I was putting on my climbing shoes at the base of a cliff when I noticed a dark-red blood spot on my left ankle.
It was smaller than a dime, yet uncomfortably large. What the hell?, I thought, staring at it for a second like a rookie medic. I tried to recall — did I scrape myself, or bang into a rock? That was the usual source of minor injury on this sort of outing. But I felt no pain.
I wiped the blood off and was surprised to see unblemished skin. Another blood spot then appeared on my calf. I realized what was happening and looked straight up 60 feet of granite to the overhanging top of the route.
“Mike, you’re bleeding on me!” I yelled.
My friend had led the route, taking the rope to secure at the top. He’d struggled on the tough climb and cut himself without even knowing it. A second or two passed.
“Damn, you’re right!” he shouted down at me. “The rock gods will be pleased!”
It wasn’t the first time we’d spoken of these strange deities.
This was in the early 1990s, two or three years after I’d started climbing. We were book-taught “trad” climbers, and created the concept of the rock gods organically, in the midst of a wonderful exploration of the art of climbing. We spent our weekends and vacations surviving adventure after adventure.
My climbing friends and I all happen to be atheists and agnostics — the very last people you’d expect to be talking about any sort of gods. But it seemed natural, and I wasn’t surprised to find out that other climbers talked about rock or mountain gods, too.
Superstition and risk-taking go hand-in-hand, and not just in climbing. (Nor just because Arizona is home to the Superstition Mountains.) Anyone faced with the possibility of imminent death may cling to an irrational belief — something that’s expected to control the one thing they have no control over: luck.
For most climbers I know, that irrational belief is usually manifested as a belief in self. You will make the next move, however risky,…