Last week, some members of my family and I visited that most beautiful of American landmarks, Yosemite National Park. I’ve been there well over ten times, but I never get tired of the rivers, streams, trees, birds, and of course… the three-thousand foot, sheer rock cliffs.
During my trips to Yosemite, I mostly stay outdoors. In fact, I don’t want to listen to the radio, watch TV, or even drive. But this time I saw that a movie about rock-climbing icon Ron Kauk was playing at the Yosemite Conservancy Theater. It was called, “Return to Balance: A Climber’s Journey,” and I had seen a small part of it before, somewhere, so I knew it was really good.
A buddy and I went to the movie and, lo and behold, there was Ron Kauk himself. I hadn’t realized that he would be presenting the movie himself and doing a little talk, as well.
The movie features fantastic cinematography of Kauk climbing and of Yosemite, itself. Kauk’s ascents of (evidently) well-practiced routes were like a ballet – smooth, artful, and graceful. It was enough to make quite an impression on my friend, who had never done any rock climbing.
The beauty of this movie (the first 5 minutes can be seen by clicking here) is certainly reason enough to see it. But Kauk didn’t stop there. In his soft-spoken, humble way, he told us, both within the movie and in the talk, about the way he relates to the natural world.
Kauk sees himself as a part of nature, not an external force, bending nature to his will. He appreciates everything around him when he’s out in the wilderness. He realizes that he has been extremely lucky to be able to spend his life out on the rocks in Yosemite (mostly). He also said he can’t walk past a cigarette butt without picking it up and throwing it away.
The movie shows Kauk in various, Yosemite settings – sometimes climbing, and sometimes just taking in and enjoying his surroundings. His climbing and his quiet times at the top of some huge rock have become quite meditative.
Several years ago, when I was climbing (badly), my climbing partners and I would find ourselves behaving in a similar way to what I think most climbers do. When we reached the top of a rock or sometimes a mountain, we would just sit, without speaking much, and survey the world from our new perch. There is a feeling of accomplishment, to be sure, after completing a challenge. But it was much more than that. The reward for the climb was a new viewpoint and a new perspective on the surrounding area and all that was in it.
Years ago, Kauk was actually on what some would consider the wrong side of an argument about altering rocks with protection bolts and similar gear. The argument was with another legendary climber (and purist), John Bachar. I don’t really know the result of this conflict, but listening to Kauk today, it seems that he has evolved from someone who just pushes the limits of climbing to someone who places great value in the canvas on which he creates his art.
This is a controversy only within the climbing community as the metal bolts in question would probably only be noticed by climbers and maybe photographers. I wish I had known about this in time to ask Kauk how he had been affected.
I did ask Kauk if, as he got older, he would turn more to advocacy for protecting nature. He said yes and explained a few ways he already does a lot like taking foster kids out on trips and so forth. So Kauk’s advocacy might not take the form of Washington lobbying, but I’m sure it will accomplish a lot.
If you’ve never been to Yosemite, you owe it to yourself to go. Just don’t go on Memorial Day or anything – too crowded. Of course, there are many other incredible National Parks. Pick one! Make it a priority to visit. Your spirit will benefit much more that it will from almost any other vacation.
Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.