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Tuesday Night Bouldering

Between the Lines: Stumbling Toward Progress

Climbing is "hardly the most pressing issue at the moment," writes Andrew Bisharat.

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For all of the reasons to despair in 2020, there is some basis to be positive if you compare where we are today to the mid 14th century when a plague wiped out 20 million Europeans in five years.

For example, people in the Middle Ages thought that the best way to avoid the bubonic plague was to walk around town squares while literally beating themselves with whips to atone for their sins.

Rejoice that we’ve largely moved past this kind of magical thinking. To wit: across even our wide political and cultural divide there is no question about whether scientists will develop a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2—the only question is when. This would be unthinkable just 100 years ago, and should be taken as signs of humanity’s overarching bent toward progress. In general, reason and science are triumphing over religious delusions to make us stronger, safer and healthier.

For most of us, the lockdown has reinforced the importance of a healthy, functioning (not necessarily even thriving) society as the preceding condition for allowing us the privilege to enjoy climbing. Indeed, as the closures show, climbing isn’t easily accessible without a certain baseline of health, security and equity across society. Although projecting certain climbs might be considered a type of self-flagellation akin to what 14th century zealots unleashed upon themselves with a scourge, I doubt many French people back then had the luxury of seriously considering how to climb in the Verdon.

Is it sad that it takes societal tumult for many of us to realize climbing is a privilege of leisure?

My friend, a professional climber, recently told me that the lockdown was a really nice way for him to take a step back.

“All these climbers were posting their home workouts on Instagram, and I was like, ‘Screw that,’” he said one day recently at the crag. “I just spent my time in lockdown reading, reflecting and making bread.” He patted his belly before heading up a warm-up. “At some point, though, I had to stop eating the bread so I could start climbing again.”

Some days, we’re absorbed by our climbing goals. Some days, we’re eating the bread. And some days, we’re thinking about those who don’t get to do either. When our systems can’t correct for the randomness of how luck is distributed by the universe, when some people’s biggest concerns are whether their split fingertips will prevent them from sending their projects or whether they can safely drive their Sprinter vans across the country to go cragging outside county lines without being scolded on social media, we have to be aware just how many parents across America struggle under “normal” circumstances with when it’s time to tell their boys that they have a one in 1,000 chance of being killed by a police officer just because of their skin color.

We may be doing well compared to the Middle Ages, but looking at the streets of America this week it’s less clear how much progress has been made since 1968. It’s hard to be tasked to write a column about climbing, let alone go climbing yourself and enjoy it, when our country is teetering on the brink of collapse, riven by inequities and the horribly unfair distribution of justice and opportunity.

Climbing, if nothing else, is—or, at least, has been—an exercise in direct progression. As a whole, we’ve never not experienced progression in climbing. Each year has brought forth new bold achievements, new grades attained, and a wonderful sense of shared bewilderment that we’re only scratching the surface of just how hard we can climb.

Sometimes progress isn’t easy to see. It takes that wide, long-term perspective to see how far we’ve come. We bemoan crowded crags, for example, while also not recognizing that these crowds are also bringing with them an improvement in climbing’s diversity.

Thus far, 2020 has halted climbing’s progression in a big way. The Olympics are canceled. I doubt we’ll see the first 5.16a established. Many gyms are in danger of closing—shutting down opportunities for all those new people to start. These fell like major setbacks, but over the long lens, it’s only a momentary stumble. Climbing will continue to progress.

Climbing’s setbacks are hardly the most pressing issue at the moment, however. At some point, things will return to “normal,” and when we do, we must remember to keep working to make progress. Based on the long-arc of history, I’m hopeful we will.