Ain’t no mountain high enough: Philosophy and climbing


The year my department was hiring in philosophy of science, and I chaired the search committee, I learned a lot about contemporary trends and hot topics in philosophy of science but I also learned lots about climbing. I learned about bouldering and free climbing and ice climbing and sport climbing and indoor climbing. (For a quick taxonomy of the distinctions between different kinds of climbing, see here and here.) I also confirmed something I knew already as a cyclist, it’s pretty flat here in Ontario. No mountains to be found. Our local, artificial ski hill is dubbed the Boler Bump. It’s where we take our children to learn to ski and learn to mountain bike.

As academics reading this know, the last stage of hiring is the campus visit and the candidate spends a lot of time with department members at meals, visiting the city, and inevitably talking about his or her interests outside of work.

Of the three short listed candidates two were serious climbers. Enough philosophers of science are serious climbers that I don’t think there’s any confidentiality issues here. By the end of the search I found myself noticing forearms and thinking about mountains differently.

Climbing has always fascinated me. I like the outdoors, rugged landscapes appeal, and the technical challenges speak to me. But heights aren’t my thing, falling is even less my thing, and my lower body weight to upper body strength ratio isn’t where it would need to be to be a strong climber.

But I can certainly see the appeal–problem solving, physicality, and the beautiful landscape all speak to me. One philosopher of science puts the attraction this way: “I think some forms of climbing are like vertical dance combined with chess. Other forms pit you against the weather and the mountain in some kind of harrowing but lovely struggle.”

He’s not alone. A Google search for philosophy of science and climbing turns up dozens of web pages of academic philosophers whose passion outside of work is climbing. I’ve started to wonder about academics and our preferred sports and whether our preferences reveal anything about our disciplinary orientations. I mused about road cycling and analytic philosophy here.

Whether my suspicion is right, it sure seems there are lots of philosophy of science-climbers.

A list of Bas van Fraassen’s favourite climbs, and pictures, is here.

Bill Ramsey is a very well known and respected climber but he’s also a philosopher and you can read an interview with him here. He puts the connection between climbing and philosophy this way:

When I’m working on a philosophy paper, the process is very similar to working on a hard climb. I tinker with different parts of the problem, trying to see what works, figuring it out in stages, eventually trying to piece it all together. I find it very rewarding in both worlds. It is not surprising that so many climbers are mathematicians, physicists, engineers — analytically-minded people who really enjoy problem-solving. I like to say that a lot of climbers are nerdy intellectuals trapped in an athlete’s body.

He’s also written a piece on the ethics of climbing called Making the Grade. It’s excerpted here. He’s a bit of a legend, I gather, and is still setting records past the age of 50. You can watch him in action too. See Video: 51-year-old Bill Ramsey redpoints 5.14b .

I’m not the first person to have wondered about the connection between climbing and philosophy.

Here’s another blog post on the topic, Climbing and Philosophy

And of course there’s a Wiley-Blackwell Philosophy for Everyone book on the subject, Climbing: Because it’s There .


6 thoughts on “Ain’t no mountain high enough: Philosophy and climbing

  1. Interesting post, I didn’t know that philosophers of science have a rep as climbers. From my own observations there seems to be a good number of social/political philosophers who climb. My old climbing partner and I use to talk a lot about Judith Butler in between assents.

    1. It might just be that lots of people climb and academics have web pages which list our interests and so seem over represented among climbers. It might also be more difficult for certain kinds of philosophers to make small talk and so they talk more about climbing…

      But I’ve heard a few philosophers of science talk about the number of philosophers of science who climb.

      I’m curious about the connection too.

  2. First of all, love your blog. I’m in my forties and regaining my fitness as well, and finally seeing some strong progress after years. I’ve reached my initial goals and have had to set new ones!

    Regarding strength to weight ratio–I started climbing at 255 pounds. It was not easy! But it can be done. So much of it is balance and stamina and lower-body strength that climbing with a bad strength to weight ratio actually led me to becoming a better technical climber because I could not power up stuff. (It also predisposes to injury, however!)

    I’m around 180 now, and I do notice a difference, especially on overhangs. But big people can and do climb, though the elite climbers are usually very light and strong.

    On the other hand, I took up running in 2007 as cross training for climbing, and just finished a half-marathon yesterday. And the elite runners are a lot lighter than I am, too–but I wasn’t last! I made better than 11 minute miles the whole way, which is not too shabby.

    Climbing is really NOT the right sport for everybody. But it was the right sport for me, and it’s inspired me to crosstrain, get stronger, lose weight, and so on–all so I can climb better.

    As with anything, beginners only court disappointment by measuring themselves against the elite. Climbers have a saying: “everybody sucks at their own level.” The point is to compete with yourself.

    P.S.: I hate falling too. *g*

    1. Inspirational climbing story! Thanks for sharing. Maybe I’ll give indoor climbing a try sometime and see how it feels. That said, it’s the outdoors I love and I think we’re low on climbing locations nearby.

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