'Academia is not a sport, in which case it must be a game'
David Coley ponders Hemmingway's theory on real sports, and explains why his love for climbing creates the right work/life balance
Posted by Rebecca Paddick | September 22, 2015 | People
david-coley, university-of-bath, academia, rock-climbing, ernest-hemmingway

Ernest Hemmingway said: “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” 

I guess what he was pointing at is that to be sporting there has to be consequence. Given his list it would seem that the consequence he was thinking about was death. This might be too extreme for many, but I think in general consequence is important. Many entrepreneurs point to the fact that they had to drop out of employment or remortgage their house as creating the pivotal pressure that took setting up their own business from just being a game to being something real. One of the USA’s top climbers, Steph Davies, has, when talking about the death of her husband Mario Richard in a base jumping accident, stated that although no single climb or jump is worth dying for, a lifetime jumping or climbing might be.

"In the academia we don’t take many real risks. We come to work, give a lecture, do some marking, deal with the paperwork and attend a committee meeting or two"

In the academia we don’t take many real risks. We come to work, give a lecture, do some marking, deal with the paperwork and attend a committee meeting or two. We are not surgeons holding someone’s life in our hands, or bomb disposal experts faced with deciding whether to cut the blue or the red wire, where a single decision, that has to be made within a few seconds, decides life or death. So, according to Hemmingway, academia is not a sport, in which case it must be only a game.

Is this is why I climb? A desire for consequence? Maybe the possibility of extreme consequence? These are dark thoughts, and I guess were not in the mind of the Scout leader who first introduced me to climbing. Nor in the minds of the disorganised rabble that formed the university climbing club that nurtured the passion. To us it just felt like fun. We climbed all over the UK and much of Europe, and almost everyone gave up climbing within a few years of leaving university. But I kept with it.

I’ve never had much in the way of natural ability at any sport, so have needed to find other directions in which to push. Whether it be climbing El Cap in Yosemite, spending days by myself on 1000m faces slowly going mad from the fear, or my most recent adventure: putting up the UK’s longest rock climb – a 67 pitch, 1278m route at Swanage in Dorset (see http://www.ukclimbing.com/news/item.php?id=69926), it only makes sense to me if there is the potential of consequence. Which when you think about means it make no sense at all.

"A climbing friend once said that there’s nothing like a near death experience on Sunday afternoon to set one up for work on Monday morning"

A climbing friend once said that there’s nothing like a near death experience on Sunday afternoon to set one up for work on Monday morning. That to me is the key. Climbing is a release, and because it has the potential to all go bad very quickly if you make a mistake, the release is deep and long lasting. That committee meeting I’d rather not be in doesn’t seem so bad; that pile of marking not so big; having to write a lecture at 1am in the morning is better than sitting on a small ledge alone in the dark as the storm hits.

Consequence also energises. The only way to keep going when your brain is saying get out of here is to up your desire to succeed. To really want it. I have found that I can channel this into my research and particularly into things like writing research grants. I see this as a win-win situation. My wife sees it more as a desperate effort by me to excuse disappearing into the hills to avoid cutting the lawn. The truth no doubt lies somewhere between the two.

David Coley is Professor of low carbon design in the Department of Architecture and Civil engineering at the University of Bath.

His research focusses on buildings that keep occupants warm without the need for heating systems and modelling buildings during extreme weather events. He is the author of the book High: advanced multipitch climbing and maintains the climbing resource http://multipitchclimbing.com/.

To read more of his writing about his climbing life visit http://www.coldmountainkit.com/knowledge/articles.) 

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