Author Archives: Justin Roth

About Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

Salt and Spirals

The Spiral Jetty 1

The Spiral Jetty 1

“I expected it to be bigger,” I say.

“Yeah, me too…” my wife responds.

We stand at Rozel Point, in Utah’s Box Elder County, where Robert Smithson’s famous earthwork strikes out into the shallow, super-saline waters of the Great Salt Lake. The work comprises over 6,000 tons of black basalt and earth taken from the surrounding landscape, arranged into a 1,500-foot long spiral that looks precisely like a fiddlehead fern. Smithson and a team of workers with heavy machinery built the great shape in 1970, before either of us was born.

To get here, we drove north from Salt Lake along the still snow-capped Wasatch mountains, past gravel mines and oil refineries, grain silos and endless miles of fenced-in farmlands, past small towns full of people who’ve never heard the name Robert Smithson. Past ATK, “a world-leading producer of ammunition, precision weapons and rocket motors,” and the Golden Spike National Historic Site, where the rails of the Union and Central Pacific Railroads were joined in 1869.

For most of the trip out to the Jetty, signs of human industry and habitation are unavoidable, persistent. But on the last stretch of fenceless gravel road, surrounded on all sides by open grassland spotted with scrubby brush, you could be almost anywhere or in any time if it weren’t for the dark clusters of cattle with their fluorescent ear tags.

Loitering in the hillside parking lot overlooking the Jetty, we speak briefly with some reporters from a local newspaper who came out for the same reason we did: to watch the “Return to the Sea,” the culmination of Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto’s salt-based installation piece at Westminster College.

“I’ve lived in Utah my entire life and have never been out here,” one of the reporters says.

During his brief stay in Salt Lake City, Yamamoto meticulously created a huge, labyrinthine pattern on the floor of Westminster’s science center using only a squeeze bottle and monastic patience. After a few weeks, the piece was swept up for a symbolic return to the source—in this case the Great Salt Lake, which was once an inland sea. (I wrote an essay about the installation for the blog dxMag. You can read it here.)

Now, a large group of students and other folk carrying the remains of Yamamoto’s work in baggies and boxes and tubs unceremoniously flings the crystals into the water, shouting and laughing. It’s more of an undirected celebration than a contemplative gesture. Still, I imagine Yamamoto must be happy to enter into such an artistic dialogue with the legendary Smithson, even if neither man is directly present for it.

After an hour or so, the group departs and the Jetty almost immediately feels like a place out of time, a bridge between nature the familiar creations of human ingenuity. This simple shape, set in an expanse of salt and mud and mirror-like water tinged red by bacteria, somehow blurs the lines that normally separate and define. Is the Jetty natural or man-made? And what’s the difference, really? “The flowing mass of rock and earth of the Spiral Jetty could be trapped by a grid of segments,” wrote Smithson wrote, “but the segments would exist only in the mind or on paper.”

The space surrounding the jetty is littered with the remnants of old industry. In describing the site in his 1972 essay “The Spiral Jetty,” Smithson mentions a wooden hut that “could have been the habitation of ‘the missing link.’” On our visit, the hut is no longer, though its decrepit wooden pilings remain, as does a rust-corroded steel ball sunk partway into the muck. “This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes,” Smithson writes.

At the same time, Smithson saw an eons-old palimpsest when he looked out into the horizon at Rozel Point: “The products of a Devonian industry, the remains of a Silurian technology, all the machines of the Upper Carboniferous Period were lost in those expansive deposits of sand and mud.”

Like a musician with synesthesia (or perhaps like one under the influence of LSD), who sees shapes and colors with every note, Smithson experienced the site for the Jetty in his viscera, “it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake.”

As we walk down into the jetty and trace its course on foot, its spiral form breaks down. We are too close to see it whole. Instead, we see the arcs of the spiral as rough forms mirroring the mountain ranges on the distant horizon. We see black rocks, belchings of a long exhausted volcano, with white and yellow and green rings of salt crystals grown up in delicate papery fringes around their peripheries.

We stand out on the salt flats around the Jetty and look back. The sculpture appears bigger now. On the blank canvas of the flats, perspective changes every couple of steps. “The scale of the Spiral Jetty tends to fluctuate depending on where the viewer happens to be,” Smithson explained, and we experienced his observation repeatedly throughout the day.

Another excellent place from which to experience the uniqueness of the Great Salt Lake is Antelope Island, some 30 miles southeast of the Spiral Jetty. But here, looking out into the expanse, there is little to connect our humanity to the place. Everything is background, with no subject. Smithson’s spiral gives us a subject, uses the materials of the place and the tools and mind of human intention to offer a subject, at once natural and unnatural, through which we can enter and participate in this particular bit of geography. Like Wallace Stevens’ jar on a hilltop in Tennessee, “the wilderness rose up to it, and sprawled around, no longer wild.”

The Spiral Jetty, nothing more than a bit of rock arranged, is also a portal—a reminder that we are no more out of history than the dinosaurs who once dwelt here. We, dear reader, just happen to be at the current tip of history, soon to be subsumed in its ever-spiraling line.

My personal experience of The Spiral Jetty was moving, but not dark or fatalistic, which is why I was surprised to read Smithson’s own words on the piece. “On the slopes of Rozel Point I closed my eyes, and the sun burned crimson through my lids. I opened them and the Great Salt Lake was bleeding scarlet streaks,” he wrote. And, “Perception was heaving, the stomach turning, I was on a geologic fault that groaned within me.” It was if the place wracked him with an existential dread. I couldn’t help but recall Meursault’s walk on the beach in The Stranger:

Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.

Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift.

It left me glad that the intent of the artist and the experience of the art are, if not entirely, then mostly separable. I tend to prefer the more Eastern perspective on time and mortality in Motoi Yamamoto’s artwork. He, like Smithson, uses the symbol of the spiral, but in a purified form and isolated indoors, to be destroyed in a controlled manner. The Spiral Jetty was meant to be slowly eroded by the work of weather and tides, by nature in all its entropic messiness.

It’s as if the two artists and the natural world are all saying the same thing, only in different languages.

Stuck Without a Spork: 10 Workarounds for Eating in the Outdoors

The classic: biner as beer bottle opener. Photo: K. Marine

I was seated on a rock amidst the loosely consolidated dirt of the southern-Utah desert after a long morning of climbing, and I was feeling mighty hangry. The only sustenance I carried in my chalky old pack was a cup of delicious strawberry yogurt. Eagerly, I peeled back the foil lid and reached for a spoon, only to discover there was no spoon! I felt stranded, with no way to stir that fruit-on-the-bottomy goodness or convey it to my pie hole.

How little we appreciate the simple functionality of a spoon until we find ourselves without one! And while foods like sandwiches, fruits, and trail mix yield handily to manual eating techniques, others, like yogurt, soups, and saucy pastas, pose more of a challenge in the absence of proper utensils.

Science has shown that our nearest evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee, is quite deft in the use of tools for accessing and ingesting food items. So, too, have modern climbers and other outdoors people devised ingenious eating implements out of necessity. I, for example, was able to fashion a primitive scoop from the flimsy foil circle I peeled from the top of my yogurt cup, giving me the precious energy needed to finish out the day and perhaps live on to spread my genes.

Following are a 10 clever cutlery workarounds spotted in the wild. What tricky tactics have you employed when caught without a spork?

Sticks - Among the most obvious improvisations, a well-selected stick, de-barked and whittled to varying degrees, can be used to spear and roast foods like hotdogs and marshmallows, scoop messy foods, and even to stir things like cocktails or coffee.

Vadim using toothbrushes as chopsticks

Toothbrushes chopsticks. Photo: Gail Rothschild

Toothbrushes - Most climbers carry old toothbrushes for banishing excess chalk from handholds. The rigid plastic stems can double as chopsticks—particularly handy for noodles or salads.

Rocks - A good sharp rock can serve as a knife, while a slightly scooped stone takes on spoon-like properties. Large, flat ones can even be used as makeshift frying pans or plates. Pro tip: brush off dirt, lichen, or bugs before using.

Carabiners - The quintessential climber bottle opener. There are many ways to pry open your favorite non-twist-off bottle of suds with a biner—just be sure you don’t cause any sizable gauges in the rope-bearing surface, as it could end up snaggletoothing your rope’s sheath.

Shoes - Hard to open without a purpose-made tool, a wine bottle can be made to give up its cork with repeated blows against a wall using a shoe as padding. Behold, this instructional video stands as proof:

Knives - An advanced technique known as “the lip splitter” involves using the blade of your Swiss army knife not only for cutting, but also spearing and scooping food into your mouth. Zen-like focus is required to avoid terrible injury.

Nut tools – Sometimes all you need is a way to shovel stuff out of the container and into your hungry face. A climber’s nut tool, with its flat metal end, can tackle this task quite handily. These tools can even be used to cut or spread soft cheeses or similar.

Tin foil – One friend of mine commented that he has used tin foil to make a cup, bowl, shot glass, and spoon. The origami skills required here are not as advanced as they might sound, depending on the food substance you’re looking to contain or manipulate. Getting peanut butter out of the jar with a foil tool, however, requires a working knowledge of engineering principles.

Here have a tin foil hat.

Tinfoil: you’re using it wrong.

Bread - In Ethiopia, the Middle East, and various other cultures, flatbreads are used to pinch and scoop deliciously messy foods. If you have a slice of rye, crackers, or a tortilla among your rations, you have with you an edible utensil! Pro tip: the under-appreciated heel of the bread loaf here becomes the hero, offering superior scooping power.

Fingers - When all else fails, we return to the original eating implement: our fingers. These marvels of engineering can manipulate a vast array of objects, including those stinky tinned sardines in oil you brought because someone told you they were high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Hopefully you didn’t forget your wet-wipes, too.

The Sports Gene and Climbing: A Not Really Book Review

Photo: Karyotype - My Chromosomes, by Can H. under CC BY 2.0

Photo: Karyotype, by Can H. under CC BY 2.0

I’ve been climbing since I was 12 years old. I started in a windowless little closet of a climbing wall in a nondescript commercial area of Columbus, Ohio. I sometimes reflect on those early days and wonder what it was that drew me back to that place when all my peers were playing baseball, soccer, or running track. I have only the faintest memories of it now, but I can only reckon I must have been unusually comfortable up there, dangling, scaling, moving in the vertical. I wonder what came first: a random enthusiasm for climbing, or some innate climbing ability that gave rise to that enthusiasm?

I’ve been plowing through David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene of late, and it suggests that natural aptitude is key to creating and maintaining interest in an activity. That kid at the climbing-gym birthday party who gets to the top more quickly and effortlessly than the others, or that college student who seems to jump a letter grade every time she goes to the crag—it makes sense that these ones are more likely to self-select as climbers, while those who move with fear and hesitation, who lack a strong grip or deft balance sense will be less likely to return for another session.

Throughout his book, Epstein, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, explores the science behind the genetically predisposed strengths and aptitudes that figure so prominently in our attraction to and success in an athletic activity. While he never cites climbing specifically, the ideas he presents apply as well to someone like Ashima Shiraishi, who climbed V10 when she was only 8, as to Chrissie Wellington, a British triathlete who, unknown and with no experience in a race of such length, entered her first Ironman World Championship and won by a margin of five minutes.

My friend Alex is a strong all-around climber, but I was always particularly impressed by his endurance on the rock, his ability to climb on and on, seemingly without tiring. Years ago, I spent a couple of seasons working a long, notoriously pumpy route in the Red River Gorge called Tuna Town. It was my “nemesis.” About 90 feet long and maybe 30 degrees overhanging, it doesn’t have a single hard move on it—just a lot of very similar, energy-sapping moves topped off with a “sporty” finish on small edges that feel even smaller with a raging forearm pump. The first day Alex and I got on the climb together, he pushed through to the anchors in a few tries without being particularly fit.

In climbing as in life, one should always keep one’s ego on a leash. “There’s always someone better,” as the saying goes. But what seemed odd to me then was that fact that, by most other measures of climbing performance, Alex and I were closely matched. We had similar technical skills and, on shorter, more powerful climbs, I might even have had an edge.

My poor endurance wasn’t for lack of practice, either. I traveled to the Red, home of “the biggest jugs you’ll ever fall off of,” almost every weekend for several years, climbing with folks who all seemed to have better endurance than me. For whatever reason, I just wasn’t (and still am not) well-equipped for doing a lot of moderate moves in a row. Epstein’s book sheds some light on this phenomenon, too.

Roughly speaking, our muscles are composed of two types of fibers: fast-twitch and slow-twitch. Fast-twitch fibers provide more peak power but tire more quickly; slow-twitch fibers generate less force but are much slower to tire. The average person, according to The Sports Gene, has a little more than half slow-twitch fibers. But if you look at the fiber make-up of athletes who excel in powerful activities, such as sprinting, you’ll find a ratio closer to 75% in favor of fast-twitch. Olympic marathoners like Frank Shorter are just the opposite—when tested, nearly 80% of his leg muscle fibers were shown to be of the slow-twitch variety.

Importantly, studies suggest that differences in muscle-fiber ratio are not the result of training, but of genetic coding. People like Shorter aren’t creating more slow-twitch fibers as they run, but instead excel at running because they were born with more slow-twitch fibers.

I guess I’m more of a fast-twitch guy.

My seemingly poor natural response to endurance training didn’t keep me from climbing Tuna Town—I eventually finished the climb—but it does mean that I never would have stood a chance on the World Cup route-climbing circuit. No matter how hard I pushed, I’d always be struggling to send the warm-up routes of the many climbers who happened to have a superior mix of genetic traits: slender build, tendons of steel, and plenty of slow-twitch muscle in the forearms.

This flies in the face of what moms tell their kids everywhere: you can be anything you want to be. We’ve all heard stories of underdogs fighting to become champions against all odds. What Epstein’s book and the data it cites seem to indicate is that, if what you’re gunning for is elite athletic performance, it’s very unlikely that such dedication will be sufficient to overcome one’s own genetic make-up. The stories we don’t hear so much, but which are probably quite common, are those of athletes who fail repeatedly and then quit, or switch to another sport that better suits their natural talents.

The tendency to pursue sports we’re good at should come as no surprise. In the past, though, the explanation for why one person was so much better than another from the start, or why one person responded to training more quickly than another, was left to fuzzy ideas like “grit” and “drive” and “the love.” In light of scores of scientific studies on the topic, genetic traits seem to offer a more reliable explanation.

The great sport climber Wolfgang Güllich was the first human to climb 9a (5.14d). His groundbreaking route Action Direct, in Germany’s Frankenjura, is an improbable ladder of dangling moves on pockets that rarely accommodate more than one or two fingers. The “campus board,” which he invented as a training device for the route, is often credited as a crucial tool in his quest for the hardest climb in the world. His obsession with training was undeniably a big part of what put him so far ahead of his peers, and yet…

And yet not everyone would benefit equally from Güllich’s regimen. In one study Epstein describes, researchers asked participants to perform identical leg exercises for four months. At the end of the trials, the test subjects broke down into three basic categories: those whose muscle fibers grew 50 percent, those whose fibers grew 25 percent, and those whose fibers did not grow at all. Same training, very different results.

It’s a refrain throughout the book: there is no one-size-fits-all training method. We each respond differently to different types of training and excel at different activities due to certain seemingly indelible genetic traits. My own experiments with the campus board at first yielded impressive strength gains, and then quickly sidelined me with shoulder problems I have to this day. To push as hard at Güllich, you can’t just want it; you also have to have it.

Epstein’s book focuses on traditional sports like basketball and baseball and track and field events—ones built on a more competitive foundation than climbing, and that offer greater rewards for competitive prowess. It’s because of this that the studies he cites seem a less-than-perfect fit for climbing, which we climbers often describe as “more lifestyle than sport.” Gifted or not, what matters most in climbing isn’t how good we are, but how much we take from the act. Maybe this idealistic perspective holds for more popular sports, too, but it just gets lost in the whirlwind of fame and fans and records and money. It’s precisely such a state of affairs that many climbers fear when they rail against the commercialization of our little game on the rocks.

The Sports Gene is a solidly-researched, artfully-written work of non-fiction that is general enough to interest just about anyone. As I read it, I couldn’t help but think how cool it would be to perform studies of the sort Epstein describes on climbers. How exciting to understand the biological factors that separate a great climber from an average one, or the what types of training work best for what types of people. But I also kept thinking about how little that knowledge would really mean to me or most climbers, and how besides the point it all is, anyway.

If there’s a gene for a positive outlook, for a deep love and appreciation of life regardless of medals or world ranking, that’s the gene I want to have. And whether I have it or not, I’m damn well going to work to cultivate those traits, no matter how long it takes or how far I am behind the pack. After all, as I learned on my send of Tuna Town, success after a long struggle and against the odds, no matter how minor and unworthy of the record books, is the sweetest success of all.

Some Things to Remember for Next Time

A climber in Moe's Valley, Utah

Climbing’s addictive nature has been well documented, but the reasons for this dependency remain less clear. Maybe it’s the concrete simplicity of the goal—getting to the top—and the fact that there is always another “top” to get to, that makes the climb so hard to leave behind at the end of the day. Perhaps it’s the exhilarating feeling of exceeding one’s own expectations.

About a month ago, my wife Kristin started demonstrating the moves of her latest projects in the air with her hands. A sure sign of addiction. This past friday, she was particularly frustrated. She had come within on move of finishing her project of three weeks—a pinchy, pink-taped V4 with a committing last move.

“They’re taking it down; tomorrow will be my last day to do it!” she explained. “The first part is easy now, but there’s a move at the end where you pull up off this ledge…” As she mimics the move, she winces. Her shoulder is tweaked, her muscles sore to the touch. “Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow and we can go and you can spot me and I’ll do it!” she says anyway.

Tomorrow comes, and even before she’s out of bed, it’s clear Kristin doesn’t feel better. She might even be more sore than the previous day. As we straighten the kitchen, she has trouble lifting the woodblock cutting board to put it away.

“Let’s just see how I feel in a bit,” she says, unready to accept the idea of not finishing the climb before it’s stripped and reset. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever…” When you look at it that way, how could you not go back and try again? The project has her in its thrall. Any non-climber would say, What’s the big deal? Other climbing addicts, enablers that they are, would egg her on, regardless of consequences.

Having had my fair share of climbing dreams and floating hallucinations featuring my project du jour, I know it’s not ideal to carry the stone around in your head like that. But it’s her call, so I don’t say anything. Eventually Kristin works through the pros and cons and decides it’s probably not a good idea to return to the gym. She seems a little sad about it.

A while later, after some thought, she sits down next to me. “I think there are some lessons here,” she says. “First, I really don’t want to be that type of person—the type of climber who is only happy if she sends her project. I mean, there will always be other projects, even if it doesn’t exactly feel that way now, right?”

“Also,” she continues, “If I do want to finish my project next time, I need to do three things: I need to break down the problem and work out the pieces faster, I need to not be afraid to go for it when I’m up high, and I need to just try harder.”

The lessons Kristin took from her experience with the one that got away are the same lessons climbers of all ages and experience levels are constantly learning and re-learning. They’re pretty good life lessons, too. And why shouldn’t they be? Climbing is just a part of life, after all.

The takeaways, then, are: break down your big problems into manageable bites to avoid getting overwhelmed, don’t let fear make decisions for you, and give the things you really care about your all. All that said, don’t be afraid to let go when it’s time to let go.

The Zone of Unbearable Frustration

Climbing Charts

Over the years, I have developed in my head a pseudo-mathematical representation of a certain climbing phenomenon many of us have experienced, yet few have bothered to define. I picture a simple graph plotting two functions whose lines approach each other and then diverge, without ever intersecting. I refer to this moment, where the lines draw near but never touch, as the Zone of Unbearable Frustration.

One curve represents a climber’s Strength Potential (SP) throughout the course of a session. As the climber warms up, her SP curve ascends, reaching a peak that can be maintained for varying lengths of time depending on fitness, nutrition, hydration, rest, and other factors. It is in this peak zone that a climber exerts the greatest force on the rock. Eventually, of course, the climber’s energy reserves begin to run down and the SP curve drops.

The other curve represents the difficulty of the climb in question relative to the climber’s ability. Like a mirror of the SP curve, this Relative Difficulty (RD) drops with every attempt, as the climber decodes the beta for the climb, making it feel “easier.” The steepness of the drop depends on several factors, such as the climber’s experience level and aptitude for the particular style of climb. The RD curve begins to level out after the climber has discovered most of the key body movements required to efficiently do the climb.

When the SP curve is, from the start, above the RD curve, the climber will flash or onsight the climb. When the RD remains above the peak of the SP curve, the climber won’t send. When the RD curve starts out above the SP curve but drops, and the SP curve rises to intersect it, the climber should send after several attempts.

The Zone of Unbearable Frustration occurs when a climber faces a particularly challenging route. As she warms up, she feels stronger and stronger. At the same time, she grows increasingly familiar with the climb’s unique sequence, becoming more efficient with each attempt. The RD and SP curves are drawn towards one another…

But it is precisely here, when victory looms into sight, that the dreaded Zone manifests itself. Like Tantalus, whose blighted lips can never reach the cool water in which he is submerged to the neck, the all-gratifying moment of fulfillment is denied! Just as the climber unlocks the last key pieces of beta, her energy reserves begin to drop away. Overly depleted, no matter how much she rests, the send recedes into the confounding distance like the last train pulling away from the station.

Doubts will stalk the climber’s consciousness that evening: What if I had found that undercling sooner? What if I had eaten a better breakfast or brought my new, more downturned shoes?! If only I had gotten there earlier, when the temps were ideal! 

Such thoughts thrive in the Zone of Unbearable Frustration, but we must seek to banish them from our minds and remember that climbing can be a lifelong curve, with profound value at every point, not just those segments where Strength Potential ekes up above Relative Difficulty…

…although those moments do feel pretty damn good, too.

How I Became A Magazine Editor

The author grinding on edits

DEAR THE STONE MIND:  “Being an editor at Climbing Magazine may not seem glamorous to you by now, but to the ears of a penniless college student, it sounds like a pretty sweet gig. Did you deliberately set that goal and then take all the right steps to achieve it, or did you just sort of wing it and end up there? In hindsight, what were some key stepping stones or landmarks that you hit along the way to landing that job?”

DEAR PENNILESS IN COLLEGE: Thanks so much for writing. You ask a good question, and it’s one that a few readers have emailed to ask already, so I’ll answer you and, in the process, hopefully anyone else with similar curiosities.

I’d like to preface things by saying that being happy with where you are in life is the closest thing to success that anyone can really get. More practically, a good job is one that challenges you, inspires you to get up in the morning, and provides sufficient income to relieve you of the burden of daily financial worry. (No matter how cool your gig might seem, if you struggle to pay your bills, stress will slowly erode your stoke. Unless you’re a Zen master. In which case you probably don’t have a job anyway—just a robe and a bowl and big golden aura.) With that in mind, a gig that seems sweet from the outside can be pretty crappy on the inside. As the old saying goes, don’t judge a book—or in this case, magazine—by its cover.

But since you asked, I’ll do my best to outline the trajectory that brought me into (and then out of) the climbing magazine world.

I discovered climbing at the age of 12 and was hooked right from the start. Similarly, I was a precocious wordsmith, winning an award in elementary school for an ode to dragons. Climbing and writing—these two loves, seemingly unrelated, could be logically combined in a climbing magazine job. Still, such a “career path” didn’t occur to me until I was done with college and casting about aimlessly for employment while living in a shabby railroad apartment in Brooklyn’s East Williamsburg Industrial Park.

Being full of literally high-mindedness, I applied for internships and entry-level jobs at places like the New York Times, Penguin Books, and The New Yorker. I received no responses. I sent an email to the editors at Rock and Ice, and was similarly ignored. I can’t say I blame anyone who discarded my letters; I had no idea what being an editor meant. I had studied literature but didn’t know the difference between copy editing and proofreading, or what the hell “TK” stood for.

So I did what any middle-class college grad faced with grim job prospects and offensively high rent would do: I went back to school. Grad school. For poetry. I put in two years exploring the intricacies of the written word, but I never expected to end up working in the field. Not what anyone would call a career-minded decision.

Around that time, a friend of mine suggested I contact Urban Climber, a fledgling pub in search of writers willing to work for nothing but bylines and Red Bull. “I’m in,” I said without a second thought. I was following my interests and crawling through the windows of opportunity that appeared around me, with minimal regard to where it was all leading.

After grad school, I moved to Ohio (long story) and took a job through a friend of a friend at a consulting firm, doing basic copywriting and graphic design. Your typical climber might confuse a button-down desk job in the Midwest with one of Dante’s circles of Hell, but it was just what I needed. It wasn’t always a thrill ride, but I learned as much in three years there as I had in four at college, and the money flowed in a more favorable direction. In the meantime, I kept doing the things I loved: writing, climbing, and hanging out with friends.

I’d say that’s pretty important: always finding a way to keep doing the things you love, even if you have to do other things you love less (or not at all) to pay the bills. Never stop chasing that sense of wonder and excitement inside of you. As long as you are able, you have to find a way—it’s like a little rudder that keeps your ship pointed towards better things, even while you might feel like you’re heading in the wrong direction.

Eventually, I became a part-time editor-at-large for Urban Climber. Then Urban Climber’s parent company bought Climbing, and I started to work with both. Then, while out covering the Hueco Rock Rodeo one spring, I had an epiphany in the desert (power animal: javelina) and decided to go half-time at the consulting firm and half-time at “the mags,” as we called them. After working a sufficient number of nights and weekends for minimal compensation, I was offered a full-time position with the mags, editing and writing out of the new HQ in Boulder. I took the job and worked through varying stages of joy, frustration, and disappointment until I could bear it no more. Sometime in 2010, I quit and took a marketing job in the outdoor industry, which I still work, happily, to this day.

Chaos theory has shown that complex and organized systems can arise from relatively simple rules and interactions. This property is known as emergence, and some common examples are the ornate filigree of a snowflake or the beautiful oneness of a flock of birds in flight. Similarly, I think a life guided by little more than a few basic principles can, in retrospect, appear as if it was carefully plotted.

Looking back, things all seem to have flowed in some sort of purposeful direction, but it was never by any grand design of mine (not consciously, at least). Instead, I think it was by the action of a few guiding principles: always try in earnest to learn, grow, improve, stay positive, and work hard, even in the face of doubt, fear, or disappointment. That, and make time for your passions, as mentioned above. The rest, in some way or another, takes care of itself. Mostly.

Look, whatever clarity we might claim in this life rarely comes without a great deal of difficulty and confusion. Mostly it comes as a result of them. And so I think we should all probably rest a bit easier when feeling unsure of the world—it is only by such feelings that we can ever make sense of anything. As Robert Frost wrote, “I can see no way out but through.”

I’m sure this response contains far more words than you were expecting and far fewer answers than you might have hoped, but isn’t that always the way?

Best of luck,
Justin

Writing, Climbing, and the Exploration of the Unknown

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When we attempt a climb for the first time, it can feel very difficult, bordering on the impossible. We might spy distant anchors, but have little clue how to reach them. Or maybe the anchors are hidden from view entirely, but some faint line of possibility emerges from the chaos of the rock. Much of climbing’s excitement comes from this uncertainty, and we set out to explore new territory and our own abilities. Along the way, we’ll often find that the path we plotted from the ground won’t get us where we want to go, and we must try new directions and less familiar methods to achieve our goal. 

It’s often like this when we sit down to write, too.

When I gaze into the blank screen, I have only an inkling of where I’m going and how to get there. I employ all manner of tricks and tools to turn the nebulous occupants of my brain into concrete sentences on the page. In the process, things I once believed might perish in the alien atmosphere of the world outside my head, like deep-sea creatures brought to the surface too quickly. Or connections that were but wispy filaments, so fine as to elude my conscious mind, appear obvious when finally converted into language and set down on paper.

The act of writing is as much about exploration as it is exposition, which is what makes it so satisfying. If writing was a simple transcription of thoughts fully formed, how dull would that be? Likewise, if we could read and perfectly understand all climbs just by looking, if we could know for sure, without trying, whether we would be able to do them or not, would we even bother?

Most climbs that challenge us require multiple attempts to complete. Redpointing is the process of breaking a climb into constituent moves and manageable segments, perfecting them, and then reassembling them for the send. It’s very much the same with a piece of writing. We must craft it sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and then smooth the transitions, rejigger the order, edit out the unnecessary bits… until everything flows and we achieve our goal as cleanly as possible.

It is also true that the climber will always come up against routes and the writer will come up against ideas that just aren’t going to happen. Not that day or that week or that year. In such cases we need to step away and come back again when we’ve earned a few more merit badges, so to speak. Often when we do, we find the once-impossible becomes possible, and we wonder what we were doing wrong before. Sometimes we just have to wait until the planets align, the pendulum has swung past, the tide has gone out, and no amount of striving will quicken the process.

And sometimes the door never opens, and the route never happens; that idea that seemed so clear never gels on the page quite the way we wanted. Many folks would see this as frustrating, but I think never quite knowing when and if and how things will come together is an integral part of the adventure. The unknown and the uncertain are fuel for an inexhaustible engine in the human heart, driving our need to explore: the rocks and the mountains, our own beliefs and ideas, the universe as we know it.

Watch and Learn: The Importance of Observation in Improving Climbing Technique

climbers_watching

When my wife Kristin started going regularly to the climbing gym by her office around eight months ago, she was a beginner in every sense: strength, technique, and confidence. Up until then, when we went bouldering together I’d use the following criteria to help her find a problem to work on: I had to be able to do the problem in my approach shoes or sandals, sans chalk, and without at any point showing signs of exertion.

This past weekend, Kristin nearly finished a powerful V4 in the gym, opting to back off the scary final move rather than risk an out-of-control fall. Around the new year, she climbed a two V3s outside, pushing through the dicey top-outs that would have been non-starters just months previous. I told Kristin how impressed I was with her progress, particularly her technique and footwork, which has developed at least as fast as her strength.

“Well, I’ve been watching you and your friends climb for years,” she said, as if just observing more experienced climbers could account for her progress. At first I dismissed the comment, but maybe there’s something to it.

When a beginner asks how to become a better climber, the most common answer is, “Just get out and climb.” This response seems glib at first, as if denying the value of specific training for climbing. In part it’s an attitude that harkens back to the adventurous roots of climbing, the focus on self-reliance and toughness, nature and soul. It wasn’t so long ago that climbers like Tony Yaniro were berated for training for specific routes or problems; to the old guard it seemed out of keeping with the spirit of things.

But I also think “Just climb” is an acknowledgment of the fact that climbing is a very complex activity, involving a limitless combination of body movements over a surface, from slab to vertical to overhanging. Different rock types and formations create a vast array of features and varying coefficients of friction. Climbers of different shapes, sizes, and strengths all must solve the puzzle of the rock differently. Strength is useful, yes, but there are many more important lessons to learn.

To be able to climb well and smoothly, according to the book Performance Rock Climbing, by Dale Goddard and Udo Neumann, climbers must build a library of “engrams”—scripts for movement etched in the brain through physical practice. “Even when climbing a route for the first time,” Goddard and Neumann write, “a vast library of engrams allows you to recognize the moves that a particular arrangement of holds requires.”

How better to add engrams to your library, then, than to climb as many different types of rock and experience as many different movements as possible? In light of this, “Just get out and climb” doesn’t seem so glib. It might actually be the fastest route to improvement!

Interestingly, studies suggest that physical practice isn’t the only way to learn. Watching activates very similar pathways in the brain as does doing, which is what Kristin must have been picking up on. A 2009 paper by Scott T. Grafton, M.D., showed that the same regions of the brain are activated while performing an action and watching someone else perform it. “When we watch a video of a dancer, motor areas of the brain might activate automatically and unconsciously—even though our bodies are not actually moving—to find familiar patterns that we can use to interpret what we are watching. In other words, some sort of resonance takes place between the circuits for observing and for doing.” The study also showed that experienced dancers’ brains lit up more when watching familiar dances, suggesting that the connection between observation and action strengthens with experience.

Watching and then doing and then watching and then doing—could it be a kind of feedback loop that allows for a more rapid development of body awareness, of mental and physical connections between the way a movement feels and looks, and the results it yields on the rock? In a video recording his climbs at the 2014 Hueco Rock Rodeo, Sean McColl explained that he selected certain problems because he had access to footage of himself sending them in the past. Being able to watch himself climb a problem successfully likely helped Sean refamiliarize himself with the movements faster, reactivating brain pathways that had lain dormant without requiring him to actually get on the problem.

What I take from all this is that climbing with climbers better than yourself is one way to improve, and not just because their sick skillz inspire you to try harder. Plus, now you don’t have to feel guilty about spending so much time watching climbing videos—you might actually be upping your game in the process.

 

What I Know Now: Collected Insights on Climbing and Life

The Thinker statue

At the turn of midnight, as 2013 gave way to 2014, my wife and I queued up and played our “song of the year” through my iPhone’s wimpy speakers in a little hotel room in St. George, Utah. For this year’s song we picked “Ooh la la,” by the Faces. The refrain goes: “I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger. I wish that I knew what I know now when I was stronger.”

Inspired by “Ooh la la,” I started thinking of all the insights I would have wanted access to 20 years ago, as a beginning climber. To get a broader perspective than I could offer myself, I decided to reach out to a few of the many climbers I’ve met over the years with loads of experience and whose opinions I respect a great deal. I gave them the prompt: What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?

I was touched that so many busy folks took time to write back. Here, they offer nuggets of wisdom unearthed over the course of a combined 363 years of climbing experience (give or take). Some of them even raised the same doubts I had about the prompt for this post. “I think a lot of the stuff that I’ve had to learn has helped me develop into the person I am,” writer and Rock and Ice editor-at-large Andrew Bisharat responded. “I’m not sure I would wish that I didn’t have to go through those experiences.” I’m not sure about that, either. Still, I think that wisdom and insight is worth sharing, even if, as Kelly Cordes’ story illustrates below, it doesn’t necessarily stop you from making mistakes.

At the end of “Ooh la la,” there’s a lyric that sums things up nicely: “There’s nothing I can say; you’ll have to learn just like me, and that’s the hardest way.” Sounds like a challenge. With that, I wish you the best of luck. May your every misstep, mistake, or epic fail be a building block for a better life, in 2014 and beyond.

Dougald MacDonaldDougald MacDonald. Editor, American Alpine Journal. Climbing 35 years.

I wish I’d had more patience on big mountains when I was younger, because then I might have gotten up more of them. I have a tendency to rush toward the top, starting too soon or too low, and often I fail to eat and drink enough, or just run out of gas. For all that we celebrate speed climbs, the successful mountaineers tend to be those that take the time to do things right: acclimatize well, pack the right gear, wait for the best weather or snow conditions, consume enough calories and liquids, keep hands, feet, and face warm and dry, etc., etc. Now that I’m older, I move slower but get to the top more often.

Beth RoddenBeth Rodden. Professional climber. Climbing 19 years.

I wish I would have known to savor or really appreciate the simplicities of my 20s and my climbing career at that point. Living out of a van, waking up crushing each day, eating a can of soup, and repeating the next day. There’s something about that simple life that, at the time, seems so given, so right, so normal. Before the complexities of other desires really set in: a house, a family, stability—all, of course, things that I want, but that add to the difficulty of maintaining that carefree lifestyle. I definitely enjoyed myself back then and loved what I was doing, but never saw it changing, never thought that maybe it wouldn’t be an every day/season occurrence to sleep on the side of El Cap and establish a new free route.

Fitz CahallFitz Cahall. Creator, The Dirtbag Diaries.
Climbing 16 years.

I wish had understood that failure is a pivotal part of the process. When I’m saying failure, I’m not talking about blowing onsights and sending a sport climb second go. I’m talking about wretched, abject butt kickings, the kind of thing that would have been embarrassing to report upon return to Camp 4. I had a few of those and that led me to approach climbing with a very steady progression in mind. I had to be near flawless. Often that’s how climbing felt to me—perfect. I believed that when I did El Cap in a day for the first time, I should be able to make it down in time to the pizza deck. I got to that stage, but it required fuck-ups. I just wished I’d gone for it more at 23. Later, after my physical skills had diminished, I realized that had been holding me back. I should have bitten off more than I could chew on a regular basis, because the steady progression, well, I felt like I sort of ended up running out of time before my body wore down and I became consumed by other things. I still love climbing. I’ve just learned to hurl myself at the routes I want to do and see how it goes—more often than not, I end up surprising myself. Plus, the pizza deck is overrated.

Alex HonnoldAlex Honnold. Professional climber. Climbing 18 years.

I guess two things that go together: to make every effort count and to take rest days. Basically, they both sort of mean that quality is more important than quantity. It’s better to try really, really hard once than half-ass something over and over. Which is where resting comes in, because it allows you to try things with max effort.

Kelly CordesKelly Cordes. Alpinist, writer, margarita expert.
Climbing 20 years.

My biggest mistakes have been obvious things, things I knew but simply neglected to do. Fuck-ups. The single biggest one was really a moment of complacency. I wish I hadn’t had that moment of inattentiveness, when instead of ensuring that the rope was tight before I lowered, with my belayer unable to see me, I just leaned back. That was four years ago almost exactly, and suddenly my leg was flopping off to the side. In an instant everything changed for me, and it’s been a huge challenge ever since. But I already knew well the dangers of complacency. And still I blew it. Four surgeries later, I limp, deal with pain every day as a constant in my life—usually low-level, but enough to prevent me from doing (at least at the same level and frequency) the thing I love most: climbing in the mountains. I got great medical care, but it was a devastating type of fracture. It’s just the way shit goes sometimes. Dammit.

Whitney BolandWhitney Boland. Writer, climber. Climbing 12 years.

I wish I knew how important it was to mix it up and not get too sucked into one thing. I’m a little obsessive, which is why redpoint climbing appealed to me when I started climbing 12 years ago. I could throw myself at something over and over again, fueled by my blinding, single-minded obsession. It largely appealed to my background—14 years of competitive gymnastics training, in which you train single moves or routines to perfection—but also to the way I approach life. But over the years, as I work backwards sometimes to break my habits, I’ve found more enjoyment in all types of climbing and exposing myself to new climbs, experiences and techniques. It’s made me a better climber and more appreciative of how impressively satisfying climbing can truly be.

Rob PizemRob Pizem. Husband, father, rock climber.
Climbing 20 years.

I wish that I knew that just trying hard would not get you to reach your potential without learning and using good climbing technique. Also that you never know who you will influence, so don’t be a jerk!

Chuck OdetteChuck Odette. Climber, event and athlete coordinator. Climbing 35 years.

Understanding the concept of “climbing means nothing” was a huge breakthrough for my performance. In the scheme of the universe, what we do means very little. Once this concept is grasped, it’s easy to “let go” of ego. Performance anxiety is no longer present. The desire to succeed is no longer the primary motivator. Instead, it’s replaced with a state of empty mind, which opens the flow for neural pathways. This allows the body to react more quickly and naturally. Climbing is movement and movement is natural. It should always be enjoyable. Quit trying and just do…

Michael KennedyMichael Kennedy. Recovering alpinist, former editor/pundit. Climbing 43 years.

The one thing I wish I’d known when I was younger is the importance of balance: keeping family, friends, work, and climbing in harmony—not overdoing any one at the expense of the others. Focus is good, but you have to value and nurture your relationships and really pay attention to all aspects of life.

Alex LowtherAlex Lowther. Producer, Big UP Productions.
Climbing 14 years.

I wish I’d realized earlier how simple the physical act of rock climbing is. Rock climbing is: positioning the feet to best use the current handholds to go up. Within this simple explanation are numerous variables. Hip position, exactly how you’re grabbing a hold, efficiency, where your chest is, what you’re looking at, what you’re thinking about, temps, fuck, the humidity! But it all boils down to your hands and your feet. But really mostly your feet. And your hands. Repeat. Plus: Crag beer. Bring one for your partner, too. Even warm, at that moment it’s still the greatest beer on earth.

Brendan LeonardBrendan Leonard. Writer, semi-rad adventurer.
Climbing 9 years.

I wish I had found more people who climb harder than me to partner with, or focused on learning more than doing. I’ve been climbing for almost nine years now, and finally said yes to a friend who wanted to take me up a wall and teach me how to lead some aid pitches—and all I can think is, “What if I really like it? That’s going to open up so many possibilities…”

BJ SbarraBJ Sbarra. Climber, developer, purveyor of stoke. Climbing 20 years.

Working on your strengths is fun, and it’s easy to stay inside your comfort zone, but if you really want to progress, you are going to have to step outside that bubble and put yourself in situations you find uncomfortable. If you are afraid of taking falls, take lots of falls. If you have a hard time on crimps, go find a bunch of crimpy routes and relentlessly pursue perfection while climbing them. If you are afraid of climbing in front of other people, go do it anyway, because the sooner you get rid of that weight hanging around your neck, the sooner you’ll feel free and your climbing, and your enjoyment of it will rise to a whole new level. Don’t forget one of the main reasons why we climb in the first place: to wrestle with chaos and learn something from the experience. Let go of control and trust the process, it’ll get you where you need to be.

Peter BealPeter Beal. Teacher, coach, boulderer, writer.
Climbing 38 years.

I learned to climb in a time when the sport was developing and was painfully aware of “rules” and an often-punishing community consensus that ostracized independent thinkers. As I progressed I realized that the innovations and achievements that I valued in the sport came not from the rule-enforcers but from the rule-breakers. Now after almost 40 years in the sport, I am pleased to see that the naysayers mostly no longer climb and the practices that I received grief for when I was younger are now standard practice for young and old alike. Regardless of what you climb and how long you have been at it, follow your own vision. You may live long enough to see it become normal!

Mike DoyleMike Doyle. “Just a climber.” Climbing 22 years.

Honestly I wish that I knew the benefit of getting stronger at a younger age. I used to think that getting pumped meant I was just not fit enough so I trained endurance all the time. What I didn’t understand was that if you became stronger you could hold on with less effort, thus not getting as pumped, while still being able to pull hard moves. As it stands now I can pretty easily still climb ‘fitness’ routes but I can’t pull a hard move.

Timmy ONeillTimmy O’Neill. Climber; actor; Executive Director, Paradox Sports. Climbing 25 years.

Since I discovered my adventured lifestyle I have incrementally changed over the decades of dirt naps and fast friendships. Similar to a sapling which develops deeper roots and greater heights my first climbing experience climbing germinated the devotion and joy that is my growing sequoia of voluntary risk and decisive ownership. In light of my limbs I remain the seed. Even though I am more aware of the location of the ground and the rope in relation to my body, the summit remains elusive. The continuum of struggle, wind, rain, failure and fear provide meaning and context to the audacity of being—I feel so I exist.

Emily HarringtonEmily Harrington. Professional climber.
Climbing 17 years.

I feel incredibly lucky to have grown up in the active and passionate climbing-focused community of Boulder, with amazing mentors and influences who guided me along the way. But I do wish I had realized exactly how lucky I was back then, and taken more advantage of it. I never tried to step outside my small sport climbing/competition world until recently, even though I probably had a better chance than most to embrace a more all-encompassing perspective on the sport I was so passionate about. I don’t necessarily regret my path in climbing, I just wish I’d known how much more climbing had to offer a little bit earlier in my career.

Room to Relax

A boulderer climbing hard.

Kenny Barker bouldering at the Hawk’s Nest Damn, New River Gorge, West Virginia.

Climbers often think of bouldering as a matter of pure power. There’s some truth to that, but even in a game that the boulderer Ivan Greene once likened to wrestling a Mack Truck, there is room to relax, to lessen the grip, to breathe. The room is admittedly tight, but it’s every bit as important to bouldering well as it is to climbing a long sport or trad route.

The first time you try the moves of a hard boulder problem, you might find yourself expending maximum effort. You might not be able to breathe or you might find yourself shaking as you reach for the next hold. Your heart will beat double-time to shuttle oxygen to and carbon dioxide from your depleted muscles.

But the next time you try the problem, and the time after that, you’ll probably find things becoming a little less taxing. As you get accustomed to the specific holds and movements, to the requisite friction, you’ll start to find the space to relax, the moments to draw a breath or shake out your hand to let fresh blood back in.

Bouldering is about trying very hard, usually for very short periods of time. It is between those moments that you find the space to relax. The longer you climb, the better you get at exploring and inhabiting those spaces. It’s the yin and yang of bouldering: the exertion and the relaxation. Both are required. If you only breathe in or only breathe out, you won’t survive very long. If you never pulled hard, you wouldn’t make much progress on a hard boulder problem; but if you only pulled hard and never loosened your grip, you’d be just as stuck.

Most climbers focus only on increasing grip, forgetting to the importance of holding less tightly. At any given point on the climb, there’s probably a way to give your fingers a break — to put more pressure on your toe or a little more twist to your hips, for example. Maybe you’re just crimping harder than you need to—find that point between holding on and letting go and ride it as closely as possible. Every moment you can cut your effort is a moment you’ll be able to hold better at the crux, or at the top of the problem, when you’re tired and the pads and spotters seem far away.

Even in the heart of the most stressful times in our lives, there is likewise room to relax. It reminds me of the metaphor of the glass jar:

A professor fills a jar to the brim with rocks and asks his class, “Is this jar full?” The students nod in the affirmative, and so the professor pours small pebbles into the jar, filling in the uneven spaces between the rocks. “What about now, is the jar full?” he asks. The students nod more vigorously this time. Then the professor empties a bag of sand into the jar, shaking it to fill the gaps between even the pebbles. “Ah, now the jar is full!” he said. “Right?” A little dubious at this point, the students admit Yes, the jar is finally full. Picking up his mug as if to take a drink, the professor proceeds to pour coffee into the jar, filling the remaining space with liquid.

The point being, even if you feel at the edge of your ability on a climb, there’s almost always some extra space in which you can relax your muscles, draw a deeper breath, or unclench the fist of your mind. But you have to look for it…