The Climb

Humans like to climb things.

We climb trees, ladders, stairs and, of course, mountains. We design machines to help us climb: bicycles, cars, airplanes and stairs and escalators, for instance. Climbing mountains, like Kilimanjaro or Everest, has entered our collective imagination to the degree that we see climbing a 20,000 peak as an example of the human will and of great bravery and courage. Our ability to climb things becomes a way for us to separate ourselves, to call attention to our uniqueness, our indomitable will and our ability to endure adversity.

Consider for a moment this iconic painting, “Wanderer Above the Sea Fog” (1818) by the German painter, Caspar David Friedrich:


Erect and attentive, with his left hand comfortably tucked into his jacket pocket, his right hand gripping the walking stick that helped him climb the craggy, steep terrain and his feet in a triumphant pose, the “Wanderer,” surveys the vast and tumultuous land before him. In the early nineteenth century, I’m sure viewers imagined the “Wanderer” to be a poet or a visual artist, amidst Big Nature to gather inspiration. In the early twenty-first century, it’s hard not to see him as a real estate developer, survey land on which to build appreciative capital.  Either way, poet or business man, this painting nicely illustrates the western preoccupation with climbing, as a practice and as a metaphor.

We value climbing to such a degree that we use climbing as a figure of speech. If you are ambitious, you climb the corporate or the social ladder. Climbing is a common trope in the Judeo Christian tradition. Christians, for instance, will sing about climbing Jacob’s Ladder, taken from an Old Testament story the involves Jacob wrestling/struggling with a being who he later realizes as an angel from God, sent to test his will and commitment. A few years back, teenage girls sang along with Mylie Cyrus’ pop tune, “The Climb.”

Other species also climb things. Monkeys, koalas and squirrels, for instance, climb trees. Lions and tigers will climb peaks and knolls to acquire wider vistas for hunting. The difference, though, between, say, a monkey and a human when it comes to climbing is an evolutionary necessity.

This post is about climbing. Climbing Uluru, in fact.

This is a roundabout way to get to my point in this blog, and if you are still with me, here’s the story:

Toward the end of our walking tour with George at Uluru National Park (if you haven’t read that post:, George paused, grabbed his beard, pensively swept his gaze across the land and stated, as if he were beginning a sermon, or a poem, “The Climb.” Here’s the story that George told us, paraphrased—I took some liberties with the story:

Since white people had been coming to Uluru, they have taken great delight in climbing the rock. It’s a steep, but over the years, they have put in place various supports to help folks make up. Currently, there’s a chain link fence that climbers can use to pull themselves up. (Here is a photo):

 Of course to the Anangu, visitors climbing Uluru is a great offense. It’s a sacred site and the sight of non-Aboriginal people climbing the rock is hard for us. When we took over the rock in 1985, the first thing we wanted to do was ban the climb, but the Park Service, who manage the site with us, and Tourism Australia (the money making/marketing arm of tourism in Australia) forbade us from doing so. That’s because there is money involved. People have been coming here and continue to come here just to climb the rock. The Park Service says that by 2020 if less than 20% of the people who enter the Park wish to climb, they will close the rock to climbing. If more than 20% wish to climb, they will keep the climb open. We are working to ban the climb and our goal is 2020. There has been some protest activity already. For instance, in 2005, on the the 30th anniversary of the handback, I reported to work right here at the Mala trail head, I thought it was just another day, until I looked up and noticed that someone had gone and cut all of the chains. The Park Service was not too happy about that.  

When George was through with his story, he tentatively asked for questions. “How many people climb the rock each year?” someone asked, and he politely declined to respond. Too political. An Aussie in the group hopefully a question that sounded more like a hopeful statement, “It’s not primarily Aussies who are climbing, right? It’s mostly foreigners, right?” James paused and informed the man that, no, it’s mostly Aussies. I thought I heard a collective gasp from the Aussies in the group.

Here is a photo we took of the chain-link fence that helps climbers to the top of Uluru.


And here is the sign that sits at the base of the mountain. You have to walk right by this sign to get to the beginning of the chain link fence:

no climbing

I’m in Darwin as I write this post. I’ve had three or four days to think about this and it’s still stewing in my head. I’ve read Plato enough to understand that the just person is able to consider problems from a variety of different and conflicting angles and arrive at opinions through careful consideration of multiple perspectives. That said, I did not have a chance to talk  to climbers of Uluru, so I don’t have their perspective. That said, I’m going to say that climbing Uluru is stupid-assed thing to do, and they should ban it straight away.

Ah, but the story doesn’t even end there!

Yesterday, we took a tour bus up to Litchfield State Park. One of the many attractions of Litchfield are the numerous swimming holes in the park. (Sujata will write at length about them and our time there in an ensuing post.) When our tour bus stopped at the first swimming hole, we all got out and excitedly rushed down to the water.  We eased our way in, swam across to the other side of the hole and could not resist the temptation to climb a set of rocks that allowed us to jump about eight feet from a rock ledge into the cool water. We had a great time. As we were getting on the bus an hour later, Sujata sheepishly said to me, “Did you see the sign?” No, I had not seen the sign, what sign? “Oh, the one that said this is a sacred site and you are respectfully asked to not climb the rocks in the swimming hole. I just noticed it as we were walking out.”

When we got back on the bus, the tour guide asked us how we felt about all the signs in the park reminding us that crocodiles inhabit the swimming holes at Litchfield (they do, it’s true, and it’s a little unnerving). He went on and on about the crocs and the signs reminding swimmers of who they are swimming with. I raised my voice and said, “Yeah, I saw those signg, but the sign I did not notice was the one that said the swimming hole was a sacred sight.”  I didn’t really even have a chance to say another thing as the tour guide briskly cut in, saying that, oh, yeah, well, the whole earth is a sacred site and the aboriginals were’nt the first people here anyway and they don’t mind if visitors climb up the rocks just a little bit (eight feet?) and what’s the problem in people having a little fun and . . .

I stopped listening.

2 thoughts on “The Climb

  1. I’m surprised that fence line runs up the side of the rock. No matter what justifications people use to climb or not to climb, the chain link is a permanent desecration. It’s harder for George to push his moral argument while visitors are staring at the assist hardware. It takes the sting out of the shame. I always thought the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills did the same thing for the monumental graffiti down the road.

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