“Do you think Balthasar will have a lasting influence?” That was one of the questions Fr Kacper Malicki asked on the trail down from the Mnich, a prominent rock pinnacle overlooking the Morskie Oko, a mountain lake and popular destination in Poland’s Tatra Mountains. The shadows were lengthening, but we had a good deal of daylight left. I answered: “Balthasar’s genius was literary, not logical. He’ll be read by future generations, but rarely followed.”
When a friend asked me to come to Poland to give some lectures and seminars on Christianity and politics (which these days inevitably means talking about Donald Trump), I said yes, on one condition: he had to find someone to go rock climbing with me in the Tatras. That’s how I met Fr Kacper, a priest of the Archdiocese of Warsaw and an accomplished climber, who knew exactly where to take me for a perfect day of climbing in spectacular surroundings.
I’ve been at the climbing game for a long time. Decades ago I hitchhiked to Yosemite Valley in California, where I spent a year in my tent, climbing nearly every day. In the years that followed I made many climbing trips in North America and some to Europe. I’ve climbed sheer rock walls, frozen waterfalls and glacier-covered mountains. At this point, I’ve logged tens of thousands of rope-lengths over the course of thousands of days of climbing. I know something about the allure of climbing – and its false promises.
Part of the appeal is physical. Years ago, after a strenuous hike to the base of the South Face of Half Dome in Yosemite with heavy packs, I asked my long-standing climbing partner, Charles Cole, why we were so compatible. His response: “We both like being worn out.” But it’s not just tiring. Carefully choreographed movement through a difficult sequence of holds can be as thrilling as a gymnastic performance.
Climbing adds a technical and intellectual dimension to the pleasures of exertion. Unlike marathons or other purely physical tests, long, difficult routes require numerous decisions. An extended climb involves route finding. Big mountains call for navigating crevasses, assessing avalanche danger and gauging weather patterns. The mental challenges add to the physical ones.
All of this sharpens sensation. Seeing the Northern Lights is remarkable under any circumstance, but to do so while bivouacked on a mountain face intensifies the experience. The taste of the coffee after a particularly harrowing two-day climb decades ago remains vivid, riveted in my memory by the combination of physical exertion and intense mental focus.
And then there is the fear. It arises from the mortal danger that is always in the background. This is the part of climbing that speaks to the soul – sometimes telling truths, but also telling lies.
Rock climbers are not thrill-seekers. A great deal of effort goes into minimising risk. Recently, Alex Honnold performed the astounding feat of climbing the 3,000ft sheer wall of El Capitan in Yosemite without any means of technical protection. Any slip or fall would have been fatal. Yet he did not do this on a whim, but rather he carefully rehearsed the route many times.
I’ve never done anything nearly as challenging. But, like all serious climbers, I have chosen objectives that test my limits – and then have worked hard to ensure that I passed the test. And pressing limits involves entertaining substantial risks, which I have also done. Even now, years later, my throat tightens when I think about the narrow passages. And I grieve for friends killed by rockfall, avalanche and their own terrible mistakes.
Why, then, climb? To some extent a self-complimenting machismo plays a role in all this. But something more powerful is at work. To be human is to seek freedom – not the liberty of licence, but the freedom that comes from self-command. This is elusive. We are under the dominion of sin and death. But extreme climbing – an open, sometimes flagrant courtship with danger – gives one a brief taste of freedom from this double curse. For when we allow death to come forward, its darkness illuminates our souls.
This is well known in the Christian tradition, which commends memento mori. A vivid recognition that nothing endures within this mortal frame frees us from the grip of worldly loves. We possess ourselves more fully, focusing on the one thing that ultimately matters, which is our relation to God.
Something analogous happens with climbing. Danger intensifies concentration. It purifies the mind of distracting trivialities and concentrates the will on the one thing necessary: cut through the cornice, complete the intricate sequence of moves, make the difficult placement. These moments, which are dramatically heightened by the spectre of death, provide climbers with experiences of extraordinary self-command.
Extreme climbing – as well as less extreme but nevertheless serious climbing – is a courtship with death. This is not born of a morbid death wish. Like the spiritual practice of memento mori, entertaining real dangers in climbing reflects a profound desire for fullness of life. As Kierkegaard observed: “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” When faced with the severest challenges, the one thing a climber wills is to succeed – which means to live.
The sheer cliffs, ice faces and frozen waterfalls promise to purify the climber’s intentions and provide the true freedom that comes from concentrated self-command. This promise is not false. But it is fleeting. Climbing gives us a taste of the purity of heart Kierkegaard commends, but it cannot make it last. It constitutes a kind of natural transcendence, but one that lacks the durability and genuine inner transformation of the supernatural. This is why climbers often form closed cliques fixated on the sport, making of it an idol. They are trying to make enduring what can only be momentary.
As we were descending from the Mnich in the Tatras, I asked Fr Kacper if Karol Wojtyła had hiked our trail in the years before he became Pope John Paul II. “Oh, certainly, yes,” he replied. Then we walked in silence. I found myself contemplating that remarkable saint and the purity of heart that comes not from courtship with death but whole-hearted surrender to love.
RR Reno is the editor of First Things (firstthings.com). His latest book is Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society (Regnery Publishing)