In the opening scene of The Fountainhead, we are introduced to a man standing naked on a cliff edge. He stands basking in the nature around him. This man is Howard Roark, the hero of the novel and the mouthpiece for much of Rand’s ideas. As Howard is looking out at the wilderness he thinks about the natural resources. He imagines them being turned into capital for the betterment of man. Rand describes the scene as such;
“These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite, and my voice; waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn; waiting for the shape my hands will give them.”
Here we establish a concept that can be found in much of Rand’s writings: The domination of nature for man’s pleasure.
Rock Climbing as Domination
I myself have found a lot of joy in this concept. Having grown up in Colorado I was surrounded by forests, hikes, and mountains. However, these were not “wild” in the purest sense of the term. All of these places are maintained and regulated by man-made institutions. In essence, they are dominated by humans. We morph the landscape and maintain wildlife for our pleasure. We do not leave it untouched and ban humans from interacting with it, but instead, we actively engage with it.
There is a more intimate example in which I experience this interaction. I rock climb. This is a sport in which I find a feature on the side of a boulder or cliff edge, then use my physical ability to go from bottom to top. I literally conquer the route and dominate the rock for my own fun and self-improvement.
Rock Climbing as Individualism
In many ways, rock climbing is a Randian sport. There is of course the domination of nature as already discussed, but it is also intensely individualistic. Ultimately the sport is you vs the rock. It is about you and your abilities. Your accomplishments are purely your own. There is no team to participate with. In some forms of climbing, however, you have another person at the end of the rope for your safety. This help should not cheapen the individualism of your action of course. A painter is still credited for their masterpiece even if they had to borrow a brush and an entrepreneur is still great even if she needed investments.
For most, climbing is about improving as a person, it can be about mastering the psychological fears of height and falling. Properly understood this is not something you are doing for a collective. This is about your individual growth and being better every attempt. All while having a good time,
Rock Climbing as Teacher of Lessons
This personal growth manifests not just in physical strength but in the life lessons the sport offers. I think often of the concept Alex Honnold coined. The distinction between risk and consequence. Honnold is known best for his 3,000-foot ropeless ascent of El Cap in Yosemite. Often he is accused of engaging in “risky” behavior. He likes to fire back that the consequence of a fall would be total death but the risk is actually low. He spent years studying the route. He perfected each move to the point of being able to do it with his eyes closed. As such his risk was insignificant even if his potential consequences were vast. Such a concept can apply to our lives. We’re faced with a scary choice like pursuing our entrepreneurial goals or committing to our art. We might know that the risk is immensely high. Most small businesses fail, most projects don’t get completed. But the actual consequence is pretty minor. Maybe spending a month on your friend’s couch while you find a new job. It can be easy to confuse risk and consequence but to accurately assess our choices, we need to make a clear distinction.
I have learned so much on the rocks. I’ve grown much from these adventures. There’s of course struggle, pain, and the occasional complaint. However, when I push through it and make my way up there’s this special release. This final sigh of relief as I look down at my progress and see how I’ve won. I won against the rock. I won against nature. I won against my personal limits. My achievement pleasure, my joy, my accomplishment. Rock climbing gives me an insight into man’s relation to the world. It puts me face to face with philosophical truth. The truth that “These rocks, […] are here for me”.