The Mountain With No Top

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After several months without a single day of hard climbing, some friends took me out to a California crag called Owl Tor, named after the UK’s Raven Tor (home to Ben Moon’s great boulder problem on a rope, Hubble). Like its namesake, Owl Tor is steep and bouldery. There’s one gronky 5.11 on the left of the cliff band, a 5.11d in the middle, and it gets rapidly harder from there.

So, feeling out of shape and mentally unprepared, I tied in and spent the whole day working the 11d. I gave the beta-intensive 60-foot celebration of drilled pockets and glue four or five tries before admitting to myself and my companions that it just wasn’t going to happen. I had a good time, but felt demoralized; I used to run warm-up laps on routes of this grade, now I was projecting one.

But every time I start to get down on myself about such things—about my performance or lack thereof—I get a funny feeling. I’ve long harbored doubts about the validity of the underlying motivation that drives me and, from what I can tell, most members of the “type A” clan. I see a certain needfulness in it: to prove oneself, to put oneself above others, to feel the affirmation of success and excellence. When I look closely, it’s hard to see it as much more than an addiction. It’s an addiction that’s certainly reinforced by popular culture, that holds up select people as heroes for their athletic prowess or intellect or other skills and talents. The successful are addicted to their accolades while the masses dream of being successful one day, as if it might give their lives some rarefied meaning.

“Like drinking salt water to relieve our thirst, trying to satisfy momentary desires just leads to more desires.” It’s a quote I’ve seen around the web, usually attributed to Buddha. Though I can’t verify the source, the concept stands on its own. Many of us will dedicate our whole lives to satisfying momentary desires. The cynical might suggest that’s all there is, the accumulation of accomplishments like the constellation of brass plaques on The Big Lebowski’s wall. But it’s hard not to feel like we’re chasing our tails when we fall into that belief system.

Sure, I want to climb 5.13 again. But after that, I’ll also want to climb the next grade, and the next. There’s no ultimate satisfaction, only the passing affirmation that, yes, I can do that. I can run 10 miles or 13.1 or 26.2 or 100. I can climb route X or make salary Y. I did it. I can do it. I’m special goddamnit! Now onto the next thing.

And maybe that’s it. Maybe there’s nothing else but the eternal hamster wheel of accomplishment. But somehow it doesn’t feel right. After all, at some point we’ll all hit our peaks. Some day we won’t be on the upswing, no matter which key performance indicators we use to measure ourselves. And when that happens, no matter how high our point on the metaphorical mountain, we won’t have reached the top and we won’t have made a dent in the universe.

What then?

It seems like a silly question, but I think it’s one worth asking. And sooner rather than later.

While climbing at Owl Tor I felt that, with some effort, I’d likely regain my prior prowess. But I also saw someday that wouldn’t be the case. I looked out ahead and saw a life that, at its longest, would never be nearly long enough to satisfy my human obsession for more. I decided the only sane thing to do is work to drop the baggage that was weighing me down. I climbed with the pleasure of someone who might never climb any better than on that day… and it was enough.

One day. One climb. One blog post. One run. One moment. The past is a dream and the future isn’t guaranteed. There’s not much room in the middle to be overly concerned with bullshit.

Or at least, that’s how it seems to me these days.

Mottainai

yoga-mat

I have a simple morning yoga routine I use to help get my blood moving. Every day, I unroll my cheap yoga mat (a Target special) and perform the sequence of 12 poses, my focus tuned to the rhythm of my breath. Lately when I roll the mat back up, I’ve noticed the damn thing is falling apart.

There’s not much to the mat. It’s made from some sort of spongy pinkish purple foam. The foam is textured into rows of tiny spheres about the size of peppercorns. My guess is that the spheres are supposed to approximate a woven texture and perhaps provide extra grip. Each time I use the mat, it breaks down a little more, spreading nodules of foam rubber across the living room, where they seem to disappear (I hypothesize my dog has been eating them).

My yoga mat’s decomposition causes a little twinge of discomfort, as I know I may have to retire the thing prematurely. The thought of putting the big roll of foam rubber in the trash and buying a new one makes me feel mottainai, which is an excellent Japanese phrase “conveying a sense of regret concerning waste.”

I’ve been stricken by the mottainai feeling a lot lately. I’m not sure why, but sometime in the last year I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with throwing away useful things or things not fully used up. For us Americans it’s a cultural norm to buy things we don’t need and “chuck” anything we don’t want. Many of us treat our discarded stuff as if it vanishes once it enters the trash can. Such blindness to the basic consequences of our actions is on sad display at fast food restaurants, where workers constantly empty massive bins of wrappers and napkins and cups throughout the day. That’s mottainai.

As climbers, a more conscious way of consuming is often forced upon us: by the limitations of what we can fit in our packs or our vans, or by what we can afford to buy when living on the road without steady jobs. Like monks of old, we’ve learned to make do with a single bowl (plus a cup, a pocket knife, a spork, and maybe a pot or a pan…). We eat every last nugget of granola or slice of bread. When the cheese gets moldy, we carve off the mold and eat on. The dirtbag’s aversion to waste and excess is born of necessity but holds a wider significance.

With that in mind, I’m going to keep using that old yoga mat until it fails to serve its role, after which I’ll consider getting a new, more durable one… or whether I even need a mat at all. I’ll resist the urge to upgrade the mat now, as the feeling of mottainai is far more troublesome than the aesthetic displeasure of a cheap and battered yoga mat.

I think everyone should be attuned to this sense of mottainai. While uncomfortable at first, it can lead to its own opposite: the feeling of satisfaction that comes from using something fully up and wasting as little as possible. I don’t know if there’s a word for this sense, but it’s one of life’s great satisfactions and worthy of diligent practice.

 

Climbing Gyms: The Saga Continues

A woman climbing on a steep wall in a gym in Colorado.
Robin M. climbing at one of the first American Mega Gyms, Movement Climbing + Fitness, in Boulder, Colorado.

When I started climbing a quarter century ago, there was really only one kind of indoor climbing experience. It involved simple plywood walls, mostly vertical, that were rarely more than 30 feet tall. These would be sparsely populated with a mix of homemade and “professionally made” handholds.

These first-generation gyms could be found in non-descript business centers, shoehorned into whatever space could be had on the cheap. As such, they were often dark, dusty, and/or drafty, full of exposed cinderblock, rubber chip, and stained old carpet.

Most gym owners in this era were themselves ex-dirtbag climbers who wanted a cool place to train in the off season and couldn’t stomach the idea of working for the man. Few of them could have foreseen the brave new world of plastic pulling that lay just ahead.

Sometime around the turn of the millennium, the boom of climbers who had taken to the walls thanks to those early gyms drove new economic opportunities, leading to more gyms, substantially bigger and nicer than before. Health clubs added walls to their banks of fitness machinery and universities constructed them in their rec centers.

Today the artificial climbing wall landscape is more varied and more professional than ever. It’s growing steadily, too, as evinced by the existence of outlets like the Climbing Business Journal (“news and advice for the indoor climbing industry”) and the non-profit Climbing Wall Association.

If you’re a climber in America looking to get inside, you’ll encounter a landscape packed with many great (and some not so great) places to climb. Among them, I’ve noticed the following major classes. Feel free to add others I’ve missed in the comments.

A climber on a wall at an old school gym
Climbing at an OG Gym.
  • OG Gyms – Basic, aesthetically uninteresting, and often found in windowless and poorly ventilated warehouses, these gyms were the trailblazers of their day. Now OG Gyms are phasing out—either closing down or modernizing in the face of increased competition and a more demanding clientele. Still, many persist. A good crew and a sense of humor are key to surviving if you’re stuck with an OG Gym.
  • Woodies – Home walls designed for the ultimate in easy-access training. Most people build woodies—so called due to their all-wood construction—in their garages, basements, or backyards. Unfortunately, the only way to access a woody is to have one at your place… or be buds with someone who does.
  • Co-ops – Co-ops are collectively supported gyms that operate for the good of the membership (read: sans profit). Typically a group of climbers will go in on a rental space and supplies to build a wall, and then others who want to join kick in a membership that grants them access and covers rent, setting, and maintenance costs. An advanced example of a co-op is Slo Op Climbing, in San Louis Obispo, California.
  • Bouldering Gyms – It wasn’t long ago that bouldering was considered practice for longer climbs, but these days it’s booming as a pursuit of its own, and the gyms are following suit.
  • Health Club Hangs – Health clubs can be pretty boring. In order to keep people excited about consistently going inside a space that feels like an office stocked with futuristic torture devices, management needs to constantly up the ante. New classes, new machines, and, when the budget’s there, a craggily new climbing wall. Quality in these places varies immensely based on the club’s level of dedication to climbing. One spot I used to frequent, the Manhattan Plaza Health Club, had a pretty solid climbing scene going.
  • Educlimbables – I was an early employee at my university’s wall in NYC. Built in the diminutive space of a converted racquetball court, it offered minimal diversity, but it was an early example of what would become a hot trend. Today, colleges and universities, high schools, and even elementary schools have taken up the climbing craze. As a part of their effort to get climbing into the Olympics, USA Climbing established the Collegiate Climbing Series. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie even took it on himself to criticize the so-called rock wall “epidemic” sweeping higher ed and wasting unsuspecting parents’ dollars.
  • Mega Gyms – In addition to huge amounts of climbing surface and professional-grade setters, mega gyms offer extensive fitness and wellness facilities. Pilates, yoga, full weights and cardio equipment, even day care—the mega gym is designed to operate as much like a high-end health club as a training center, albeit with the focus still squarely set on vertical activities. Mega Gyms are well lit, clean, and modern where it counts. Some have full service pro shops and a few even have cafés with wifi. The Climbing Business Journal put together a list of the biggest gyms in the country as of 2013. Most of these would fall into the Mega Gym category.
  • Urban Crags – This category has one standout player in it, but I think it’s significant enough to warrant mention. Brooklyn Boulders has four locations in major urban zones around the country and appears to be adding more. The Sommersville, Massachusetts, location was described in a Bloomberg news piece as “a rock-climbing gym designed to double as a co-working haven for entrepreneurs.” These gyms are catering to a different crowd than your typical spot in the midwest or mountain west. More diverse, more affluent, and more career oriented, BKB and other urban gyms are specifically targeting groups not traditionally associated with climbing, and they’re doing really well in the process. What will the climbing demographic look like in 20 years? Brooklyn Boulders may offer a preview…

 

Adrenaline Is a Fact

Chris Sharma falling at Psicocomp.

It’s always bothered me when folks characterize climbing as a thrill sport, painting climbers as adrenaline junkies seeking their next fix on the sharp end. I haven’t bothered to deal directly with this topic for a variety of reasons, but a recent public radio interview stoked the longsmoldering ember.

The show was To the Best of Our Knowledge, and producer Anne Strainchamps asked celebrated war photographer James Nachtwey about the stereotype of the thrill-seeking war journalist. “Adrenaline is a fact but it’s not a reason,” Nachtway responded, adding, “adrenaline is part of the job because it’s actually necessary to survive. But there are deeper reasons for pursuing the profession than adrenaline.” Great answer, James.

Likewise there are deeper reasons for climbing than the thrill. For example, I’ve seen climbing help rebuild confidence and connections for those traumatized in battle. I’ve built lifelong friendships on the shared foundation of climbing. Climbing can be a profound tool for reconnecting the modern, hyper-distracted consciousness with the all too often sedentary modern body. And climbing has long served as gateway to a personal connection with the natural world—a connection that, in turn, has spurred many to help protect our precious and ever-threatened wild places.

Yes, the tang of fear can add a heady complexity to climbing’s flavor profile, but the thrill-seeking component of climbing is, for the majority of us, seasoning and not the meat of the matter.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that climbing is about control. A little adrenaline can focus the mind, but when adrenaline surges, tunnel vision sets in and you’re more likely to overgrip, to make wild movements… to make a mistake.

Alex Honnold, whose forte is the long, difficult—and to most climbers, horrifying—ropeless climbs, isn’t down with adrenaline. “If I get a rush, it means that something has gone horribly wrong,” he said in a 60 Minutes interview. The rush that kicks in when we push too far into the danger zone is the climber’s enemy.

I’ve been climbing for a good quarter century and I’ve faced my share of hairy moments: run out over questionable cam placements, topping out highball boulders, sacrificing clips in favor of a redpoint go. But it was never the rush that drew me—it was the question posed by the challenge, of which fear and the attendant exhilaration were only components.

And in the end, learning to face and control fear can be an important journey. After all, to deal with this life, full of suffering and guaranteed to end in death, we must find a way to face the gravest possibilities with a modicum of composure, to not let ultimate consequences distract us from the task at hand.

As a climber, the adrenaline may in fact be there, and it may even heighten the experience so that it sticks in my memory like an iridescent shard, but the adrenaline is not the reason I climb. The reason, or reasons, are far bigger than that. Big enough to last for decades and serve as the cornerstone of a life. For some reason I feel that’s an important distinction to make.