An Outsider’s Game

A rock climber standing underneath a route in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky. Photo: Justin Roth / The Stone Mind
My friend Derrick in the Red River Gorge, taken during one of my early climbing trips, circa 1995.

Polo shirts and loafers, church groups, BMWs, big houses with porticos and sprawling lawns, golf clubs, box seats at the game, Jeeps, ski vacations, baseball caps, football parties…

These spring to mind when I think of my hometown. It was for the most part a white, Christian, yuppy town with a culture of wealth and status. Of course, not everyone in Upper Arlington, Ohio, was well to do, but it was tacitly assumed that everyone wanted to be.

There were plenty of us who didn’t fit (or even understand) this vision of perfection, however. We were the outsiders in a monoculture, chaffing against what we saw as an  inflexible norm. For this reason, after years of straining to keep up on the lacrosse team, full of people I didn’t get along with and coached by a guy I didn’t much respect, I threw myself fully into climbing, even though it didn’t have a well-defined place in the social hierarchy. It was my game; an outsider’s game.

I used to skateboard, too. Skateboarding was a countercultural act in my town. People saw you cla-clacking down the sidewalk and pretty much wrote you off. You were a punk, a druggie, a roustabout, to use a term from the way back. A lot of skaters did it only for the love, sure, but there was also that element of rebellion that drew many of us to it. Like punk rock, it was a middle finger to the established order, even as it was in the midst of becoming mainstream.

Climbing was different though—it was so new in the Midwest in the 1990s that it didn’t carry many connotations with it. This was exactly what I liked about it. It was a tabula rasa of sorts. The fact that it took place in a dusty old gym or out in the woods, where I would never run into any of my classmates, was even better. It was barely connected to the messy world of adolescent preppie-town social hierarchy I was so tired of navigating. The only fear involved was the fear of falling, which seemed so much cleaner and simpler than the fear of not being accepted by my peers. Climbing wasn’t pro or anti, high class or low—it was just something I did because it felt right. And there were others like me…

My dad was an art professor at Ohio State University, and his graduate students were my baby sitters when I was young. Blue hair, piercings, tattoos—my parents looked straight through their appearances and judged on words and deeds. And for the most part, these students were great influences: romantic intellectuals who followed their hearts with rare gusto. They were every bit as moral as the minivan families dressed in Sunday best, but, it seemed to me, even more honest, more free.

I soon discovered there were people like this at the climbing gym, too. Idealists, environmentalists, people who cared about health, about nature, about living in accordance with their beliefs. They were more interested in making the most of life while they had it than keeping up with the Joneses. Climbers and artists alike seemed after something more personally fulfilling and spiritually grander than the whatever it was the Midwestern suburban value system was offering.

I started climbing in the same athletic shorts I wore to lacrosse practice. I bought an Alpine Bod harness and a pair of 5.10 Spires from the closeout bin in the local outdoor outfitters. I wore my ball cap turned backwards, a vestige of my high school uniform. Slowly, I accrued the hallmarks of the climbing trade: a pair of bright red Mocasym rock shoes, Verve pants, a Prana hoody. I built a new identity around the fine art of climbing up a wall. Absent the pressures of a team, I focused on overcoming my own doubts and weaknesses. No coach was there to tell me I was screwing it up; no teammates scoffed at me when I blew it in a drill. I went at my own pace, motivated by my own interest and excitement. It was precisely what an outsider like me needed to grow.

Interestingly, the solitary game of climbing has helped me to become a better team player. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder like I used to, or much fear of being judged. I also bring more sympathy and empathy to every endeavor I undertake. Life isn’t simple, and people aren’t one dimensional, I’ve noticed. We’re all more alike than we’d like to admit, and more different that we’re often comfortable allowing…

Now, after 20-plus years in the climbing world, having worked at rock gyms, edited magazines, and hung around with pro climbers, I feel more like an insider than ever before. Somehow, I still feel like I’m playing an outsider’s game, though; it just feels right.

Just How Risky Is Climbing? It Depends…

The Fuzzy Calculus of Climbing Risk - The Stone Mind
The author atop a highball V1 warm-up. How much risk was there in the ascent? It depends… . Photo: Kristin Marine.

Fighting flared on the border between Turkey and Syria just days before I was to fly to the region for Petzl RocTrip. Over the phone, my parents sounded nervous. My co-workers joked I should wear a Canadian flag and call them if I got kidnapped by ISIS. A friend already in Turkey told me his wife cancelled her visit after watching the news. It almost got to me. Then I sat back and considered the risk from a more sober perspective.

Since August, only five “westerners,” have been killed abroad by the terrorist organization known as ISIS, and none of them was abducted or killed in Turkey. The only record of an American being recently murdered in Turkey I could even dig up was of Sarai Sierra, who was apparently bludgeoned to death a by a homeless man after she refused to kiss him (this was in early 2013). Clearly, Turkey was not a high-danger zone for tourists. So why all the anxiety?

The simple answer is that we humans are terrible judges of risk. Take for example the recent thigh-high wave of terror that swept the United States after Ebola made it to our shores. Despite all of the doctors and scientists offering cool-headed analyses of the actual threat level, your average American seemed convinced that every person who sneezed in line behind her at Starbucks was in the grip of the virus. To date, there have been two fatalities in the U.S. due to Ebola.

The thousands of TV hours and millions of written words dedicated to ebola’s tiny presence in the US belie the fact that, in the three-months since ebola’s squiggly appearance on American soil, upwards of 8,000 people will likely have died motor-vehicle related deaths. For more perspective, James Ball of The Guardian kindly reminds that, in the coming year, as many as 500,000 people will die worldwide of influenza.

As cryptographer and computer security expert Bruce Schneier sums it up, “The very definition of ‘news’ is ‘something that hardly ever happens.’”

Risk is a particularly hot topic in the climbing world, for obvious reasons. Being high off the ground carries with it a potential for injury and death that standing on terra firma, all else being equal, does not. Still, the average climber’s reality comes nowhere near the danger level most non-climbers equate with the sport.

At climbing’s bleeding edge, you have alpinists like Ueli Steck, “skyrunners” like Kilian Jornet, free soloists like Alex Honnold and Dean Potter (both recently dropped by sponsor Clif Bar due to the perceived risk of their activities), along with a handful of edgy others. The very reason these people are newsworthy is that they don’t represent the norm. If a camera crew followed a group of friends to the local crag or gym with a camera, they’d be sorely disappointed. Not much death defiance here, folks.

One big problem with evaluating risk in climbing, as with most things, is that all climbing isn’t equally risky. Bouldering, due to its lower heights, is very unlikely to end in a fatality, but relatively likely to end in a lower-extremity injury (read: rolled ankle). In trad climbing, death is a bit more likely, but probably you’ll just twist your leg in a cockeyed fall or get tagged by a falling rock (wear your helmet!). In the mountains, a route can be relatively safe or totally hairball depending on the time of year, or even time of day, you choose to climb it. These are all things people tend to gloss over when they talk generally about the “dangers of climbing.”

But the factor that really scuttles our ability to codify the risks of our vertical game is us. As in all human pursuits, we are the cause of most of our problems. Climbing gear hardly ever fails, and when it does, it’s often because it was poorly maintained or inspected, or improperly used. (Ten thousand times more likely than the tearing harness buckle of Cliffhanger fame is the buckle that the climber forgot to double back.) The most urgent threat to a climber’s safety is the actions of other climbers: bad belays, misunderstanding of equipment function, bad communication, foolhardy decisions, and the like.

In the absence of extensive statistics about the danger of climbing and climbing’s many subgenres, we can only bring our empathy to bear. I would probably die if you put me up there, thinks a normal human when watching Ueli Steck hurtle summitward, alone and unroped on a steep slope overlooking the void. Of course, a normal human can’t quite make sense of Steck’s ability or the risk equations that dictate his decision-making process. There is undeniable risk in the things he does, yes, but to apply a layperson’s understanding of that risk to him makes as much sense as municipal traffic safety laws do in a Formula 1 race.

The nebulous nature of human behavior, combined with the sliding scale of climbing risk, makes it hard to pin down exactly how dangerous something like climbing without a rope really is. I once free soloed with Alex Honnold on a slab in the Flatirons. For me, the crushing pressure of ultimate consequences made the 1,000-foot 5.5 feel like it was at my limit. For Alex, it offered no challenge and a vanishing level of risk. Even as he solos harder routes, one gets the sense that he’s no more likely to fall to his death than a drowsy child walking down a flight of stairs. Yet another climber’s odds would almost certainly prove less favorable.

Think of it like driving: We might say, “Driving is dangerous,” but the danger varies wildly depending on factors such as: the driver’s experience level, blood alcohol level, and predilection towards high-speed texting; the make and model of car, presence of safety systems like seatbelts, airbags, and anti-lock breaks; and also the weather, time of day, and so forth. So how dangerous is driving really? And how risky is climbing? The answer in both cases is, “It depends,” which isn’t the kind of answer that makes for simple conclusions… or good headlines.

As climbers we seek to keep the odds in our favor to the extent possible. This entails learning from more experienced climbers and reliable information sources, practicing key techniques, training physically and mentally, learning the uses and limitations of our equipment, learning how to plan well and also what to do when things don’t go as planned. It also means that we must understand our own hearts and our own weaknesses as much as the weather and physics. And everyone of us has to tally his or her own risk-reward equation given the information at hand. In the end, the choice to pull on to that climb, to make that next move, is always our own responsibility. That’s one of the greatest things about climbing, and what can make it such a resounding metaphor for life.

However you do the math, just remember that if it’s on the news, you can probably stop worrying about it. (Unless it’s climate change, then you should be worried.)

Good luck.

Ode to Autumn, aka Climbing Season

Brushing a granite handhold in the golden autumn light

Autumn is a magical time for me as it is for many climbers. In the East Coast and the Southeast, where I cut my climbing teeth, but also here in Northern Utah, psyche blooms when the thermometer dips into the 60s and 50s—into the zone labeled “sending temps.” Because of the potent connection between fall and the best climbing days of the year, I’ve developed a Pavlovian response to certain seasonal indicators. They trigger a tingling in my fingertips and a twang in my fast-twitch muscles, sending me speeding up Little Cottonwood Canyon or American Fork, or out into the scrubby desert slopes of Joe’s Valley. Here, a list of some of those indicators and the unique neural bridges they activate…

A chill in the air – The first time I have to break out a fleece hoody or a down jacket, usually in October, something just clicks inside of me. Even though I set out for the grocery store, I might find myself inadvertently taking the route to the rocks instead. If it’s cold enough for that extra layer here in the valley, I think to myself, it will be even better high up in the canyon! The sight of others wearing puffy jackets and knit beanies amplifies this response even further.

Falling leaves – Have you ever noticed how sensational fallen leaves are? They have their distinctive autumnal coloration, of course, but they also make a wonderful chattering sound as they blow and tumble across the ground, and they offer a satisfying crunch with each footfall, too. Their distinctive odor is sharp and dry and earthy, and somehow urges me both to climb and to lie down and take a nap. The ambience of autumn leaves has attended many of my proudest days of climbing, when the impossible send came together at last. Paired with a strong thermos of coffee, falling leaves activate the try-hard climbing centers in my brain.

Light and shadow – As the year grows long in the tooth, the sun’s arc cuts lower across the side of the sky, shedding a special gilded light and casting elongated shadows out across the leaf-littered landscape. The cool, dry air makes the world feel hyper clear, the colors somehow more intense, sharper and more contrasty. Often, towards the end of a fall climbing day, I’ll just sit and bask in the last warmth of the afternoon sun, watching as it highlights the little chalk particles that swarm up from my jacket when I move. Autumn light has been known to visually enhance the holds that once seemed too small, revealing tiny, crystalline texture and lending hope to the dejected climber.

Low humidity – One of the my least favorite things about winter is the way it dries my hands to the point of cracking, causing little spots of blood to creep into the micro-fractures on the back of my knuckles. But before it gets this bad, there’s a perfect balance where the friction is superb yet skin remains whole and pliant. Dry air seems to fill the lungs more easily, too, and whisks away the sweat of fear and exertion often produced during a challenging climb.

Apple season – In many places, when apples are in season, so is the stone. In New York, hand-painted wooden signs announcing picking tours sprout along the road out of New Paltz. Farmer’s stands once boasting veggies are now mounded over with McIntosh and Empire, Gala and Red Delicious. This time of year, the tart smell of hot cider cuts through the chilled wind to the noses of climbers, coasting past with windows cracked on the way to the crags. A hot cup of the stuff waits as a reward at the end of long days on the stone.

How about you? What is it about the fall that gets your stoke up?