Photo Friday: Night Running Video Shoot, Behind the Scenes

This week, I spent two evenings out shooting video with Salt Lake City-based ultra runners Jared and Mindy Campbell and members of the local production company Camp 4 Collective. The footage was for a Petzl video project highlighting night running with headlamps. Below are some “behind the scenes” images and general scenics I snapped while the Camp 4 masterminds, headed up by Tim Kemple, captured stunning footage of Jared and Mindy doing their thing. (I dig my job.) Plus, down below, three important things I learned while out on these shoots.

Camera phone shot taken near Buffalo Point on Antelope Island.
Camera phone shot taken near Buffalo Point on Antelope Island.
A lesser island in the Great Salt Lake, as seen from Antelope Island.
A lesser island in the Great Salt Lake, as seen from Antelope Island.

Day 1:

I brushed at the tiny black carcasses of dead gnats peppering the hairs of my forearms. Other gnats, still lively, vibrated against my cheeks and into my ear canals. One of the Camp 4 camera guys, Hennie, blasted my face and head with Backwoods OFF, but it seemed to have limited effect. We hiked the short trail up to Antelope Island’s Buffalo Point trying not to swat and paw at the gnat clouds that surrounded our heads like dark halos.

Tim Kemple of Camp 4 Collective, waiting for the pesky golden hour to pass so we could shoot some night running.
Tim Kemple waiting for the pesky golden hour to pass so he can shoot some night running.

Once up at Buffalo Point, the wind kept the bugs at bay and we were treated to an epic sunset. Golden light poured across the island, moving the vibrance and saturation sliders up a notch. Soon after the sun went down, Jared and Mindy started running and the Camp 4 crew started shooting. Lightning flashes popped far to the west, somewhere over the edge of the Great Salt Lake. We shot until it was much later and darker than we’d anticipated. On the way home, I just barely resisted the Camp 4 crew’s tempting offer to hit the In-N-Out Burger for a midnight snack.

Day 2:

The wind was cranking up on top of the hill. The trails of the Bonneville Shoreline system traced the spring-green ridges and valleys all around us. Below, Salt Lake City was a sprawl of tiny houses and buildings, dwarfed by the snow-laced Wasatch Mountains in the distance.

The view from the hill, looking down on Salt Lake City and the Wasatch
The view from the hill, looking down on Salt Lake City and the Wasatch.

I had to make a  phone call to help guide my boss up to our location, but the reception was crap, so I walked up to the top of the hill. There, the wind was its worst, scouring every surface. It rippled mercilessly through my thin, short-sleeved shirt. I looked around, and saw that everyone else wore some sort of jacket. It occurred to me then that I have always been the type of guy who brings the stuff he doesn’t need (on this day: a laptop, a copy of Emerson’s collected works, an empty Tupperware container) and fails to bring the stuff he does need (something to block the chilled, howling wind!). I made the call, but the wind made everything sound like amplified static. I gave up.

Runners and crew on the wind-shielded side of the hill, waiting for the sun to drop
Runners and crew on the wind-shielded side of the hill, waiting for the sun to drop. In this picture, the guy with jean shorts and a moustache is telling everyone about the hipster race he started in which competitors are required to run in jean shorts and moustaches.

The runners, camera crew, and I were waiting for the sun to go down so we could start capturing night running footage. Already shivering in the daylight, I wondered how far the mercury might drop after sundown. But really, my suffering was trivial compared to what Jared had endured just weeks ago, when he ran the Barkley Marathons, a 100-mile race with nearly 60,000 feet of vertical gain and loss through the Blair Witch woods of Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park. I can’t even fathom the mindset required to endure such a journey.

Jared Campbell on camera
Jared Campbell, pain cave explorer, mugging for the camera.
Salt Lake City from above
Sprawlingly awesome: Salt Lake City from above.

Despite the wind and a nagging chance of rain, the shoot went well and the skies had a nice look to them. Jared and Mindy were consummate professionals and never once abandoned their good humor while we made them run back and forth on the same stretch of trail repeatedly or sit shivering in the dark answering interview questions while staring into a huge ring light. I can only imagine that after you’ve run 100 miles, all day and all night, your idea of what constitutes a hardship must change. Meanwhile, I was excited that Camp 4 brought out a RED camera to do some of the shooting. Truly the wet dream of the video gear head set.

Hennie and the RED camera, up on a windy hill.
Hennie and the RED camera, up on a windy hill.

Three things I learned…

The final footage should be coming soon. Already, the Camp 4 guys have left on a jet plane for some big deal video shoot or other. Before we parted ways, Tim told me it was nice to shoot something locally for a change. I realized then that I’d learned three valuable lessons working with Camp 4 and the Campbells:

  1. Shooting quality video is not all fun and games. In fact, it is hard goddamned work, and should not be taken lightly. These guys work long hours shooting and longer hours editing, have to know a ton of technical stuff, have to be creative one the fly, and have to know how to make magic even when things go pear-shaped, which they inevitably do.
  2. Ultra runners are batshit crazy. I have no clue what drives a person to explore their own mental and physical limits like Jared and Mindy do, but I respect it. I respect it from the comfort of my couch.
  3. The Salt Lake Valley, despite being a strange place culturally, and despite have ruefully bad air pollution issues, is one of the prettiest places a person can live. I also realized for the first time that autumn, my favoritest season on the East Coast, is not my favoritest season out West. Here, spring is king, with the green hills and still-white mountain tops. Spring out East is muggy and damp. Here it is refreshing like an Irish Spring commercial. Spring, I lift my glass to ye. Sláinte!

Links to stuff mentioned in this post:

A Little Busy Right Now. Here’s A Picture.

Work has bled over into the evening hours lately, so I haven’t had time for personal writing and editing. Therefore, here is a photo for you to enjoy.

This image was captured during a video shoot on Antelope Island, about 30 miles northwest of Salt Lake City. I used a Nikon D7000, a 50mm f1.4 lens, and a reverse grad ND filter I recently purchased. The filter used to belong to Garrett Smith, who was the first person to show me how to use filters for landscape photography. (Thanks, G.)

For more on Antelope Island, which is rad, see this post. I have plenty of bloggy irons in the fire,  too, so don’t be a stranger.

— The Blockhead Lord

Sunset from Antelope Island
Sunset from Antelope Island

You Haven’t Heard of Mary Oliver?

Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver

This isn’t my first blog post about the poet Mary Oliver, but it’s the first to see the light of day. I abandoned the others because they kept straying into the realm of dry, academic analysis. When writing about serious writers, you see, I tend to get an inferiority complex — do I dare comment on the work of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet with anything less than polished, incisive, and heavily annotated prose? Do I have the right to even utter Oliver’s name without having read and considered carefully her entire oeuvre? And the words of the many critics who have critiqued her work? And her biographical information? Soon, instead of a quick blog about a poet I rather enjoy, I felt like I was looking down the barrel of a graduate thesis.

But then I reminded myself of a few things:

  1. We are all going to die someday. Maybe soon.
  2. This is my personal blog. It is not the New York Fucking Times. And even if it was the NY F”ing T, that still doesn’t mean everything has to be a work of genius — it just has to say something interesting in an interesting way. I’ve read plenty of sub-genius writing in the Times and The New Yorker and National Geographic. Genius is a very high bar; if you’ll settle for nothing less, then you’ll end up with nothing at all.
  3. My goal here isn’t to convince you, dear reader, that I am the world’s foremost Mary Oliverologist or some sort of poetry expert, but to share something cool with you. The truth is, I haven’t read all — or even most — of Oliver’s 26 books of poetry. In fact, I only own one of those books, called House of Light. And that one didn’t even win a Pulitzer (!). But still, I have read enough of her writing over the years to know that she is worth reading.
  4. Oliver, now 76 years old, is both popular (as poets go) and controversial (in that several critics have given her bum reviews, despite, or because, of this popularity). But whatever any critic thinks of her, I find something of great value in her writing. Therefore, I am under no obligation to defend her, only to share what it is about her that I find to be so valuable. If you agree or disagree, I would be honored if you’d opine in the comments section below.

Now, in brief, my explanation of why you should pick up House of Light and other books by Mary Oliver:

She is a master of language. After studying literature in college and getting an MFA in poetry, I have yet to encounter a writer who more powerfully evokes the sensual aspects of nature than does Oliver. Three examples of many (many!):

“the mossy hooves /of dreams, including / the spongy litter / under tall trees.”

“Now the soft / eggs of the salamander / in their wrapping of jelly / begin to shiver. … Off they go, / hundreds of them, / like the black / fingerprints of the rain.”

“the soft rope of a water moccasin / slid down the red knees /of a mangrove, the hundred of ribs / housed in their smooth, white / sleeves of muscle …”

Salamander eggs "in their wrappings of jelly"
Salamander eggs "in their wrappings of jelly"


Oliver uses the images of nature to great affect in exploring the biggest, most unanswerable of human questions. She uses them as a lens through which to view being and consciousness, the existence  (or lack thereof) of God or god-like beings. She ties together the religious and philosophical traditions of the West and the East, mingling thoughts of Buddha (see: “The Buddha’s Last Instructions“) with the images of Christianity (see: “Snake” as well as the various examples of serpent imagery and references to Jesus throughout the House of Light) with the intense love of nature of Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau. In Emerson’s view, nature was the the inexhaustible source of our greatest understanding. Oliver seems to have taken this to heart, making nature the subject of nearly every poem, the wordless teacher of every important lesson we need to know. In “Lilies,” she even manages to reference a Zen story, which in turn references the alignment between Christian and Zen principles. She writes:

I have been thinking
about living
like the lilies
that blow in the fields.

They rise and fall
in the wedge of the wind,
and have no shelter
from the tongues of the cattle,

and have no closets or cupboards,
and have no legs.
Still I would like to be
as wonderful

as that old idea. …

Then compare that to the Zen story “Not Far From Buddhahood,” in which a student reads the following Bible passage to his master “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Luke 12:27). The master, on hearing the passage, offers, sagely, “Whoever uttered these words, I consider an enlightened man.”

Lily of the field
Lily of the field

With all of Oliver’s references to Buddhism, it’s hard to imagine she did not read this Zen story. Or, if she did not, it is still hard to imagine she did not read the passage from Luke and see the similarities to what today we would call an Eastern way of thinking. It is a wonderful connection that re-orders the world. We humans could learn a thing or two from the lilies that “melt without protest” on the tongues of the cattle. We could be more at piece with the true nature of our circumstances. But that is not our nature. But we are part of nature. And the serpent eats its own tail…

Because almost every poem in House of Light is about death, in a roundabout way. And since, as I mentioned, we are all going to die (maybe soon), and if you roll that all up with the first two reasons for picking up a Mary Oliver book, you will see that what I am talking about is poetry with an existential purpose. This woman has for over 50 years been intently observing and considering nature, herself, humankind, consciousness, time, and death and has, in her poetry, communicated a vision of the world that very few of us will ever have the time, effort, or talent to formulate. She is offering us an insight into something at once greater than ourselves and within ourselves.

And she does it in a way that is in perfect accord with our times. Unlike the old masters, Oliver speaks in the parlance of our times, in a language that even the least poetically inclined can make sense of without a thesaurus or the help of a teacher. She is carrying on an age-old tradition and doing the poet’s work.

This may not be the golden age of poetry, but that fact does not diminish one whit the value of today’s poetry. Mary Oliver may have sold some goodly number of books in her day, but I do not think most of my friends and acquaintances have been the ones purchasing them. Chances are, you have not been, either. So take this as an excuse to spend a little of that latté money on something with more enduring value. And also, take a walk in the woods.

Photo Friday: Some Shots from the Camera Phone

No time to chat. But here’s a quick Photo Friday gallery for you. All images taken with my Android Inspire’s 8mp camera phone.

Master of Movement or: Why Bear Grylls Is Running Through the Desert

Oh, now I see why he was running...
Oh, now I see why he was running…

A friend pointed me to an awesome video of Bear Grylls “rock climbing” in southern Utah. It’s a commercial for Degree antiperspirant, though I reckon pit sweat is not a man’s biggest concern when he’s hundreds of feet off the deck jamming in a sandy crack.  

UK Climbing has a nice post on the video, in which they identify the route as Rigor Mortis (5.9 C2), on the Tombstone.

If you watch closely, you’ll notice that Grylls himself is never actually shown climbing, only jumping around and vigorously slapping areas of the rock where there appear to be no holds.

Two ropes, no gear, and a big old stem on a blank wall.

We can only assume that the climbing was done by a stunt double. My question is, who was this masked man? Any climbers involved in the making of the video have a duty to come forth and tell us how hilarious it was working with Bear Grylls… unless of course you are contractually obligated not to do so.

A few more burning questions I have after watching this video: Why was Grylls running through the desert (see opening image — after examining the footage closer, I believe I have found the answer)? Why was he climbing in a pair of old, ill-fitting approach shoes? Why was he tied in to a toprope and a lead line? Where was his belayer? Why was he doing the splits and on a blank wall wearing approach shoes? And, most importantly, what type of antiperspirant could a man wear to stay dry on such a daunting adventure? At least we know the answer to the last question. 

National Poetry Month and the Head of a Dead Cat

I was standing at my kitchen counter before dawn last week, eating Greek yogurt and listening to NPR, as is my daily feel-good liberal ritual, when the newscaster offered up an interesting tidbit that made me pause. For most people, this news would have passed un-reacted to, but from me it elicited a good old-fashioned knee slap. “Well hey, what do you know?!” I said to the empty room. “April is National Poetry Month!” I was a little bit embarrassed that this had escaped my attention, since I spent two years and many thousands of good dollars earning a masters of fine arts in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. Though I may be excused, perhaps, in light of the fact that I also was unaware of Easter’s approach until it was actually Easter (“What’s with all the plastic eggs in the neighbor’s yard?”). Likewise with Passover (“What’s with all the lamb’s blood on the neighbor’s doorpost?”). Still, I’ve had a much closer relationship with poetry than I have with any organized religion.

A masters in poetry is a rare thing, but for all its rareness, it isn’t particularly valued by society at large. Aside from my professors and classmates in the poetry program, I can’t recall ever meeting another person who saw fit to invest in an advanced poetry degree. No, the (sad?) truth is, poetry today is regarded as either easy, rhyming drivel of the sort found in self-help literature and greeting cards, or as an opaque, elitist exercise enjoyable only for those with afore-mentioned degrees. Even in the age of the Internet, where a premium is put on bite-sized content chunks, the imminently digestible stanzas of contemporary poetry are rarely shared. My Facebook friends quote movies, songs, and the odd snippet of philosophy, but rarely do I catch a sonnet, an ode, or even a rhymed couplet ticking by on the feed. (The haiku and the limerick are the most notable counterexamples, but these are typically made to suit less-than-honorable ends.)

Maybe it’s because poetry, really good poetry, if I may be so bold as to judge, doesn’t yield easily to passing glances and cursory interpretation. You have to be in the right state of mind if you want to get the meat out of the poetic nut, and willing to work at it. The poetic form is unfamiliar; it’s not how people talk. Like a magic show, a poem asks the audience to suspend its disbelief. Poetry is not like a piece of fiction, riddled with cliffhangers, or a movie with a simple, arc-shaped plot — it is at once more abstract and more complex, full of quantum possibility. Poetry requires the reader to empty his or her cup, metaphorically speaking, before learning what the poem has to offer. In short, there are so many barriers between the average reader and a poem, it’s no wonder we need a specially designated month just to remind us that poems are out there.

And to make matters worse, not all poems are good. Just as most anythings are crappy, so are most attempts at poetry failures, in that they don’t communicate with even the most ideal, receptive reader. Most poems are full of unexamined clichés and easy sentiments borrowed from the greeting cards mentioned earlier. A good and potent poem really is a rare thing, even rarer than an MFA in poetry.

Sometimes when I think of poetry and its paradoxical value, I think of the story of Sozen, a Chinese Zen master and poet. Sozen claimed the head of a dead cat was the most valuable thing in the world, because “no one can name its price.” The idea being that things of true value cannot be sold or purchased. The value of a poem to the human spirit is much like the value of Nature, with a capital “N”. As Emerson says in his essay “Nature”, “The charming landscape which I saw this morning is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape… . This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title.”

In the end, National Poetry Month, initiated in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets, feels a bit like wishful thinking. As if a month in poesy’s honor would rekindle the passions of readers everywhere. And yet… . And yet my own poetic inclinations, long in a state of suspended animation, have begun to stir. (It is fitting that National Poetry Month would be in T.S. Eliot’s “cruelest month.”) I think they only needed an excuse. And in a way, any holiday or day of recognition is really no more than that: an excuse to think about ourselves, our friends and family, our countrymen and women, God or gods, or the universe in a different way. After three-hundred plus days a year of routine and rigmarole, it can hardly hurt to pause and appraise things from a new angle. So, in that way, National Poetry Month is a success, at least for this one-time poet who has drifted away from verse.

I get the feeling that now it’s time to dampen the ol’ quill and start scratching away on brittle parchment once again. Or maybe it’s just time to take up some of the many books of poetry I’ve accumulated over the years. In books, I’ve found, the words are static, but the perspective of the reader is different with every read. With this in mind, I’m excited to revisit my old favorites and see how their words sound to me now: Mary Oliver, Galway Kinnell, Wallace Stevens, Eliot, Yeats, Keats, Bishop, Pound… . I expect I’ll find new and inestimably valuable things in their metaphors and meter.

If you have a poetry collection on your shelf, I can only implore you to select a book long unopened and begin to read. If you have no poetry at your fingertips and no dollars in your purse, turn to the Internet, wellspring of free content. Head to and look to the right side of the page — the list of popular contemporary and historical poets is as good a place to start as any. I can almost guarantee you will find great worth in their words, at least as much as in the head of a dead cat, the most valuable thing in the world.

Adidas Partners with Climbing Gyms and Generally Continues to Cozy Up With Climbers

adida Outdoor magazine for the iPad
adidas Outdoor digital mag for the iPad

New to the climbing scene, adidas Outdoor has recently made an interesting move to outfit climbing gym employees with adidas clothing and shoes. The first press release to this effect announced a partnership with the Brooklyn Boulders, the second a partnership with the new So iLL gym in St. Louis. The positioning in gyms indicates an interest in reaching a broad climbing audience and most likely the youth market, which seems to be the golden goose in the eyes of most companies. (Have you heard of any similar partnerships between gyms and adidas Outdoor or other outdoor-focused brands? I have not…)

If you’ve been following the trail of press releases you’ll know this is but one part in a larger adidas strategy to access a market dominated by brands like The North Face, Arc’Teryx, Patagonia, Columbia, etc. This is no doubt related to the fact that as the recession drags on, outdoor brands, with a focus on performance and durability rather than pure fashion, seem to be faring better than their “indoor” counterparts. Other marketing and outreach efforts from adidas include an iPad app: “With this app users can experience the fascinating stories of alpinists, climbers, kayakers, paraglider pilots and base-jumpers going ‘all in’ in digital form with plenty of exciting extras.” Adidas has also picked up a handful of climbing athletes for its team, including Sasha DiGiulian and Thomas Huber. But perhaps the clearest sign of their dedication to the outdoor, and particularly climbing, markets is their acquisition of Five Ten.

Certainly, Adidas has the war chest and the brand recognition to carve out a spot for itself in the outdoor niche. The question is, how will the core climbing and other “adventure sport” communities respond? I remember ten-odd years ago when Fila attempted to enter the core climbing market with a line of rock shoes. They sponsored climbers like Boone Speed and, if I recall correctly, even approached gyms to form footwear and apparel partnerships. In the end, the sales were not enough to warrant continued interest, though last year Fila did pick up boulderer Alex Puccio as an athlete to rock their Skele-Toes toe shoes (not climbing shoes, per se).

On a related note, hard goods manufacturer Black Diamond Equipment has announced an interest in entering the apparel market, and La Sportiva has introduced a new line of performance skiwear. It would seem that the siren song of apparel’s big margins is too attractive to pass up.

I’d love to hear what you think on this direction in the climbing and outdoor industries. Do you welcome new brands to the climbing marketplace, even big ones like adidas? Do you plan to buy adidas jackets, pants, and approach shoes? Do you fear Adidas will water down Five Ten’s technical shoe offering, or will their deep pockets allow for more exciting new technologies? How do all of the developments in the climbing and outdoor industries mentioned above sit with you? Do you see the future as bright, grim, or pretty much the same?

A Very Special Climbing Poem

In honor of National Poetry Month, a blog called Asshole Climbers posted Ode to the dude bouldering in a harness. To whet your apetite for poesy, read the first stanza, below, and then click through for the full monty. Gotta <3 the Internet…

The other day in the gym I was having a session
Getting thrown off my project and feeling depression
In the corner of my eye, I spied some dude trying his darndest
But for some reason he was bouldering in a harness!

Photo Friday: City Life

I lived in New York City for four years, Brooklyn another four. Though I was in school for much of that time, the city itself was an education. I snapped a lot of photos of the urban experience, but most of them are on film and exist only in that frustratingly difficult to share analog format. (If you’re ever in the neighborhood, stop by and we can leaf through the pages of my many albums.) Following are just a scanty few of the interesting scenes I managed to capture with a digital camera.

From the Vault: Grand Royal Magazine

Magazines have always had a special place in my heart. From Fangoria (in my rebellious, kinda-gross teen years) to Surfer (though I lived in Ohio and never touched a surfboard) to ThrasherRock & Ice, Climbing, National Geographic, Wired, The New Yorker, Lucky Peach, the list goes on. I was always stopping in at the newsstand to pick up some glossy periodical or other. Somewhere in there, there was a very special magazine called Grand Royal. Despite having a brief six-issue run, it loomed large in my collection.

Grand Royal, Issue Four.
Grand Royal, Issue Four.

A sort of proto-hipster porn, Grand Royal was the creation of the Beastie Boys. The white punk band turned hip-hop sensation established the publication in 1993, according to this fanboy site. Style was a big part of the Beastie Boys’ success — a keen eye for the authentic, the retro, the strangely awesome they applied to themselves and everything they touched. Their short lived magazine project was in keeping with this weltanschauung. At one point I had four of the six issues, but, sadly, all I can find now is Issue Four, the Liesure Issue. Although Four’s cover isn’t my favorite (the Lee Perry Wheaties box cover of Issue Two took that honor), the contents are highly worthy of perusal. A few of the many highlights:

  • Real American Badasses: Aaron Burr
  • The Importance of Chill Time, by Mike D
  • East Coast/West Coast Noodlz – Greg Shewchuk vs. Miho Hatori in the Ramen/Soba Debate
  • Pinball Whizzer – Champ Lyman “Silk” Sheats isn’t deaf, dumb, or blind, but he rocks Member’s Only
  • A Wu Tang Clan-themed “Wu Activity Page” full of puzzles and games
  • And also (below) a Xerox-quality image of Burt Reynolds catching a football sans pants, with the text “For the ladies” printed to the side. On the facing page, an ad for do-it-yourself Theremin kits.
For the ladies.
For the ladies.

Having worked in the magazine industry, I know how easy it is for the strange, quirky, and hilariously offensive bits to get sanded off of a finished product during the editing process. Grand Royal seemed not to have this dilema, most likely because it was funded by a trio of deep-pocketed troublemakers. And though it was by no standards a runaway success, Grand Royal did brighten the lives of many thousands of readers with its bizzarre and eccentric contents. I lament the loss of such esoterica, but take heart that the Wild Wooly World Wide Web has and will continue to enable many strange productions of this sort.

"Wu Activity Page"
“Wu Activity Page”

The 36 Chambers: Climbing Lessons from a Kung Fu Classic

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, released more than thirty years ago, is to kung fu movies as The Good, The Bad, And the Ugly is to spaghetti Westerns. In typical fight-flick form, the act of training, of mastering one’s self and one’s art, is the focus. That makes The 36th Chamber a great metaphor for just about any pursuit, but especially for climbing: we set our sights on projects, objectives, and grades, but as soon as we attain them, they lose their luster, and we must set new goals. Even the Chris Sharma’s of the world are still learning, still fighting against their own inner struggles. 

A product of the Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers Studios, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (aka Shaolin Master Killer) is the tale of a young man, San Te (Gordon Liu), who seeks revenge after his family is killed and his home burned by the oppressive Manchurian government. San Te makes his way to the a Shaolin temple, where he is allowed to stay on and train with the badass kung fu monks. The film follows San Te’s passage through the temple’s chambers, each holding a particular kung fu lesson. (Not all thirty-six chambers are actually portrayed, Buddha be praised.)

The training methods employed by martial artists have inspired diehard climbers over the years. The intensity of focus and the acceptance of suffering, coupled with the strong desire to master and control one’s body, make martial arts training and climbing training close cousins. Also, there is danger inherent in both activities — in martial arts, other fighters; in climbing, gravity.

For those looking to truly understand and master the intricate psycho-physical art of rock climbing, San Te’s travails at the Shaolin temple serve as a solid framework. It’s not a one-to-one correlation, to be sure, but mostly because kung fu is awesome and so is climbing I have here adapted five key training tips for climbing from The 36th Chamber of Shaolin for climbing purposes.

A brief disclaimer: the recommended exercises below are not based on any formal education, just decades of climbing experience and exposure to the thoughts of other, far more skilled rock jocks. Know thy limits. If you tweak your groin or sprain your scapula trying one of these exercises, you have only yourself to blame. 

Step 1: Footwork, balance, timing

“I kept it moving: fast, balanced, light… that is the secret. So, balance your movements.”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
Balance, footwork, and timing. These are the foundation upon which strength must be built. Skip them at your own peril.

Soon after San Te begins to study kung fu at the temple, he finds that he must cross a pool of water to access the dinning hall. Floating in the water is a bundle of logs, the only stepping stone to help him across. Try as he may, he cannot make the leap, and always ends up in the water. In the end, he learns how to combine timing, momentum, force, and balance to cross the gap.

In climbing, balance and timing are basic critical elements. It is typical to watch experienced climbers “float” up difficult routes and think that their strength must be very great, but, in fact, balance and footwork are the foundation of any skilled climber’s repertoire. Without them, strength will only take you so far.

Recommended exercises: Climb slabby routes or problems without grabbing any handholds — use only your palms flat against the surface of the wall or rock to balance yourself, relying on your legs for support and your toes and sticky rubber for contact with the wall. To do this, you’ll need to focus on balance, timing, and momentum to shift your weight from your lower foot to your higher foot and gain upward progress.

Step 2: Shoulders, upper body strength

“Most techniques need strength of arms.”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
The shoulder joint is the most vulnerable part of the climber’s body. All the force generated on a climb must pass through this complicated joint. Weak muscles here will lead to poor form and injury.

San Te’s next challenge involves carrying water buckets up to the top of a long chute. He must dump the water into a chute to help the monks below wash dirty robes. (I can’t help thinking there must be a better way… .) The catch comes in the form of knife blades strapped to San Te’s upper arms, pointed inwards. He must carry the buckets with arms outstretched or risk stabbing himself in the ribs.

For climbers, a powerful upper body is important, especially on overhanging climbs. But it’s not only about pulling hard… pushing is involved in a variety of scenarios, from stemming in dihedrals to Gastoning to manteling. Most importantly, strong shoulders, upper arms, and back offer support while climbing, allowing you to move upward with control and precision, and without injury.

Recommended exercises: To prepare the upper body for the rigors of difficult climbing, you can’t go wrong with the basics: pull-ups, push-ups, curls, dips, front and side shoulder raises, rows, and overhead presses. When using weight, it’s best to avoid lifting too heavy — anything you can’t control (read: move smoothly, without shaking or hoisting) through the whole range of the movement is likely to cause more harm than good. If you don’t know what these exercises are or how to perform them, best to consult a trainer or at least a really good YouTube video. As always, if you feel any pain, other than the pain of muscles burning with fatigue, stop immediately and don’t do what you were doing ever again. If you’re like me, you already have problems with your shoulder joints. This article does a good job offering basic exercises to help develop the small, weak muscles around the shoulder that help protect against rotator cuff implosion.

Step 3: Wrist, grip strength

“How are your wrists? Are they real strong?”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
Forearms, wrists, and fingers allow the climber to maintain a firm grip on holds.

In a later chamber, San Te has to lift a hammer on the end of a ten-foot pole and with it bang a massive bell. The exercise was devised to strengthen the hands and wrists, to create and unbreakable grip on one’s own weapon or an opponent’s weapon or body.

Finger, hand, and forearm strength is the hallmark of a rock climber. They are responsible for maintaining contact with the rock. Just a glance at a persons digits (are they calloused? Are the knuckles enlarged?) or forearm muscles (are they bulging, laced with veins?) will tell the story.

Recommended exercises: Better than all the fitness-shop grip-strengthening doodads combined is hangboarding. Workouts are brief (mine usually run for twenty minutes) and you don’t need to do them more than twice a week, especially if you’re mixing them in with a regular climbing routine. You can probably find a used hangboard on Craig’s List or eBay, and your local gym almost certainly has one, too. The most effective hangboard routines don’t involve much movement: you basically grab a pair of holds and dangle for three to eight seconds (if you can hang for longer, the holds are too easy for you), and take a brief rest. repeat three more times, and then move on to another pair of holds. I usually warm up on the bouldering wall, then start with a set of hangs on jugs. Then I progress through slopers, two-finger pockets, medium edges, small edges, and finish with slopers again. Simple. The Moon Fingerboard has consistently received good reviews , and Moon provides a nice, battle-tested workouts you can use with it.

Oh, and  don’t forget to climb. Climbing tends to be the best training for climbing.

Step 4: Eyes, focus, relaxation

“A man who wants to fight, he must have perfect eyes.”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
Often neglected, the eyes are critical in the act of climbing. 

To make sure San Te can track rapid motion with his eyes while keeping his body still, he is asked to place his head between two burning incense sticks (they’re more like logs, really). The instructor in this chamber then whips a lantern back and forth, asking San Te to follow it only with his eyes.

Most climbers often think first about their hand holds, then their foot holds, and then maybe a third thing, like breathing or core tension. How you use your eyes, though, is important. Just like batting in baseball, where you keep your eyes on the ball until contact is made, when making a deadpoint or dyno, maintaining visual contact with the goal hold is key. In addition, what you do with your eyes at a rest can make a big difference in de-pumping and preparing for the climbing ahead.

Recommended exercises:  Find or set dynos and practice making the leap. Once you’ve stuck a particular dyno three times, staying conscious of your gaze’s direction, find a farther dyno or pick goal hold that requires more accuracy (obviously, this will be easier to do in a gym). Breathe, focus your eyes on the prize, and jump, watching your hand all the way to the hold.

You can also practice using your eyes to recover.  The simple act of looking down and “softening” your focus (letting your vision go slack, so that everything is blurry) while on a rest hold allows for a more rapid relaxation and, therefore, recovery. This I picked up from the Boulder-based climbing trainer, Justen Sjong. Get yourself good and pumped on a long route, series of problems, or treadwall, and then settle in to a rest and look down, practicing deep, belly breathing until you feel your heart rate slow. Continue climbing and repeat as many times as possible.

Step 5: Head, determination, toughness

“This phase here usually needs two years. You must pass it, or you’ll never go any higher.”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
Of particular importance to The Blockhead Lord, a strong head is good for more than just cracking walnuts. One must cultivate a stone mind when tackling highballs, cruxes high above protection, or other sketchy maneuvers.

The final chamber shown in the movie is focused on the head. Not so much a matter of thinking, it’s all about toughness. Heavy sandbags dangle from the ceiling, and San Te must run through them using only his shaved dome to clear a path. It’s painful to watch as he butts the bags this way and that, stumbling around drunkenly with red welts on his forehead from the impact. Still, he passes through, and goes on to train with various weapons and fighting techniques.

I have seen more climbers stymied by their own fear and doubt, usually baseless, than by any lack of strength or skill. For instance, the second most of us experience a deep pump setting in, though we might have a good bolt, cam, or pile of pads at our feet, we start to climb like a fall means certain death. We manhandle every hold and fling our feet from one solid perch to the next in terror, literally shaking ourselves off of the wall. Nearly paralyzed, we attempt to downclimb to a safer position, only to fall awkwardly in the process. But letting fear guide your decisions on the wall is almost never a good idea. Unless you are certain that a fall from your position will result is injury or worse, it’s better to pause and breath and try to let the adrenaline blinders fall away before deciding where to go next. Often, we are just a move or two away from a good stance, a huge jug, or the next point of protection.

Recommended exercises:  Look, I’m not going to recommend people go out and start taking mondo whippers on purpose. But that’s what I did. At the gym where I worked, my friend and I agreed that we’d each lead  climb out the wall’s long roof, turn the lip onto the headwall without clipping the last bolt (or two) beneath the roof, and then jump. That first moment, when no clipped bolts were visible and the air started to move around my ears, was terrifying, but the bolts and my belayer were steadfast. The falls were soft pendulums into empty space. After a while, they became less scary and more fun. It helped build the trust in the system required to climb without spirit-sapping anxiety. A similar exercise could be performed with much smaller falls than the twenty footers we took, but only on an overhanging wall with plenty of ground clearance. Of course, this is not to be attempted if you’re not a confident and competent lead climber and your belayer doesn’t have a Word’s Greatest Belayer mug. As with all things in climbing, the wisdom of taking “practice falls” is yours to determine. As the disclaimer goes, climbing is inherently dangerous, and so on and so forth.

Even more basic, the simple act of climbing more frequently can help reduce discomfort on the wall. As you get used to moving in the vertical, everything becomes more tranquil. Climb up to the point where your fear starts to kick in, then pause and practice steady, deep breaths, until you feel composed enough to look up and read the route ahead. Practice using your eyes to steadily scan the terrain around you, spotting holds that might be good for resting or for clipping, making a mental note of their location and possible sequences to attain them. Then, focus on moving to the next good hold and the next, rather than aiming for the top all at once. This works as well outside as it does in, on a trad climb as on sport routes. It is the art of confident, purposeful climbing, and it takes time and practice to perfect. In the end, no matter how you do it, you must develop a strong head if your hope to move on to climbing proficiency and even mastery.

More training stuffs:

FUN FACT: The star of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Gordon Liu, appeared as the wizened, deadly, white-bearded martial arts master Pei Mei in the movie Kill Bill.

Peter Beal: Climbing’s Gadfly

Reading Peter Beal’s blog, Mountains and Water, can be a frustrating experience. He assumes a dour air and seems to relish poking the climbing establishment (if there be such a thing) in the eye. He can, at times, make it sound as if the world of climbing has been corrupted, hollowed out, sold up the river, and that we climbers are all somehow complicit. Though I rarely agree with the viewpoints Beal expresses on Mountains and Water, I have, of late, come to see him in a new light.

In a recent post entitled “Sell, Sell, Sell: Is There An Alternative?” Beal employs the following language to describe the current state of affairs in climbing media: “mundane,” “monotonous,” “sponsor-friendly platitudes,” “endlessly repetitive,” “feel-good bromides,” “sentiments lifted from self-help pop psychology and faux humility,” “trivial thoughts,” and “Ever crisper, more highly defined, and artfully manipulated images of nothing.” In the same post, he suggests that “the climbing environment is reaching a tipping point in terms of how much more commodification it can stand before a total vitiation of the core of the sport is achieved.”

In all honesty, I have yet to figure out exactly what Beal was getting at with his hyperbole, though he did do a nice job laying out some more valid and specific points in a follow-up post, published a week later. Regardless, for those who give a shit about climbing and climbing media, these knocks can feel very personal. Since “Sell, sell, sell,” Beal has been described publicly on the Internet as “sanctimonious” and even as a “pretentious douche.” Whether you agree with him or not, it’s hard to deny that he is an effective rabble-rouser. He seems to revel in attention, even the negative sort.

Whenever I disagree strongly with an argument, I take it as a sign. It means that argument has hit a sore spot. And any sore spot we have within us is worthy of further examination. Beal’s critiques,  and the less-than-tactful means he chose to express them, certainly made an impression on me. One minute I was making my coffee, and the next I was locked in a mental spasm, trying to formulate exactly how and why I disagreed with him. I was drawn back repeatedly to the act of poking holes in his arguments. Then, all at once, I saw that I was on the wrong path. The issue isn’t so much whether Beal’s specific points are valid, but whether his  intellectual monkey-wrenching is valuable. I have since come to think of Beal’s blog as a service to the climbing community. He is our gadfly.

The calssical Greek philosopher Socrates was famous for his use of carefully concocted arguments to stimulate thought in his fellow citizens. He saw debate as critical for the health of a society. Unfortunately, Socrates’ views so irritated the Greek state that he was sentenced to death by the ingestion of a hemlock-based poison. But before this, as recorded in Plato’s Apologia (which translates to “defense” or “explanation”), Socrates made the following statement during his trial:

“…if you put me to death, you will not easily find another, who, to use a rather absurd figure, attaches himself to the city as a gadfly to a horse, which, though large and well-bred, is sluggish on account of his size and needs to be aroused by stinging… .”

In his metaphor, Socrates is a biting gadfly on the flank of the state, a horse that is grand, beautiful, worthy of devotion and respect, but also prone to sleeping. A sleeping state, as Socrates sees it, is one that does not think deeply or consider important questions. It is the gadfly’s job to ensure the horse remains awake, that the state remains vibrant and alive.

If Beal is a gadfly and climbing is the state, then his pointed questions and critical language are intentional — it is a method to rouse us from our complacency. His acts have drawn the ire of many in the climbing community, but that is to be expected. “You, perhaps, might be angry,” says Socrates, “like people awakened from a nap.” Indeed, it is natural to take up arms when confronted by a disruptive voice. Our first response is to strike out and defend our cherished viewpoints and, ultimately, convince or compel the disruptor to be silent. But this is the wrong response — there is more good than harm in Beal’s writing, regardless of how “right” or “wrong” we might deem him to be. Already, his posts have had an effect. Editors from Alpinist and Rock & Ice have responded to his discontents, and quite a few commenters have weighed in on his posts. Discussion and reflection have been stimulated.

Socrates suggests that, without him, the people of the state “would pass the rest of [their] lives in slumber…” Perhaps he was right; it is all too natural for humans to settle into a comfortable existence, where one is to be had. Although I do not compare Beal to Socrates on other fronts — Beal is not the progenitor of Western philosophy, for example — I do see the value in his incendiary tactics. With a few sharp strokes of his keyboard, he has stung the flank of climbing. It is no mortal wound — only a small drop of crimson has sprung up — but the gadfly has served its purpose. The state is awake, at least for a little while.

Attack of the Drones: Shooting Climbing from Any Angle

Drone helicopter in action
A drone helicopter in action. This image is from a guest post by the Swiss climber/photographer Fred Moix.

I recently watched (via DVD) Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson attempt to free climb a particularly blank line up Dawn Wall in Yosemite. Even though I’m a jaded former climbing magazine editor, I was amazed as the camera revealed a barren, vertiginous world of golden granite that few humans will ever visit. I watched, slackjawed, as the duo battled to crimp down on ripples and slivers, took massive whippers thousands of feet above the valley floor, slept on a portaledge, pooped… . It was clear to me how the climbers got to their lonely, suspended perch, but, hey, how did those get cameras up there? Perhaps you’ve wondered the same thing when watching vids like these.

Well, I know a few of the crazy dudes who do this high-angle camera work, and the truth is, they’re climbers, too. The camera operators must be comfortable with the heights and inherent dangers of climbing, fit enough to get where they need to go while hauling a big fracking bag of camera gear up with them, and have a solid understanding of safety gear and techniques. Oh, they also have to know how to point a camera in the right direction and a push the little red button, too.

While the grueling process just described isn’t bound to change anytime soon, there is a new weapon in the climbing documentarian’s arsenal: the remote-control helicopter. I came across this guest post from Swiss photographer Fred Moix on Nikon Rumors today and felt the urge to share. In it, Fred explains his use of aerial drones for getting far-out shots from pretty much any angle. Fred isn’t the first to use this technique, and the rig he shows in the post, while effective, seems to be pretty DIY. A more polished version can be seen at Mammut enlisted the aid of the folks at Dedicam in the making of the video below, which really captures the feel of exposure, height, and freedom that climbing offers.

While no climbing video has really pushed the limits of this technology yet, I think it’s only a matter of time before we see aerial shots incorporated to into more videos from big-name production companies, just as we’ve come to expect artsy DSLR depth-of-field focus pulls and mechanized time lapse slider shots.

Media makers are constantly pushing to document the act and beauty of climbing in greater detail and from wilder perspectives. And while no series of images, words, and sounds will ever match the soul-expanding intensity of a great day out on the rock, quality documentation does offer new ways of looking at, understanding, and sharing our passions. It brings new climbers to the sport and inspires old ones to don their dusty shoes again. In this regard, I see the untethered, dragonfly views that aerial drones enable as a welcome addition to the photographer’s or videographer’s quiver. And I’m excited to see what’s next.

Anyone out there have some other rad examples of climbing footage (or footage from any sport, really) shot with aerial drones? I’d love to see ’em. Post your links in the comments.

 — Update —

A commenter pointed out, as did the videographer Corey Rich himself, via Twitter, that the D4 premier video Why incorporated RC heli shots. These appear in both the kayaking (or extreme canoeing, as I like to call it) and climbing segments of the movie. I watched Why several times and, frankly, I’m very disappointed in myself for missing that [snaps self with one of several rubber bands worn around wrist]. Embedded below are both the making-of, where you get to see the RC heli crashing and being repaired, and the original short movie, which is masterfully put together.

Spotting: You’re Doing It Wrong

So this weekend I headed back to the Valley that is Joe’s, to do some practice climbing on the small cliff chunks there. More importantly, I wanted to meet up with my dear friends Nick and Robin, of Boulder, Colorado. Climbing with these two is always a great time, plus Nick promised to bring me some Avery beers, which I cannot find here in Disneyland – Wild West Edition, aka Salt Lake City.

While climbing with these two go-getters, I noticed Nick had a strange habit of climbing up to the top of the boulder and spotting from above. I don’t think this is the recommended technique, but as Robin is super strong and never falls, I guess it doesn’t matter. Maybe it was some sort of early April Fools gag. Regardless…

I’d also like to give a big shout out to the future Mrs. Blockhead Lord, as she broke the V1 barrier with ease this weekend. She’s a Couch Crusher in embryonic form, if I’ve ever seen one.