The Path of Most Resistance

A climber bouldering in Little Cottonwood Canyon

The hardest thing I ever climbed took me probably 50 tries to finish. It was a boulder problem in the woods of New York, and from start to finish it couldn’t have been more than 15 feet long. Each hold was so small and each move so strenuous that I would frequently spend a whole afternoon just trying to puzzle out one little section.

The irony wasn’t lost on me when, after finishing this climb at the very outer limit of my skill level, I turned and walked down to ground level via the boulder’s sloping backside.

I could have easily walked up this backside in sneakers and ended up in the same spot I got to through weeks of concerted effort directed at the overhanging face. A non-climber might see this and think I had wasted my time, and from a practical standpoint, he’d be right.

But really, the thing that makes any climb worth the time has got to be the challenge. The challenge itself, often viewed as an obstacle, is the source of something deeper. It’s the tool we use to dig into ourselves and find that beating, luminous core.

Things that don’t challenge us often bore us. Art that’s merely pretty is decoration; art that challenges can transform. A job that challenges us is engaging; while one that requires little thought or special effort is monotonous.

Luckily, as with that boulder problem I tangled with, we can find challenges almost anywhere, even where easier paths already exist. The challenge isn’t necessarily inherent to a thing or an act, but is something we create for ourselves.

In the book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about an assembly line worker who sets challenges for himself that allow deep engagement in his very repetitive job. In the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, we follow master chef Jiro Ono, who has dedicated his every breath to the perfection, tiny step by tiny step, of the art of sushi making. Both used the challenge of continuous improvement to generate a deeper sense of significance in what could also be seen as workaday employment.

We climbers are sometimes criticized for our obsession with quantifiable improvement, also known as number chasing—indeed, I think a grasping mindset can easily become detrimental to balance and happiness—but most of us are just looking for a well-matched challenge. It’s that feeling of total focus that takes us out of ourselves and while teaching us about ourselves… that fully engages us with the act of living.

As climbers, we choose the hard way not because we’re masochists, but because the path of most resistance is often the fastest route to our true objectives.

Arrive With Every Step

Hikers walking along a trail in Wild Iris, Wyoming. The Stone Mind.
Hikers walking to the crag at Wild Iris, Wyoming.

My wife hadn’t been in the mountains much before she moved to Colorado from Philadelphia eight years ago. So the first time she came out with me and my climbing buddies on the long, steep approach to Chaos Canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park, she got frustrated. “Why are you guys hiking so fast?” She asked. “The boulders will still be there if we slow down, I bet.”

At the time, I attributed her comments to the suffering of a sea-level dweller struggling at altitude, but looking back, I see it differently. What were we hurrying for, after all? I still find myself doing it: hustling to the crag like it was some sort of a race, with competitors hot on my tail. But now I try to slow down and make more of the process.

I’ve been listening to a Zen monk named Thich Nhat Hanh on Spotify. His soft, accented voice and halting cadence are mesmerizing. In one of his lectures he talks about hiking up a mountain—Mount Wǔtái, a Buddhist sacred site in northern China:

There was a tourist guide to lead us and she was holding a little flag. … But we did not follow her—but we did not follow her way—so we made a strange group who climbed very, very slowly. And after having made 10 steps like that we sit down and enjoy looking around. And then we stood up and continue for another 10 steps. We had plenty of time—nothing to do, nowhere to go. Just enjoy. The means become the end. We want to arrive with every step.

His words reminded me of that early hike with my wife. She wanted to look around, take in the mountains and the plants and the little alpine critters skittering and fluttering around us. Up in Rocky Mountain National park, things are always changing: clouds rush in and soften the daylight, storms boom lighting down around the high lakes, winds stir fallen leaves, huge snowflakes fill the air like sudden moths…

But me? I just wanted to be sure to get to my project 15 minutes faster. I guess I thought it could mean the difference between sending and not sending.

“Mindfulness” always struck me as a word tainted with the scent of new-age cheese. It conjured images of dreadlocked kids in Boulder sipping yerba mate from dried gourds and wishing namaste to all the passers by. But again, I’ve come to see things differently.

At root, mindfulness isn’t about ideology but about discovering for ourselves: what are we thinking and feeling, what are our motivations, what are the effects of our actions? To act mindfully is simply to act with deeper awareness and honesty. Rushing towards goals is rarely an act of mindfulness but is instead a result of our desires or fears.

It’s a little much for me to walk quite so slowly as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, but I do remind myself to be more mindful on my hikes: to bring intention to every step, to be aware of the breath in my nose, to let my skin tell me little stories about the direction of the wind, humidity, the energy of the sun… .

Even when climbing a route, I think most of us could do better to direct focus away from the burning in our forearms, the distance to the next clip, or visions of success or failure. Instead, return focus to the moment, breathe and inhabit the heartbeat. Feel what it is to hang from a sheer wall of rock, which muscles can be relaxed and which should remain tight, and so on.

In short, really experience the climb rather that rush to finish it. The climb itself becomes a joy. The means become the end. With each move, you arrive at the destination.

What’s in Your Pack?

Hikers walking on antelope island. Photo: Stacie Wickham
Photo: Stacie Wickham

When preparing for a journey, we must carefully decide what to bring. To pack too much slows us down. Likewise it’s a problem to pack too little and not have what we need. To carry only what is needed is the middle way of packing.

This challenge is at the heart of fast-and-light alpinism (see: Mark Twight). The right balance must be struck to meet one’s goal with style. The climber must excise the extraneous to find that place where skill and challenge, tool and task are perfectly matched; where she would likely not succeed with any less or more than what she’s brought.

It is the same with our minds. The thoughts we cling to are as items in a pack. We should ask ourselves if they’re useful, how do they contribute to our lives: Do they increase happiness and peace? Compassion and understanding? Or are they useless weight, cluttering our mental space?

Among the heaviest thoughts are desires and fears, guilt and regret. Most of us carry far too many of them all the time, everywhere we go.

My grandfather used to say “The things you own end up owning you,” which I always took as a caution against consumerism. It is, but in a more abstract sense, it’s also a warning against attachment of all kinds.

When we carry too much stuff, we’re unable to move freely, instinctively. We’re bound, anchored. In the mountains, this can be fatal. When such clutter concerns our mental state we become distracted and lose ourselves.

A nice exercise is to ask yourself every day, Can I carry less? When packing for a trip, it can help to choose a smaller bag. A smaller bag asks Do you really need that? of every item you plan to bring. (Imagine yourself as a small bag.)

And what about goals? Those carry weight, too. Can you leave even your goals behind and move with total freedom? It is a tricky business…

As far as I know, there is no instruction manual for such things. Just the act of asking Do I need this? more frequently and of everything we value can lead to some important insights. You can start right now.

Routesetting Wu Wei

Holds and an impact driver for routesetting - The Stone Mind

We Petzl employees are lucky enough to have a bouldering wall at our Salt Lake City offices, and sometimes a few of us use our lunch breaks to put up holds. During one such lightning setting round, I noticed we had a surplus of one particular kind of hold: a rounded, pad-and-a-half edge colored like the marbled paper I used to make in elementary school art class. On a whim, I grabbed all the marbled edges and went to work on a traverse.

My lunch break drawing to an end, I slapped up the edges in a hurry, with only the loosest sense of the moves I wanted to create. In a state of “flow,” I bolted on all the handholds in five minutes, then nabbed a box of foot jibs and sprayed those up even more quickly. Certain I’d have to do some serious editing to this hastily crafted route, I grabbed my chalk bag to give it a test run.

Right away I was surprised. Everything flowed better than I suspected. I hadn’t pictured every detail of the climb, but was pulled by an intuition of the moves as I set them. The result, I think, was a more complete representation of my intent than I could have reasoned out with precise planning and goal-oriented forethought.

In routesetting as in climbing, the best performances often come when following our instincts. First we must assiduously practice our art of choice, of course, but then, when given the appropriate circumstances, we can go beyond what we could have done by willful action alone. Many view this state as the unification of body and mind or even self and universe. Ultimately, this idea of acting without striving or “non-doing” (wu wei) is a cornerstone of Eastern religions, from Hinduism to Taoism to Buddhism.

One of my favorite Zen stories, “The First Precept,” deals with this concept nicely:

The Obaku temple in Kyoto has a carving over the gate which says “The First Principle”. The 200-year-old carving, with exceptionally large letters, is admired by many as a masterpiece of calligraphy. It is the work of Kosen, the master carver.

Kosen would sketch the letters on paper and they would be carved on wood by his workmen. Now, Kosen had a rather audacious student who prepared large quantities of ink for his master. He was often very critical of his master’s technique.

“Not good enough!” said he, about Kosen’s first attempt.
“How about this one?” asked Kosen after his second drawing.

“That’s worse than the previous one!” exclaimed the bold pupil.
Kosen wrote out eighty-four sheets of “The First Principle”, but none met with the student’s approval. Then the young man stepped out of the room for a few minutes. Kosen thought to himself “Here’s my chance to escape his sharp eye!” Freed of distraction, he hurriedly wrote “The First Principle.”

The student returned. “Brilliant! A masterpiece,” he exclaimed.

It’s so simple: we practice with intention again and again, always weighted down by the desire for a particular outcome. Then, eventually, we find ourselves freed from the desire for whatever reason, and we are able to act from a deeper place. You might say this place is within us, or that its part of some underlying force (the tao), or that they are one and the same. Regardless…

So what’s the lesson then? That to do our best, we must let go of the desire to do our best. It’s another of those pesky puzzles that reason can’t solve. Words can only point us towards the answer, but as the old Zen saying goes, “Don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.” Instead, quiet the conscious mind and let the answer appear.

Climbing Towards Enlightenment – the John Shrader Interview

John Vincent Shrader climbing at the Red River Gorge
John Vincent Shrader clipping bolts on Dracula, in the Red River Gorge.

I met John Vincent Shrader in the early 2000s in the Red River Gorge. Stocky and muscular, with rectangular spectacles and close-cropped hair, he was studying history, psychology, and Japanese studies at the University of Kentucky. John hailed from Louisville and frequented the Red, ticking scores of the area’s classic test pieces, including Nagypapa (5.13d), Darth Maul (5.13c), and White Man’s Overbite (5.13c). He stood out for his climbing ability, sure, but also for his reserved, thoughtful demeanor. He came off as a mindful person in a place where many were unabashedly focused on their own accomplishments.

One day, I noticed I hadn’t run into John for a while. I asked around, but no one could tell me where he got off to. Eventually, he faded into the haze of memory.

Then one day last year, he appeared in my Facebook feed. A recent picture showed John with bushy beard and hair in a topknot. Clad in a red tank top, he looked thinner than I remembered. Seated beside a small shrine, he smiled broadly, well-worn lines wrinkling the corners of his eyes. The pictures in his Facebook gallery told a peripatetic tale: India, Japan, Mexico…. He appeared deeply engaged in yoga and meditation.

My curiosity was piqued, so I reached out with a message and asked if we could maybe do an interview. He agreed, and explained that he now lived in San Cristobal de las Casas, a mountain town in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico, where he teaches yoga and meditation. It was fun to catch up with an old acquaintance and get a fresh take on the intersection of climbing and philosophy from someone with intimate experience in both.

It appears you’re quite into yoga, meditation, and the philosophy of the East. How did you get interested in this stuff?
My journey into yoga began in college. It was kind of a religious, spiritual crossroads for me then. I had grown up with a Christian background, and many of my friends in college were Christian, and I began to have a lot of questions. Christianity, at the time, simply didn’t have answers for me. It was in learning about Buddha and his message that the spiritual path is a personal one, where only you can provide the answers for yourself, that I became more interested in the philosophy of the East. At the same time, I learned that a good climbing friend’s dad was a master at a Zen center near the Red River Gorge called Furnace Mountain. I went to my first silent meditation retreat there and fell in love. I was fascinated by the simplicity of approaching the ultimate through working with the intimacy of your own mind and awareness. Later, yoga became the perfect bridge for connecting my passion for moving the body with climbing and sitting meditation.

Are you a Buddhist?
Nowadays, I don’t say I’m anything. Buddhism and Buddha’s teachings have had a profound influence on how I see and approach the world and myself, but I wouldn’t consider myself Buddhist. I’m seeing more and more that at the core of any authentic spirituality the teachings are similar and universal. I try to adopt all guidance and philosophies that increase my awareness and help me be a better human being.

When and why did you stop climbing regularly?
I stopped climbing regularly when I went to India after college. I spent a few months climbing at Hampi, in South India, then the journey of India simply took me to other places. It was never by conscious choice, per se, just that logistics and location didn’t allow for regular climbing.

John Shrader at a yoga intensive in Mexico
John at a yoga retreat at the Ananda Healing Center.

Were you ever climbing and practicing yoga at the same time?
Not as intensively as I would have liked, in hindsight, but I was meditating and starting to do more and more yoga the last few years I was still climbing consistently.

Do you feel yoga helped you to climb better?
Absolutely. I was always shorter in stature, so the increased flexibility was much welcomed for raising my foot to my armpit and ridiculous drop knees on cruxes that taller friends would just reach past! Now, I feel so light and flexible and also super strong in the core, I would love to see how it translates to the rock. Not to mention the mental focus and learning to move from a place much deeper in. I always intuitively incorporated the breath with climbing to work through hard sequences, and now seeing how deep and profound a role it has in yoga, I would love to blend this more consciously again. With yoga, it begins to feel like the subtlety of the breath is moving the body, and not the force and brute of the body. I’m sure this would translate to a super smooth climbing experience.

Do you feel there’s a meditative or yogic aspect to climbing?
Absolutely! The amount of present-moment awareness and control of the mind and body that climbing calls for brings heightened states of awareness and a magnified view of your inner world. I would fall off the crux so many times and was sure that 90 percent of the time it was just one thought, usually negative, rather than physical incapacity, that threw me off. More mental mastery always related to stronger climbing.

Have you experienced a transcendent moment during climbing?
For sure, there are times climbing where time and space fade away, a crystalline clarity of the present moment and a sense of tapping into something infinite, undefinable, yet magical and alluring at the same time. It was this state of flow that was always the strongest pull for me to return to the rock.

You lived in Japan for five years; would you say there’s a different approach towards climbing there than in the US?
I didn’t climb so consistently [when I was in Japan]. When I did though, the climbers were always super stoked. No matter where I’ve been in the world, the climbing community always has this same vibe running through it. In Japan, there was so much psych and enthusiasm, but also this deep calmness when out climbing and I felt more of a respect for nature. More into really making sure they clean up after themselves and, at least when I went, no sense of any competition and a lot of shared encouragement and enthusiasm.

Do you think there’s a natural tension between the Buddhist concept of non-attachment and the typical climbing mindset?
Unfortunately, I would say there’s a certain tension that is present. One of the “goals” of Buddhism is to achieve a state of equanimity and non-reactivity, a mind that is serene despite outer circumstances of pleasure or pain. So often, there is attachment to sending a route or not. If there is failure, there is negative thinking and self-criticism—sometimes subtle, sometimes quite intense and vocal! Oftentimes, one’s happiness and state of mind are deeply influenced by success or failure on routes. I can understand that there is so much physically and emotionally invested in attaining a route or a certain grade, but it’s also silly, of course, in hindsight, that climbers get so caught up in these very transient concepts. I love the Bhagavad Gita‘s teaching of karma yoga. It basically says: give everything your very best effort, no holding back, but simultaneously completely detach from any result or fruit from the effort. I think if climbers approached climbing more like this, there could be more freedom and space in their hearts, and more of a pure joy for the action itself.

The Furnace Mountain Meditation Hall in Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky. An outcropping of Corbin sandstone in the background.
The Furnace Mountain Meditation Hall in Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky, where John first experienced a silent meditation retreat. That’s an outcropping of Corbin sandstone in the background.

Can any activity be a path towards enlightenment?
Yes, this is again the message of karma yoga: that simply acting with the best intention and with all of one’s heart, and maintaining a sense of service towards all without attachment to result, there is a burning of personal karma and the possibility to attain freedom. Any activity, done with this in mind and with a heart of awareness and devotion can be a path towards enlightenment.

What is the importance of mindfulness?
Mindfulness is bringing a spotlight to all the patterns and tendencies of the mind that are the source of our suffering. When doing things with great attention and awareness of our internal state, every moment becomes an opportunity for meditation. Mindfulness is great because you can practice it every moment of every day, and not necessarily have to be doing yoga or sitting meditation—although the former greatly supports mindfulness through the rest of the day. A favorite Zen Master of mine, Hakuin, says “Meditation in the midst of action is a billion times superior to meditation in stillness.”

Do you think you could apply mindfulness to climbing?
So, of course, mindful climbing is the future! There is so much opportunity to make climbing into a more meditative experience, and I think many experienced climbers are intuitively doing this. It is the perfect environment: on a natural stone in the middle of nature, already so much stillness and tranquility around—to make the art of climbing into a process of deep mindfulness fits just perfectly. I remember in one of Aldous Huxley’s books, Island, he describes a utopian society, and I distinctly remember he mentions climbing as something of great importance that the community does for self-discovery and training of the mind. They also used a lot of psychedelics! I can’t quite remember the ending, but I think they were taken over by a giant oil company and the climbing and psychedelics stopped… . Maybe we still have a chance.

Do you think one day you’ll return to climbing, bringing with you these new perspectives? 
Absolutely, I feel climbing will at some point come back into my life. I’m not sure in what capacity, but as long as we would be living close to rock, then I’m sure I’ll get back into it. There are times now and then when I make it to a gym or occasionally outside and am immediately struck by the organic communion of yoga and climbing. I’m always feeling very whole after climbing even just a bit. To be honest, sometimes I’m even dreaming about finishing up unsent projects and get a little giddy inside. But there certainly isn’t a need to climb like I used to feel. Before, it was always something that I deeply craved, and felt like it gave me balance, perspective and peace of mind. Now, yoga and meditation are bringing this spiritual contentment, so climbing would probably be another dimension of self-expression and connection to nature, or another way to approach yoga.

Chuck Odette Facts

It's not the fall that kills you… it's Chuck Odette waiting for you at the bottom

Master Chuck

Chuck Odette managed the demo gear fleet for Petzl’s national events. This meant that our sales rep force would contact Chuck to request demo harnesses, helmets, and headlamps for events like the Ouray Ice Fest or the Red River Rendezvous. Chuck was notoriously meticulous when it came to scheduling, and he was frustrated to no end when stuff didn’t make it back to Petzl HQ in time for the next event.

One year, at a sales meeting, Chuck stood up and made a demonstration to impress on the sales reps the consequences of not returning gear on time: he had me hold up a thick pine board while he punched it in two with perfect karate form. Those reps would think twice before delaying a return shipment again…

Chuck was in his mid-50s then, yet he had the physique of an athletic 30-year-old. His sandy blond hair was long and he tied it back into a ponytail when he practiced yoga poses and karate katas at lunch.  It was around this time that I started to equate Chuck with legendary caucasian martial arts movie star Chuck Norris.

Last week, at the age of 59 and after twelve years at Petzl, Chuck retired. Unlike your average retiree, however, Chuck sold his house in Ogden, Utah, gussied up a Scamp camper trailer, and hit the road with his wife Maggie on a quest to climb (and bolt) hard sport routes.

For his retirement party, I put together some memes based on the famous Chuck Norris Facts that have been circulating on the web for the past decade or so. I didn’t write any of the facts in the memes below; I just copy/pasted and switched out “Odette” for “Norris”—they seemed to work just as well. I think they do a lot to capture this hard-climbing, karate kicking grandpa’s badass personality and sense of humor.

More from Chuck

If you know him…

…feel free to submit your own Chuck Odette facts in the comments.

Chuck Odette Facts

Heights are afraid of Chuck Odette

Chuck Odette doesn't have a mullet… his mustache just has a back-up

Girls open doors for Chuck Odette

Chuck Odette doesn't actually need food. Food just uses his body for protection

Chuck Odette looks 30 although he is 59 because age tried to catch up with him but he roundhouse kicked it back ti 1985

Chuck Odette is the only person who can kick you in the back of the face

When Chuck Odette smoked his first cigarette, the cigarette coughed

When it's cold outside, frost gets Chuck-bite

Chuck Odette can't go bald. His hair is too scared to leave.

If at first you don't succeed, you're not Chuck Odette

The Stone Mind T-Shirts Are Here!

The Stone Mind logo T-shirt

get-yours-now-button-orange

Available now! The Stone Mind T-shirts via adayak.com. Adorned on the chest with a logo designed by artist Kristin Marine, these organic ringspun cotton shirts are lightweight, double needle stitched, and come in three colors.

Recommended uses: climbing, writing, meditating, or even chilling with a fine whiskey on a fall day.

More designs to come…

 

 

I don’t feel like writing anything today

Keyboard with no letters - The Stone Mind

After breakfast Sunday I waded desultorily through my mental list of possible blog topics, and all I could think was, “I don’t feel like writing anything today.” My wife and I took the dog for a walk and ate some leftover saag paneer for lunch. Then I thought some more about writing and decided to read another chapter of Dune and take a nap.

It was just one of those days. I wasn’t feeling inspired. Then I remembered that thing Chuck Close said in a letter to his 14-year-old self, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Which is a weirdly inspiring thing to say.

So I sat down at the ol’ laptop and clacked out, “I don’t feel like writing anything today.” Even as I typed it, a second half of the sentence jumped onto the page: “I don’t feel like writing anything today… but I’m going to do it anyway.”

From there, the thoughts began to roll. I followed one thread, decided I didn’t like it and backtracked, followed another one. I started reading some blogs on the topic of inspiration and motivation. I re-watched some videos that touched on similar ideas. Connections started to make themselves and ideas spawned new ideas. I wrote the better part of a blog and deleted it and then wrote this one.

In that same letter to his boyhood self, Close wrote, “Every great idea I ever had grew out of work itself.” It’s worth pinning up over your desk, or carrying around in your wallet or something.

In a post celebrating his blog’s three-year anniversary, my friend Brendan wrote, “Basically this thing turns three today because I’m too stubborn to not let it turn three.” His very popular blog, semi-rad.com, is by turns uplifting, insightful, hilarious, and touching. And it would not exist if not for stubbornness.

Stubbornness gets a bad rap. When someone stubbornly refuses to admit they made a mistake, for example, it doesn’t do anyone any good. But all those people society holds up as great and significant were, I guarantee, stubborn as hell. It’s the only way to really accomplish anything in a world heavy with inertia and full of seemingly good reasons to give up on whatever it is you’re interested in doing.

I think stubbornness can be an excellent attribute to cultivate, though, because it allows us to move forward even when everything seems to be pointing in the other direction, even our own desire. Often people attribute the drive to push ahead to passion, but that’s really only half—or less than half—of the story. There are too many days when the passion just isn’t firing. You gotta be stubborn, unwilling to bend to the whims of the moment. Confident that you’ll thank yourself later, as when the alarm goes off for dawn patrol.

In a TEDx video, pro skater Rodney Mullen explains that for every few seconds of success on a skateboard, there are hours and days of failure. “What we do is fall…all the time. And we get back up,” he says. Climbers engage in the same quixotic pattern, stubbornly chasing the moment when impossible becomes possible. To do anything well and explore it deeply, this ability it required.

It’s of primary importance to show up again and again and do our thing, whatever that may be, with earnest effort and open mind. Dig deeper, work smarter, think different—yes, yes, and yes… but first you have to show up. And sometimes that’s the hardest part. It was for me when I started writing this.

In the end, if we’re stubborn (and lucky) enough, the result might be something revolutionary or ground-breaking or world-changing. Or it might simply be a life well-lived, which I think is even better.

7 Crag/Drink Pairings for the Thirsty Climber

Clint Eastwood and George Kennedy enjoy an Olympia Beer at the top of the Totem Pole.
Clint Eastwood drinking Olympia Beer at the top of the Totem Pole, in Arizona’s Monument Valley. From The Eiger Sanction.

Traveling to climb is great: it gives us the chance to experience not only new stone and unfamiliar cultures, but also to sample various beverages full of local flavor. Below is a tiny slice of the many, many fine crag/drink pairings to be found at famous climbing areas around the world.

What libations should visitors be sure to sample when visiting your local climbing area? Add your crag/drink pairing in the comments…

1. Rifle, Colorado / Avery Beer

Home to blocky limestone routes and the highest concentration of sticky-rubber kneepads in the United States, Rifle Mountain Park also plays host to a strange initiation ritual involving beer and climbing. Adam Avery, proprietor of Boulder-based Avery Brewing Company, is said to have set a challenge: a climber must down a sixer of Avery beer in three hours and then redpoint “certain routes” in order to earn a Team Avery hoody. Even if you’re not trying out for the team, after spending several hours greasing off Rifle’s notoriously sandbagged sport routes, you might want to try a Redpoint Ale, and Ellie’s Brown Ale, or perhaps a Salvation Belgian Golden Ale… to help sooth the sting of defeat.

2. Céüse, France / Gigondas 

In France’s Haute Provence, Céüse is routinely ranked amongst the wold’s finest climbing spots. The blue-and-white streaked, pocketed limestone there easily makes up for the long approach. Even better, the region in which this Platonic ideal of a climbing spot rests is full of vineyards and wineries. Among the area’s popular appellations is Gigondas, “a little brother of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.” The town of Gigondas, about 60 miles from Céüse, lies at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail, a mountain range with climbing that actually overlooks the area’s vineyards. While in Céüse, you might also catch a glimpse of Chartreuse on local spirits menus. This tasty herbal aperitif produced by monks in the nearby Chartreuse Mountains is well worth a try.

3. New River Gorge, West Virginia / Mountain Moonshine

With thousands of sport routes, trad routes, and boulder problems on the area’s exceptionally high-quality Nuttall Sandstone, it’s no wonder the New River Gorge frequently ranks on climber’s lists as one America’s finest climbing destinations. The region in which the beautiful NRG is found, however, is economically depressed and not particularly known for its beers, wines, or liquors…  except, perhaps, for the famed moonshine that locals have been distilling illegally for well over 100 years. Nowadays, there are numerous legal, tax-paying moonshine distilleries across Appalachia who produce the high-octane, corn-based, unaged white whiskey. One of them, Appalachian Moonshine, can be found in Ripley, West Virginia, about 100 miles from the New River Gorge. Y in liquor stores around the state.

4. Kalymnos, Greece / Mythos Beer

Home to massive, tufa-studded limestone sport routes, the Greek Island of Kalymnos is known as a climber’s paradise. Relatively dry, with year-round climbing possible, many visitors here rent scooters to get around. In keeping with the general holiday mood that Kalymnos inspires, a light, easy drinking lager called Mythos Beer is popular among locals and visitors alike, according to Aris Theodoropoulos. It’s light on alcohol, so it won’t leave you with a hangover to ruin your climbing on the mythic formations the next day. Another popular Greek liquor you can find on the island is Ouzo. It’s a strong, clear booze flavored with anise, lending it an aromatic licorice taste. Add some water and it turns cloudy white… typically served with small plates of food called mezedes.

5. Red River Gorge, Kentucky / Bourbon (various local labels)

Miguel’s Pizza, the prime hangout and campground for Kentucky’s sandstone climbing paradise, is in a dry county. Still, one has only to drive an hour or two to access over a dozen bourbon distilleries. From Maker’s Mark to Woodford Reserve to Evan Williams, there’s no shortage of Kentucky’s famous barrel-aged distilled spirit in these parts. If you choose to tour these distilleries, be sure to assign a designated driver… or better yet, just pick up a bottle on your way into the Red and enjoy it around the campfire. (If you want to blend in with the locals, you might do better to hit the beer trailer just over the country line and grab a case of Budweiser or Miller Lite.)

6. Blue Mountains, Australia / Victorian Bitter

A few hours east of Sydney, the Blue Mountains (aka “the Blueys”) area in New South Wales is a massive red sandstone canyon chock full of amazing climbs. While perhaps not as popular among international visitors as the Grampians, the Blueys is worth a visit, both for the climbing and for the scenery. The small towns of Katoomba, Blackheath, and Mount Victoria offer coffee shops for morning fuel-ups and pubs to entertain in the evening and on rest days. Here, says Australian crush Chris Webb Parson, “The bogan drink—or cliché drink—is a beer called Victorian Bitter. We just call it VB. It’s funny though… If you’re from Queensland, you drink a brand called XXXX (four X).”

7. Frankenjura / Beer (various local brews)

This massive limestone climbing area comprises over 1500 crags spread over hundreds of miles and hundreds of little villages. Home to one of the largest collections of hard climbs in the world, as well as the first 9a ever climbed (Action Directe), visitors and locals looking to unwind after a day of pocket pulling will typically hoist one of the many hundreds of local brews. In fact, Frankenjura is in the Oberfranken region, described in the Huffington Post as “quite possibly the pinnacle of beer awesomeness in Bavaria,” which easily puts it near the top of beer awesomeness pretty much anywhere. Prost!

But wait! Before you click off to that cat video compilation your cousin sent you last week, don’t forget to add your favorite crag/drink pairings in the comments!

A Rare and Confounding Thing

What Dean Potter did with his life was risky. Wildly so, by any average American’s estimation. From climbing without a rope, to highlining without a tether, to jumping from cliffs with a parachute strapped to his back, all of Potter’s passions could reasonably be classified as “crazy.” He knowingly dedicated his life to “pursuing some of the most dangerous endeavors man can undertake,” as he put it in an interview on photographer Jimmy Chin’s website.

But amidst the media hype and the dismissive critics, it’s easy to forget that this pursuit required great skill and intense dedication, applied over years with care and focus. From every indication, Potter’s climbs and jumps and highlines were calculated and considered, executed in the face of deep fear by a disciplined practitioner. I do not think it would be too much to call his actions a form of art (he did). An art with the highest stakes, but an art nonetheless, and one that inspired many… Or more importantly inspired many debates and much reflection in the hearts of those who bore witness.

In his interview on Chin’s site, Potter said:

The common thread in my three arts is pushing into fear, exhaustion, beauty and the unknown. I willingly expose myself to death-consequence situations in order to predictably enter heightened awareness. … I empty myself and function within a meditative state where I focus on nothing but my breathing. This manifests emptiness. This void needs to be filled, and somehow it draws in and makes me recognize the roots of my most meaningful ponderings and often leads to a feeling of connectivity with everything.

To access this type of elevated state of awareness, religious practitioners across time have taken to asceticism, self-denial, and self-mortification. They have ingested psychoactive substances, handled venomous snakes, and wandered the desert alone. Athletes of all kinds have pushed themselves to the edge of disaster and beyond in search of the perfect, transcendent moment. Potter was not the first nor will he be the last to seek enlightenment on the razor’s edge.

Some of us are lucky: the life we want can be found in the relatively safe confines of white picket fences, the climate controlled halls of office buildings. I count myself among this group. The styles of climbing I engage in are fairly low on the risk spectrum—probably not much crazier than riding a bicycle on a city street—and my joy for writing has not (yet) put me in harm’s way.

But for others, it seems, the activities that energize and bring life meaning can only be found out on the fringes, past the bounds deemed socially acceptable. This was clearly where Potter needed to be. Whatever you think about him, it’s worth bearing this in mind.

In the final analysis, no one can say for sure what drove Potter. As Andy Kirkpatrick put it, “Dean was ungraspable—the reason being perhaps because his greatest struggle was grasping the contradictions of himself.” Regardless, the imprint left in his wake is clear: like his physical form, it is outsized; like his words and deeds it is awe-inspiring, disruptive, and controversial.

Was he selfish? Reckless? Such judgements, already being bandied about in the comments of popular news sites, seem glib and pointless. Potter’s life, and now his death, deserve more thoughtful reflection.

When considering a man who lived “like plankton” on the rock beneath an overhang of the Eiger, meditating and drinking meltwater for more than a month at a stretch, it’s hard to see Potter as anything less that a human dedicated to the deep exploration of his own being, in all its boundless, ragged, fragile glory. A rare and confounding thing indeed.

Goals vs. Process

goals-vs-process

Climbing is a funny game because it lends itself to a goal-focused mentality and at the same time requires us to be in the moment.

We climbers tend to go from one project to the next, often focusing on doing what’s needed to attain a specific end result. Through this constant project questing, we naturally enter moments of intense presence, when all the training and the preparation fades away into a flow experience.

But it’s easy to spoil the perfect simplicity of these in-the-moment moments when our goals loom up and influence decisions, stirring feelings of inadequacy or disappointment when things don’t go as planned. The goals seem so important, but instead of chasing them, I think life can be more satisfying and free when lived from a core understanding that guides each moment.

The nature of water as it interacts with gravity, earth, and stone is what dictates each twist and turn of a river. So too can our own nature, our own central principles, serve as guides for a sort of effortless action.

In the book Mindful Work, former Patagonia CEO Casey Sheahan describes a boyhood fly fishing lesson from company founder Yvon Chouinard:

“He got me to work on my casting, and slowing down, and working on an efficient, easy-to-perform cast as opposed to just going out and trying to hook a bunch of fish,” Sheahan said. “So if you focus on the process and get better at that, you will actually have a happy outcome. You’ll have a better process, and you will catch fish because you’re in tune with what’s happening in the water and your surroundings, instead of going out and just trying to catch fish.”

In other words, the less focused you are on a goal (catching fish, climbing a certain grade, making money, etc.), and the more engaged you are with the process, the more likely you are to achieve your goal. (Paradoxical, isn’t it? It conjures up the Chinese concept of wu wei, or the “flow state” that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about.)

Fly fishing gives us a good metaphor for talking about ambition and goal-focused behavior, but I think Sheahan’s story is missing an important component: when your motivation comes from the right place, catching fish at all is not so important. Fish or no fish—send or no send—it’s still a “happy outcome” when your approach is grounded in process and in the moment.

This can be a particularly hard thing to embrace for a CEO, whose job is to make a business profitable, but really it’s hard for us all. If we’re not focused on goals, how do we know we’re improving? How do we judge ourselves against others? How do we know whether to be disappointed in ourselves or proud? The simple answer is, “we don’t.” But maybe that’s for the best… .

After all, what is today’s outcome but another step in an endless process? Where does the process stop and the goal begin? And if life is all process and no goal, what choice to we have but to make the most if it, every step of the way?

When In Doubt, Go Higher

Looking out from the Lost Canyon Trail, Zion. Photo: Justin Roth / The Stone Mind

“When in doubt, go higher.” It’s the tagline for a classic outdoor publication called the Mountain Gazette. I worked at the paper briefly, once upon a time.

“…Go higher.” It’s a fun little phrase, though, if not one apt to get you into trouble. (“When in doubt, go down” might have better served many an unfortunate climber or backcountry skier, alas.) Still there’s something to it. It resonates with a certain type of person.

When I was young, I unintentionally lived by this dictum. I went too high up the giant conical pine trees in our front yard and came down covered in insoluble sap. No more than six years old, I chossaneered up short, exfoliating shale cliffs in the ravine by my house in what felt like Honoldian feats of soloing.

“When in doubt, go higher” was knocking around my head this weekend as my wife and I plodded up Zion National Park’s steep Hidden Canyon Trail. What makes going up so damned appealing, I wondered?

I’ve been reading a book called The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease, by Daniel Lieberman, which offers evolutionary explanations for many of our traits, from skeletal structure to mental issues and food tastes. The book, in theory points towards a possible answer to the above question.

Maybe many of us feel an unconscious pull towards higher ground for the same reason that bodies of water are almost universally attractive: at some point, they might well have been instrumental to our survival.

According to The Story of the Human Body, our evolutionary ancestors of 5-8 million years ago—our last common ancestor (LCA) with chimps, its believed—lived most of their lives at height. The LCA, a primate, sought out high perches for sleeping as a means of protection from predators. Most modern monkeys and apes sleep in trees, and chimps even build comfy nests there. Gelada baboons spends their nights like big-wallers, dozing on cliff faces.

Human ancestors not only sought shelter high above the earth, but they found sustenance there, too. Sub-Saharan Africa, where the LCA lived, was a warm and wet place around 10 million years ago. Rainforests there would have been abundant sources of nutrient-rich fruits.

But between 10 and five million years ago, a cooling climate caused the rain forests to recede. In their place grew up woodland habitats where ripe fruits became, as Lieberman puts it, “less abundant, more dispersed, and more seasonal.” To cope, the LCA started walking more and more on two legs, venturing out in search of additional sustenance.

Obviously, we humans still walk on two legs and no longer live in trees. But like many old, seemingly outdated biological traits picked up along the evolutionary way, a love of getting up off the ground has stuck with us. One might call it a vestige of a former life.

So then maybe “When in doubt, go higher” is a phrase born subconsciously from an ancient pull towards a vantage point that offered some comfort in a wild and dangerous world. Go higher for a view of any large carnivores lurking on the horizon. Go higher for those pulpy fruits that fuel a hungry metabolism…

Go higher for a sense of peace and freedom that many of us to this day seek on the cliffs and mountains, despite the enormous changes that have made the modern world all but indistinguishable from the one our ancestors navigated millions of years ago.

Climbing Didn’t Save Me

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

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

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

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

And of course, I climbed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Evolution of Plastic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Returning to Ourselves

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

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

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

The returning is the key.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the meantime, welcome back.

Making Sense of Climbing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, you see…” I began again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Freedom of Constraints

Notebook with pocket watch, pen, and whiskey - freedom and constraints - The Stone Mind

I’ve been extra busy lately. On the road for work, helping bring a new employee up to speed, revamping processes in our department. I haven’t had much time outside of work for personal things like climbing and reading books and writing this blog. Such a time crunch is a constraint, a challenge, a frustration even. And at the same time, there can be a freedom in it.

Every week I write a post for The Stone Mind. Sometimes I write it in advance, sometimes the night before it’s published. Sometimes I have free time aplenty to write, and sometimes I have precious little. Often when time is lacking and energy reserves are running low, I feel a certain sense of dread at the task of creating a blog. I fear it won’t be good enough or well received. More dreadful still is the thought that I’ll have nothing to say at all.

And for all that, the truth is that every goal big and small is accompanied by constraints, by parameters such as time, budget, motivation, politics, physics, legality, and so forth. But the freeing thing about it all is when you stop seeing the constraints as your enemies, but as tools for focusing your energy.

For this blog post, time was the biggest constraint. I worked through the weekend at a climbing festival in Las Vegas and arrived home late Sunday to a lingering worry about my ability to put something together before Tuesday’s deadline.

Then I realized I could flip the challenge. Instead of the meandering creative process I usually use to generate blog posts, I decided to go a counterintuitive direction and limit myself even further: I’d give myself one hour or less to write this week’s post, and whatever I could accomplish in that time would be what you’d read come Tuesday morn.

No, this post isn’t full of links to quotes and other bits of researched materials. It’s born entirely from my own firsthand experience. Still, I think it carries as important a message as any post I’ve written.

It’s easy to get preoccupied with all the reasons the task before us is too hard, or to complain that the conditions under which we’re working are not ideal. But the truth that any creative person or entrepreneur will tell you is that there’s no such thing as perfect. We never have all the time or tools or skills we wish for. And while this can seem like a negative, in reality it’s precisely these challenges and limitations that give shape to our goals and keep us focused, keep us from floating off into the infinite vacuum of the possible.

There is no endeavor without challenge, and no satisfaction without difficulty. If things are easy, they’re bland. Viewed from one perspective, adversity is a source of stress, anger, and disappointment. But turned for a different viewing angle, it becomes the texture of our lives.

No one knows this better than climbers. Our goals are entirely arbitrary, and their shape determined entirely by their difficulty. The highest peaks and steepest rock walls are valuable only inasmuch as they give us a foil against which to strive and exercise our will.

I think John F. Kennedy put it well when he described the reasoning behind his goal to send humans to the moon. “They may well ask why climb the highest mountain?” He said. “Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? … We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…”

And so the constraints of my life as it is now have served to organize and measure my energies and skills for yet another week. When taken with this attitude, the constraints are less stressful and more simplifying. I have only a little time, and so I work with what I have.

What else is there?

Where Do Climbers Poop?

Toilet paper hanging from a climbing gear rack. Where do climbers poop?
Where do climbers use the bathroom, after all?

Click on over to Google and start typing “Where do climbers…”

You’ll find that, for some reason, a lot of people are concerned about our bathroom habits.

Where do climbers poop, Where do mountain climbers go to the bathroom, Where do rock climbers go to the bathroom, Where do Everest climbers use the bathroom… These are among the most popular queries.

Now do the same thing with golfers and the results are decidedly less fecal: Where do golfers live, Where do golfers stay during the Masters, Where do golfers hang out, and so on.

I guess it makes sense. When non-climbers imagine themselves high on the side of a wall or the frozen flank of a mountain, they picture a world devoid of modern conveniences. Among those, perhaps the hardest to imagine going without is the bathroom, with its sink and shower and toilet—the root of our civilized humanity, if you will.

And of course, there are the purely logistical questions: After one manages to drop a deuce while suspended a thousand feet in the air, what does one do with the result? Chuck it? Bag it? Burn it?

As any seasoned climber knows, the answer to “Where do climbers poop?” varies greatly, depending on the type of climbing, the specific area, and the particular climber’s education and respect for the rules. Here, a very high-level outline of the different scatalogical scenarios that we climbers encounter.

In a climbing gym

The bathroom. The answer to “Where does a climber in a climbing gym poop?” is the bathroom.

At the crag

Often, we climbers spend our time at crags where we’re only actually on the rock for short periods of time. Sport crags like the Red River Gorge, predominately trad spots like Eldorado Canyon, or bouldering destinations like Bishop are all examples. Here, pooping ideally happens before and after a day on the rocks, in a toilet at the campground or a gas station, restaurant, etc. At crags located inside parks or other managed lands, there are often toilets of one sort or another on site.

In the event that the call of nature comes when the climber is far from designated toilet facilities, it’s typical to make like a bear and shit in the woods. According to Leave No Trace, in most places, burying your poo is the best way to roll. But beware: there’s a right and wrong way to do this. Check out the Third Principle of Leave No Trace for details. (Pro tip: don’t burn your TP, especially in dry areas. Years ago, a friend of mine learned this lesson the hard way.)

On the big stone

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson recently made headlines for their ascent of Yosemite’s Dawn Wall, becoming the most ogled and interviewed big wall climbers ever. No doubt the viewing audience, most of whom had never partaken in any climbing activities, were spellbound by the duo’s feats of endurance and daring… and by their ability to live in a little tent on the side of a sheer rock wall for weeks on end without proper plumbing.

To get some insights into the potty practices of such big wall climbers, I contacted my old friend Justen Sjong, of Team of 2 Training. Justen spent several years free climbing El Cap in the early two-thousands. His impressive Valley tick list culminated in 2008 with Magic Mushroom (VI 5.14a).

Justen explained that the use of Cleanwaste Go Anywhere Toilet Kits (formerly known as WAG Bags), or other similar products, is the proper method for vertical turding. “Many local shops sell these bags. I suggest having one on any multi-pitch climb. I’ve shared them with my climbing partner to save on weight—the beta is to use it before your partner :)” According to Cleanwaste, the kit “traps, encapsulates, deodorizes and breaks down waste with a NASA-developed gelling agent.” After using, the bag can be discarded like any other piece of trash.

Justen also recommends planning for lots of human waste on multi-day trips into the vertical. Metolious has a mini haul bag kit specifically designed for doodoo. Homemade PVC waste tubes (aka, “poop tubes”) can also work… or a mini bucket “with a really good lid.” He also offers a few pro tips, such as adding kitty litter in the waste bags to help absorb “the massive stench that builds over days in the hot sun.”

Of course, sometimes climbers don’t plan ahead, forget important items, or even drop stuff while on the wall. In such cases, Justen cited several last-ditch “plan B” methods: In remote areas where there’s no chance of hitting people below, he uses the “Flat Rock Toss”: “When I feel nature calling, I keep an eye out for a flat rock to place a coiler onto. Then I lean out and toss away from any classic climbs and use a smaller rock or stick to wipe.” Others methods include lowering down to an off-route ledge, swinging to the side and letting loose, or going in a paper bag and tossing it (“Make sure you toss it with the wind and clear all parties,” he says.) Needless to say, it’s far better to come prepared…

In the mountains

Like big-wallers, climbers on mountain expeditions can face some challenges when it comes to going number two. For example, in Denali National Park, climbers heading up Mt. McKinley are issued Clean Mountain Cans designed to allow parties to pack out all their human waste.

On busy Everest, mountaineers venturing above basecamp are supposed to bag it up, but for various reasons often end up digging holes in the snow and dropping trou. Unfortunately, the cold and altitude mean that there aren’t sufficient bacteria to break down the climber droppings. The results have been pretty gnarly and the topic of some news coverage as of late.

I reached out to Emily Harrington, who climbed Everest in 2012, and her boyfriend Adrian Ballinger, of Alpenglow Expeditions, to get the scoop on the poop situation on the world’s highest mountain. “At basecamp, they go in a barrel and it gets carried down to the nearest town for waste disposal,” Emily explained. “But [some] teams don’t do that; they just go anywhere. Plus there’s still shit left from forever ago.”

Even when climbers at Everest basecamp use barrels, there can be issues with the sheer volume of excrement. According to a National Geographic article, porters remove upwards of 12 tons of human waste every year, bringing it to open pits at Gorak Shep. Not surprisingly, this waste is causing contamination problems with the village’s water supply.

To help combat this unwanted side-effect of expedition life, a climber and engineer from Seattle named Garry Porter launched the Mount Everest Biogas Project, whose mission is to “convert human waste from base camp into environmentally safe products for the people of Nepal, by designing a biogas system that can operate at high altitudes.”

Where (or how) should climbers poop

“A 2014 survey of 264 land managers showed that 41% of respondents rated improper disposal of human waste as a ‘moderate’ to ‘severe’ impact on the lands they manage,” pointed out Jason Alexander Grubb, Education Programs Manager at Leave No Trace. Clearly, doody is a problem that climbers need to think about.

When it comes to pinching a loaf in the wild, Grubb offers some handy big-picture guidelines: “Know the ecology of the area you intend to visit, understand local land manger regulations, always carry a pack-out system along with trowel and toilet paper, or just go at the restroom at the trailhead or parking lot.” If you’re having a hard time finding official recommendations for human waste disposal at your destination, Grubb outlined the following four objectives that should help guide your decision-making process. Proper human waste disposal should 1) eliminate contamination of water sources, 2) prevent spread of disease, 3) minimize aesthetic impact, and 4) maximize decomposition rate.

The goal in all cases is to protect the environment, access, and other people’s experience. As climbers, we need to take our poops mindfully. I mean just think: if you don’t wont to deal with your shit, imagine how much less everyone else wants to…

The Next Project

On the way down, we're already considering the next project. © The Stone Mind.

“You know you’re trying your hardest when your ‘climbing’ becomes a series of falls punctuated by a few glorious moments of holding on,” a friend once said to me.

You might call this the ragged edge of climbing, where we feel no flow, only frustration. The impossibility of the task whelms up and over us, an impenetrable wall, and we wonder why we’re even wasting our time.

This is a job for someone else, an inner voice opines. Better to give up now and find something more… attainable.

But some other part of us sees the faintest glint of possibility—or not even sees, but intuits it, stretches out towards an irrational belief, bolstered only by the knowledge that there’s nothing to lose for trying.

And so we fight on. Against the forces of doubt and inertia, towards a hope barely visible.

And still we fall.  Each time the boulder rolls back down the hill. Each time we endeavor to roll it back up, like that old Greek story.

Maybe the story gets it wrong, though. Maybe Sisyphus wasn’t just compelled by the gods to roll his boulder up the hill. Maybe he chose to roll it because he believed one day he might grow strong enough to push it all the way up, past the limits of his vision to some distant crest.

With every fall and every failure, some lesson is learned, however subtle. Sometimes it’s as simple as “rest longer between attempts.” Other times it’s as minor as “crimp the hold rather than open-hand it,” or “turn the hip a few degrees more to the left.” Often we must remind ourselves of the most automatic of things, like “breathe.”

Just to breathe. Just to focus on the task at hand without the weight of context on our backs. This is all we have to do, but it can be a lot to ask, because our monkey minds are busy: Will I get hurt if I fall from here? Will I have energy to try again if I don’t do it this time? Who will see me fail? Will I disappoint myself? The monkey mind is strong and cunning…

Sooner or maybe later, we see the possibility of success grow brighter. Unbroken sequences of movement grow longer. We find solutions to moves that once seemed inscrutable. Piece by piece, the impenetrable wall yields.

Now, instead of small islands of success in a sea of failure, an archipelago arcs gracefully into the water, broken only here and there by cruxes.

Finally, we enter the state of flow and a complete bridge appears. “Here” is connected to “there.” But even as we near the top, there’s uncertainly. A final anxiety grips us so firmly, we’re apt to falter on some easy move that we’ve climbed many times before.

Sisyphus’ boulder nears the top of the hill. The end of his struggle is at hand. The impossible has become possible, and yet…

The boulder hasn’t changed. The hill still holds the same incline, the same length. From the top, he looks out and sees no grand answer or tangible reward, only another hill, and behind that more hills without end. The thing that’s changed is his perspective. The only answer is he’s gained is to the question: “Is it possible?” but the affirmation fulfills only momentarily.

What does he do then? He sets his gaze on the tallest peak in eyeshot and plots a course, to see if that one is possible, too.

How is this any different than the climber who, at the end of her project, is already thinking of the next project even as her belayer lowers her back to earth?

Two questions come to mind: Is this all there is? and If so, is there anything wrong with that?

11 Predictions About the Future of Rock Climbing

Astronauts explore the cliffs of Mars. Digitally enhanced acrylic painting for NASA by Pat Rawlings..
Astronauts explore the cliffs of Mars. Painting for NASA by Pat Rawlings.
Most long-term predictions about the future are terribly inaccurate, even when made by intelligent people with a good view of history and the current landscape of the topic at hand. Then again, sometimes the most absurd predictions come to pass. Basically, when it comes to painting a picture of things to come, it’s a crapshoot. It is in the spirit of wild speculation that I bring you 11 predictions about the future of rock climbing. What do you expect to see in the next 10, 20, or even 100 years?
 
  1. People forget the rocks. Due to increasingly turbulent weather patterns (“global weirdening”), worsening pollution, increasingly restrictive land-use laws (thanks to a combination of overuse problems and liability), and the proliferation of super-gyms, outdoor climbing rates actually begin to drop, despite a quadrupling of the total climbing population.
  2. Clean climbing 2.0. New reactive super-adhesives that can be activated and deactivated at the push of a button allow climbers to place “removable” pro pretty much anywhere with no ill effects to the rock. Likewise, a new bio-degradable chalk substance that evaporates after and hour in contact with stone makes traces of human passage far less evident. Purists are confused by such new developments and suggest that in fact it’s the lowering of the challenge to fit our limitations that is the main problem, not the marring of the rock.
  3. Gravity can suck it. The discovery of gravity-diminishing materials makes carrying gear to and from the crag a whole lot easier. In the Himalaya, the Sherpa community suffers a slowdown in business as visitors can now carry up to 500 pounds each of gear. Ethics debates rage around the appropriate use of these materials in climbing contexts.
  4. The first route on Mars. In the year 2032, the first viable Mars colony officially opens its doors to Earthlings interested in a serious change of scenery. In 2035, a climber named Maria Alverez from New LA makes the journey to Mars Colony Beta (aka Big Red), where she makes an ascent of the sheer 4000 meter cliffs at Echus Chasma. A bold feat in Earth gravity, she succeeds on her first attempt due to the significantly weaker gravitational field on Mars.
  5. Sticky rubber body pads. The invention of sticky rubber shoes in the 1930s and sticky rubber knee pads in the 1990s leads eventually to the sticky rubber body suits of the 2020s. Now climbers can use every part of their bodies to gain purchase on the rock, leading to more creative resting possibilities. New techniques like arm-wedging, chest-scumming, and “starfishing” become the norm, and most of the climbs at Rifle are immediately downgraded again.
  6. Comps are America’s pastime. Climbing finally makes it into the Olympics in multiple events, including bouldering, sport climbing, ice climbing, speed climbing, hangboarding, and a new parkour/climbing hybrid known as “free style.” Nike jumps on board. Kids get climbing scholarships to top tier universities. Stadiums are erected to house the wild new climbing structures, which can be reconfigured instantly using an iWatch app. Viewership of National Climbing League Championships exceeds Super Bowl and World Cup viewership. Merchandising goes off the hook (the most popular energy drink is called “Crimp Juice,” while its top competitor is “Sloperade”) and endorsement deals for top-level competition athletes reach into the hundreds of millions of bitcoins.
  7. A dark side emerges. Now that stakes are higher, people find new ways to cheat: anti-gravity pellets sewn into harnesses; nano-bot “chalk” that forms molecular bonds with the rock; genetic doping… . Gambling and corruption scandals become the norm. Climbers “throw” the comps in exchange for massive payoffs. The National Climbing Association is formed to monitor and enforce the rules of the game, but it’s ruled by an authoritarian regime that’s rife with its own transgressions.
  8. The sport grows younger. Climbing 5.14 or even V14 by age 14 is no longer a big deal. In fact, in 2023, a five-year-old flashes Just Do It,  Smith Rock’s iconic 5.14c, after his dad jokingly tells him his binky is up there. As competition becomes increasingly lucrative, parents start their little rock jocks earlier and earlier. Climbing moms replace soccer moms. Kids are placed on strict Zone diets and encouraged to practice their one-arms while doing homework.
  9. Climbing continues to splinter. As the sport grows, new subtypes of climbing cleave off and flourish. Free style climbing (see no. 6, above), one-move “max difficulty” problems, tread walling, slab comps, etc.—all of these grow into their own sports, complete with heroes and stars, specialized equipment, arcane rule systems, and dedicated websites.
  10. Robot climbing is a thing. Climbing bot battles become popular on the Internets as engineers design ingenious machines that can solve complex three-dimensional movement puzzles in unexpected ways. In 2035, the first climbing bot incorporating artificial intelligence is deemed a sentient being and allowed to enter a World Cup comp. The bot wins easily and in 2036 robots are banned from World Cup competitions. A Non-Human Climbing Series is quickly formed to accommodate them.
  11. The more things change. Despite all the changes, all the attention and the money, the new technology and trends, many people still just climb for the joy of it. Same as it ever was.