Climbing as a lifestyle
文：安龙（Cosmin Andron) 译：周霞（Joanna Zhou)
Published in Shanye, May 2007
I see rock climbing not just as sport, but a way of life. Sometimes I can just sit at the bottom of a cliff, look around and feel good. I don’t even have to climb. (Stefan Glowacz)
It is definitely something odd and rather unsocial for a person to put so much effort, time and sometimes their lives on the line and to try to move up on vertical ground. Climbing is not a team sport but most likely a highly individualistic one and yet in few endeavours (maybe with the exception of BASE) such a community centred one too.
Climbers are quite proud to mention that climbing is more than an ordinary sport, that it is a way of life. It likens a bit to martial arts where in both cases one’s hobby permeates his entire social and family life to quite a large extent to become a lifestyle; climbers also like to see themselves as artists of some sort, climbing being, ideally, a way of expression.
When I started climbing, 18 years ago, in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania climbing and life looked quite different than they do now, in 2007, in China where I have been living for the past three years. Eastern Europe of the late 80’es was the site of various failed social experiments and, more or less, each country a police state. Freedom of expression was a luxury not many afforded and finding ways to exercise such freedoms was, to say the least, a challenge. While some preferred the political arena or the arts others found their way of expressing their need for freedom outdoors. Risks were involved in either case, and for Eastern Europeans maximizing the risk, facing it and defying it was the grand prize. The greatest majority of climbers were from a working class background, the relationships within the community straightforward and the means meagre. It was not about gear or clothing or sponsors or media – it was about personal challenges and confronting fear or difficulties. Gear was sketchy and most of the times home made. It was at most means to attain a goal and not something one would spend too much time thinking about, an attitude that pushed bold ascents, the limits of endurance and solos to the forefront. In a remarkable twist of fate philosophies forged during the reign of oppressive regimes in Eastern Europe have influenced greatly what today is seen as modern, cutting edge, alpine climbing.
In the West the climbing community was not less radical albeit for different reasons. Even in a free society the climbing community was about looking for the alternative lifestyle. The dirtbag, the rebel who rejects the social conventions of getting a job, working 9-to-5, raising kids and building a house is the romantic hero figure. It took indeed some motivation to drop out of school, quit your job, live in a campsite while raiding the rubbish bins for your meals or surviving on state sponsored welfare funds. Building on legendary figures and looking at the tradition as a source of inspiration, at the ‘old guys’ as being tougher, more motivated bolder than the younger generations, helped pushing the limits of climbing and at the same time pushed the hardcore climbers even further from the mainstream society with which, not rarely, he would find himself at war. Places like “Camp 4” in Yosemite or the British campsite in Chamonix were such alternative societies.
在西方，尽管有不同的原因，攀岩团体并不是不够激进。即使在一个没有约束的社会，攀岩团体还是关注寻找二选一的生活方式。The dirtbag，攀岩者中的叛逆者，他们是浪漫主义英雄人物，反对工作，因为那就意味着朝九晚五地工作，抚养孩子和建一所房子。退学，辞掉工作并露宿野外对他们来说确实需要一些决心，并且他们还要在垃圾箱里寻找食物或者靠政府提供的救济金才能生存。作为更顽强的“老一辈”，他们是建立在传奇人物之上并且把传统看作是灵感的来源，比年轻一辈更大胆，更有决心帮助推动攀岩运动的极限，与此同时也推动顶尖攀岩者更远离主流社会，因为这一社会只会让他们最后陷入困境中。就象美国约塞米帝公园的“camp 4”或者在法国加穆尼克斯的英国营地就是这样不同团体的地方。
Nevertheless, with sport climbing getting more media and corporate attention the recluse lifestyle and the promise of sponsorship deals or careers in climbing, a field reserved only to professional guides (an even more hermetic society) the climber began to find his place in mainstream. Clipping bolts meant increasing the margins of safety which appealed to a much larger audience and with the advent of competitions the gates were wide open to ‘outsiders’. In Eastern Europe where the means and access to better gear and sponsorship deals were still a far and unclear prospect, the wars between traditionalists and the new wave of weekend warriors were unnecessary. Most of the climbers there were weekend warriors anyway, but of a different sort and whose total commitment to a climbing was as actual as ever.
Funny enough this mass access to something that was at one time the secret life of a small community did little to change the spirit by which the climbers like to run their lives. At the dawn of the 21st century the climbing community sees itself as much larger though has lost nothing from its claims of being some sort of alternative to the mainstream society. What changed is that while twenty years ago a climber was most likely to practice all disciplines while probably excelling at one the climbers of today are most likely to specialise in a discipline and leave it at that.
Climbing on plastic has brought climbers back to the city and while for many escaping into nature is the path which they followed through climbing, for many the city is equally the place for a climber. While for the urban climber the risk and challenge takes a different meaning, as different as plastic and rock can be, there is no mistaking that living an alternative lifestyle is as important as ever.
I will not claim to know the history of climbing in China and many if not most of its defining moments are unknown to me. But living and climbing here for the last three years and being part of the climbing community here gave me an interesting insight into who the Chinese Climber is.
Unlike high altitude mountaineering which was and is seen as a legitimate activity to conquer and boost national pride, the other disciplines have sprung and evolved more randomly. There is no mistake that rock and ice climbing occurred and are still developing under a strong western influence, but what is missing here is the tradition such western climbers like to look back at and draw inspiration from. Lacking such an attachment to a home-grown tradition the Chinese climber is an Urban Climber. Unlike my old climbing partners who were workers (electricians, miners, carpenters) the overwhelming majority of my climbing friends in China are university graduates or white collar employees. Unlike chasing adventures and pushing the risk limits, the Chinese climber complements his social life with an exercise meant to provide him with a stronger body, a bit of excitement and a sense of freedom derived from defying the laws of physics and not the laws of society or the very limits of one’s own existence.
The Chinese climber is perfectly integrated in society while at the same time manages to maintain, through internet and local clubs, a very close and loyal community. Somehow it seems to me that the Chinese climbing community is much more communitarian, socialist if you want, than the individualistic-oriented Western one.
One of the most striking things I noticed when arriving at a crag in Yangshuo for the first time was … the gear… Shiny new Black Diamond draws, slick Beal ropes, the latest gadget and device on the market, Prana and Arcteryx garments and so on. All this looked even shinier when compared to my battered, worn and abused rack of mixed brands biners, slings and cheap fuzzy rope. No doubt all the signs of a booming market made me wonder if this is not a bit too dry. Without the challenge of improvising or invent isn’t this kind of spoon-fed climbing devoid of any excitement and not very different from simple gymnastics?
其中 我所注意到的最显著的不同是装备：当我第一次到阳朔攀岩时，那耀眼的新快挂（BD），光滑的Beal rope，市场上最新的小装置和配件，以及PRANA和ARCTERYX的衣服等等。所有的这些与我的旧的，已用多时的而且还是杂牌的装备比起来更加耀眼。这蒸蒸日上的装备市场迹象无疑让我想知道这些会不会有点太单调？没有了即兴和创造，这种被宠坏了的攀岩会不会就失去了兴奋感，也就与一般的体育运动没有任何区别了？
But then again, imposing my own values and traditions upon a society with a different starting point than mine is simply reactionary. Chinese climbers need not start with hemp ropes so as to gain validation from the West. Chinese climbers of this generation are those who shape the tradition and their values are those that will get passed on and they are responsible for it.
And while there is no social manifesto in Chinese giving up their jobs or careers in favour of a full time climber’s lifestyle this abandonment is no less significant. I am lucky to know some of the best climbers around and to enjoy their friendship. In their own right, each and every one of them is a legend in the Chinese climbing community. Three of them are the perpetual sport-climbing champions – full time climbers, regimented sportsmen/woman who behind the flimsy social security of a scholarship train three times a day and take part in as many as one or two competitions in a month all over China and South East Asia. Their job-like commitment to sport climbing and competition leaves little room for climbing just for fun yet in a world where being a professional sportsman does not promise the financial security of a tennis player or a golfer, this is as close as it gets from having security, an education and doing what you are good at.
Outside the competition circuit the dirtbag is a Chinese reality, but make no mistake: the Chinese dirtbag is quite different from the resident of Camp 4. The epicentre of sport climbing in China is Yangshuo and this little, unappealing by itself town manages to collect on its two or three tourism developed streets a colourful combination of itinerant Chinese and foreign climbers and local Chinese rock guides. With a reggae fuelled atmosphere and the occasional happy smoke, Yangshuo is an imitation of a more exotic destination: Tonsai (near Krabi in Southern Thailand). Unlike the western dirtbag the Chinese, non-sponsored full time climber does not need to live in a tent and dig through restaurant leftovers to survive. They manage to make a living through rock guiding and by having frugal tastes, yet they manage to live in flats, even if shared, and to live not worst than a local farmer. With so many people being attracted to the outdoors and the huge floods of tourists during the national holidays means that in the land of fairly cheap living, which rural China is, a couple of weeks’ earnings are enough to allow a quite decent living in a somewhat urban and cosmopolitan setting. While the Chinese dirtbag comes most likely from a working class background his lifestyle as rock or mountain guide is not hugely different from how it would be if he were to work in industry but definitely would be missing the perks of the life a place like Yangshuo has to offer.
在竞赛圈之外，就是中国的dirtbag，但是千万别搞错，中国的dirtbag与Campe 4的居住者是完全不同的。中国攀岩的中心在阳朔，这个小镇本身并没有多少吸引人的地方，却设法发展了两到三项旅游业，而且有趣地把中国的外国的攀岩者，当地的向导都聚集在这里，并流连忘返。阳朔更多的是一个模仿异国情调的地方：象tonsai(在泰国的crabi附近)。中国的dirtbag， 不象西方， 即使没有赞助，全职的攀岩者也没有必要住在帐蓬里，或者在餐馆里挖剩菜才能生存。他们通过当向导，吃一些素食过日子，而且即使是合住，他们也会住在公寓里，不会比当地农民差。随着越来越多的人喜欢户外，以及在国家假期旅游高峰期，生活在中国农村，相对比较便宜，几个星期的工资就足够让他们过着体面的生活。然而中国大多数dirtbag来自工薪阶层，他们作为向导的生活方式与他在工厂工作并没有多大不同，但是绝对会失去象阳朔那样的地方提供给他们的快活感。
Among my friends I count two people who, for different reasons, are held in high esteem by their community beyond their climbing skills. On of them for choosing climbing over a post graduate degree and a life of material security which seemed to impress in a society where social ranking is so important. The other one for building and networking a club with the most amazing communitarian spirit, a climbing club which has seen associated with it the names of quite a large number of very strong and talented climbers. Both of these people have managed to gain a tremendous amount of respect based on their background, climbing ability and personality.
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Nevertheless, the picture of the climbing community in China would not be complete if I were to stop here. Foreigners have been the catalyst as far as rock and ice climbing goes and they continue to be a presence and influence in shaping the way Chinese climbers live and climb.
Yangshuo is flooded each year with strong itinerant climbers from all over the world who come, climb, put up routes and set new standards. Some of them decide to return and some of them decide to stay.
Foreign residents and Chinese alike open new areas and sometimes venture in making climbing into a profitable business by opening guide services. Without failure the Chinese Mountaineering Association invites on every major occasion competitors from abroad and each year, by competing against them, the Chinese climbers become stronger and stronger.
There is indeed a lack of hard tradition one feels when coming to China and quite a lot of admiration sometimes without content towards western achievement instead of a steadier focus on achieving similar results here. The Chinese climber is in general cautious and less adventurous. With safety paramount and focus on physical exercise a great untapped potential of hard and bold climbing in the alpine or big wall arena is only shyly touched upon. The Chinese climbing stars are mainly competition stars and the bold and visionary are a few.
With ice climbing becoming more fashionable and with a very competent climber leading the trend the Chinese have moved a step forward from the safety of the indoor wall or bolted limestone crag to the land of cold and dangerous. Slowly the alpine climbers will be more and tackling more than ridges, and the big walls of HuaShan, Sichuan and Xinjiang will see, hopefully sooner than later, Chinese ascents. Yet, one is to keep in mind that the Chinese climbers and their lifestyle are closer to the Urban Climber model than to the dirtbags of Camp 4 and that we are looking at the dawn of this sport in China.
当攀冰运动变得越来越时尚的时候，在一个非常有能力的攀冰者的带动下，中国攀岩已经迈出了一大步，把从室内安全的岩壁攀爬和有保护措施的石灰石岩壁攀爬带到寒冷和危险的冰上。慢慢地，阿尔卑式的攀岩者也将会越来越多，也会尝试更多的而不仅仅是山脊的攀爬。而且在华山，四川，新疆，希望在不久的将来，能看到中国人的大岩壁的攀爬。然而，应该记住的是：中国的攀岩者和他们的生活方式，与在camp 4的dirtbag 相比更接近城市攀岩者，并且我们都注视着这一运动在中国破晓而出！