Climbing monsters: excess and restraint in contemporary rock climbing
Leisure Studies 25(4): 455-467
The tension in rock climbing between technical aspects of performance that do not involve risk, and preparedness to put oneself in considerable and even life-threatening danger, is explored through an analysis of extreme gritstone climbing in the late 1990s recorded in a successful 'cult' film Hard Grit. The film dramatizes self-imposed danger, and connects it to the history and myths of gritstone climbing, an emphasis best seen as a specific moment in the oscillation in climbing between the technical dimension (or bodily "techne") and 'bottle' (spiritedness or "thumos"), but it has wider implications. The theoretical background is the Weberian theme of rationalization qualified, however, by the social and cultural significance of imprudence, irresponsibility and deliberate transgression throughout the modern period. As late modernity reveals new consequences for societies and cultures beyond the reach of either comprehensive reason in a classical sense or a self-imposed rational order along Enlightenment lines, the play of "techne" and "thumos" becomes potentially unlimited and thus monstrous. How, then, should climbers and their very loosely organized, minority pursuit, govern themselves? How can climbing remain authentic, true to itself? After an exploration of some theoretical aspects, the essay concludes more practically by proposing that two features of everyday rock climbing operate as ethical sources: confidence in sound judgment by the imagined future community of climbers; and a 'phenomenological' turn to the natural and sensory preconditions of climbing. These sources cannot, however, fully govern climbing culture but operate only in tension with fundamentally unruly impulses and drives.