Quiz: What Kind of Climbing is Right For You?

Three climber types - a woman carrying bouldering pads, a man on top of a mountain, and a main with a big trad climbing rack
(See below for image credits)

Tommy Caldwell came out to Ventura the other day to present and screen the movie A Line Across the Sky. If you haven’t seen it, A.L.A.S. is pretty much a home movie shot with a point-and-shoot by two of the world’s most accomplished rock climbers and then professionally edited into a bromance that happens to take place against the backdrop of the world’s most impressive alpine enchainment.

In the movie, Caldwell and his partner Alex Honnold (a master of stone but, we learn, an alpine gumby), traverse the ragged skyline of Cerro Fitz Roy and its satellite peaks in the monumental, weather-wracked wilds of Patagonia. Despite legendary prowess in the vertical realm, the duo is pushed into uncomfortable territory more than once, as when Caldwell must lead the half-frozen upper face of Fitz Roy with one ice tool in the dark, leaving Honnold, who is wearing approach shoes with ill-fitting, borrowed crampons, to follow.

At work the next day, my friend asked me how I liked the movie. I explained that my attention was riveted to the screen throughout, which doesn’t often happen with climbing movies these days. Then he asked me if I’d done much alpine climbing. No, I explained, the suffering and danger quotient had always been too high for my taste. Complex body movement, a peaceful communion with nature, and the social aspects of climbing have long been my prime motivators; as such, I tend to prefer sport to trad and bouldering to big wall.

As we talked, I realized how bright the line has been for me: key elements of alpine climbing like complex logistics, prolonged period of extreme physical discomfort, and numerous objective hazards, hold no appeal. But to my fiends who excel in the mountains these are part of the attraction.

I find it fascinating the distance between one type of climber from the next: alpinists and gym climbers, low-angle traddies and red-point obsessed sportos—at times, it can feel like we’re different species. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to use the label “climber” to say anything valuable, or to explain what’s so great about climbing. After all, the answer is different from group to group and person to person. Rare is the true “all-arounder” who relishes all types of climbing at once, perhaps because each style has certain core elements that cut across a few sub-disciplines, but rarely all.

As I pondered such frivolities, I drew in my notebook a little matrix of climbing styles and their particular attractions. Then I went ahead and put together a “handy” online quiz to help identify the types of climbing that best suit your particular tastes. I have no idea if it will work for you. Give it a try and let me know…

TAKE THE QUIZ

 

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Image credits (left to right): Kasia Pietras with maximum paddage, photo by Terry Paholek. By Tom Murphy VII (taken by uploader (user:brighterorange)) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons. By Garrett Madison (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

How to Make a Climbing Meme

I'm not saying it was aliens… but it was aliens

In case you haven’t noticed, climbing memes are SHRN. Less than six months ago, an Instagram account called Rawk Tawk started posting climbing memes commenting on and lampooning various goings on in the climbing scene. They have already garnered more than 12,000 followers. Another climbing meme account, Rockclimbingprobs, has cultivated similar visibility. My friend Brendan ocassionally has fun with climbing and outdoor memes on his blog.

Like emoji and animated GIFs, memes have become a staple of internet communication. At their best, they offer biting, hilariously accurate micro-insights into life, luck, and human nature; at their worst, they’re dumb and don’t make any sense. Most fall somewhere in the middle, causing us to LOL due to their purposeful inanity and shallow humor.

Side note: what I’m calling memes here are more accurately referred to as “image macros,” a subset of internet memes comprised of “captioned images that typically consist of a picture and a witty message or a catchphrase.” The images overtop of which people write text often grow to become popular internet memes, such as Good Guy Greg, Bad Luck Brian, and Ermahgerd Girl. But “meme” is far more commonly used and understood than “image macro” and for our purposes here will do just fine.

All that said, here’s how you, too, can create a climbing meme in four easy steps:

1. Find a picture

You can source a climbing-specific picture if you like, but it’s not necessary. Some of the funniest climbing memes use the same stock images as memes of a more general ilk. If you want to use one of the web’s many popular meme characters, you can use the tool on imgflip.com or other meme-generating sites. If you choose to create your own meme, be sure to use the right font: Impact, in white with a black outline. Here’s a tutorial on how to do it right, because Sharma forbid you use Futura or Comic Sans—that would be embarrassing.

ermagherd-boars-hair-brushes

2. Think of something funny that only climbers understand

The thing that makes a good climbing meme is that it speaks in a code that climbers will understand. For example, that guy at the gym (maybe it’s you?!) who just can’t keep his sequence straight, or the fun that isn’t when you’re waiting in isolation at a climbing competition, or the special padding needed for a certain well-known crag. It’s a fine line though. Get too specific or too personal and you’re bound to lose people. But maybe that’s OK—better to slay it with a niche audience than bore the masses.

3. Write funny thing over top of picture

The typical meme uses two lines of text, one at the top and one at the bottom of the image. In this configuration, the top line is the set-up and the bottom line the delivery. Of course, it’s not necessary to structure your memes this way. Some only have one line of text, others multiple, others no text at all. The most important thing is that the image and the words must clearly connect and reinforce each other in some way. A weak or simplistic connection between the image content and the tone of the words will result in a fail.

Goes to new gym … "you'll have to take a belay test"

4. Post to internets

This part is important. Memes are like genes; ones adapted to their environments will replicate and flourish. But to spread they need a medium. Thus, the interweb, with its billions-strong reach. When you make a meme on a site like imgflip, it becomes public (unless you choose to keep it private) at which point users can up or down-vote it, increasing or decreasing visibility. Social sites and forums like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, mountainproject.com further help your meme spread (replication), where others may riff on it (mutation). Or not. It’s important to remember that your meme, while it may seem a precious nugget of genius to your biased eye, is probably not that funny to other people. That’s OK—memes are free and easy to make, and as with anything, practice makes perfect.

As for the why of climbing memes? That’s something you’ll have to answer for yourself. Good luck…

A Question of Motivation

I was having dinner with my parents not long ago when my dad spoke up, an uncharacteristic formality in his tone. “Do you mind if I ask you about your, uhm, philosophy? I don’t want you to take it the wrong way…” It sounded like the start of an intervention. “You talk a lot about letting go of things, about not caring about goals. But what’s wrong with goals? What’s wrong with working hard and trying to be great at something?” He went on at some length, explaining his view on the matter and arguing for the value of dedication to a craft, of the embrace of goals and striving, of the beauty in taking one’s art form to the highest levels.

By most standards, you could say my dad is an accomplished person. He’s an artist who’s been showing his work since before I was born; he received a Visual Artists Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 90s, before the government stopped issuing such things; he taught as a professor at various respectable universities around the country; he’s co-authored and co-edited multiple books; he even has an Instagram account. He’s also an intellectually engaged fellow and, along with my mom, introduced me to the Eastern philosophies that today undergird much of the explorations you find in this blog.

Therefore, when my pop expressed concern at some of my perspectives, I was compelled to give the matter some more thought.

I think I see what he was getting at. I’ve written repeatedly about an issue I’ve noted in people around me: the achievement-obsessed behavior that leads usually to frustration, momentarily to satisfaction, and always to more goals in a never-ending cycle. From what I can tell, this cycle is the source of much needless human suffering. In last week’s post, I wrote that to be happy you should “loosen your iron grip on things as they are now and on things as you want them to be.” In November I wrote, “I see a certain needfulness in it: to prove oneself, to put oneself above others, to feel the affirmation of success and excellence. When I look closely, it’s hard to see it as much more than an addiction.” In July, “Rushing towards goals is rarely an act of mindfulness but is instead a result of our desires or fears.”

My dad isn’t the first one to take issue with these sorts of sentiment. One commenter recently suggested, “If we truly accept, we wouldn’t climb at all.” A while back, a friend felt the need to log on and set me straight, saying “The proper motivation to climb that next-level route, to ski that rad line, to get that dream job shouldn’t be out of fear, but out of love! Out of love for living a more actualized life and in sharing that joy. Out of the personal satisfaction that comes with achievement and the intrinsic satisfaction of the accomplished vision.” Which I almost completely agree with, if not for a few pesky words (“more actualized” and “personal satisfaction that comes with achievement” in particular.)

What my dad and others were concerned by, I think, is the seemingly slippery slope that leads from acceptance to apathy, from non-attachment to detachment. But I’m not an apathetic person. On the contrary I’d say I’m very engaged with and moved by the world. So perhaps my words just aren’t matching up with my deeds? I’m hoping a quick trip down memory lane will help clear things up…

When I was younger, I took naturally to rock climbing, but I tended to weigh the experience with unnecessary baggage. I wanted to be the strongest guy at the crag. I wanted recognition for my abilities on the rock. I wanted to burn the other guys off the wall. For years I’d train until my knuckles flared and my rotator cuffs grew ragged and frayed (still paying for that!). On days when my climbing wasn’t going well, I’d feel little more than frustration, my mind focused on my own standards of excellence rather than the reality of what I was doing that day (which should have been having fun climbing with my friends). It was backwards motivation, chasing after an image of what I wanted to be like, for shallow reasons like impressing others or satisfying some urge in myself.

Over time, as I grew older, I learned naturally to give less of a shit. Meanwhile I read books that echoed things I noticed while observing my inner state. I learned, very gradually, to release much of the grip I had on desires and to climb ever more for the simple pleasure of it. I learned to work less towards the goal of sending a harder grade and more towards the perfection of movement, of breath, of the infinite subtitles of balance. I could get lost in these subtleties and find something of lasting meaning there. Sometimes this approach meant I’d climb a harder grade, but often it did not. In the past, I would have been frustrated by my lack of steady “improvement,” but in recent years, it’s become increasingly unimportant, a distraction from what I view as the actual experience.

But does that mean I have no attachments, or propose that you should have none? Definitely not. I’m a realist, not an absolutist. But I do feel there’s a fine line between valuing things and clinging to them. To work assiduously and in earnest, but not be overly concerned with results—here’s the thing that I couldn’t quite express to my dad over dinner. I guess you could say my personal philosophy is more about the means than the ends. It’s not unlike the school of climbing that places style above all else. If you cut corners or do something in bad style, if you focus on just getting to the top or getting there faster and ignore the how of it, you’ll end up missing the whole damn point. An attachment to outcome that’s too strong can pull us out of alignment with the most meaningful things in life.

Wanting this blog post to be great will not make it great. Worrying that it is not great will not help me to write something better. On the contrary, it will likely lead to something less honest, less natural, more forced. Whether it is great or not is arguably an arbitrary distinction, too. So I would posit that the opposite of attachment is not apathy, but clarity and even freedom.

Pesky language! Even this lengthy ramble around the topic is not quite what I mean to say. But I’m OK with that.

Two Kinds of People & Three Things to Keep Close to Your Heart

A photo of the salt flats near Robert Smithton's Spiral Jetty earthwork in Utah
Everything is changing; nothing is permanent—now what?

The way I see it, there are two kinds of people: those who can find happiness when faced with the greatest challenges and tribulations, and those who find unhappiness even when given the greatest advantages and privilege. I bet you’ve known some of each. The first kind, nothing can harm; the second, nothing can satisfy. The former is infinitely capable of acceptance and adaptation; the latter never fails to find fault and assign blame. 

I’d like to believe that we can choose which type of person we are. 

To be the sort of gal or guy who finds peace amidst the metaphorical storm, there are a few important things to keep close to your heart. First, things change. Empires rise and fall. Stars form and expire. Our galaxy is whipping away from every other galaxy in space like spots on the surface of an expanding balloon. You and everyone you know and care about will grow sick, grow old, and die. There are only so many ways of looking on this unavoidable truth. Accept it, fight it, ignore it, or give in to despair. Only the first of these makes sense to me. The second is futile, the third temporary, and the fourth self-destructive. 

OK, everything is changing; nothing is permanent, not even the things I hold most dear—now what? 

Now you loosen your iron grip on things as they are now and on things as you want them to be. Because to find happiness in a world that inevitably takes from you all you treasure, you must be willing to love things for what they are, even as they become something else. You have to love the impermanence intrinsic in everything. You have to be OK with change, because change is constant. Permanence is just a figment of our clever monkey minds.

Another thing to keep near to your heart—bloody and fibrous and built for only a finite number of beats—is that suffering comes from within. The person who’s never happy is an expert at finding fault in the external world. He sees other people or the government or some illness or his bad luck as the source of his pain. The Buddha, so it’s said, noticed that the real source of our pain is internal. Attachment to our idea of how the world should be is the root of suffering, and relinquishing such attachments can offer freedom from suffering. 

Dr. Henry K. Beecher, in a study performed during WWII, likewise noticed the profound role of the mind in our experience of pain. He found soldiers wounded in battle were far less likely than civilians suffering from similar wounds to request analgesics. The answer was in the context. For the soldiers, injury meant an escape from the battlefield; for the civilians, it meant possible disruption of home and work life. “The intensity of suffering,” Beecher concluded, “is largely determined by what the pain means to the patient.” 

A third thing to keep tucked away inside that whooshing, palpitating, four-chambered orb of striated muscle in your chest is the fact that words and arguments will only get you so far. As hard as we may try to snare the deepest truths in our net of language, they always slip away. So too is this bit of writing just a finger pointing at the moon and not the moon itself. (What is “finger”? What is “moon?!”) Depending on how you look at it, this is cause either for disappointment or delight. Your choice.

Your Own Personal Mount Everest

Mount_Everest_as_seen_from_Drukair2_PLW_edit

I have a question for you. Are you ready? OK, here it is: What is your Own Personal Mount Everest? I have another question: What did you answer? Never mind; it doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, these socks will help you to climb it. Yes, you can conquer your equivalent of the world’s highest, most important, most valuable mountain in some other socks… but why would you? Our socks are authentic and wick away sweat while keeping you warm, but won’t cause blisters, wear out, or discolor the skin of your feet. They will not cause dysentery, like other sock brands, or lead you to question your self-worth.

The truth is, there are No Bad Days in the Mountains™. In the mountains you can find your inner self, hiding huddled in a snow cave, cold and alone, and swaddle him or her in this jacket made of our new ultralight fabric woven from the soft hairs surrounding the blowhole of albino narwhals. This supple yet durable textile is 331% more adventure resistant than any natural fiber known to science. Once you’ve swaddled your inner self, he or she will arise as if woken from a long slumber and stride out onto the frozen slopes, shimmering with moonlit hoar-frost, to ascend to the summit of ultimate understanding. (MSRP $499.95.)

How many times have you found yourself at your desk eating lunch over your keyboard and silently weeping? This is because life as you’ve lived it up until now has been a hollow farce. Quit your job! Set off into the unknown! Follow your heart; like a dowsing rod calibrated for pure adventure, it will lead you to a place where all of your questions will be answered and the mundane crust of life will fall like scales from your eyes. To make this transformative journey, you’ll want MaxoRay® brand sunglasses, which not only block 99% of harmful UV radiation, but also allow you to view formerly invisible wavelengths, penetrating the superficial layers of reality and revealing the gem-like core of existence. They also come with a microfiber pouch that doubles as a cleaning cloth.

Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” but if you’re going that far, you’re going to need the best footwear. Luckily, these shoes were designed by NASA scientists working with our elite athlete team specifically to carry you on a vision quest to meet the you you always fantasized you could be. While wearing these shoes, you will be rendered physically incapable of binge watching Netflix original programming. They will compel you to move! They have soles rated to carry you at least as far as happiness but possibly all the way to Nirvana.

But these pants aren’t just technological wonders fit for the most extreme conditions you might encounter in Nepal, on the PCT, or deep in the cactus-needled expanses of the Mojave—they’re also perfect for a night at the bar, tossing back craft beers with other lean, sun-kissed travelers with knowing eyes and possibly beards. With a patented, four-way stretch, non-toxic, fair trade fabric and riveted pockets that pay homage to our unique brand’s storied heritage, these are more than just pants, they’re an indispensable garment with a timeless look and money-back guarantee.

Learn more at our website or download our mobile app now.

Top 10 Posts of 2015

Photo collage of images from top posts of 2015

In his modern masterpiece, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, British humorist Douglas Adams writes: “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.” His words spring to mind whenever I find myself marking a birthday or anniversary or some other occasion built around the regular passage of time. Take for example this post, a recap of the most-read The Stone Mind pieces since the Earth last made its whirling, elliptical career around the sun.

Why do we choose a year as the appropriate amount of time for retrospection? Why not 10 days, or three months, or five years? And why put the “start” of this year in January and not in March (like the Mesopotamians once did) or September (like the ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians)? ‘Tis arbitrary, true, but in its arbitrariness lies another, related truth: this time is as good as any.

In keeping with the tastes of the internets, many of the posts enumerated below are listicles, how-tos, infographics, or scatologically themed; a few of them are of a more serious and personal nature; and one deals with the death of climber who made it his business to explore the outer edges of life. All of them are incomplete, biased, and come with a strict no-refunds policy. So without further ado:

1. “12 Tips for Making the Climbing Gym Uncomfortable”

2. “Climbing Didn’t Save Me”

3. “Where Do Climbers Poop?”

4. “9 Reasons Not to Wear Your Helmet”

5. “True Rock Climbing Facts”

6. “A Rare and Confounding Thing”

7. “How to Choose Rock Shoes”

8. “11 Predictions About the Future of Climbing”

9. “On the Evolution of Climbing”

10. “Adrenaline is A Fact”

As always, thanks for reading and enjoy. May your next 31,557,600 seconds, no matter how arbitrary, be peaceful, thought-provoking, and fulfilling.

–Justin

 

No Advantage Without Disadvantage

A woman rock climbing in Maple Canyon, Utah.
Skinny ropes or fat, light and fast or slow and heavy, tall or short… There is no advantage without disadvantage.

One wise colleague of mine when I worked at Petzl had an accent that was a mash-up of German (his first language), French, and English influences. He wielded all these tongues, and a few others, fluently. Thus, when rolling out his signature aphorisms, he could take on the air of a sort of Teutonic Yoda character, imparting know ledge in a unique polyglot grammar at once entertaining, endearing, and thought-provoking.

Like any master seeking to instruct, my colleague deployed maxims as needed—to lighten the mood, inject caution into a debate, or to put a fresh perspective on things. There were enough of these little nuggets that some enterprising soul produced an unofficial T-shirt with a list of them printed on the back, “Use with care, as hedgehogs make love” and “We risk to become professor ridiculous,” among them. But there was one simple phrase of his—not an original, granted, but a favorite—that always stuck in my mind: There is no advantage without disadvantage.

He might bring out this saying while we debated mountaineering’s thirst for ever-lighter equipment, or solutions to a tricky rigging problem. Even though it wouldn’t point directly toward a resolution, it reminded that with every “new” answer to an old problem, there’d be trade-offs.

For example, faster and lighter is the alpine trend these days. Less gear and less weight mean quicker ascents that take advantage of fleeting favorable conditions. It’s great style and inspiring, but also leaves climbers exposed. Fast and light often means going without extra food, fuel, or layers, meaning that any unforeseen circumstances that stop forward progress can turn fatal. There is no advantage without disadvantage.

Lighter gear is nice, but when we remove material from a piece of personal protective equipment, we must compromise in some other way. Think of skinny ropes. That 9.1 is great when your clipping the final piece of pro at the end of a 150-foot pitch, but when you see your rope raking over the edge of a rough flake, you’ll be wishing for your trusty old 10.2 again. No advantage without disadvantage.

It’s common for shorter climbers to cry foul when a tall climber skips a move (or a whole sequence) on a climb. But being tall isn’t all upside for climbers: physics tells us that longer levers make climbing-adjacent movements like pull-ups more difficult, and plenty of high-steps and heel hooks that work great for a small or medium-sized frames aren’t options for bigger ones. In fact, many top-flight competition climbers are shorter than the average. There is no advantage sans disadvantage.

Or consider: a lot of climbers want freedom to roam, so they get a beat-up old van and live a threadbare lifestyle on the road until injured, broke, or bored. It can be great for your climbing, but hard on the bank account and future career plans. Such a dirtbagging lifestyle also often means forgoing such practicalities as health insurance, which is fine until the day it’s not. A steady job is the obvious solution, but of course the trade-off is time, flexibility, and freedom. Take your pick, but there’s no advantage without disadvantage.

The Petzl Grigri is another good example. In exchange for the convenience of a belay device that locks down on the rope and helps to catch a fall, one must accept greater weight, diminished versatility, and increased complexity. For some uses, the Grigri’s advantages outweigh the disadvantages; for others they don’t—it all depends on your specific needs and what you value most. There is no advantage without disadvantage.

Most of us are engaged in a constant search for advantage in one way or another—shortcuts to bigger, better, faster, more. But I think the world is more intricate and interconnected than we tend to notice. For this reason, the phrase “no advantage without disadvantage” is worth meditating on.

Wave Pools & Climbing Walls

Source: Vimeo - Kelly Slater Wave Company
This wave could be in Kansas. Source: Vimeo – Kelly Slater Wave Company

My social feed’s been gushing with articles about a new artificial wave pool from the Kelly Slater Wave Company. The company’s promo video shows some sort of underwater wave-making apparatus spinning up a ripping righthand barrel in cola-colored water at an undisclosed location (rumors put it in Lemoore, California). The 11-time World Surf League champion Kelly Slater christens this wave with some snappy turns, then tucks into the tube and hangs out for a while before emerging, victorious as usual. Could this be the beginning of a new era in surfing? If so, climbing might have some lessons to offer, for the road ahead is long and fraught.

“This is the best manmade wave ever made, no doubt about it,” says Slater at the end of the video, which is appearing as free content on all the endemic surf sites and finding its way into the flow of general interest pubs like the The Washington Post, the The Huffington Post, and Men’s Journal. The headlines, in typical hyperbolic fashion, declare this latest iteration of wave pool technology a “breakthrough” that “could change surfing forever” or even “change the world.” Web commenters, meanwhile, have voiced more mixed (though generally positive) perspectives.

On Kelly Slater’s Facebook post, a commenter wrote: “One of the most important aspects of surfing for me is the connection with nature, the respect and admiration for its awesome beauty and power … Isn’t this eroding the soul of the sport we love so much?” This comment, which garnered nearly 500 responses in a few days, is a perfect parallel to the climbing purist’s lament. We can see the surf community working through the ramifications of an easily accessible, consistent, manmade surfing experience decoupled from the sea.

Aside from killing climbing’s soul, rock gyms also offer many benefits, such the ability to train and enjoy climbing regardless of weather, season, or proximity to rock. The overall level of pure climbing ability has rapidly risen thanks to gyms and their near-ubiquity. If wave pools like Kelly Slater’s really do catch on, they will likewise allow for a much more concentrated experience. Instead of bobbing in the water for hours, waiting for your moment in the lineup, you’ll have access to a predictable, on-demand wave, accelerating technical riding skills. On the other hand, these wave-pool earned skills could make for a lopsided surfer, one who hasn’t had to deal with the vicissitudes of the ocean.

Climbers at the Psicocomp deep water soloing competition in Park City, Utah.
Climbers at the Psicocomp deep water soloing competition in Park City, Utah.

“If this catches on, and these things are built all over the inland empires of the world, they will be training hundreds of thousands of kids to surf,” wrote a commenter on surfermag.com. This potentially portentous statement describes precisely climbing’s glide path in the gym era. Most in the climbing community feel gyms are directly responsible for increased crowding—and also accidents—at the crag, which is why new climbers are currently the target of multiple “gym-to-crag” educational campaigns. The climbing community has taken the tack of education and mentorship to address the growth of test tube climbers (those born in artificial environments)—perhaps surfing will have to follow suit.

Also like climbing gyms, high-quality wave pools could help surfing find its way into the Olympics. In September of this year, the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee proposed both surfing and sport climbing be included in the Olympic Games. An artificial, standardized playing field allows both sports, despite being rooted in wild and unpredictable settings, to fit more easily into the competitive structure of the Olympics. Like climbers, many in surfing see the Olympics as anathema to the lifestyle they know and love. Regardless, the draw of Olympic gold is strong, and both climbing and surfing seem to be moving in that direction, for better or for worse.

At the end of the day, its impossible to conclude that climbing gyms have been either good or bad for climbing. Climbing is not a single activity, nor do climbers all share the same interests and goals. Some will forever feel that plastic climbing robs the activity of its soul, while creating overcrowded and dangerous crags. Others see climbing gyms as the very future of the sport, to be celebrated and cultivated. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, understanding that gyms have advantages as well as disadvantages.

If the Kelly Slater Wave Company really is poised to bring a string of world-class, artificial waves to the world, the surfing public will have to cover much of the same terrain climbing has been covering for the past 25 years. Should be an interesting ride.

Walking New York City

A man walking under a scaffolding in Midtown, New York City.

The first thing I do whenever I go back to New York City is take a walk.

It’s one of the city’s greatest features, the walkability of the place. From end to end, it’s only 13.4 miles and less than three miles across at it’s broadest. This means you can go from one densely exuberant neighborhood to the next on foot in just minutes, particularly downtown. On foot, you can sample the myriad atmospheres and textures of the variegated urban environment at human speed, stopping to take in the wabi-sabi of a rusted old grating, or lingering to sniff the sweet air outside a bakery window.

Not only is it easily perused on foot, but NYC is also inhospitable to the most common American mode of transit, the personal automobile: traffic is terrible, parking worse, and insurance fees astronomical. Unless you need a vehicle to transport large objects or to make very specific sorts of commute, the city renders cars inefficient. Unlike most American cities, it’s often faster to take the train or ride a bike than drive a car. I took an Uber ride (I Ubered?) from the airport to midtown and ended up walking the last 10 blocks, so thick was cross-town traffic. The driver seemed surprised, but I quickly left him behind in the gridlock, enjoying the breeze and the exercise.

Once, in college, a friend visited me, trying to decide if he wanted to attend New York University. We went out for an evening perambulation and ended up going down to Houston and back up past 110th street before returning to my dorm on 3rd ave and 11th street. It took hours but it was an odyssey in miniature, yielding adventures sublime and bizarre, and leaving us somehow subtly transformed upon our return.

If you want to understand where we came from as a species, take a trek in the wilderness; if you want to understand what we are now, there are few places better than New York City. And, as mentioned, the best way to take it all in is with a stroll. (Or a run could work, too, especially if you have a very full itinerary, like my friends Brendan and Forest did on their 4,000-calorie New York 4K.)

This weekend I returned to the city, once my home of eight years, for a family gathering. I dropped my bag at the hotel and quickly headed back out for a walk. I wanted to see what had changed (and what had not) in this place that, despite a decade and thousands of miles of remove, has remained deeply woven into my personal narrative.

It was unusually warm, even after sundown. Strolling along with my jacket open, weaving through people of all shapes and sizes speaking a half dozen languages, I entered a sort of reverie of nostalgia. I smiled and nodded as I passed a grizzled old man leaning on a wall wearing a security guard’s jacket (that he was actually a security guard is not certain). He stared back at me, unamused. Just as he passed out of my field of view, I heard him say something barely audible over the rush and bustle of the busy street. What was it? Ah, yes, “What the fuck are you smiling at?” Perfect. Just like I remembered.

In the morning I walked from Madison and 30th down to the Lower East Side, to Russ & Daughters, a 100-year-old “appetizing” store specializing in smoked fish and now immensely popular for their bagel sandwiches. The guy behind the coffee counter—gaunt cheeked, thin white hair, creaky voice—looked like he might belong working at a mortuary; instead he was slinging rugelach, halva, and barbs of classic New York wit. The long, narrow room felt like a car on the L train at rush hour, if the car had fish coolers along one wall. The woman in front of me ordered a coffee, entering into the following conversation:

Counter attendant: You want cream and sugar with that?
Lady: Cream. Not too much.
Counter attendant: No one wants too much cream.
Lady [to me]: What’d he say?
Me: He said, ‘No one wants too much cream.’
Lady [to attendant]: Isn’t that the point of half and half, you don’t need too much?
Counter attendant: For me the point is, someone asks for cream, I give them cream. Otherwise, I think it’s pointless.
Lady: Good point.

Then, while eating my bagel and lox on the bench out front of Russ & Daughters, an old man with a thick white beard rolled up with a two-wheeled wire cart of groceries and looked in at the crowd.

Old man: Ah, shit.
Me: Busy, eh?
Old man: It didn’t use to be, until it got on the tourist circuit. [He looks me over.] You’re a tourist, aren’t you?
Me: I guess I am now.

The walk continues…

 

This was written at a spot in the East Village called Coffee Project. It’s a friendly place to stop if you’re on a walk and in need of a “deconstructed latte” and a quiet place to work on a blog post. 

Social Scroller

Woman looking at social media on her phone in bed at night.

I was supposed to be writing this blog post, but instead I was scrolling through my Facebook feed. I started seeing familiar photo galleries and link previews float past, which meant I was at the end of the new newness, which meant the odds of stumbling across something really exciting had just gone off a cliff, so I clicked over to Twitter and started scrolling there.

Same deal. Then over to Instagram. Then, before checking out of the scroll game to get to actual work, I did a quick pass through Google News, just to make sure there weren’t any active shooter situations happening in my neighborhood and that I hadn’t missed Donald Trump’s latest inflammatory satiro-facist policy proposal soundbite.

Sometimes while I’m scrolling, I’ll ask myself in disgust”What the hell am I doing?” as if I’m watching someone else’s thumb pawing at the iPhone’s smudgy screen. I feel powerless to turn away from the procession of partisan rants, clever baby announcements, links to Semi-Rad posts, cat vids and fail vids (or the ultimate: cat fail vids), selfies, and climbing butt shots.

I finally mustered the courage to put the phone down and turned my focus to this post. I had something else half written already, but decided it was boring and starting writing about my social scrolling addiction instead, mainly because I’m guessing I’m not alone.

Do you find yourself spending inordinate amounts of toilet time because you just can’t stop the scrolling? Or showing up late for a dinner because you got caught in an endless social media loop? Or perhaps you bathed your pupils in that Retina Display glow late into the night, even though you had to be up early the next day? Happens.

Turns out social scrolling isn’t (only) a symptom of a weak will, but a natural urge built into us by millennia of evolutionary programming. According to studies performed on monkeys, information seeking as survival tactic is encouraged by the neurotransmitter dopamine in specific areas of our brains. It makes sense. “Having access to more relevant information – such as knowing where the food is located – allows animals to make better decisions,” writes Chadrick Lane in a 2009 Scientific American article. “Furthermore, having access to such information might give us better control over our environment, thus increasing our chances of survival.”

Other research has suggested that anticipation of a reward is even more stimulating to the brain than the reward itself. Further, according to a New York Times article (which was citing this neuroscience study), unpredictable rewards elicit more potent responses in our brain chemistry because, “Unlike predictable stimuli, unanticipated stimuli can tell us things about the world that we don’t yet know. And because they serve as a signal that a big reward might be close by, it is advantageous that novel stimuli command our attention.”

It’s no coincidence that the most popular social media platforms are those that supply an unending and unpredictable stream of content, plus enticing bleeps and bings and badges to alert us of some exciting new comment or like or piece of information that might, for all we know, be changing our lives right now and we didn’t even know it!!

Come to think of it, this endless seeking behavior that’s proved so valuable in the human organism’s quest for survival probably also plays a role in our constant striving, our dissatisfaction with things as they (often predictably) are. Social media today is shaped by and for the mechanism of human motivation, to push all the right buttons that keep us clicking “like.” Social media has evolved into a mirror of the conscious mind. Both build an elaborate world of desire and fear that seems so real, yet ultimately proves illusory.

As Bernard Jaffe says in I Heart Huckabees, “everything you could ever want or be you already have and are.” If you truly understand and believe this, neither social scrolling nor mental striving will have anything left to offer. But that’s a lofty goal. In the meantime, I’ll think check my Twitter feed; maybe there’s a link to an article that will help make sense of things…

Ode to the Old-Ass Gym

Climbers stretching and talking on the floor next to a climbing wall in an old climbing gym in Ohio.
A scrappy Midwest climbing crew in an old-ass gym.

Back in my Urban Climber days, I wrote a feature called “The Rise of the Super Gyms.” It was about new climbing gyms that were sprouting up around the country and taking the indoor scene to a “higher level” (get it?!). The trend, in its early phases then, is now well underway and huge, custom-built, professionally operated climbing and fitness facilities are becoming the norm rather than the exception. Today, 20,000, 30,000, even 40,000-square-foot facilities are appearing across the country, sometimes in areas far from rock and far from the pre-existing climbing communities that once served as a gym’s customer base.

When I lived in Boulder and Salt Lake City, I was lucky enough to frequent such “super gyms,” with their fancy workout decks (this treadmill has a fan?), yoga rooms, and highfalutin air-conditioners that worked, even on hot days. They were plush and almost always busy. Their holds were new and clean (can you say jug rash). Their tall, steep walls created inhumanly strong youngsters and demoralized n00bs and out-of-shape old timers. Such gyms are clearly the future, but at the same time, they’re missing something that the old-ass gyms we used to climb at had in spades. I guess you’d call it guts.

“It’s got everything you need: free weights, punching bags, a steam room, fat guy with a mop,” thus spake Staten Islander Danny Castellano, describing his boxing gym on an episode of The Mindy Project I watched last week. It reminded me of the way I grew up thinking of working out. Basically, the more rustic the set-up, the tougher you could get. Think: Rocky doing heavy bag work on a side of beef in a meat locker, Alexander Karelin running through waist deep snow in Siberia, Marky Mark bench pressing cinderblocks in an abandoned factory. Thus, a frilly, high-tech climbing gym was at best frivolous, at worst a place where a Russian super villain might climb / get injections of an experimental gene drug for cheaters that rendered him unstoppable on crimper dynos.

There’s just something about the old-ass gym that invites you to get strong. It challenges you, makes you uncomfortable, forces you to adapt. The holds are often sharp or tweaky, the setting uneven and full of random, shoulder-wrenching moves, even on easier climbs. The lighting is poor—brightly spotlit in some areas and shadowy in others, making it hard to discern the color of the chalk-faded tape (whatever tape, that is, hasn’t already peeled off and attached itself to your shoe).

And the feet—oh the feet! They are slick as hoarfrosted cobblestones on a riverbank, their once-candylike colors layered over with a mirrored black shellack of sticky rubber. These are part of the training though. Master the use of footholds like these, the likes of which exist only on the most trafficked outdoor routes, and you’ll become a subtle god of friction.

The old-ass gym also has a soundtrack. Maybe you remember it? Usually a mixture of grunge (Nirvana, Soundgarden, STP) and classic rock (Led Zeppelin, The Stones, Hendrix), with a handful of rap hits (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Outkast). In the original old-ass gyms, they just turned on the local FM rock station and let it ride, or had a 6-CD changer set to random. (Later, people plugged in their clickwheel iPods.)

There are weights in the back—an eclectic mix of dumbbells and barbells and floating plates picked up at yard sales. Next to them, some sort of cardio machine, but it doesn’t have a fan or a TV screen. Maybe it has a heart rate monitor that doesn’t work and a squeaky belt deep inside that sounds like a frantic gerbil trying to escape. Any workout implements not used frequently are coated in a quarter-inch of dust. There is a poster on the wall taken from an old issue of Climbing, back when it was 180 pages per issue and had Rolex ads in it. There is a sign that says “Must be 18 or older to enter the workout room.”

Nothing is handed to you on a silver platter at the old-ass gym. This is where people like Todd Skinner and Jim Karn and Tony Yaniro trained. And if you’re too young to know these names, trust me when I say they were more hardcore than you. The regulars at the old-ass gym are there because they love climbing deep down, even when no one else in the world is watching or cares. They say adversity builds bonds between people, and the old-ass gym supports this theory; scrappy climbing crews formed in old-ass gyms seem to have a stickiness that is lacking in fancier establishments.

I recently moved to a small, coastal California town where you’re about 20 times more likely to meet a surfer than a climber. There’s one gym in the area and it feels like an old-ass gym. When I first checked it out, I was a little panicked. I had grown accustomed to the niceties of places like Momentum, in Salt Lake City, or Movement, in Boulder. I wanted setting that was comfortable to the joints and grades that were easy on the ego. I expected a hot face towel to start things off, and lavender scented lotion in the locker room. In short, I’d grown soft.

Luckily, this old-ass gym has everything I need: a few thousand square feet of climbing terrain, some hang boards, an old treadmill and Exercycle, some open floor space to do push-ups and sit-ups and squats, and a loading-bay door in back that opens to let the air in. When the breeze blows and you close your eyes, it’s almost like you’re outside…

The Mountain With No Top

IMG_0445-ANIMATION

After several months without a single day of hard climbing, some friends took me out to a California crag called Owl Tor, named after the UK’s Raven Tor (home to Ben Moon’s great boulder problem on a rope, Hubble). Like its namesake, Owl Tor is steep and bouldery. There’s one gronky 5.11 on the left of the cliff band, a 5.11d in the middle, and it gets rapidly harder from there.

So, feeling out of shape and mentally unprepared, I tied in and spent the whole day working the 11d. I gave the beta-intensive 60-foot celebration of drilled pockets and glue four or five tries before admitting to myself and my companions that it just wasn’t going to happen. I had a good time, but felt demoralized; I used to run warm-up laps on routes of this grade, now I was projecting one.

But every time I start to get down on myself about such things—about my performance or lack thereof—I get a funny feeling. I’ve long harbored doubts about the validity of the underlying motivation that drives me and, from what I can tell, most members of the “type A” clan. I see a certain needfulness in it: to prove oneself, to put oneself above others, to feel the affirmation of success and excellence. When I look closely, it’s hard to see it as much more than an addiction. It’s an addiction that’s certainly reinforced by popular culture, that holds up select people as heroes for their athletic prowess or intellect or other skills and talents. The successful are addicted to their accolades while the masses dream of being successful one day, as if it might give their lives some rarefied meaning.

“Like drinking salt water to relieve our thirst, trying to satisfy momentary desires just leads to more desires.” It’s a quote I’ve seen around the web, usually attributed to Buddha. Though I can’t verify the source, the concept stands on its own. Many of us will dedicate our whole lives to satisfying momentary desires. The cynical might suggest that’s all there is, the accumulation of accomplishments like the constellation of brass plaques on The Big Lebowski’s wall. But it’s hard not to feel like we’re chasing our tails when we fall into that belief system.

Sure, I want to climb 5.13 again. But after that, I’ll also want to climb the next grade, and the next. There’s no ultimate satisfaction, only the passing affirmation that, yes, I can do that. I can run 10 miles or 13.1 or 26.2 or 100. I can climb route X or make salary Y. I did it. I can do it. I’m special goddamnit! Now onto the next thing.

And maybe that’s it. Maybe there’s nothing else but the eternal hamster wheel of accomplishment. But somehow it doesn’t feel right. After all, at some point we’ll all hit our peaks. Some day we won’t be on the upswing, no matter which key performance indicators we use to measure ourselves. And when that happens, no matter how high our point on the metaphorical mountain, we won’t have reached the top and we won’t have made a dent in the universe.

What then?

It seems like a silly question, but I think it’s one worth asking. And sooner rather than later.

While climbing at Owl Tor I felt that, with some effort, I’d likely regain my prior prowess. But I also saw someday that wouldn’t be the case. I looked out ahead and saw a life that, at its longest, would never be nearly long enough to satisfy my human obsession for more. I decided the only sane thing to do is work to drop the baggage that was weighing me down. I climbed with the pleasure of someone who might never climb any better than on that day… and it was enough.

One day. One climb. One blog post. One run. One moment. The past is a dream and the future isn’t guaranteed. There’s not much room in the middle to be overly concerned with bullshit.

Or at least, that’s how it seems to me these days.

Mottainai

yoga-mat

I have a simple morning yoga routine I use to help get my blood moving. Every day, I unroll my cheap yoga mat (a Target special) and perform the sequence of 12 poses, my focus tuned to the rhythm of my breath. Lately when I roll the mat back up, I’ve noticed the damn thing is falling apart.

There’s not much to the mat. It’s made from some sort of spongy pinkish purple foam. The foam is textured into rows of tiny spheres about the size of peppercorns. My guess is that the spheres are supposed to approximate a woven texture and perhaps provide extra grip. Each time I use the mat, it breaks down a little more, spreading nodules of foam rubber across the living room, where they seem to disappear (I hypothesize my dog has been eating them).

My yoga mat’s decomposition causes a little twinge of discomfort, as I know I may have to retire the thing prematurely. The thought of putting the big roll of foam rubber in the trash and buying a new one makes me feel mottainai, which is an excellent Japanese phrase “conveying a sense of regret concerning waste.”

I’ve been stricken by the mottainai feeling a lot lately. I’m not sure why, but sometime in the last year I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with throwing away useful things or things not fully used up. For us Americans it’s a cultural norm to buy things we don’t need and “chuck” anything we don’t want. Many of us treat our discarded stuff as if it vanishes once it enters the trash can. Such blindness to the basic consequences of our actions is on sad display at fast food restaurants, where workers constantly empty massive bins of wrappers and napkins and cups throughout the day. That’s mottainai.

As climbers, a more conscious way of consuming is often forced upon us: by the limitations of what we can fit in our packs or our vans, or by what we can afford to buy when living on the road without steady jobs. Like monks of old, we’ve learned to make do with a single bowl (plus a cup, a pocket knife, a spork, and maybe a pot or a pan…). We eat every last nugget of granola or slice of bread. When the cheese gets moldy, we carve off the mold and eat on. The dirtbag’s aversion to waste and excess is born of necessity but holds a wider significance.

With that in mind, I’m going to keep using that old yoga mat until it fails to serve its role, after which I’ll consider getting a new, more durable one… or whether I even need a mat at all. I’ll resist the urge to upgrade the mat now, as the feeling of mottainai is far more troublesome than the aesthetic displeasure of a cheap and battered yoga mat.

I think everyone should be attuned to this sense of mottainai. While uncomfortable at first, it can lead to its own opposite: the feeling of satisfaction that comes from using something fully up and wasting as little as possible. I don’t know if there’s a word for this sense, but it’s one of life’s great satisfactions and worthy of diligent practice.

 

Climbing Gyms: The Saga Continues

A woman climbing on a steep wall in a gym in Colorado.
Robin M. climbing at one of the first American Mega Gyms, Movement Climbing + Fitness, in Boulder, Colorado.

When I started climbing a quarter century ago, there was really only one kind of indoor climbing experience. It involved simple plywood walls, mostly vertical, that were rarely more than 30 feet tall. These would be sparsely populated with a mix of homemade and “professionally made” handholds.

These first-generation gyms could be found in non-descript business centers, shoehorned into whatever space could be had on the cheap. As such, they were often dark, dusty, and/or drafty, full of exposed cinderblock, rubber chip, and stained old carpet.

Most gym owners in this era were themselves ex-dirtbag climbers who wanted a cool place to train in the off season and couldn’t stomach the idea of working for the man. Few of them could have foreseen the brave new world of plastic pulling that lay just ahead.

Sometime around the turn of the millennium, the boom of climbers who had taken to the walls thanks to those early gyms drove new economic opportunities, leading to more gyms, substantially bigger and nicer than before. Health clubs added walls to their banks of fitness machinery and universities constructed them in their rec centers.

Today the artificial climbing wall landscape is more varied and more professional than ever. It’s growing steadily, too, as evinced by the existence of outlets like the Climbing Business Journal (“news and advice for the indoor climbing industry”) and the non-profit Climbing Wall Association.

If you’re a climber in America looking to get inside, you’ll encounter a landscape packed with many great (and some not so great) places to climb. Among them, I’ve noticed the following major classes. Feel free to add others I’ve missed in the comments.

A climber on a wall at an old school gym
Climbing at an OG Gym.
  • OG Gyms – Basic, aesthetically uninteresting, and often found in windowless and poorly ventilated warehouses, these gyms were the trailblazers of their day. Now OG Gyms are phasing out—either closing down or modernizing in the face of increased competition and a more demanding clientele. Still, many persist. A good crew and a sense of humor are key to surviving if you’re stuck with an OG Gym.
  • Woodies – Home walls designed for the ultimate in easy-access training. Most people build woodies—so called due to their all-wood construction—in their garages, basements, or backyards. Unfortunately, the only way to access a woody is to have one at your place… or be buds with someone who does.
  • Co-ops – Co-ops are collectively supported gyms that operate for the good of the membership (read: sans profit). Typically a group of climbers will go in on a rental space and supplies to build a wall, and then others who want to join kick in a membership that grants them access and covers rent, setting, and maintenance costs. An advanced example of a co-op is Slo Op Climbing, in San Louis Obispo, California.
  • Bouldering Gyms – It wasn’t long ago that bouldering was considered practice for longer climbs, but these days it’s booming as a pursuit of its own, and the gyms are following suit.
  • Health Club Hangs – Health clubs can be pretty boring. In order to keep people excited about consistently going inside a space that feels like an office stocked with futuristic torture devices, management needs to constantly up the ante. New classes, new machines, and, when the budget’s there, a craggily new climbing wall. Quality in these places varies immensely based on the club’s level of dedication to climbing. One spot I used to frequent, the Manhattan Plaza Health Club, had a pretty solid climbing scene going.
  • Educlimbables – I was an early employee at my university’s wall in NYC. Built in the diminutive space of a converted racquetball court, it offered minimal diversity, but it was an early example of what would become a hot trend. Today, colleges and universities, high schools, and even elementary schools have taken up the climbing craze. As a part of their effort to get climbing into the Olympics, USA Climbing established the Collegiate Climbing Series. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie even took it on himself to criticize the so-called rock wall “epidemic” sweeping higher ed and wasting unsuspecting parents’ dollars.
  • Mega Gyms – In addition to huge amounts of climbing surface and professional-grade setters, mega gyms offer extensive fitness and wellness facilities. Pilates, yoga, full weights and cardio equipment, even day care—the mega gym is designed to operate as much like a high-end health club as a training center, albeit with the focus still squarely set on vertical activities. Mega Gyms are well lit, clean, and modern where it counts. Some have full service pro shops and a few even have cafés with wifi. The Climbing Business Journal put together a list of the biggest gyms in the country as of 2013. Most of these would fall into the Mega Gym category.
  • Urban Crags – This category has one standout player in it, but I think it’s significant enough to warrant mention. Brooklyn Boulders has four locations in major urban zones around the country and appears to be adding more. The Sommersville, Massachusetts, location was described in a Bloomberg news piece as “a rock-climbing gym designed to double as a co-working haven for entrepreneurs.” These gyms are catering to a different crowd than your typical spot in the midwest or mountain west. More diverse, more affluent, and more career oriented, BKB and other urban gyms are specifically targeting groups not traditionally associated with climbing, and they’re doing really well in the process. What will the climbing demographic look like in 20 years? Brooklyn Boulders may offer a preview…

 

Adrenaline Is a Fact

Chris Sharma falling at Psicocomp.

It’s always bothered me when folks characterize climbing as a thrill sport, painting climbers as adrenaline junkies seeking their next fix on the sharp end. I haven’t bothered to deal directly with this topic for a variety of reasons, but a recent public radio interview stoked the longsmoldering ember.

The show was To the Best of Our Knowledge, and producer Anne Strainchamps asked celebrated war photographer James Nachtwey about the stereotype of the thrill-seeking war journalist. “Adrenaline is a fact but it’s not a reason,” Nachtway responded, adding, “adrenaline is part of the job because it’s actually necessary to survive. But there are deeper reasons for pursuing the profession than adrenaline.” Great answer, James.

Likewise there are deeper reasons for climbing than the thrill. For example, I’ve seen climbing help rebuild confidence and connections for those traumatized in battle. I’ve built lifelong friendships on the shared foundation of climbing. Climbing can be a profound tool for reconnecting the modern, hyper-distracted consciousness with the all too often sedentary modern body. And climbing has long served as gateway to a personal connection with the natural world—a connection that, in turn, has spurred many to help protect our precious and ever-threatened wild places.

Yes, the tang of fear can add a heady complexity to climbing’s flavor profile, but the thrill-seeking component of climbing is, for the majority of us, seasoning and not the meat of the matter.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that climbing is about control. A little adrenaline can focus the mind, but when adrenaline surges, tunnel vision sets in and you’re more likely to overgrip, to make wild movements… to make a mistake.

Alex Honnold, whose forte is the long, difficult—and to most climbers, horrifying—ropeless climbs, isn’t down with adrenaline. “If I get a rush, it means that something has gone horribly wrong,” he said in a 60 Minutes interview. The rush that kicks in when we push too far into the danger zone is the climber’s enemy.

I’ve been climbing for a good quarter century and I’ve faced my share of hairy moments: run out over questionable cam placements, topping out highball boulders, sacrificing clips in favor of a redpoint go. But it was never the rush that drew me—it was the question posed by the challenge, of which fear and the attendant exhilaration were only components.

And in the end, learning to face and control fear can be an important journey. After all, to deal with this life, full of suffering and guaranteed to end in death, we must find a way to face the gravest possibilities with a modicum of composure, to not let ultimate consequences distract us from the task at hand.

As a climber, the adrenaline may in fact be there, and it may even heighten the experience so that it sticks in my memory like an iridescent shard, but the adrenaline is not the reason I climb. The reason, or reasons, are far bigger than that. Big enough to last for decades and serve as the cornerstone of a life. For some reason I feel that’s an important distinction to make.

Let My People Go Flailing

Wipeout - Lennox Head Surfers - 7 Mile Beach. Photo: Neerav Bhatt via Creative Commons
Wipeout – Lennox Head Surfers – 7 Mile Beach. Photo: Neerav Bhatt via Creative Commons

“So do I wear clothes under this thing or…?”

“Nah, you can just go buck. That’s what most people do,” said Jimmy, handing me a beach towel-poncho hybrid I was to don for coverage while changing into a borrowed wetsuit in the busy parking lot at Ventura’s hyper-popular C Street surf break.

I took off my glasses and immediately realized I’d be flying, or rather floating, blind during this exercise, my first foray into art of riding ocean waves. (“It’s the hardest thing ever,” my climbing buddy Alex had explained, perhaps in an effort to save me from underestimating the nature of the challenge.)

A short wrestling match later and I was in the wetsuit, feeling both comforted and constricted by its strange, rubbery embrace. I hoisted the huge, glaring white foam beginners board up under my arm, barely spanning its breadth. Down to the water we went, picking our way over waterround rocks and into the shallows, where I could not keep my footing on the slick bed of uneven cobbles obscured by recurring washes of whitewater.

It all started that morning in the office when, in true Patagonia Let My People Go Surfing fashion, my boss declared it was time to hit the waves. I closed my laptop and packed my bag, feeling excited, a little nervous, but hopeful. I ended up feeling like even more of a beginner than I imagined. A super beginner. A true gumby (or “jerry,” if you will). Alex estimated he was a 5.8 surfer. I’m not sure I’d even be able to locate myself in the fifth-class scale.

Just paddling was substantially harder than I’d expected, and I kept getting turned around or tipped off into the water. My shoulder muscles were depleted within minutes. I had to rest constantly and feared getting so tired I wouldn’t be able to slog my ass back to shore. The guys I’d started with were already long gone, fuzzy dots in a distant crowd to my uncorrected vision.

I floated around on the periphery of the lineup, trying to stay out of the way, then made a half-hearted effort to catch a wave. Really I was just hoping to get a boost in my landward quest. My arms were too tired to produce the necessary burst of speed to match pace with a cresting wave, much less pop me up onto my feet. I used up the rest of my reserve tank just returning to shore, belly firmly on board.

The concept of “beginner’s mind” is popular in Zen philosophy. The famous quote from Shunryu Suzuki goes “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” After my first experience with surfing though, I feel the urge to call bullshit.

While it’s true that I brought an unstructured approach to the matter, paddling into the ocean was so hard for me that I was almost completely occupied with basic survival. My “beginner’s mind” was rather narrow, in fact, focused as it was on not panicking or drowning. I felt none of the pliant openness a newbie supposedly brings to a task. I felt stiff and uncomfortable—flowless, if you will.

There’s a particular discomfort that comes when first trying something for which you have no aptitude. As a climber of 25 years, I’m accustomed to a certain level of comfort with vertical challenges, even ones that require serious effort to tackle. This makes starting at square one in the ocean all the more humbling.

So what’s the point?

The point is, I think, to face up to a new activity without needing to be good at it—in the near term… or maybe ever.  And because it’s not “my thing,” I look forward to using surfing as a way to practice an openness and humility that can be hard to bring to crafts with which I’m more familiar, like climbing.

Now that I think of it, maybe that’s the beginner’s mind Suzuki was talking about.

Waking up In the Dark

A dark room in the night

I wake and it’s dark and I don’t know where I am. I look around for something familiar in the arrangement of half-light and shadow but there’s nothing to anchor me to solid reality. Is this Utah or England? California or Colorado? House or hotel or… . I’m floating in an obscure space. How I got here and why—such facts have yet to resolve themselves, and therefore who I am is still in the process of coming into focus, too. It’s a scary feeling at first, disorienting and tinged with panic.

As my reflex response starts to fade into semi-wakefulness, I take a moment to breathe and except the not-knowing. It’s a strange feeling at first, to be OK with the uncertainty of everything. My mind has already constructed multiple monstrous universes to fill this darkness. I let them all fade and focus on the other, more peaceful side of losing one’s self. Here, in an unexpected moment, I can enter a state of no-mind. I lie back down and go with it, focusing only on my breath and the sensations of being in bed, half covered by sheets, a cool breeze blowing over me. Soon I fade back into sleep.

I’ve been traveling a lot lately, and my wife and I are in the midst of the disruptive process of pulling up stakes and moving to another state. It’s thrown my system a little out of alignment and stirred up reality-scrambling moments like the one above. As I write this, I’m on the second floor of a motel, in a room overlooking a Burger King in the southern Utah desert. We’ve just finished cleaning out our old house and are on our way to a new, unfamiliar one. Literally and metaphorically, things feel very “in-between.”

The thing that can make moving and travel so stressful, I think, is the loss of the identity we form in a place over time. Our home and friends, our job and favorite places, the routine of it all—we build stories around these things, with ourselves at the center. When we leave the familiar behind, it can feel like we’re leaving ourselves behind, too. When we go towards the unfamiliar, the future is obscure, a dark wall on which we project the magic lantern of our mind.

But when we hold our sense of self lightly, and let go of the expectations we’ve been trained to apply to the future, things become less troubling. We can relax into the simplicity of the unending present and live life as it comes. We can look at the unfamiliar without fear and rest easier, if only for this night.

 

Where Surf Meets Stone

Surfers at a point break in Ventura, California.

The sun was setting on the Pacific Ocean as my wife and I took our first walk together along the beach in Ventura, California. We passed drifters talking in manic monologues, slowed to a crawl behind shuffles of retirees, and were passed by joggers hustling to make it home before the sun’s light fully faded. We strolled the paved promenade upcoast until we saw them: schools of waveriders undulating in the water at Surfer’s Point Park.

There we leaned on a fence railing and watched them for a while. Scattered unevenly outside the foamy chaos of the break, the surfers watched the horizon intently. Whenever a promising swell approached, a few would rotate and begin to paddle towards shore. One or two would find himself caught up in the lip of a cresting wave, at which point he’d kip up onto his feet and, depending on skill level and luck, catch a ride along shore. The repetitive dance of it was hypnotic.

In the parking lot behind us were old Winnebagos, Sprinter vans, station wagons, SUVs, and minivans, all converted in one way or another for surf life, with racks on top and livable (depending on your standards) quarters inside. There was even a bike leaned up against the rail that some dedicated soul had modified with an improvised surfboard carrier on the side, all plastic piping and foam and duct tape.

A couple of guys jogged up off the beach with boards under arm. At their vehicles, they began the process of peeling back wetsuits and rinsing off sea water. Chatting to each other about the conditions and the rides of the afternoon, they seemed so similar to the climbers I normally found myself with—the lifestyle of it, identities intermeshed with the activity itself, jobs and possessions carefully crafted to enable as much time in pursuit of the passion as possible…

Surfing and climbing have long invited comparison. Both are, despite wavelike peaks in mainstream popularity, largely countercultural, particularly when held up beside big-money sports like football, basketball, soccer, etc. Both are one-player games (the partnership aspect of roped climbing not withstanding). Both take place in natural settings and thereby encourage a certain environmentalist mindset. Both feature a heavy focus on flow states bordering on mysticism. Both inspire questing, dirtbag lifestyles, as acolytes seek out the next great spot—ideally one the crowds haven’t yet discovered.

Of course, there are many differences too, but the similarities are too numerous to dismiss. On the whole, those who live to surf and those who live to climb seem cut from a similar cloth.

I’ve been reading a book called Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan. The author is a lifelong surfer and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and his book is an extensive memoir structured around the surf spots that were both backdrop to and integral part of his personal development. Throughout the book, there are passages that could as well be describing the experiences of a climber as a surfer. A few examples:

  • “I did not consider even passingly, that I had a choice when it came to surfing. My enchantment would take me where it would.”
  • “Waves were the playing field. They were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration. At the same time they were your adversary, your nemesis, even your mortal enemy.”
  • “I did love the water, and even saw it, from an early age, as my own medium of escape from dull striving, from landlocked drudgery.”
  • “Chasing waves in a dedicated way was both profoundly egocentric and selfless, dynamic and ascetic, radical in its rejection of the values of duty and conventional achievement.”
  • “Being rich white Americans in dirt-poor places where many people, especially the young, yearned openly for the life, the comforts, the very opportunities that we, at least for the seemingly endless moment, had turned our backs on — well, it would simply never be O.K.” [This one is particularly interesting.]

I suppose my thesis is that climbing and surfing share a certain essential nucleus, even if their specific expressions are quite different. Living here in surf-centric Ventura, less than a half-day’s drive from Joshua Tree and Yosemite, I’m looking forward to testing this hypothesis on a more intimate level.

Would love to hear your thoughts on the matter, too.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

An illustration entitled "Blind monks examining an elephant", an ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724).

Have you ever heard the story of the blind men and the elephant? There are many variations, but it can be traced back to Asia, where it became a part of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist teachings, among others. In essence, it is as follows:

A king asks a group of blind men to come to his palace and identify the object before them (it’s an elephant). Each man feels a part of the great beast and then exclaims he knows what it is: one says it’s clearly a pillar, another other suggests a plow, yet another says he is holding a brush… . But the first was responding only to the shape of the elephant’s leg, the second its trunk, the third the tip of its tail, and so on.

Each of the metaphorical blind men claim to have a hold on the whole truth based on the limited slice of reality they have before them, but the king sees clearly this is not the case.

Setting aside the strange behavior of the king (was he just trying to give these blind guys a hard time? Having a courtly laugh at their expense?!), I think this little scenario contains some important ideas. Like the blind men, each of us brings his or her own prejudices and perspectives to bear. Each offers judgements based solely on a little piece of a bigger picture. But the problem is that we tend to give our own perspectives too much weight and expound on them as if they be true with a capital “T.”

In some versions of the story, the men fall on each other in violence, as if to demonstrate that all of humanity’s great differences spring from blindness, self-certainty, and the inability to see the much grander reality. We fight over doctrine and ideology, the story whispers from beneath its farcical exterior, but really we’re all talking about the same thing.

Even if the king were to explain the elephant to the blind men, they would be unable to see it as he saw it. Which maybe is the point after all: even the king had only a partial understanding of the elephant—he couldn’t see from the elephant’s perspective, he would never know how the elephant lived in the wild with the rest of its parade, nor could he understand the inner biological processes that made the elephant’s life possible.

None of us will ever see the whole elephant, as it were, so the best we can do is admit that there’s much more to the world than we can understand, and accept that from other angles things might appear quite different.

The Book of Changes

A flaming log in a campfire.

“Blaming life for changing is like blaming fire for being hot.” I wrote this in my freshman year of college, in an email to my good friend Mike. We were attending schools in different states and had sought out a correspondence to deal with the newness of it all. Both of us were facing what felt like overwhelming changes at the time. We were out from under the watch of our parental units and confronted with all manner of unfamiliar responsibilities and scenarios.

I don’t recall what my point was exactly with that platitude about fire; it was the kind of thing I’d spout in a moment of poetic reverie without fully understanding why. Now though, nearly two decades on, it makes a certain kind of sense to me. Heat can cause problems—it can burn—but it is essential to the thing we call fire, inseparable, and also what makes it useful. Likewise, the mercurial natural of this ride we call life… let’s just say it’s pointless to take offense at such things.

These remembrances of things past come easily to mind of late, I think, because change looms large on my horizon. In a week, my wife and I will leave behind our little blue bungalow in Salt Lake City and move to the California coast, just a few hours north of Los Angeles. I’ll be moving on from Petzl, where I’ve worked happily for almost six years, to Patagonia, a company whose story I’ve been following with interest for over a decade. My wife and our dog will stand as constants, along with some furnishings and sundry books and artifacts, but not much else. Just life doing that change thing again. The funny thing about change is, even when you recognize its inevitability, it’s bound to catch you off guard.

The first response most of us have to change is fear. Change is scary in the same way darkness is—we can’t see what lies ahead, and so we fill in the blanks with phantasms of our own making. But it’s important to remember that there’s no real alternative to change. The things we identify with and attach ourselves to are bound to shift, evolve, and eventually fade away, one way or another. (In Buddhism, this concept is known as anicca, or impermanence, and it’s one of the three marks of existence.) A static world in which we can hold on to anything, even ourselves, exists only as a philosophical concept. Change, ironically, is the one constant we can count on.

So, with that in mind, I’m working to let go of the dualities my brain is trying to bring to this latest set of changes—the pros and cons, the fears and desires. Instead I try to focus on each step in the process and let the change happen, as it will whether I welcome it or not. The past is a memory and the future is a dream—what happens in between is an infinitesimal point that flickers and dances like a flame. The truth of this condition can only be experienced, not intellectually understood nor directly expressed. Some things never change.