Author Archives: Justin Roth

About Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

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?

The Transient Power of Travel

Two traveling climbers in front of a small bungalow in Geyikbayiri, Turkey.

It was the last day of Petzl RocTrip and all of the participants were re-packing their enormous bags. Mylène, a member of the video crew documenting the trip, grabbed me to help shoot some closing interviews with RocTrippers who had stayed on for the whole 40-day journey, which started in Romania and finished in Turkey. These folks, who hailed from all over the world, had taken to the road for over a month with only a rough outline of a plan. Most of them lacked vehicles and so either hitched rides or rode the RocTrip buses from one country to the next. They camped everywhere they went, rain or shine, on rocky ground or flat, subsisting on minimal supplies and tight budgets. They relied on their own resourcefulness and the kindness of strangers to get by, and, on the whole, trusted in the fates to bring them safely through it all.

As we called these nomadic climbers into our makeshift studio in the back of the Petzl Airstream trailer, I was surprised at the similarity of their answers. “How do you feel now that the trip is over?” asked Mylène. “I feel full,” said one woman. “I’m really satisfied,” said one of the guys. “I feel enriched,” said a third person, “and ready for more.” No one said they were burned out or eager to return home. Several suggested that they would travel on after the trip, seeing new places and meeting new people for as long as they could. Clearly, there was some underlying source that powered these wanderers through the challenges and uncertainty such travel entails…

When I was in college, a buddy and I took a month-long backpacking trip across Western Europe, bouncing from hostel to pension to campsite, exploring great cities like Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Prague. Along the way we met people who made us think outside the insulating bubble that American culture and media had built around us. We threaded old cobblestone streets, gazed at millennia worth of art and architecture. We drank too much and stayed up too late, talking to locals and fellow travelers. Exhausted, we dozed off sitting up in train stations, under the boughs of old trees, and on city benches, lulled by the murmur of languages we didn’t understand. But always we awoke ready for more.

On our trip, my friend and I tapped in to the same energy as the RocTrippers, I think—the energy of people on the move, untethered from the responsibilities of life and the banality of the familiar. If you don’t stay in any place too long, you can, in a way, game the system and experience only the new and the exciting, constantly feel thrill of fresh friendships, uncomplicated by past history, unburdened by obligation. …

But, of course, there’s a catch. Stop in any one place for too long, and the radiant sheen starts to fade. The wonders of the place—seen in three-dimensional hyper-clarity by the starry-eyed traveler—become mere background, just part of the everyday scenery of a more static life. The new people, brimming with new ideas and perspectives, become known quantities. (As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it in his essay “Circles”: “Men cease to interest us when we find their limitations.”)

In this light, it made sense that the people we interviewed about RocTrip were ready to keep going, despite the long and tiring miles they’d already logged. To stand still would be to gather moss. To return “home” would be to admit that the adventure was over and accept the staid and pragmatic travails of a more stationary life.

Freedom or stability, short-term excitement or long-term fulfillment, newness or consistency—it seems we’re always being asked to take one at the expense of the other. Often, the flashiness of the itinerant lifestyle is held up as the antidote to our modern malaise, our workaday routine that keeps us moving predictably, as if on rails. I tend to think that the best we can do is to seek a balance between motion and stasis, to move when it’s time to move and also to stay put when it makes sense, letting the contrast of the one enhance and inform the other.

At the same time, I want to believe that we can carry a certain mindset of home with us wherever we go; a certain comfort within ourselves, whatever the circumstances. And on the other hand, wouldn’t it be ideal if we could also bring the traveler’s sense of openness and fresh eyes when getting groceries or walking the dog? What is the perfect balance, after all? I suppose it’s up to each of us to find that point in accordance with our own nature and time in life. What’s been the best balance for you? Are you a constant traveler or a homebody, or some creative combination of the two?

Turkey: A Trip Worth Taking

I’m writing to you from Kadir’s Tree House, a funny little tourist resort in Olympos, Turkey. I’m here for Petzl RocTrip, which, by the time you read this, will be over. This was a work trip, mind you, so I didn’t do much climbing, but it was still an experience worth sharing. I’ve heard the value of a picture can be quantified in terms of words, and that, in fact, it takes more than a few words to pay for one picture. Therefore I’ll turn to some pictures to tell you, in a very broad sense, the story of my two-week trip to turkey, which was localized to Olympos and an area called Geyikbayiri.

It’s important to note this post focuses on the places I visited more than the people I met. Indeed, it’s harder to translate the new friendships and the perspective-stretching discussions one has during a truly international event like this one (people from over 60 countries attended RocTrip’s 40-day road trip across Eastern Europe). In my last post, I wrote that climbing was a wonderful vehicle for connecting with people of different backgrounds from yourself. After this trip, I believe that more than ever… but that’s a topic for another day.

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When you fly into Turkey’s Antalya airport (usually via Istanbul or Munich), you pass over the Taurus mountains, home to Mount Olympos and the town and crag of Geyikbayiri. These peaks, up to 3,756 meters, rise almost directly out of the Mediterranean sea, which is, as they say, preternaturally blue and clear and warm.

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The city of Antalya was built 150 years before Christ, give or take, but really grew and prospered under Roman rule during the Pax Romana. The city looks Roman in its layout, my mom pointed out when I sent her this arial image. I have no idea if that’s true, but it sounds good, so I’m going with it. (Fun fact: in 2013, Antalya was the third most visited city by international tourists behind Paris and London. Who knew?)

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You can either camp or rent bungalows or pitch a tent at several spots in Geyikbayiri. Here, climbers chill at a place called Rido’s Camp, which has tents and this nice gathering spot with beer and wine, water, good food, and bad wifi. Other places that offer accommodations are Jo.Si.To, with its camping, bungalows, nourishment and beverages. The Climbers Garden is also a great option—it also offers camping, bungalows, and food and drink. I didn’t eat much at these places, but the steak at the Climbers Garden restaurant was exceptional.

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In Geyikbayiri, bands of limestone are in no short supply. They range from clean faces, to sweeping caves, to clumpy, funky, globular formations that require stemming and stink-bugging and other 3-D climbing techniques to navigate. Here, the view from the Trebenna crag, just a 10-minute walk from Rido’s Camp (which you can see it in the lower left hand corner of this picture).

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The climbing at Geyikbayiri is quite good, and also plentiful. A variety of rock types and difficulties can be found there, all detailed with excellent pictures and topos (many of which will have to be updated thanks to the RocTrip sending spree) in Öztürk Kayıkçı’s new guidebook. Here’s a list of spots to get the guide: http://bit.ly/turkeyclimbingguide.

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While here, we checked out a super-crag called Çidtibi, which was bolted almost entirely for the Petzl RocTrip. The routes here range from 60 feet to 500 feet in length and feature limestone tufas of many shapes and sizes, along with your other, more typical holds. Climbing these formations is really a full-body experience, which some climbers referred to as “going to the rodeo.” Here, Heather Weidner at the rodeo.

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Plentiful in the region are fruits, most famously pomegranates. Vendors at Geyikbayiri’s local market will kindly sell you a liter of freshly squeezed, deep-red pomegranate juice in an old water bottle for just a few bucks. Way cheaper than that Pom stuff they sell at Whole Foods.

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Some ladies in Geyikbayiri crankin’ out the gözleme, a tasty Turkish pastry typically filled with cheese, spinach, potatoes, meat, or some combination thereof. Gözleme shops in this area and in Olympos can be found every couple of doors, and while I’m sure some are better than others, I know not how to make a determination. If I stayed here for long, I might make it my mission to try each one.

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After a few days, the Petzl RocTrip caravan headed to the town of Olympos, down on the coast. Most folks stayed in a funky, touristy spot called Kadir’s Treehouse, which actually used to offer accommodations in elevated tree houses, but I was told they burned down. Now you just stay in roughly made wooden structures that are vaguely tree-house-ish, tightly packed, and with almost no protection against the transmission of sound waves. Wild cats, dogs, and chickens roam the grounds, along with German tourists.

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The three most striking feature of Olympos are the history, made visible in the form of ruins dating back to the Hellenistic period, the stony mountains, and the clear blue sea. Here, two of the three are visible. The freshwater flowing in the foreground actually drains into the Mediterranean, just five minutes down the road.

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There’s a bunch of cool sport climbing within walking distance of the accommodations in Olympos, but the most interesting experience overall was the deep water soloing, accessed by a 45-minute boat ride. I’m not sure if this is something the average person can arrange, or if it was specially orchestrated for RocTrip, but just cruising out along the mountainous coast was reason enough to head to the DWS section. Chances are, if there’s money to be made taking climbers out on such excursions, someone will make a business of it.

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The climbing at the Olympos DWS area was described by those who experienced it as “sharp,” “slippery,” and “scary” … however these same climbers proclaimed the experience to be absolutely amazing and not to be missed. The cliffs were up to 25 meters high, but have no fear: the water at the base is far deeper than the wall is tall. It’s important to have a good boat driver who will swing over and pull you out of the water after a hard landing.

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When the sun sets on the ruins of ancient Olympos, the energy of a thousand generations resonates in the air. This land is a palimpsest of human activity, and the climbers visiting for RocTrip were just another brush stroke on the canvas. If you’re in search of a new climbing experience and looking to travel, and provided political relations remains stable, I suggest adding Turkey to your short list.

 

The Big DL and the Little Seed

A crowd bustled for position at the gate. O'Hare International airport, Chicago.

I consider myself to be just one among 7 billion human beings. If I were to think of myself as different from others, or as something special, it would create a barrier between us. What makes us the same is that we all want to lead happy lives and gather friends around us. And friendship is based on trust, honesty and openness.

I was at Chicago O’Hare airport, surrounded by thousands of strangers in varying mental states (some relaxed, but most livid, hurried, or harried), when the above quote from the Dalai Lama appeared in my Facebook feed. Suddenly, all of the people around me seemed a little less like strangers and a little more like compatriots in this particular moment in this funny ride called life. His Holiness, or The Big DL, as I sometimes call him, is one of the rare disembodied entities of the social mediasphere whose posts actually make me feel calmer rather than more agitated.

As I waited for my flight to Turkey to board, I looked up towards the ceiling-mounted flat screen television, tuned eternally to 24-hour news coverage. A pair of talking heads sparred on the topic of armed conflict on the border between Turkey and Syria. A sinister new organization called ISIS was storming a Kurdish town called Kobani, perpetrating all manner of horrors, while the U.S. and a few other countries offered a few air strikes as support. Just then, an email warning from the State Department flashed across my phone, warning me about protests, some violent, flaring up across Turkey. The protesters, mostly Kurds, decried Turkey’s lack of support for their brethren on the embattled border.

Again, my faith in humanity started to creak under the strain… Until, that is, I saw another post from The Big DL: “Because of our intelligence we human beings are uniquely capable not only of creating problems, but of doing so on a large scale.” So true, I thought. So perspicacious of him. But he continued: “Therefore, it is important that we use our intelligence in constructive ways. That’s what warm-heartedness and concern for others lead us to do.”

Say what you will about the Dalai Lama, but he does a great job reminding us—patiently and repeatedly—of some very important topics, like our shared humanity, that are so easy to forget when we think only of ourselves. For example, I’d missed my flight to Turkey the day prior and had to wait 24 hours to continue on my journey.

The confusion and inconvenience of it all, when viewed from the narrow and selfish vantage of the individual, is infuriating. “You cost me 200 dollars!” shouted one man at a weary airline agent in a rumpled suit sometime after midnight. There was so much dissatisfaction visible on the faces around me, everyone was laser focused on their own needs: have a problem! Why did this happen to me? Who will fix my problem? Who will make me happy again? There was little “warm-heartedness and concern for others,” in the air.

For some reason it’s common that we make more problems when we have problems. And because we have such big brains, we make much bigger problems than our fellow creatures on this earth. Remember Ghostbusters 2? Well that river of psychoreactive ectoplasm beneath NYC was a metaphor for what’s in our hearts when we think of ourselves as separate from everyone else, when we think that we’re the only ones with problems and everyone else is to blame. And the supernatural destruction the slime wrought? Nothing more than a stand-in for our own selfish and fearful acts, a manifestation of the poison within.

Since this strange little moment in the airport, I’ve been trying to carry The Big DL’s words in my heart and find the shared humanity in the “other” and the “stranger.” Now in Turkey for Petzl RocTrip, surrounded almost entirely by people from other cultures, I find the shared connection of climbing helps break down that all-too-common barrier so that we can connect and empathize. I’m pretty sure this sort of connection is the seed of a more peaceful and happy world… even if it sometimes seems like a very tiny seed.

The 5 Achievements of Climbing

Seated Bodhisattva carved in stone at Hakdoam temple in Seoul, Korea. By Eggmoon (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Seated Bodhisattva carved in stone at Hakdoam temple in Seoul, Korea. By Eggmoon, via Wikimedia Commons.

As a climber of more than two decades, I’ve noticed there’s often a pattern to my behavior: climb regularly, get stronger, grow obsessed with projects , succeed… and turn immediately to the next project. The quest for improvement drives me ever forward and busies my mind. When I’m not training or eating right, I feel a twinge of guilt. When I’m feeling fit and strong, I’m motivated to train even harder, to push through to that rarefied next level to which I’ve never before risen. And so, fit or fat, topping out or falling on my ass, I’m hardly ever perfectly contented.

It got me thinking: maybe the next level doesn’t involve being stronger, after all—maybe it’s something else entirely: Being fulfilled by each moment, being selfless, feeling not lighter in body but in mind, unburdened, open, free… Maybe climbing, if we let it be, is actually a stepladder to get us somewhere else, where climbing is no longer necessary. (This is just a theory, mind you.)

In the movie Hero, a master swordsman plots to assassinate the king of Qin during China’s warring states period. Addressing his would-be assassin, the king offers his interpretation of the three achievements of swordsmanship: First is “the unity of man and sword.” Second is “when the sword exists in one’s heart when absent from one’s hand.” The third and ultimate achievement is “the absence of the sword in both hand and heart.” It’s counterintuitive that the greatest achievement of the swordsman is non-violence. Or is it? Below, in the style of Hero’s king, the five achievements of climbing:

1. Neophyte – Never having climbed, the first-timer brings few expectations. He or she operates almost entirely on instinct. Depending on his or her fitness level and comfort with heights, the state of “beginner’s mind” can allow the new climber to operate with surprising creativity. Still, having no specific strength or flexibility, the neophyte can only play in the vertical world a short time before running out of gas.

2. Intermediate – Armed with just enough knowledge to get in his or her own way, the intermediate climber often over-grips and uses more advanced climbing techniques at the wrong moments, exhausting him or herself while at the same time battling internal demons of fear and doubt. The limitations of physical strength are still apparent here, as the intermediate climber still hasn’t developed the musculature, tendon strength, flexibility, or catalog of engrams to allow him or her to execute complex movements efficiently. An overriding focus on getting to the top drives the intermediate climber, often at the expense of technique or a deeper sense of fulfillment.

3. Expert – Training and consistent practice have built strength, a sense of body position, and an eye for reading sequences. Now able to quickly decode the puzzle of the stone (or plastic), the expert moves with confidence and grace, occasionally achieving the “flow” state, mistaking it for enlightenment. However, the goal of finishing the climb still hangs heavily in the heart of the expert, creating a fixation on training and on the self-propagating delusion of success and failure.

4. Master – Having moved beyond mere strength, the master’s technique is so complete that he or she can execute even the most difficult moves with perfect efficiency. Having moved beyond the goal-oriented mindset, the master climbs only for the transcendent moment the climb provides. A master has no need to burn off other climbers or to receive recognition for his or her achievements, nor does the master hide from attention. With no ego, the master is happy to help others before working on his or her own project.

5. Bodhisattva – Climbing’s ultimate achievement is the transcendence of the climb in both body and heart. The boundaries between climber and climbed, between self and other, between good and bad dissolve. Any climb is now possible, yet no climb is necessary. The climber is at peace with the world and vows never to chase numbers, sandbag n00bs, or judge others, but instead focuses on bringing peace to mankind.

Chaos Canyon

A climber bouldering in Chaos Canyon, Colorado. Photo: Justin Roth

Chaos Canyon

Boom of dry lightning
rattles this stony canyon,
where stones shift and slide
as they have for eons.

Layered shape of chaos
shape of heated and cooled
liquid folded into solid,
fractured and split, eroded
and uplifted, cleaved and overturned,
ancient and artless: for this
one sliver of time reborn
in the human mind as a climb.

Through all the creatures whose bodies
have grown, grown cold,
and decomposed in its shadow,
never has this rock meant before.
Is this really the first time the wheel
has notched into this position?

Things fall apart; the center won’t hold,
but still the stone remains, a koan:
if a boulder sits on a hillside
and no one’s left to climb it,
does it have a grade?

What’s That Thing on Your Back? 10 Answers

 

A boulderer with a lot of crashpads on her back.

A refrigerator filled with crag snacks? Kasia Pietras is packing some serious foam. Photo: Terry Paholek

During a trip to Maine’s Acadia National Park, I decided to do a little bouldering. I brought one of the new Petzl pads from the office—it’s a standard mid-sized pad in outward appearance, but it’s also bright orange and emblazoned with a sizable Petzl logo. Its highly visible color scheme might have factored into the onslaught of questions with which passing tourists pelted me, most of them a variation of What’s that thing on your back?

I’ve bouldered for 20 years now and have been asked this question hundreds of times, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised when yet another stranger stops to gape at my admittedly Spongebob-like form… but I am. Every time I try to answer, I feel myself getting frustrated. Invariably, the curious person’s face grows more, not less, confused as I offer my explanation:

“Excuse me, but what is that thing on your back?” Asks the well-meaning passerby.

“It’s a pad. We put it on the ground when we’re rock climbing,” I’ll say.

“Oh, so you use it instead of a rope?”

“Not really. We’re climbing really short rocks, so when we fall, we just fall on the pads.”

“Oh, that sounds dangerous.”

“It’s not really dangerous. We’re usually only five or 10 feet off the ground…”

“So you’re practicing for bigger climbs, then?”

By this time, the futility of the conversation has started to sink in. To explain the intricacies of the various types of climbing is a surprisingly complex endeavor. Believe it or not, the differences between gym climbing, bouldering, sport climbing, trad cragging, ice climbing, big walling, and alpinism aren’t widely known or even intuitively grasped by the layperson. For most, the Alex Honnold profile on 60 Minutes and maybe the movie Vertical Limit comprise their only climbing reference points.

In an effort to shorten the length of such trail encounters, my friends and I have devised a list of short responses that, while patently false, might offer enough of an explanation (or create sufficient bewilderment) to allow us to plod on towards our little projects on little rocks. Following are 10 favorites (but I’d love it if you’d offer your own in the comments section)…

What’s That Thing on Your Back? 10 Answers:

  1. A portable massage table.
  2. Folded up hang glider—we’re hiking up to the top of this hill to jump off and fly back down.
  3. It’s just a big backpack. I like to have my bases covered while out on a hike.
  4. A sleeping mat for camping. Way more comfortable than those little roll-up ones!
  5. We’re training for the world stair-climbing championships, and walking trails with unwieldy 200-pound squares on our back has been shown to be the most effective way to improve quad and glute strength.
  6. It’s a parachute; I’m a BASE jumper!
  7. This a pad for climbing. We wear them on our backs while we climb big cliffs. If we fall, we try to lean back and land pad-first, so we don’t get hurt.
  8. Oh, these? These are components of a large robot, which my friends and I will assemble when we get out far enough into the woods.
  9. It’s a dog bed… hey, where is my dog? Oh damn, she was here a minute ago! Peaches! Where are you Peaches?!
  10. This is a trail rickshaw seat. For 20 bucks, I’ll give you a ride to the next viewpoint. Hop on!

Angie Payne’s New Project: Photography

This week’s guest post is from pro climber Angie Payne. Aside from being one of the strongest boulders in the country, she’s also a gifted, self-taught photographer. 

Angie Payne self portrait

Self portrait by Angie Payne

I started climbing in a gym in Cincinnati, Ohio, when I was 11 years old. When I moved to Colorado at the age of 19, spending time outside wasn’t high on the list of reasons why I climbed. I was too intimidated by the raw, inhospitable nature of nearby high-altitude bouldering areas like Rocky Mountain National Park to appreciate their splendor.

My first serious project in The Park was a V12 called European Human Being. The climb required three seasons of hard, often frustrating work, but it was during that period that the rocky armor of the alpine environment began to fracture, revealing a delicate beauty. As I progressed through various climbing projects, I started taking pictures with my iPhone in an effort to capture the beauty all around me. Soon, capturing the essence of the place where I now spent so much of my time became another kind of project that filled the spaces between attempts on the boulders. Climbing brought me to these gorgeous places, but photography added a new depth to my enjoyment of them.

Starting in 2012, I shot thousands of images using only my iPhone 4s. Eventually I added magnetic lenses and some basic editing apps to my quiver and posted my favorites to Instagram. The images below are a small sampling from the resulting collection. They are among my favorites, because I think they convey the essence of certain places and moments that I have experienced mostly thanks to climbing.

—Angie Payne

 

Sunlit clouds in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo: Angie Payne

I first tried Freaks of the Industry in 2010 and spent nearly 60 days working on it [Angie sent in July 2014 —JR]. During one moment of intense frustration in 2012, the setting sun ignited the sky for a moment, leaving me no choice but to abandon my anger and enjoy the fleeting display of color.

 

Ice crystals in Rocky Mountain National park. Photo: Angie Payne.

But the distractions didn’t always come to me in the form of spectacular sunsets. When potential success was maddeningly close and I needed to force myself to rest, I would often walk away from the boulder and search for new details I had overlooked, like small ice pillars in a frozen pond. The more subtleties I found, the more at ease I felt up there. It soon became my second home.

 

Greenland landscape photo triptych. Photos: Angie Payne

I stepped far outside my comfort zone to go to Greenland. The raw beauty was overwhelming, and the volatility of the landscape was intimidating. Trying to capture the huge, magnificent vistas with a tiny iPhone felt futile, but it did help me get more comfortable with the remote cirque. 

 

For photos from Greenalnd. Photos: Angie Payne

Greenland had a seemingly endless collection of icebergs, each with its own perfect shapes and lines. Seeing these behemoths opened my eyes to the fantastic artwork that nature can create, like a perfectly fragmented piece of sandstone or an improbable snow sculpture.

 

Photos finding beauty in the mundane—triptych. Photos: Angie Payne

Not many places can hold a candle to the splendor of Greenland. Still, armed with my iPhone and a new “project,” I began to recognize beauty in more mundane things: an old chain, the classic airplane view, a puddle outside my front door—when the light, wind, and weather hit them just right, they are all quite pretty. 

 

Detail shots of bubbles and a snowflake. Photos: Angie Payne

And then there are the details. One layer below those beautifully mundane things is… well… more beauty. Sticking a small macro lens on my iPhone illuminated a world of intricacies. I quickly learned that capturing these details with clarity is much like perfecting the subtleties of a boulder problem. Frustration comes quickly, but with a lot of patience and a little luck, the results can be rewarding. 

 

Carlo Traversi catching his breath after climbing in the Psicocomp competition in Park City, Utah. Photo: Angie Payne

I’ve heard it said that the best camera is the one you have with you. My phone is almost always with me, so it just seemed logical to keep using it as my camera. Doing so allowed me to capture moments that would have otherwise been left to my imperfect memory. One such moment came at the 2013 Psicocomp in Park City, Utah, after Carlo Traversi finished an intense race to the top of the wall, careened into the water, and barely dragged himself out again. As he struggled to catch his breath, I snapped a photo that came to epitomize the experience for me.   

 

Train tracks derailed by the great Boulder flood of 2013. Photo: Angie Payne.

Another moment of this sort came during the thousand-year flood in the Front Range of Colorado, also in 2013. While cleaning out a friend-of-a-friend’s mud-filled basement, I took a break to wander through the neighborhood. The train tracks had been tossed about, turned into a roller-coaster of sorts. It almost felt wrong to snap that photo, but I did. That there was some kind of beauty in the midst of such devastation seemed deserving of documentation.   

 

Four nature photos from Rocky Mountain National Park. Photos: Angie Payne

Eventually, when the rivers of the Front Range retreated and the routines of life in Boulder resumed, I found myself back where it all began. Beautiful new scenes continue to reveal themselves in Rocky Mountain National Park, even after hundreds of trips up there. Freaks of the Industry, The long-term project that was to thank for many a photo has finally been put to rest. The new interest that it helped birth, however, lives on. In fact, I just invested in a new DSLR. While capturing immense or intricate beauty with my humble little iPhone is still an appealing challenge, it seems I have found a new project in learning to master a more complicated device. And so, the cycle of projecting continues…

 

 

Headshot of Angie PayneAngie Payne is based out of Boulder, Colorado. She’s sponsored by Mountain Hardwear, eGrips, Five Ten, Organic Climbing Company, LifeSport, and Mac’s Smack. In addition to climbing and obsessing over iPhone photos, she enjoys watching TV murder mysteries and washing dishes (seriously). Check out her website and follow her on Instagram.