July 20, 2011
The Wisdom of Tradition
Recently I was browsing through the 8th and latest (50th Anniversary) edition of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. It is the mountain climber’s Bible. I learned the rudiments of mountaineering from the second edition of Freedom in the late 1960s, and it’s safe to wager that most serious mountaineers in North America have sharpened their crampons on some edition of Freedom. It is the signature publication of the publishing arm of The Mountaineers, a venerable Seattle institution. For several years I was a member of The Mountaineers and was involved in their climbing program. So as I looked through the front matter of the latest edition of Freedom, I recognized many of the names of its editors. I’d climbed with or been instructed by some of them.
Now, climbers can be independent minded folks. I certainly was in my climbing youth, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with a club when I was in my late teens and early twenties. But many climbers come to learn that organization can be a good thing. For one thing, climbers need other climbers. It’s about that rope thing. And then too, procedures, precautions, mentors and instructors can help extend a climber’s longevity—and even joy in the sport.
The Mountaineers is highly organized and thrives on committees and procedures and things that are easily identified as traditions—or as we say today, “best practices”—that are handed down and refined from generation to generation. From my observation, the entire organization resembles a church, even a mega-church. And for many of its members, wilderness activities are imbued with a spiritual dimension. I’ve heard them say things like, “The mountains are my sanctuary” or “Climbing is my religion.”
Observing this religious dimension and the highly structured organization of The Mountaineers, I was waiting for someone—upon learning I’m a Christian—to tell me “Well, I’m spiritual but I don’t believe in organized religion.” I was ready with a response: “But you clearly believe in organized climbing! And you’re probably not too fond of freelance climbers who, not knowing what they’re doing, get into all sorts of trouble and expect to be bailed out.” And then I would share with them the many parallels I observed between the church and The Mountaineers and hope to show them that they were among the most organized religionists I knew.
And where do you find the climbing wisdom of the Mountaineers? In their Bible: Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. As any Mountaineer knows, the very freedom of the hills is founded on wise tradition—compiled, tested, tweaked, transmitted, practiced, improved and tested again.
Tradition is, on the whole, smart. It’s not static but alive. It’s intelligent. Climbers who experience the freedom of the hills know that. Jaroslav Pelikan said of religious tradition, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead.” Well, for climbers, “tradition is the living practice of the dead.” And mostly of those who died in their beds rather than on the bounce.