Climbing Didn’t Save Me

The author shoeing up on the Carriage Road in the Gunks, New York.
The author shoeing up on the Carriage Road in the Gunks, New York.

My anxiety didn’t start when I was in college, but it crested then. In middle school and high school I struggled with anxiety about my studies, about the judgement of my classmates, about meeting girls—I gather this is normal, but mine could get pretty bad. When things were at their worst, I lived in a headspace of bleak scenarios of my own creation.

Not long after I moved into my freshman year dorm in downtown New York City, things grew worse. Life came to feel deeply stressful much of the time. This stress affected my appetite, my sleep, my health.

I adopted mechanisms for coping. When I wasn’t in classes, I walked or skateboarded all over the city, burning off the worry and calming myself with steady movement. I sought out quiet spaces like the library, where I could hide and distract myself amongst the stacks. At night I listened to public radio to fall asleep. The calm, even voices (often British at that hour) were a lifeline of reality trailing down into my turbulent dreamscape.

And of course, I climbed.

I’d been climbing since I was maybe 12 years old, and I always found solace in it. I was most engaged by the challenge of hard boulder problems and sport routes, the way they demanded complete focus. The puzzle of each climb temporarily unified brain and body. The way a climb that seemed impossible and frustrating one minute became possible and exhilarating the next give me an inkling of something deeper: that reality is more a product of our minds than I’d previously suspected.

I worked in climbing gyms to more easily get my fix. Most weekends, I escaped the relentless downtown noise with trips to the Gunks.

For an overstimulated city dweller with anxiety issues, there was nothing more therapeutic than the combination of climbing, good friends, and being outdoors. The relief of a fall day on the Carriage Road was intense after many nights of fitful sleep. The brilliant orange sunsets up there had a way of evening out my palpitating heartbeat.

Those trips allowed me to get my bearings, to remain upright in a world that often felt like it was spinning out of control. The lifestyle of climbing, which required rigorous physical activity and frequent trips to the woods, was critical at that juncture. It helped me find an all-important quiet within myself.

Many of my friends were climbers at that time, too. They were confidants, supporters, encouragers. We talked through our thoughts while walking the dirt paths in the shadow of 300-foot conglomerate cliffs.

Eventually I learned that the calmness I found climbing in nature was actually something I carried within me. I read Zen stories and Eastern philosophy and the works of Henry David Thoreau and Marcus Aurelius, all of which suggested that the external world is almost always less the problem than our reactions to it.

It was when I was struggling most with anxiety and finding relief in climbing that I started to form the perspectives that underpin much of the writing on this blog. Sharing this perspective on climbing and on life has emerged (unintentionally) as one of the aims of The Stone Mind.

I called this post “Climbing Didn’t Save Me” not because I wanted to get persnickety with semantics, but because it’s so easy to look for solutions outside of ourselves. I think it’s important to remember that external things, no matter how positive they may be, can only point us to something that’s already there.

It’s been said that We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are. I think this is right. The act of climbing helped me to see things differently, to approach the world differently. The perspectives I formed via climbing allowed me to cope with and eventually leave behind the anxiety that had plagued me.

So I guess climbing didn’t save me, but it helped me save myself. Or maybe even better: it helped me realize I was never in need of saving in the first place.

On the Evolution of Plastic

Alex Puccio bouldering on plastic at Momentum Climbing, Lehi. Photo: Randyl Nielson.
Alex Puccio climbing on holds you probably wouldn’t find in nature. Photo: Randyl Nielson (www.nielsonphoto.com)

In the old days, it seemed like the epitome of a good indoor climb was one that evoked an outdoor climb. Many of the most classic shapes ever carved from foam came out of this mindset.

I used to pour holds at a place called Pusher, and I remember filling latex molds to produce plastic approximations of Fontainebleau’s sandstone slopers, Little Cottonwood Canyon’s granite flakes and edges, Hueco’s eponymous dog dishes, and limestone pockets and tufas like you might find in France and Spain. I’ve even seen sets designed to replicate the holds of specific routes, like Chris Sharma’s Biographie (back then is was still called Realization). But over time, as any art form does, plastic climbing evolved.

In design speak, skeuomorphism is a style that copies structures that were once necessary elements of the medium or manufacturing process, but no longer. For example Apple used skeuomorphic design in its old Calendar app that looked like a physical paper calendar, complete with leather stitching and the torn remnants of past months’ pages. The design-saavy tech giant eventually did away with such elements and adopted a “flat” design more in keeping with the digital times.

Similarly with hold design, shapers came to see that plastic could do more than imitate rock, and setters realized that the gym’s canvas allowed for more than the simulation of outdoor climbs. Holds shaped like cubes and spheres, or like household objects (lightbulbs and telephones) began to appear.

The only limitations, folks realized, were in the materials and the imagination. There are still plenty of hold sets designed to look and feel stone, but plenty more that aren’t, and the shapes just seem to get funkier all the time.

New production techniques now allow for the creation of big holds, enormous “volumes” to which holds can be affixed, and even modular wall systems, all of which means more possibilities in the setting realm. When I was pouring plastic, the size of the molds, the cost and weight of the plastic resin, and other limitations of our rudimentary production system kept our holds to a certain size and complexity.

These days I’m routinely entertained by the abstract shapes I find waiting on the wall in the local gym. They look cool and often require creative thinking to navigate. I’ve even noticed a trend towards routes that enter the realm of visual design. Beyond just creating cool moves, routesetters are using holds to create arresting patterns of shape and color. Maybe it’s gym climbing’s version of the aesthetic draw found in classic outdoor lines?

At first glance, you might ask, How well do the otherworldly forms of the modern climbing wall prepare people for outdoor climbs?

But I’d suggest that they don’t have to. Indoor climbing is no longer just preparation for outdoor climbing; it is its own pursuit. (We’ve seen such cleaving off of climbing sub-disciplines time and again: bouldering outdoors was once practice for technical sections of longer ascents, but has grown to be very much a stand-alone activity.) Therefore, indoor climbing is free to go as far as routesetters, hold shapers, gym owners and of course climbers are willing to take it.

I’d also suggest that today’s funky indoor antics will allow climbers to bring new skills and strengths and, most importantly, new eyes to the rocks. An example of this fresh vision for climbing outdoors might be Chris Sharma’s Three Degrees of Separation. First climbed in 2007, no one has completed the route in the years since. The route’s name comes from the three massive dynos required to climb it. It’s hard to separate out Chris’ unique vision as an individual and the lessons he learned coming up in the age of plastic, but undoubtedly the two are interconnected. If my guess is correct, the next generation of climbers will continue to make quick work of former dynamic testpieces and add their own where previous climbers saw no possibilities.

Today, gym climbing is taking influences from outside climbing, too. The popularity of dynamic activities like parkour, CrossFit, and American Ninja Warrior has pushed increasingly gymnastic styles of movement into the world of indoor climbing. Some of this is controversial in setting circles, as purists insist that such “circus” climbing—routes that involve running and jumping, monkey-barring, holds suspended on the ends of ropes or chains, or other trickery rarely or never found outdoors—is no longer climbing at all, but something else entirely. Of course there are others who disagree and welcome the change.

What will people be doing in climbing gyms in 10 years? The future is unwritten. What’s cool is that the folks putting their creative energies into this arena today will be the ones shaping the future. I’m pretty sure it’ll be cool to see.

Returning to Ourselves

Returning to ourselves - bouldering - The Stone Mind
With every attempt, we have the chance to return to the source…

I think it’s common for people to get frustrated while meditating. They get distracted easily, their minds wander, the feel they’re somehow doing something wrong. It’s an understandable feeling, as meditation, from the outside, looks like a very idealistic act—it brings to mind pictures of monks who’ve renounced material things sitting bald-headed in old stone temples. It can feel like a lot to live up to.

Something that helps me, when I’m sitting in meditation and thinking about work or some other less-than-zen topic, is to remember that meditation isn’t as much about doing something precisely right as it is constantly returning to one’s breath and the present moment.

The returning is the key.

It’s not that we don’t stray from our practice, but that we return to it—consistently and with patience. Over time, we learn to return with less effort and to remain in the present longer.

I started thinking about the idea of returning while I was bouldering in my local gym. I worked on a tricky problem and felt myself getting frustrated every time I fell, each time my beta didn’t pan out the way I’d expected. But then each time I sat down to start the problem again, I felt my mind clear. I tried to climb each time with renewed purpose, with the best flow, balance, and efficiency I could muster. Each time was an opportunity to for a fresh start, to do my best in the moment, even if that moment didn’t last long.

This returning is a key to something big, I’m pretty sure. It sometimes feels insufficient, like we should be more constant, moving steadily towards our goals. Every time we wander off the path, we count it as a failure. But really it’s just another opportunity to return to ourselves, to recenter.

Are you anxious in your morning meditation? Return to your breath. Fall off your project at the crag? It’s part of the process. Return to yourself and try again. As the Japanese saying goes: fall down seven times, get up eight.

When you get used to this way of practicing, you can do it all the time: in meditation, climbing, during the drive to work, while washing dishes… . With each morning, we can return. With every breath we have another chance to return. When we’re worried or angry or feeling lost, we have the perfect opportunity to return.

One day, we might even recognize that there’s nothing to return from, after all—that we’re always already there. But that’s some pretty advanced stuff.

In the meantime, welcome back.

Making Sense of Climbing

Ashima Shiraishi climbing Open Your Mind Direct (9a/+), Catalyuna.
Ashima, pretty much for sure the “best youngest female climber,” cranking in Catalunya. Photo from Ashima’s Instagram feed, taken by Parker Alec Cross

Not long ago I found myself on the phone trying to explain to a journalist, who wasn’t a climber, some of climbing’s subtler points.

“So who’s the overarching authority for these things,” the writer asked, hoping to find something concrete to reference for her article about Ashima Shiraishi’s impressive ascents in Catalunya’s Santa Linya cave.

“Well, you see…” I began, trying to figure out how to phrase it, “in climbing, there is no authority for this type of thing.”

The grades, the designations of hardest route or best climber are fuzzy at best, I told the journalist, determined by group consensus. The fewer people who’ve done the route (in this case, Ashima was the first to climb it since a crux hold broke), the less statistically reliable a grade will be. Heck, even basic information like who did a route, when, and how hard they thought it was can be tough to pin down. In this case, the first ascentionist mentioned in the journalist’s already-published article had been called into question and she was looking for a definitive source.

Unfortunately, I told her, the only definitive source on such a matter would be the person who did the route first (and even then there can be debate). I pointed her to the website 8a.nu, with its database of self-reported ascents, cringing as I pictured a person from outside the climbing world trying to make sense of the site’s trademark late-90s-style user interface and oft-cryptic route comments.

In the end, rather than brave a potential quagmire, the publication chose to pull any mention of first ascents. It was easier than trying to tease apart the intricacies of the matter—particularly for a general audience, most of whom couldn’t explain the difference between a flash and an onsight. (A surprisingly difficult differentiation, it turns out, even for climbers.)

“So is it correct to say that Ashima is the first woman to climb 9a+?” Another journalist asked me during the recent media frenzy.

Well, you see…” I began again.

For some reason it was difficult for me to just tell these journalists what they seemingly wanted to hear. Maybe I’d been working in the climbing world for too long. I mean, I’ve had to research articles like this myself and could only think of the commenters lurking in the wings to declare every detail journalistically sloppy. I’d read also hundreds of debates about grades and rankings that never did anything more than highlight the arbitrary nature of our little game. And I’d seen the bizarre ways the general interest media represented climbers and their accomplishments to fit a narrative that non-climbers could readily understand. So I felt compelled to offer up at least a hint of this arbitrariness, if only to say I tried.

“Well then would it be safe to say that Ashima is the best youngest female rock climber climbing today?” the woman pressed me.

“Uhm, sure; that seems safe to say,” I yielded. I felt it highly improbable that there was some other 13-year-old girl (she’s 14 now, actually—happy birthday Ashima!) sport climbing as hard as Ashima. But even still I harbored a shadow of doubt. There always seems to be some unsung crusher somewhere, flying under the radar and making mincemeat of old standards. Still, “best youngest female rock climber?” Who could argue with that?

Now, to paint an accurate picture, any article on such a topic should probably attempt to explain the difference between sport climbing and all those other types of climbing (though to be fair, Ashima is a shoo-in for the best youngest female boulderer title, too), but after seeing the way mainstream media dealt with the concept of “free climbing” during the Dawn Wall excitement, I thought better of trying to make such distinctions.

At the end of the day, however you want to frame the discussion, Ashima’s accomplishments are truly and exceedingly impressive. She reminds me of Sharma in his early years; it’s like watching a new era being ushered in right before your eyes. But like all climbing accomplishments, her ascents and their significance resist succinct encapsulation, particularly for outsiders who don’t (or don’t really want to) understand all the made-up rules and distinctions we climbers love to throw at our achievements.

At first glance this could be seen as a critique of climbing. There’s so much subjectivity, so many qualifications—how can we really determine who’s “the best”? But this is one of the things I most enjoy about what we do. Climbing’s subjectivity only helps to reinforce its personal nature. It reminds us that we’re not, after all, curing cancer or helping the homeless, but striving after something for our own reasons.

I also enjoy the fact that, no matter which heated online discussion through which I find myself salaciously scrolling, there’s usually at least one voice crying out for us to remember that whatever the grade and whomever the climber, at root the most important thing is getting out there and getting after it and growing and learning and having a great goddamned time along the way. All the rest is pretty much up for debate, anyhow.