Metaphors We Climb By

Whether or not our lives have any grand, objective, cosmic, or divinely-rooted meaning will most likely remain uncertain this side of the River Styx. What is certain, though, is that we humans can’t help but project significance onto the activities we engage in, even when it’s something as seemingly frivolous as heaving our weary cadavers up the sides of rocks.


We don’t just accomplish this magical feat of meaning-bestowal by assigning utilitarian purpose to our behaviors either — as in, “I climb because it serves to make me happy and healthy.” We also give meaning in the subtler way cognitive linguists like George Lakoff describe: by understanding, and then talking about, one experience in terms of another. In other words, we also infuse reality with meaning by using metaphors.

Perhaps because our culture is so terribly obsessed with violence, climbers have gravitated especially to the language of war and power. Just think about how many times you’ve bragged to your pals about “conquering” a cliff or “battling against” tough moves.

Even Bodhisattva Sharma has been known to use fighting words when attempting to convey the experience of ‘scending some of the world’s most difficult sport routes to the rest of us. But while combat imagery is pretty tired out at this point, I suppose one might still argue for some redeeming value in evoking the bravery and perseverance soldiers are supposed to bring to the battlefield. (Of course, history is chock-full of pacifists who’ve proven themselves every bit as courageous and resolute.)

No Redeeming Value

The domination narrative, on the other hand, has no redeeming value whatsoever. I mean, in what sense is it even possible to “conquer” a three-thousand-foot-tall pluton of granodiorite? You will have been a forgotten pile of dust for a hundred millennia before The Nose so much as sneezes.

The lithosphere couldn’t care less that you managed to hoist yourself up some relatively tiny topological curiosity. It’s not like you’re going to be able to tell a cliff what to do from the chains. Besides, why would anyone want to pollute the fun and freedom of climbing with thoughts of control, subjugation, Manifest Destiny, colonialism, tyranny, and empire?

You have to wonder if the grid-bolting, chipping, and trashing of the nation’s crags doesn’t derive, at least in some part, from this desire to defeat nature, rather than work with it and revere its grandeur.

A Whole New Low

Here’s one of the worst manifestations of the climbing-as-domination metaphor. You can hear it exclaimed at gyms and crags across the country every single day: “I just made that problem my bitch!”

Whoa there, tough guy! This is taking things to a whole new low.

What I was picturing before with the more generic conquest talk were long dead European monarchs sending legions of long dead white boys on disease-ridden flag-planting missions. This was bad enough to be sure, but now you’ve brought me back to the 21st century, where the scourges of sexism and rape are not only alive and well, but constantly looming over each and every one of us whether we’re aware of it or not. Before I was mildly annoyed; now I’m mad.

We should all be angry, in fact. Climbing has great potential to help usher in a new era of gender equality. As long as we tolerate oppressive language in our community, however, we’ll be holding up progress. So, in the future, if you hear somebody making stupid metaphors, say something. Yes, standing up to Mr. Loudmouth Gym Rat might be a little scary, but it probably won’t be too much worse than that 30-foot whipper you took last weekend. Plus, it will mean a lot more.

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(Today’s photo is courtesy of Natalie Rae Good’s Tumblr.)

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