Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Art of Climbing down Gracefully - The Long, Dedicated Declined to Dignified Decrepitude

Notes: much of what follows, including the title, have been paraphrased or borrowed from an article by Tom Patey, previously published in Mountain Number 16, and republished in the book Games Climbers Play, edited by Ken Wilson. Tom Patey, a famous Scottish ice climber, was tenacious in his sport, consistently humorous in his writing, and penetrating in his understanding of climbers and what makes them tick. His article contains 16 'ploys' for not completing or even beginning to climb; I've only quoted the few that seem to fit best; However, his article is a riot and the book Game's Climbers Play is an excellent introduction to the climber's mind. Get a copy.

It's not hard to find obstacles to an adventurous path, to see defeat coming, and to invent clever and rational explanations for yourself and others as to why you should retreat. A few weeks ago I found myself certain I could make significant passages across oceans, to Bermuda and beyond; now faced with a parade of small stumbling blocks, I find myself 'climbing down', retreating to the convenience of coastal cruising that I know so well. Clearly, Tom Patey knew the heart of sailors as well.  

The Art of Climbing Down Gracefully is a catalog of traditional mountaineering ploys that experienced climbers rely upon when age, situation, infirmity, lack of practice, or loss of nerve prevents them from making the grade a the local crag. I will paraphrase a few:

3. The 'Chossy Climb' Ploy. "'Poxy', 'chossy', 'spastic' and 'rubbish' are all terms characteristically used by English and Welsh climbers to denigrate Scottish routes which they've either failed to climb or failed to find (without searching too minutely)." When sailing, I think this applies to shallow waters and small harbors that are dismissed as being of no interest to the cruising sailor.  Maybe they're tricky to find or challenging to negotiate. But just maybe the there is more food for the soul in these places that at dock-side eateries. Sounds like the Delmarva Coast challenge. No, I don't use this one much.

7. The 'Responsible Family Man' ploy. "Don't seem to get away much nowadays, they mutter prominently.  Can't take the same risks - unfair to the kids. This is very effective because of it contains an element of pathos, and brings a lump to the throat of the most hardened of the hardmen. Some aging climbers, no longer able to make the grade on the crags, have been known to contemplate matrimony is the only honorable way out."  Actually, my wife is extremely supportive. She never interfered with my rock and ice climbing habit either. 

12.  The 'Fohn Wind' and other Bad Weather Ploys. The standard British climbing mantra of the golden age was that it took more courage to retreat than to advance. Perhaps the best loved variation was to "give the mountain best." Hurricane season, to sailor, seems the most obvious, but it isn't because that one is real. Better examples are spring storms, and fall storms, and of course winter storms.  With the ploy in full swing, planning any passage becomes impossible.  

By comparison, I can easily use these ploys to stay in the Chesapeake Bay:

1. Insurance is a killer. I just don't cruise off-shore enough to dilute the cost. There are college expenses, 401(k), the boat payments, and the rights of my family.

2. My daughter is in school. Although there are some that take their children out of school, I disagree.  I'm sure there's very much to be learned about the nature of the world and the nature of people, by cruising the oceans and experiencing something other than the rat race.  But in my mind, there's far more for a teenager on land and there is at sea, and I don't just mean school. Let's be practical; we're land born creatures and not fish, and we live our lives in this community.

3. I would never ditch it all to go cruising. It wouldn't be my vision of paradise.  There are too many things to like on dry land: rock climbing, ice climbing, bicycling, snow skiing, ice skating, rollerblading, hiking, and traveling to meet all of the people on dry land. This isn't a criticism of those who choose to go or a rationalization of my own fear; I like dry land and doubt that I would ever wish to cruise for more than a season.

4. Health. Both a reason to go, and a reason to stay nearer to home. Well past 50, a vigorous life has accelerated the accumulation of aches.  I can't see a good reason to postpone cruising until it's more difficult.  And yet, as I go sailing now I find myself less tired than I did when I was 30.  I'm smarter about it and use my energy much less wastefully.  I hear cruisers complain of bruises and bumps; I sustain far much less wear and tear that I used to. There is also my wife to consider; she is a brittle diabetic and to go far offshore, beyond the reach of paramedics, wouldn't be responsible. I can't remember how many times we've had an ambulance come to the house after she has lost consciousness from low blood sugar.  It's not because of poor attention on her part - sometimes I've helped her monitor her medication, diet and activity as they apply to maintaining consistent blood sugar - because often the deviations positively defy simple explanation. Stress and variable sleeping schedules makes maintaining consistent blood sugar even more challenging.

Note: I don't climb rock as much as I used to either, but I don't use complicated ploys to avoid it. I explain that I'm old and lame. If my daughter is with me, she's quick to support the veracity of these claims. Ice on the other hand, still holds mysteries for me and my skills continue to improve. The damn thing is Virginia is short on ice.  Whoops, there I go, using the 'Fohn Wind' ploy.

1 comment:

  1. Patey's essay of course also in his posthumous collected writings entitled One Man's Mountains. An unusually readable climbing memoir and very funny too.