Inside Out

Mountains in the Wasatch

The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

I stare into the glow. My mind races. Images and words scroll by without end. The river of information, of which I see only one tiny rivulet, rages on, a mighty Ganges of human experience from the absurd to the sublime.

As I scan, my mind dances through a chaotic jumble of emotions: delight (kittens, baby sloths), envy (pics from friends’ exotic vacations and climbing trips), annoyance (knee-jerk political posts, chronic over-sharing), frustration (all the intractable problems of humanity’s own making), confusion (what does it all mean?!)… . There is so much information “out there,” but staring into the screen only pushes me deeper into my own head, creating a cacophony of disembodied voices and stoking a sourceless anxiety that feels all too real.

I set down my phone (does anyone else think it’s ridiculous to call these things “phones” anymore?) and drive up into the nearby canyons of the Wasatch. I park my car and walk away from the road as quickly as possible, rock-hoping up a steep talus slope towards a different headspace.

An hour of slow plodding later, perched on a high boulder with the noise of the road a faint shush, I get a view out across the facing slope of the canyon and to higher peaks in the distance. A large bird lands on the twisted old branch of a long-dead tree and watches me across a wide expanse of open air. We sit like this for minutes, both of us the most recent representatives of our respective, billions-of-years-old evolutionary trees. The scale of this place starts to pull my gaze out towards the world, away from my own special blend of worries and desires. The considerations that earlier had filled my entire awareness now feel small and inconsequential.

“How important is a constant intercourse with nature and the contemplation of natural phenomena to the preservation of moral and intellectual health!” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his journal back in 1851. Sitting on a plank of granite, feeling its cool rasp, following the acute green arrows of a hundred thousand pine trees all pointing in unison towards distant peaks and cloudless skies, I cannot help but agree.

Now the metaphors of the natural world begin to present themselves. There are lessons in the talus fields (something about chain reactions and unintended consequences). There is meaning in the bushwhack (a funny realization that you can only really be off-trail if you have a destination in the first place). Looking out over a landscape marked only faintly by human passage, I start to get the sense that the separation between “here” and “there,” between “me” and “it” is much fuzzier than it felt just hours before. Like the moon in the daytime sky, these realizations were always present, just hidden.

My phone is in my pocket, just in case: maybe I’ll score a selfie with the local moose, or need to call for help when that seemingly stable talus block shifts ever so slightly onto my tibia. Later, I’ll use it to map the coördinates of the boulder I found, as big as a McMansion, near the top of the ridge. Later still I’ll open up my laptop and start typing this blog post. I’ll use Google to find that Emerson quote I was thinking of and to look up the etymology of the world talus (disappointingly, it’s French for “embankment”). There’s nothing inherently wrong with the world of the screen, after all, just the eyes with which we regard it.

That night, half asleep in my room with the window open, the crickets chirp so loudly and in such synchrony that for a moment I think the neighbors alarm system has been triggered. A stormy wind respirates the curtain in and out. Thunder rolls back and forth across the sky. The trick of taking lessons from nature is, I think, carrying them with us wherever we go: at home, to the office, in the subway, on the airplane. It’s keeping the perspective that nature offers us on our tiny but integral place in this world and on the even tinier worries that loom large until we hold up a finger and realize they’re no bigger than our thumbnail and no closer than the moon.

Plaid Free

Plain in a land of plaid

I stood in front of the mirror and sighed. What am I doing? I wondered aloud. I was flashing back to those days in middle school where there was a very real possibility that one of my peers would point at me and call me a loser just because of the clothes I was wearing. Cold sweat beaded on my forehead as I pictured the reactions waiting for me at the Outdoor Retailer Show when it became clear that I was on the wagon, so to speak, a tartan teetotaler—that I had, in fact, gone plaid free.

As I entered the great bustling halls of the Salt Palace, I felt the gazes of hundreds of horrified show-goers fall on me as I walked past. In my cocoon of self-consciousness, I tripped over a small wiener dog following his owner across the aisle. As I was now on his level, the nub-legged canine approached me, cautious and sniffing. One look at my solid blue, short-sleeved, collared shirt with a finely embroidered flock of birds swirling on the shoulder, and the creature started to yap at me and back away in fear. His owner, wearing a plaid shirt and mismatched plaid shorts, turned to see what the fuss was about. A look of anger and confusion crisscrossed his face before he turned in a huff, as if to say, Come along, Denali, he’s not even worth it.

I sat stunned for a minute as the plaid-patterned world swirled around me, whelmed up over me, disoriented me with its many colors and designs. Just then, a dear friend who I hadn’t seen since last year’s show grabbed me by the elbow and hoisted me to my feet.

“Hey J,” he said jovially. “Not rocking the plaid this year, I see! Good move—plaid is played.”

It took a moment for me to tighten up my slack jaw and shake the anxiety from my eyes, but once I did so, I was amazed to see that my friend wore a dark grey shirt with little campfires printed all over it. And then to his right I spotted a plain black shirt, and a green one with pale stripes over there. Was that an acid-washed denim that flitted in the distance? I couldn’t be sure. The more I looked, the more I noticed the anti-plaids—still only a small percentage of the crowd, sure, but a significant one. I wasn’t alone, after all. Proudly plaidless, my friend and I headed over to the Royal Robbins booth to wait in a long line for a free latte.

From a purely logistical standpoint, it wasn’t easy to make it through the show (four days) without wearing a plaid shirt. My employer’s liberal dress code excluded only a few items of clothing, but alongside shorts (especially of the cargo variety) and Crocs, T-shirts were also on the non grata list. Having worked in the outdoor industry for over a decade, my non-T-shirt wardrobe is limited, but by counting out plaid, my options ran dangerously low.

On day three, I thought for sure I wouldn’t be able to make it. After spending a full 20 minutes gazing dead-eyed into my closet wondering if a v-neck was OR-appropriate, I went digging through boxes of old, forgotten garments. There, I found that tank top with horizontal stripes I’d purchased in an effort to fit in while bouldering at The Spot. I found an old rayon shirt with a mondo collar I got at a thrift store for a ’70’s party. I found my childhood bolo tie collection and a bunch of drab old long-sleeved dress shirts I used to wear to my first office job. No dice.

Finally, in the back of my closet, hidden behind a fluffy wall of down jackets and fleece hoodies, I uncovered a pair of collared, polo-style shirts that I’d long-since forgotten. Maybe it was the mustard stains and moth holes that prompted me to stash them out of sight, but flaws be damned, I was happy to see them. I pulled them free with glee, leaving my thick swath of plaid button-ups hanging. My audacious plans for a plaid-free show seemed suddenly attainable.

As day four drew to a close, I strolled among the booths with a sense of accomplishment. I’d stuck to my guns and come out the other side. Plaid, it turns out, isn’t required OR Show attire. In fact, a small but growing anti-plaid trend has already taken root in the outdoor industry.

For the time being, most outdoorsy guys’ closets look like mine, and so we can expect to see a strong plaid presence for at least the next three to five years. But as the practical, wicking, wrinkle-free cotton/poly blends of those old plaids grows threadbare, I have a feeling they’ll be replaced not with more of the same, but with some other pattern, or lack of a pattern, or who knows what. Maybe the plaid of the future is some pattern that hasn’t even been invented yet! Whatever it is, I can’t wait to see it…

Did Psicocomp Just Make Speed Climbing Cool?

Climbers racing to the top at the 2014 Psicocomp deep water soloing competition
Competitors gunning for the top at the 2014 Psicocomp in Park City, Utah.

Last year, after watching the first Psicocomp deep water soloing competition in Park City, Utah, I wrote in a blog post, “Maybe, for the first time, we have the right formula for translating the esoteric art of scaling vertical surfaces into a spectator sport for a wider audience.” But the truth is, the format still wasn’t perfected then: the routes were a little too difficult, and the climbers had to slowly work their way to the top, resting and shaking out along the way like they might in a World Cup comp. Ultimately, there were few top-outs (just one for the men and two for the women) and a lot of mid-route falls, which brought the energy of the event down a hold or two.

This year’s Psicocomp was another story. Here, setters Dani Andrada and Miguel Riera, both from Spain, and Steven Jeffery, a Salt Lake City local, reduced the difficulty of the climbs to something more attainable for the top-level athletes competing—about 5.13a for the women and 5.13d for the men, according to Rock and Ice. The result was a fairly major change in experience. Speed became more of a factor, raising the intensity of the competition and making the duel format more significant. It was riveting to watch Jon Cardwell chase event creator Chris Sharma ropeless up the overhanging wave of a wall at warp speed, or last year’s champ Jimmy Webb go move-for-move with this year’s champ-to-be, Sean McColl. For the first time in memory, my heart raced during a climbing competition as McColl, facing a motivated Daniel Woods in the final round, blasted up 50 feet of steep 5.13+ in just 32 seconds.

Speed climbing has long felt like the ginger-haired stepchild of the competition world. Its focus on hyper-fast ascents (15 meters in 5.88 seconds, as the current world record has it) of vertical walls with specified hold sets feels too far divorced from the act of climbing as many of us know it. In an Instagram post made during Psicocomp, though, Andrew Bisharat quipped: “Speed climbing finally gets cool.” Whether or not this was meant to be taken with a pixel of salt, I think there was something to it. It’s not that the speed component in climbing competition is intrinsically unappealing to climbers, but that the rigid, track and field-like approach that the IFSC takes with the event doesn’t offer the ideal mix of elements to engage a larger climbing audience.

Easier routes also meant that all those climbers who topped out had to jump the full, throat-tightening 50 feet to the little aquamarine pool shimmering below. One by one, they stood atop the wall, chucked their chalk bags off to the side, and then awaited the audience countdown to jump-off (or drop-off, as the case was for those who felt more comfortable downclimbing a bit, first). This added an element of audience participation, which is never a bad thing.

The 2014 Psicocomp ended up even more exciting than the 2013 version. Clearly the event organizers paid attention to issues they encountered on their maiden voyage and tried to remedy them (hot tubs to keep soaked competitors from going hypothermic between heats, for example). Like bakers tweaking a recipe, they adjusted the ingredients and the ratios to create a better overall result. Speed climbing up a steep wall in a head-to-head sudden-death format with little downtime, plus big falls into water, all in a scenic outdoor setting (coincidence that it’s at an Olympic training facility?), attended by some of the continent’s strongest climbers—it turned out to be a heady mix that left the attending throngs stoked.

With its second year in the bag, Psicocomp (and the general concept of deep water soloing comps) still feels like the most interesting development in climbing competition. Perhaps the biggest questions now are, how and when will it expand to other venues, and will people continue to turn out to watch? What do you think?

Prime Movers: Who Were Your Climbing Influences?

Klem Loskot deep water soloing in Spain. Screengrab from Dosage Vol. II.
“Suddenly the ground goes to the side and there is just sky.” Klem Loskot goes deep. bigupproductions.com.

Pretty much everyone who takes a serious liking to an activity has had a role model or a hero. As a youngster, I had three climbing influences that I can recall: Fred Nicole, Klem Loskot, and Johnny Dawes. Strong and accomplished fellows they were (and are), but what resonated most with me was their climbing aesthetic and philosophical approach as much as any specific feats on the rock. A new climber, full of undirected energy, I looked up to these three as masters of movement, exploring the outer reaches of a physical and mental experience. Their example, pieced together from an assortment of articles and videos and scraps of news gleaned from the still-young Internet, helped me construct my personal model of climbing’s meaning and value.

Like a wandering monk, Nicole found and climbed some of the hardest boulder problems in the world, never inviting fanfare or limelight. A stout, frizzy-haired Swiss, he was reserved in demeanor, fluid in style, and pensive in temperament—from my vantage, at least. He seemed different from many of the other top-flight climbers of his day, boasting huge forearms while maintaining a tiny ego. In an interview, Nicole said, “To discover new lines and new moves was always my motivation without thinking of pushing the limits or being a pioneer. Climbing for me goes with the nature and the lack of references is a gift more then a problem.”

Loskot, an Austrian, was the opposite of Nicole in style but not in philosophy. Known for explosiveness of movement as well as voice, Chris Schulte described Loskot’s signature vocalization in a recent profile in Rock and Ice: “The yell is a power-boosting Kiaa! that frees up the chi and fires us like burning arrows.” At the same time, Loskot outlined his own interests in more supple terms: “My climbing is a lot about harmony. Harmony makes me and is leading me to having the flow. It’s the same in life outside climbing. Feeling harmony is a great feeling to me and I watch out to feel so … Just let it flow and be as it is, and adapt.”

The Brit Johnny Dawes is a bit of a climbing philosopher as well, albeit of a different flavor. He was depicted in movies like The Stone Monkey and articles like “The Leaping Boy” (Climbing Magazine No. 164), as well as in his own essays, as overflowing with anarchic, punk rock spirit and a preternatural kinesthetic sense. In 1986, he became the first to climb what was then one of the boldest routes in the world: Indian Face, at Clogwyn Du’r Arddu, Wales. His essay on the ascent is as much a description of his inner landscape as of the climb: “At 70ft I felt OK. An automaton in a plastic bag, my brain floated out in space behind me. It had slim threads which blew in the wind but didn’t seem to be catching on anything; so I continued.” (In the nearly three decades since, Indian Face has been climbed seven times.)

Challenging movement remains for me the shortest path to the flow state—that fleeting alignment of body, mind, and the external world. Loskot put it nicely when he said in Dosage Vol. I, “Suddenly the ground goes to the side and there is just sky and you don’t feel your weight and you are alone in a big room, and you can do everything… . [Everyone] can have this, I guess. It’s not depending on how hard you climb—it’s more how close to your personal limit you are, or how deep you go into yourself.” Nicole, Loskot, and Dawes, each in their unique ways, seemed to express similar thoughts and feelings through their climbs and words and, at a time where I wasn’t clear about what drew me to climbing, they informed the way I saw the rock and myself as a climber.

As Dawes said in an interview with The Guardian, “You can feel sometimes that you’re doing something for real reasons. It comes right out of your heart and will take you somewhere to show you … who you are and what you really enjoy. And that kind of stuff has a really good roll on, I think, for other people afterwards.” It did for me, but I’m interested to know, what climbers have made impressions on you, and why?