Eli Francovich: Climbing in Europe a lesson in historical past, creativeness


MAYEN, GERMANY — Traveling in Europe, in whatever capacity, is an exercise in embodied history. From gazing at WWII-era bullet holes in the facade of a Parisian church, sleeping in a 500-year-old farmhouse, or touring a cathedral older than our country, it takes little imagination to feel the weight of history .

Rock climbing is no different.

On a recent trip to Germany over the Easter long weekend, I climbed into a basalt quarry that once fueled the construction of nearby cities. The remains of this enterprise hung over our heads. Rusting cranes, floodlights that once illuminated the quarry, and the odd drill hole used to shoot dynamite into the rock.

In a less tangible way, the region’s long history – particularly in relation to climbing – was evident in the sheer number of grading systems (used to denote route difficulty). There is the French system. The German system. Something from Scotland. In the US, by and large, we use the Yosemite decimal system for rope routes. After all, Yosemite has arguably the longest history in the US climbing scene.

But in Europe there are competing claims.

Certainly some of the first rock climbing techniques as we know them today (climbing rocks for gymnastic pleasure as opposed to rock climbing as a tool to climb a mountain) began in the Italian Dolomites. But that’s a muddy story with a lot of starts and stops. For example, in 1492 a Frenchman climbed a 300 meter high rocky peak near Grenoble, France. The man used techniques developed during the siege war and went climbing on the orders of his king. Maybe the first professional climber? Four hundred years later, a chimney sweep in Germany snuck into a fortress by climbing a chimney drilled into the nearby sandstone cliffs. This route is still climbed today.

Just two examples, but nonetheless fascinating, especially when you are roped up and stuck in basalt cracks.

It adds some depth to a sport notoriously selfish and forward-thinking. The next trip. The next peak sunk, the next note ticked.

And in the United States, history’s long arc is particularly easy to forget. We are a young country. A mashup of races from around the world. It’s different in most parts of the world. In Poland, it is not uncommon to meet a Pole whose family, as far as anyone knows or wants to know, lived in the same city. That sort of continuity is difficult, if not impossible, to find in America, even among Native Americans who were forcibly resettled and assimilated as they were.

Which doesn’t mean the story isn’t there, encoded in our countries and our DNA, culturally and literally. It just takes a little more imagination, a little more work. There is no doubt that the rocks we scale in the Selkirks of Idaho have been climbed in one form or another for thousands of years. These ascensions are inaccessible in the true historical sense, but their echoes can live on in our imagination.

So when I go back to the US and get back to rock climbing, I’ll try to remember that sense of history. Both to honor those who have gone before and to find a context bigger than myself, bigger than my own recovery desires, hopes and failures.