The Freedom of Constraints

Notebook with pocket watch, pen, and whiskey - freedom and constraints - The Stone Mind

I’ve been extra busy lately. On the road for work, helping bring a new employee up to speed, revamping processes in our department. I haven’t had much time outside of work for personal things like climbing and reading books and writing this blog. Such a time crunch is a constraint, a challenge, a frustration even. And at the same time, there can be a freedom in it.

Every week I write a post for The Stone Mind. Sometimes I write it in advance, sometimes the night before it’s published. Sometimes I have free time aplenty to write, and sometimes I have precious little. Often when time is lacking and energy reserves are running low, I feel a certain sense of dread at the task of creating a blog. I fear it won’t be good enough or well received. More dreadful still is the thought that I’ll have nothing to say at all.

And for all that, the truth is that every goal big and small is accompanied by constraints, by parameters such as time, budget, motivation, politics, physics, legality, and so forth. But the freeing thing about it all is when you stop seeing the constraints as your enemies, but as tools for focusing your energy.

For this blog post, time was the biggest constraint. I worked through the weekend at a climbing festival in Las Vegas and arrived home late Sunday to a lingering worry about my ability to put something together before Tuesday’s deadline.

Then I realized I could flip the challenge. Instead of the meandering creative process I usually use to generate blog posts, I decided to go a counterintuitive direction and limit myself even further: I’d give myself one hour or less to write this week’s post, and whatever I could accomplish in that time would be what you’d read come Tuesday morn.

No, this post isn’t full of links to quotes and other bits of researched materials. It’s born entirely from my own firsthand experience. Still, I think it carries as important a message as any post I’ve written.

It’s easy to get preoccupied with all the reasons the task before us is too hard, or to complain that the conditions under which we’re working are not ideal. But the truth that any creative person or entrepreneur will tell you is that there’s no such thing as perfect. We never have all the time or tools or skills we wish for. And while this can seem like a negative, in reality it’s precisely these challenges and limitations that give shape to our goals and keep us focused, keep us from floating off into the infinite vacuum of the possible.

There is no endeavor without challenge, and no satisfaction without difficulty. If things are easy, they’re bland. Viewed from one perspective, adversity is a source of stress, anger, and disappointment. But turned for a different viewing angle, it becomes the texture of our lives.

No one knows this better than climbers. Our goals are entirely arbitrary, and their shape determined entirely by their difficulty. The highest peaks and steepest rock walls are valuable only inasmuch as they give us a foil against which to strive and exercise our will.

I think John F. Kennedy put it well when he described the reasoning behind his goal to send humans to the moon. “They may well ask why climb the highest mountain?” He said. “Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? … We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…”

And so the constraints of my life as it is now have served to organize and measure my energies and skills for yet another week. When taken with this attitude, the constraints are less stressful and more simplifying. I have only a little time, and so I work with what I have.

What else is there?

Where Do Climbers Poop?

Toilet paper hanging from a climbing gear rack. Where do climbers poop?
Where do climbers use the bathroom, after all?

Click on over to Google and start typing “Where do climbers…”

You’ll find that, for some reason, a lot of people are concerned about our bathroom habits.

Where do climbers poop, Where do mountain climbers go to the bathroom, Where do rock climbers go to the bathroom, Where do Everest climbers use the bathroom… These are among the most popular queries.

Now do the same thing with golfers and the results are decidedly less fecal: Where do golfers live, Where do golfers stay during the Masters, Where do golfers hang out, and so on.

I guess it makes sense. When non-climbers imagine themselves high on the side of a wall or the frozen flank of a mountain, they picture a world devoid of modern conveniences. Among those, perhaps the hardest to imagine going without is the bathroom, with its sink and shower and toilet—the root of our civilized humanity, if you will.

And of course, there are the purely logistical questions: After one manages to drop a deuce while suspended a thousand feet in the air, what does one do with the result? Chuck it? Bag it? Burn it?

As any seasoned climber knows, the answer to “Where do climbers poop?” varies greatly, depending on the type of climbing, the specific area, and the particular climber’s education and respect for the rules. Here, a very high-level outline of the different scatalogical scenarios that we climbers encounter.

In a climbing gym

The bathroom. The answer to “Where does a climber in a climbing gym poop?” is the bathroom.

At the crag

Often, we climbers spend our time at crags where we’re only actually on the rock for short periods of time. Sport crags like the Red River Gorge, predominately trad spots like Eldorado Canyon, or bouldering destinations like Bishop are all examples. Here, pooping ideally happens before and after a day on the rocks, in a toilet at the campground or a gas station, restaurant, etc. At crags located inside parks or other managed lands, there are often toilets of one sort or another on site.

In the event that the call of nature comes when the climber is far from designated toilet facilities, it’s typical to make like a bear and shit in the woods. According to Leave No Trace, in most places, burying your poo is the best way to roll. But beware: there’s a right and wrong way to do this. Check out the Third Principle of Leave No Trace for details. (Pro tip: don’t burn your TP, especially in dry areas. Years ago, a friend of mine learned this lesson the hard way.)

On the big stone

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson recently made headlines for their ascent of Yosemite’s Dawn Wall, becoming the most ogled and interviewed big wall climbers ever. No doubt the viewing audience, most of whom had never partaken in any climbing activities, were spellbound by the duo’s feats of endurance and daring… and by their ability to live in a little tent on the side of a sheer rock wall for weeks on end without proper plumbing.

To get some insights into the potty practices of such big wall climbers, I contacted my old friend Justen Sjong, of Team of 2 Training. Justen spent several years free climbing El Cap in the early two-thousands. His impressive Valley tick list culminated in 2008 with Magic Mushroom (VI 5.14a).

Justen explained that the use of Cleanwaste Go Anywhere Toilet Kits (formerly known as WAG Bags), or other similar products, is the proper method for vertical turding. “Many local shops sell these bags. I suggest having one on any multi-pitch climb. I’ve shared them with my climbing partner to save on weight—the beta is to use it before your partner :)” According to Cleanwaste, the kit “traps, encapsulates, deodorizes and breaks down waste with a NASA-developed gelling agent.” After using, the bag can be discarded like any other piece of trash.

Justen also recommends planning for lots of human waste on multi-day trips into the vertical. Metolious has a mini haul bag kit specifically designed for doodoo. Homemade PVC waste tubes (aka, “poop tubes”) can also work… or a mini bucket “with a really good lid.” He also offers a few pro tips, such as adding kitty litter in the waste bags to help absorb “the massive stench that builds over days in the hot sun.”

Of course, sometimes climbers don’t plan ahead, forget important items, or even drop stuff while on the wall. In such cases, Justen cited several last-ditch “plan B” methods: In remote areas where there’s no chance of hitting people below, he uses the “Flat Rock Toss”: “When I feel nature calling, I keep an eye out for a flat rock to place a coiler onto. Then I lean out and toss away from any classic climbs and use a smaller rock or stick to wipe.” Others methods include lowering down to an off-route ledge, swinging to the side and letting loose, or going in a paper bag and tossing it (“Make sure you toss it with the wind and clear all parties,” he says.) Needless to say, it’s far better to come prepared…

In the mountains

Like big-wallers, climbers on mountain expeditions can face some challenges when it comes to going number two. For example, in Denali National Park, climbers heading up Mt. McKinley are issued Clean Mountain Cans designed to allow parties to pack out all their human waste.

On busy Everest, mountaineers venturing above basecamp are supposed to bag it up, but for various reasons often end up digging holes in the snow and dropping trou. Unfortunately, the cold and altitude mean that there aren’t sufficient bacteria to break down the climber droppings. The results have been pretty gnarly and the topic of some news coverage as of late.

I reached out to Emily Harrington, who climbed Everest in 2012, and her boyfriend Adrian Ballinger, of Alpenglow Expeditions, to get the scoop on the poop situation on the world’s highest mountain. “At basecamp, they go in a barrel and it gets carried down to the nearest town for waste disposal,” Emily explained. “But [some] teams don’t do that; they just go anywhere. Plus there’s still shit left from forever ago.”

Even when climbers at Everest basecamp use barrels, there can be issues with the sheer volume of excrement. According to a National Geographic article, porters remove upwards of 12 tons of human waste every year, bringing it to open pits at Gorak Shep. Not surprisingly, this waste is causing contamination problems with the village’s water supply.

To help combat this unwanted side-effect of expedition life, a climber and engineer from Seattle named Garry Porter launched the Mount Everest Biogas Project, whose mission is to “convert human waste from base camp into environmentally safe products for the people of Nepal, by designing a biogas system that can operate at high altitudes.”

Where (or how) should climbers poop

“A 2014 survey of 264 land managers showed that 41% of respondents rated improper disposal of human waste as a ‘moderate’ to ‘severe’ impact on the lands they manage,” pointed out Jason Alexander Grubb, Education Programs Manager at Leave No Trace. Clearly, doody is a problem that climbers need to think about.

When it comes to pinching a loaf in the wild, Grubb offers some handy big-picture guidelines: “Know the ecology of the area you intend to visit, understand local land manger regulations, always carry a pack-out system along with trowel and toilet paper, or just go at the restroom at the trailhead or parking lot.” If you’re having a hard time finding official recommendations for human waste disposal at your destination, Grubb outlined the following four objectives that should help guide your decision-making process. Proper human waste disposal should 1) eliminate contamination of water sources, 2) prevent spread of disease, 3) minimize aesthetic impact, and 4) maximize decomposition rate.

The goal in all cases is to protect the environment, access, and other people’s experience. As climbers, we need to take our poops mindfully. I mean just think: if you don’t wont to deal with your shit, imagine how much less everyone else wants to…

The Next Project

On the way down, we're already considering the next project. © The Stone Mind.

“You know you’re trying your hardest when your ‘climbing’ becomes a series of falls punctuated by a few glorious moments of holding on,” a friend once said to me.

You might call this the ragged edge of climbing, where we feel no flow, only frustration. The impossibility of the task whelms up and over us, an impenetrable wall, and we wonder why we’re even wasting our time.

This is a job for someone else, an inner voice opines. Better to give up now and find something more… attainable.

But some other part of us sees the faintest glint of possibility—or not even sees, but intuits it, stretches out towards an irrational belief, bolstered only by the knowledge that there’s nothing to lose for trying.

And so we fight on. Against the forces of doubt and inertia, towards a hope barely visible.

And still we fall.  Each time the boulder rolls back down the hill. Each time we endeavor to roll it back up, like that old Greek story.

Maybe the story gets it wrong, though. Maybe Sisyphus wasn’t just compelled by the gods to roll his boulder up the hill. Maybe he chose to roll it because he believed one day he might grow strong enough to push it all the way up, past the limits of his vision to some distant crest.

With every fall and every failure, some lesson is learned, however subtle. Sometimes it’s as simple as “rest longer between attempts.” Other times it’s as minor as “crimp the hold rather than open-hand it,” or “turn the hip a few degrees more to the left.” Often we must remind ourselves of the most automatic of things, like “breathe.”

Just to breathe. Just to focus on the task at hand without the weight of context on our backs. This is all we have to do, but it can be a lot to ask, because our monkey minds are busy: Will I get hurt if I fall from here? Will I have energy to try again if I don’t do it this time? Who will see me fail? Will I disappoint myself? The monkey mind is strong and cunning…

Sooner or maybe later, we see the possibility of success grow brighter. Unbroken sequences of movement grow longer. We find solutions to moves that once seemed inscrutable. Piece by piece, the impenetrable wall yields.

Now, instead of small islands of success in a sea of failure, an archipelago arcs gracefully into the water, broken only here and there by cruxes.

Finally, we enter the state of flow and a complete bridge appears. “Here” is connected to “there.” But even as we near the top, there’s uncertainly. A final anxiety grips us so firmly, we’re apt to falter on some easy move that we’ve climbed many times before.

Sisyphus’ boulder nears the top of the hill. The end of his struggle is at hand. The impossible has become possible, and yet…

The boulder hasn’t changed. The hill still holds the same incline, the same length. From the top, he looks out and sees no grand answer or tangible reward, only another hill, and behind that more hills without end. The thing that’s changed is his perspective. The only answer is he’s gained is to the question: “Is it possible?” but the affirmation fulfills only momentarily.

What does he do then? He sets his gaze on the tallest peak in eyeshot and plots a course, to see if that one is possible, too.

How is this any different than the climber who, at the end of her project, is already thinking of the next project even as her belayer lowers her back to earth?

Two questions come to mind: Is this all there is? and If so, is there anything wrong with that?

11 Predictions About the Future of Rock Climbing

Astronauts explore the cliffs of Mars. Digitally enhanced acrylic painting for NASA by Pat Rawlings..
Astronauts explore the cliffs of Mars. Painting for NASA by Pat Rawlings.
Most long-term predictions about the future are terribly inaccurate, even when made by intelligent people with a good view of history and the current landscape of the topic at hand. Then again, sometimes the most absurd predictions come to pass. Basically, when it comes to painting a picture of things to come, it’s a crapshoot. It is in the spirit of wild speculation that I bring you 11 predictions about the future of rock climbing. What do you expect to see in the next 10, 20, or even 100 years?
 
  1. People forget the rocks. Due to increasingly turbulent weather patterns (“global weirdening”), worsening pollution, increasingly restrictive land-use laws (thanks to a combination of overuse problems and liability), and the proliferation of super-gyms, outdoor climbing rates actually begin to drop, despite a quadrupling of the total climbing population.
  2. Clean climbing 2.0. New reactive super-adhesives that can be activated and deactivated at the push of a button allow climbers to place “removable” pro pretty much anywhere with no ill effects to the rock. Likewise, a new bio-degradable chalk substance that evaporates after and hour in contact with stone makes traces of human passage far less evident. Purists are confused by such new developments and suggest that in fact it’s the lowering of the challenge to fit our limitations that is the main problem, not the marring of the rock.
  3. Gravity can suck it. The discovery of gravity-diminishing materials makes carrying gear to and from the crag a whole lot easier. In the Himalaya, the Sherpa community suffers a slowdown in business as visitors can now carry up to 500 pounds each of gear. Ethics debates rage around the appropriate use of these materials in climbing contexts.
  4. The first route on Mars. In the year 2032, the first viable Mars colony officially opens its doors to Earthlings interested in a serious change of scenery. In 2035, a climber named Maria Alverez from New LA makes the journey to Mars Colony Beta (aka Big Red), where she makes an ascent of the sheer 4000 meter cliffs at Echus Chasma. A bold feat in Earth gravity, she succeeds on her first attempt due to the significantly weaker gravitational field on Mars.
  5. Sticky rubber body pads. The invention of sticky rubber shoes in the 1930s and sticky rubber knee pads in the 1990s leads eventually to the sticky rubber body suits of the 2020s. Now climbers can use every part of their bodies to gain purchase on the rock, leading to more creative resting possibilities. New techniques like arm-wedging, chest-scumming, and “starfishing” become the norm, and most of the climbs at Rifle are immediately downgraded again.
  6. Comps are America’s pastime. Climbing finally makes it into the Olympics in multiple events, including bouldering, sport climbing, ice climbing, speed climbing, hangboarding, and a new parkour/climbing hybrid known as “free style.” Nike jumps on board. Kids get climbing scholarships to top tier universities. Stadiums are erected to house the wild new climbing structures, which can be reconfigured instantly using an iWatch app. Viewership of National Climbing League Championships exceeds Super Bowl and World Cup viewership. Merchandising goes off the hook (the most popular energy drink is called “Crimp Juice,” while its top competitor is “Sloperade”) and endorsement deals for top-level competition athletes reach into the hundreds of millions of bitcoins.
  7. A dark side emerges. Now that stakes are higher, people find new ways to cheat: anti-gravity pellets sewn into harnesses; nano-bot “chalk” that forms molecular bonds with the rock; genetic doping… . Gambling and corruption scandals become the norm. Climbers “throw” the comps in exchange for massive payoffs. The National Climbing Association is formed to monitor and enforce the rules of the game, but it’s ruled by an authoritarian regime that’s rife with its own transgressions.
  8. The sport grows younger. Climbing 5.14 or even V14 by age 14 is no longer a big deal. In fact, in 2023, a five-year-old flashes Just Do It,  Smith Rock’s iconic 5.14c, after his dad jokingly tells him his binky is up there. As competition becomes increasingly lucrative, parents start their little rock jocks earlier and earlier. Climbing moms replace soccer moms. Kids are placed on strict Zone diets and encouraged to practice their one-arms while doing homework.
  9. Climbing continues to splinter. As the sport grows, new subtypes of climbing cleave off and flourish. Free style climbing (see no. 6, above), one-move “max difficulty” problems, tread walling, slab comps, etc.—all of these grow into their own sports, complete with heroes and stars, specialized equipment, arcane rule systems, and dedicated websites.
  10. Robot climbing is a thing. Climbing bot battles become popular on the Internets as engineers design ingenious machines that can solve complex three-dimensional movement puzzles in unexpected ways. In 2035, the first climbing bot incorporating artificial intelligence is deemed a sentient being and allowed to enter a World Cup comp. The bot wins easily and in 2036 robots are banned from World Cup competitions. A Non-Human Climbing Series is quickly formed to accommodate them.
  11. The more things change. Despite all the changes, all the attention and the money, the new technology and trends, many people still just climb for the joy of it. Same as it ever was.

The Secret to Great Tasting Beer

The Taipan Wall at sunset - The Stone Mind

This is the story of the best beer I’ve ever had. It wasn’t a fancy beer, by any means. In fact, I think it was the sort you could buy in any grocery store or gas station in that part of Australia. But in the years since I imbibed this particular brewski, it has remained in my memory while a thousand other beers, many of more prestigious pedigree, have come and gone. You’ve probably had a similar experience—maybe not with beer, but with whatever aprés-climb beverage you prefer—and I guess now there’s even a scientific explanation for the whole phenomenon.

*   *   *

The hike from the Stapylton Campground to the Taipan Wall starts with a steep climb up a long stone slab. You follow a winding dirt path, dodge a few grazing kangaroos (not really… but possibly), navigate some tightly vegetated corridors, and arrive drenched in sweat 30 minutes later at one of the most epic pieces of stone ever bolted. The boldly streaked orange face rises with steady overhang 200 feet into the air and shrinks horizontally into the distance as if without end. The routes themselves are mostly questing and run-out. As such, they require great technical skill to ascend, or, barring that, preternatural endurance. An iron constitution, common amongst the local climbing populace, is also handy here.

On my visit I had only middling technique and a constitution of a more malleable sort (perhaps copper or tin?), not to mention a boulderer’s endurance. Luckily, my belayer, who I’d met in the campground, was trustworthy, encouraging, and loaned me his No. 2 Camalot that would end up keeping me off the deck on the first of many long falls I’d take during my early encounters with the great wall of Taipan.

All told, my first day was a long one, what with the early morning approach, the sandbagged routes, the many hours of exertion with minimal provisions (thanks to a tight budget and poor planning), and the return to the car at dusk. Back at the parking lot, one of my new Aussie compatriots, glowing from a hard-fought last-go-best-go send, handed me a cold one. I pried it open with a lighter and stood in the dark next to his van with the small crew of down-under rock jocks.

The chilled bottle glass soothed my fingertips, worn raw from the grit of the stone. My exhausted shoulder quivered as I lifted the beer to my lips. But when the malty ambrosia flooded my dehydrated mouth, a radiating warmth cascaded down through my body. I was divided: should I guzzle the whole thing in an effusive paroxysm of gustatory joy? Or would it be better to nurse it, to better savor each effervescent sip? I chose the latter, growing mellower and mellower as the bottle drained into my empty stomach, until finally the world faded into mellow satisfaction and I was left starting up into the shimmering mist of stars, phasing into existence above our heads.

You’ve probably guessed it by now, but it was the exertion, the tribulations, yes even the acute pain of a long day spent grappling with a soaring wall of stone that resulted in a transubstantiation of a lowly beer into a Hero Beer—the type of beer that you taste on a nigh-molecular level rather than just swill down perfunctorily.

Though this phenomenon has been long known to outdoors people, there appears to be some new science to back it up. In a recent study on the effects of pain on the experience of pleasure, a team asked participants to hold their hands in a bucket of ice water for as long as they could, then gave them a cookie (on a side note: where do I sign up for these studies?). Not only did those who held their hand in the bucket indicate enjoying the cookie more, but follow-up studies showed that “pain increases the intensity of a range of different tastes and reduces people’s threshold for detecting different flavours.” Of course, we don’t need a study to tell us that food and drink taste better after a gnarly outing, but it’s interesting to know that there’s more to it than just being hungry and thirsty.

The same study pointed out that the pain of physical exertion can cause our bodies to produce opioids responsible for feelings of euphoria, that pain focuses our attention and “brings us in touch with our immediate sensory experience of the world,” and that pain helps to create bonds between individuals who’ve experienced it together. These findings point to so many of the things we love about climbing (transcendence, immediacy, camaraderie), and remind us that the absence of pain does not, in fact, equal pleasure. Pain, at lest a certain type of it, can actually be a key to pleasure—at least to the deep, resonant pleasure that climbers experience during and after an experience lovingly known as a “sufferfest.”

This study also leads us to reconsider so-called “alpinist’s amnesia,” which leads many a battered, malnourished, and frostbitten mountaineer to return to the peaks that flogged them. Maybe it’s not that they forget the pain, but that they actually crave its side-effects, among them a heightened sense of reality.

Plus, it makes even a cheap beer taste amazing.