Growing up, I was never much into team sports. This owed in part to my lack of skill in any given ball sport (probably the same reason I care little for slacklining) and also because I had a tendency toward anti-social behaviour.
My family, for some unknown and possibly dark and unspeakable reason, was into soccer. We spent Tuesday and Thursday evenings, as well as a sizeable portion of our weekend, at matches or practice. I fucking hated it. Looking back now, it’s hard to grasp why I kept at it as long as I did.
If my parents had been inclined to a more lateral view of sports, they might have sought alternatives when they realised that my ability to play soccer barely outstripped that of a blind cavefish. I briefly dabbled in basketball for a period, but given that I am a mere 5”8’ as a fully grown adult, it’s probably fair to assume that I wasn’t prime genetic material for the sport as a child either.
All matters of sporting prowess notwithstanding, I found it hard to operate within the confines of a sporting team. Mostly, I found the experience to be a maelstrom of personalities and egos, occasionally operating in harmony but more often at odds with each other. I simply did not enjoy being part of a sporting team. I also found the routine nature of the exercise a bit hard to swallow and the commitment to an entire season of play slightly uncomfortable.
As a result, my sporting endeavours dropped significantly in my teenage years and partially into early adulthood. The upshot of this is that I got fat. Really fat. Eventually, recognising the need to engage in a more active lifestyle, I sought alternative activities to get me moving. In doing this, I found two sports that suited my needs more appropriately.
The first was Squash. Being that it is no longer the 1970’s, there are few sports that are as singularly uncool as Squash. Nevertheless, I took a real shine to it. The fast and furious nature of the game appealed to me, as did the mental aspect. It is a game that rewards not only athleticism but the shrewd tactician also. Many is the time that I was cleaned up by a more careful, considered approach, at times by players some 40 years my senior.
Mostly, I enjoyed the fact that I was a solo competitor, beholden only to myself. Free from the restrictions placed upon me as a team member, I was able to play on my own terms and experiment more freely. If I wanted to take a week off, I did. If I wanted to play three times a week, I did. That freedom of choice was greatly appealing to me. It also probably helped that I seem to be somewhat better at racket sports than anything involving direct contact with a ball.
Around the age of 24, I discovered climbing. This was something of a natural progression that evolved from a love of hiking which developed in my early 20’s. After summiting almost every peak in my local area by hiking and scrambling, it seemed like the logical next step was to get into the vertical plane. This, in turn, led to an introduction to mountaineering and the rest, as they say, is history.
Alex Honnold aside, climbing is a team sport. Whether on snow, ice or rock, we generally climb with at least one other partner. That said, climbing straddles the divide between individual endeavours and traditional team sports.
The success of an expedition lives or dies according to the unity of the team. As a prime example, take the Golden Age of Himalayan Mountaineering. With the siege-style tactics employed at the time, it required the effort of climbers, logistics managers and porters alike to place as little as one man on the summit.
Tales abound on each side of the coin in regard to the efficiency of such teamwork. In climbing, however, the stakes are far higher than traditional sports and the results of poor teamwork can be fatal. The American expedition to K2 in 1939 was marred by tragedy after members of the team failed to achieve basic logistical steps in order to support the lead climbers. Fritz Wiessner was the leader of the expedition and arguably the premier alpinist of his age. Despite this, he not only failed to reach the summit, but was unable to rescue teammate Dudley Wolfe who languished high on the mountain with the effects of altitude taking their toll. The reasons behind these events remain controversial to this day, but it is largely accepted that Wiessner was the victim of laziness or perhaps even direct sabotage on the part of his teammates.
In order to succeed, a climbing team needs to have commonly aligned goals and levels of risk acceptance. Working at cross purposes in either of these regards is the surest way to failure. Additionally, members of a team need to place the needs of the group over the desires of the individual. A team is greater than the sum of its parts, but only if its members operate in unison.
As I alluded to earlier, there are several elements of climbing that speak to the duality of the sport as both a team and an individual pursuit. The reasons that motivate climbers are legion. Some do it for competition, others simply for fun. Some do it for companionship, others for solitude. Some do it because it empowers them, others because it humbles them. Whatever combination of these exists within the individual, these motivators are intensely personal and even spiritual for some. The beauty of climbing is that if your current team doesn’t mesh with your personal vision of climbing, you simply find a new one.
There’s a nice balance in climbing in which you spend time in the company of others but also a great deal of time on your own. Whether it’s hiking along a trail during the approach, trudging along on a rope team, belaying while hanging off the side of a cliff or leading a pitch yourself, there’s plenty of alone time on expeditions. This means ample time for reflection, introspection and perspective. People can be tiresome, and therefore I find this arrangement quite amenable.
One of the greatest virtues of climbing in teams is the promise of camaraderie. Nothing forms bonds quite like mutual exposure to hazard and the act of overcoming these risks. Ask any soldier. Whilst climbing and warfare are very separate concepts, they are similar in that its participants enter a hostile environment and must protect each other from harm. It’s the “all-for-one, one-for-all” approach that fosters the deepest connections between individuals.
For me, climbing as a sport has been a godsend. It encompasses the aspects of individualism which I’m unwilling to part with, but encourages the aspects of teamwork in manner that I find both beneficial to my growth and philosophically acceptable.
Sports are inherently pointless activities, but they are a supremely human endeavour. Within them we find purpose, entertainment, challenge and fulfilment. For me, climbing is the perfect combination of these elements, the most noble of sports.
Let me finish with this famous quote in the immortal words of Ernest Hemingway:
“There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”
Ryan Siacci, Esq.
Originally published in September 2015