By C. Thi Nguyen, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah Valley University.
Unexpectedly, it turns out - to my brain at least - that the pleasures of rock climbing and the pleasures of philosophy are weirdly similar. Before I starting climbing, I’d had completely the wrong idea about it. I’d thought rock climbing was something for thugs and bros. I had this vague mental image that involved some combination of pull-ups, screaming, and maybe spraying Red Bull on people. But it turns out that rock climbing is this subtle, refined, and in many cases hyper-intellectual sport. It’s puzzle-solving, but with your body.
What I mostly do is a sub-discipline of climbing called bouldering. This involves finding short little climbs - like 10 to 20 feet - often steep and overhanging, which force you through a handful of moves of great difficulty and trickiness.
(This isn’t me. This is current female world champion Shauna Coxsey. Note the toe hook.)
Bouldering originally started as a way to train for longer climbs by replicating the most difficult sequences in a safer environment, much like a book of chess problems. In fact, some of that language is still there - we call them “boulder problems” and talk in great detail about which particular sequences will solve them.
The aesthetic of the whole business is: you want to find a weird little climb that, at first, seems utterly impossible. There just aren’t enough handholds; the feet are all in the wrong place. And then, slowly, piece by piece, you put together a solution. If you move your hand here instead of there, then you can inch your left foot up a few inches, and then rebalance yourself, and then get your hips over just the tiniest bit over to the right, and then you’re in the position to just barely reach that next hold, and then…
A really interesting boulder problems - and that’s exactly the language climbers will use - often involves bizarre solutions. Like hooking your heel around something over your head, or sneaking a toe in between two fingers, or squeezing a corner of rock between your heels while you ever so carefully inch your center of gravity over.
Climbing isn’t thuggery. It’s solving a logic problem, with your body, in the alphabet of yoga.
And that’s another thing: the skills aren’t what I expected. Upper body strength eventually turns out to be important for, like, climbing cave roofs, but it’s much more about: balance, finesse, precision and refinement of movement. Check out, for example, this video of rock climbing legend Lynn Hill dancing her way up some boulder problems:
I’ve seduced some very large number of philosophers into rock climbing, despite their initial reluctance and disbelief. The pleasures of climbing, especially of bouldering, are about puzzles and epiphanies, about weaving your way through something you thought was impossible, about success through subtly and refinement. And sometimes, it’s about trying really, really hard.
It’s so weird, and it’s so satisfying, that explaining this pleasure to myself has actually inspired a recent turn in my philosophical work. I became entranced with Bernard Suits’ view on games - that they’re arbitrary goals and obstacles taken on for the sake of the activity of overcoming them – because it explained so much about my bizarre love of bouldering, and board games, and, in fact, some parts of philosophy - because it was the only way to explain what the hell I was doing with my weekends.
It’s also an excellent thing to do after a long day of mental labor. I have trouble hauling my mind out of philosophy-land — problems in my papers, admin stresses. But climbing is so intense that it breaks through all that. You absolutely cannot be distracted when you climb. A favorite yoga writer, Godfrey Devereux, once explained that difficult and precarious yoga positions were just tools to help you meditate. They give instant feedback on your degree of mental focus. If your mind wanders, your body would wobble and fall over; yoga amplifies and physicalizes the mind’s focus level. Climbing is like that. On a hard climb, if your focus isn’t absolute, you will fall off the damn wall.
Finally: I’m a terrible rock climber, though I love it dearly. And doing something I’m terrible at, regularly, has helped my teaching. It’s easy to forget how alien and difficult and weird and tortuous philosophy is for so many people, since we live there. But forcing myself, several times a week, to deal with my recalcitrant body, and guide it through tiny subtleties of refined motion, reminds me of what it’s like to learn something you’ve got no instinct for.