How to Spot a Climber in the Wild

As a budding young climber from Ohio in the early ’90s, I was eager to define myself as more than just another Midwestern suburbanite who bled scarlet and grey. Perhaps to feel more like a member of the tribe, I took pride in identifying climbers on the street, Sherlock Holmes style, based on telltale aspects of their appearance — chalky hands, a prAna T-shirt, a rope-worn biner for a keychain. There was something affirming in just knowing… and maybe getting a curt nod from a fellow climber who’d just performed the same analysis on me.

Two decades later, I no longer care whether other people climb or know that I climb. Nonetheless,  I’ve refined my aptitude for picking out one of my own from a crowd. Below and in no particular order, a list of climber traits you can use to profile folks based on looks alone when they’re nowhere near a crag or a gym. Spot the Climber can be a fun game to play while people watching, or a good way to strike up a convo at a boring social event with someone who shares your love of the vertical. But take heed! One must exercise caution when making assumptions, as all of these traits on their own have crossover with other activities, making them “false tells.” And, of course it’s always important to remember that our generalizations are easily shredded by those folks who don’t particularly look like climbers (too tall and lanky, too short and stocky, too much fat, not enough muscle, “wrong” clothes, etc.), but who will teach you a lesson when it comes to moving over stone and ice.

Obviously, this is an abridged list. What are some of the traits you use to identify a climber in the wild?

Battle-Damaged Hands  

The hands are the most critical body part in climbing, and they get used and abused to no end. Climbers are constantly gripping sharp or highly textured rock surfaces, leading to all manner of scrapes and flappers. Climbers’ digits often grow thicker and more knuckly with age, until they take on the appearance of overstuffed sausages and are so bound up with scar tissue and tendonitis they can barely sign the credit card receipt for a new hang board. Crack climbers’ hands are perhaps the most unsightly, with patches of raspberry-textured scabbing from getting squeezed and screwed between two immovable planes of sandpapery stone. Climbing in cold weather, plus the use of drying agents like chalk, liquid chalk, and antihydral, can lead to cracked and split skin. Finally, holding the rope while belaying transfers dirt and fine metal particles onto a climber’s hands, leading to black streaks across the middle of the palms. Oy vey!

False tell: mechanic, construction worker, craftsman

How does that saying go? The hands are a window to a climber’s soul…

Wears Approach Shoes

In order to sure-footedly scramble over rock slabs, teeter across talus fields, and even edge up sections of moderate fifth-class, climbers purchase a special sort of sneaker. From the outside, many of these “approach shoes” look no different from trail runners or even skate shoes, but a true climber knows how to spot the brands (Five Ten, La Sportiva, Scarpa, Evolv, Mad Rock, etc.) that make real approach shoes, and the gluey black rubber (with names like Vibram and Stealth) that give them their secret sticking powers.

False tell: Non-climbing outdoorsy types who shop indiscriminately at the REI sale rack, parkour practitioners

Chalky Clothes & Face

First used by gymnasts for grip on various apparati (pommel horse, rings, and bars), chalk, aka magnesium carbonate, serves as a drying agent on sweaty hands. Little surprise, then, that John Gill, godfather of modern bouldering, adopted chalk for climbing way back in 1954. Over the years, chalk has become ubiquitous enough that pretty much every climber at a crag or in a gym carries his or her own bag full of the stuff. Now every popular route and problem has a heathy trail of the stuff leading to the top, and every climber has chalk compacted beneath his fingernails, dusting his hair, forming ghostly hand prints on his clothing, and rattling around in his alveoli (“I think I’m getting the white lung, pop!” *cough cough*). One friend of mine has a funny habit of chalking up immediately before putting the rope in his teeth to make a clip, leaving him with a chalky lip that screams, “I plundered the powdered donut jar.”

False tell: Baker, cocaine addict, gymnast

The tell-tale chalk prints of recently active climber.

Carabiners on Person

The climbing carabiner as we know it today was devised by a guy named Otto around the turn of the 20th century. Originally used to connect to anchors, biners have come into popular favor and are now put to use connecting any two things that need connecting. Many climbers use retired biners to clip a leash to their dog’s collar or hold their keys. Less experienced climbers (or non-climbers) can often be seen using large, heavy, and expensive locking biners for such non-intended uses. A common sight on college campuses, for example, is a $20 locking carabiner dangling from the faux daisy chain running down the side of a The North Face backpack… you know, just in case.

False tell: Pretty much anybody

Careful there, that biner’s only rated to 22kN! (Oh, and your gate’s open…)

Lives In Boulder

The small college / mountain town of Boulder, Colorado, is one of the most climber-dense regions in the world. If someone says they are from Boulder, it is a pretty safe bet that they have a “project” at the “crag,” know how to sharpen an ice screw, or are preparing for an “objective” in the mountains.

False tell: Cyclist, endurance runner, perma-stoned college student, super-wealthy bleeding-heart liberal

F*#$ed-Up Feet

For maximum performance, rock climbers typically downsize their rock shoes. In extreme cases, this crushingly tight, down-turned footwear amounts to little more than a form self-inflected foot binding. But even when climbing shoes aren’t tight, climbing itself is a foot-intensive pursuit. Multiple pitches of tiptoeing up granite edges or torquing toes into splitter cracks will take its toll. The result is bruised, missing, or fungus-infected nails, swollen toe-knuckles, and skin discolored by the climbing shoes’ dye. Alpinists and ice climbers subject their “dogs” to a different form of abuse: frostbite. In extreme cases, this can leave toes black and necrotic, resulting in permanent damage or even amputation.

False tell: ballet dancerendurance runner, dogsled racer 

The medical term for this condition is “Climbers Foot.”

Ripped Back, Lats, and Shoulders

Under the constant strain of a rock climber’s pulling motion, shoulders, back, and latissimus dorsi muscles often tend to grow large — especially in those who boulder or sport climb. Due to this powerful upper-body physique, climber dudes are incredibly prone to removing their shirts, even when it’s cold enough for them to wear a knit beanie. Likewise, climber gals will opt for open-backed dresses or even underwear masquerading as, uh, overwear (see: Verve).

False tell: Gymnast, rower, fitness fanatic, Bruce Lee

Popeye Forearms

It is common knowledge that rock climbing’s constant grip-release motion results in overdevelopment of anterior flexor muscles of the forearm. The result is a large, veiny “Popeye” forearm  that makes it difficult to roll up one’s shirtsleeves. Big forearms, though in many cases genetic, are taken as a point of personal pride amongst the climber set, as they are emblematic of the all-important grip strength.

False tell: ice-cream scooper, professional arm wrestler, body builder

Drives a Subaru

For their generous internal capacity (think: room for packs crammed with gear, crashpads, beer coolers, and all your bros and brosephinas), off-road capabilities, high reliability marks, and relatively good fuel economy, Subaru wagons have become the chariot of choice among climbers nationwide. An informal survey suggests that “Subies” account for a full 67% vehicles in the parking lot of the Boulder Whole Foods. (Toyota pick-up trucks, Honda Elements, Audis, and fixed-gear bicycles make up the remaining 33%).

False tell: Tree hugger, liberal

 

 

 

Go Ahead, Eat the Mystery Meat

Mystery Meat at Petzl RocTrip Mexico

“Good Luck,” said the skinny French waiter with bulging eyes and a bad comb over. His accent was thick, so it came out sounding more like “Gewd lock,” but the meaning, and the meaning behind the meaning, was clear. We were screwed.

We’d walked into the uninspiring back alley restaurant in the tourist/climbing town of Fontainebleau, France, with low expectations, but it was late, and as my traveling companions and I had just arrived via plane, train, and automobile from the United States, we were well past picky.

Four of us, there were: my friend Jack, his girlfriend Wendy, and Wendy’s sister, Katy. The girls ordered salads Niçoise, while Jack and I scanned the manly meat section of the menu. I’d studied French for years and was ashamed to admit I had no idea what the hell I was looking at, so I just ordered the agneau, which I knew was lamb. Jack got the bœuf. We sipped cheap Pinot noir and waited for the food to arrive, mute with hunger.

At long last, the server dropped our plates on the table and quickly departed. Before me lay not the glistening, browned rack of lamb of my dreams, but an array of pink, flaccid, strips of raw meat, arranged in a soggy semi-circle around the plate. No garnish or sides. Nothing to trigger my already primed Pavlovian salivation response. Jack’s plate looked much the same.

“So is it, like, tartar?” I asked, hoping someone at the table had seen something like this before. Blank stares from the girls.

“I think so,” Jack said, sounding unsure.

“Shit.”

We gazed down, weighing our hunger against the likelihood of food poisoning. Jack ate a bit of his beef first. Then I tasted mine.

“Hmmm… It’s pretty good!” he said, relieved. It was good, or at least good enough. We began to dig in.

I’d eaten about half the plate of uncooked lamb when the waiter returned, carrying a heavy black block. He looked at Jack and me as he set the block down on the table and then proceeded to reach across and tong a strip of my lamb, laying it across the block’s surface. The meat sizzled merrily. It was now clear that the hot stone was meant as a cooking surface, with which we would add flavor to and kill the colonies of food-borne bacteria cavorting on our meat.

“Ahhh!” our table collectively cooed with embarrassed agreement. “Or course! We get it!”

The waiter’s eyes seemed to bug a little farther from his skull as he saw my half-empty plate. “Good luck,” he said, and then turned and walked towards the kitchen, where the busboy and another waiter loitered. They huddled together to exchange bets on the fate of the foreigners who had just consumed the uncooked and heretofore unrefrigerated meat dishes of dubious provenance. Jack and I could only cook and eat our remaining meat strips and then brace for what I assumed would be a night of intestinal pandemonium.

Back at our gîte, I had a hard time falling asleep. I lay in bed, head spinning with hypochondriacal anxiety, monitoring my stomach’s every gurgle like a volcanologist examining the peaks and troughs of a seismograph readout. Eventually, exhaustion overtook me and I sank into a listless slumber.

Sunshine, birdsong, the smell of a coffee and baguette with jam, no wrenching stomach pains — this is what greeted me as I awoke the next morn. I felt fit as a French fiddle and ready to climb on some of the finest sandstone ever formed. The waiter had wished us good luck, and good luck we had. All my worries had been for naught. Looking back, I mark this experience as the beginning of the end of my longstanding food neurosis.

* * *

When asked how many times he’d had food poisoning, writer, chef and host of my all-time favorite food & travel show, No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain answered thusly:

Just a few. Nothing too serious. My crew — who are more careful and fussy about street food, get sick more often — almost invariably from the hotel buffet or Western-style businesses.

Likewise, I’ve visited rural Mexico and rural China, eating whatever was put in front of me, and managed to escape Montezuma’s Revenge and its equally debilitating Chinese corollary. In my travels, I’ve learned that there’s an important difference between thinking something looks or smell gross, and the likelihood of that food actually causing you harm. This bears out my belief that it’s surprisingly hard to predict when food poisoning will strike. Alongside the expected poultry and ground beef on the CDC salmonella-outbreak list, you’ll find such unusual suspects as mangoes, cantaloupe, pine nuts, alfalfa sprouts and even turtles and hedgehogs (I do not believe the last two were ingested, but you never know…). This year, nearly a dozen people were sickened by, and one has already died from, a listeria-tainted ricotta cheese. Ricotta cheese, for Pete’s sake! You just never know.

And like Bourdain’s camera crew, every time I’ve gotten really sick from food, it’s been at some run-of-the-mill American establishment, the most notable instance being a Wendy’s in Athens, Ohio. My cheeseburger, a tad pink in the middle, tasted fine, but that night I was gripped by the irresistible need to purge my stomach contents. I spent the next six hours shivering and groaning on the floor of a toilet stall, taking turns sitting on and driving the proverbial porcelain bus. So weakened was I by the unforgiving onslaught of beef-bourne bacteria that my friend had to drive me home in my own car. It was years before I could bring myself to eat another Wendy’s burger. Bourdain, who identified the most stomach-churning thing he’d eaten in his travels as “lightly grilled warthog rectum,” avoids American fast food whenever possible. And he never eats chicken nuggets.

All of this is just to say, there’s not much point in worrying.  One of the wonders of the climbing lifestyle is the many places it takes us. Foreign lands, forgotten backwaters, wild deserts — the dedicated climber will often find herself in places that she otherwise never would have visited. And in those places, she will have to find food. What is available, what the locals are eating, will not always be familiar or appetizing — heck, it might not even meet the most basic food-safety guidelines — but it is part of the adventure. All the hand wringing in the world won’t sanitize that street taco or that mystery-meat kebab, so either don’t eat it and live with your gustatory boredom and ravenous hunger, or chow down with your friends and relax, knowing the chances are good that you’ll be fine.

Still, I’m going to have to pass on that warthog rectum. Thanks.

Farewell, Summer Weekend. Adieu.

 

Scarcity can create value, any economist will tell you, and so it is with weekends. The working stiff must wedge into two days all the daydreams (and, alas, the chores and obligations, too) accumulated in the course of the workweek. Thus, each weekend hour is heavy with possibility, dense and precious as a gold doubloon. And of all the year’s weekends, the summer weekend, with its broad swaths of daylight and its jovial warmth, is perhaps the most precious of all. It beckons us to backyard cookouts, jaunts into the high mountains or wind-combed beaches.

But take note! As you read this, there remains but one last weekend to the year’s warmest season. In the northern hemisphere, the astronomical summer meets its end on Friday, the 21st of September. As the sun sets on this final sunny summer Sunday, who could but pine for more days of freedom? ‘Tis understandable, but as one wise old wanderer once scribbled in his leather-bound journals, “Waste not your precious minutes lamenting the weekend’s brief respite! Instead, cherish what time ye do have.”

With that in mind, I’ve here compiled a much-abridged inventory of those things that make me impatient for the next weekend before this one be yet over. I’d much appreciate it if you’d add to this list with your own favorite summer weekend things in the comments below.

  1. Ignoring your alarm clock, set for the typical and ungodly workday hour, and sinking back into sleep until sunlight fills your room.
  2. Having the time to take your dog for a long walk to an open field and play fetch; the sight of your dog’s tongue lolling out of his mouth, flicking slobber pearls onto the dry earth; satisfaction as he flops onto the cool grass in the shade of a tree.
  3. The long breakfast. Or even brunch.
  4. An unhurried tie-in for the first climb of the morning, complimented by the smell of chalk, pine, sun-warmed lichen on stone.
  5. The midday nap in the shade, preferably in a hammock or in the grass with your head propped on a pack.
  6. A beer chilled in a cold stream after a long day on the rocks, or perhaps a late-night whisky, neat, imbibed out-of-doors and containing, faintly reflected, the 300 billion (give or take) stars of the Milky Way.
  7. Grillin’.
  8. Tomatoes from the garden, sun-warm.
  9. Spending a whole afternoon reading that book that’s been loitering on the bedstand.
  10. Orange mocha Frappuccino™!
  11. Just before leaving for a weekend trip, you check to see that the front door is locked one last time. Then, that moment when you turn towards your car and see your travelin’ companion in the passenger seat, shades on, head nodding rhythmically to this song.
  12. Storm clouds billowing up into their customary anvil shape, as if taking a deep breath to blow slanting rain and lightning bolts down onto the earth. Also, the alien yellow-green light that precedes these storms.
  13. Meandering campfire discussions with friends, punctuated by the wood’s fiery crackle, your faces lit from below.
  14. Flip flops.
  15. Sitting down to work on a piece of writing in the afternoon and not lifting your head until your wife turns on the light in the now-dark room and gently asks, “Will you be ready to eat, soon? It’s getting late…

 

 

Climbing Gyms and the Power of Plastic

Brock bouldering at Vertical Adventures in Columbus, OH
Brock climbing with a mind of play. Vertical Adventures, Columbus, Ohio.

This weekend I brought my nephew, Brock, to Vertical Adventures, a climbing gym in Columbus, Ohio. Brock is seven, and Vertical Adventures — Vert, as some regulars know it — is one of the first places I ever climbed. It’s also one of the first places I worked, where I met many good friends I keep in touch with to this day, where I learned how to set a route, smack talk, belay, use proper footwork, train… . It’s also where I first developed that love of the vertical that binds a motley subset of humans into a strangely vibrant community.

Brock is still new to climbing, but he clearly has the bug. At Vert, He climbed with a mind of play, not much interested in following the specific routes or problems. He grabbed whatever holds looked good, cutting his feet dramatically every couple of moves and then dropping to the pads and rolling around. He watched the other climbers, tried out some new moves, and even brushed chalk off the holds for his aunt Kristin. When I asked if I could get a dip of the white stuff, he offered generously, “You can use my chalk; I don’t mind!” Kristin and I left after a few hours, but Brock and his dad stayed on to climb until dinner.

Alexis and Carrie Roccos opened Vertical Adventures in January 1994. At that time, gyms were just starting to sprout up around the country and were especially novel in the heartland. (Vertical World, widely regarded as America’s first commercial gym, opened in Seattle in 1987.) Together with a friend, Alexis constructed the gym’s walls out of plywood and two-by-fours, paint and elbow grease. It was a leap of faith for the couple, who moved to Columbus from the East Coast.

I started climbing at Vert as soon as it opened. I was so excited to have a real climbing gym in town, I shadowed Alexis for my freshman year career day. I helped him pound T-nuts in the sawdusty warehouse space near the Anheuser Busch brewery. Later, in the summers when I returned from college, Carrie and Alexis kindly hired me on as a temp worker, which helped pay for gas, food, and CDs.

Vert and the people I met there over the years played an important role in my development as a human being. Not long before the gym opened, I’d gotten in some trouble hanging out with what you’d call bad seeds — kids who used drugs, huffed paint, stole, fought, basically did whatever they could to numb or lash out against the pain of their broken, abusive households or emotionally absent parents. In great contrast, my parents, loving and supportive, helped me through my own poor decisions in those angst-filled years. Meanwhile, the community that gathered on the walls of a small Midwestern climbing gym offered examples of what healthy friendships were like, what it meant to live a life centered on something you love rather than reacting to things you fear, hate, or resent.

Community is the best word I can conjure for the group of regulars that developed at Vert during the years I climbed there. We not only climbed, but socialized together, watched the Super Bowl together, attended each other’s weddings. When one of our own, a strong young climber named Jeremy, was injured in a car accident one night on the way home from the gym, a group of his friends organized a fundraiser at Vert to help offset some of his heavy medical costs. When Jeremy needed a wheelchair ramp, the crew from Vert, among others, came together and built one.

“I think that people will meet in a variety of settings. Church, on a bike, at a climbing wall, in a pub, at work, etc.,” Alexis wrote to me in an email, but added, “The gym does make that process easier. (Kind of like lube.)” Personally, I felt Vert was more than just lube: it was a hub, a catalyst. But perhaps that was due in part to its location far from natural crags. Still, there are many, many towns similarly situated, and for them, gyms really can create a community of climbers that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

A lot of climbers talk trash about gyms. For some reason, they like to remind others and themselves that climbing outside is real climbing, and climbing in gyms is practice, for gumbies or for kids. Now, I’d be hard pressed to trade time on the rocks for time on plastic, but the truth is, gyms are the biggest thing to happen to climbing in decades. Gyms are the wide end of a funnel through which people of all backgrounds and walks of life can access the climbing life, not just those lucky enough to grow up close to Yosemite, the Gunks, Southeast’s bouldering goldmine.

I started climbing in a gym, but I’m not alone. So did Alex Honnold and Beth Rodden, Sasha DiGiulian and Chris Sharma, and many other climbing heroes today held up as exemplary in the media. Plenty of kids escape the frustrations and pressures of adolescence at their local rock gym. A lot of folks make lifelong friends in the gym, not to mention partners who one day will accompany them up big walls or high peaks. Plenty of busy working parents find the time to keep climbing thanks to the convenience of gyms. Without gyms as training centers, few of today’s hardest climbs would have seen their first ascents. Gyms and the competitions held in them may well be the key to climbing’s future inclusion in the Olympics. The list goes on…

Brock is young yet; there’s no way to tell if he’ll be a lifer or if he’ll move on to other pursuits and forget about climbing. Either way, he has already found a rich new activity through which he can bond with his dad and other kids his age. Lately, he’s been learning to tie knots with a strand of cordelette he bought at Vert, and has plans to come visit Kristin and me in Utah, where I hope to take him out onto the beautiful sandstone in the south of the state — an experience he probably wouldn’t have been so excited about if it hadn’t been for the humble climbing gym.