Angie Payne’s New Project: Photography

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

Angie Payne self portrait
Self portrait by Angie Payne

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

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

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

—Angie Payne

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Greenland landscape photo triptych. Photos: Angie Payne

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

 

For photos from Greenalnd. Photos: Angie Payne

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

Taking A Break

Panorama of the lighthouse at Fort Williams Park

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…

What Kind of Roadtripmobile is Right for You?

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.

Roadtripmobile decision tree

Plaid Free

Plain in a land of plaid

I stood in front of the mirror and sighed. What am I doing? I wondered aloud. I was flashing back to those days in middle school where there was a very real possibility that one of my peers would point at me and call me a loser just because of the clothes I was wearing. Cold sweat beaded on my forehead as I pictured the reactions waiting for me at the Outdoor Retailer Show when it became clear that I was on the wagon, so to speak, a tartan teetotaler—that I had, in fact, gone plaid free.

As I entered the great bustling halls of the Salt Palace, I felt the gazes of hundreds of horrified show-goers fall on me as I walked past. In my cocoon of self-consciousness, I tripped over a small wiener dog following his owner across the aisle. As I was now on his level, the nub-legged canine approached me, cautious and sniffing. One look at my solid blue, short-sleeved, collared shirt with a finely embroidered flock of birds swirling on the shoulder, and the creature started to yap at me and back away in fear. His owner, wearing a plaid shirt and mismatched plaid shorts, turned to see what the fuss was about. A look of anger and confusion crisscrossed his face before he turned in a huff, as if to say, Come along, Denali, he’s not even worth it.

I sat stunned for a minute as the plaid-patterned world swirled around me, whelmed up over me, disoriented me with its many colors and designs. Just then, a dear friend who I hadn’t seen since last year’s show grabbed me by the elbow and hoisted me to my feet.

“Hey J,” he said jovially. “Not rocking the plaid this year, I see! Good move—plaid is played.”

It took a moment for me to tighten up my slack jaw and shake the anxiety from my eyes, but once I did so, I was amazed to see that my friend wore a dark grey shirt with little campfires printed all over it. And then to his right I spotted a plain black shirt, and a green one with pale stripes over there. Was that an acid-washed denim that flitted in the distance? I couldn’t be sure. The more I looked, the more I noticed the anti-plaids—still only a small percentage of the crowd, sure, but a significant one. I wasn’t alone, after all. Proudly plaidless, my friend and I headed over to the Royal Robbins booth to wait in a long line for a free latte.

From a purely logistical standpoint, it wasn’t easy to make it through the show (four days) without wearing a plaid shirt. My employer’s liberal dress code excluded only a few items of clothing, but alongside shorts (especially of the cargo variety) and Crocs, T-shirts were also on the non grata list. Having worked in the outdoor industry for over a decade, my non-T-shirt wardrobe is limited, but by counting out plaid, my options ran dangerously low.

On day three, I thought for sure I wouldn’t be able to make it. After spending a full 20 minutes gazing dead-eyed into my closet wondering if a v-neck was OR-appropriate, I went digging through boxes of old, forgotten garments. There, I found that tank top with horizontal stripes I’d purchased in an effort to fit in while bouldering at The Spot. I found an old rayon shirt with a mondo collar I got at a thrift store for a ’70’s party. I found my childhood bolo tie collection and a bunch of drab old long-sleeved dress shirts I used to wear to my first office job. No dice.

Finally, in the back of my closet, hidden behind a fluffy wall of down jackets and fleece hoodies, I uncovered a pair of collared, polo-style shirts that I’d long-since forgotten. Maybe it was the mustard stains and moth holes that prompted me to stash them out of sight, but flaws be damned, I was happy to see them. I pulled them free with glee, leaving my thick swath of plaid button-ups hanging. My audacious plans for a plaid-free show seemed suddenly attainable.

As day four drew to a close, I strolled among the booths with a sense of accomplishment. I’d stuck to my guns and come out the other side. Plaid, it turns out, isn’t required OR Show attire. In fact, a small but growing anti-plaid trend has already taken root in the outdoor industry.

For the time being, most outdoorsy guys’ closets look like mine, and so we can expect to see a strong plaid presence for at least the next three to five years. But as the practical, wicking, wrinkle-free cotton/poly blends of those old plaids grows threadbare, I have a feeling they’ll be replaced not with more of the same, but with some other pattern, or lack of a pattern, or who knows what. Maybe the plaid of the future is some pattern that hasn’t even been invented yet! Whatever it is, I can’t wait to see it…

Did Psicocomp Just Make Speed Climbing Cool?

Climbers racing to the top at the 2014 Psicocomp deep water soloing competition
Competitors gunning for the top at the 2014 Psicocomp in Park City, Utah.

Last year, after watching the first Psicocomp deep water soloing competition in Park City, Utah, I wrote in a blog post, “Maybe, for the first time, we have the right formula for translating the esoteric art of scaling vertical surfaces into a spectator sport for a wider audience.” But the truth is, the format still wasn’t perfected then: the routes were a little too difficult, and the climbers had to slowly work their way to the top, resting and shaking out along the way like they might in a World Cup comp. Ultimately, there were few top-outs (just one for the men and two for the women) and a lot of mid-route falls, which brought the energy of the event down a hold or two.

This year’s Psicocomp was another story. Here, setters Dani Andrada and Miguel Riera, both from Spain, and Steven Jeffery, a Salt Lake City local, reduced the difficulty of the climbs to something more attainable for the top-level athletes competing—about 5.13a for the women and 5.13d for the men, according to Rock and Ice. The result was a fairly major change in experience. Speed became more of a factor, raising the intensity of the competition and making the duel format more significant. It was riveting to watch Jon Cardwell chase event creator Chris Sharma ropeless up the overhanging wave of a wall at warp speed, or last year’s champ Jimmy Webb go move-for-move with this year’s champ-to-be, Sean McColl. For the first time in memory, my heart raced during a climbing competition as McColl, facing a motivated Daniel Woods in the final round, blasted up 50 feet of steep 5.13+ in just 32 seconds.

Speed climbing has long felt like the ginger-haired stepchild of the competition world. Its focus on hyper-fast ascents (15 meters in 5.88 seconds, as the current world record has it) of vertical walls with specified hold sets feels too far divorced from the act of climbing as many of us know it. In an Instagram post made during Psicocomp, though, Andrew Bisharat quipped: “Speed climbing finally gets cool.” Whether or not this was meant to be taken with a pixel of salt, I think there was something to it. It’s not that the speed component in climbing competition is intrinsically unappealing to climbers, but that the rigid, track and field-like approach that the IFSC takes with the event doesn’t offer the ideal mix of elements to engage a larger climbing audience.

Easier routes also meant that all those climbers who topped out had to jump the full, throat-tightening 50 feet to the little aquamarine pool shimmering below. One by one, they stood atop the wall, chucked their chalk bags off to the side, and then awaited the audience countdown to jump-off (or drop-off, as the case was for those who felt more comfortable downclimbing a bit, first). This added an element of audience participation, which is never a bad thing.

The 2014 Psicocomp ended up even more exciting than the 2013 version. Clearly the event organizers paid attention to issues they encountered on their maiden voyage and tried to remedy them (hot tubs to keep soaked competitors from going hypothermic between heats, for example). Like bakers tweaking a recipe, they adjusted the ingredients and the ratios to create a better overall result. Speed climbing up a steep wall in a head-to-head sudden-death format with little downtime, plus big falls into water, all in a scenic outdoor setting (coincidence that it’s at an Olympic training facility?), attended by some of the continent’s strongest climbers—it turned out to be a heady mix that left the attending throngs stoked.

With its second year in the bag, Psicocomp (and the general concept of deep water soloing comps) still feels like the most interesting development in climbing competition. Perhaps the biggest questions now are, how and when will it expand to other venues, and will people continue to turn out to watch? What do you think?

Prime Movers: Who Were Your Climbing Influences?

Klem Loskot deep water soloing in Spain. Screengrab from Dosage Vol. II.
“Suddenly the ground goes to the side and there is just sky.” Klem Loskot goes deep. bigupproductions.com.

Pretty much everyone who takes a serious liking to an activity has had a role model or a hero. As a youngster, I had three climbing influences that I can recall: Fred Nicole, Klem Loskot, and Johnny Dawes. Strong and accomplished fellows they were (and are), but what resonated most with me was their climbing aesthetic and philosophical approach as much as any specific feats on the rock. A new climber, full of undirected energy, I looked up to these three as masters of movement, exploring the outer reaches of a physical and mental experience. Their example, pieced together from an assortment of articles and videos and scraps of news gleaned from the still-young Internet, helped me construct my personal model of climbing’s meaning and value.

Like a wandering monk, Nicole found and climbed some of the hardest boulder problems in the world, never inviting fanfare or limelight. A stout, frizzy-haired Swiss, he was reserved in demeanor, fluid in style, and pensive in temperament—from my vantage, at least. He seemed different from many of the other top-flight climbers of his day, boasting huge forearms while maintaining a tiny ego. In an interview, Nicole said, “To discover new lines and new moves was always my motivation without thinking of pushing the limits or being a pioneer. Climbing for me goes with the nature and the lack of references is a gift more then a problem.”

Loskot, an Austrian, was the opposite of Nicole in style but not in philosophy. Known for explosiveness of movement as well as voice, Chris Schulte described Loskot’s signature vocalization in a recent profile in Rock and Ice: “The yell is a power-boosting Kiaa! that frees up the chi and fires us like burning arrows.” At the same time, Loskot outlined his own interests in more supple terms: “My climbing is a lot about harmony. Harmony makes me and is leading me to having the flow. It’s the same in life outside climbing. Feeling harmony is a great feeling to me and I watch out to feel so … Just let it flow and be as it is, and adapt.”

The Brit Johnny Dawes is a bit of a climbing philosopher as well, albeit of a different flavor. He was depicted in movies like The Stone Monkey and articles like “The Leaping Boy” (Climbing Magazine No. 164), as well as in his own essays, as overflowing with anarchic, punk rock spirit and a preternatural kinesthetic sense. In 1986, he became the first to climb what was then one of the boldest routes in the world: Indian Face, at Clogwyn Du’r Arddu, Wales. His essay on the ascent is as much a description of his inner landscape as of the climb: “At 70ft I felt OK. An automaton in a plastic bag, my brain floated out in space behind me. It had slim threads which blew in the wind but didn’t seem to be catching on anything; so I continued.” (In the nearly three decades since, Indian Face has been climbed seven times.)

Challenging movement remains for me the shortest path to the flow state—that fleeting alignment of body, mind, and the external world. Loskot put it nicely when he said in Dosage Vol. I, “Suddenly the ground goes to the side and there is just sky and you don’t feel your weight and you are alone in a big room, and you can do everything… . [Everyone] can have this, I guess. It’s not depending on how hard you climb—it’s more how close to your personal limit you are, or how deep you go into yourself.” Nicole, Loskot, and Dawes, each in their unique ways, seemed to express similar thoughts and feelings through their climbs and words and, at a time where I wasn’t clear about what drew me to climbing, they informed the way I saw the rock and myself as a climber.

As Dawes said in an interview with The Guardian, “You can feel sometimes that you’re doing something for real reasons. It comes right out of your heart and will take you somewhere to show you … who you are and what you really enjoy. And that kind of stuff has a really good roll on, I think, for other people afterwards.” It did for me, but I’m interested to know, what climbers have made impressions on you, and why?

Blocks Pushing into Space

There are a lot of climbing photos in my Instagram feed, but pro climber Chris Schulte’s have been standing out to me recently. His images aren’t paintstakingly composed and Photoshopped, like those of the pro-photographers I follow. Nor are they focused on the sickest climbing action. Instead, many of the Schulte’s pictures capture the sculptural shape of the stone itself, the climber sharing the scene rather than dominating it. His writing likewise gives off a thoughtful, philosophical vibe, so I asked him to put together a short essay, illustrated by his photos, for The Stone Mind about his explorations and bouldering exploits in the famed desert crack-climbing destination Indian Creek, Utah. His artful reflections follow…

Chris Schulte following the tao of Indian Creek blocs.

What initially struck me about the “the Creek” was the sheer volume of climbing: there are enough cracks there to live and die for it all and never touch the same seam twice. On my first visit, some 15 years ago, my friend and I climbed what little we could with my rack of doubles, the whole time looking over our shoulders at the blocks scattered across the valley floor. I was struck by the purity of the shapes, the clean stone, the lack of holds… I’d never seen rock like that. Everything looked unlikely. I was a new enough climber then that it was hard to picture lines up such blank shapes

IC-blocs-3way

That aspect of climbing still attracts me most: the apparent impossibility; a path through the nothingness; unusual, technical tactics combined with charging thuggery to surmount the most basic, pared-down essence of a block. When there are only two holds in a massive space with no feet, you try as hard as you can without expectation, and things start to happen. You start actually moving up through the nothingness, you start to do an impossible thing—then your whole perspective changes. All these blank, impossible things open up to you… I think of it like the first ship built, or the first planes: suddenly you can sail about where once there was nothing.

schulte_IC_bloc_1

The draw to these blocks is, for me, the shapes. I enjoy the movement required, its funky balance between udge and grace, but it’s the pure, crystalline shape of those stones that pulls the focus. A poet from a bygone age once described the stones in the rock garden at Ryōan-ji Temple, in Kyoto, as “bumps pushing into space”; the scattering of stones there behind that old temple has a pattern about it that seems to lead the mind to a state of pliant reception. I think of the stark shapes in the desert at Indian Creek in the same terms: angular, dense, so very present! You can’t argue against these icons of bouldering, they just sit there like the Idea of a boulder: sharp, smooth, impersonal, and yet organic in structure and placement—a bridge between form and function.

schulte_IC_bloc_3

Couple that with the possibility of breaking off a flake at 20 feet, and you’re really bending minds! The approach to such problems is a combination of calculation, meditation, and fuckit. Some boulders have no downclimb, no way to preview or clean. It’s a real mélange of perspectives, the setting, the shape, the moves, the goal, and the possible consequences. It’s a lot to process, making for a very rich experience, very dense climbing. And at the same time, there’s nothing to it at all: you just pick a pretty one, and try to get up it.

Apart from the blocks themselves, the area is beautiful and silent. The crowds all go to the walls, and in the cold cold winter there isn’t a soul around, save for the occasional cowboy or FedEx truck rocketing towards the park at the end of the road. The quiet, the empty, the lonesome all draw me. I like to sit and hear the blood pumping in my ears or the crushing swash of crow wings passing overhead. I like being the only one out there, working on the work, whatever it may be, sniffing juniper and fine red sand.

schulte_IC_bloc_2

I like to follow the thawing rivulets in the drainages, creek crossings that need another day or two after the snow. Hints of someone else’s vision quest. Signs of life from long ago.

I’m outside of one world that makes me feel like a nanobit, traveling around performing functions in a scintillating field of activity; instead  passing through another world, an organism, feeling like blood or sap or creek water, but also an absolutely unnecessary perspective lucky enough to travel through this place at that time and appreciate it at that very moment, be it a megamonumental pillar of awesomeness, or a lizard crunching desiccated groundscore fly, or looking in through the door of a home made from earth and stone, willow and juniper, recalling that for whoever once lived here this life was the only life there was, thanks be.

 

schulte_mugshotChris Schulte has been opening new boulders for 20 years. He is supported by Black Diamond Equipment, Five Ten, The North Face, a knotted string of jobs, and his lady Jackie. 

A Climb for What Ails You

Couch crusher

The other day I felt like turds. Lethargic, with a headache, and just mentally and physically unmotivated to do anything. A symptom of too much work, maybe, and not enough rest and play. Still, my wife wanted to go to the gym and do a little bouldering and, it being her birthday weekend, who was I to deprive her?

The first couple of climbs went as expected: lousy. I felt like a damp bag of mashed potatoes. Every warm-up problem required an act of will to overcome. A little balloon of pain expanded and contracted rhythmically above each eyeball. After a rough warm-up lap, I lay back on the dirty pads beneath the bouldering wall and tried to focus on my breath.

About a half hour in, the tendons in my neck started to loosen, and I reconnected with the rhythm of the climbs. I started to finish some more tricky problems, coordinating funky body movements on steep walls. By the time we exited into the swelter of the mid-summer afternoon, I was transformed—a different man, if you will. It was a great reminder.

Often, we choose to do things based on how we feel at the moment. Thirsty? Take a drink. Tired? Take a nap. Overflowing with stoke and energy? Go climb. The problem is, we’re not always in tune with our own needs. Personally, my body tells me it’s always a good time for bad Chinese food, despite having learned repeatedly from experience that this is not the case.

Similarly, few of us grasp that when we walk out of the office or wrap up a marathon study session, despite what our exhausted brains are trying to tell us, we will actually feel better if we go for a climb or run or a bike ride up a steep hill. It’s counterintuitive, but by exercising, we can often feel less tired instead of more*. Climbing has taught me this lesson repeatedly over the years, but studies like this one bear it out, too. Sometimes, like one of those little hand-cranked radios, we have to move to generate energy.

It could be that this modern age—where we live in climate-controlled boxes, obsessively stare into screens, and eat food grown and processed in far away lands—has many of us out of touch with our bodies and our natural rhythms. When I went to the gym with Kristin, I was almost certain I’d climb poorly and feel worse. In reality, getting out and moving was the perfect remedy for my generalized malaise. Remembering that for next time won’t be too hard—but believing it enough to overcome the inertia of feeling like turds? That’s another story.

*Of course, there are times when we’re so wiped, so sleep-deprived or physically over extended that rest is the only answer—but that’s another story… 

You’re Probably Not A Great Belayer

A bad belayer belaying with too much slack, no hand on the brake, and while talking on the phone

I have some bad news for you: you’re probably not a great belayer. In fact, you might not even be a good one. How do I know? It’s a matter of odds. Everyone thinks they’re better than average. That’s normal, but, of course, it’s wrong. Most of us are just average, as per the definition of average. And in belaying, as in working at Chachkies, doing the bare minimum just isn’t good enough. Basically, we should all be angling towards better pretty much all the time.

The Good, the Bad, and the Oblivious

Just consider: how many times have you visited a crag and seen bad belaying, and lots of it? Giant loops of slack, untended brake-ends, unlocked biners, chronic short-roping, belayers chattering obliviously on the ground while their climbers crux out high above sketchy pro? Visit the Internet and search the forums for tales of such belaying incompetence—they are numerous. Climbing Magazine has been running a weekly series on bad belaying practices and Rock and Ice has some interesting examples of bad belaying in their Weekend Whipper series. Petzl (my employer) created a video called “The World’s Worst Belayer” (see below) which exaggerates for comedic effect some of the many very real epic belaying fails occurring all across the globe at any given moment.

If you’re like me, you like to think you never do stuff like this. But if you’re like me when I’m feeling honest, you can probably recall moments when you’ve perpetrated the same sketchy acts of belaying yourself. Maybe it was only for a moment, and maybe it doesn’t happen often (or so you like to tell yourself), but that’s the thing about belaying: most days out we’ll be fine, but when those fateful moments arise and bad habits intersect with bad luck, bad things are gonna happen. Sure, we feel competent, but the hard truth is, as a species, humans are pretty poor at evaluating our own ability level at most tasks.

Consider a study conducted by the insurance agency Allstate: two-thirds of respondents ID’ed themselves as excellent or very good drivers… and then went on to admit to doing things bad drivers do, like texting, excessive speeding, and even drinking and driving or falling asleep at the wheel. Another example would be the 68% of University of Nebraska faculty who rated themselves in the top 25% for teaching ability. Something just doesn’t add up… .

At the crags, I’ve seen folks lying down to belay. I once watched a girl clip herself with a daisy chain to a pack full of softball-sized rocks in an effort to add ballast against her much-heavier partner (when he fell, he pulled her and the pack up, sending the whole unfortunate situation sailing over the edge of a small drop-off). At a gym I saw a woman’s rope slide from her harness loop and swing away when she was 20 feet up the wall—she’d failed to finish her knot and her belayer had failed to do a simple check before telling her she could “climb on.” I bet every one of these folks would, given a survey on the topic, rate themselves “good” belayers.

The Problem with N00bs

Cornell University psychology professors David Dunning and Justin Kruger conducted a study to explore how people perceive their own ability level in a given activity. Throughout the study, they observed that incompetent people have some common traits; they:

1. tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
2. fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
3. fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy…

As Dunning put it, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent. … the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”

Consider this in light of the fact that, according to an Outdoor Industry Association survey, more than a quarter of the three-million-plus people climbing in 2012 were first timers. (One can only guess how many more than a quarter could safety be classified as n00bs.) And most of these have learned to belay via quick lessons from their friends (who are probably only slightly more experienced themselves) or from gym instructors, who vary widely in teaching ability and even in belaying ability. Many new belayers, by dint of their newness, lack the skills to properly evaluate their own skill level. They don’t even know what they don’t know.

Have You Ever Been Experienced?

But surely you’ve noticed plenty of long-time climbers who give blood-curdling belays, too? Their inability to follow proper protocol can’t be attributed to lack of experience. Such cases most likely stem from a combination of hubris and lack of feedback.

Dunning has suggested that one of the culprits behind people’s poor ability to self-assess is that most folks shy away from giving negative feedback. That’s understandable—critical interaction is uncomfortable, especially with a stranger. But if accurate feedback is critical for improvement, it might be worth braving the awkward social moment when you feel the urge to step up to a guy or gal who’s totally blowing it on the belay and say:

“Hey, friend, I’m super psyched to see you’re having a great time at the crag with your buddies, but I’d just like to point out the fact that the way you’re belaying is wildly unsafe and, even if you and your unsuspecting partner walk away from this whole affair unharmed, which is unlikely, I still might die of a heart attack from having to watch you. Allow me to offer some pointers…”

It might not always go over well. Heck, you might get yelled at. But at least Droppy McBelaypants won’t be able to say no one ever warned him or her. In my experience, though, most folks of all ability levels are pretty open to a friendly pointer, when delivered in a non-confrontational manner.

Of course, if an experienced climber with entrenched bad habits refuses to accept feedback, unless they’re at a gym and you’re an instructor, there’s probably not much you can do about. As one mountainproject.com commenter put it, “I’ve left a few crags before just because I’ve seen terrible belays and I wasn’t in the mood to see somebody deck.” In the end, each climber/belayer must be responsible for him or herself.

The Good News

Let’s face it: belaying, like a lot of climbing safety know-how, is fairly complicated, with an array of non-obvious cause-and-effect calculations that can only be learned through training, practice, and real-world experience. Even with modern assisted-braking devices, there is narrow margin for error, and a moment’s inattention or a seemingly small misstep can lead to injuries ranging in severity from rope burn and twisted ankles to compound fractures and graphic brainspills.
The good news is, we can all be better. No matter how long you’ve been climbing and belaying, and no matter how we’ll you think you belay, there’s room to improve. Step one is admitting you might have a problem… or at least that you’re not perfect. Once you do that, you can work towards higher levels of competence and even someday mastery.

Dunning and Kruger identified a fourth trait among those who grossly overestimate their own abilities, which is that they: “recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill.”

Simply put, most of us should probably take the time to bone up on our belay technique, learn, discuss, and observe. Check out online resources, sign up for more in-depth courses at the gym or with a guiding service, pick the brain of experienced and trusted sources, etc. Basically, ruthlessly hunt down and exterminate bad habits that could get your climber hurt. (Heck, if everyone just did the hard work of paying better attention to his system and his climber, all manner of lousy things could be avoided!)

Be open and work to improve, just like you work to improve your technique or endurance whenever you climb, and soon you can say with a much greater level of statistical accuracy that you are, indeed, a great belayer.

 

The World’s Worst Belayer [EN] Bad belaying techniques from Petzl-sport on Vimeo.

Climbing Season

 

a climber crimping and a pair of hands typing on a keyboard

Years ago, a friend of the family and a very smart fellow gave me a book of short stories called Winesburg, Ohio. He handed the faded little Penguin paperback to me with a sense of reverence.

“I’ve been really into Sherwood Anderson lately. His prose is just amazing. I think you’ll really like it—the way it captures the lives of the people in this little Ohio town.”

That night, I read the first few pages and fell straight asleep. Nothing about the writing or the subject matter engaged me. I should have given the book back, but it slipped my mind and it ended up following me from state to state as I moved across the country. It’s been riding the pine on my bookshelf for some seven years now.

Last week, I picked up Winesburg, Ohio again for no particular reason. I’m not sure what changed since my first attempt, but now I was fascinated by the observations that Anderson put on the page. In the very first story, “The Book of the Grotesque,” I found this passage:

“It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque, and the truth became a falsehood.”

There was something going on here—something vague and barely graspable, yet deeply important—that was pushing through the surface of his words, and it immediately resonated with me. I felt I understood why my friend had given the book to me. But why hadn’t I seen it before, the first time I read the story?

I ran into an old friend at a party a few weeks ago and we started talking about climbing. No big surprise. As a Salt Lake climber who has worked in the outdoor industry for more than 10 years, that’s what most of the people at most of the parties I go to want to talk about.

“Yeah man, I’m just really psyched about climbing right now!” my old friend said. “I’m focused on climbing a lot and building a base and just ticking all the classics in the area.”

My friend’s sentiment stood out to me because not a week earlier, another acquaintance had, nearly verbatim, expressed the same thing: Focused. Stoked. Climbing.

I remember that feeling, when climbing was all I wanted to do. It was a good feeling. Pretty simple. Scaling rocks was the focus of my life, and I built my schedule and my budget around it. But these days, I’ve had a lot of other goals and interests (writing this blog, which is surprisingly time-consuming, being just one of them), and climbing is no longer the main character in my life; it plays a supporting, yet enduring, role.

There’s a verse in Ecclesiastes that goes something like, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” Beyond skiing season, mountain biking season, or climbing season, I take this to mean that the interests and the goals in our life are bound to change, and this is natural. We might look back and the things we can’t image living without don’t mean as much, while the things that floated in the background, uninspiring, can suddenly rise to the surface and become significant.

Things change. Interests change, contexts change, relationships, passions, perspectives… . To those who close themselves off to new discoveries and cling too tightly to old beliefs, there’s a danger of becoming one of Anderson’s “grotesques.”

In a recent blog post, the writer Andrew Bisharat said, “I think it is OK to be open to changing up your interests. What is important is that you still find a way to have goals that remain relevant and interesting to your life. We are human beings first and our goals are simply supplements to our own weird journeys.”

I feel this sums it up nicely. The key to navigating the shifting landscape of life, as far as I can tell, is be open to the inevitable changes. It’s up to each of us to either reject and lament change, or to accept change as the wellspring it is—a constant source of energy and surprise.

8 Symptoms of Climbing Deprivation

 

grumpy cat hasn't climbed

Climbing tends to attract some pretty die-hard personality types. Once people get the climbing bug, it can expand until it crowds out many of the once-important components of a healthy, well-balanced life, such as relationships, eduction, jobs, even hygiene. But sometimes, just sometimes, life circumstances are such that climbing becomes impossible for a period of time. When this happens, whether due to workload, family vacation, or injury, climbers exhibit telltale behaviors that can ultimately only be remedied by the sweet caress of stone. Following are eight of these symptoms of climbing deprivation. Any others I’m forgetting? Add ‘em in the comments.

1. Generalized anger

When I was a kid, I would get upset whenever I was hungry—I could barely enjoy anything and basically felt like crying all the time. Back then, it was just called being a baby, but now this state of hunger-induced grumpiness is referred to as being “hangry.” Similarly, climbers deprived of their Precious have been known to exhibit snarkiness, impatience, and outright rudeness. You might call such a person “clangry.” One afternoon of climbing can temporarily alleviate clangriness for several days, as many climbers’ significant others are well aware.

2. Fitness dysmorphic disorder

In as little as three days without some serious pullin’ down, a climber can develop a warped self-image. Perceived physiological changes include: fatness, smaller forearm and shoulder muscles, total loss of both power and endurance, and a sloughing off of hard-earned finger calluses.

3. Restless finger syndrome

In cases where there is no damage to the digits, climbers who can’t climb have been observed to direct undue amounts of attention towards their fingers, stretching, cracking, and picking at them with as much as 73% greater frequency. Perhaps in response to the perceived decline in fitness as described above, it is also common to attempt to pinch, crimp, or hang from any load-bearing (or, with hilarious/dramatic effects, non-load-bearing) structure within eyeshot. The compulsive use of foam stress balls and other grip-builders is a surefire sign of RFS.

Internet husband to busy watching climbing vids to come to bed4. Climbing vicariously

Thanks to the Internet, climbing-deprived climbers can access limitless flows of videos, blogs, trip reports, Instagrams, Facebook photo galleries, and even tweets from fellow climbers who have been lucky enough to get out and sample some of the good stuff. While this behavior can temporarily reduce vertical cravings in some, it can actually exacerbate them in others, leading to feelings of resentment and exclusion.

5. Hallucinations

In extreme cases, there have been reports of out-of-body experiences. One climber recalled being overwhelmed by a vision of himself floating face up, hovering across a field of talus under the shadow of Half Dome, “like Maximus in that movie The Gladiator.” Other times the hallucinations are purely auditory, as was the case with one Colorado-based climber left unable to climb after breaking his collarbone in a snowboarding accident. For several weeks, he was surprised by a disembodied voice shouting, “Stick it!” and “Allez!” while he performed even the most mundane tasks, such as moving the laundry from the washer to the dryer, or picking up milk at the store.

6. Substitution

Depending on the reason for restricted access to climbing, the obsessive climber personality type can sometimes seek out another, similarly addictive activity such a surfing, mountain biking, or crossfit (aka “jumparound”). Once a sufficient skill level and social network has been established, the new activity can actually supplant climbing as the prime motivator.

7. Compulsive gear fiddling

In lieu of actual climbing, the deprived often turn to the organization and maintenance of the equipment used for climbing. Time to wash that rope, oil those cams, clean the dirt and chalk of those stinky old rock shoes with a damp towel… . Studies have shown that mere exposure to powdered chalk can stimulate brain regions associated with climbing.

8. Simulation

Desperate climbers attempting to reconnect with their preferred lifestyle have been known to sleep in the yard, live primarily off of tinned sardines and power bars, and forgo showering for long periods of time. Likewise, alpinists stranded in warm, flat environments have been seen running up and down stairs with packs full of household items, or even sticking their faces in the freezer, in an attempt to simulate that brisk feeling of near-frostbite typical of high-alpine environments.

What is the Value of A Climb?

 

value_of_a_climb

It’s hard to pin a value on climbing. Like art, it has no clear purpose. Like a poem, a route is open for interpretation. How much would you pay for a perfect fall weekend in the Gunks? I’m not talking about the cost of a plane ticket or campsite or day pass, but the actual worth of the experience. How would you even express it?

Consider the first climber to push a new line up a peak. Like an artist laboring over a painting, he undertakes the act for mostly self-serving reasons: to explore and expand the limits of his ability, understanding, and conviction. He seeks the personal rewards of success or, as a consolation prize, the lessons of failure.

The artist and the first-ascensionist alike learn as they work, surprising themselves, discovering that the path they plotted in their minds might not be the path that works in the end. This discovery is part of the excitement and the value of the creative act.

And at the same time, this act can create value for others, too. Transmitted verbally or through a topographical map, a guidebook, an article, or a blog, it becomes a conceptual blueprint for a powerful experience.

Like a story, a route is inexhaustible. Every person who repeats a route or reads a book can have his own journey of discovery, much like the original creator had. Every one of us can grasp the same holds and enjoy much the same view as Royal Robbins and Pat Ament experienced on the first free ascent of Yellow Spur, in Eldo, fifty years ago.

“A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist,” wrote the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. By extension, when many people experience a work of art, the separation between one receiver and the next can be broken down just a little, too—a shared experience is created, and from this a culture, a community.

Spend any time around a campfire with climbers, and you’ll witness the bonds formed by the shared experiences of icy couloirs and lichen-encrusted rock walls, of headlamp-lit rappels and stomach-flipping whippers. Politics and educations and upbringings may differ, but something found in those high places unites.

The essential value of a climb cannot be measured in dollars nor, as is more commonly thought, difficulty ratings or even guidebook stars. Nearest I can tell, it is measured in the transformations it enables and the communities created by those transformations.

Transformation cannot be sold, bought, or processed. The value of a climbing is as intangible as the value of reading Moby Dick or seeing the Mona Lisa, yet no less profound. The more it resists codification, the greater climbing’s value becomes… or maybe it’s just that the idea of value grows a little fuzzier around the edges.

The Best Way to Say Thanks

Volunteers with the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance moving rocks at Ruth Lake, in the Uintas.
Volunteers with the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance moving rocks at Ruth Lake, in the Uintas.

If you’ve climbed much outside, you have someone to thank. A bunch of someones, really. The someones who own or manage the land, for example. Also the someones who make sure that climbing is recognized as a legit use of that land, the someones who maintain the trails and parking and kiosks and latrines on that land, and the someones who developed the routes and problems on that land, too.

You should say thanks to those people or just be thankful in general—that’s great. But you should also become one of these “someones” yourself, because if you’re reading this you probably climb and climbing has probably changed your life in one or more ways and, despite what we’d all like to think, climbing isn’t an inalienable human right.

I bring this up because I just finished helping my local climbing organization, the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, organize an annual fundraiser (full disclosure: I’m on the board). The funds from this event will support all manner of stewardship and education projects that benefit the local climbing community, from the maintenance of latrines in Joe’s Valley to anchor replacement at popular crags to the Adopt A Crag and the Craggin’ Classic events.

Beyond highly visible stewardship and education projects like these, the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, like most local climbing organizations (LCOs), spends a lot of time behind the scenes working with land managers and land owners, making sure that the voice of the local climbing community is heard and our particular needs understood. It requires a lot of work from a lot of people, most of whom have day jobs, families, and barely enough time to get out and climb as it is. But without LCOs like the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance and larger organizations like the Access Fund, which act on the national level, you might not be able to climb at your favorite crags at all.

Who gets to use a piece of land for what activities and when? These are deceptively complicated questions. For one thing, there’s the issue of liability. Climbing, as every gym waiver you’ve ever signed points out, is inherently dangerous. Who’s responsible when someone hits the deck, catches a rock to the head, or keels over from a heart attack while out at the crag? Who pays for the rescue? Who will be on the receiving end when the family of the injured party decides to sue? Who decides on “best practices” for bolting anchors and who, if anyone, checks and replaces the bolts that are already in place?

Private land owners often look at questions like these, not to mention issues of access trails and parking, and decide to ban climbers outright; sometimes it’s just easier that way. Meanwhile, a lot of public land managers have only a cursory understanding of what’s involved in the practice of rock climbing or of how many people might be showing up to do it. Rules governing climbing on public lands vary from well-researched and highly detailed, to vague and illogical. They also vary widely from one type of public land to the next, from the Bureau of Land Management to Forest Service land to national parks and state parks, etc. When it comes to public climbing management policies, seemingly minor changes can take years or even decades to become reality.

And of course, climbers are almost never the only users seeking to make use of a given plot of land: In the West, Indian tribes and climbers often disagree strongly over the appropriate use of rock formations; extraction industries and climbers butt heads across the U.S; and the bad behavior of other user groups, from litter to campfire and graffiti, is easily pinned on climbers.

Add to that the complexity of local climbing cultures, where certain practices are frowned on as much because of historical precedent as official policies or land owner concerns. Even within climbing communities, there is ample disagreement on many topics.

Basically, the issues confronting those who just want to go outside and climb are complex and varied, and without organized groups of climbers willing to work on the local and national level, we’d be pretty much hosed. The Access Fund ran an ad campaign not long ago showing crags with gates and No Trespassing signs super-imposed over them. The images might seem alarmist, but they’re not—they show real possibilities in a world where climbers lack a voice.

As tempting as it may be to approach such issues with an anarchic spirit, the tough truth is that we are all connected in a social web. If we live without regard for our actions—parking in the no-parking zone, bringing dogs to crags where they’re not allowed, bolting where bolts are banned, leaving trash, blasting music at the crags, crapping near the trails—we invite trouble for ourselves and our fellow climbers. By attempting to live in total freedom regardless of consequences, we usually end up making ourselves and others less free.

Only a fraction of climbers are members of their local climbing organizations or the Access Fund, and a smaller number still volunteer regularly. With every percent increase in engagement, our crags become better maintained, our relationships with land owners and managers grow stronger, and the voice of the collective climbing community grows louder.

Being thankful is great, but the best way to say thanks those who work hard to be good stewards and preserve climbing access is to be one of those people yourself. There will never be a perfect time to start, but now’s as good a time as any. To find an LCO in your neck of the woods click here. Plus, support the Access Fund.

Edit: I just received an email from another national org, the American Alpine Club, which offers Cornerstone Conservation Grants for climbers who propose conservation projects in their areas. Check it out…   

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?