American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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On Rocks

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  • Publication Year: 1931

On Rocks

Elizabeth Knowlton

THE rocks up which one makes one’s way in climbing a mountain are to me not merely pieces of inanimate matter. They have very definite personalities of their own, distinct individualities, not to be confused with those of the mountains of which they may happen to be a part.

No, the great mountains are quite another affair. They are a different order of being from ourselves, always withdrawn and elusive, only to be apprehended in some semi-mystical fashion, by faculties not called into play in valley life. But the rocks we may know intimately. We struggle with them in the closest physical contact; our minds grapple with the wide range of problems they offer; the emotional reactions they rouse in us are of the everyday sort; our association is that of equals and friends.


Among the most delightful of my rock friends I count the pale yellow Dolomite limestone. Obviously feminine in the delicious fantasy of its wit, it is subtle and of “infinite variety” in the contacts it offers. Where most rocks give you only a very limited choice of responses, this will provide handholds and footholds in all directions and of all types. However awkward and heavy-footed you may be, it will, in its less exigent moments, go more than half-way to meet you, and make possible some sort of pleasant friendship.

But even from the most blundering beginner it demands a certain delicacy of touch, demands it not crudely, but like some “grande dame” who keeps fine and true her relation with the clumsiest yokel, without his being conscious of the influence of her exquisite tact. So, without officiousness or arrogance, the Dolomite rock brings out in the most stupid, unsuspected capabilities of subtlety and finesse; teaches tricks of balance, and position-shifting, and counter-tensions; suggests new and ingenious holds, offered so tactfully that the user thinks them his own idea; gently insinuates delicacy in the place of force, brain for brawn.

So much for its ways with those new to its charms. Its best qualities are revealed only by long-continued intimacy. For all its whimsies, it is fundamentally genuine and true. Its holds are solid, and it never, like some deceitful rocks, lures one on to holds which look secure from below, but prove hopelessly downward-sloping under the hand. On the contrary, it often in feminine fashion teases with meagre promises, then gives with free graciousness in the end, when what looks like some tricky, uncertain edge reveals itself to the touch as a true “Thank-God handhold.” Its promising routes, also, do not peter out into hopelessness, but instead provide infinite taxes for your ingenuity, on their varied roads to success. To its complete trustworthiness in all respects there are of course exceptions, but only enough to prove that it, like the rest of the world, is not infallible, and not too perfect for this uncertain life.

For greater knowledge, it has greater rewards. The more you have to bring to it, the more it has to offer. After a difficult and successful passage I have sometimes caught myself actually smiling, with the delight one feels in a clever exchange of repartee, where one’s opponent, though more brilliant than oneself, does not try to defeat or crush, but instead leads one on with him to ever new heights of wit. Such light and subtle passages, such ingenious holds, and sudden unexpected shifts, but always the contact maintained, always, though sometimes only by a hair, the fundamental balance of the relationship held true!


In complete contrast to the Dolomite rock is the granite of Chamonix. No particular subtlety here, no great variety. Its taste in humor runs generally to uncouth practical jokes, and there is something repetitious even in its surprises, something labored and obvious about its most strenuous efforts after the unusual.

It resembles the type of man who needs all his real worth to redeem him from the charge of being gauche and boring. Never any particular novelty—you can always prophesy just the type of difficulty to be met; no choice of holds—only one, and that often hard to reach, or sometimes none at all. It scorns tact and diplomacy, it refuses to help, it demands from its admirers not delicacy but sheer brute strength. To know it, one must force oneself upon it, with no surety of welcome.

But although it is ponderous and unresponsive at best, and although in its occasional sportive moods, it often becomes almost grotesque in its efforts to be playful, yet in general its rugged dignity arouses respect.

“I adapt myself to no one. I am as I am. Take me or leave me,” says the Chamonix granite.

Then by sheer weight and worth it compels one to take it. The holds it offers, though few, are Hat, large and honest; its holdless cracks and edges are rough and firm. One has, to be sure, to do all the work oneself in making the contact, but the final response one gets is solid and satisfactory. Often I have wondered with annoyance if it were really necessary for it to be quite so “difficile.” I have felt the irritated exhaustion one feels with a dinner partner who is painfully “heavy in the hand,” slow and dull and refusing obstinately to respond on any subject. But no annoyance will change it, or render it more subtle, amusing or compliant. On the other hand, the high demands it makes on muscle and effort cause one to value, perhaps unduly, every inch won. To establish an easy friendly relationship means a real battle, but it also gives the satisfaction of a real conquest. What one gains in the end is an intimacy close, lasting and sure.


The rocks of the Pennines, the Oberland, the Selkirks and other ranges where I have climbed, are to me—with some notable exceptions—less unusual and outstanding personalities. This impression may be due to the fact that one seldom has occasion to come so to grips with them, and often I have not got beyond a casual acquaintanceship.

Generally they seem simple and honest and very pleasant to meet. Sometimes they are a little crude, perhaps, and sometimes, if one must see too much of them, one may find their easy amiability a little monotonous. Even such variety as they have, is likely to be due rather to some chance formation decreed by the mountain than to the actual texture of the rock. But to this rule there are, of course, exceptions, and the most superficially obvious rock may develop on closer association some trait that fires the imagination, and makes it stand out in memory.

There is, for instance, the regular route up the Matterhorn— simple, kindly, easy to get along with, but giving occasionally a stirring glimpse of great primitive strength, and power for evil. There are many attractive knife-edges, such as the Rothorngrat, which, like interesting people, talking well on great subjects, make us forget about them completely—for all their stimulating contacts, their piquant sharp solitudes and “à cheval” diversions—simply by force of the vast new views of the world they spread before us. There are innumerable rocks that masquerade sometimes in snow and verglas, which, like all well-chosen masquerade costumes, bring out intriguing sides of their personalities, which one would not have suspected from acquaintance with them in their ordinary dress.

I have, in fact, never known rock that had not something rewarding to offer, in one mood or in another ; except rotten rock.


Rotten rock (and here I think reluctantly of some of our Canadian Rockies) is not to me treacherous, which might seem the obvious characterization. It is—and I speak, of course, of a whole mountain of rottenness, for even the best of rock has its rotten moments—merely without color. For it evades. It has not the strength and honesty to come out frankly and be anything. You know nothing of its fundamental qualities—except that it is not to be depended on. You can never come into a close relationship to it, for a firm grip or a strong tread demolishes it. It does not wish to establish a relationship with anyone. It slides out from under. As a personality, it simply is not there.…

Such are, for me, the characteristics of some of the different kinds of rock I have known. If I seem to any climber to have misunderstood or misrepresented his favorite rock friend, I ask pardon in advance, because no two people can possibly see another individual in exactly the same light.

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