place. There was physical effort and a sense of play. I would remember this.