No Advantage Without Disadvantage

A woman rock climbing in Maple Canyon, Utah.
Skinny ropes or fat, light and fast or slow and heavy, tall or short… There is no advantage without disadvantage.

One wise colleague of mine when I worked at Petzl had an accent that was a mash-up of German (his first language), French, and English influences. He wielded all these tongues, and a few others, fluently. Thus, when rolling out his signature aphorisms, he could take on the air of a sort of Teutonic Yoda character, imparting know ledge in a unique polyglot grammar at once entertaining, endearing, and thought-provoking.

Like any master seeking to instruct, my colleague deployed maxims as needed—to lighten the mood, inject caution into a debate, or to put a fresh perspective on things. There were enough of these little nuggets that some enterprising soul produced an unofficial T-shirt with a list of them printed on the back, “Use with care, as hedgehogs make love” and “We risk to become professor ridiculous,” among them. But there was one simple phrase of his—not an original, granted, but a favorite—that always stuck in my mind: There is no advantage without disadvantage.

He might bring out this saying while we debated mountaineering’s thirst for ever-lighter equipment, or solutions to a tricky rigging problem. Even though it wouldn’t point directly toward a resolution, it reminded that with every “new” answer to an old problem, there’d be trade-offs.

For example, faster and lighter is the alpine trend these days. Less gear and less weight mean quicker ascents that take advantage of fleeting favorable conditions. It’s great style and inspiring, but also leaves climbers exposed. Fast and light often means going without extra food, fuel, or layers, meaning that any unforeseen circumstances that stop forward progress can turn fatal. There is no advantage without disadvantage.

Lighter gear is nice, but when we remove material from a piece of personal protective equipment, we must compromise in some other way. Think of skinny ropes. That 9.1 is great when your clipping the final piece of pro at the end of a 150-foot pitch, but when you see your rope raking over the edge of a rough flake, you’ll be wishing for your trusty old 10.2 again. No advantage without disadvantage.

It’s common for shorter climbers to cry foul when a tall climber skips a move (or a whole sequence) on a climb. But being tall isn’t all upside for climbers: physics tells us that longer levers make climbing-adjacent movements like pull-ups more difficult, and plenty of high-steps and heel hooks that work great for a small or medium-sized frames aren’t options for bigger ones. In fact, many top-flight competition climbers are shorter than the average. There is no advantage sans disadvantage.

Or consider: a lot of climbers want freedom to roam, so they get a beat-up old van and live a threadbare lifestyle on the road until injured, broke, or bored. It can be great for your climbing, but hard on the bank account and future career plans. Such a dirtbagging lifestyle also often means forgoing such practicalities as health insurance, which is fine until the day it’s not. A steady job is the obvious solution, but of course the trade-off is time, flexibility, and freedom. Take your pick, but there’s no advantage without disadvantage.

The Petzl Grigri is another good example. In exchange for the convenience of a belay device that locks down on the rope and helps to catch a fall, one must accept greater weight, diminished versatility, and increased complexity. For some uses, the Grigri’s advantages outweigh the disadvantages; for others they don’t—it all depends on your specific needs and what you value most. There is no advantage without disadvantage.

Most of us are engaged in a constant search for advantage in one way or another—shortcuts to bigger, better, faster, more. But I think the world is more intricate and interconnected than we tend to notice. For this reason, the phrase “no advantage without disadvantage” is worth meditating on.

Wave Pools & Climbing Walls

Source: Vimeo - Kelly Slater Wave Company
This wave could be in Kansas. Source: Vimeo – Kelly Slater Wave Company

My social feed’s been gushing with articles about a new artificial wave pool from the Kelly Slater Wave Company. The company’s promo video shows some sort of underwater wave-making apparatus spinning up a ripping righthand barrel in cola-colored water at an undisclosed location (rumors put it in Lemoore, California). The 11-time World Surf League champion Kelly Slater christens this wave with some snappy turns, then tucks into the tube and hangs out for a while before emerging, victorious as usual. Could this be the beginning of a new era in surfing? If so, climbing might have some lessons to offer, for the road ahead is long and fraught.

“This is the best manmade wave ever made, no doubt about it,” says Slater at the end of the video, which is appearing as free content on all the endemic surf sites and finding its way into the flow of general interest pubs like the The Washington Post, the The Huffington Post, and Men’s Journal. The headlines, in typical hyperbolic fashion, declare this latest iteration of wave pool technology a “breakthrough” that “could change surfing forever” or even “change the world.” Web commenters, meanwhile, have voiced more mixed (though generally positive) perspectives.

On Kelly Slater’s Facebook post, a commenter wrote: “One of the most important aspects of surfing for me is the connection with nature, the respect and admiration for its awesome beauty and power … Isn’t this eroding the soul of the sport we love so much?” This comment, which garnered nearly 500 responses in a few days, is a perfect parallel to the climbing purist’s lament. We can see the surf community working through the ramifications of an easily accessible, consistent, manmade surfing experience decoupled from the sea.

Aside from killing climbing’s soul, rock gyms also offer many benefits, such the ability to train and enjoy climbing regardless of weather, season, or proximity to rock. The overall level of pure climbing ability has rapidly risen thanks to gyms and their near-ubiquity. If wave pools like Kelly Slater’s really do catch on, they will likewise allow for a much more concentrated experience. Instead of bobbing in the water for hours, waiting for your moment in the lineup, you’ll have access to a predictable, on-demand wave, accelerating technical riding skills. On the other hand, these wave-pool earned skills could make for a lopsided surfer, one who hasn’t had to deal with the vicissitudes of the ocean.

Climbers at the Psicocomp deep water soloing competition in Park City, Utah.
Climbers at the Psicocomp deep water soloing competition in Park City, Utah.

“If this catches on, and these things are built all over the inland empires of the world, they will be training hundreds of thousands of kids to surf,” wrote a commenter on surfermag.com. This potentially portentous statement describes precisely climbing’s glide path in the gym era. Most in the climbing community feel gyms are directly responsible for increased crowding—and also accidents—at the crag, which is why new climbers are currently the target of multiple “gym-to-crag” educational campaigns. The climbing community has taken the tack of education and mentorship to address the growth of test tube climbers (those born in artificial environments)—perhaps surfing will have to follow suit.

Also like climbing gyms, high-quality wave pools could help surfing find its way into the Olympics. In September of this year, the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee proposed both surfing and sport climbing be included in the Olympic Games. An artificial, standardized playing field allows both sports, despite being rooted in wild and unpredictable settings, to fit more easily into the competitive structure of the Olympics. Like climbers, many in surfing see the Olympics as anathema to the lifestyle they know and love. Regardless, the draw of Olympic gold is strong, and both climbing and surfing seem to be moving in that direction, for better or for worse.

At the end of the day, its impossible to conclude that climbing gyms have been either good or bad for climbing. Climbing is not a single activity, nor do climbers all share the same interests and goals. Some will forever feel that plastic climbing robs the activity of its soul, while creating overcrowded and dangerous crags. Others see climbing gyms as the very future of the sport, to be celebrated and cultivated. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, understanding that gyms have advantages as well as disadvantages.

If the Kelly Slater Wave Company really is poised to bring a string of world-class, artificial waves to the world, the surfing public will have to cover much of the same terrain climbing has been covering for the past 25 years. Should be an interesting ride.

Walking New York City

A man walking under a scaffolding in Midtown, New York City.

The first thing I do whenever I go back to New York City is take a walk.

It’s one of the city’s greatest features, the walkability of the place. From end to end, it’s only 13.4 miles and less than three miles across at it’s broadest. This means you can go from one densely exuberant neighborhood to the next on foot in just minutes, particularly downtown. On foot, you can sample the myriad atmospheres and textures of the variegated urban environment at human speed, stopping to take in the wabi-sabi of a rusted old grating, or lingering to sniff the sweet air outside a bakery window.

Not only is it easily perused on foot, but NYC is also inhospitable to the most common American mode of transit, the personal automobile: traffic is terrible, parking worse, and insurance fees astronomical. Unless you need a vehicle to transport large objects or to make very specific sorts of commute, the city renders cars inefficient. Unlike most American cities, it’s often faster to take the train or ride a bike than drive a car. I took an Uber ride (I Ubered?) from the airport to midtown and ended up walking the last 10 blocks, so thick was cross-town traffic. The driver seemed surprised, but I quickly left him behind in the gridlock, enjoying the breeze and the exercise.

Once, in college, a friend visited me, trying to decide if he wanted to attend New York University. We went out for an evening perambulation and ended up going down to Houston and back up past 110th street before returning to my dorm on 3rd ave and 11th street. It took hours but it was an odyssey in miniature, yielding adventures sublime and bizarre, and leaving us somehow subtly transformed upon our return.

If you want to understand where we came from as a species, take a trek in the wilderness; if you want to understand what we are now, there are few places better than New York City. And, as mentioned, the best way to take it all in is with a stroll. (Or a run could work, too, especially if you have a very full itinerary, like my friends Brendan and Forest did on their 4,000-calorie New York 4K.)

This weekend I returned to the city, once my home of eight years, for a family gathering. I dropped my bag at the hotel and quickly headed back out for a walk. I wanted to see what had changed (and what had not) in this place that, despite a decade and thousands of miles of remove, has remained deeply woven into my personal narrative.

It was unusually warm, even after sundown. Strolling along with my jacket open, weaving through people of all shapes and sizes speaking a half dozen languages, I entered a sort of reverie of nostalgia. I smiled and nodded as I passed a grizzled old man leaning on a wall wearing a security guard’s jacket (that he was actually a security guard is not certain). He stared back at me, unamused. Just as he passed out of my field of view, I heard him say something barely audible over the rush and bustle of the busy street. What was it? Ah, yes, “What the fuck are you smiling at?” Perfect. Just like I remembered.

In the morning I walked from Madison and 30th down to the Lower East Side, to Russ & Daughters, a 100-year-old “appetizing” store specializing in smoked fish and now immensely popular for their bagel sandwiches. The guy behind the coffee counter—gaunt cheeked, thin white hair, creaky voice—looked like he might belong working at a mortuary; instead he was slinging rugelach, halva, and barbs of classic New York wit. The long, narrow room felt like a car on the L train at rush hour, if the car had fish coolers along one wall. The woman in front of me ordered a coffee, entering into the following conversation:

Counter attendant: You want cream and sugar with that?
Lady: Cream. Not too much.
Counter attendant: No one wants too much cream.
Lady [to me]: What’d he say?
Me: He said, ‘No one wants too much cream.’
Lady [to attendant]: Isn’t that the point of half and half, you don’t need too much?
Counter attendant: For me the point is, someone asks for cream, I give them cream. Otherwise, I think it’s pointless.
Lady: Good point.

Then, while eating my bagel and lox on the bench out front of Russ & Daughters, an old man with a thick white beard rolled up with a two-wheeled wire cart of groceries and looked in at the crowd.

Old man: Ah, shit.
Me: Busy, eh?
Old man: It didn’t use to be, until it got on the tourist circuit. [He looks me over.] You’re a tourist, aren’t you?
Me: I guess I am now.

The walk continues…

 

This was written at a spot in the East Village called Coffee Project. It’s a friendly place to stop if you’re on a walk and in need of a “deconstructed latte” and a quiet place to work on a blog post. 

Social Scroller

Woman looking at social media on her phone in bed at night.

I was supposed to be writing this blog post, but instead I was scrolling through my Facebook feed. I started seeing familiar photo galleries and link previews float past, which meant I was at the end of the new newness, which meant the odds of stumbling across something really exciting had just gone off a cliff, so I clicked over to Twitter and started scrolling there.

Same deal. Then over to Instagram. Then, before checking out of the scroll game to get to actual work, I did a quick pass through Google News, just to make sure there weren’t any active shooter situations happening in my neighborhood and that I hadn’t missed Donald Trump’s latest inflammatory satiro-facist policy proposal soundbite.

Sometimes while I’m scrolling, I’ll ask myself in disgust”What the hell am I doing?” as if I’m watching someone else’s thumb pawing at the iPhone’s smudgy screen. I feel powerless to turn away from the procession of partisan rants, clever baby announcements, links to Semi-Rad posts, cat vids and fail vids (or the ultimate: cat fail vids), selfies, and climbing butt shots.

I finally mustered the courage to put the phone down and turned my focus to this post. I had something else half written already, but decided it was boring and starting writing about my social scrolling addiction instead, mainly because I’m guessing I’m not alone.

Do you find yourself spending inordinate amounts of toilet time because you just can’t stop the scrolling? Or showing up late for a dinner because you got caught in an endless social media loop? Or perhaps you bathed your pupils in that Retina Display glow late into the night, even though you had to be up early the next day? Happens.

Turns out social scrolling isn’t (only) a symptom of a weak will, but a natural urge built into us by millennia of evolutionary programming. According to studies performed on monkeys, information seeking as survival tactic is encouraged by the neurotransmitter dopamine in specific areas of our brains. It makes sense. “Having access to more relevant information – such as knowing where the food is located – allows animals to make better decisions,” writes Chadrick Lane in a 2009 Scientific American article. “Furthermore, having access to such information might give us better control over our environment, thus increasing our chances of survival.”

Other research has suggested that anticipation of a reward is even more stimulating to the brain than the reward itself. Further, according to a New York Times article (which was citing this neuroscience study), unpredictable rewards elicit more potent responses in our brain chemistry because, “Unlike predictable stimuli, unanticipated stimuli can tell us things about the world that we don’t yet know. And because they serve as a signal that a big reward might be close by, it is advantageous that novel stimuli command our attention.”

It’s no coincidence that the most popular social media platforms are those that supply an unending and unpredictable stream of content, plus enticing bleeps and bings and badges to alert us of some exciting new comment or like or piece of information that might, for all we know, be changing our lives right now and we didn’t even know it!!

Come to think of it, this endless seeking behavior that’s proved so valuable in the human organism’s quest for survival probably also plays a role in our constant striving, our dissatisfaction with things as they (often predictably) are. Social media today is shaped by and for the mechanism of human motivation, to push all the right buttons that keep us clicking “like.” Social media has evolved into a mirror of the conscious mind. Both build an elaborate world of desire and fear that seems so real, yet ultimately proves illusory.

As Bernard Jaffe says in I Heart Huckabees, “everything you could ever want or be you already have and are.” If you truly understand and believe this, neither social scrolling nor mental striving will have anything left to offer. But that’s a lofty goal. In the meantime, I’ll think check my Twitter feed; maybe there’s a link to an article that will help make sense of things…

Ode to the Old-Ass Gym

Climbers stretching and talking on the floor next to a climbing wall in an old climbing gym in Ohio.
A scrappy Midwest climbing crew in an old-ass gym.

Back in my Urban Climber days, I wrote a feature called “The Rise of the Super Gyms.” It was about new climbing gyms that were sprouting up around the country and taking the indoor scene to a “higher level” (get it?!). The trend, in its early phases then, is now well underway and huge, custom-built, professionally operated climbing and fitness facilities are becoming the norm rather than the exception. Today, 20,000, 30,000, even 40,000-square-foot facilities are appearing across the country, sometimes in areas far from rock and far from the pre-existing climbing communities that once served as a gym’s customer base.

When I lived in Boulder and Salt Lake City, I was lucky enough to frequent such “super gyms,” with their fancy workout decks (this treadmill has a fan?), yoga rooms, and highfalutin air-conditioners that worked, even on hot days. They were plush and almost always busy. Their holds were new and clean (can you say jug rash). Their tall, steep walls created inhumanly strong youngsters and demoralized n00bs and out-of-shape old timers. Such gyms are clearly the future, but at the same time, they’re missing something that the old-ass gyms we used to climb at had in spades. I guess you’d call it guts.

“It’s got everything you need: free weights, punching bags, a steam room, fat guy with a mop,” thus spake Staten Islander Danny Castellano, describing his boxing gym on an episode of The Mindy Project I watched last week. It reminded me of the way I grew up thinking of working out. Basically, the more rustic the set-up, the tougher you could get. Think: Rocky doing heavy bag work on a side of beef in a meat locker, Alexander Karelin running through waist deep snow in Siberia, Marky Mark bench pressing cinderblocks in an abandoned factory. Thus, a frilly, high-tech climbing gym was at best frivolous, at worst a place where a Russian super villain might climb / get injections of an experimental gene drug for cheaters that rendered him unstoppable on crimper dynos.

There’s just something about the old-ass gym that invites you to get strong. It challenges you, makes you uncomfortable, forces you to adapt. The holds are often sharp or tweaky, the setting uneven and full of random, shoulder-wrenching moves, even on easier climbs. The lighting is poor—brightly spotlit in some areas and shadowy in others, making it hard to discern the color of the chalk-faded tape (whatever tape, that is, hasn’t already peeled off and attached itself to your shoe).

And the feet—oh the feet! They are slick as hoarfrosted cobblestones on a riverbank, their once-candylike colors layered over with a mirrored black shellack of sticky rubber. These are part of the training though. Master the use of footholds like these, the likes of which exist only on the most trafficked outdoor routes, and you’ll become a subtle god of friction.

The old-ass gym also has a soundtrack. Maybe you remember it? Usually a mixture of grunge (Nirvana, Soundgarden, STP) and classic rock (Led Zeppelin, The Stones, Hendrix), with a handful of rap hits (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Outkast). In the original old-ass gyms, they just turned on the local FM rock station and let it ride, or had a 6-CD changer set to random. (Later, people plugged in their clickwheel iPods.)

There are weights in the back—an eclectic mix of dumbbells and barbells and floating plates picked up at yard sales. Next to them, some sort of cardio machine, but it doesn’t have a fan or a TV screen. Maybe it has a heart rate monitor that doesn’t work and a squeaky belt deep inside that sounds like a frantic gerbil trying to escape. Any workout implements not used frequently are coated in a quarter-inch of dust. There is a poster on the wall taken from an old issue of Climbing, back when it was 180 pages per issue and had Rolex ads in it. There is a sign that says “Must be 18 or older to enter the workout room.”

Nothing is handed to you on a silver platter at the old-ass gym. This is where people like Todd Skinner and Jim Karn and Tony Yaniro trained. And if you’re too young to know these names, trust me when I say they were more hardcore than you. The regulars at the old-ass gym are there because they love climbing deep down, even when no one else in the world is watching or cares. They say adversity builds bonds between people, and the old-ass gym supports this theory; scrappy climbing crews formed in old-ass gyms seem to have a stickiness that is lacking in fancier establishments.

I recently moved to a small, coastal California town where you’re about 20 times more likely to meet a surfer than a climber. There’s one gym in the area and it feels like an old-ass gym. When I first checked it out, I was a little panicked. I had grown accustomed to the niceties of places like Momentum, in Salt Lake City, or Movement, in Boulder. I wanted setting that was comfortable to the joints and grades that were easy on the ego. I expected a hot face towel to start things off, and lavender scented lotion in the locker room. In short, I’d grown soft.

Luckily, this old-ass gym has everything I need: a few thousand square feet of climbing terrain, some hang boards, an old treadmill and Exercycle, some open floor space to do push-ups and sit-ups and squats, and a loading-bay door in back that opens to let the air in. When the breeze blows and you close your eyes, it’s almost like you’re outside…