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Eli Francovich: Climbing in Europe a lesson in history, imagination

MAYEN, Germany — Traveling in Europe, in any capacity, is an exercise in embodied history. When looking at World War II-era bullet holes in Parisian church façade, staying in a 500-year-old farmhouse or touring a cathedral that’s older than our country, it takes little imagination to feel the heft of history.

It’s no different for rock climbing.

On a recent trip to Germany over the long Easter weekend, I climbed in a basalt quarry that once fueled the construction of nearby towns. The vestiges of this enterprise hung over our heads. Rusting cranes, flood lights that once illuminated the quarry and the occasional boring hole used to inject dynamite into the rock.

In a less tangible way the long history of the region — particularly when it comes to climbing — was obvious 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 U.S. we, by and large, use the Yosemite Decimal System for roped routes. Yosemite, after all, has arguably the most history in the U.S. climbing scene.

But in Europe there are competing claims.

Certainly, some of the first rock climbing as we know it nowadays (climbing rocks for the gymnastic joy, versus climbing rocks as a tool to summit a mountain) started in the Italian Dolomites. But that’s a squishy history with many starts and stops. For instance, in 1492 a Frenchman climbed a 300-meter rock spire near Grenoble, France. The man used techniques developed during siege warfare and went climbing on the orders of his king. Perhaps 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. That route is still climbed today.

Just two examples, but fascinating nonetheless, particularly when you’re roped up and jamming up basalt cracks.

It adds some depth to a sport that is famously selfish and forward looking. The next trip. The next peak bagged, the next grade ticked.

And in the United States it's particularly easy to forget the long arc of history. We’re a young country. A mashup of peoples from all over the world. It’s different in most of the world. In Poland, it’s not uncommon to meet a Pole whose family as far back as anyone knows, or cares to know, has lived in the same town. That sort of continuity is hard if not impossible to find in America, even among Native Americans, forcibly relocated and assimilated as they were.

Which doesn’t mean the history isn’t there, encoded in our lands and our DNA, cultural and literal. It just takes a little more imagination, a little more work. There can be no doubt that the rocks we climb in the Idaho Selkirks have been climbed for thousands of years, in one form or another. Those ascents are inaccessible in any true historical sense, but their echoes can live in our imagination.

And so, when I return to the U.S. and return to rock climbing, I’ll try and remember that feeling of history. Both as a way of honoring those who came before but also as a way of finding a context greater than myself, greater than my own recreational desires, hopes and failures.

©2022 The Spokesman-Review. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

This story was originally published May 5, 2022 5:30 AM.

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