Thanks, Climbing…

Thanks!

A bunch of my friends are heading south for Creeksgiving. If you haven’t heard of Creeksgiving, it’s a Thanksgiving spent in the desert-crack-climbing capital of the world, Indian Creek. My friends didn’t make up the term—climbers have apparently been celebrating Creeksgiving for years. From across the country they come. Some dig a pit in the ground and slow-cook their food all day while they’re out dangling from fist jams. Others drive into town and pick up rotisserie chickens and the like. My friend Rick recounts using an Orion Cooker to convection-roast a turkey one year.

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Climbing, Baking, and Zen

A climber wearing a white baker's hat
You show up and you bake the bread. That’s it.

“Usually when we practice we expect something: if we try hard, our practice will improve,” says Shunryu Suzuki in a collection of his lectures on Zen called Not Always So. “If we aim at a goal in our practice we will eventually reach it… . This is true, but it is not a complete understanding.”

Usually when we climb we expect something, too. Even if we don’t state it openly, we bring expectations. It is the same thing a student of Zen expects when she sits in zazen. We want to be better. We expect we will improve with effort.

The weather was perfect when I went climbing last week, but I knew snows would soon cover the rocks, so I really tried to accomplish something that was hard for me. That was my goal, but I didn’t reach it. Instead I did a few climbs that didn’t show improvement. Not good enough.

“Even though you say your practice is not good enough, there is no other practice for you right now,” Suzuki says, as if in direct response to my disappointment. “Good or bad, it is your practice.” If I give myself over to the climb and try my best, I might not meet my own expectations. Still, there is no other practice for me—at least, not at that moment.

It is difficult to let go of your expectations, whether for one climb, one day, or one season. It feels suspiciously like quitting. After all, who wasn’t taught from childhood that we must set goals and stop at nothing to attain them? But the bridge to any goal must be built on a foundation of failure and doubt. Then again, once we reach our goals, we find they rarely offer the type of lasting satisfaction we imagined they would.

Beyond it all, there is another sort of understanding that can only be expressed through the practice itself, and never quite explained. I think this is what Suzuki was getting at.

in his book Run or Die, Kilian Jornet, a very skillful runner who ascends and descends mountains at unusual speed, talks about why he doesn’t suffer from race-day nerves:

“I practice and train for almost 360 days of the year. It’s like a baker getting the jitters the day he has to bake bread. In the end, bread is bread and maybe the bread turns out good or bad depending on a number of things that escape the baker’s control, but the bread will be made according to the same recipe whether it is Monday or Sunday.”

Despite his success in competitions, Jornet has come to focus on the practice, and not the expectation.

For the climber, the recipe is: we show up, we put on our harness or lay out our pad, we tighten our shoes and chalk our hands, and we climb. That is all. Some days the climb goes as planned, some days it doesn’t. However it goes, that is your day of climbing.

“We also do zazen with the understanding that the goal is not reached in one or two years, but is right here,” says Suzuki. “Here is the goal of practice.”

The Professionals

A climber ascending an artificial wall shaped like an eyeball
The life of a professional is lived in the public eye.

After many years working in the outdoor industry and lurking on Internet climbing forums, I‘ve noticed a certain ambivalence about the idea of the “professional” climber. Some people think being a pro must be the greatest thing on earth—all upside and no down. Others think the idea of a pro is an affront to the spirit of climbing, that pros are nothing more than marketing tools.

Many people feel both ways at once, perhaps resenting pros because, they feel, they’re somehow gaming the system, getting more than their fair share of the good stuff. After all, most of us work forty-plus hours a week doing things we find only vaguely fulfilling to pay the bills. We  squeeze in climbing between the office, chores, family, and the like. If we’re especially lucky, we get a good vacation to some destination like Céüse or Hueco or the Alaska Range every couple of years. The obvious question then: What could these pros possibly be doing that justifies a life of climbing, when the rest of us have to actually work for our money? 

From what I’ve seen, however, the professional climber’s life is less glamorous than many imagine and more like the jobs that most of us work: full of trade-offs and sacrifices.

In his Meditations, the stoic Roman philosopher king Marcus Aurelius writes “A man wishes to conquer at the Olympic games. I also wish indeed, for it is a fine thing. But observe both the things which come first, and the things which follow; and then begin the act. You must do everything according to rule, eat according to strict orders, abstain from delicacies, exercise yourself as you are bid at appointed times, in heat, in cold … you must deliver yourself up to the exercise master as you do to the physician, and then proceed to the contest.”

A professional climber’s life might seem glamorous to some, charmed even, but consider, as Marcus Aurelius suggests, “the things which come first, and the things which follow.” For example, to be a professional climber, you should be both gifted and dedicated, climbing consistently and consistently better than most. This alone is a great challenge, of which the world’s millions of average climbers stand as proof.

On top of that, you must accept an itinerant life, flying across the globe and back at the behest of sponsors, living on couches and out the backs of vans. You must pose down for photos and videos, write blogs, submit to interviews, and otherwise hold yourself up for the scrutiny of the unblinking public eye. At the same time, you must be willing to go without the stability and niceties of the typical professional life: a familiar bed, a retirement plan, health insurance, etc.

If you don’t have such skills and are not willing to live like this, companies will not pay your way—or at least not for very long. After all, as a professional, your value is as inspiration, and inspiration must be constantly renewed in the form of new accomplishments, new trips, new media.

A professional climber, like any athlete, must also remember there are no guarantees. Aurelius continues: “Sometimes you will strain the hand, put the ankle out of joint, swallow much dust, sometimes be flogged, and after all this be defeated.” 

Maybe you’ll injure yourself, maybe fail to perform as expected. Maybe you will make some misstep and be criticized and embarrassed. In the end, unless you are the top one-tenth of one percent of climbers, you won’t make enough money to save a nest egg for the future. You’ll just get by, and eventually have to figure out how to make your way in the world when old age or injury set in. Meanwhile, those who resent you or idolize you for your lucky career might well be getting raises, buying houses, having children… .

That’s not to say that being a pro climber isn’t sweet—it certainly can be. If it is the life for you, you should not hesitate to pursue it. But if you are climber who carries some envy or disdain for the professional, remember that for you, climbing is a personal pleasure more than a public performance. The fact that your employer doesn’t care how well you do on the rock is probably part of what makes climbing so satisfying . For most of us climbing’s joy comes not just in the act itself, but also in its contrast to the workaday world.

So I’d leave you with a question: having really considered that which comes first and which follows, how does the life of the professional climber seem to you?

Another Kind of Sport

Climber Anna Stohr bouldering at a competition in Colorado.
Who are we competing with when we climb? Anna Stohr at the 2011 Bouldering World Cup in Vail, CO.

On the way back from a day out bouldering, a story came on the radio about some classic pigskin rivalry that I don’t follow. When I got home, I surfed over to Google News and found a headline about an airport shooting with a subhead that read: “Analysis: Hawaii team’s flight for Utah State game could be delayed.” Ah yes, football season, I muttered to myself. It got me thinking about just how different climbing and football really are.

For instance, tens of millions of my countrymen and women spend large chunks of their free time watching other people play sports, rather than engaging in any physical activity themselves. The fantasy football industry alone has been valued at over $70 billion. Meanwhile, a first-place purse in a really big climbing competition might clock in at $5,000, and the number of rock climbers who have achieved household status can be counted on one hand.

To me, the disparity in climbing’s popularity and that of competitive sports like football isn’t so surprising. Team sports are all about drama and performance. The elements of the battle are visually evident. Players collide, snatch balls out of the air, arc hail-Mary passes towards uncertainty, spin and juke and leap over each other…

In climbing, the battle is more internal.

This is why climbing videographers must constantly work to amp things up, focusing on foot-swinging dynos and gut-clenching falls, setting it all to throbbing electronic soundtracks. When Hollywood gets its hands on climbing, it churns out absurdities like Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit, and zooms in on a ropeless Tom Cruise suspended in a reverse iron cross on a sandy desert tower. But climbing is a game played as much on the inner landscape as on the wall. If it is a battle against anything, it is against oneself. This can be hard to translate for mass consumption.

Yes, there are plenty of climbing competitions. I’ve taken part in a few. But the vibe at most of these events is so chill that the competitors cheer each other on instead of psyche each other out. Score is typically kept on the honor system. Climbing events that create the tension of head-to-head combat, like speed climbing, can often feel contrived. High-level competition, while serious, has yet to make it into the public eye or the Olympics, and high-level competitors rarely make magazine covers or command much screen-time in the vids.

I think climbing’s attitude might be a byproduct of its exploratory, if not a little anarchic, roots. It started with mountaineers whose mantra was “to the top, by any means necessary.” With twenty- or thirty-thousand-foot adversaries covered in snow and ice and wracked with avalanches and brutal storms, there was challenge aplenty without further regulation. And while mountaineers constantly seek to climb in better “style,” winning or losing on the mountain is a far more subjective matter than on the gridiron.

ABC’s Wide World of Sports opened with the phrase, “The thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat.” In the climbing sphere, quotes like Alex Lowe’s “The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun,” seem to resonate more strongly. Meanwhile, the modern climbing hero tends to be the first-ascentionist, or the bold free-soloist who risks everything, artfully and for no discernible reason, rather than the competitor festooned with medals. Many of us are happy to remain what Lionel Terray called “Conquistadors of the useless” — there’s a certain freedom in it.

Ultimately, climbing can and should be many things to many people. Right now, there are fledgling gym rats poised to change the way we think of climbing, and there are plenty of climbers who love competing above all else. But I tend think a lot of us out there love the climbing life precisely because there are no numbered jerseys, screaming coaches, or rulebooks. Because we each get to develop firsthand our own understanding of what climbing is over the course of years or, if we’re lucky, a lifetime. Who climb not in spite of but because no one cares whether we reach the top or don’t, and there’s no money in it in either case. Who climb not to beat anything but our own idea of what we can do, after all…