“I meant to tell mankind about a new state about which I could tell them little or nothing, to teach them to tread a long and lonely path which might or might not lead thither, to bid them to dare encounter all possible perils of nature unknown, to abandon all their settled manners of living and cut themselves off from their past and their environment, and to attempt a quixotic adventure with no resources beyond their native strength and sagacity. I had done it myself and found not only that the pearl of great price was worth far more than I possessed, but that the very perils and privations of the quest were themselves my dearest memories. I was certain of this at least: that nothing in the world except this was worth doing.”
A boulder stands nobly on a hillside strewn with hundreds of his brethren, immovable sentinels posing closely together yet each in their own solitude. There is no interpretation, no attachment of emotion or understanding of grace. Shattered and broken piles of decomposing granite lie next to perfectly hewn swaths of stone, both parts of a whole yet individual specimens with personality and style.
The biggest of these oversee their realm with opulent dominance like kings puffing their chests in full battle-armor. Indeed the quirks of geology that birth such giants come only from immaculately grown crystals seeded millions of years ago in a dense batholith. The iron-like cuirass of hardened Patina edges offer a line of weakness up the patriarch, daring any to ply their mettle and wage a battle with the giant high above the hill.
“You not only get psyched up but almost become hypnotized or mesmerized to the point where your mind goes blank, and you climb by well-cultivated instincts. You do it.”
In 1961 there was no sport climbing, no harnesses, no climbing shoes. The Golden Age of climbing in Yosemite had produced die-hard bad asses like Royal Robbins, Warren Harding and Chuck Pratt. Outside of California, in a midwest Air Force Base doing pull-ups on nuts and bolts sticking out of the walls, was perhaps the greatest American climber ever to touch rock hiding away from the center stage of Yosemite Valley. Decades before hang boards and even the Bachar Ladder Gill took functional training to new levels, regarding small boulders not as “practice climbs” as his peers did but as moving meditation. The collegiate gymnast, capable of one-armed levers and climbing a 20-foot rope in 3.4 seconds, applied his mathematically-inclined mind to complete many of his ‘problems’ including his most famous of all – The Thimble in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Free soloing a 5.12 over a nasty guard-rail (since removed) when 5.11 had barely been established is ground breaking enough for Gill to retain his legacy as one of the greatest climbers of all time. That he would later complete other ‘problems’ rated up to modern V9 only adds to the mystique of his character, the soft-spoken math teacher standing over 6 feet and built like a Marvel Superhero.
The experience of climbing is timeless, the mechanics rooted in our own evolutionary growth as fingers grasp small rock holds and branches on the way atop high lofts to see danger and weather approaching. Yet beyond that, there are those for whom the climb and the vistas are more than tools for scouting danger or prey. Like arrowheads found on top of the highest Sierra peaks our own history dictates that mountains without any merit aside from their uniquely difficult summits draw adventurous few to solve a problem in their head. Can I get to that place? Is it meant for me?
Gill often describes his experiences as a type of meditation, or kinesthetic awareness. Rehearsing the movement, climbing up and down higher and higher into a fever pitch, the Thimble was completed in what was likely perfect performance art. When the conscious mind sets the series of movements the unconscious executes. The flow and rhythm are just as much as the process as the motions they occur between, blending confidence and spirit as spirit wills body. Doubt isn’t indulged in at the base of these climbs, and meditation can put one in the midst of the battle.
The king lay before, a sword in hand. A swift blow to his weakest point, where the armor is split and invites the blade, and the skirmish is won. Parry his blows, swing the blade and kill the king, stand on his shoulders and shout in triumph. For a warrior there is no one battle, not a singular foe to leave driven or wall to overcome.
“Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men.”
-Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings
If you want to know what that feeling is like, find the boulder fields. Find the hill sides speckled with lumps of tall monoliths calling your name. Walk up to their knobby surfaces, battle-worn and brushed smooth from a hundred others flaying their skin on it’s carapace. From under his belly there is no glory and the rounded lip obscures a summit. What might that summit be like? Can I get to that place? Is it meant for me?