A Moon for Halloween

Moon and Tree - photo: © Justin Roth


The night before last, I was standing in an empty field just as the full moon rose through the branches of a tree. I took this picture. A grand, pale orange form as it mounted the horizon, the moon appeared to shrink smaller and smaller as it rose, until it hung like a bare bulb in the sky above us. The sight conjured a Zen story from Zen Flesh Zen Bones, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. The lesson, as always, is one of perspective:

The Moon Cannot Be Stolen

Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.

Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you shoud not return emptyhanded. Please take my clothes as a gift.”

The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.

Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow, ” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

Happy Halloween…

– The Blockhead Lord

From Chalk to Salve: Crap Climbers Put on Their Hands

You might have noticed that rock climbers are obsessed with their hands. Hang out at any crag, and you’ll observe people constantly examining the epidermis of their hands for damage, tamping their tips with the end of the thumb to test the skin’s resilience, trimming nails, filing calluses, taping sore digits, and otherwise tending to wounds that might impede progress on future climbs. It is a scene from some depraved, chalk and dirt coated, self-serve manicure salon.

Little surprise, then, that in pursuit of ideal skin conditions, climbers also apply a wide array of substances to their battered mitts. There is a veritable medicine cabinet worth of crap we dab and slather on our hands so we might climb better, climb longer, climb more often. Below, an abridged list in three sections: drying agents; salves, balms, and oils; and moisturizers. If I’ve left out anything, which I almost certainly have, please add in the comments.


In climbing, moisture is friction’s enemy. Sweaty fingers or humid air can reduce your ability to crank by up to 32% (I just made that up). Accordingly, we climbers are constantly looking for ways to dry out our skin and maximize our ability to stick to small, sloping, or otherwise shitty holds. Below are several specific brands of drying agent, for illustrative purposes, but keep in mind that many companies make chalk, liquid chalk, resin powder, and even scented chalk.

Gym Chalk (aka, the classic)

Claims: Helps absorb moisture, non-toxic
Magnesium carbonate
Downside: Leaves unsightly white marks on the rock and your clothes.
(Link: amazon.com)



Herbal Chalk 

Claims: “Calm your mind and ignite your power to make the move with this spice powered herbal chalk” and “Sooth your sore finger tips, worn thin from days of throwing yourself at a rock, so the last pitch is as fun as the first!”
 Magnesium carbonate, organic extracts, natural sources of menthol.
Downside: Um…
(Pictured: Joshua Tree Fire Herbal Chalk)

Colored Chalk

Claims: “Selected to match common rock colors. The result is a chalk that provides performance climbers demand but does not leave behind unsightly white stains. Rock Chalk is all natural, nontoxic and washable.”
Magnesium carbonate blend with all natural pigments.
Downside: Requires a separate chalk bag for each rock type you tackle.
(Pictured: Terra Rock Colored Chalk)

Liquid Chalk

Claims: “solves the issue of keeping your skin coated with chalk on long boulder problems or intense routes were it is impossible, or too strenuous, to take a hand off for a dip in the chalk bag” and “And then there are the environmental benefits – use liquid chalk and the normal trail of white paw marks will be greatly reduced.”
: Alcohol, magnesium carbonate, magnesium hydroxide, colphonium, hydroxypropylcellulosum, styrax bezoin.
Downside: Alcohol component can over-dry. Some liquid chalk contains resin (rosin; see below).
(Pictured: DMM Liquid Chalk)

Rosin (or Resin)

Claims: Improves grip (couldn’t find any claims with this particular product, but that’s the long and short of it).
Powdered pine resin (colophane), often with additional fillers.
Downside: Creates a glassy (read: frictionless), black coating where used (Fontainebleau, anyone?) . Over time makes the rock almost unclimbable unless you continue to use rosin.
(Pictured: 8c Plus Colophane) 

Antihydral Cream

Claims: “One little dab of the cream, rub it into your hands and your hands will stay bone dry for hours or days” (from foosdirect-store.com). “Methenamine is a condensation product of formaldehyde and ammonia and in solution it releases formaldehyde at a rate depending on the acidity of the medium. The resultant anhidrosis is essentially the result of precipitated protein plugs in the sweat duct” (from a scientific study found here). “This stuff has been a game changer by helping me keep my largest organ in better nick” (from Andrew Bisharat’s review on eveningsends.com).
(Active) Ingredients:
Downside: Danger of extreme cracking and splitting due to over-dryness. Unless you live in Germany, you’ll have to mail order from shady foosball e-commerce site.
(Link: foosdirect-store.com)


While drying agents help you perform on the rock, climbers turn to this class of hand schmutz to help their poor, battered hands heal. Split tips, bloody flappers, and weeping tips? No problem! Just rub on some herbal compound, and you’ll be cranking like it never happened! Truth is, the only cure for truly damaged skin is time, but these various treatments might speed the process a bit…

Joshua Tree Climbing Salve

Claims: “Effective in treating dry, chapped skin, chafing, abrasions, scrapes and cuts” and “moisturizes and promotes healing without softening calluses that the body produces for protection.”
 Beeswax, sunflower oil, jojoba, lavender and tea tree oil, freshly brewed extracts of calendula, echinacea, chaparral, comfrey, myrrh, and benzoin gum.
Downside: Oily consistency leaves anything you touch with a sheen for the first 10-15 minutes after applying.
(Link: jtreelife.com)

Tip Juice

Claims: “It soothes. It calms. It nourishes. It relieves. It promotes skin renewal. It keeps you climbing.”
Ingredients: Unlisted on the website, but is made by hand with “no machines, just pots and pans. Using only the finest natural and vegan ingredients”
Downside: You just put something called “tip juice” on your hands. It was made in some British dude’s “pots and pans.” And you paid to do it.
(Link: tipjuice.co.uk)

Metolius Climber’s Hand Repair Balm

Claims: “Antiseptic blend speeds healing and promotes new skin growth.”
Beeswax, almond oil, apricot oil, Shea butter, cocoa butter, mango butter, St. John’s wort, calendula, chamomile, chickweed, plantain, comfrey leaf, olive oil, aloe vera, jojoba, wheat germ, and a blend of tea tree and lavender essential oils.
Downside: Like Joshua Tree Climbing Salve, can be oily.
(Link: metolius.com)

Climb On! Bar

Claims: “This one product can soothe burns, cuts, scrapes, rashes, cracked cuticles and heels, tissue nose, road rash, diaper rash, abrasions, poison ivy…any skin issue that needs deep moisturizing and nourishing.”
Yellow beeswax, apricot kernel oil, grapeseed oil, wheatgerm oil, essential ois of Citrus vulgaris, lavender, lemon, vitamin E.
Downside: Potent herbal scent.
(Link: climbonproducts.com) 

Crimp Oil

Claims: “Produced especially for climbers who are healing injuries” and “will keep your fingers in good form and less susceptible to tweak when applied after each session” and “quickly eases pain from sore tendons, joints and muscles and supports the daily abuse of hard climbing and solid crimping” and “It can be very effective in case of sprains for example for boosting micro-circulation in addition to cryotherapy” and “Crimp Oil is also very effective in cases of migraine.”
Helichrysum italicum, peppermint, lemon eucalyptos, lavindin super, wintergreen, geranium, equisetum arvense.
Downside: Extreme hippyfication.
(Link: crimpoil.com)


Common climbing wisdom has it that lotions can soften the skin, leaving you more prone to damage in future outings. Personally, cold weather and constant chalk application make my hands so dry, I’d be cracked and bleeding if I didn’t apply some sort of lotion routinely throughout the fall and winter. I’m not alone. Many climbers have found a use for moisturizers in their arsenal of skin-case treatments. Since dry skin is by no means limited to the vertically minded, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of acceptable lotions out there. Here are a few that I like or that have been recommended to me by other climbers:

Mane and Tail Hoofmaker

Claims: “Originally developed for horses to moisturize dry, cracked, brittle hooves. Since applied to the hoof by human hands, over time many of those using Hoofmaker on their horses noticed dramatic improvement in the condition of their hands and nails.”
 Water, distearyldimonium chloride, cetearyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, glycerin, stearamidopropyl dimethylamine lactate, cocos nucifer oil, cetyl alcohol, Polysorbate 60, Steareth 20, Glycine soya oil, DMDM, hydantoin fragrance, methylparaben lanolin, PEG-150, stearate propylparaben, hydrolyzed collegen, PEG-25, castor oil, sodium chloride,  allantoin, olea europaea fruit oil, benzyl sallcylate, citronellol, geraniol, hexyl cinnamal, butylphenyl, methylpropional, limonene, linalool, hydroxyisohexyl-3-Cyxlohexene, Carboxaldehyde, Yellow 5 (C1 19140), Yellow 6 (C1 15985).
Downside: Look at that ingredient list! May lead to uncontrollable snorting, neighing, and desire to run wild through the hills.
(Link: manentail.com)

Eucerin Intensive Repair Extra Enriched Hand Creme

Claims: “Repairs and gently exfoliates dry, cracked skin on the hands and fingers.”
Water, glycerin, urea, glyceryl stearate, stearyl alcohol, dicaprylyl ether, sodium lactate, dimethicone, PEG-40 stearate, cyclopentasiloxane, cyclohexasiloxane, aluminum starch octenylsuccinate, lactic acid, xanthan gum, phenoxyethanol, methylparaben, propylparaben.
Downside: “Contains alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), which may increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, and particularly the possibility of sunburn.”
(Link: eucerinus.com)

Kiehl’s Ultimate Strength Hand Salve

Claims: “Allows skin to actually draw and absorb water from the air, forming a “glove–like” protective barrier against moisture loss” and “helps protect against and repair the appearance of severe dryness caused by heavy industrial work, manual labor, neglect, or exposure to harsh elements.”
“A blend of botanical oils including avocado, eucalyptus, and sesame seed, as well as a natural wax derived from olive oil.”
Downside: Super greasy. Super expensive.
(Link: kiehls.com)

The Language of Stars

Boulders and stars, Triassic, UT.

If the stars should appear but one night every thousand years how man would marvel and stare.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

This Friday I turned 34. Other than that fact that the first and second digits are consecutive, it was not a particularly significant birthday. Rather than throw a party in honor of the occasion, Kristin and I packed our trusty Honda Element and headed south and east of Salt Lake City, to a bouldering spot called Triassic, which feels every bit as prehistoric as the name would imply.

Located between the rural town of Elmo (pop. 368) and the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, site of “the densest concentration of Jurassic-aged dinosaur bones ever found,” Triassic is a desert sandstone bouldering area comprised of a few caches of rock in what was once an ancient seabed. The feeling one gets in this desolately beautiful spot is one of timelessness, as if a herd of Allosaurus fragilis might at any moment come lumbering over the crest of a hill.

Triassic: the land that time forgot

Although the environs at first appear lifeless, an attentive eye will pick out the movement of many a creature — little rock-crawling lizards, chipmunks, jack rabbits, and even antelope — all camouflaged in the dusty tones of the landscape. Humans tend to be the least represented creatures in Triassic. Which is half the reason why Kristin and I chose the spot in the first place. We went there to climb, but also to spend the night isolated in a more wild setting, enjoy a celebratory drink in front of a camp fire, and, among my favorite pastimes in nature, stargaze.

That night, the stars were out in their full regalia. By 11pm, the sun was long gone, the moon had not yet crested the horizon, and all the constellations were razor-sharp and twinkling. Through the middle of the sky was a broad swath of diffuse light, the combined glow of billions of stars forming the spiral-armed Milky Way, seen from on edge like a cosmic Frisbee hurtling towards us.

Communing with the campfire

Dinosaur fossils, the pictographs of ancient civilizations, great geologic landscapes like the Grand Canyon or the Himalaya, the open ocean — all of these are magical to behold, but nothing puts a person in his or her tiny, insignificant place quite like a full-blown sky full of stars, viewed on a clear cold desert night.

To each observer, the vast starscape becomes a celestial Rorschach test. What we see in the unfathomable vastness is a testament to what our hearts most want to see. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “How is it they live in such harmony the billions of stars – when most men can barely go a minute without declaring war in their minds about someone they know.” To him, stars were an example from God of how humans can better carry out their lives. Marcus Aurelius saw them as exemplary of a realm above and beyond petty human concerns: “Look round at the courses of the stars, as if thou wert going along with them; and constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another; for such thoughts purge away the filth of the terrene life.” Van Gogh said simply “The sight of the stars makes me dream.”

Basic view of the Milky Way

To me, the stars serve as proof that we’re the center of nothing in particular, and that our actions leave not a scratch on the broad side of the universe. In the Zen tradition, they remind me to take “serious” things more lightly, and “small” things more seriously, and remember that our only legacy is the example we set in this life, and our ultimate return to the elemental star dust of which we’re made.

The next morning when we woke, the stars had once again disappeared behind the blue veil of the sky. We approached the day with no particular goal in mind. Alone, in the desert, with some water and a few crash pads, we set off walking to see what we could see. But the stars had left their faint impression in our minds and, at least for a little while, we would follow their example.

Why We Need an Alpinist as President

Climber President Seal

It takes a special type of person to think him or herself a good fit for the job description, “Leader of the Free World.” And by special, I mean intensely competitive, eminently ambitious, and confident to the point of either megalomania or narcissism. (As Bertrand Russell said, “The megalomaniac differs from the narcissist by the fact that he wishes to be powerful rather than charming, and seeks to be feared rather than loved. To this type belong many lunatics and most of the great men of history.”) Certainly such a person must at times view the Oval Office in the same way that George Mallory viewed the summit Everest: as an ultimate symbol of achievement, to be sought for little reason other than, “Because it is there.”

Accordingly, I feel a diehard mountaineer, with his or her unique set of skills and personality traits, would make an interesting president. I’m not talking about Paul Ryan and his dubious claims of fourteener domination, but the real, flinty-eyed alpinist who takes perverse pleasure in the pain of extreme altitude, brutal cold, and the incessant object hazards of the mountain environment. Some reasons why include:

  • Meticulous preparation, plus adaptability – A mountain “objective” requires extensive reconnaissance. Little surprise then that alpinists are known for their obsessive intel gathering: What are the ideal seasons for a given climb? How many days can I expect to be on the mountain, and what is the minimum of food and water I can bring to make my safe return likely? What are the crux sections? What are my plans for retreat? What gear will be enough to see me through without weighing me down? Who should I partner with? There are many things to consider, and even after the climber has considered them all, there is still a chance that bad luck will nullify much of that preparation. Likewise, a good president must know the context of his or her decisions and understand both the scope and pitfalls of a given objective, all the while accepting that no amount of preparation will ensure a perfect, or even favorable outcome.
  • Appreciation for nature – It is a rare alpinist who can keep close quarters with the natural world and not hold a deep reverence for its splendor. How, then, could a climber president help but stand as an environmentalist in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, creator of our National Park System? A mountaineer as president would not hesitate to protect our precious wild places from the relentless creep of human greed.
  • Toughness and tenacity – Pain and exhaustion are the bread and butter of the mountain climber’s diet. One need only read classic mountaineering books like The White Spider, by Heinrich Harrer, or more contemporary stuff like the words of Mark Twight, to see that it is pointless to attempt mountains without embracing suffering. Near the summit of Mt. Everest, to use a well-worn example, one enters the “death zone,” above which the human body begins an oxygen-deprived descent into delirium and expiration. Of course, If a person likes things “easy,” he or she does not become a mountaineer. So must a great president not fear but embrace the certain difficulties of the office, relish the challenge, dive headlong into the task of leading a country through ever-treacherous waters.
  • A larger perspective – From a perch above the clouds, where mountains multiply ad infinitum, where you can see weather moving in from a great distance, where perhaps a bird or two loops listlessly in the unseen currents of the atmosphere, here does the climber’s perspective draw its context. The climber sees a world measured by a bigger unit than the inch or foot or even mile. Mountains are measured on a tectonic scale, formed over eons by the meeting of two great plates, and worn away over many eons more by freezes and thaws, by water and wind. Who wouldn’t want in their president that eye for the stretch of human history and the vast motions of the geologic clock? All too often, the political landscape forces leaders to make decisions that suit only the next electoral cycle. A grander perspective — and the resolve to incorporate it into one’s decisions — is required for truly great governance, though at the same time, one must not lose sight of the needs of the moment. A difficult balance, to be sure.
  • A willingness to turn around – It is hard to imagine a president saying, “I was wrong. We are changing course now for the greater good.” The political repercussions of admitting defeat, or suggesting that a new direction is what’s needed, must seem too dire. Still, when a climber plans to turn back from a summit push, he or she must stick to that plan, even when the summit looms in sight. Many a climber has pushed on past the cutoff time… and paid the price with his or her life. It takes a level of humility and discipline to turn back or change course. A climber, especially one leading a team, must put the lives of his or her team ahead of a lust for glory. A president, when leading a nation, must put first the good of the country, and not be swayed by the prospect of additional gain, power, or influence.
  • Realistic risk assessment – Often in this world, we are afraid of things that pose little threat (sharks, bird flu, communism). At the same time, we think little of the truly risky behaviors we engage in every day: driving a car, eating junk food while sitting at a desk for nine hours straight, shopping at Wal-Mart on Black Friday. On every outing, a mountain climber must ask, “Is it safer here to tie in and offer a belay for my partner, or would it be best to keep moving, fast but untethered?” Many times in the mountains, moving slow, safe, and steady is actually a great risk. If a storm blows in or night falls too soon, hypothermia can claim you as easily as a fall. A president is faced every day with questions of life and death. He or she must see the risks as clearly as possible and make decisions based on the most likely and best possible outcome, not based on irrational fear or a paralyzing need for safety. I do not imagine there have been many presidents whose decisions haven’t led directly to many deaths. Such a position is no place for muddy thinking.
  • A strong sense of ethics – Someone once said, “There is no cheating in climbing — only lying.” As a climber you adhere to a certain core of ethics when shit gets tough not because a referee is watching, but because you are climbing for yourself, and you have yourself to answer to. A president also needs a strong core of beliefs and ethics and a willingness to stick to them, even when the media, the Facebook commenters and all the senators are crying for blood. Such deep fortitude is a goodly part of what we want in a president, even though the modern political system seems to encourage just the opposite.
  • Travels well – Any serious alpinist will spend a great deal of his or her time on the road. Flights to Alaska, Nepal, France, Pakistan, Canada — travel is unavoidable, as prime objectives are rarely found in one’s backyard. Too, a climber must be comfortable with the food, customs, and languages of foreign lands. So will the president spend many of his days in the air and far from home. It is a part of the job, and he or she should embrace it, both for the good of personal growth and of international diplomacy.
  • Cool in the face of danger – Fear should never be the basis of one’s decisions in the mountains. Even when fear grips, with its metallic tang and sphincter clench, the good alpinist (hopefully) has enough rational brainpower left to assess the situation — even if that assessment must take place in seconds. Fear is the voice of our basal ganglia pressing us into flight or fight mode. Fear doesn’t see the big picture — it sees the world through a funnel and sees only one option when many hover in the periphery. No human with the launch codes to a massive nuclear arsenal should lack the ability to face fear and still operate on a well-reasoned level.

Unfortunately, there is one overwhelming reason why a dyed-in-the-wood alpinist would be a terrible president: He or she would not take well to a life behind a desk. Not when there are all those peaks out there, solitary, wind scoured, free from the incessant critiques, and demands of a the nation and the world.