Monday, April 22, 2013

The 'posse' in modern climbing


posse:
Originally, a group of people (especially in the Old West) banded together for purposes of law enforcement (and harassing Indians). From 'posse comitatus', Latin for "power of the county". Posse Comitatus is also the name of various white supremacist organizations that have appeared in the US over the years.
example:
He's got the posse after him because he killed a man.

now:
your crew, your hommies, a group of friends, people who may or may not have your back.
example:
me an' my posse gonna hang tonite.

Among climbers, a posse is a group of friends that climb together. The large, forceful posses that you see are almost always from a place [like Boulder] that has far more climbers than climbs. It appears to be a sort of gang structure that assists it's members.

Sadly, the climbing posse almost always injures non members.. What we see at the cliff, and at the camping area, is aggressive pack behavior, with little regard for smaller, weaker groups. There are late night parties after every other camper is asleep, and the seizure ['locking down'] of entire cliffs and camping areas. While the individual members act civil, or even downright friendly, the posse acts to drive off others and seize territory. Sometimes aggressive dogs or dog packs are involved.

The mean dog thing does not seem to be consciously examined by the posse members themselves. I have been told that a given dog does not like men with hats, or that a given dog is a shrewd judge of character, and is just doing his or her job! The pets have picked up on the aggressive, proprietary attitude of the owners, and efforts to quiet them really serve to drive them to new heights of aggression. They do not actually speak English, and respond to the owners irritated tones rather than the false content of the shouted sentences.

It is fitting to compare a posse to an urban gang. Both are designed to control a precious resource that is desired by all. The gang 'locks down' a profitable crime method like drug sales, and provides personal protection for the individual members. The resource for a climbing posse is access to busy cliffs during peak hours. The analogue of personal protection is protection and enhancement of ones reputation. A friendly interpretation is that membership in the posse helps the world to realize that the members are some of the strongest, most skilled and multiply talented humans on earth. A cynical interpretation is that posse members drive off competitors so that they can lie to the outside world about their routine accomplishments. Many of us have seen the resulting cycle of tantrums leading to forgiveness and contrition. Every failed lead or bouldering attempt must be presented as an error by God, where a ridiculously talented individual is cheated of his or her rightful place in the athletic world.

Strong posses in an area make membership almost mandatory. In addition to access to the cliffs, they control scarce potential mates, the mechanisms of climbing notoriety, and thus, access to 'free' climbing gear and sponsorship money. [I used the word 'thus', to make my infantile argument seem scholarly!] Climbing magazines are published in places where the posse system is strongest, so members are richly represented. A climber who has decided to become famous will be rewarded by moving to Boulder, and joining a strong posse. There is a curious side affect that I have noticed. A small minority in these areas resist posse membership. These are strong individuals, that are driven from within themselves, and require no assistance to obtain mates or fame or support. This is what is really required to be a climber, so there is this spin off of renaissance individuals who are forged and driven off by the posse system. It is a treat to meet and climb with them, even though they hail from the legendary areas of climbing fame.

We are left with the question: Is there any alternative to this system of aggressive posses? It can seem pretty hopeless, when you arrive at a climbing venue to find the resources controlled by the largest and least friendly groups. They are amazingly disturbing, and can not easily be disturbed. For instance, a large posse can show up late at night to an area of dispersed camping, and push in between any 2 small parties. There is no way for sleeping individuals to discourage them. Likewise at the cliff. A huge posse can show up late in the morning, totally hung over from their night of disturbing quieter campers, and dominate the cliff until it gets dark once more. As individuals, they would be fairly pliable, but as a group they do not behave like humans at all. Their behavior is forged in a painful crucible, where a dramatic scene that is uncomfortable for an individual climber is entertaining to their group.

I do have an answer. In my decades of observation, i have noted that the very strongest climbers, [possessing internal reservoirs of personal integrity and sportsmanship], are not part of this less evolved system. It is always the weak that band together to use force of numbers and questionable tactics to replace inner strength. If your goal is to 'recreate' yourself in the outdoors, then aggressive pets, posse membership, and name dropping will obscure your goal. Physical strength, and admirable fortitude comes from within a quiet, non-aggressive person who can feel the earth. It can never be taken by force. Rock climbing is a dance, rather than a battle. Despite faked victories, climbing 'warriors' will fail, and 'dancers' will eventually succeed.

It is worthwhile to leave your own barking dog at home, and go out of your way to climb with other dancers. Refusing to defend some fragment of public land, join no posse, and worship not their names. It takes some effort to climbing talk and name dropping around the campfire. But, it is REALLY not necessary to spend the night securing climbing partners and specific climbs.  One can use the time to explore the [often] surprising mental equipment of one's camp-mates. At the crag, An emperor with no clothes requires a lot of very loyal subjects. A well behaved climber can appear alone with whatever is in their pack, and no planning of any kind!


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I am a fine art photographer and filmmaker. Lately, I have been doing panoramic images of the Canyonlands area, and printing them using archival materials. These large images are placed in work cubicles and homes, and can sometimes briefly transport the viewer to a contemplative location.