Monday, January 8, 2018

“How to be a master climber in six easy lessons”

Hints on mountain safety and life-leading from a pioneer of hard rock

Pat Ament in the 1970s
(Photo: Wikipedia)
Any claim to deliver mastery in six easy lessons sounds like clickbait. Except that, in this case, the title belonged to a blue pamphlet on the shelves of a local second-hand bookshop. And the author was none other than Pat Ament (right), who helped to lift American rock-climbing into the 5.11 grade during the 1960s. So, for a trumpery coin, the slim volume (it runs to just 78 pages) was redeemed from its dusty limbo.

How to be a master climber in six easy lessons is no textbook, I discovered. If you want to find out how to equalise slings or set up abseils, look elsewhere. Instead, it offers a philosophy drawn from a long climbing career and distilled into print during the 1990s. Climbing, writes Ament, is an art, where art is defined as “anything that expresses uncommon care”. Master climbers strive for self-perfection through the perfection of their art.

Mastery is not about grades or competition. “The master climber is above all trustworthy. He exercises care in everything and reveals no lack of guardianship over the safety of companions.” His only allegiance is to good judgment. One's grade is what one leads on-sight, in good, strong style, in safety. Master climbers climb for the right reasons, consider each hold, pay attention to detail, and back up everything. Wry ink-drawings by the author press home his points.

Ament’s final lesson is about listening to your inner voice – climbers have lived or died, depending on whether they took the hint: “One must attune oneself to whatever subtle ideas strike and may prove to be guidance or warning – if only from an inner, more intelligent, perhaps spiritual self. And one must be willing to respond to the guidance.”

One may be saved again and again by virtue of the ability to hear, says Ament. For those who can listen, "Each day becomes a kind of calling, with space and beauty and light." Climbing has the potential to speak to the soul a certain calm, but this feeling speaks to a person most loudly when his heart and thoughts are the most silent.

To this, the reader can only say Amen(t).

"How to be a master climber in six easy lessons" by Pat Ament, published by Two Lights, Boulder Colorado, May 1997, with illustrations by Pat Ament.

The six lessons as summarized in Pat Ament's own words:

Lesson 1: Grow Up. Climb for your own reasons, as a means of personal joy, art, and fulfillment, and also with a desire to contribute to the wellbeing of others. Perfect the experience of climbing and safety. Most of the attributes of mastery are available to all climbers, not just the elite. Learn who you are and what is best for you. Respect others, but be yourself.

Lesson 2: Look Closely At Each Hold. Develop an acute sense of awareness of footwork and the relationship between safety and good, careful, artful technique. Practice constant and continual awareness, no matter the difficulty of the climbing and no matter your general level of ability.

Lesson 3: Climb Only What You Want To Climb. Try not to follow the persuasions of the mainstream, unless those persuasions are good. Beware of the unconscious influence of the media, peer groups, and friends. Don't let friends or others determine what is right for you. Make your own choices and judgments about everything in climbing.

Lesson 4: Start With Your Shoelaces Tied (Get everything in your favor). Adjust everything, even to minute details, so that it suits and helps you. Climb with the right friend, when the weather is right, etc. etc. Be good at experience. Create and apply care to all that you do. Nurture your life.

Lesson 5: Double Everything. Double everything -- not only at each rappel and belay anchor. There are hundreds of doubling nuances and a backup system for almost anything. Make a fine science of doubly protecting yourself. Double, i.e. expand, your level of safety, awareness, and understanding.

Lesson 6: Listen To The Inner Spiritual Guidance Or Warning. There is guidance to be had in life. Some of it comes from within or from intuitive and perhaps spiritual sources. The most important aspect of safety, as well as joy, may be to attune oneself to (and respond to) such promptings when they occur.

(c) Pat Ament, 1997

More to read by Pat Ament:

To become as a child

Look to your soul, by which you might be

Topical quotations (from "To become as a child"):-

Royal's first climbs up the 3,000-foot walls of El Capitan were done in a spirit of festivity. Climbing, above all, was play. Climbers are, in essence, children. French philosopher Denis Diderot described children as essentially criminal. According to Diderot, it's our good fortune that the physical powers of children are too limited to permit them to carry out their destructiveness. We wouldn't want a child to be in charge of the nuclear arsenal, for example, although world wars have been the result of people who, as adults, hadn't progressed beyond the selfishness of a child. A vision of the child taken from scripture suggests that children are innocent and follow their hearts as best they know how. This kind of child, a vision of receptiveness and purity, of honesty, and simple play, seems an appropriate model for the climber.


I didn't have to grow into the world very far before I sensed and saw the spiritual carelessness and sometimes viciousness of the climbing world. There were poisoned spirits in the Boulder community and also in the larger world of climbers—the jealousy of one, and the smallness of another. C. S. Lewis said, "We must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment." Such a statement attaches itself to the way things began to exist in and around climbers, as I began to make that transition out of childhood into adolescence.

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