K is for knowledge

November 10, 2008

It’s often said that knowledge is power and this is very true in climbing.

I like most climbers, am always looking for beta in magazines and books, always asking those who’ve climbed routes that I want to climb, for their stories. Then I mentally note the gear, the moves and any other scrap of information that may ‘prove useful later on. This obsession with knowing begins with small things, like what size cam is needed for Wuthering at Stanage and ends up with 10-page PDFs about the 8,OOO ft Cassin Ridge on Denali.

But the question I find myself asking is does ‘knowing’ ultimately dull and cheapen the experience? Climbing is supposed to be about adventure - large and small - where the outcome is uncertain, be it rocking up on a pebble or digging through a cornice.

Knowing that there’s a jug to aim for on some dynamic leg snapping boulder problem or the exact piece needed for a blindly placed runner on a death route, or even just the beta on the best way of a big mountain immeasurably changes both the difficulty and the nature of the climb.

However, it’s hard not to know these days and gone are the times when the only info exchanged was at monthly climbing meets [although in the past it seems that most climbers preferred the silent approach and the one-line appraisal typified by Whillans who could distil the beta for a climb on to a postage stamp!

Now with the widespread use of the web and access to print media almost anything we need to know can be found out - usually instantly. Type in any climb into a search engine and you’ll probably find some reference to it, anything from a personal account to a full-on
blow by blow description, including gear, strategy and what packed lunch to take.

There is also the modern obsession with topos, visual representations of climbs becoming so precise you can bullshit about doing routes even though you’ve only read the guide on the toilet. Gone are the days of the one-line description and scrappy sketch that left you wondering ‘was that a new route?’ after every climb.

Ignorance can also be the key to success, as with knowledge comes the seeds of doubt, after all, not all news is good news. Every scrap of information comes filtered through another human being, who like you is mortal and afraid of the same things. There are many climbs that I will never do, even though on paper they look do-able, now that I’ve heard the terrifying tales of others: of death flakes waiting to fall; groaning cracks and edges that all slope the wrong way.

When I soloed Aurora on El Cap five years ago someone told me that pitch 13 was the most terrifying pitch he’d ever done; this from a climber I knew had done things far scarier than me. He called it ‘unlucky 13’ and all the way up the route I had this pitch in th~ back of my mind. Whenever I topped out on a hard and scary pitch my joy would be dampened by the thought that I was one more pitch closer to ‘unlucky 13’. On the sixth day, I woke up below that pitch. It was like meeting the school bully outside at the end of school, I was • bricking it but wanted to get it over with. Two hours later I was at the top - it was the easiest pitch on the route. Perhaps the Bible is right when it says: ‘For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

It seems that the best climbers are the ones who are either just pig-ignorant or unbelievably self-confident. The first never read magazines, guidebooks or surf the net and never know anything about the history or even, often, the grade of the climbs they do. These types of climber are almost gladiatorial; they just walk out and fight and are never intimidated. The latter has the amazing ability to be able to filter out all the bad beta and only focus on what will allow them to succeed - supremely confident that everything that is positive is correct and anything negative is bollocks.

For me, climbing has always been about secrets, things that once discovered maybe bring a little wisdom about me or the things around me. A little bit of knowledge is fair enough, but too much ... well it’s just stealing. My best climbs have always been the ones that were un-inspected, not top roped, Googled, or discussed over a pint. They were climbs that had kept a thousand secrets; jokes whose punch line was only revealed at the end’.

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