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More than a sport: professors find inspiration in mountaineering

Professor David Bernstein rock climbing in Yosemite. Also pictured: professor Stephen Ratcliffe's foot. (Stephen Ratcliffe)

It’s easy to think of rock climbing as snapping into a black and red harness and grabbing onto the ceiling-high climbing walls at Planet Granite, dotted with brightly colored, plastic hand holds. But when Mills professors David Bernstein and Stephen Ratcliffe talk about mountaineering, it’s clear that rock climbing is not just an indoor sport, it’s an outdoor art.

They are passionate about climbing and it inspires much of their work at Mills and beyond it.

The pair met at Mills more than ten years ago and have been close friends and avid climbing buddies ever since, trying to climb together almost every break.

Both have been climbing since they were young and have climbed all over the United States, from the Grand Tetons in Wyoming to Mount Shasta in California.

“Being brought up in New York City, you really appreciate getting out in the woods,” said Bernstein, a music professor.

For both Bernstein and Ratcliffe, climbing is a chance to clear their minds.

“Everything’s in perspective when you’re not drowning in the hustle and bustle of life,” Bernstein said. “You get into a different state of mind, and when you come back, it’s great. You have a whole new perspective and that makes it more fun to come back to work.”

And in that clarity, the two climbers have found inspiration. Ratcliffe, an English professor, writes nine-lined poems daily about his adventures outdoors the day before.

“The lines are always things I’ve seen the previous day,” Ratcliffe said about his poetry.

Much of Ratcliffe’s poetry depicts events that he and Bernstein have shared, places he’s been or what he sees when he’s surfing. The first three lines of a poem he wrote on Feb. 16 depict what he saw when he first woke up in the morning at his home in Bolinas:

“pink cloud in pale blue sky above still
shadowed ridge, green of leaf on branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel.”

Bernstein, too, has had inspiration strike as he was surveying the outdoors.

“The introduction of my first book was written on a piece of torn up brown paper bag at Mount Yale,” Bernstein said.

The two also talk about work while they are far away from Mills, climbing their way over tough granite.

“It helps to sort things out,” Bernstein said. “I think about my work and talk to Steve.”

The two understand each other as they are both interested in experimental art – Ratcliffe with poetry and Bernstein with music.

And how could they not be inspired by the places they’ve explored? The two have been places and have admired views most people only see on landscape calendars. They have traversed deserts, forests and mountains, crossed creeks and rivers, and jumped into a lake or two. At least, Ratcliffe has.

“He collects lakes,” Bernstein said of his climbing partner, noting that once Ratcliffe jumped into a freezing cold lake multiple times just so he could get a picture.

But Bernstein and Ratcliffe’s travels go beyond the places; they have also met a variety of interesting and eccentric people.

The two met the iconic climber, Irene Ortenburger, who ascended the North Face of the Grand Teton before anyone else, and who now shares a name with the route she took there: Irene’s Arete.

Ortenburger had left the East Coast in the 1950’s in search of a place that could handle a woman’s freedom of expression, according to a statement she made in the Alpinist, a mountaineering magazine. On her way, she found mountaineering and the Grand Teton.

Ratcliffe and Berstein met Ortenburger as they were about to climb her route up the North Face of the Grand Teton.

It’s when Berstein tells stories like Ortenburger’s that his love of climbing really shows. He knows about countless climbers, and can rattle off a list of inspirational names on command.

One climber Bernstein looks up to is Steph Davis, who Bernstein and Ratcliffe have not run into on their travels. Bernstein enthusiastically watches a Youtube video of her climbing the North Chimney of Castleton Tower in Moab, Utah, and Pervertical Sanctuary on the Longs Peak Diamond, in Estes Park.

Her particularly risky climbs are called “free solos,” where the climber does not use any aid other than pitons (spikes climbers use to grab onto when the rocks they are climbing provide few hand and foot holds on their own) and goes it completely alone.

“These are people who can do incredible things,” Bernstein said of Ortenburger and Davis.

Hearing these stories, it’s difficult not to wonder about the inherent dangers involved in mountaineering.

Luckily for Bernstein and Ratcliffe, they have not incurred any serious injuries from their passion. They have, however, run into some sticky situations while out on the rocks.

“Once we were caught in a lightning storm on the Middle Teton,” Bernstein said. “I saw the lightning bolt hit in the canyon way below us. We weren’t really scared, but we probably should have been.”

Even with the dangers at hand, there’s something special about the rocks.

“I have a habit of hiking along and something will appear – a rock will ‘show itself’, and I have a bad habit of picking these things up,” Ratcliffe said.

Ratcliffe remembered once he carried 85 pounds of rocks back with him from Shepherd Pass, a climb on Mount Williamson in the Sierra Nevada range.

“I had picked up this triangular piece of granite,” Ratcliffe said. “I try to limit myself, but it’s hard no to find something out there.”

Bernstein, too, has a somewhat scientific fascination with the rocks he encounters.

He recalled a trip he and Ratcliffe went on two years ago to Lake Tulainyo, one of the highest lakes in the continental United States at 12,802 feet above sea level. The lake is on the North side of Mount Russell, another peak in the Sierra Nevada range.

“It was August or late July,” Bernstein said. “The lake was surrounded by snow and there were fields of quartz within the granite.”

On another excursion to Mount Moran, another mountain in the Teton range, the two came to a black dike, a type of rock formation that cuts through another, usually more prevalent formation.

“There was a huge plateau with a layer of sandstone at the top,” Bernstein said. “A rock from there could have been billions of years old.”

It’s the beauty combined with the danger that makes mountaineering a passion for Bernstein.

“It’s like being a musician,” he explained. “It’s not just a sport, it’s an art.”