Tethered To Cyberspace On the Face Of El Capitan In Yosemite National Park
It took John Muir 42 years to write of the personal discoveries and observations he made during his first trek high into the Sierra landscape that today cups Yosemite National Park.
For Tommy Caldwell, perched on the side of El Capitan, it took only a clear cellphone signal, which he had.
During a bid last month to free climb the Dawn Wall route of El Capitan, the Colorado climber regularly updated his Facebook page via a smartphone he charged with a solar panel. It's said he had more than 4,000 followers, some from as far off as Slovakia, which no doubt pleased his sponsors.
But some in the climbing community questioned whether the cyber tether took away from the purity and intensely personal connection with climbing.
Katie Ives, editor of the Alpinist magazine, told the New York Times she fears that "instead of actually having the experience be the important part, it's the representation of the experience that becomes the important part -- something is lost." Others felt that if there was a never-ending need to update an audience, and to impress sponsors, climbers might take risks they otherwise would not.
With the immediacy of social media, climbers are not the only ones in search of audiences. Jennifer Pharr Davis kept a running on-line diary going this past summer as she set out to break -- and succeeded in doing so -- the speed record for an end-to-end hike of the Appalachian Trail. Individuals who embark on other solo efforts, such as sailing around the world or, comparatively speaking, just across the Atlantic, have embraced the relatively new communication tools available to them.
Not too long ago, in the 1980s, cellphones were too blocky too comfortably carry into the backcountry ... if there was even a signal to snag. Experiences were noted in real time, but it took days, if not weeks, afterwards to share the stories and photographs with vast audiences.
Today, as Mr. Caldwell so well demonstrated, he could, with a small phone, solar charger, and strong signal, pause at any moment on one of the world's most difficult climbs and bring a world-wide audience onto that cliffside with him.
An overwhelming majority of those who commented on the climber's Facebook page were fully supportive of his dispatches, touching on the benefits to those who can't make such a climb and to those who might never have given a thought to taking up climbing as a sport.
"The future is here to stay. I can't see how sending 'real time' updates would effect the 'purity' of the climbing," wrote one. "Style matters, that's for sure, but a climber who on top can manage to deal with sending real-time updates along with a pure style is just adding inspiration. To follow Tommy this year and last year was super cool. It was so real, no BS raw reporting. I'm a fan of that kind of extra work you put in! It was cool and fun and sad. It was lovely."
Added another: "I agree that it should be about a personal experience, and not 'bragging' about that experience to the world. There are a lot of climbers using this technology to show off to all their friends for an ego boost, and there are also a lot of climbers who are using it to keep genuinely interested people up to date about their current experiences, and provide inspiration. At the same time, people need to realize that 'times are a changin', and technology can do so much good for a climbing environment. The massive ability to share thoughts, ideas, and information is incredible. It just needs to be used with the right attitude, that's all."
Defining the right attitude no doubt is the key. Are such dispatches intended to keep a loyal following informed of your progress, or to build support for a specific sport, or to impress sponsors?
We live increasingly in a world connected in cycles defined not in days or hours but by how many bars you're banging on your phone. Are we better off with that immediacy, or have we actually lost something?
A backcountry adventure can be a very intimate experience of self-awareness and wonder, one that leads to greater self-realization. Does 4,000 followers looking over your shoulder lessen it?