In the sweltering Amazon basin of Brazil, Satere-Mawe boys are initiated into manhood by donning gloves stitched with captive bullet ants, a hymenopetra that can grow to over
an inch long and inflict a sting with a 4+ pain rating on the Schmidt sting pain index, a scale that tops out at four. The poneratoxin delivered by
the ant causes waves of burning agony—like that of being shot by a bullet—that can last 24 hours. Each boy wears the gloves for 10 minutes,
and must undergo the ordeal 20 times to be considered a warrior.
Like the Satere-Mawe, climbers have—or have had—rites of passage, rituals of sorts that elevate our status within a peer group.
In the 1970s, at Tahquitz Rock in California, a would-be Stonemaster had to flash Valhalla (5.11a), a three-pitch granite line considered stout
when judged by the standards of the day. Arguably, any testpiece by its definition is a rite of passage and a successful ascent strengthens our group
Besides Valhalla, other routes that come to mind are the Naked Edge and Jules Vern in Eldorado, and the Bachar/Yerian in Tuolumne.
Where I grew up climbing, at Quartz Mountain in southwestern Oklahoma, our rite of passage was also a route, but instead of going up, it went straight
down. At the base of the crag’s most prominent feature, the “Headwall,” was a three-foot wide crevasse that was perhaps 40 feet deep and gobbled up dropped belay plates, carabiners and even the occasional rope. I can’t recall who first plumbed the depths of that granite hole, but over time we made a game of it, eventually discovering a cavern bisected by a horizontal tunnel that went some 50 feet, then up and back through large boulders to sunshine. In some places the boring was so tight you had to exhale to make it through. In other spots it was so dark you had to go mostly by feel. Sometimes you had to exhale and go by feel.
It was said back then—this was the early 1980s—that a noted zoologist from Oklahoma City had studied the underground passage and upon resurfacing exclaimed that the chamber had been worn in the tombstone-hard stone by the thrashings of thousands of rattlesnakes over as many years.
This was easy to believe because just 15 minutes to the west, the town of Mangum annually held a Rattlesnake Derby, an event launched about 50 years ago by farmers and ranchers desiring to whittle down the region’s Diamondback infestation, which was taking a toll on cattle, pets and even the occasional family member.
At first, dynamite blasted the snakes out of their dens, but in 1966 enterprising merchants launched the Derby, which grew to over 30,000 attendees who bought T-shirts and paperweights made of severed snake heads entombed in acrylic. The snake wranglers danced, ran and scoured the prairies and used hooked sticks to ferret out the devil reptiles. This spring, snake hunters caught over a ton of the wriggling serpents, which were dispatched, variously prepared and served to growling stomachs.
Given this background, dropping into the pit at Quartz Mountain and crawling through the tube got you into an informal club of sorts. There weren’t any secret handshakes, but anyone who made the excursion was viewed with a new magnitude of respect.
Other areas—most areas probably—have a similar ritual. The act of climbing is itself as ritualistic as Catholicism. We tie into ropes (the
sacred bond), spit shine the soles of our shoes, chalk hands and speak in jargon decipherable only to climbers. These acts, while necessary, are often
performed in careful order for safety’s sake, but are also important elements of the bond that separates us from ordinary people. “I am certain that I have more in common—in terms of passions, appetites, ideals—with climbers from, say, Thailand, than I do with my neighbors,” writes Greg
Johnson in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature.
My neighbor, Bob, is a stonemason and has two dogs that bark incessantly. Although I have lived 30 feet from him for the past six years, that is all I
know about him. But were I, say, in Brazil, and bumped into any climber, I’d know within minutes where he (or she) climbs, at which grade, and be privy
to intimate details usually only shared with doctors.
After a session on the rock, I’d likely get invited home for dinner. We’d share stores of epic adventures and complete our ritual binding by lifting a
glass of local beer. Lacking that, there’s always the ants.