Last August I wrote a post called 50 Shades of Plaid, featuring a photo gallery of the many plaid shirts that attendees of the Outdoor Retailer Show wore. The post garnered an inordinate amount of attention and, as Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2013 approached, several people asked what I was planning for a follow-up. This video, shot entirely on an iPhone 5, is the answer — a closer look into plaid, the unofficial uniform of the Outdoor Retailer Show and the outdoor industry.
The word “beta” has been attributed to the late climber Jack Mileski. A noun meaning “A specific, blow-by-blow description of a sequence or climb,” according to Matt Samet’s Climbing Dictionary, it was apparently a reference to the now-defunct Betamax video format. The idea was that, as you might rewind a tape to study a particular piece of footage, so would one climber verbally replay the moves of a climb for another’s benefit. It is more generally used today to mean pretty much any type of advice one can give to another. “What’s the beta on camping at the Buttermilks?” would be an example. It has also come to mean, in a more general sense, the sequence of moves one uses on a climb, as in, “Because she’s a foot shorter than me and has forelimbs like a Tyrannosaurus rex, she has to use very different beta on that route.”
My college climbing partner Jason and I often used different beta. I think of one boulder problem in particular called The Dragon Turns, in upstate New York’s Shawangunks. This choice line features a right-facing rail of edges leading out a horizontal roof. My beta involved much grunting and swinging around and hurling myself towards distant holds. When it was Jason’s turn to ride The Dragon, he used several fancy kneebars that made each move seem smooth and casual. Dumbfounded by the ease with which he moved through the problem, I tried to do it his way and could not manage the magic beta he so effortlessly employed.
“Well, sure, it’s easy if you do it that way,” I huffed, feeling deflated. But, for me, it was “easier” to do it the “hard” way. My way wasn’t great for Jason, either. On this problem and many others, we climbed from the same start to the same finish, but in between we interpreted things very differently. In other words, different paths work for different people. It’s a lesson I’ve been learning and relearning throughout my life.
For example, I always wanted to know how the people I looked up to got to where they were. Another friend of mine back in my Gunks bouldering days was Josh Lowell, founder of Big UP Productions. Five years my senior, Josh wrote smart articles for climbing magazines and made movies that everybody wanted to watch, like Rampage and the Dosage series. Whenever I went climbing with Josh, I wanted to ask him, “What’s the secret? How do I do what you’re doing?” I wanted the beta from someone I saw as having it pretty well figured out. Whenever we discussed such topics, however, I found Josh’s replies, which did not contain step-by-step instructions, unsatisfactory. Why doesn’t he just tell me the secret? What the hell?!
But I think Josh knew instinctively that any specific directions would be of little use; he figured out his own life beta, and I’d have to do the same. A challenge, yes, but that’s what makes things interesting, isn’t it?
Last year, at the plaid and flip-flop fustercluck known as the Outdoor Retailer Show, I ran into Josh. Since last I saw him, he and his wife Ginna had their second kid and purchased a house in a nice part of New York. He’d converted an old structure on his new property into a modern movie studio. He’d also won a sports Emmy for a piece about Chris Sharma deep-water soloing in Spain, and the Reel Rock Film Tour, which he co-founded with the folks at Sender Films, was taking off.
“Wow man, you really made it, huh?” I said to him, reflecting on the way he made his first movie, Big UP, with a Hi-8 video camera and a couple of friends. He was injured at the time, and unable to climb, so he decided to put himself to good use and document an energetic period of bouldering development in the Gunks. He had clearly come a long way since then. Still, as I spoke the words out loud, I was afraid they sounded trite. What does that even mean? I wondered self-consciously in the pause that followed. But then Josh smiled.
“I made it man. I totally made it,” he said.
If we’d had this conversation ten years previous, I would have been wracked with envy. “I want to ‘totally make it!'” my brain would have shouted to itself. But having finally come to terms, more or less, with my own unique life beta, I felt only happy for Josh. Happy and inspired. He worked hard as hell to get where he was.
Tenacity, being true to your vision, using your brain, being honest with yourself and others, having respect for yourself and others, always working to learn and improve… . It has taken me a while to realize it, but this is the type of useful beta I ultimately gleaned from Josh and the many others I’ve come to respect in my life.
I think that’s as much detail as any of us really need.
Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. … This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.
– Tao Te Ching
Over-gripping, in climbing parlance, means you’re expending more energy than actually needed to hold on. Usually out of fear, the climber clutches the rock with undue force, becoming tense and and burning through her strength reserves.
Despite a surfeit of effort, over-gripping makes the climber less likely to succeed. It is a case of energy misdirected.
Common wisdom has it that if you want something badly enough, if you push hard enough, you will achieve your goals in life, whatever they may be. It’s all about maximum effort, even force. I won’t dispute the importance of motivation and perseverance, but when our energy is not being directly wisely, we’re likely to run into problems. The over-gripping — or “gripped” — climber works against herself and against the very motion that will bring her most efficiently to the next hold.
“Sport climbing is the art of almost letting go,” I heard someone say once. I thought it was original sport climbing hardman Steve Hong, but when I emailed him about it, he said the phrase didn’t ring a bell. Still, he didn’t dispute the idea that applying right effort — not too little or too much — is pretty important. “When you have to do 40 moves, you have to portion it out just right. Or else,” he said in his reply. It’s how you save energy for the end crux, or the sequence you bungle and have to down-climb. Plus, climbing efficiently is good style and good fun.
A big step to holding more lightly is to overcome your fear. To move more fluidly, you can’t just change your mindset; you have to rewire the connection between your mind and your body through practice. Here are a few ways to start that process:
- Climb more. The more time you spend up there, the less freaky exposure becomes and the more sense the safety systems will make. If you’re a normal human, you won’t banish fear altogether, but you will learn to manage it and move smoothly despite it.
- Climb with partners you know and trust. Nuff said.
- Run through your safety checklist prior to leaving the ground (biner locked, rope end knotted, harness tightened, knot finished, etc.).
- Take stock of your situation before and during a climb. ID bad fall zones, the condition of fixed gear, and any other possible objective hazards, like loose rock or a hornets’ nest. Act accordingly. The goal here is to minimize surprises and avoid trouble before it starts.
- Breathe steadily and consistently throughout the climb. When you’re tense and your core is locked, you can’t breathe smoothly. Breathing will not only help you maintain a sense of control, but it will force you loosen up.
- Practice taking falls to relieve the tension of “What will happen if I fall here?!” (From a relatively safe position, of course! I say “relatively” because where gravity is concerned, safety is a relative term.)
- Explore the art of almost letting go by finding a rest on your climb and then holding on more and more gently until you relax yourself right off the hold. You might be surprised how much less you can grip and still hold on. (Let your belayer know you plan to attempt this.)
One can also over-grip when it comes to goals, desires, worries, and the like. Like the physical version, mental over-gripping wastes large amounts of energy without offering any value in return. There’s a Zen story about two monks, Tanzan and Ekido, traveling on a road in the rain. They meet a girl in a silk kimono, unable to cross the muddy intersection.
“Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”
“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”
All day long, Ekido clung to his anxiety. For Tanzan, there was no problem. He acted according to his instinct and moved on. What good was Ekido’s worry? From what I can tell, most of us carry such burdens in our minds. We play out fictitious scenarios behind our eyes, imagine consequences and tactics for dealing with our many “problems.” But, often, it’s not until we loosen our grip that we find solutions — or realize there were no real problems to start with, only interesting challenges. The next move flows naturally from a more supple position.
On a climb, the line can be fine between over-gripping and not holding tightly enough, but most of us err on the side of over-gripping because it feels safer. While we might feel safe momentarily, we’re more likely to get tunnel vision, miss good opportunities, or run out of gas at a bad time — just when we need make that next clip, for example. Learning to apply just the effort needed is a process. As we become more familiar with the ideal balance, climbing grows to feel less like a battle — with gravity, with the rock, with ourselves — and more flowing, like water over stone.
I started The Stone Mind less than a year ago, in February 2012. In some ways, it feels like I just started. In other ways, it’s like I’ve been writing it forever. At first it was just a way to keep me working with words after I left my job as a magazine editor. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted the blog to be about. I posted product reviews, photo galleries, an interview or two, personal essays, even a short story. As the months passed, things came into their own focus, and now most of my posts deal with climbing, nature (human and otherwise), and Eastern philosophy, and the many ways in which these topics connect, overlap, and inform each other.
In 2013, I plan to explore these topics further, while at the same time reserving the right to strike out in new directions — this blog, after all, is nothing if not an experiment and an act of personal passion.
Before moving ahead, however, I thought it might be nice to take a quick look back at the most popular posts of the past year. Here are the Top 10 (out of more than 100), ranked by page views. For various reasons, these are the ones that have garnered the most eyeballs. There are many other posts that are dear to me on this blog that have received only a fraction of the views. I know time and attention are the Internet’s most precious commodities, but if you like any of the posts listed below, you might consider taking a moment to poke around in the archives, too. Either way, I hope you find something that interests you.
As always, thanks for reading.
–The Blockhead Lord
Top 10 of 2012
- How to Spot a Climber in the Wild
- Couch Crushers to Widgeteers: 10 Climbing Personality Types Identified
- It’s Not Cool To Care
- Can You Cold-Brew Coffee With A French Press?
- From Chalk to Salve: Crap Climbers Put on Their Hands
- 50 Shades of Plaid: The Unofficial Uniform of Outdoor Retailer*
- Seven Deadly Sprays
- The Rotpunkt Method
- RIP Urban Climber Magazine
- Master of Movement or: Why Bear Grylls Is Running Through the Desert
*This “50 Shades of Plaid” ranking does not include the tens of thousands of page views if you add up all the separate images in the gallery — with those it would easily be the top post!