Category Archives: Climbing

Vertical Dispatch: Guy In Gym Not Even Climbing

Illustration of guy hanging on rope eating an energy bar

CINCINNATI, OH — After pulling at the climbing wall with great visible effort, the guy hogging the third toprope from the left sat back down into his harness having made no visible upward progress, sources confirmed.

“This guy’s ignoring the three-hang rule, that’s for sure,” said eyewitness Jeff Horvath, 32, adding that the man, who had a belay device and pair of gloves clipped to his harness for absolutely no reason had the worst footwork he had ever seen and that there was no way he was going to finish the route before the gym closed and everyone had to go home for the night.

“I could have climbed this route literally three times by now,” said Horvath. “I think this guy is actually making negative progress.”

At press time, the climber had gone in direct to a quickdraw about one-third of the way up the wall and was eating a protein bar.

Social Climbing

Crowded climbing area

The climber in isolation is just a thought experiment.

Climbing, for all the complexities we may encounter on a big objective or during the course of a long project, is relatively simple: we find a line and we try to go up.

People, on the other hand, are complicated. We are full of contradictions and conflict; we hate each other for weird reasons or made-up reasons or no reason at all; we blame and expect and manipulate. Meanwhile, most of barely understand our own motivations. And don’t even get me started on politics.

This messiness of humanity is, I think, what draws a lot of us to climbing and back to nature. We crave the clarity of climbing’s challenge, the solitude of the high mountains and boulder-strewn deserts. The bright mist of stars over our heads at night asks no questions. The cactus prickles our skin but not our conscience.

But climbing is about people as much as it is about nature. If you’re a free-soloing hermit, maybe you can avoid humankind for a while. But for the rest of us, there are belayers and regular climbing partners; love interests or former love interests we can’t help but run into at the gym; that career couch surfer we met once two years ago and who seems always to need a place to crash. There’s that one partner who doesn’t like that other partner, so we do a little scheduling dance to make sure they don’t overlap. So many dynamics to consider!

And of course, there will always be the friends and family members waiting nervously for our safe return. They’re the ones visiting us in the hospital after a bad accident, attending the funeral after a worse one. Was it worth it? people will ask. Is it a consolation when a spouse or parent dies doing something he or she loved? Are we brave or selfish or stupid who risk our human bonds for the “freedom of the hills”?

For the climber in isolation, such questions hardly mean anything. There is only the line, the path that resolves itself one move at a time. There is only the weather scrolling in and the decision: go up or come down. There is only the rasp of stone on skin, the cold prick of spindrift in the face, the lungful of air tinged metallic with primal exhilaration and fear.

Ultimately though, the climber in isolation is just a thought experiment. We are social creatures by nature, and no matter how high we climb, we cannot extricate ourselves from the tangle of human interdependencies. Thoreau knew this even as he wrote Walden, which many view as an ode to the hermit’s life, disengaged from society, but which Thoreau wrote while frequently visiting town to dine with friends and while engaging sufficiently in political activities to get him thrown in jail.

We cannot live or climb in a vacuum. Even in the mountains and remotest crags we encounter politics and seemingly intractable social issues: the relationship between climbers and Sherpas on Everest, for example, or the “ethics” of bolting and fixed draws, debates over the land-use rights of native people versus recreating people, the environmental impact of our rapidly growing pastime, and so on. Even when we want not to take sides on such matters, sides are often assigned us.

The simplicity of the challenge is what draws many of us to climbing. One spire, needling against the clouds, one body with more-or-less known capabilities. A few knots and safety systems. A weather report. We see the challenge, we accept it, and we adapt ourselves to it. Maybe our only choice is to adapt ourselves to the challenges of our messy human life the way we adapt to the challenges of the ice and stone: navigating it as well and with as much style and idealism as we can muster, making the best decisions possible while realizing that not everything is within our control, and not every well-intentioned choice ends up the way we expect.

It is common to divide the natural from the cultural, but maybe it’s not a valuable distinction, after all. “Those who deny that nature and culture, landscape and politics, the city and the country are inextricably interfused have undermined the connections for all of us,” writes Rebecca Solnit in her great essay on Thoreau.

Climbing would be so much simpler without the climbers, but the problem with that sentence is clear, isn’t it? Pull at one thread in the tapestry and we find they’re all apiece, after all.

Critical Mind and Playful Mind

A climber laughing and concentrating

“My thinking about the case, man, it had become uptight.”
— The Dude

If you’ve spent much time rock climbing, you’ve probably come across a person who wants the send a little too much: he kicks and screams when he falls; while resting, he sits with brow furrowed in stern concentration; he makes excuses for his unsatisfactory performance to strangers with no reason to care; he appears almost upset to be out climbing rocks for fun. It’s always weird to see when somebody seems to be missing the point so completely.

At the same time, most of us want to improve, to succeed on the climbs we try. Why wouldn’t we? It feels good to push out against and expand what we once thought of as our limits. It is a true pleasure of life to overcome a challenge that once felt insurmountable. But to do this, we have to set goals and make plans to achieve them. We have to care, or we wouldn’t bother to try at all. And we have to be critical of our approach in order to improve, refine, find the best path to proceed.

I find what’s needed to really climb well and enjoy it is an alternation between the Playful Mind and the Critical Mind—very much a complimentary pair, a yin and yang of mindsets.

I alternate between these mindsets with work, too. When I work from home, often I descend into uninterrupted Critical Mind for long periods of time. Then my wife comes home and finds me sunk into my chair, typing away with a scowl on my face. She starts to tell me about how her day went and I say, “Uh huh,” “Oh really?” only having half heard what she’s telling me. I don’t mean to be a jerk, but I’ve been in my head all day, mercilessly criticizing my own ideas to make sure I’m not missing anything important, and it can be hard to make the transition into a more relaxed and open mindset.

I enter my Critical Mind (which I also call Editor’s Mind) because it’s important to me that I do good work, but it’s not good to be so critical when you’re spending time with your spouse or family or friends. It’s a tight mindset, one that creates tension between the keeper of the Critical Mind and anyone else who isn’t in the same mental space. It also creates tunnel vision, which can move us farther from the very goals on which we’re focused.

“To focus on one thing, you have to suppress a lot of other things,” says Mark Beeman, a professor in the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University. “Sometimes that’s good. But sometimes a solution to a problem can only come from allowing in apparently unrelated information, from giving time to the quieter ideas in the background.”

Counterintuitively, a more leisurely, undirected, non-goal-oriented approach might actually move us closer to what we desire. The harder we grasp, in other words, the more things tend to slip away. Look at a faint star in the night sky directly, and it disappears into the darkness. Loosen your focus, let it exist in the periphery of your sight, and it will begin to reappear. It is in this state that we can start to see the larger patterns, the constellations as a whole.

So on a new climb or a new task at work or in school, we should come with our Playful Mind first. Explore the options, consider the big picture, the entire constellation of possibilities. Experiment, exert energy in many directions and note the results without judgement. Then, perhaps, it makes sense to apply Critical Mind: decide what works and what doesn’t, analyze the why and the how of things, decide on a game plan and attempt to execute. If your plan doesn’t work, it might be time to return to the playful mind again, in search of other options.

To use only one mind or the other is a mistake. The left and the right, the light and the dark, the active and the passive, the playful and the critical… . It’s by the alternating of one foot in front of the other that we progress. But in either case—in any case—we must not hold too tightly to the ultimate result. As it says in the Tao Te Ching:

[The master] lets all things come and go effortlessly, without desire.
He never expects results; thus he is never disappointed.
He is never disappointed; thus his spirit never grows old.”

Flappers, Gobies, and the Perception of Pain

Climber hands

Pain isn’t absolute; it is increased or diminished by context. Photo: Leici Hendrix.

“If my hands felt this way because they were burned, it would be really upsetting,” she said. “But because they feel like this from climbing hard, I kind of like it. Is that weird?”

Just back from a long session at the climbing gym, my wife held out her hands, palm up, to display skin worn raw from the sandpapery texture of the plastic holds. The callus just below her knuckle had grown so pronounced that she could no longer squeeze her wedding ring over it. Her fingers were tattered and torn, but she presented them with pride.

I didn’t think it was weird. After all, what athlete hasn’t gotten a sense of satisfaction from the pain of hard work? We climbers nearly always return home with some abrasion or other: scraped knees and elbows and ankle bones, hands covered with gobies from being jammed into cracks, bloody flappers on our fingers were rough stone caught soft skin and didn’t let go…

While these injuries might sound bad to an outsider, they are no less than badges of honor, satisfying reminders that we have, for a time at least, embraced our physicality without holding back. Like the soreness from a hard bike ride up a canyon or long day spent skinning up and skiing down, these wounds are the result of passion and dedication, and the associated pain is transformed for it.

The same week my wife made her observation, I heard via Radiolab about a medical study from 1956 called “Relationship of Significance of Wound to Pain Experienced,” which found that soldiers wounded in battle tended to experience less severe pain than civilians who suffered comparable injuries. The reason, the study suggested, wasn’t that soldiers are tougher than everyone else, but that their injuries meant something different to them.

For a soldier in WWII, a gunshot wound might mean a trip home, a way back to the things he loved. For a civilian, the same wound carried little upside: would he be able to work? Would insurance cover the medical bills? How would the injury affect his family? Civilians with gunshot wounds experienced pain more profoundly, amplified as it was by mental anguish, and asked for more painkillers as a result.

“The pain that you feel when you’re hit by the bullet is not just about the bullet,” explains Robert Krulwich in the Radiolab episode titled “Placebo.” “It’s just as much about the story that comes with the bullet.”

Another example of this: have you ever noticed the way professional athletes respond to serious injury, like a torn ACL or badly sprained ankle? The pain visibly grips their bodies and contorts their faces as they lie on the field or the court. Clearly, it hurts like hell, but I think what we’re seeing is the reaction to the frightening implications of such an injury. “For many athletes, their sport is their identity. An injury that takes them out of the game can feel like the end of the world,” wrote a blogger on the topic.

The decades-old study and my wife’s observation went hand in hand. Pain, like so many of the things we experience, is as much in the mind as in the body. When we look at our pain from one angle, it is only pain, only a bad thing. When we come at it from another direction, it becomes a sign of dedication or a chance to grow. Taking control of our inner perception of things, rather than seeking merely to control things themselves, is among the biggest challenges we face in this life, but also, I think, among the most important.

 

Vertical Dispatch: Climber Questions Ultimate Significance of Sending Project

Man looking down at deer carcass

BOULDER, CO — It was a feeling that had been weighing on Brendan Slater’s conscience for some time, but this Saturday, the weight became too much bear. “What does it really matter if I send my project?” Slater said. “At the end of the day, climbing just seems so meaningless… so selfish.”

Slater, who works at the local sub shop in order to maintain a flexible schedule for climbing, admitted scaling vertical surfaces has for years served as his primary source of fulfillment and self-worth, but that he began to wonder about the ultimate significance of his passion after finding a deer carcass on the hike up to the crag to work on his project.

“I just sort of stared down at that deer’s skull and its bones and those tufts of fur and thought, ‘That could be me,’” Slater explained, adding that the world seemed suddenly like a very big and cold place, and really what else do we have in this life but our good works and our compassion for our fellow humanity, you know?

In an effort to assuage the existential void that gripped him while gazing into the deer’s vacant eye sockets, Slater sought council from a local pastor, who recommended volunteering to help those less fortunate.

“That didn’t feel like the right way to go, either,” Slater said. “I feel like that’s just as selfish, because I’d only be doing it to feel better. I’d still be looking out just for me.”

“For now, I’m going to stick with climbing,” he added.

Here and There

A Honda Element parked in the desert

What truths lie out there, on the road and off?

We were eating breakfast at a bakery this weekend when a plus-sized, gleaming, silver Mercedes Sprinter camper—a creation that resided somewhere on the vehicular spectrum between van and RV—glided past.

“Check out the road-trip mobile,” I said to my wife, impressed. The aproned girl busing the table next to us looked wistfully out through the plate-glass façade and said, “I want one so bad.”

As I climber, I sort of wanted one, too. Or something like it, at least—something that would let me roll to destinations unknown and leave my life and responsibilities behind, all the while taking a little bubble of comfort and familiarity with me.

It turns out this is a common desire, as evidenced by the nearly 84,000 Instagram images tagged #vanlife; blogs about folks who gave up the office for the road, like Our Open Road and Desk to Dirtbag; the Overlandia series on Adventure Journal; Kickstarters like Home is Where You Park It; and numerous articles in Outside Magazine and other publications.

Stickers circulate: “Work Less. Climb More” and “Quit Your Job.” We want to listen to them. They are a siren call. Companies and magazines tap into this thirst for new vistas with hashtags like #neverstopexploring (The North Face) or #daysyouremember (Mountain Hardwear). I can only take that to mean that days spent in less adventurous ways—working in an office, reading a book, tending to chores—are days we won’t remember. I see this as a missed opportunity. We should (must!) strive to make something of our too-small allotment of moments in this life, no matter where they transpire.

The question is, what do we hope to find on our travels? Do we truly believe there is some answer hidden like a geocache in far-flung spots? How many of us in our Ultimate Road Trip Mobiles are driving away from, instead of towards, something? How much more challenging is it to appreciate the inexhaustible newness of the world amidst a routine? I suggest that what really makes the adventure, on the road or off, isn’t what happens to us, but how we experience what happens. A beautiful sunset over strange lands is good medicine, sure, but it’s no panacea. To put it another way, there’s probably nothing wrong with where you are, just with your perspective.

The great poet and Zen practitioner Gary Snyder considered the idea of exploration, both externally and internally, in his essay On the Path, Off the Trail. In it, he offers a seldom-heard wisdom: “Changing the filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dipstick—don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits.”

On July 20, 1969, the day of the Apollo II moon landing, the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki spoke to a group of students in California. “The first one to arrive on the moon may be very proud of his achievement, but I do not think he is a great hero,” he said, likely in an attempt to jar his pupils from their attachment to goal chasing, patriotism, and pride. “Instead of seeking for some success in the objective world, we try to experience the everyday moments of life more deeply.”

As Robert M. Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The only Zen you find on tops of mountains is the Zen you bring there.” Then again, sometimes we have to drive 20 miles on a rutted-out dirt road, cross a stream that almost stalls the engine, park, and walk half a day to climb up a big piece of rock to find the Zen we already had inside us.

So you can take that for whatever it’s worth.

What type of climbing is right for you?

Huge numbers of people will try climbing for the first time in the years to come. Statistically speaking, most will have their first flirtation with the vertical world in a gym, while a percentage of these will go on to specialize in just one or two of climbing’s many sub-disciplines: sport, trad, alpinism, what have you. If you’re a n00b, you’ve probably already wondered, “Which type of climbing is right for me?” Rather than wasting your time trying a bunch of dead-end genres, use this handy decision tree to find the style that best suits your personality.

What type of climbing is right for me?

The Nine Stages of Getting Gripped

I’m very pleased to share with you the first (but hopefully not the last) guest post on The Stone Mind. This one from a friend and writer Ian Mathias, who knows a thing or two about getting gripped. 

You got this…

Are you a downhill skier, a climber, a mountain biker, or just the type of person whose hobby involves frequent moments of gripping fear? If so, I challenge you to watch the little lady in this video squirm and not get a full-blown flashback—not just to childhood, but probably to sometime in the last few weeks:

Two million views and counting. It’s a cute story, and an inspiring one, too. But I venture to guess that what gets people sharing this video has as much to do with a sympathetic connection, a certain fellowship of the gripped, as it does cuteness and inspiration. Damn if we haven’t all been there before. And the interesting part: That dialogue never really changes. We get stronger and the stakes get bigger, but we still need to torture ourselves before going for it. Fourth grader or fourth-grade teacher, for two minutes or for 20; when truly gripped by self-induced fear, the narrative arc stays the same:

Step 1: Belly up. Stand on the edge. Or sit at the base of the problem. Tie in and put your hands on the start holds. Whatever it is, one can’t really start this absurd routine until the very last possible moment. Any anxiety before then can be shunted by countless other distractions or choices. The only choice now is either send it or bail—or start squirming.

Step 2: Premature self-assurance. “C’mon, you got this.” “Here goes… something,” as the little ski jumper says. No kidding, here goes something is right. Only that “something going” won’t be you anytime soon, as you definitely do not “just got this.” If that were true—if it would all be as easy as saying “c’mon” to yourself—saying it wouldn’t be necessary. Nope, not ready, just pretending to be.

Step 3: Insignificant gear fixation. Ahh yes, now would be the perfect time to get spooked by a trivial equipment issue or other minor nit. Brush the hold you just brushed two seconds ago. Check brakes… again. Adjust harness, then subconsciously readjust it to where it was originally. Rub the life out of the point of a climbing shoe, as if substituting dirt with grease from your fingertips will really improve performance. “My skis are slipping off!” cries the little girl at the top of the ski jump, but her skis are the same as they were 10 minutes ago. Likewise, it’s not your gear but you who are slipping off the edge because you’re acting shifty and stiff.

Step 4: Beta begging. Since it’s quite clear that “the grip” of fear is taking hold and there’s nothing critically wrong with your equipment, it’s time to obsess over process. If a partner’s around, he or she becomes the target of an array of self-evident questions, which he or she (if a true and trustworthy partner) will answer supportively. If solo, now is the time for intense over-analysis of terrain. Stare at that bad landing or big gap. Stare at it! It looks worse up close, as always. This whole thing is so fucking stupid!

Step 5: Stall. The low point. Nothing new to stare at. All equipment has been touched, though not adjusted in any meaningful way. And the 17th “You got this” self-help session has really lost its bite. So just stand there and wallow. Avoid eye contact. Pray for some kind of hand-of-god intervention that would allow a justifiable retreat. Hey, is that rain?

Step 6: The nudging. The loyal partner, getting cold and/or bored, continues with the same lines of support and confidence, but with a noticeably different tone of voice. As in, believe it or not, there is more on the agenda today than watching you mentally fall apart. “C’mon” is no longer shorthand for “You can do it!” but “Come on and do it already.” Also, the best thing that could ever happen to a gripped adventurer without a partner would be the sudden appearance of newcomers, wanting to either observe—or better yet, send the line themselves. That fear of looking timid in front of strangers is a powerful, totally nonsensical motivator.

Step 7: Commit. Ironically, this is often the easiest part. No thinking really required… just living in the moment, doing it—on the way to the send or to the hospital. Either way, the act itself is surprisingly fast, and therefore not as terrifying as the preceding minutes of essentially questioning your entire interest in this dangerous sport.

Step 8: Chatter, NBD declaration. Assuming everything goes well, the moments immediately following the send are for making yahoo noises and blah blah blah-ing idle chatter to anyone who will listen — releasing the stress and anxiety brought on in the name of recreation. “Yes! Wow! Holy shit. Yes! Oh man, I was scared!” The late stages of this chatter must include at least one decree of “that wasn’t so bad” or “easier than I thought it would feel.” Lucky you. Though if it was a lot harder than expected, you’d probably be upside down and bleeding right now.

Step 9: Bliss out. After all that mental stress and physical exertion, after the endorphins wane, what’s left is a glowing, marginally functional victor, good for buying a round of beers and not much else. As Chuck Palahniuk wrote, “After a night in fight club, everything else in the real world gets the volume turned down. Nothing can piss you off. Your word is law.” Whether or not that line really was NBD, the rest of the world certainly is now, at least for a little while.

 

Headshot of Ian MathiasIan Mathias is a writer based in Salt Lake City. Every year he contemplates quitting his fancy marketing job and becoming a part-time baker, part-time writer, but can’t bear the thought of waking up so early every day. Read more from him at the30x30.com.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vadim using toothbrushes as chopsticks

Toothbrushes chopsticks. Photo: Gail Rothschild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here have a tin foil hat.

Tinfoil: you’re using it wrong.

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

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

The Sports Gene and Climbing: A Not Really Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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