The Auto Belay Auto Da Fe

“Even if it is certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has any place in this. A person of character does not think of victory or defeat, but instead rushes recklessly towards an irrational death. Do this and you will awaken from your dreams.”

-Yamamoto Tsunetomo

“If you die climbing, you negate everything else you’ve ever done in the mountains”

Don Whilans

“The nature of fencing is defeating an enemy in a fight, nothing more”

Miyamoto Musashi

Once upon a time on the Iberian Peninsula, the three Abrahamic religions tried to live together. Of course, they were no better at peaceful coexistence in antiquity than they are now, so the whole thing fell apart and then got nasty.

And as usual, when it came time to persecute the Other, Christians took the lead. The whole anti-comity campaign which ensued is known as the Inquisition. The name is genius. It captures every aspect of the project, while offering an implicit defense of its acts.. The Church was simply asking questions, of the society and of the individuals who professed a different faith.

The inquisitors wanted to know what the society was willing to do in the name of Christian purity. Of the individuals, the officers of the church finally wanted the answer to a single question multifariously – what are you willing to do to keep us from torturing you to death?

The answer to both of the church’s questions was the auto-da-fé. The words themselves mean “act of faith”, by which the perpetrators wished to indicate a demonstration of repentant zeal on the part of the evangelized. In practice, the act of faith meant participation in an elaborate show trial, in which the accused were broken of their prideful resistance, and then paraded to the grounds of judgment dressed in humiliating costumes representative of their particular crimes. Upon arrival, officers of the church meted out sentences and administered punishments. Some of the penitents were burned in effigy. Some were burned alive. Some were simply tortured a little bit. And some were pardoned, just to keep everyone guessing. The whole thing was a great object lesson regarding the power of the Church, and a big hit as public entertainment.

The Inquisition is long gone, but the spirit of auto da fe survives in odd corners of society. The climbing world, for example, has preserved it by means of a device called an “auto belay”. An auto belay is a locking carabiner attached to a spring-loaded spool of nylon webbing, which is further equipped with a clutch mechanism. The whole thing hangs from the top of an artificial climbing wall and allows a climber to ascend the indoor crag without the need for another person to hold a safety line. When the climber comes off of the wall, the clutch mechanism engages and lowers them gently back to the ground.
The whole setup resembles a giant, upside down yo-yo. For many people, it is the only partner they will ever know. It allows the curious to experience climbing with almost zero skills in their toolbox. Once a gym employee has properly fit them in a harness, a tourist to the sport merely needs the capacity to open and close the gate on a carabiner, and they can get themselves 30 to 40 feet off the ground and back down in safety.

Despite an orientation which includes a demonstration of the auto belay’s effectiveness, the majority of first-time climbers cower below the top of the wall for a few minutes before mustering the courage to wager their spinal column’s integrity on the reliability of a length of yellow nylon tape, and whatever it is in the round plastic box tethered to the ceiling. Some are simply unable to carry out the act of faith, and require staff to rescue them.

An auto belay makes indoor climbing accessible to the uninitiated, but they are not the only ones who use it. Experienced devotees also clip into the device. For them, employing the auto belay is an act of faith as well, but more along the lines of the original auto da fe. In the same sense, it is a desperate act.

A committed climber who attaches themself to an auto belay may object that they are in need of conditioning rather than just desperate to climb. Climbing on auto belay is a kind of training. It is just not very good training. Equipment such as the hang board builds finger strength better. Likewise with campusing, which also improves arm strength. Climbing outdoors yields vastly superior improvements in technique. The “training excuse” for using an auto belay needs its own excuse.

There is no excuse though, only a bit of the truth. And the truth is that a committed climber using the auto belay is much like poor Tsunetomo, who never fought a battle or lived to enjoy an irrational death. To endure the misfortune of his birth into an age of peace, he contemplated the edifying nature of combat and loyalty to one’s commander. He wore the vestments of a warrior, and scrupulously practiced a warriors rituals. A climber on auto belay is no different. Their movement over a route devised by a technician is a pitiful homage to a real course charted across natural features. It is a weak gesture of devotion to the thing that it imitates.

Like the confessions extracted in the auto-da-fé, climbing on auto belay is hollow, and doing it means that you share the desperation (though likely to a lesser extent) of those poor bastards marching towards an uncertain fate along a dusty Spanish road. Yet there was another aspect to the inquisition’s ritual humiliation and forced confession. Taking the point of view of the persecuted, a real spiritual test lay beneath the cynical choreography.. The persecuted were faced with a question bigger than the church’s inquiries: can you get through this? They received the same unsettling revelation as did Musashi, who survived 60 duels. Once you make the choice to be a fighter or a survivor, all the rest – technique, appearance, profession – becomes subservient. In that way, the auto da fe was an act of faith, just not the faith which the church wanted. It was not a faith in God, but a faith in chance. For the penitent marching towards the grounds of judgment, living just a little bit longer meant that there was still a chance of coming through the whole ordeal, to better chances on the other side. Wear the costume. Accept the accusations. Endure the beating. Each deprecation is a little more time and another chance. If you have chosen to survive, you’ve committed to taking those opportunities.

Using an auto belay mirrors the inquisition’s act of faith in this too. Because, clipping into that yellow webbing requires a confession. The penitent has to look at the painted plywood crag with its harlequin plastic holds and the upside down human yo-yo hanging over them and conclude that it is all still climbing and that, as a climber, they will climb, rather than not climb.

In what must be history’s strangest convergence, both Tsunetomo and Musashi ended their days in monastic contemplation, Musashi because he could no longer justify the killing, and Tsunetomo because he was ultimately betrayed by his own devotion. His master forbade him to commit ritual suicide in honor of the Masters death, which would have been the definitive act of faith, and a very irrational death.

Though they came at their problems from opposing starts, both of the samurai seem to have come to the same conclusion as they contemplated their lives. They both stopped thinking about their accomplishments, or lack thereof. They both stopped worrying about the meaning of death. In their final state, it is easy to imagine either one of them standing in front of the auto belay, shrugging their shoulders, and clipping in.

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