“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.
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