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Into the Wild

alex bates and kamaal haque

Look up, and sometimes you'll see Kamaal Haque (left) and Alex Bates enjoying the view after another good climb,

Dickinson professors leave the classroom far below for a dizzying hobby

by Tony Moore

Head to Seneca Rocks in West Virginia or Old Rag Mountain in Virginia, or north to New York’s Shawangunks, and you’ll find some good rock-climbing sites. And you might also find two Dickinson professors—Kamaal Haque, associate professor of German, and Alex Bates, associate professor of Japanese Language and Literature—who have flirted with danger at each site and like to climb whenever they can.

“I like that it’s sort of a puzzle: ‘Okay, if I want to reach that, how do I do it? If I position my body in this direction or lean this way, place a foot here, then maybe I can do it,’ ” says Bates, who started climbing as a teenager back in Utah and does it all—bouldering, sport climbing and traditional, or “trad.” “I also like the feeling of accomplishment for getting to the top.”

alex bates

Alex Bates makes his way up a rock face.

In fact, Bates has reached the top of rock formations all over the country—from the Northeast to Southern California to Yosemite to the Black Hills of South Dakota—and various locations around the world. Haque also has climbed all over the world, in countries such as Germany, Austria and Italy. And what appeals to him about the sport is twofold: He loves being in the mountains, and he loves where the mountain takes him, mentally.

“Climbing forces me to focus on where I am—it gives me this sort of mindfulness,” he explains, noting that he started climbing in his late 20s in Munich while working on his dissertation. “You have to be at the rock. I can't be thinking about all the papers I have to grade or the shopping list or anything. I really like the concentration that is forced upon one in order to have any sense of success.”

Haque’s love of the mountains extends into his classroom as well, and recent courses such as The Mountain in the German Cultural Imagination and a current research project on German mountain films marry that love with his academic pursuits. For Bates, the Outing Club advisor, climbing is finding its way into a variety of co-curricular activities, from a joint Outing Club/Geology Club rock-climbing trip with Joseph Priestley Professor of Natural Philosophy Marcus Key, during which the group discussed the geology behind rock climbing. It also provided a pause for him while in Japan during a 2015 summer program on war and disaster.

kamaal haque

While in Italy doing research on mountain culture and film icon Luis Trenker, Kamaal Haque found himself high above Northern Italy's Dolomites, going for the peak.

Despite taking on such climbs as a 1,200-foot face in the Dolomites in Northern Italy, and toughing out a 400-foot climb while leaving bloody handprints on the rock from a deep cut on a finger, Haque says he's more of a novice than Bates—and he still has the nerves to prove it.

“Every time I step on the rock, my inner Chicken Little is saying, ‘uh-oh,’ ” he says with a laugh. But it gets better each time, with more and more experience, something Bates sees as the ever-evolving light at the end of the tunnel.

“It's something where you can see yourself improving very clearly,” he says. “You’ll think, ‘Oh, this is the first time I've done something at this level without falling.’ ” And in rock climbing, that's a huge step in the right direction.

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Published March 7, 2017