The Yosemite Saga continues…
(Can you name all eight climbers in the picture?)
With special thanks to Kristin Marine, Photoshop ninja…
The Yosemite Saga continues…
(Can you name all eight climbers in the picture?)
With special thanks to Kristin Marine, Photoshop ninja…
At the end of the song “Cliff Hanger,” by Blackalicious, there’s a sample from a 1968 Stokely Carmichael speech. It goes: “Wherever you go, the first place you go is to your people … And once we begin to understand that the concept of community is simply one of our people, it don’t make a difference where we are. We are with our people and, therefore, we are home.” Carmichael was talking about the African diaspora, about black Africans living not just in the U.S. but all over the world. This remains a serious topic, and Carmichael’s context, as an activist during the civil rights era, was exceptionally charged. Despite coming from a very different background, that snippet of his speech alway seemed to stick in my ear. Sometimes I’d wonder, Who are my “people”? Who do I go to first when I’m in a new place?
My parents moved to Virginia a few years after I went away to college. The first time I visited my new familial home base, I immediately located the local climbing gym and the nearest outdoor gear shop. If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you won’t be surprised to hear that, more than any other group to which I claim membership, climbers are my people. Wherever the climbers are, that’s where I find a certain sense of home.
In an interesting essay, climber and CU-Boulder Religious Studies Professor Greg Johnson writes, “I am certain that I have more in common—in terms of passions, appetites, ideals—with climbers from, say, Thailand, than I do with my neighbors. So it is that climbers can travel the world and have ready-made communities waiting to accept them.” This last sentence rang particularly true for me, and following are two of quite a few examples that illustrate it:
In 2006, I went to Italy. There, a guy named Lorenzo, who I met on a bizarre, nearly defunct internet forum called boldering.com, picked me up at a train station and took me to his local climbing spot. Lorenzo knew next to nothing about me except that I climbed. Still, each of us took it on faith that the other would be a good and agreeable person. Just hours after meeting, we sat under big boulders in an ancient wood and spoke like old friends. That night we drank wine at an osteria and ate pasta his friend’s 500-year-old apartment. Without the climbing community to act as bonding agent, I doubt Lorenzo (or anyone) would have shown a random tourist such hospitality.
The second example is set in Australia, where I was rolling around solo for a month after a friend’s wedding. Here, a small group of climbers I met while at the crags in Grampians National Park offered me beer, beta, and places to crash. One of them showed me around the Blue Mountains, and another took me to a little sport crag called Nowra, which I’d probably never have visited otherwise. Another of these guys, a pro climber named Chris, handed me the key to his house back in Sydney and told me to make myself at home while he stayed on to climb.
“The very ritualism of climbing is so explicit and marked that it constitutes the primary identity of most adherents,” writes Johnson in his essay. “This makes climbers remarkably visible and sympathetic to one another.” And it’s true. How else would a lone traveler find such warm reception amongst strangers? No, not all climbers are so welcoming, but the fact remains that a strong connection exists between and among many of us, sight unseen.
Communal connection is by no stretch unique to climbers. Stokely Carmichael believed that blackness was the most important form of community (indeed, he believed it was a matter of survival that black people stand together in the face of extreme racism). For many, religion is the primary identity that binds them to others. Most of us belong to multiple communities, based on language, sexual orientation, interests, alma maters, and on and on…
The great thing about these communities is that they all can be powerful sources of human connection, and therefore strength, happiness, growth. The bad thing about these communities is that they can be grounds for excluding the “other,” and therefore negativity, anger, blame, and—with depressing frequency—violence.
That is why, as climbers, I think we should embrace our shared identity in positive ways, as we often do when a fellow climber is injured or in need, while at the same time rejecting the inter-group strife (sport vs. trad, gym vs. outdoor, experienced vs. n00b) and the unhealthy desire to exclude and judge that belonging to a community can encourage. We must remember that we draw strength from belonging not only to specific groups, but also to that most general of groups, humanity, to which we all belong.
Take it even farther and consider that we share the Earth not only with other humans, but also with living beings and natural places of unimaginable variety and beauty. That these, too, can be treated as if they are “our people.” Learn to do this and wherever you go can be your home. It’s a bit of a tall order, I admit, but a noble quest, if ever there was one.
My friend Brendan recently wrote a great blog about how to make the people trapped with you on a ski-lift feel uncomfortable. I haven’t skied in a while, but I could sympathize, maybe because I’ve been around a fair number of people in the gym who’ve created a cringe-worthy dynamic. If you want to be one of those people, whether for fun or for serious, here are 12 tips for making things in the climbing gym uncomfortable. (Add your own tips in the comments!):
Pick someone and follow them around the gym climbing all the same routes or problems. Hop on the second they finish. Never say anything to the climber you’re shadowing, but eye contact is OK. Make sure to put your stuff down near the climber so he or she can see you at all times. Beware, shadowing a member of the opposite sex can easily be construed as a form of stalking (which it kind of is).
Bonus points: Shadow your subject’s non-climbing movements as well. OK, we’re drinking water now… now were putting on our shoes… time to chalk up!
In his blog, Brendan mentioned passing gas on the chairlift, which is great because you have a captive audience. While we’re typically not in such close quarters in the gym, letting a ripper slip while making a dynamic move can be a great way to put everyone within earshot in a funny position. Do they laugh or hold their tongues? Key here is frequency: the more air biscuits you free from the oven, the better. Meanwhile, you must never acknowledge the sounding of your butt trumpet under any circumstances.
Bonus points: After a particularly loud peal of brown thunder, sprint directly to the bathroom.
Stand as close as possible to the climber and in an aggressive whisper say things like, “Yeeeeaaah buddy… you got this man, you so got this. Oooooh yeah, that next hold looks sweeeeet… you’re gonna get it… you’re gonna stick that hold soon goooooooood… .”
Bonus points: Give creepy beta while offering a touchy feely spot on the bouldering wall, or even while climbing on a route directly adjacent.
For the sake of your fellow patrons and all that is decent, many gyms have asked respectfully that you climb fully clothed. To make things awkward, remove your shirt and stand conspicuously next to any signage asking you to please not remove your shirt. Then get yourself all sweaty through climbing, deep knee bends, burpies, etc., and lay down on the mats, making big “sweat angels.”
Bonus points: “Accidentally” bump up against other climbers with your bare, clammy back skin.
Keeping your nails in check is important in climbing, but we all know it’s also totes gross to watch those funky little slivers come flying off of a stranger’s toes. That’s why you should sit yourself down in the middle of the floor where everybody is climbing and start snipping away. Being sure to leave your trimmings scattered about like so many crescent moons. Ignore the incredulous stares.
Bonus points: Bring a full mani-pedi kit, including files, pumice stone, and cuticle trimmer, and go to town.
Whenever someone sends a route or shows any kind of excitement about their performance on the wall, run over and give them a big hug. Combine this with tip No. 4 for maximum effect.
Bonus points: Ask them if they want to go get milk and cookies after, to celebrate.
Nothing puts people on edge faster than a PDRT (public display of relationship turmoil). Whatever frustrations you have with the person you’re currently snogging, be sure to air them in a room full of strangers. Don’t like the way your S.O. belays? Or the fact that he or she would rather say “Take!” than take a fall? Or maybe you just import your random disagreements from home (uncapped toothpaste tubes, unwillingness to do the dishes, etc.) to the rock wall and have it out mid-climb.
Bonus points: Bring your kids with you to the gym and give them a hard time when they get scared and want to come down from the wall, telling them to “tough it out” even though they are clutching at the brontosaurus-shaped holds and sobbing / blowing snot bubbles.
Whether on the wall or in the workout area, emitting loud, nonsensical noises during moments of high effort is a sure way to create an uncomfortable feeling amongst fellow gym goers. The louder and stranger your vocalizations the better. (See: Will Ferrel’s performance in this satirical cold medicine ad for examples.)
Bonus points: Get a group of friends to go in on this one with you, turning the gym into a jungle-like space of bird screeches and monkey calls.
Instead of chalk, fill your chalk bag with tasty treats like peanuts, sesame sticks, or chocolate chips. Conspicuously eat these while standing around and while climbing, both. When anyone looks at you, proclaim, “Gotta keep my energy up!”
Bonus points: Offer a snack from your sack of goodies to every person that comes within 15 feet.
Remind everyone that a recent study revealed the presence of a “fecal veneer” on climbing holds from commercial gyms. Urge them not to eat or prepare food, or touch their face or mouth, until after they’ve washed their hands. To help address this problem at its root, stand in the restroom and call out every person who exits a stall without making a stop at the sinks.
Bonus points: Tote a large bottle of alcohol-based hand-sanitizer gel and wander around offering people “a squirt for hygiene.”
What’s your “ape index”? How big are your hands? Whose forearms or shoulder muscles are bigger? These questions and others like them are a great way to catch a stranger off his or her guard. Simply walk up to two or more people and identify one of them to compare body parts with. Ask the other one to be a judge. Often, this will involve physical contact of some sort. Comparing wingspans, for examples, requires two people standing back-to-back and stretching their arms as wide as possible.
Bonus points: Talk people into having pull-up, push-up, sit-up, or breath-holding contests.
While spotting a person on a boulder problem, tickle them.
Bonus points: Run away when they try to punch you.
Like the probing face of a star-nosed mole, my fingers rummage the powdery contents of the little cloth bag: magnesium carbonate, MgCO3, “an inorganic salt that is a white solid,” occasionally used as a laxative, it’s a taxidermist’s trick to mix the stuff with hydrogen peroxide when bleaching skulls. I switch hands back and forth into the bag while I consider my course of action. This is the ritual of chalk.
Sixty years ago, Gill imported its use from gymnastics, where it served as a grip aid on the various apparatuses. “When I demonstrated the efficacy of chalk—which I had bought at the Jackson Pharmacy—most climbers were instantly seduced,” he wrote, “although some purists initially rejected it as unethical (Chouinard had qualms).”
The western rim of the canyon cleaves a long, straight sliver off the edge of the setting sun, sends it beaming down through the bare tree branch lattice and straight into the shadowy space between me the granite monolith. The climb is tall—taller than I’d like, given my single sketch pad slumped over roots and rocks at the base.
Smooth-cornered chalk clumps tumble lightly under the motion of my fingers. I pore over the rock for ghostly traces, signs of previous passage. For every stab of anxiety, I compress a clump, feel it fracture and disintegrate into tiny fragments and dust. I rub it between my thumb and forefinger and it fills the contours of my fingerprints, absorbing the fine moisture.
I withdraw my hand and a pale cloud expands into space. The golden sunbeam catches it and throws each meandering particle into high-definition relief against the dark hillside. I press two columns of breath through my nose, blasting the dust into turbulent whorls.
Finally, I put the bag down and clap once. The report echoes off the cottonwood trees and into the shadows. The chalk is everywhere now, filling the air around me. I can feel it dancing in my lungs, taste it in the back of my throat. It tastes as close to nothing as anything.
I make contact with the monolith—skin, chalk, stone. I move up, away from the ground, buoyed on invisible currents, lit by the winnowing sunlight for a moment, just before the canyon drops fully into shadow, leaving me and the chalk dusk in the cold blue space, doing our little dance for no special reason.
“The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede.”
—Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel
We all have goals. We want to improve, be better, have more, do more… This is the natural state of affairs, especially here in the West. The opportunity strive, to rise above, to achieve greatness of stature and wealth—it’s the American dream, isn’t it? The reason so many immigrants have sought a life here…
At the same time, this goal-focused mind is also the source of a lot of problems. For many, having enough isn’t satisfactory. There is an excess of greed and thoughtless waste. On average, we’re wealthier than many other nations, but not necessarily happier with ourselves and our lives.
I think what’s happening is that many of us focus only on the next goal, the next want or need, without considering the foundational goals that are lifelong and fulfilling, that give lasting happiness instead of just a temporary fix. Constantly focusing our energy on small goals and their transient rewards, I’ve noticed, can lead us farther away from where we really want to be.
As a long-time rock climber, I’ve been striving to improve for over 20 years, always chasing some goal or other: a new grade, a particularly proud route, a powerful boulder problem… . When I’m not in shape, I feel a little frustrated and want to climb at least as I did when I was fitter. When I’m fit, I want to climb harder than ever before. Of course, at a certain point, I will climb the hardest route I’m ever going to climb. I’m not sure if I’ve reached that point yet, but I might have and don’t even know it. It would be hard to accept, but accept it I must—we all will peak and, in keeping with the basic rules of living, decline. What then? Will climbing no longer bring me happiness?
I don’t think people want to ask this question, or they’re come up with a funny answer to deflect the unpleasantness of it. But it’s worth asking, because it can put our motivations in a different context. Just as the man on his deathbed isn’t likely to say, “I only wish I could have bought more stuff,” so will we find few climbers facing their final hours saying, “If only I could have climbed one grade harder.”
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the desire to improve. There are many valuable lessons to be learned in the perfection of one’s craft. But it’s the fixation on the improvement, the numbers and personal bests, that can muddy our vision. It’s the gaining mindset, an addiction to the rush of accomplishment or accolades rather than a steady seeking of a deeper sense of fulfillment that a well-centered, lifelong practice can bring.
Sometimes I’m happy with my climbing performance, and some days I’m not as happy, but I always try to let those feeling pass through me and not hold on to them. Instead of seeking my satisfaction in the latest challenge, I try to let myself enjoy each day as it comes; to be comfortable with myself, my thoughts, and my mortality; to act in accordance with my beliefs and values. Like distant peaks, goals like these can seem impossibly large and far away, but when taken one moment at a time and one step at a time, the become more manageable.
In the end, climbing can lend itself to the goal-seeking mindset, but I think it can also can show us the way to larger understandings, to spiritual fulfillment, if you want to think of it in those terms. In his introduction to Zen in the Art of Archery, Daisetz T. Suzuki explains that the practice of archery in Japan and other Eastern cultures is “not intended for utilitarian purposes only or for purely aesthetic enjoyments, but [is] meant to train the mind; indeed, to bring it into contact with the ultimate reality.”
Big, right? But by working tirelessly and in earnest for mastery for its own sake, without the desire to hit some specific target (or tick some grade), art forms like archery or climbing can afford us such contact.
If only we can learn to let go of the little goals that obscure the big ones.
“No, I can’t do it!” she said, “I”m coming down.”
“C’mon now, just try the move; I’m right here,” I said.
We were bouldering in the climbing gym, and my wife Kristin was about eight feet off the ground, hanging from a sizable jug and eyeing down a long move to another jug. To me it was clear that she could make the reach with some momentum and a fat slice of commitment, but to her it seemed beyond reach.
“Nope,” she said, and let her feet dangle, a sure sign she was ready to drop. Back safely on the ground, she explained that she maybe wasn’t tall enough to make the move. “Well, what’s wrong with trying?” I asked; the worst that would happen would be a fall onto a squishy expanse of mats, nothing she hadn’t experienced a hundred times before. She just shrugged.
“Let’s go upstairs,” she urged. Instead of engaging with the uncomfortable, my wife was redirecting her energy towards something less threatening. Upstairs was a steep plywood training wall, packed from end to end with holds on a grid—it was about half as high as the one we were standing beneath. “Upstairs it is,” I agreed. I might be an old dog, but I’ve learned not to force such issues.
Up on the training woody, we tried a game I used to play with my climbing buddies back in New York, each making up problems for the other on the fly. “Now the blue pinch!” I said, stretching to point out a hold while she clung to the wall, awaiting the next move. I was quickly surprised by some of the moves she was pulling—much harder than the one that had stumped her on the taller wall downstairs. I indicated a long lateral pull to a small edge, expecting she wouldn’t quite be able to stick it. But she did… and several more like it before she ran out of steam.
Back at home, we talked about our trip to the gym. I pointed out that she’d done much harder moves on the training woody than on the taller bouldering wall downstairs.
“Yeah, because I wasn’t scared,” she said with a sheepish grin.
The problem was deceptively simple. Fear (mostly irrational) of falling and injury was clearly the cause of my wife’s hesitation on the wall, but how could she change the way she felt?
I think there were several factors that played into Kristin’s fear. One was the fact that she didn’t trust her own ability. She’s still relatively new to climbing, and isn’t used to slipping into the climbing mindset. When she’s on the wall, she brings her analytic mind with her, holding a conversation in her head about the consequences of each move. The makes it hard to just climb, without hesitation and inhibitions.
An idea for addressing this came from my friend Nick. He suggested that whenever Kristin starts to feel scared on a boulder problem, she should look down and, assuming a safe landing zone, drop. This helps her realize that a fall from the spot that was causing anxiety really wouldn’t be so bad, after all. Similarly, I used to take controlled lead falls with a trusted belayer until I was thoroughly accustomed to the sensation. Such techniques can help build a foundation of experiences in which falls don’t result in anything negative. With that in place, letting go of fear becomes easier and easier, freeing us to climb with mind in body in synch, instead of at odds.
Improving strength through specific training—like our little game on the woody, hangboarding, pull-ups, etc.—is also a good way to build a sense of confidence. When you grab a small crimp high above your last piece of pro, doubting your ability to hold on creates stress. Feeling strong and in control can ease the sense of risk and allow you to move up without fear and even use your strength more efficiently. Likewise, playing around with balance drills and footwork exercises will improve one’s sense of security. These are just a few of the many ways in which mind and body are intertwined in climbing.
In the book Performance Rock Climbing, authors Dale Goddard and Udo Neumann talk about the idea of “engrams,” which are complex body movements coded into our neural networks. There’s an engram for doing a backstep on a steep wall, comprising the many muscle actions that need to happen to execute the motion. Same for a big dyno or a campus move. Solving new problems is usually a matter of applying engrams from our libraries to the challenges at hand. That’s why experienced climbers can often perform well even when out of shape or advanced in years—their engram libraries are stocked with high-quality tools, applicable to nearly limitless situations.
If the theory is correct, engrams are another example of the fuzzy boundary between mind and body in climbing. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki says, “Our body and mind are not two and not one. If you think your body and mind are two, that is wrong; if you think that they are one, that is also wrong. Our body and mind are both two and one.” I think this is an important thing to remember when we are working on improving our climbing. We can work on our physical strengths and our mental strengths independently, but in the end we can’t separate them entirely. When we climb, we must use both and work to find ways that the one can reinforce the other in a positive feedback loop.
Kristin seemed excited by our session on the training wall because it allowed her to push her limits without worrying so much about safety. She plans to go back and continue to strengthen the mental as well as the physical. After that, I have no doubt she’ll be able to apply what she’s learned to the taller boulders downstairs at the gym and outside, too. But the most important thing is that she does it because it continues to be fun. As long as that’s the case, nothing is unpossible.
The missus and I headed down for some bouldering in Moe’s Valley this Thanksgiving weekend. The mornings were cold and the middays and afternoons just right, bordering on too warm. For much of the day, the naked sun created a sharp contrast in the scrubby desert landscape that lent itself nicely to black-and-white imagery. Here, a little gallery following Kristin (and our dog Pebble) through a day at the boulders. Did you get out this Thanksgiving weekend?
Polo shirts and loafers, church groups, BMWs, big houses with porticos and sprawling lawns, golf clubs, box seats at the game, Jeeps, ski vacations, baseball caps, football parties…
These spring to mind when I think of my hometown. It was for the most part a white, Christian, yuppy town with a culture of wealth and status. Of course, not everyone in Upper Arlington, Ohio, was well to do, but it was tacitly assumed that everyone wanted to be.
There were plenty of us who didn’t fit (or even understand) this vision of perfection, however. We were the outsiders in a monoculture, chaffing against what we saw as an inflexible norm. For this reason, after years of straining to keep up on the lacrosse team, full of people I didn’t get along with and coached by a guy I didn’t much respect, I threw myself fully into climbing, even though it didn’t have a well-defined place in the social hierarchy. It was my game; an outsider’s game.
I used to skateboard, too. Skateboarding was a countercultural act in my town. People saw you cla-clacking down the sidewalk and pretty much wrote you off. You were a punk, a druggie, a roustabout, to use a term from the way back. A lot of skaters did it only for the love, sure, but there was also that element of rebellion that drew many of us to it. Like punk rock, it was a middle finger to the established order, even as it was in the midst of becoming mainstream.
Climbing was different though—it was so new in the Midwest in the 1990s that it didn’t carry many connotations with it. This was exactly what I liked about it. It was a tabula rasa of sorts. The fact that it took place in a dusty old gym or out in the woods, where I would never run into any of my classmates, was even better. It was barely connected to the messy world of adolescent preppie-town social hierarchy I was so tired of navigating. The only fear involved was the fear of falling, which seemed so much cleaner and simpler than the fear of not being accepted by my peers. Climbing wasn’t pro or anti, high class or low—it was just something I did because it felt right. And there were others like me…
My dad was an art professor at Ohio State University, and his graduate students were my baby sitters when I was young. Blue hair, piercings, tattoos—my parents looked straight through their appearances and judged on words and deeds. And for the most part, these students were great influences: romantic intellectuals who followed their hearts with rare gusto. They were every bit as moral as the minivan families dressed in Sunday best, but, it seemed to me, even more honest, more free.
I soon discovered there were people like this at the climbing gym, too. Idealists, environmentalists, people who cared about health, about nature, about living in accordance with their beliefs. They were more interested in making the most of life while they had it than keeping up with the Joneses. Climbers and artists alike seemed after something more personally fulfilling and spiritually grander than the whatever it was the Midwestern suburban value system was offering.
I started climbing in the same athletic shorts I wore to lacrosse practice. I bought an Alpine Bod harness and a pair of 5.10 Spires from the closeout bin in the local outdoor outfitters. I wore my ball cap turned backwards, a vestige of my high school uniform. Slowly, I accrued the hallmarks of the climbing trade: a pair of bright red Mocasym rock shoes, Verve pants, a Prana hoody. I built a new identity around the fine art of climbing up a wall. Absent the pressures of a team, I focused on overcoming my own doubts and weaknesses. No coach was there to tell me I was screwing it up; no teammates scoffed at me when I blew it in a drill. I went at my own pace, motivated by my own interest and excitement. It was precisely what an outsider like me needed to grow.
Interestingly, the solitary game of climbing has helped me to become a better team player. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder like I used to, or much fear of being judged. I also bring more sympathy and empathy to every endeavor I undertake. Life isn’t simple, and people aren’t one dimensional, I’ve noticed. We’re all more alike than we’d like to admit, and more different that we’re often comfortable allowing…
Now, after 20-plus years in the climbing world, having worked at rock gyms, edited magazines, and hung around with pro climbers, I feel more like an insider than ever before. Somehow, I still feel like I’m playing an outsider’s game, though; it just feels right.
Fighting flared on the border between Turkey and Syria just days before I was to fly to the region for Petzl RocTrip. Over the phone, my parents sounded nervous. My co-workers joked I should wear a Canadian flag and call them if I got kidnapped by ISIS. A friend already in Turkey told me his wife cancelled her visit after watching the news. It almost got to me. Then I sat back and considered the risk from a more sober perspective.
Since August, only five “westerners,” have been killed abroad by the terrorist organization known as ISIS, and none of them was abducted or killed in Turkey. The only record of an American being recently murdered in Turkey I could even dig up was of Sarai Sierra, who was apparently bludgeoned to death a by a homeless man after she refused to kiss him (this was in early 2013). Clearly, Turkey was not a high-danger zone for tourists. So why all the anxiety?
The simple answer is that we humans are terrible judges of risk. Take for example the recent thigh-high wave of terror that swept the United States after Ebola made it to our shores. Despite all of the doctors and scientists offering cool-headed analyses of the actual threat level, your average American seemed convinced that every person who sneezed in line behind her at Starbucks was in the grip of the virus. To date, there have been two fatalities in the U.S. due to Ebola.
The thousands of TV hours and millions of written words dedicated to ebola’s tiny presence in the US belie the fact that, in the three-months since ebola’s squiggly appearance on American soil, upwards of 8,000 people will likely have died motor-vehicle related deaths. For more perspective, James Ball of The Guardian kindly reminds that, in the coming year, as many as 500,000 people will die worldwide of influenza.
As cryptographer and computer security expert Bruce Schneier sums it up, “The very definition of ‘news’ is ‘something that hardly ever happens.’”
Risk is a particularly hot topic in the climbing world, for obvious reasons. Being high off the ground carries with it a potential for injury and death that standing on terra firma, all else being equal, does not. Still, the average climber’s reality comes nowhere near the danger level most non-climbers equate with the sport.
At climbing’s bleeding edge, you have alpinists like Ueli Steck, “skyrunners” like Kilian Jornet, free soloists like Alex Honnold and Dean Potter (both recently dropped by sponsor Clif Bar due to the perceived risk of their activities), along with a handful of edgy others. The very reason these people are newsworthy is that they don’t represent the norm. If a camera crew followed a group of friends to the local crag or gym with a camera, they’d be sorely disappointed. Not much death defiance here, folks.
One big problem with evaluating risk in climbing, as with most things, is that all climbing isn’t equally risky. Bouldering, due to its lower heights, is very unlikely to end in a fatality, but relatively likely to end in a lower-extremity injury (read: rolled ankle). In trad climbing, death is a bit more likely, but probably you’ll just twist your leg in a cockeyed fall or get tagged by a falling rock (wear your helmet!). In the mountains, a route can be relatively safe or totally hairball depending on the time of year, or even time of day, you choose to climb it. These are all things people tend to gloss over when they talk generally about the “dangers of climbing.”
But the factor that really scuttles our ability to codify the risks of our vertical game is us. As in all human pursuits, we are the cause of most of our problems. Climbing gear hardly ever fails, and when it does, it’s often because it was poorly maintained or inspected, or improperly used. (Ten thousand times more likely than the tearing harness buckle of Cliffhanger fame is the buckle that the climber forgot to double back.) The most urgent threat to a climber’s safety is the actions of other climbers: bad belays, misunderstanding of equipment function, bad communication, foolhardy decisions, and the like.
In the absence of extensive statistics about the danger of climbing and climbing’s many subgenres, we can only bring our empathy to bear. I would probably die if you put me up there, thinks a normal human when watching Ueli Steck hurtle summitward, alone and unroped on a steep slope overlooking the void. Of course, a normal human can’t quite make sense of Steck’s ability or the risk equations that dictate his decision-making process. There is undeniable risk in the things he does, yes, but to apply a layperson’s understanding of that risk to him makes as much sense as municipal traffic safety laws do in a Formula 1 race.
The nebulous nature of human behavior, combined with the sliding scale of climbing risk, makes it hard to pin down exactly how dangerous something like climbing without a rope really is. I once free soloed with Alex Honnold on a slab in the Flatirons. For me, the crushing pressure of ultimate consequences made the 1,000-foot 5.5 feel like it was at my limit. For Alex, it offered no challenge and a vanishing level of risk. Even as he solos harder routes, one gets the sense that he’s no more likely to fall to his death than a drowsy child walking down a flight of stairs. Yet another climber’s odds would almost certainly prove less favorable.
Think of it like driving: We might say, “Driving is dangerous,” but the danger varies wildly depending on factors such as: the driver’s experience level, blood alcohol level, and predilection towards high-speed texting; the make and model of car, presence of safety systems like seatbelts, airbags, and anti-lock breaks; and also the weather, time of day, and so forth. So how dangerous is driving really? And how risky is climbing? The answer in both cases is, “It depends,” which isn’t the kind of answer that makes for simple conclusions… or good headlines.
As climbers we seek to keep the odds in our favor to the extent possible. This entails learning from more experienced climbers and reliable information sources, practicing key techniques, training physically and mentally, learning the uses and limitations of our equipment, learning how to plan well and also what to do when things don’t go as planned. It also means that we must understand our own hearts and our own weaknesses as much as the weather and physics. And everyone of us has to tally his or her own risk-reward equation given the information at hand. In the end, the choice to pull on to that climb, to make that next move, is always our own responsibility. That’s one of the greatest things about climbing, and what can make it such a resounding metaphor for life.
However you do the math, just remember that if it’s on the news, you can probably stop worrying about it. (Unless it’s climate change, then you should be worried.)
They’re big, they’re heavy, and you have to carry them up steep hills, over talus, and through dense woods. So how to carry a crashpad? Here are 10 ways, illustrated for maximum clarity.
Autumn is a magical time for me as it is for many climbers. In the East Coast and the Southeast, where I cut my climbing teeth, but also here in Northern Utah, psyche blooms when the thermometer dips into the 60s and 50s—into the zone labeled “sending temps.” Because of the potent connection between fall and the best climbing days of the year, I’ve developed a Pavlovian response to certain seasonal indicators. They trigger a tingling in my fingertips and a twang in my fast-twitch muscles, sending me speeding up Little Cottonwood Canyon or American Fork, or out into the scrubby desert slopes of Joe’s Valley. Here, a list of some of those indicators and the unique neural bridges they activate…
A chill in the air - The first time I have to break out a fleece hoody or a down jacket, usually in October, something just clicks inside of me. Even though I set out for the grocery store, I might find myself inadvertently taking the route to the rocks instead. If it’s cold enough for that extra layer here in the valley, I think to myself, it will be even better high up in the canyon! The sight of others wearing puffy jackets and knit beanies amplifies this response even further.
Falling leaves - Have you ever noticed how sensational fallen leaves are? They have their distinctive autumnal coloration, of course, but they also make a wonderful chattering sound as they blow and tumble across the ground, and they offer a satisfying crunch with each footfall, too. Their distinctive odor is sharp and dry and earthy, and somehow urges me both to climb and to lie down and take a nap. The ambience of autumn leaves has attended many of my proudest days of climbing, when the impossible send came together at last. Paired with a strong thermos of coffee, falling leaves activate the try-hard climbing centers in my brain.
Light and shadow - As the year grows long in the tooth, the sun’s arc cuts lower across the side of the sky, shedding a special gilded light and casting elongated shadows out across the leaf-littered landscape. The cool, dry air makes the world feel hyper clear, the colors somehow more intense, sharper and more contrasty. Often, towards the end of a fall climbing day, I’ll just sit and bask in the last warmth of the afternoon sun, watching as it highlights the little chalk particles that swarm up from my jacket when I move. Autumn light has been known to visually enhance the holds that once seemed too small, revealing tiny, crystalline texture and lending hope to the dejected climber.
Low humidity - One of the my least favorite things about winter is the way it dries my hands to the point of cracking, causing little spots of blood to creep into the micro-fractures on the back of my knuckles. But before it gets this bad, there’s a perfect balance where the friction is superb yet skin remains whole and pliant. Dry air seems to fill the lungs more easily, too, and whisks away the sweat of fear and exertion often produced during a challenging climb.
Apple season - In many places, when apples are in season, so is the stone. In New York, hand-painted wooden signs announcing picking tours sprout along the road out of New Paltz. Farmer’s stands once boasting veggies are now mounded over with McIntosh and Empire, Gala and Red Delicious. This time of year, the tart smell of hot cider cuts through the chilled wind to the noses of climbers, coasting past with windows cracked on the way to the crags. A hot cup of the stuff waits as a reward at the end of long days on the stone.
How about you? What is it about the fall that gets your stoke up?
It was the last day of Petzl RocTrip and all of the participants were re-packing their enormous bags. Mylène, a member of the video crew documenting the trip, grabbed me to help shoot some closing interviews with RocTrippers who had stayed on for the whole 40-day journey, which started in Romania and finished in Turkey. These folks, who hailed from all over the world, had taken to the road for over a month with only a rough outline of a plan. Most of them lacked vehicles and so either hitched rides or rode the RocTrip buses from one country to the next. They camped everywhere they went, rain or shine, on rocky ground or flat, subsisting on minimal supplies and tight budgets. They relied on their own resourcefulness and the kindness of strangers to get by, and, on the whole, trusted in the fates to bring them safely through it all.
As we called these nomadic climbers into our makeshift studio in the back of the Petzl Airstream trailer, I was surprised at the similarity of their answers. “How do you feel now that the trip is over?” asked Mylène. “I feel full,” said one woman. “I’m really satisfied,” said one of the guys. “I feel enriched,” said a third person, “and ready for more.” No one said they were burned out or eager to return home. Several suggested that they would travel on after the trip, seeing new places and meeting new people for as long as they could. Clearly, there was some underlying source that powered these wanderers through the challenges and uncertainty such travel entails…
When I was in college, a buddy and I took a month-long backpacking trip across Western Europe, bouncing from hostel to pension to campsite, exploring great cities like Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Prague. Along the way we met people who made us think outside the insulating bubble that American culture and media had built around us. We threaded old cobblestone streets, gazed at millennia worth of art and architecture. We drank too much and stayed up too late, talking to locals and fellow travelers. Exhausted, we dozed off sitting up in train stations, under the boughs of old trees, and on city benches, lulled by the murmur of languages we didn’t understand. But always we awoke ready for more.
On our trip, my friend and I tapped in to the same energy as the RocTrippers, I think—the energy of people on the move, untethered from the responsibilities of life and the banality of the familiar. If you don’t stay in any place too long, you can, in a way, game the system and experience only the new and the exciting, constantly feel thrill of fresh friendships, uncomplicated by past history, unburdened by obligation. …
But, of course, there’s a catch. Stop in any one place for too long, and the radiant sheen starts to fade. The wonders of the place—seen in three-dimensional hyper-clarity by the starry-eyed traveler—become mere background, just part of the everyday scenery of a more static life. The new people, brimming with new ideas and perspectives, become known quantities. (As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it in his essay “Circles”: “Men cease to interest us when we find their limitations.”)
In this light, it made sense that the people we interviewed about RocTrip were ready to keep going, despite the long and tiring miles they’d already logged. To stand still would be to gather moss. To return “home” would be to admit that the adventure was over and accept the staid and pragmatic travails of a more stationary life.
Freedom or stability, short-term excitement or long-term fulfillment, newness or consistency—it seems we’re always being asked to take one at the expense of the other. Often, the flashiness of the itinerant lifestyle is held up as the antidote to our modern malaise, our workaday routine that keeps us moving predictably, as if on rails. I tend to think that the best we can do is to seek a balance between motion and stasis, to move when it’s time to move and also to stay put when it makes sense, letting the contrast of the one enhance and inform the other.
At the same time, I want to believe that we can carry a certain mindset of home with us wherever we go; a certain comfort within ourselves, whatever the circumstances. And on the other hand, wouldn’t it be ideal if we could also bring the traveler’s sense of openness and fresh eyes when getting groceries or walking the dog? What is the perfect balance, after all? I suppose it’s up to each of us to find that point in accordance with our own nature and time in life. What’s been the best balance for you? Are you a constant traveler or a homebody, or some creative combination of the two?
I’m writing to you from Kadir’s Tree House, a funny little tourist resort in Olympos, Turkey. I’m here for Petzl RocTrip, which, by the time you read this, will be over. This was a work trip, mind you, so I didn’t do much climbing, but it was still an experience worth sharing. I’ve heard the value of a picture can be quantified in terms of words, and that, in fact, it takes more than a few words to pay for one picture. Therefore I’ll turn to some pictures to tell you, in a very broad sense, the story of my two-week trip to turkey, which was localized to Olympos and an area called Geyikbayiri.
It’s important to note this post focuses on the places I visited more than the people I met. Indeed, it’s harder to translate the new friendships and the perspective-stretching discussions one has during a truly international event like this one (people from over 60 countries attended RocTrip’s 40-day road trip across Eastern Europe). In my last post, I wrote that climbing was a wonderful vehicle for connecting with people of different backgrounds from yourself. After this trip, I believe that more than ever… but that’s a topic for another day.
As a climber of more than two decades, I’ve noticed there’s often a pattern to my behavior: climb regularly, get stronger, grow obsessed with projects , succeed… and turn immediately to the next project. The quest for improvement drives me ever forward and busies my mind. When I’m not training or eating right, I feel a twinge of guilt. When I’m feeling fit and strong, I’m motivated to train even harder, to push through to that rarefied next level to which I’ve never before risen. And so, fit or fat, topping out or falling on my ass, I’m hardly ever perfectly contented.
It got me thinking: maybe the next level doesn’t involve being stronger, after all—maybe it’s something else entirely: Being fulfilled by each moment, being selfless, feeling not lighter in body but in mind, unburdened, open, free… Maybe climbing, if we let it be, is actually a stepladder to get us somewhere else, where climbing is no longer necessary. (This is just a theory, mind you.)
In the movie Hero, a master swordsman plots to assassinate the king of Qin during China’s warring states period. Addressing his would-be assassin, the king offers his interpretation of the three achievements of swordsmanship: First is “the unity of man and sword.” Second is “when the sword exists in one’s heart when absent from one’s hand.” The third and ultimate achievement is “the absence of the sword in both hand and heart.” It’s counterintuitive that the greatest achievement of the swordsman is non-violence. Or is it? Below, in the style of Hero’s king, the five achievements of climbing:
1. Neophyte – Never having climbed, the first-timer brings few expectations. He or she operates almost entirely on instinct. Depending on his or her fitness level and comfort with heights, the state of “beginner’s mind” can allow the new climber to operate with surprising creativity. Still, having no specific strength or flexibility, the neophyte can only play in the vertical world a short time before running out of gas.
2. Intermediate – Armed with just enough knowledge to get in his or her own way, the intermediate climber often over-grips and uses more advanced climbing techniques at the wrong moments, exhausting him or herself while at the same time battling internal demons of fear and doubt. The limitations of physical strength are still apparent here, as the intermediate climber still hasn’t developed the musculature, tendon strength, flexibility, or catalog of engrams to allow him or her to execute complex movements efficiently. An overriding focus on getting to the top drives the intermediate climber, often at the expense of technique or a deeper sense of fulfillment.
3. Expert – Training and consistent practice have built strength, a sense of body position, and an eye for reading sequences. Now able to quickly decode the puzzle of the stone (or plastic), the expert moves with confidence and grace, occasionally achieving the “flow” state, mistaking it for enlightenment. However, the goal of finishing the climb still hangs heavily in the heart of the expert, creating a fixation on training and on the self-propagating delusion of success and failure.
4. Master – Having moved beyond mere strength, the master’s technique is so complete that he or she can execute even the most difficult moves with perfect efficiency. Having moved beyond the goal-oriented mindset, the master climbs only for the transcendent moment the climb provides. A master has no need to burn off other climbers or to receive recognition for his or her achievements, nor does the master hide from attention. With no ego, the master is happy to help others before working on his or her own project.
5. Bodhisattva – Climbing’s ultimate achievement is the transcendence of the climb in both body and heart. The boundaries between climber and climbed, between self and other, between good and bad dissolve. Any climb is now possible, yet no climb is necessary. The climber is at peace with the world and vows never to chase numbers, sandbag n00bs, or judge others, but instead focuses on bringing peace to mankind.
Boom of dry lightning
rattles this stony canyon,
where stones shift and slide
as they have for eons.
Layered shape of chaos
shape of heated and cooled
liquid folded into solid,
fractured and split, eroded
and uplifted, cleaved and overturned,
ancient and artless: for this
one sliver of time reborn
in the human mind as a climb.
Through all the creatures whose bodies
have grown, grown cold,
and decomposed in its shadow,
never has this rock meant before.
Is this really the first time the wheel
has notched into this position?
Things fall apart; the center won’t hold,
but still the stone remains, a koan:
if a boulder sits on a hillside
and no one’s left to climb it,
does it have a grade?
During a trip to Maine’s Acadia National Park, I decided to do a little bouldering. I brought one of the new Petzl pads from the office—it’s a standard mid-sized pad in outward appearance, but it’s also bright orange and emblazoned with a sizable Petzl logo. Its highly visible color scheme might have factored into the onslaught of questions with which passing tourists pelted me, most of them a variation of What’s that thing on your back?
I’ve bouldered for 20 years now and have been asked this question hundreds of times, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised when yet another stranger stops to gape at my admittedly Spongebob-like form… but I am. Every time I try to answer, I feel myself getting frustrated. Invariably, the curious person’s face grows more, not less, confused as I offer my explanation:
“Excuse me, but what is that thing on your back?” Asks the well-meaning passerby.
“It’s a pad. We put it on the ground when we’re rock climbing,” I’ll say.
“Oh, so you use it instead of a rope?”
“Not really. We’re climbing really short rocks, so when we fall, we just fall on the pads.”
“Oh, that sounds dangerous.”
“It’s not really dangerous. We’re usually only five or 10 feet off the ground…”
“So you’re practicing for bigger climbs, then?”
By this time, the futility of the conversation has started to sink in. To explain the intricacies of the various types of climbing is a surprisingly complex endeavor. Believe it or not, the differences between gym climbing, bouldering, sport climbing, trad cragging, ice climbing, big walling, and alpinism aren’t widely known or even intuitively grasped by the layperson. For most, the Alex Honnold profile on 60 Minutes and maybe the movie Vertical Limit comprise their only climbing reference points.
In an effort to shorten the length of such trail encounters, my friends and I have devised a list of short responses that, while patently false, might offer enough of an explanation (or create sufficient bewilderment) to allow us to plod on towards our little projects on little rocks. Following are 10 favorites (but I’d love it if you’d offer your own in the comments section)…
This week’s guest post is from pro climber Angie Payne. Aside from being one of the strongest boulders in the country, she’s also a gifted, self-taught photographer.
I started climbing in a gym in Cincinnati, Ohio, when I was 11 years old. When I moved to Colorado at the age of 19, spending time outside wasn’t high on the list of reasons why I climbed. I was too intimidated by the raw, inhospitable nature of nearby high-altitude bouldering areas like Rocky Mountain National Park to appreciate their splendor.
My first serious project in The Park was a V12 called European Human Being. The climb required three seasons of hard, often frustrating work, but it was during that period that the rocky armor of the alpine environment began to fracture, revealing a delicate beauty. As I progressed through various climbing projects, I started taking pictures with my iPhone in an effort to capture the beauty all around me. Soon, capturing the essence of the place where I now spent so much of my time became another kind of project that filled the spaces between attempts on the boulders. Climbing brought me to these gorgeous places, but photography added a new depth to my enjoyment of them.
Starting in 2012, I shot thousands of images using only my iPhone 4s. Eventually I added magnetic lenses and some basic editing apps to my quiver and posted my favorites to Instagram. The images below are a small sampling from the resulting collection. They are among my favorites, because I think they convey the essence of certain places and moments that I have experienced mostly thanks to climbing.
I first tried Freaks of the Industry in 2010 and spent nearly 60 days working on it [Angie sent in July 2014 —JR]. During one moment of intense frustration in 2012, the setting sun ignited the sky for a moment, leaving me no choice but to abandon my anger and enjoy the fleeting display of color.
But the distractions didn’t always come to me in the form of spectacular sunsets. When potential success was maddeningly close and I needed to force myself to rest, I would often walk away from the boulder and search for new details I had overlooked, like small ice pillars in a frozen pond. The more subtleties I found, the more at ease I felt up there. It soon became my second home.
I stepped far outside my comfort zone to go to Greenland. The raw beauty was overwhelming, and the volatility of the landscape was intimidating. Trying to capture the huge, magnificent vistas with a tiny iPhone felt futile, but it did help me get more comfortable with the remote cirque.
Greenland had a seemingly endless collection of icebergs, each with its own perfect shapes and lines. Seeing these behemoths opened my eyes to the fantastic artwork that nature can create, like a perfectly fragmented piece of sandstone or an improbable snow sculpture.
Not many places can hold a candle to the splendor of Greenland. Still, armed with my iPhone and a new “project,” I began to recognize beauty in more mundane things: an old chain, the classic airplane view, a puddle outside my front door—when the light, wind, and weather hit them just right, they are all quite pretty.
And then there are the details. One layer below those beautifully mundane things is… well… more beauty. Sticking a small macro lens on my iPhone illuminated a world of intricacies. I quickly learned that capturing these details with clarity is much like perfecting the subtleties of a boulder problem. Frustration comes quickly, but with a lot of patience and a little luck, the results can be rewarding.
I’ve heard it said that the best camera is the one you have with you. My phone is almost always with me, so it just seemed logical to keep using it as my camera. Doing so allowed me to capture moments that would have otherwise been left to my imperfect memory. One such moment came at the 2013 Psicocomp in Park City, Utah, after Carlo Traversi finished an intense race to the top of the wall, careened into the water, and barely dragged himself out again. As he struggled to catch his breath, I snapped a photo that came to epitomize the experience for me.
Another moment of this sort came during the thousand-year flood in the Front Range of Colorado, also in 2013. While cleaning out a friend-of-a-friend’s mud-filled basement, I took a break to wander through the neighborhood. The train tracks had been tossed about, turned into a roller-coaster of sorts. It almost felt wrong to snap that photo, but I did. That there was some kind of beauty in the midst of such devastation seemed deserving of documentation.
Eventually, when the rivers of the Front Range retreated and the routines of life in Boulder resumed, I found myself back where it all began. Beautiful new scenes continue to reveal themselves in Rocky Mountain National Park, even after hundreds of trips up there. Freaks of the Industry, The long-term project that was to thank for many a photo has finally been put to rest. The new interest that it helped birth, however, lives on. In fact, I just invested in a new DSLR. While capturing immense or intricate beauty with my humble little iPhone is still an appealing challenge, it seems I have found a new project in learning to master a more complicated device. And so, the cycle of projecting continues…
Angie Payne is based out of Boulder, Colorado. She’s sponsored by Mountain Hardwear, eGrips, Five Ten, Organic Climbing Company, LifeSport, and Mac’s Smack. In addition to climbing and obsessing over iPhone photos, she enjoys watching TV murder mysteries and washing dishes (seriously). Check out her website and follow her on Instagram.
Every Tuesday for a year and a half, I’ve posted a short essay here. Most of them have revolved around the intersection of climbing, outdoor life, psychology, and philosophy. One blog a week probably doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you have a busy desk job and a home life and a persistent climbing habit, putting in four or five hours a week to write something that you’re not even sure anyone will read and that you’re certain won’t make you any money can, at times, wear on one’s spirits. Still, it’s a labor of love, as they say, and always worth it in the end. I learn something (and not always what I expected) with every post.
But this week, I’m going to phone it in. Why? Because right now I’m on vacation. It’s the first real vacation—during which I sleep late and hang out by the ocean and don’t check work emails—I’ve taken in a while. And you know what? It feels good… important, even.
So I’m not going to offer up any climbing-themed life metaphors or decision trees or top-10 lists this week. This is it—a picture of a lighthouse by the ocean here in Maine and a message to you: If you’re a working stiff, a go-getter with dreams of saving (or dominating) the world, a driven soul who reads and studies and collects experiences like there’s no time to waste, you need to take a break from time to time. It’s as true in general life as it is in climbing. Without rest, there can be no recovery. Without stepping back and away, we can’t achieve that all-important broader perspective.
So what will my perspective be after this little reprieve? I can’t really say. But that’s the point, after all…
My friend Rick told me he planned to get a Sportsmobile, a converted van with features like four-wheel drive, sleeping accommodations for four, a heating system with thermostat, even a water tank complete with outdoor shower attachment. It’s basically a pint-sized RV with serious off-road capabilities. Even used, Sportsmobiles aren’t cheap, but it’s worth it to Rick because that’s the way he spends his free time. For me, a Sportsmobile would be overkill. I love to get out, but my wife and I are more day-trippers, only camping occasionally. We drive a Honda Element, which allows plenty of room for gear and crashpads, and allows us a place to sleep in relative comfort without setting up a tent and inflating our sleeping pads.
The longer I spend in the climbing world, the more roadtripmobile options I see, each suited to a particular need or lifestyle. Popped tops, raised sleeping platforms, tailgate cabana tent attachments, etc. On the modest end of the spectrum, you’ll find people who sleep in pretty much any vehicle. (I spent several seasons crashing in the parking lot of Miguel’s Pizza in my Honda Accord, rear seats folded forward and feet shoved into the trunk.) On the extreme other end lies the 52-foot long all-terrain mobile command truck called the KiraVan, brainchild of Bran Ferren, former R&D head for Disney’s Imageneering Department. Most of us fall in the middle.
To help you find the roadtripmobile that suits your needs, dear reader, I’ve put together this handy decision tree. May it help lead you to the right-sized vehicle of your road-tripping dreams… sort of.