Beyond the Curtain

by Henry Barber
Late Summer 2008

My favorite memories always bring me back to the camaraderie and initial discovery of my early years. I remember cutting high school to climb with people twice my age and feeling independent. Sleeping in the dirt with Aussie mates, and prankster extracurricular activities with British friends (the details of which are unmentionable in a proper catalog). Climbing in remote ranges of the USSR, soloing first ascents on beautiful alpine peaks, and falling in love with a Russian policewoman.

From a pure climbing perspective, however, climbing behind the iron curtain had the greatest impact on my climbing and personal life. Back home, when I started climbing in 1968 the only way was trad, so Dresden’s trad ethos made sense. Except that back home, trad meant hammering pitons into the rock. A big change then came in ’72 or ’73 when the focus shifted to a cleaner style, using removable nuts – my friends and I heard a lot about the new gear, but we couldn’t readily get our hands on it, so we made our own nuts (any machine shop sells them …) and improvised the rest. Soon, with climbers like John Stannard leading the way, our focus on minimally impacting the rock naturally evolved into trying to free climb old aid routes. And then, as happens when you travel and see new things, I became inspired further. The sandstone in the region of the former East Germany had a long history and a great level of difficulty that had eclipsed standards set elsewhere around the world. In Dresden they climbed hard – and barefoot, with only slings for protection and no chalk. The aura surrounding climbing these great routes in a minimalist style made me realize I could accomplish much more with less in all areas of my life.

Today, when I look at my rack – the same one I used in the 1970s (it doesn’t weigh much, and knotted slings don’t get you searched in airports) – and reflect on my most powerful memories, I appreciate the value of restraint. Even looking down at my feet I remember how, when they’re tough, I can climb barefoot and experience greater sensitivity and a more natural connection to the rock. Climbing is the only place in my life where I experience true simplicity.

Whenever I climbed, wherever I climbed – on ice in Norway, on alpine climbs in the USSR and Alaska, or on rock back home – the goal was to always have a day where I wasn’t sure of the outcome. I failed a lot but I never had a bad day seeking the edge of what was emotionally and physically possible. All of a sudden I found these values spilling over into almost all aspects of my life. I know what real risk, reward and accomplishment look like. What you do means little compared to how you do it. People today often think they are on the cutting edge of discovery, but I most admire what people have done with less sophisticated equipment and less knowledge. Maybe because it so powerfully shows us the key to the future: that it’s the mind that pushes the boundaries of the possible.

About the Author

“The world was my college,” Henry Barber says of the ’70s and ’80s, when, before road tripping became du jour, he explored the globe with his swami belt and miniscule rack. One of history’s most influential free climbers, Henry established 5.12 routes onsight, barefoot and without camming devices, singlehandedly raised standards an entire number grade in Australia over 43 days (during which he climbed 42 of them, making 67 first ascents), and put up new routes in more than 20 countries. Even so, the legacy of “Hot Henry” – as he became known worldwide – doesn’t rest with pure difficulty standards, but resonates in his commitment to style. After all, one takes physical talent while another takes vision. Henry worked for Patagonia for 23 years and now does inspirational speaking for corporate groups and business schools. For more: henrybarber.com.