The Freedom of Constraints

Notebook with pocket watch, pen, and whiskey - freedom and constraints - The Stone Mind

I’ve been extra busy lately. On the road for work, helping bring a new employee up to speed, revamping processes in our department. I haven’t had much time outside of work for personal things like climbing and reading books and writing this blog. Such a time crunch is a constraint, a challenge, a frustration even. And at the same time, there can be a freedom in it.

Every week I write a post for The Stone Mind. Sometimes I write it in advance, sometimes the night before it’s published. Sometimes I have free time aplenty to write, and sometimes I have precious little. Often when time is lacking and energy reserves are running low, I feel a certain sense of dread at the task of creating a blog. I fear it won’t be good enough or well received. More dreadful still is the thought that I’ll have nothing to say at all.

And for all that, the truth is that every goal big and small is accompanied by constraints, by parameters such as time, budget, motivation, politics, physics, legality, and so forth. But the freeing thing about it all is when you stop seeing the constraints as your enemies, but as tools for focusing your energy.

For this blog post, time was the biggest constraint. I worked through the weekend at a climbing festival in Las Vegas and arrived home late Sunday to a lingering worry about my ability to put something together before Tuesday’s deadline.

Then I realized I could flip the challenge. Instead of the meandering creative process I usually use to generate blog posts, I decided to go a counterintuitive direction and limit myself even further: I’d give myself one hour or less to write this week’s post, and whatever I could accomplish in that time would be what you’d read come Tuesday morn.

No, this post isn’t full of links to quotes and other bits of researched materials. It’s born entirely from my own firsthand experience. Still, I think it carries as important a message as any post I’ve written.

It’s easy to get preoccupied with all the reasons the task before us is too hard, or to complain that the conditions under which we’re working are not ideal. But the truth that any creative person or entrepreneur will tell you is that there’s no such thing as perfect. We never have all the time or tools or skills we wish for. And while this can seem like a negative, in reality it’s precisely these challenges and limitations that give shape to our goals and keep us focused, keep us from floating off into the infinite vacuum of the possible.

There is no endeavor without challenge, and no satisfaction without difficulty. If things are easy, they’re bland. Viewed from one perspective, adversity is a source of stress, anger, and disappointment. But turned for a different viewing angle, it becomes the texture of our lives.

No one knows this better than climbers. Our goals are entirely arbitrary, and their shape determined entirely by their difficulty. The highest peaks and steepest rock walls are valuable only inasmuch as they give us a foil against which to strive and exercise our will.

I think John F. Kennedy put it well when he described the reasoning behind his goal to send humans to the moon. “They may well ask why climb the highest mountain?” He said. “Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? … We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…”

And so the constraints of my life as it is now have served to organize and measure my energies and skills for yet another week. When taken with this attitude, the constraints are less stressful and more simplifying. I have only a little time, and so I work with what I have.

What else is there?

Where Do Climbers Poop?

Toilet paper hanging from a climbing gear rack. Where do climbers poop?
Where do climbers use the bathroom, after all?

Click on over to Google and start typing “Where do climbers…”

You’ll find that, for some reason, a lot of people are concerned about our bathroom habits.

Where do climbers poop, Where do mountain climbers go to the bathroom, Where do rock climbers go to the bathroom, Where do Everest climbers use the bathroom… These are among the most popular queries.

Now do the same thing with golfers and the results are decidedly less fecal: Where do golfers live, Where do golfers stay during the Masters, Where do golfers hang out, and so on.

I guess it makes sense. When non-climbers imagine themselves high on the side of a wall or the frozen flank of a mountain, they picture a world devoid of modern conveniences. Among those, perhaps the hardest to imagine going without is the bathroom, with its sink and shower and toilet—the root of our civilized humanity, if you will.

And of course, there are the purely logistical questions: After one manages to drop a deuce while suspended a thousand feet in the air, what does one do with the result? Chuck it? Bag it? Burn it?

As any seasoned climber knows, the answer to “Where do climbers poop?” varies greatly, depending on the type of climbing, the specific area, and the particular climber’s education and respect for the rules. Here, a very high-level outline of the different scatalogical scenarios that we climbers encounter.

In a climbing gym

The bathroom. The answer to “Where does a climber in a climbing gym poop?” is the bathroom.

At the crag

Often, we climbers spend our time at crags where we’re only actually on the rock for short periods of time. Sport crags like the Red River Gorge, predominately trad spots like Eldorado Canyon, or bouldering destinations like Bishop are all examples. Here, pooping ideally happens before and after a day on the rocks, in a toilet at the campground or a gas station, restaurant, etc. At crags located inside parks or other managed lands, there are often toilets of one sort or another on site.

In the event that the call of nature comes when the climber is far from designated toilet facilities, it’s typical to make like a bear and shit in the woods. According to Leave No Trace, in most places, burying your poo is the best way to roll. But beware: there’s a right and wrong way to do this. Check out the Third Principle of Leave No Trace for details. (Pro tip: don’t burn your TP, especially in dry areas. Years ago, a friend of mine learned this lesson the hard way.)

On the big stone

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson recently made headlines for their ascent of Yosemite’s Dawn Wall, becoming the most ogled and interviewed big wall climbers ever. No doubt the viewing audience, most of whom had never partaken in any climbing activities, were spellbound by the duo’s feats of endurance and daring… and by their ability to live in a little tent on the side of a sheer rock wall for weeks on end without proper plumbing.

To get some insights into the potty practices of such big wall climbers, I contacted my old friend Justen Sjong, of Team of 2 Training. Justen spent several years free climbing El Cap in the early two-thousands. His impressive Valley tick list culminated in 2008 with Magic Mushroom (VI 5.14a).

Justen explained that the use of Cleanwaste Go Anywhere Toilet Kits (formerly known as WAG Bags), or other similar products, is the proper method for vertical turding. “Many local shops sell these bags. I suggest having one on any multi-pitch climb. I’ve shared them with my climbing partner to save on weight—the beta is to use it before your partner :)” According to Cleanwaste, the kit “traps, encapsulates, deodorizes and breaks down waste with a NASA-developed gelling agent.” After using, the bag can be discarded like any other piece of trash.

Justen also recommends planning for lots of human waste on multi-day trips into the vertical. Metolious has a mini haul bag kit specifically designed for doodoo. Homemade PVC waste tubes (aka, “poop tubes”) can also work… or a mini bucket “with a really good lid.” He also offers a few pro tips, such as adding kitty litter in the waste bags to help absorb “the massive stench that builds over days in the hot sun.”

Of course, sometimes climbers don’t plan ahead, forget important items, or even drop stuff while on the wall. In such cases, Justen cited several last-ditch “plan B” methods: In remote areas where there’s no chance of hitting people below, he uses the “Flat Rock Toss”: “When I feel nature calling, I keep an eye out for a flat rock to place a coiler onto. Then I lean out and toss away from any classic climbs and use a smaller rock or stick to wipe.” Others methods include lowering down to an off-route ledge, swinging to the side and letting loose, or going in a paper bag and tossing it (“Make sure you toss it with the wind and clear all parties,” he says.) Needless to say, it’s far better to come prepared…

In the mountains

Like big-wallers, climbers on mountain expeditions can face some challenges when it comes to going number two. For example, in Denali National Park, climbers heading up Mt. McKinley are issued Clean Mountain Cans designed to allow parties to pack out all their human waste.

On busy Everest, mountaineers venturing above basecamp are supposed to bag it up, but for various reasons often end up digging holes in the snow and dropping trou. Unfortunately, the cold and altitude mean that there aren’t sufficient bacteria to break down the climber droppings. The results have been pretty gnarly and the topic of some news coverage as of late.

I reached out to Emily Harrington, who climbed Everest in 2012, and her boyfriend Adrian Ballinger, of Alpenglow Expeditions, to get the scoop on the poop situation on the world’s highest mountain. “At basecamp, they go in a barrel and it gets carried down to the nearest town for waste disposal,” Emily explained. “But [some] teams don’t do that; they just go anywhere. Plus there’s still shit left from forever ago.”

Even when climbers at Everest basecamp use barrels, there can be issues with the sheer volume of excrement. According to a National Geographic article, porters remove upwards of 12 tons of human waste every year, bringing it to open pits at Gorak Shep. Not surprisingly, this waste is causing contamination problems with the village’s water supply.

To help combat this unwanted side-effect of expedition life, a climber and engineer from Seattle named Garry Porter launched the Mount Everest Biogas Project, whose mission is to “convert human waste from base camp into environmentally safe products for the people of Nepal, by designing a biogas system that can operate at high altitudes.”

Where (or how) should climbers poop

“A 2014 survey of 264 land managers showed that 41% of respondents rated improper disposal of human waste as a ‘moderate’ to ‘severe’ impact on the lands they manage,” pointed out Jason Alexander Grubb, Education Programs Manager at Leave No Trace. Clearly, doody is a problem that climbers need to think about.

When it comes to pinching a loaf in the wild, Grubb offers some handy big-picture guidelines: “Know the ecology of the area you intend to visit, understand local land manger regulations, always carry a pack-out system along with trowel and toilet paper, or just go at the restroom at the trailhead or parking lot.” If you’re having a hard time finding official recommendations for human waste disposal at your destination, Grubb outlined the following four objectives that should help guide your decision-making process. Proper human waste disposal should 1) eliminate contamination of water sources, 2) prevent spread of disease, 3) minimize aesthetic impact, and 4) maximize decomposition rate.

The goal in all cases is to protect the environment, access, and other people’s experience. As climbers, we need to take our poops mindfully. I mean just think: if you don’t wont to deal with your shit, imagine how much less everyone else wants to…

The Next Project

On the way down, we're already considering the next project. © The Stone Mind.

“You know you’re trying your hardest when your ‘climbing’ becomes a series of falls punctuated by a few glorious moments of holding on,” a friend once said to me.

You might call this the ragged edge of climbing, where we feel no flow, only frustration. The impossibility of the task whelms up and over us, an impenetrable wall, and we wonder why we’re even wasting our time.

This is a job for someone else, an inner voice opines. Better to give up now and find something more… attainable.

But some other part of us sees the faintest glint of possibility—or not even sees, but intuits it, stretches out towards an irrational belief, bolstered only by the knowledge that there’s nothing to lose for trying.

And so we fight on. Against the forces of doubt and inertia, towards a hope barely visible.

And still we fall.  Each time the boulder rolls back down the hill. Each time we endeavor to roll it back up, like that old Greek story.

Maybe the story gets it wrong, though. Maybe Sisyphus wasn’t just compelled by the gods to roll his boulder up the hill. Maybe he chose to roll it because he believed one day he might grow strong enough to push it all the way up, past the limits of his vision to some distant crest.

With every fall and every failure, some lesson is learned, however subtle. Sometimes it’s as simple as “rest longer between attempts.” Other times it’s as minor as “crimp the hold rather than open-hand it,” or “turn the hip a few degrees more to the left.” Often we must remind ourselves of the most automatic of things, like “breathe.”

Just to breathe. Just to focus on the task at hand without the weight of context on our backs. This is all we have to do, but it can be a lot to ask, because our monkey minds are busy: Will I get hurt if I fall from here? Will I have energy to try again if I don’t do it this time? Who will see me fail? Will I disappoint myself? The monkey mind is strong and cunning…

Sooner or maybe later, we see the possibility of success grow brighter. Unbroken sequences of movement grow longer. We find solutions to moves that once seemed inscrutable. Piece by piece, the impenetrable wall yields.

Now, instead of small islands of success in a sea of failure, an archipelago arcs gracefully into the water, broken only here and there by cruxes.

Finally, we enter the state of flow and a complete bridge appears. “Here” is connected to “there.” But even as we near the top, there’s uncertainly. A final anxiety grips us so firmly, we’re apt to falter on some easy move that we’ve climbed many times before.

Sisyphus’ boulder nears the top of the hill. The end of his struggle is at hand. The impossible has become possible, and yet…

The boulder hasn’t changed. The hill still holds the same incline, the same length. From the top, he looks out and sees no grand answer or tangible reward, only another hill, and behind that more hills without end. The thing that’s changed is his perspective. The only answer is he’s gained is to the question: “Is it possible?” but the affirmation fulfills only momentarily.

What does he do then? He sets his gaze on the tallest peak in eyeshot and plots a course, to see if that one is possible, too.

How is this any different than the climber who, at the end of her project, is already thinking of the next project even as her belayer lowers her back to earth?

Two questions come to mind: Is this all there is? and If so, is there anything wrong with that?

11 Predictions About the Future of Rock Climbing

Astronauts explore the cliffs of Mars. Digitally enhanced acrylic painting for NASA by Pat Rawlings..
Astronauts explore the cliffs of Mars. Painting for NASA by Pat Rawlings.
Most long-term predictions about the future are terribly inaccurate, even when made by intelligent people with a good view of history and the current landscape of the topic at hand. Then again, sometimes the most absurd predictions come to pass. Basically, when it comes to painting a picture of things to come, it’s a crapshoot. It is in the spirit of wild speculation that I bring you 11 predictions about the future of rock climbing. What do you expect to see in the next 10, 20, or even 100 years?
 
  1. People forget the rocks. Due to increasingly turbulent weather patterns (“global weirdening”), worsening pollution, increasingly restrictive land-use laws (thanks to a combination of overuse problems and liability), and the proliferation of super-gyms, outdoor climbing rates actually begin to drop, despite a quadrupling of the total climbing population.
  2. Clean climbing 2.0. New reactive super-adhesives that can be activated and deactivated at the push of a button allow climbers to place “removable” pro pretty much anywhere with no ill effects to the rock. Likewise, a new bio-degradable chalk substance that evaporates after and hour in contact with stone makes traces of human passage far less evident. Purists are confused by such new developments and suggest that in fact it’s the lowering of the challenge to fit our limitations that is the main problem, not the marring of the rock.
  3. Gravity can suck it. The discovery of gravity-diminishing materials makes carrying gear to and from the crag a whole lot easier. In the Himalaya, the Sherpa community suffers a slowdown in business as visitors can now carry up to 500 pounds each of gear. Ethics debates rage around the appropriate use of these materials in climbing contexts.
  4. The first route on Mars. In the year 2032, the first viable Mars colony officially opens its doors to Earthlings interested in a serious change of scenery. In 2035, a climber named Maria Alverez from New LA makes the journey to Mars Colony Beta (aka Big Red), where she makes an ascent of the sheer 4000 meter cliffs at Echus Chasma. A bold feat in Earth gravity, she succeeds on her first attempt due to the significantly weaker gravitational field on Mars.
  5. Sticky rubber body pads. The invention of sticky rubber shoes in the 1930s and sticky rubber knee pads in the 1990s leads eventually to the sticky rubber body suits of the 2020s. Now climbers can use every part of their bodies to gain purchase on the rock, leading to more creative resting possibilities. New techniques like arm-wedging, chest-scumming, and “starfishing” become the norm, and most of the climbs at Rifle are immediately downgraded again.
  6. Comps are America’s pastime. Climbing finally makes it into the Olympics in multiple events, including bouldering, sport climbing, ice climbing, speed climbing, hangboarding, and a new parkour/climbing hybrid known as “free style.” Nike jumps on board. Kids get climbing scholarships to top tier universities. Stadiums are erected to house the wild new climbing structures, which can be reconfigured instantly using an iWatch app. Viewership of National Climbing League Championships exceeds Super Bowl and World Cup viewership. Merchandising goes off the hook (the most popular energy drink is called “Crimp Juice,” while its top competitor is “Sloperade”) and endorsement deals for top-level competition athletes reach into the hundreds of millions of bitcoins.
  7. A dark side emerges. Now that stakes are higher, people find new ways to cheat: anti-gravity pellets sewn into harnesses; nano-bot “chalk” that forms molecular bonds with the rock; genetic doping… . Gambling and corruption scandals become the norm. Climbers “throw” the comps in exchange for massive payoffs. The National Climbing Association is formed to monitor and enforce the rules of the game, but it’s ruled by an authoritarian regime that’s rife with its own transgressions.
  8. The sport grows younger. Climbing 5.14 or even V14 by age 14 is no longer a big deal. In fact, in 2023, a five-year-old flashes Just Do It,  Smith Rock’s iconic 5.14c, after his dad jokingly tells him his binky is up there. As competition becomes increasingly lucrative, parents start their little rock jocks earlier and earlier. Climbing moms replace soccer moms. Kids are placed on strict Zone diets and encouraged to practice their one-arms while doing homework.
  9. Climbing continues to splinter. As the sport grows, new subtypes of climbing cleave off and flourish. Free style climbing (see no. 6, above), one-move “max difficulty” problems, tread walling, slab comps, etc.—all of these grow into their own sports, complete with heroes and stars, specialized equipment, arcane rule systems, and dedicated websites.
  10. Robot climbing is a thing. Climbing bot battles become popular on the Internets as engineers design ingenious machines that can solve complex three-dimensional movement puzzles in unexpected ways. In 2035, the first climbing bot incorporating artificial intelligence is deemed a sentient being and allowed to enter a World Cup comp. The bot wins easily and in 2036 robots are banned from World Cup competitions. A Non-Human Climbing Series is quickly formed to accommodate them.
  11. The more things change. Despite all the changes, all the attention and the money, the new technology and trends, many people still just climb for the joy of it. Same as it ever was.

The Secret to Great Tasting Beer

The Taipan Wall at sunset - The Stone Mind

This is the story of the best beer I’ve ever had. It wasn’t a fancy beer, by any means. In fact, I think it was the sort you could buy in any grocery store or gas station in that part of Australia. But in the years since I imbibed this particular brewski, it has remained in my memory while a thousand other beers, many of more prestigious pedigree, have come and gone. You’ve probably had a similar experience—maybe not with beer, but with whatever aprés-climb beverage you prefer—and I guess now there’s even a scientific explanation for the whole phenomenon.

*   *   *

The hike from the Stapylton Campground to the Taipan Wall starts with a steep climb up a long stone slab. You follow a winding dirt path, dodge a few grazing kangaroos (not really… but possibly), navigate some tightly vegetated corridors, and arrive drenched in sweat 30 minutes later at one of the most epic pieces of stone ever bolted. The boldly streaked orange face rises with steady overhang 200 feet into the air and shrinks horizontally into the distance as if without end. The routes themselves are mostly questing and run-out. As such, they require great technical skill to ascend, or, barring that, preternatural endurance. An iron constitution, common amongst the local climbing populace, is also handy here.

On my visit I had only middling technique and a constitution of a more malleable sort (perhaps copper or tin?), not to mention a boulderer’s endurance. Luckily, my belayer, who I’d met in the campground, was trustworthy, encouraging, and loaned me his No. 2 Camalot that would end up keeping me off the deck on the first of many long falls I’d take during my early encounters with the great wall of Taipan.

All told, my first day was a long one, what with the early morning approach, the sandbagged routes, the many hours of exertion with minimal provisions (thanks to a tight budget and poor planning), and the return to the car at dusk. Back at the parking lot, one of my new Aussie compatriots, glowing from a hard-fought last-go-best-go send, handed me a cold one. I pried it open with a lighter and stood in the dark next to his van with the small crew of down-under rock jocks.

The chilled bottle glass soothed my fingertips, worn raw from the grit of the stone. My exhausted shoulder quivered as I lifted the beer to my lips. But when the malty ambrosia flooded my dehydrated mouth, a radiating warmth cascaded down through my body. I was divided: should I guzzle the whole thing in an effusive paroxysm of gustatory joy? Or would it be better to nurse it, to better savor each effervescent sip? I chose the latter, growing mellower and mellower as the bottle drained into my empty stomach, until finally the world faded into mellow satisfaction and I was left starting up into the shimmering mist of stars, phasing into existence above our heads.

You’ve probably guessed it by now, but it was the exertion, the tribulations, yes even the acute pain of a long day spent grappling with a soaring wall of stone that resulted in a transubstantiation of a lowly beer into a Hero Beer—the type of beer that you taste on a nigh-molecular level rather than just swill down perfunctorily.

Though this phenomenon has been long known to outdoors people, there appears to be some new science to back it up. In a recent study on the effects of pain on the experience of pleasure, a team asked participants to hold their hands in a bucket of ice water for as long as they could, then gave them a cookie (on a side note: where do I sign up for these studies?). Not only did those who held their hand in the bucket indicate enjoying the cookie more, but follow-up studies showed that “pain increases the intensity of a range of different tastes and reduces people’s threshold for detecting different flavours.” Of course, we don’t need a study to tell us that food and drink taste better after a gnarly outing, but it’s interesting to know that there’s more to it than just being hungry and thirsty.

The same study pointed out that the pain of physical exertion can cause our bodies to produce opioids responsible for feelings of euphoria, that pain focuses our attention and “brings us in touch with our immediate sensory experience of the world,” and that pain helps to create bonds between individuals who’ve experienced it together. These findings point to so many of the things we love about climbing (transcendence, immediacy, camaraderie), and remind us that the absence of pain does not, in fact, equal pleasure. Pain, at lest a certain type of it, can actually be a key to pleasure—at least to the deep, resonant pleasure that climbers experience during and after an experience lovingly known as a “sufferfest.”

This study also leads us to reconsider so-called “alpinist’s amnesia,” which leads many a battered, malnourished, and frostbitten mountaineer to return to the peaks that flogged them. Maybe it’s not that they forget the pain, but that they actually crave its side-effects, among them a heightened sense of reality.

Plus, it makes even a cheap beer taste amazing.

How to choose climbing shoes – tips for new climbers

How to choose your first pair of climbing shoes - The Stone Mind

I went to REI to help a friend find some new climbing shoes the other day. His previous experience with sticky rubber footwear had been a Goldilocks story: pair number one was too big and kept him from trusting his feet on small holds. His second pair, relatively new, were too small and pained him to wear for any length of time. I wanted to help him find shoes that would be comfortable yet supportive and precise, so he could climb better and have more fun. (He ended up with La Sportiva Mythos and seems to be stoked.)

The goal of this post, with its five simple steps and warning signs for ill-fitting shoes, is likewise to save the new climber time and needless suffering by explaining how to choose climbing shoes that feel good and climb well. The basic principles of fit apply to all climbing shoes, but for the new climber, I recommend a flat, all-around design that can swing from the gym to the crag to all-day moderate multi-pitch routes. (As always, feel free to post up questions or add anything you think I’ve missed in the comments.)

1. Go to the shop

The most important thing about buying a pair of rock shoes is fit, so skip the deals on Amazon and head to your local brick and mortar store. Even if the shop doesn’t have particularly knowledgable staff, you’ll be able to try on several kinds and sizes of shoe there, which is a necessity.

Bonus tip: Make some calls to local gyms and outdoor stores to ask about their shoe selection. Some places have only one or two brands and a handful of models. The more options, the better.

2. Grab an assortment

Try to find at least three different shoe models within your price range, preferably from two or three manufacturers, as every make and model of shoe will fit slightly differently. If you just pick the one pair off the shelf that looks cool, even if you get the right size, you might well be missing out on a shoe that more naturally contours to the shape of your foot. For new climbers, shoes with a flat profile are probably best, as they allow the foot to remain in a relatively natural, and therefore comfortable, position; to find these place the shoe sole-down on a table or floor—if there’s more than a half-inch of space under that arch, it probably a more aggressively downturned shoe than a new climber needs.

Bonus tip: Opt for shoes with laces or velcro straps, as these will allow for more customization of fit than elasticized slipper style shoes.

3. Try ‘em on

I’d recommend starting with your street shoe size when trying on shoes. From there, you’ll want to move up or down the sizing scale until you find the right fit. The ideal shoe is snuggly glove-like from heel to toe and everywhere in-between. Your toes should be pressed all the way up against the front of the shoe, as this is the point where you’ll make contact with the holds, and looseness here will lead to sloppy footwork. Despite what those sand-bagging old school climbers might tell you, however, acute pain does not have to be par for the course. Climbing shoes should to be tight enough to offer support, but sharp pain from overly tight shoes will only make you less likely to put weight on your feet, which is the most important part of climbing technique. Try on both the left and the right shoes, as most of us have one foot that’s larger than the other.

Bonus tip: Skip the socks when you try on climbing shoes, unless you plan to wear them while climbing. Few people do this, however, as it reduces your ability to feel and control what’s going on between your toes and the holds.

4. Climb around

Most outdoor shops and all climbing gyms offer some sort of surface on which to demo shoes. Without this, it’s hard to get a real sense of fit. If you experience any hotspots (see “Climbing shoe warning signs,” below) or areas of sharp pain, the shoes are too small or just don’t fit your foot.

Bonus tip: While giving a pair of climbing shoes a spin, stand via your toe tips on a small edge, preferably shallower than an inch, and try to let the edge support your full weight. The climbing shoes, by nature of their snug fit, should offer a feeling of support and not just fold back. If your feet slide significantly inside the shoes, or if your heel lifts up out of the heel cup, you probably need to size down.

5. Make your pick… or don’t

After trying on three or more different shoes, and moving up in down in size until you get the right fit, you’ll probably have noticed which pairs stand above the others in comfort and fit. If that’s the case, pick whichever one looks coolest or best fits your budget. If none of them feel very good, don’t be afraid to hold out until you can try on a few more options. A poor-fitting pair of climbing shoes can hold you back and make climbing less enjoyable.

Bonus tip: saving money is always nice, but don’t get a pair of shoes that doesn’t feel right just to save 30 bucks. If you plan to climb with any regularity, pony up for the right shoes; in the end you’ll get more use and enjoyment out of them.

Climbing shoe warning signs

When trying on your shoes, be sure to watch out for the following common bad-fit warning signs:

Hotspots - Rubbing or sharp pain in the ares of the toes or toe nails, heels, or sides of the foot can lead to raw skin and blisters and make climbing an unhappy exercise. Typically, these don’t go away as the shoe breaks in. A properly fit pair of shoes should have no hotspots. Most shoes today, particularly the ones made from synthetic materials, won’t stretch much over time, so try to get the right fit out of the box.

Baggy heel - While wearing the shoes, pinch the sides of your heels and push up on the bottom of the heel. There should be little no dead space. You shouldn’t be able to easily move your heel within the shoe’s heel cup. If the heel cup looks or feels baggy, you either need to size down or try a different model.

Shallow heel - Your heel might also slip out if the heel cup is too small. The cup should rise above the bony point on the back of your heel and fit closely all around without causing discomfort on the Achilles tendon.

Sloppy toe - You shouldn’t be able to easily move or wiggle your toes inside the shoe. When standing, expect to feel pressure (but not pain) on the tops of your toes where they are bent at the knuckle, due to the snugness in the toe box.

Smashed toe - If your toes are so knuckled under they scream in pain, your shoes are too damned tight. Loosen up.

Folds - If the leather or fabric sides and top of the shoe are folded and full of dead air space, the shoes are probably too loose to be supportive.

Arch cramps - If you pull the shoe on and feel the muscles on the underside of your foot immediately clench up, your shoes are too tight. This is more common in downturned shoes designed for steep climbing.

Forefoot squeeze - A shoe that’s too narrow can cause uncomfortable pressure in the front of the foot, squeezing the bones together and making it hard to wear the shoes for extended periods of time.

 

Packing Light

Travelers in an airport - The Stone Mind blog

The first cut of this post was written with pen and paper aboard a Boeing 767 slipping through the air high over the Atlantic. In a small bag under the seat in front of me lies one-third of my possessions for my journey. The other two-thirds hangs in the compartment over my head. Seattle, Texas, France—this is my third trip in just over a month. In the process of packing, unpacking, and repacking, I’ve gotten pretty good at stripping down my affairs to the essentials. It’s helped me to understand just how much—really, how little—stuff I need.

One pair of shoes, a spare pair of pants, a few shirts, a block of socks and underwear approximately the volume of a loaf of bread. A toothbrush and toothpaste. Wallet. A little foil packet containing Advil. Laptop. Sunglasses. Assorted charging cables and converters. An iPhone (music storage device, library, camera, back-up computer, phone, and more, all in one!). A stupidly expensive pair of noise-cancelling headphones, which, while indulgent, help make 10 hours on a plane more peaceful.

The more I travel, the more I’ve grown to regard many of my possessions at home as superfluous. Every time I buy something, I feel compelled to chuck, sell, or donate something in exchange—to balance out the ledger, as it were. In contradiction to the American Dream, my goal has become to have less over time. I want the things I do have to be valuable not in the monetary sense, but in the sense that they enrich my life rather than clutter it. I want things that allow me to accomplish more rather than stand as symbols of accomplishment.

Living out of a suitcase or, as I used to from time to time, a car, can teach us the value of elimination. Extra weight is anathema to travel—it slows us down, bends our backs, splinters our attention as we endeavor track the tangled mess of items both useful and useless. As my grandpa used to put it, “The things you own end up owning you.” Or, as Yvon Chouinard is said to have said, “The more you know, the less you need.”

Of course, traveling light is a practical consideration, and as you might have noticed, this blog rarely deals solely in practicalities. Instead, I’d ask you to consider how the constant reduction of excess in the physical world can be translated into our inner lives. How can we de-clutter our minds to make room for the most important things. Can we organize our thoughts the way we might organize a gear closet, to make the contents therein more useable? And what would happen if we were to continually let go of distraction after distraction? Perhaps eventually we’d be left with nothing but a still mind, the way it’s said the Buddha was.

Thoughts of enlightenment (not just a bringing of light, but a lightening of our burden) notwithstanding, I believe a constant stripping away can help us to see more clearly how sufficient each moment really is; how sufficient are we for whatever situations we encounter on this relatively short trip called life.

The Climbing Dojo

A kendo demonstration at The Comp of the Rising Sun, circa 2007. The Spot Gym, Boulder, Colorado.
A kendo demonstration at The Comp of the Rising Sun, circa 2007. The Spot Bouldering Gym, Boulder, Colorado.

In Japanese martial arts, the dojo is a place for formal training. The “do” in dojo means “way” or “path,” and the full phrase dojo means “place of the way.” Similarly in Chinese, tao or dao—as in Tao Te Ching—carries a similar meaning. In Japanese Buddhism, dojo is also used to refer to a hall for Zen meditation. In essence, a dojo is a place where one seeks to learn not just for practical purposes, but for something deeper.

This is how I have come to see the climbing gym. Humble, dusty spaces they may be, often times housed in roughly converted warehouses, a climbing gym can be a dojo, granted you bring with you the proper mindset.

A first step to this recognition of the gym as more than a gym is to remember it is not a place to prove things to others, or to conquer anything. It is “a place where we discipline ourselves and improve ourselves to be a better person,” according to Kendo instructor Masahiro Imafuji. When you think of it this way, it is always a privilege to spend time and a dojo. Every success in a dojo is just a fleeting step on the endless journey; every failure is a gift, at least as valuable as the successes.

It is traditional to bow on entering and leaving a dojo, but it’s important to remember that bowing in this way doesn’t mean lowering yourself in a worshipping sense. Instead, the bow is meant as a show of respect. That respect is not only for your teacher, if you have one, and for your fellow climbers, but also for oneself and for the lessons that you have the honor of learning. (When you bow to an image of Buddha, you do not bow to the physical image or to a man from the distant past, but to the Buddha nature in yourself.)

There are myriad lessons to be had in a simple climbing gym. And under the definition of dojo above, I’d include every crag or mountain, too. In a sense, all the blog posts I’ve written about climbing have been encapsulations of lessons learned in a dojo of sorts. Lessons about fear and ego, about flow and balance, about strategy and respect—climbing can teach us all these things and also things beyond expression.

But climbing is not the only means to such lessons. Martial arts, painting, skiing, woodworking… many—I might even say any—activities can, if practiced in a mindful and disciplined manner, help us to understand and find “the way.”

Simply living life can be enough to find this way, but it can often be more difficult, as life can seem at once too complex and too mundane to teach us clear lessons. Instead, we take one interesting activity, climbing for example, and elevate it to the level of ritual. We find our dojos—the rocks and gyms and mountains—and we train and learn.

This is the power of the dojo. There, we learn not just about climbing but about ourselves. We learn about the things climbing allows us to be, not just to do.

Climbing’s Ultimate Question

 

A climber on the boulder problem Question Mark, in Coopers Rock State Park, West Virginia
A climber on the boulder problem Question Mark, in Coopers Rock State Park, West Virginia

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings asks the supercomputer Deep Thought for the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything,” the answer they get, after 7.5 million years of calculation, is 42.

Similarly, climbing’s Ultimate Question, “Why do you climb?” has become an extremely popular one to answer in blogs, videos, and social media posts. Sponsored climbers answer the question in nearly every interview they give. We hope for a response that perfectly elucidates the hard gem-like flame at the center of a driving, lifelong passion. Instead, we get answers like, “Because it’s fun,” or “Because I love being in nature,” or even “Because I like to push my limits.”

Or perhaps we get a simple video showing people climbing. Such videos can be very pretty, but do they really answer anything? Even the most articulate and romantic pieces of prose tend to fall short. I think this is because “Why do you climb?” is the wrong question.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the pan-dimensional beings from The Hitchhiker’s Guide were disappointed by the answer 42, even though Deep Thought assured them it was correct. When pressed, the computer informed the beings that an even more powerful computer was necessary to calculate what they were really looking for: The Ultimate Question. Once that was revealed, everything would fall into place.

Our poor pan-galactic beings were so obsessed with questions and answers, they were blinded to the simple, tantalizing truth of the matter: they were the question, and Life, The Universe, and Everything was the answer. The map is exactly the size and shape of the territory, as it were. Words can do little to distill or condense existence; only intimate, only give fleeting impressions of infinite things.

So then, the real answer to “Why do you climb?” is irreducibly contained within your life as a climber. And to know climbing’s Ultimate Question is simply to climb wholeheartedly; to be a being that climbs. It’s a sort of Zen koan, I suppose: by the time you know what question to ask, the answer will have long since ceased to have mattered.

Telling Stories

Telling stories around the campfire - The Stone Mind
Telling stories around the campfire.

I was sitting in a vegan diner with my friend Brendan eating a buffalo “chicken” burrito when the topic of stories came up.

“People are geared to think in stories,” he offered as he ate the Gravy Train, an item off the breakfast menu, even though it was lunch. “The odds of getting murdered in Denver are, like, 20,000 to 1, but then someone says, ‘Oh yeah? Well I heard a guy got killed just a few blocks from here the other day,’ and all of the sudden you feel like Denver is super dangerous.”

The reason is simple: we prefer information in this form—it engages our empathy and is easier to remember. (It must have been a successful evolutionary strategy for using information about the past to build predictions about the future.) As someone who works in marketing, I aim to craft memorable stories about sponsored athletes, products, and brands—without a good story to tell, information is only so much noise in an increasingly noisy world.

A story can show us the value of a product in a way that bypasses our analytical centers and goes straight to the emotional ones. Take this Google India video about friends separated by the partitioning of India and Pakistan, for example. By way of a story, a political reality becomes tangible, comprehensible… as does the value of a product.

A story can lead us to a larger truth, the way the story of Eric Garner’s choking death at the hands of police is one polarizing instance of a real problem. The story gives us a relatable entry point into the problem, which is large and complex and troubling. Like the bit of dust around which a raindrop forms, a simple story can allow us to build a more rich and nuanced understanding of a bigger reality. Or it can simply reinforce our pre-held views and lead to further division between groups of people. That’s the problem with stories: they’re wide open to interpretation.

In cases like the one Brendan mentioned of murder statistics in Denver, stories can often lead us to incorrect conclusions. They trick us into feeling something to be true, even when the bigger statistical picture shows just the opposite. “Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story,” writes Jonathan Gottschall in his book The Storytelling Animal. Thus, politicians use stories to warp our view into agreement with their agenda. The news and social media are clogged with stories selected and crafted specifically to hook our attention rather than convey any particularly important information.

Our entire worldview is encoded in stories. The world’s great religions are built entirely on stories; we spend billions every year on movies, books, and magazines; increasingly we spend our time reading and watching stories on our computers and mobile devices…

But perhaps the most interesting and stories are the ones we create constantly in our head—the stories we generate when we picture something in the future or recount something in the past: Stories about how we’ll perform at work or in a competition, stories about our past interactions, stories about what other people think of us. These stories can create feelings of anxiety or confidence, fear or anger. They can make us behave differently than we otherwise would. Our stories not only color but shape the world around us.

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are the most powerful and problematic. Are we good looking, intelligent, successful… ultimately the way we see ourselves is formulated into a story. We present ourselves through stories, too, but should be careful not to believe them too fully, for fear of limiting ourselves or obscuring important truths. We are not our alma maters or our résumés, we’re not our hobbies or neighborhoods, our relationships nor our criminal records.

Though stories can convey great amounts of information, they can never tell us everything. And there are many stories, representing many different perspectives, to be told about even a single event. This is why we must listen to the stories that surround us with an open yet critical ear, and remain open to revising our own story from year to year, day to day, even moment to moment. I think this is what Walt Whitman meant when he wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.”

For all their uses, stories can blind us to the untranslatable nature of the world, the essential suchness of being that resists language and narrative and can be experienced clearly only in the pastless and futureless now. As with the motion of a penman’s hand, our lives are written (or do we write them?), but we only truly experience them at the point where the pen’s tip meets the paper. The rest is nothing but stories.

Climbing Community

Climbers in the Red River Gorge
Climbing brought us together: the old Ohio crew hanging out in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

At the end of the song “Cliff Hanger,” by Blackalicious, there’s a sample from a 1968 Stokely Carmichael speech. It goes: “Wherever you go, the first place you go is to your people … And once we begin to understand that the concept of community is simply one of our people, it don’t make a difference where we are. We are with our people and, therefore, we are home.” Carmichael was talking about the African diaspora, about black Africans living not just in the U.S. but all over the world. This remains a serious topic, and Carmichael’s context, as an activist during the civil rights era, was exceptionally charged. Despite coming from a very different background, that snippet of his speech alway seemed to stick in my ear. Sometimes I’d wonder, Who are my “people”? Who do I go to first when I’m in a new place?

My parents moved to Virginia a few years after I went away to college. The first time I visited my new familial home base, I immediately located the local climbing gym and the nearest outdoor gear shop. If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you won’t be surprised to hear that, more than any other group to which I claim membership, climbers are my people. Wherever the climbers are, that’s where I find a certain sense of home.

In an interesting essay, climber and CU-Boulder Religious Studies Professor Greg Johnson writes, “I am certain that I have more in common—in terms of passions, appetites, ideals—with climbers from, say, Thailand, than I do with my neighbors. So it is that climbers can travel the world and have ready-made communities waiting to accept them.” This last sentence rang particularly true for me, and following are two of quite a few examples that illustrate it:

In 2006, I went to Italy. There, a guy named Lorenzo, who I met on a bizarre, nearly defunct internet forum called boldering.com, picked me up at a train station and took me to his local climbing spot. Lorenzo knew next to nothing about me except that I climbed. Still, each of us took it on faith that the other would be a good and agreeable person. Just hours after meeting, we sat under big boulders in an ancient wood and spoke like old friends. That night we drank wine at an osteria and ate pasta his friend’s 500-year-old apartment. Without the climbing community to act as bonding agent, I doubt Lorenzo (or anyone) would have shown a random tourist such hospitality.

The second example is set in Australia, where I was rolling around solo for a month after a friend’s wedding. Here, a small group of climbers I met while at the crags in Grampians National Park offered me beer, beta, and places to crash. One of them showed me around the Blue Mountains, and another took me to a little sport crag called Nowra, which I’d probably never have visited otherwise. Another of these guys, a pro climber named Chris, handed me the key to his house back in Sydney and told me to make myself at home while he stayed on to climb.

“The very ritualism of climbing is so explicit and marked that it constitutes the primary identity of most adherents,” writes Johnson in his essay. “This makes climbers remarkably visible and sympathetic to one another.” And it’s true. How else would a lone traveler find such warm reception amongst strangers? No, not all climbers are so welcoming, but the fact remains that a strong connection exists between and among many of us, sight unseen.

Communal connection is by no stretch unique to climbers. Stokely Carmichael believed that blackness was the most important form of community (indeed, he believed it was a matter of survival that black people stand together in the face of extreme racism). For many, religion is the primary identity that binds them to others. Most of us belong to multiple communities, based on language, sexual orientation, interests, alma maters, and on and on…

The great thing about these communities is that they all can be powerful sources of human connection, and therefore strength, happiness, growth. The bad thing about these communities is that they can be grounds for excluding the “other,” and therefore negativity, anger, blame, and—with depressing frequency—violence.

That is why, as climbers, I think we should embrace our shared identity in positive ways, as we often do when a fellow climber is injured or in need, while at the same time rejecting the inter-group strife (sport vs. trad, gym vs. outdoor, experienced vs. n00b) and the unhealthy desire to exclude and judge that belonging to a community can encourage. We must remember that we draw strength from belonging not only to specific groups, but also to that most general of groups, humanity, to which we all belong.

Take it even farther and consider that we share the Earth not only with other humans, but also with living beings and natural places of unimaginable variety and beauty. That these, too, can be treated as if they are “our people.” Learn to do this and wherever you go can be your home. It’s a bit of a tall order, I admit, but a noble quest, if ever there was one.

12 Tips for Making the Climbing Gym Uncomfortable

12 Ways to Make the Climbing Gym Uncomfortable

My friend Brendan recently wrote a great blog about how to make the people trapped with you on a ski-lift feel uncomfortable. I haven’t skied in a while, but I could sympathize, maybe because I’ve been around a fair number of people in the gym who’ve created a cringe-worthy dynamic. If you want to be one of those people, whether for fun or for serious, here are 12 tips for making things in the climbing gym uncomfortable. (Add your own tips in the comments!):

1. Play the shadowing game

Pick someone and follow them around the gym climbing all the same routes or problems. Hop on the second they finish. Never say anything to the climber you’re shadowing, but eye contact is OK. Make sure to put your stuff down near the climber so he or she can see you at all times. Beware, shadowing a member of the opposite sex can easily be construed as a form of stalking (which it kind of is).

Bonus points: Shadow your subject’s non-climbing movements as well. OK, we’re drinking water now… now were putting on our shoes… time to chalk up!

2. Fart while climbing

In his blog, Brendan mentioned passing gas on the chairlift, which is great because you have a captive audience. While we’re typically not in such close quarters in the gym, letting a ripper slip while making a dynamic move can be a great way to put everyone within earshot in a funny position. Do they laugh or hold their tongues? Key here is frequency: the more air biscuits you free from the oven, the better. Meanwhile, you must never acknowledge the sounding of your butt trumpet under any circumstances.

Bonus points: After a particularly loud peal of brown thunder, sprint directly to the bathroom.

3. Give creepy beta

Stand as close as possible to the climber and in an aggressive whisper say things like, “Yeeeeaaah buddy… you got this man, you so got this. Oooooh yeah, that next hold looks sweeeeet… you’re gonna get it… you’re gonna stick that hold soon goooooooood… .”

Bonus points: Give creepy beta while offering a touchy feely spot on the bouldering wall, or even while climbing on a route directly adjacent.

4. Climb with your shirt off

For the sake of your fellow patrons and all that is decent, many gyms have asked respectfully that you climb fully clothed. To make things awkward, remove your shirt and stand conspicuously next to any signage asking you to please not remove your shirt. Then get yourself all sweaty through climbing, deep knee bends, burpies, etc., and lay down on the mats, making big “sweat angels.”

Bonus points: “Accidentally” bump up against other climbers with your bare, clammy back skin.

5. Clip your nails

Keeping your nails in check is important in climbing, but we all know it’s also totes gross to watch those funky little slivers come flying off of a stranger’s toes. That’s why you should sit yourself down in the middle of the floor where everybody is climbing and start snipping away. Being sure to leave your trimmings scattered about like so many crescent moons. Ignore the incredulous stares.

Bonus points: Bring a full mani-pedi kit, including files, pumice stone, and cuticle trimmer, and go to town.

6. Give hugs

Whenever someone sends a route or shows any kind of excitement about their performance on the wall, run over and give them a big hug. Combine this with tip No. 4 for maximum effect.

Bonus points: Ask them if they want to go get milk and cookies after, to celebrate.

7. Fight with your significant other

Nothing puts people on edge faster than a PDRT (public display of relationship turmoil). Whatever frustrations you have with the person you’re currently snogging, be sure to air them in a room full of strangers. Don’t like the way your S.O. belays? Or the fact that he or she would rather say “Take!” than take a fall? Or maybe you just import your random disagreements from home (uncapped toothpaste tubes, unwillingness to do the dishes, etc.) to the rock wall and have it out mid-climb.

Bonus points: Bring your kids with you to the gym and give them a hard time when they get scared and want to come down from the wall, telling them to “tough it out” even though they are clutching at the brontosaurus-shaped holds and sobbing / blowing snot bubbles.

8. Vocalize

Whether on the wall or in the workout area, emitting loud, nonsensical noises during moments of high effort is a sure way to create an uncomfortable feeling amongst fellow gym goers. The louder and stranger your vocalizations the better. (See: Will Ferrel’s performance in this satirical cold medicine ad for examples.)

Bonus points: Get a group of friends to go in on this one with you, turning the gym into a jungle-like space of bird screeches and monkey calls.

9. Feedbag it

Instead of chalk, fill your chalk bag with tasty treats like peanuts, sesame sticks, or chocolate chips. Conspicuously eat these while standing around and while climbing, both. When anyone looks at you, proclaim, “Gotta keep my energy up!”

Bonus points: Offer a snack from your sack of goodies to every person that comes within 15 feet.

10. Be the Minister of Hygiene

Remind everyone that a recent study revealed the presence of a “fecal veneer” on climbing holds from commercial gyms. Urge them not to eat or prepare food, or touch their face or mouth, until after they’ve washed their hands. To help address this problem at its root, stand in the restroom and call out every person who exits a stall without making a stop at the sinks.

Bonus points: Tote a large bottle of alcohol-based hand-sanitizer gel and wander around offering people “a squirt for hygiene.”

11. Compare anatomy

What’s your “ape index”? How big are your hands? Whose forearms or shoulder muscles are bigger? These questions and others like them are a great way to catch a stranger off his or her guard. Simply walk up to two or more people and identify one of them to compare body parts with. Ask the other one to be a judge. Often, this will involve physical contact of some sort. Comparing wingspans, for examples, requires two people standing back-to-back and stretching their arms as wide as possible.

Bonus points: Talk people into having pull-up, push-up, sit-up, or breath-holding contests.

12. Tickle spot!

While spotting a person on a boulder problem, tickle them.

Bonus points: Run away when they try to punch you.

Top 10 Posts of 2014

In the two and a half years since I started this blog, I’ve been consistently surprised that people other than my wife and parents have any interest in my odd ramblings. In fact, this past year saw an increase in traffic—so thanks! In case you missed any of them, here are the top 10 posts of 2014, ranked by page views, on thestonemind.com. Your favorite post not make the list? I’d be honored if you’d take a minute and post it in the comments. Enjoy, and I’ll see ya next year…

1. What Type of Climbing is Right for You? 

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

2. What’s That Thing on Your Back? 10 Answers

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

3. How to Carry a Crashpad 

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

4. What Kind of Roadtripmobile is Right for You? 

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

5. What I Know Now: Collected Insights on Climbing and Life

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

6. 8 Symptoms of Climbing Deprivation 

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

7. You’re Probably Not A Great Belayer

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

8. Just How Risky Is Climbing? It Depends…

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

9. The Death of Plaid?

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

10. The Nine Stages of Getting Gripped 

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

The Ritual of Chalk

A climber's hands an a chalk bag

Like the probing face of a star-nosed mole, my fingers rummage the powdery contents of the little cloth bag: magnesium carbonate, MgCO3, “an inorganic salt that is a white solid,” occasionally used as a laxative, it’s a taxidermist’s trick to mix the stuff with hydrogen peroxide when bleaching skulls. I switch hands back and forth into the bag while I consider my course of action. This is the ritual of chalk.

Sixty years ago, Gill imported its use from gymnastics, where it served as a grip aid on the various apparatuses. “When I demonstrated the efficacy of chalk—which I had bought at the Jackson Pharmacy—most climbers were instantly seduced,” he wrote, “although some purists initially rejected it as unethical (Chouinard had qualms).”

The western rim of the canyon cleaves a long, straight sliver off the edge of the setting sun, sends it beaming down through the bare tree branch lattice and straight into the shadowy space between me the granite monolith. The climb is tall—taller than I’d like, given my single sketch pad slumped over roots and rocks at the base.

Smooth-cornered chalk clumps tumble lightly under the motion of my fingers. I pore over the rock for ghostly traces, signs of previous passage. For every stab of anxiety, I compress a clump, feel it fracture and disintegrate into tiny fragments and dust. I rub it between my thumb and forefinger and it fills the contours of my fingerprints, absorbing the fine moisture.

I withdraw my hand and a pale cloud expands into space. The golden sunbeam catches it and throws each meandering particle into high-definition relief against the dark hillside. I press two columns of breath through my nose, blasting the dust into turbulent whorls.

Finally, I put the bag down and clap once. The report echoes off the cottonwood trees and into the shadows. The chalk is everywhere now, filling the air around me. I can feel it dancing in my lungs, taste it in the back of my throat. It tastes as close to nothing as anything.

I make contact with the monolith—skin, chalk, stone. I move up, away from the ground, buoyed on invisible currents, lit by the winnowing sunlight for a moment, just before the canyon drops fully into shadow, leaving me and the chalk dusk in the cold blue space, doing our little dance for no special reason.

Big Goals, Little Goals

A boulderer strives to reach the hold on Round Room, Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. Photo - J. Roth / The Stone Mind

“The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede.”
—Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel

We all have goals. We want to improve, be better, have more, do more… This is the natural state of affairs, especially here in the West. The opportunity strive, to rise above, to achieve greatness of stature and wealth—it’s the American dream, isn’t it? The reason so many immigrants have sought a life here…

At the same time, this goal-focused mind is also the source of a lot of problems. For many, having enough isn’t satisfactory. There is an excess of greed and thoughtless waste. On average, we’re wealthier than many other nations, but not necessarily happier with ourselves and our lives.

I think what’s happening is that many of us focus only on the next goal, the next want or need, without considering the foundational goals that are lifelong and fulfilling, that give lasting happiness instead of just a temporary fix. Constantly focusing our energy on small goals and their transient rewards, I’ve noticed, can lead us farther away from where we really want to be.

As a long-time rock climber, I’ve been striving to improve for over 20 years, always chasing some goal or other: a new grade, a particularly proud route, a powerful boulder problem… . When I’m not in shape, I feel a little frustrated and want to climb at least as I did when I was fitter. When I’m fit, I want to climb harder than ever before. Of course, at a certain point, I will climb the hardest route I’m ever going to climb. I’m not sure if I’ve reached that point yet, but I might have and don’t even know it. It would be hard to accept, but accept it I must—we all will peak and, in keeping with the basic rules of living, decline. What then? Will climbing no longer bring me happiness?

I don’t think people want to ask this question, or they’re come up with a funny answer to deflect the unpleasantness of it. But it’s worth asking, because it can put our motivations in a different context. Just as the man on his deathbed isn’t likely to say, “I only wish I could have bought more stuff,” so will we find few climbers facing their final hours saying, “If only I could have climbed one grade harder.”

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the desire to improve. There are many valuable lessons to be learned in the perfection of one’s craft. But it’s the fixation on the improvement, the numbers and personal bests, that can muddy our vision. It’s the gaining mindset, an addiction to the rush of accomplishment or accolades rather than a steady seeking of a deeper sense of fulfillment that a well-centered, lifelong practice can bring.

Sometimes I’m happy with my climbing performance, and some days I’m not as happy, but I always try to let those feeling pass through me and not hold on to them. Instead of seeking my satisfaction in the latest challenge, I try to let myself enjoy each day as it comes; to be comfortable with myself, my thoughts, and my mortality; to act in accordance with my beliefs and values. Like distant peaks, goals like these can seem impossibly large and far away, but when taken one moment at a time and one step at a time, the become more manageable.

In the end, climbing can lend itself to the goal-seeking mindset, but I think it can also can show us the way to larger understandings, to spiritual fulfillment, if you want to think of it in those terms. In his introduction to Zen in the Art of Archery, Daisetz T. Suzuki explains that the practice of archery in Japan and other Eastern cultures is “not intended for utilitarian purposes only or for purely aesthetic enjoyments, but [is] meant to train the mind; indeed, to bring it into contact with the ultimate reality.”

Big, right? But by working tirelessly and in earnest for mastery for its own sake, without the desire to hit some specific target (or tick some grade), art forms like archery or climbing can afford us such contact.

If only we can learn to let go of the little goals that obscure the big ones.

Mind or Body: What’s Limiting You?

Training wall at the bouldering gym - Mind or Body: What's Limiting You? - The Stone Mind

“No, I can’t do it!” she said, “I”m coming down.”

“C’mon now, just try the move; I’m right here,” I said.

We were bouldering in the climbing gym, and my wife Kristin was about eight feet off the ground, hanging from a sizable jug and eyeing down a long move to another jug. To me it was clear that she could make the reach with some momentum and a fat slice of commitment, but to her it seemed beyond reach.

“Nope,” she said, and let her feet dangle, a sure sign she was ready to drop. Back safely on the ground, she explained that she maybe wasn’t tall enough to make the move. “Well, what’s wrong with trying?” I asked; the worst that would happen would be a fall onto a squishy expanse of mats, nothing she hadn’t experienced a hundred times before. She just shrugged.

“Let’s go upstairs,” she urged. Instead of engaging with the uncomfortable, my wife was redirecting her energy towards something less threatening. Upstairs was a steep plywood training wall, packed from end to end with holds on a grid—it was about half as high as the one we were standing beneath. “Upstairs it is,” I agreed. I might be an old dog, but I’ve learned not to force such issues.

Up on the training woody, we tried a game I used to play with my climbing buddies back in New York, each making up problems for the other on the fly. “Now the blue pinch!” I said, stretching to point out a hold while she clung to the wall, awaiting the next move. I was quickly surprised by some of the moves she was pulling—much harder than the one that had stumped her on the taller wall downstairs. I indicated a long lateral pull to a small edge, expecting she wouldn’t quite be able to stick it. But she did… and several more like it before she ran out of steam.

Back at home, we talked about our trip to the gym. I pointed out that she’d done much harder moves on the training woody than on the taller bouldering wall downstairs.

“Yeah, because I wasn’t scared,” she said with a sheepish grin.

The problem was deceptively simple. Fear (mostly irrational) of falling and injury was clearly the cause of my wife’s hesitation on the wall, but how could she change the way she felt?

I think there were several factors that played into Kristin’s fear. One was the fact that she didn’t trust her own ability. She’s still relatively new to climbing, and isn’t used to slipping into the climbing mindset. When she’s on the wall, she brings her analytic mind with her, holding a conversation in her head about the consequences of each move. The makes it hard to just climb, without hesitation and inhibitions.

An idea for addressing this came from my friend Nick. He suggested that whenever Kristin starts to feel scared on a boulder problem, she should look down and, assuming a safe landing zone, drop. This helps her realize that a fall from the spot that was causing anxiety really wouldn’t be so bad, after all. Similarly, I used to take controlled lead falls with a trusted belayer until I was thoroughly accustomed to the sensation. Such techniques can help build a foundation of experiences in which falls don’t result in anything negative. With that in place, letting go of fear becomes easier and easier, freeing us to climb with mind in body in synch, instead of at odds.

Improving strength through specific training—like our little game on the woody, hangboarding, pull-ups, etc.—is also a good way to build a sense of confidence. When you grab a small crimp high above your last piece of pro, doubting your ability to hold on creates stress. Feeling strong and in control can ease the sense of risk and allow you to move up without fear and even use your strength more efficiently. Likewise, playing around with balance drills and footwork exercises will improve one’s sense of security. These are just a few of the many ways in which mind and body are intertwined in climbing.

In the book Performance Rock Climbing, authors Dale Goddard and Udo Neumann talk about the idea of “engrams,” which are complex body movements coded into our neural networks. There’s an engram for doing a backstep on a steep wall, comprising the many muscle actions that need to happen to execute the motion. Same for a big dyno or a campus move. Solving new problems is usually a matter of applying engrams from our libraries to the challenges at hand. That’s why experienced climbers can often perform well even when out of shape or advanced in years—their engram libraries are stocked with high-quality tools, applicable to nearly limitless situations. 

If the theory is correct, engrams are another example of the fuzzy boundary between mind and body in climbing. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki says, “Our body and mind are not two and not one. If you think your body and mind are two, that is wrong; if you think that they are one, that is also wrong. Our body and mind are both two and one.” I think this is an important thing to remember when we are working on improving our climbing. We can work on our physical strengths and our mental strengths independently, but in the end we can’t separate them entirely. When we climb, we must use both and work to find ways that the one can reinforce the other in a positive feedback loop.

Kristin seemed excited by our session on the training wall because it allowed her to push her limits without worrying so much about safety. She plans to go back and continue to strengthen the mental as well as the physical. After that, I have no doubt she’ll be able to apply what she’s learned to the taller boulders downstairs at the gym and outside, too. But the most important thing is that she does it because it continues to be fun. As long as that’s the case, nothing is unpossible.

Thanksgiving Bouldering in Moe’s Valley

The missus and I headed down for some bouldering in Moe’s Valley this Thanksgiving weekend. The mornings were cold and the middays and afternoons just right, bordering on too warm. For much of the day, the naked sun created a sharp contrast in the scrubby desert landscape that lent itself nicely to black-and-white imagery. Here, a little gallery following Kristin (and our dog Pebble) through a day at the boulders. Did you get out this Thanksgiving weekend?

Click a pic below to enlarge the images…

A few info sources on Moe’s Valley bouldering:

An Outsider’s Game

A rock climber standing underneath a route in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky. Photo: Justin Roth / The Stone Mind
My friend Derrick in the Red River Gorge, taken during one of my early climbing trips, circa 1995.

Polo shirts and loafers, church groups, BMWs, big houses with porticos and sprawling lawns, golf clubs, box seats at the game, Jeeps, ski vacations, baseball caps, football parties…

These spring to mind when I think of my hometown. It was for the most part a white, Christian, yuppy town with a culture of wealth and status. Of course, not everyone in Upper Arlington, Ohio, was well to do, but it was tacitly assumed that everyone wanted to be.

There were plenty of us who didn’t fit (or even understand) this vision of perfection, however. We were the outsiders in a monoculture, chaffing against what we saw as an  inflexible norm. For this reason, after years of straining to keep up on the lacrosse team, full of people I didn’t get along with and coached by a guy I didn’t much respect, I threw myself fully into climbing, even though it didn’t have a well-defined place in the social hierarchy. It was my game; an outsider’s game.

I used to skateboard, too. Skateboarding was a countercultural act in my town. People saw you cla-clacking down the sidewalk and pretty much wrote you off. You were a punk, a druggie, a roustabout, to use a term from the way back. A lot of skaters did it only for the love, sure, but there was also that element of rebellion that drew many of us to it. Like punk rock, it was a middle finger to the established order, even as it was in the midst of becoming mainstream.

Climbing was different though—it was so new in the Midwest in the 1990s that it didn’t carry many connotations with it. This was exactly what I liked about it. It was a tabula rasa of sorts. The fact that it took place in a dusty old gym or out in the woods, where I would never run into any of my classmates, was even better. It was barely connected to the messy world of adolescent preppie-town social hierarchy I was so tired of navigating. The only fear involved was the fear of falling, which seemed so much cleaner and simpler than the fear of not being accepted by my peers. Climbing wasn’t pro or anti, high class or low—it was just something I did because it felt right. And there were others like me…

My dad was an art professor at Ohio State University, and his graduate students were my baby sitters when I was young. Blue hair, piercings, tattoos—my parents looked straight through their appearances and judged on words and deeds. And for the most part, these students were great influences: romantic intellectuals who followed their hearts with rare gusto. They were every bit as moral as the minivan families dressed in Sunday best, but, it seemed to me, even more honest, more free.

I soon discovered there were people like this at the climbing gym, too. Idealists, environmentalists, people who cared about health, about nature, about living in accordance with their beliefs. They were more interested in making the most of life while they had it than keeping up with the Joneses. Climbers and artists alike seemed after something more personally fulfilling and spiritually grander than the whatever it was the Midwestern suburban value system was offering.

I started climbing in the same athletic shorts I wore to lacrosse practice. I bought an Alpine Bod harness and a pair of 5.10 Spires from the closeout bin in the local outdoor outfitters. I wore my ball cap turned backwards, a vestige of my high school uniform. Slowly, I accrued the hallmarks of the climbing trade: a pair of bright red Mocasym rock shoes, Verve pants, a Prana hoody. I built a new identity around the fine art of climbing up a wall. Absent the pressures of a team, I focused on overcoming my own doubts and weaknesses. No coach was there to tell me I was screwing it up; no teammates scoffed at me when I blew it in a drill. I went at my own pace, motivated by my own interest and excitement. It was precisely what an outsider like me needed to grow.

Interestingly, the solitary game of climbing has helped me to become a better team player. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder like I used to, or much fear of being judged. I also bring more sympathy and empathy to every endeavor I undertake. Life isn’t simple, and people aren’t one dimensional, I’ve noticed. We’re all more alike than we’d like to admit, and more different that we’re often comfortable allowing…

Now, after 20-plus years in the climbing world, having worked at rock gyms, edited magazines, and hung around with pro climbers, I feel more like an insider than ever before. Somehow, I still feel like I’m playing an outsider’s game, though; it just feels right.

Just How Risky Is Climbing? It Depends…

The Fuzzy Calculus of Climbing Risk - The Stone Mind
The author atop a highball V1 warm-up. How much risk was there in the ascent? It depends… . Photo: Kristin Marine.

Fighting flared on the border between Turkey and Syria just days before I was to fly to the region for Petzl RocTrip. Over the phone, my parents sounded nervous. My co-workers joked I should wear a Canadian flag and call them if I got kidnapped by ISIS. A friend already in Turkey told me his wife cancelled her visit after watching the news. It almost got to me. Then I sat back and considered the risk from a more sober perspective.

Since August, only five “westerners,” have been killed abroad by the terrorist organization known as ISIS, and none of them was abducted or killed in Turkey. The only record of an American being recently murdered in Turkey I could even dig up was of Sarai Sierra, who was apparently bludgeoned to death a by a homeless man after she refused to kiss him (this was in early 2013). Clearly, Turkey was not a high-danger zone for tourists. So why all the anxiety?

The simple answer is that we humans are terrible judges of risk. Take for example the recent thigh-high wave of terror that swept the United States after Ebola made it to our shores. Despite all of the doctors and scientists offering cool-headed analyses of the actual threat level, your average American seemed convinced that every person who sneezed in line behind her at Starbucks was in the grip of the virus. To date, there have been two fatalities in the U.S. due to Ebola.

The thousands of TV hours and millions of written words dedicated to ebola’s tiny presence in the US belie the fact that, in the three-months since ebola’s squiggly appearance on American soil, upwards of 8,000 people will likely have died motor-vehicle related deaths. For more perspective, James Ball of The Guardian kindly reminds that, in the coming year, as many as 500,000 people will die worldwide of influenza.

As cryptographer and computer security expert Bruce Schneier sums it up, “The very definition of ‘news’ is ‘something that hardly ever happens.’”

Risk is a particularly hot topic in the climbing world, for obvious reasons. Being high off the ground carries with it a potential for injury and death that standing on terra firma, all else being equal, does not. Still, the average climber’s reality comes nowhere near the danger level most non-climbers equate with the sport.

At climbing’s bleeding edge, you have alpinists like Ueli Steck, “skyrunners” like Kilian Jornet, free soloists like Alex Honnold and Dean Potter (both recently dropped by sponsor Clif Bar due to the perceived risk of their activities), along with a handful of edgy others. The very reason these people are newsworthy is that they don’t represent the norm. If a camera crew followed a group of friends to the local crag or gym with a camera, they’d be sorely disappointed. Not much death defiance here, folks.

One big problem with evaluating risk in climbing, as with most things, is that all climbing isn’t equally risky. Bouldering, due to its lower heights, is very unlikely to end in a fatality, but relatively likely to end in a lower-extremity injury (read: rolled ankle). In trad climbing, death is a bit more likely, but probably you’ll just twist your leg in a cockeyed fall or get tagged by a falling rock (wear your helmet!). In the mountains, a route can be relatively safe or totally hairball depending on the time of year, or even time of day, you choose to climb it. These are all things people tend to gloss over when they talk generally about the “dangers of climbing.”

But the factor that really scuttles our ability to codify the risks of our vertical game is us. As in all human pursuits, we are the cause of most of our problems. Climbing gear hardly ever fails, and when it does, it’s often because it was poorly maintained or inspected, or improperly used. (Ten thousand times more likely than the tearing harness buckle of Cliffhanger fame is the buckle that the climber forgot to double back.) The most urgent threat to a climber’s safety is the actions of other climbers: bad belays, misunderstanding of equipment function, bad communication, foolhardy decisions, and the like.

In the absence of extensive statistics about the danger of climbing and climbing’s many subgenres, we can only bring our empathy to bear. I would probably die if you put me up there, thinks a normal human when watching Ueli Steck hurtle summitward, alone and unroped on a steep slope overlooking the void. Of course, a normal human can’t quite make sense of Steck’s ability or the risk equations that dictate his decision-making process. There is undeniable risk in the things he does, yes, but to apply a layperson’s understanding of that risk to him makes as much sense as municipal traffic safety laws do in a Formula 1 race.

The nebulous nature of human behavior, combined with the sliding scale of climbing risk, makes it hard to pin down exactly how dangerous something like climbing without a rope really is. I once free soloed with Alex Honnold on a slab in the Flatirons. For me, the crushing pressure of ultimate consequences made the 1,000-foot 5.5 feel like it was at my limit. For Alex, it offered no challenge and a vanishing level of risk. Even as he solos harder routes, one gets the sense that he’s no more likely to fall to his death than a drowsy child walking down a flight of stairs. Yet another climber’s odds would almost certainly prove less favorable.

Think of it like driving: We might say, “Driving is dangerous,” but the danger varies wildly depending on factors such as: the driver’s experience level, blood alcohol level, and predilection towards high-speed texting; the make and model of car, presence of safety systems like seatbelts, airbags, and anti-lock breaks; and also the weather, time of day, and so forth. So how dangerous is driving really? And how risky is climbing? The answer in both cases is, “It depends,” which isn’t the kind of answer that makes for simple conclusions… or good headlines.

As climbers we seek to keep the odds in our favor to the extent possible. This entails learning from more experienced climbers and reliable information sources, practicing key techniques, training physically and mentally, learning the uses and limitations of our equipment, learning how to plan well and also what to do when things don’t go as planned. It also means that we must understand our own hearts and our own weaknesses as much as the weather and physics. And everyone of us has to tally his or her own risk-reward equation given the information at hand. In the end, the choice to pull on to that climb, to make that next move, is always our own responsibility. That’s one of the greatest things about climbing, and what can make it such a resounding metaphor for life.

However you do the math, just remember that if it’s on the news, you can probably stop worrying about it. (Unless it’s climate change, then you should be worried.)

Good luck.