Some Things to Remember for Next Time

A climber in Moe's Valley, Utah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Zone of Unbearable Frustration

Climbing Charts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I Became A Magazine Editor

The author grinding on edits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of luck,
Justin

Writing, Climbing, and the Exploration of the Unknown

_PTZ1716

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

climbers_watching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What I Know Now: Collected Insights on Climbing and Life

The Thinker statue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beth RoddenBeth Rodden. Professional climber. Climbing 19 years.

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

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

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

Alex HonnoldAlex Honnold. Professional climber. Climbing 18 years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily HarringtonEmily Harrington. Professional climber.
Climbing 17 years.

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

Room to Relax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climbing the Stepladder

A climber topping out a sandtone boulder
Soon you’ll find yourself at the top of the climb. But really, you were always there.

I have been climbing nearly a quarter of a century, and sometimes I wonder if I will climb my whole life. Maybe someday I won’t, which seems sad in the way that having a friend move away is sad. Right now, climbing is a tool that fulfills certain needs in my life: the need for an engagement that’s both physical and intellectual, the need to spend time in nature, the need for a routine that’s all my own…

But maybe the time will come when I no longer have these needs, or when climbing no longer fulfills them, or when I have otherwise arrived at a state in which climbing doesn’t make sense for me. In this case it would be only natural to stop climbing, like putting aside a crutch after an injury has healed.

“Delusion is like a stepladder,” writes Shunryu Suzuki in Not Always So, “Without it you can’t climb up, but you don’t stay on the stepladder.” For Suzuki and most Buddhists, this life that we’re so attached to, full of desires, aspirations, doubts, and fears, is the delusion. But these are useful delusions, as it were, which can be used to move us towards enlightenment. When enlightenment is reached, we see the delusions for what they are and cast them aside, push the ladder away. As the poet and essayist Gary Snyder writes, “You must first be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild.”

Climbing is my favorite stepladder. When everything happens just right, I don’t think about it or worry about it; I just do it. I feel myself approaching a different state of being, where the day-to-day starts to break down. But when I try to bring this state with me after the climb, it quickly fades, like a dream after waking. The more years I climb, the better I become at holding on to the dream, or so I tell myself. I imagine this is what the Zen student does when she meditates—she stills the mind day after day, for months and years, until she can bring that stillness into the world outside of meditation and, eventually, see meditation for the ladder it is.

A koan is a Zen language puzzle designed to confound logic. Some koan-like Buddhist sayings address the act of climbing directly: “If you want to climb a mountain, begin at the top,” says one. “When you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing,” suggests another. These puzzles ask us to reconsider the ideas of challenge and success, internal and external, climber and climbed.

When I can begin a climb at the top, and keep climbing once I’ve arrived there, I think it will be time to give up this old stepladder.

Six Steps for that Sexy Climber Hair

That climber hair. SHRN. Photo courtesy of Arthur Debowski
That climber hair. So hot right now. Photo courtesy of Arthur Debowski.

In the world of fashion, hair that looks artfully “mussed” is so hot right now. Consider the many “sexy bed hair” tutorials uncovered with a simple Google search, or the popular line of Bed Head haircare products available at pharmacies near you. The sort of windswept, salt-sprayed hairdos one finds perched atop the têtes of surfers and other beachgoers is also very much á la mode, enough to warrant a write-up in the New York Times.

But for those committed to the cutting edge, few groups sport wilder coiffures than road tripping climbers, confined as they are to tents or vans for months at a time with infrequent access to soap, combs, or running water. Luckily, there’s no need to be a dirtbag to have hair like one. Follow these six easy steps for a hairstyle equally at home at the crags or on the runway:

1. Stop showering - A key component to climber hair is the accumulation of sebum, a natural fatty acid produced in the scalp’s sebaceous glands. Washing hair regularly strips away sebum and leaves hair dry and boring. Therefore, the first step to cultivating that dirtbag climber look is to stop washing your hair with soap. Rinsing in the shower is OK, but if you want to go the authentic route (and I know you do), squeeze your head under the faucet of a gas station bathroom and then dry off with the provided paper towels. Your hair might feel a little too greasy at first, but give it some time. As my friend Nate used to say, “It’s like your hair starts cleaning itself after a while.”

2. Chalk up - The chalk we climbers use on our hands to increase friction ultimately ends up clinging to our oily, unwashed hair and providing texture and body. If you’re not planning on getting out on the rock any time soon, you can still buy a bag of powdered chalk at your local outdoor outfitter and sprinkle it over your head once or twice a day. As tempting as it may seem, avoid using liquid chalk in your hair—this alcohol and calcium carbonate blend, sometimes spiked with powdered pine resin, is smelly, overly drying, and probably flammable.

3. Sweat it out - A key component of beach hair is sea salt. Luckily, salt is also readily available in a substance that your body produces for you: sweat! For climbers, it’s easy to get sweaty. Just slog up a steep mountainside with a pack full of ropes and biners, then climb a few pitches of steep rock in the direct sun. A few hours of this, and your hair (and face and clothes) will be coated with a fine, salty film. If you’re not a climber, don’t worry: you can still sweat. Probably the easiest way would be to stand in your living room, put on all of your jackets at once, and turn on Braveheart. Every time someone gets killed, do one burpee.

4. Get some sun - The bleaching and drying effects of the sun are a perfect finisher for climber hair. If for some reason you don’t have regular access to the rays thrown off by this massive sphere of fusing hydrogen, consider picking up a sun lamp at your nearest health and beauty supplier. After getting good and sweaty, as mentioned above, pop your head under the lamp for an hour or two. Tanning salons are another alternative for this step (don’t forget your little goggle things!).

5. Wrap it up - For unknown reasons, many climbers wear knit beanies all the time, even if it’s not cold out. This turns that sebum, chalk, and sweat salt into a pungent hair tonic. Probably the most important time to wear your beanie is when you’re sleeping. As you roll around in your bed or back of your van or whatever, the hat will twist and shift, creating just the right amount of Derelicte messiness.

6. Let it loose - When you’re ready to go out, whip off your beanie and give your hair a good tousle. Run your fingers through it, shuffle it around, pull it down into goth spikes or up for that finger-in-a-light socket look—whatever. Just be sure to wash your hands and face to remove all the loose hairs, dirt, chalk, and oils that have accumulated. You’re good to go.

Post Picks from 2013

Image from top posts 2013

As Seth Godin wrote recently, “My most popular blog posts this year weren’t my best ones. … ‘best’ is rarely the same as ‘popular.'” It’s a worthwhile reminder, even though most of us intuitively sense the disconnect between popularity and quality. The problem is, the fast-flowing social Internet buoys up catchy, controversial, or otherwise, “sharable” content, while everything else sifts to the murky bottom. On the other hand, this means that for those hardy souls willing to dive for it, there is a fortune in buried treasure to be had.

For this reason, today I’m sharing not only The Stone Mind’s 10 most-viewed posts of 2013, but also a more personal list, comprised of posts that I’m particularly fond of. In keeping with Godin’s quote, only a few of the posts on the first list would have made the second.

If your favorite post didn’t make either list, consider posting a link in the comments. I’d love to hear what you enjoy reading (and why) and to make this post more valuable to others.

See you next year!

Top 10 Posts of 2013

  1. Thanks, Climbing… 
  2. Surviving A Honnold “Rest Day” 
  3. 10 Tips for Climbing on Opposite Day
  4. Everyday Climbing
  5. Put A Lid On It: Some Thoughts On Helmets In Sport Climbing
  6. 10 Rad Valentine’s Day Gifts for Climbers
  7. Fear, Fun, and Trying One More Time
  8. How to Make a Climbing Movie
  9. “The Sensei”
  10. The Professionals

10 Picks from the Author

  1. On Balance 
  2. Memento Mori
  3. The Art of (Almost) Letting Go
  4. Hueco Lessons
  5. The Importance of Respect
  6. Climbing Yourself
  7. Good Luck and Bad Luck
  8. Bouldering Alone 
  9. Running It Out
  10. The Mind/Body Problem

Just This Move

The Billboard crag
The Billboard, American Fork Canyon.

I had been working a route up at a limestone crag called the Billboard, in American Fork Canyon, about thirty miles south of Salt Lake City. Beeline, the route is called, an old Boone Speed classic that feels pumpier than its eighty-foot height on account of the meandering course it charts through rasping pockets and slots. Slightly overhung with mostly positive holds, an endurance climber might call it soft. But for a convenience boulderer like me, trained on forty-five minute lunch sessions in the gym and weekend projects of eight moves or fewer, it might as well have been El Capitan.

A few weeks ago, I reached a tricky section less than half way up Beeline and asked my belayer to take. I didn’t have an ounce of extra juice to get me through the uncertain sequence. I decided I would have to pick apart the most efficient way to do each move, so that I could eventually race from bottom to top without thinking. If I didn’t make any mistakes, I reasoned, I’d have just enough gas for the trip to the anchors. I dangled from the rope and scrutinized each possible foot hold (there were a lot) and rehearsed the section of climbing until it felt pretty good. Then I climbed on, falling several more times along the way.

My next two attempts were only marginally better. It was hard not to compare myself with my self of eight or nine years earlier, when I warmed up on routes not much easier than this one—it’s a tricky mental trap. At the same time, it was because of past events that I had some strange faith that I could do the climb next try, if only I came at it from the right angle. But what was the angle?

Seven days later, my partner and I returned to the Billboard and warmed up on two of the only quality moderate lines there. It wasn’t long before I stood below Beeline again, wondering if I could beat my highpoint from last time.

I quickly passed through the familiar opening section of the route and through a low crux. At the first good rest hold, I was only a little pumped, but because I had done well up to that point, anxious words began to spin around and around in my head. “Don’t blow it now. You don’t want to have to do this thing again.” Tension locked my muscles, made my breathing shallow and rapid. “You should have done it by now. Don’t mess up this time…”

I was caught in the cycle of worry, but I worked to stop it. “You have nothing in the world to do but this next move,” came the counter to the nervous voice. I started to relax again. With deep breaths, the pumped feeling receded. As I moved on the tension crept back, but I returned to my mantra: “Just this move… Just this move…”

I had to extinguish the sparks of anxiety repeatedly along the route. As I neared the top, I was surprised to find I had energy left. The final redpoint crux, for the first time, felt like no big deal. I pulled through to the anchors, sat back, and called for my belayer to lower me, a little surprised at how the climb had gone.

I knew the route well enough, but hadn’t memorized it move for move. Nor had I gained any significant amount of endurance since the previous week’s session. All I had really done was not fight myself.

You’ve probably heard the saying, attributed to Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Or the one about the best way to eat an elephant (one bite at a time). Like many adages, they fall on our ears as platitudes until, often all at once, we grok their inner meaning.

A route is composed entirely of individual movements, a life of individual moments, and we really can only deal with each as it comes. It’s so obvious, yet it’s not so simple to climb or to live that way; a constant remembering is required.

Hiker’s Zen

We don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian Pipe plants along the trail and say, “that’s not good enough.”
I don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian pipe plant along the trail and say, “That’s not good enough.”

I like to mediate in the morning. I don’t have a shrine or even a particular belief system that I’m meditating for. I just get up early, sit down on a pillow on the floor of my dimly lit living room, pull my legs into a half-lotus position, and focus on breathing. I focus more on breathing out fully, as the inhale seems to take care of itself. I try to keep good posture, as if my body was suspended from a string affixed to the top of my skull (I read somewhere this is a good way to think of it). Sometimes it’s hard: my legs ache, my back aches. But I try to come to the meditation as if I’m going hiking on some new trail. Maybe this sounds strange; let me explain.

When I go for a hike, especially on a new trail, I don’t expect things to look a particular way. I set out walking to see what is there. Sometimes the trail will be flat and easy, sometimes rocky and full of ups and downs. Sometimes there will be water, other times I’ll see a moose. I don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian pipe plant along the trail and say, “That’s not good enough.” I say, “Oh, look, an Indian Pipe!” When I come to a bridge over a babbling stream, I don’t think, “I wish this stream were deeper and those rocks were more angular!” The stream has a natural beauty however it is. The trees are in just the right places. The grass is just the right color.

This is how I think about meditation, only instead of a trail, I’m moving through my internal landscape. It’s full of strange thoughts, old memories that rise to the surface like water from a spring. I encounter fears and aspirations, feelings of pride and embarrassment, high-priority items on my to-do list. Meditation is my time to let go of the attachments I bring to all these things. I see them, but I don’t assign them a particular value and don’t let them create anxiety inside me.

Some days I get stuck on an idea, and I don’t feel my meditation went very well, but then I remember that I’m just taking a hike. Some days on a hike, it’s cold and snowy, but who could deny that a snowy hike is as wonderful as a sunny one? Some days it rains, turning the lichen on the rocks a brighter green and making the leaves glisten like jewels. You wouldn’t think, “I wish these leaves would shine brighter and the rain make a sweeter music.” It doesn’t make sense. The mountain peaks we see on our hikes are rough and asymmetrical, but they are perfect. There is no argument against their form.

In life, every day we judge our actions and the actions of those around us. It’s very hard not to. But the idea of the hike can be useful here, too. On a hike you might twist an ankle far from shelter. You might get lost, or a big storm might make it hard to find the way. You could call this bad luck. Still, when you’re alone in nature, there is nothing to do but face the difficulty. You can get angry or scared, but for what? You have a challenge, and how you feel about it won’t change that. In fact, your strong feelings about things can be harmful, as panic tricks you into working against your own best interests.

Climbing a mountain is a big challenge, but we don’t resent the mountain. We look inside ourselves for the right mindset to go up, to deal with the difficulties we meet along the way. The challenge is actually what we love. Why should we see the other challenges in our life so differently?

The Mind/Body Problem

A climber focused entirely on grabbing a hold

Have you ever had the experience of pulling into your driveway at home and feeling unsure of how you got there? The repetitive action of your commute was so ingrained that your body could drive you to and from work, only occasionally calling on your conscious mind for guidance—at a tricky intersection or when approaching the flashing lights of an emergency vehicle, for example. Yes, indeed, these days it’s common for body and mind to lead very separate lives.

This division isn’t particularly heathy. It’s often the result of a mental pre-occupation with problems or desires, perceived or imagined. This mind/body disconnect is a big source of stress and, in the case of driving, can cause missed exits, blown red lights, even collisions. When the road is straight and the traffic moves smoothly, our autopilot is sufficient. But without a more complete awareness, it’s easy to make mistakes.

One of the greatest pleasures of climbing is the way it can bring the body and mind back into alignment. When we encounter a challenging climb, because of the complexity, physical difficultly, and the possible risk, we are forced to reconnect with ourselves, with the moment. To solve a problem with one’s entire being rather than just one’s brain is satisfying on the deepest of levels.

Beginner climbers have to learn how to move, forging new connections between concept, movement, and result. Experienced climbers can quickly discern the movements, clipping stances, and gear placements of a route. But in either case, there is a very clear mental and physical engagement throughout the process of a climb that tends to rein in our wandering minds.

Of course, there can be value to daydreaming. For me, walking the dog or the hanging out at the crag between climbs are fertile periods for connecting and refining the recent mishmash of life’s experiences into cohesive perspectives, for blog posts and the like. But most of the time my wandering mind is up to no good, generating negative worlds ex nihilo.

Zen is concerned with ideas of oneness—mind and body, internal and external, self and other—and of immediacy—everything is perfect and complete, as it is and in the moment. Climbing, like many other mentally and physically engaging practices (yoga, dance, martial arts, etc.), is an excellent tool for experiencing and cultivating this oneness. Beyond words, each climb exists in the ever-shifting moment, at the intersection of climber and climbed, where mind and body, body and stone, and stone and time lose their distinction.

Start here, and expand outward.

Thanks, Climbing…

Thanks!

A bunch of my friends are heading south for Creeksgiving. If you haven’t heard of Creeksgiving, it’s a Thanksgiving spent in the desert-crack-climbing capital of the world, Indian Creek. My friends didn’t make up the term—climbers have apparently been celebrating Creeksgiving for years. From across the country they come. Some dig a pit in the ground and slow-cook their food all day while they’re out dangling from fist jams. Others drive into town and pick up rotisserie chickens and the like. My friend Rick recounts using an Orion Cooker to convection-roast a turkey one year.

Continue reading Thanks, Climbing…

Climbing, Baking, and Zen

A climber wearing a white baker's hat
You show up and you bake the bread. That’s it.

“Usually when we practice we expect something: if we try hard, our practice will improve,” says Shunryu Suzuki in a collection of his lectures on Zen called Not Always So. “If we aim at a goal in our practice we will eventually reach it… . This is true, but it is not a complete understanding.”

Usually when we climb we expect something, too. Even if we don’t state it openly, we bring expectations. It is the same thing a student of Zen expects when she sits in zazen. We want to be better. We expect we will improve with effort.

The weather was perfect when I went climbing last week, but I knew snows would soon cover the rocks, so I really tried to accomplish something that was hard for me. That was my goal, but I didn’t reach it. Instead I did a few climbs that didn’t show improvement. Not good enough.

“Even though you say your practice is not good enough, there is no other practice for you right now,” Suzuki says, as if in direct response to my disappointment. “Good or bad, it is your practice.” If I give myself over to the climb and try my best, I might not meet my own expectations. Still, there is no other practice for me—at least, not at that moment.

It is difficult to let go of your expectations, whether for one climb, one day, or one season. It feels suspiciously like quitting. After all, who wasn’t taught from childhood that we must set goals and stop at nothing to attain them? But the bridge to any goal must be built on a foundation of failure and doubt. Then again, once we reach our goals, we find they rarely offer the type of lasting satisfaction we imagined they would.

Beyond it all, there is another sort of understanding that can only be expressed through the practice itself, and never quite explained. I think this is what Suzuki was getting at.

in his book Run or Die, Kilian Jornet, a very skillful runner who ascends and descends mountains at unusual speed, talks about why he doesn’t suffer from race-day nerves:

“I practice and train for almost 360 days of the year. It’s like a baker getting the jitters the day he has to bake bread. In the end, bread is bread and maybe the bread turns out good or bad depending on a number of things that escape the baker’s control, but the bread will be made according to the same recipe whether it is Monday or Sunday.”

Despite his success in competitions, Jornet has come to focus on the practice, and not the expectation.

For the climber, the recipe is: we show up, we put on our harness or lay out our pad, we tighten our shoes and chalk our hands, and we climb. That is all. Some days the climb goes as planned, some days it doesn’t. However it goes, that is your day of climbing.

“We also do zazen with the understanding that the goal is not reached in one or two years, but is right here,” says Suzuki. “Here is the goal of practice.”

The Professionals

A climber ascending an artificial wall shaped like an eyeball
The life of a professional is lived in the public eye.

After many years working in the outdoor industry and lurking on Internet climbing forums, I‘ve noticed a certain ambivalence about the idea of the “professional” climber. Some people think being a pro must be the greatest thing on earth—all upside and no down. Others think the idea of a pro is an affront to the spirit of climbing, that pros are nothing more than marketing tools.

Many people feel both ways at once, perhaps resenting pros because, they feel, they’re somehow gaming the system, getting more than their fair share of the good stuff. After all, most of us work forty-plus hours a week doing things we find only vaguely fulfilling to pay the bills. We  squeeze in climbing between the office, chores, family, and the like. If we’re especially lucky, we get a good vacation to some destination like Céüse or Hueco or the Alaska Range every couple of years. The obvious question then: What could these pros possibly be doing that justifies a life of climbing, when the rest of us have to actually work for our money? 

From what I’ve seen, however, the professional climber’s life is less glamorous than many imagine and more like the jobs that most of us work: full of trade-offs and sacrifices.

In his Meditations, the stoic Roman philosopher king Marcus Aurelius writes

“A man wishes to conquer at the Olympic games. I also wish indeed, for it is a fine thing. But observe both the things which come first, and the things which follow; and then begin the act. You must do everything according to rule, eat according to strict orders, abstain from delicacies, exercise yourself as you are bid at appointed times, in heat, in cold … you must deliver yourself up to the exercise master as you do to the physician, and then proceed to the contest.”

A professional climber’s life might seem glamorous to some, charmed even, but consider, as Marcus Aurelius suggests, “the things which come first, and the things which follow.” For example, to be a professional climber, you should be both gifted and dedicated, climbing consistently and consistently better than most. This alone is a great challenge, of which the world’s millions of average climbers stand as proof. 

On top of that, you must accept an itinerant life, flying across the globe and back at the behest of sponsors, living on couches and out the backs of vans. You must pose down for photos and videos, write blogs, submit to interviews, and otherwise hold yourself up for the scrutiny of the unblinking public eye. At the same time, you must be willing to go without the stability and niceties of the typical professional life: a familiar bed, a retirement plan, health insurance, etc. 

If you don’t have such skills and are not willing to live like this, companies will not pay your way—or at least not for very long. After all, as a professional, your value is as inspiration, and inspiration must be constantly renewed in the form of new accomplishments, new trips, new media.

A professional climber, like any athlete, must also remember there are no guarantees. Aurelius continues: “Sometimes you will strain the hand, put the ankle out of joint, swallow much dust, sometimes be flogged, and after all this be defeated.” 

Maybe you’ll injure yourself, maybe fail to perform as expected. Maybe you will make some misstep and be criticized and embarrassed. In the end, unless you are the top one-tenth of one percent of climbers, you won’t make enough money to save a nest egg for the future. You’ll just get by, and eventually have to figure out how to make your way in the world when old age or injury set in. Meanwhile, those who resent you or idolize you for your lucky career might well be getting raises, buying houses, having children… .

That’s not to say that being a pro climber isn’t sweet—it certainly can be. If it is the life for you, you should not hesitate to pursue it. But if you are climber who carries some envy or disdain for the professional, remember that for you, climbing is a personal pleasure more than a public performance. The fact that your employer doesn’t care how well you do on the rock is probably part of what makes climbing so satisfying . For most of us climbing’s joy comes not just in the act itself, but also in its contrast to the workaday world.

So I’d leave you with a question: having really considered that which comes first and which follows, how does the life of the professional climber seem to you?

Another Kind of Sport

Climber Anna Stohr bouldering at a competition in Colorado.
Who are we competing with when we climb? Anna Stohr at the 2011 Bouldering World Cup in Vail, CO.

On the way back from a day out bouldering, a story came on the radio about some classic pigskin rivalry that I don’t follow. When I got home, I surfed over to Google News and found a headline about an airport shooting with a subhead that read: “Analysis: Hawaii team’s flight for Utah State game could be delayed.” Ah yes, football season, I muttered to myself. It got me thinking about just how different climbing and football really are.

For instance, tens of millions of my countrymen and women spend large chunks of their free time watching other people play sports, rather than engaging in any physical activity themselves. The fantasy football industry alone has been valued at over $70 billion. Meanwhile, a first-place purse in a really big climbing competition might clock in at $5,000, and the number of rock climbers who have achieved household status can be counted on one hand.

To me, the disparity in climbing’s popularity and that of competitive sports like football isn’t so surprising. Team sports are all about drama and performance. The elements of the battle are visually evident. Players collide, snatch balls out of the air, arc hail-Mary passes towards uncertainty, spin and juke and leap over each other…

In climbing, the battle is more internal.

This is why climbing videographers must constantly work to amp things up, focusing on foot-swinging dynos and gut-clenching falls, setting it all to throbbing electronic soundtracks. When Hollywood gets its hands on climbing, it churns out absurdities like Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit, and zooms in on a ropeless Tom Cruise suspended in a reverse iron cross on a sandy desert tower. But climbing is a game played as much on the inner landscape as on the wall. If it is a battle against anything, it is against oneself. This can be hard to translate for mass consumption.

Yes, there are plenty of climbing competitions. I’ve taken part in a few. But the vibe at most of these events is so chill that the competitors cheer each other on instead of psyche each other out. Score is typically kept on the honor system. Climbing events that create the tension of head-to-head combat, like speed climbing, can often feel contrived. High-level competition, while serious, has yet to make it into the public eye or the Olympics, and high-level competitors rarely make magazine covers or command much screen-time in the vids.

I think climbing’s attitude might be a byproduct of its exploratory, if not a little anarchic, roots. It started with mountaineers whose mantra was “to the top, by any means necessary.” With twenty- or thirty-thousand-foot adversaries covered in snow and ice and wracked with avalanches and brutal storms, there was challenge aplenty without further regulation. And while mountaineers constantly seek to climb in better “style,” winning or losing on the mountain is a far more subjective matter than on the gridiron.

ABC’s Wide World of Sports opened with the phrase, “The thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat.” In the climbing sphere, quotes like Alex Lowe’s “The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun,” seem to resonate more strongly. Meanwhile, the modern climbing hero tends to be the first-ascentionist, or the bold free-soloist who risks everything, artfully and for no discernible reason, rather than the competitor festooned with medals. Many of us are happy to remain what Lionel Terray called “Conquistadors of the useless” — there’s a certain freedom in it.

Ultimately, climbing can and should be many things to many people. Right now, there are fledgling gym rats poised to change the way we think of climbing, and there are plenty of climbers who love competing above all else. But I tend think a lot of us out there love the climbing life precisely because there are no numbered jerseys, screaming coaches, or rulebooks. Because we each get to develop firsthand our own understanding of what climbing is over the course of years or, if we’re lucky, a lifetime. Who climb not in spite of but because no one cares whether we reach the top or don’t, and there’s no money in it in either case. Who climb not to beat anything but our own idea of what we can do, after all…

Endless Autumn

A tree in fall with yellow leaves

The cool slant of late autumn light goldens up the world. The ungreened leaves twirl to the ground with a papery music and layer the bouldertops up and down the granite canyon. Amongst the dry leaf litter, under the fractal branches and unimpeachably blue sky, a few climbers play over the stoney surfaces. Winter is coming and the last mellow days of fall take on a special preciousness.

If surfers dream of an endless summer, climbers chase autumn; the pre-winter chill and low humidity make for ideal skin-on-stone friction. In the fall, the climbs we labored to complete all summer long become mere trifles. In a place like Little Cottonwood Canyon, my “backyard” crag here in Salt Lake City, late fall and early winter are the only times of year certain boulder problems can be climbed at all!

So it is that rarely frequented climbing zones begin to accumulate minor crowds in the fall. And a few times in my recent outings, I’ve run into acquaintances who, you might say, are in the late-summer of their years. A little heavier, a little slower to bounce back from injuries, yoked with more of life’s many responsibilities, these experienced climbers expressed frustration with their favorite pastime. They couldn’t do the things they used to do, and it was taking some of the fun out of things.

“Wait till you’re my age,” one of them warned.

I understood well enough. After two decades of climbing, I already have to navigate around recurring injuries and rest longer and longer between days on the rock to feel recovered. But the frustration my friends voiced, while understandable, comes from a problematic perception of the world. It comes from a holding on to expectations and to the past—something I’m always working, with varying degrees of success, to let go of myself.

It is common to think back to our best day of climbing, the day where we climbed harder than we ever thought possible, and to set that as our new expectation.

“I should be able to do this,” we might think of some route that’s giving us problems. “I did something at least this hard years ago!”

One problem with this way of thinking is that it’s not realistic. No one improves in a steady, upward line—we all move in cycles, ups and downs defined by all manner of life circumstance. But a bigger problem still is that such thinking is focused on something in the past and in our minds. Engaging in constant comparison creates dissatisfaction and wastes the short time we do have, to climb and to live.

The use of seasons to represent life stages is a familiar literary trope. Spring is youth, summer early adulthood, autumn late adulthood, and winter old age. For the climber who constantly strives to improve, grow stronger and ascend higher, the turning of life’s seasons can be an especially difficult thing. Accepting the gathering nip in the air is not in our nature.

In my blog, I often refer to Eastern philosophy or religion, and find a certain value therein. But it is not because I subscribe to any particular belief system. Instead I see the perspectives of the East as a counterweight to the dominant ideas of my own culture.

“Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” wrote Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. I do not deny the raw beauty of his sentiment. But to really be valuable, I think it should be balanced with words like those of the Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah, who said: “Letting go a little brings a little peace. Letting go a lot brings a lot of peace. Letting go completely brings complete peace.”

As Westerner with a taste for the ideas of the East, I try to climb somewhere between Thomas’ rage and Chah’s release.

What’s In A (Route) Name?

The name of a route called "Disneyland" is painted at the base of a climb in Zillertal, Austria.
The name of this route is painted right on the rock in Zillertal, Austria.

I hope you’re well. In my spare time I’ve been puzzling over a “climbing thought” question and would be interested to hear your take: When we name a boulder problem (or route), what is it that we are naming?

This was the text my friend Victor sent me the other day. Like all good questions, this one seemed simple at first glance, until I tried to pin it down. The quiddity or “whatness” of a problem or route, I’ve decided, is harder to define that one might think.

To start, it helps to pause on the fact that problems and routes do not exist in either a rock or in a person alone, but at the intersection of these two entities.

Without a person, there is just a rock, with its chaotic array of forms and facets. Without a rock, there is just a person, with her physical and mental capacities. The climber creates meaning on the rock while the rock offers a certain fulfillment for the climber.

So when naming a climb, a first ascentionist names not just a particular thing, a chunk of rock, but also an interaction with that piece of rock. But that statement is a bit vague, so you might propose that a climb is a particular sequence of movements on a specific piece of rock.

Such a definition doesn’t account for the fact that it is rare for two people to climb a route or problem in the same way. Different climbers — due to their morphology and their climbing style — will grab holds in a different order or use different holds altogether than did the first ascentionist. Further, even if several holds break on a problem or route, we rarely rename the problem, so there’s a certain plasticity to the thing being named. In either case, it is clear that when we name a problem or route, we are not naming a specific series of bodily movements or holds, but something a little broader.

With this in mind, you could say that what we’re naming is a starting point and a finishing point on a particular piece of rock.  This clears up the issue of different approaches to the same climb, but it doesn’t address what happens between the start to the finish. What’s to say that a climber couldn’t start a particular climb at point A and then, holds permitting, climb in a sweeping zigzag pattern before arriving at point B. I think the typical climber would admit this is not the route that the first ascentionist had in mind. We would probably say this zigzagging fellow has climbed another problem or route altogether, or at least a strange variation. This points to the idea of boundaries, ergo:

A problem or route is the collection of all the possible hand and foot holds a human could use, and all the possible ways a human could use them, to ascend a defined section of a particular rock.

It seems the thing we’re naming is a bit of a fuzzy character. A place, yes, and also a physical thing, but also an interaction or set of possible interactions. Add to that the fact that, over time, a climb’s name comes to encompass the shared experiences of many climbers.

As I continued to ponder, I came to feel that the thing being named is perhaps not as important as why we name it at all. For example, we name a thing to lay claim to it (as the British claimed Chomolungma/Sagarmāthā by calling it Everest); we name a thing so that we have a noun to which we can affix adjectives and other bits of information — a grade, a context, a history… ; we name in order to more easily discuss a thing; we name to indicate a certain level of importance — it’s the reason we name our pets but not our livestock, our first ascents but not the down-climbs. Perhaps most basically, most importantly, a name separates a thing from, well, everything else.

If Bachar never named Midnight Lightning, would it still be such a touchstone of climbing culture today? Or would it be just some boulder that climbers like to horse around on in Camp 4? But we can hardly imagine not naming the things that matter to us in the world. Culture abhors a name vacuum…

All of which leaves me wondering what would it be like to climb at an area without names.

Imagine visiting some far off land where your tour guide brings you to a beautiful crag full of classic routes. There, he walks you to the base of one perfect line and gives a thumbs up.

“Five stars,” he says, with an unidentifiable accent. “Soooo good.” You get on the route knowing no grade, no stories — just the moves as they present themselves, one after another. As you clip the anchors, your guide lowers you to the ground and gives you a high-five, and then takes you to the next nameless route.

Your amazing trip over, how would you talk about it to your friends back home, who’d never been there? You’d have to use descriptions: a 70-meter prow of crimpers, a steep wall of pockets. Maybe you’d realize the futility of the exercise and just let it go. The climbs were what they were, in that moment and for you. Without names, they’d lack hooks to snag on the fibers of your neural network and would dissolve into the past, where you couldn’t easily collect them or dwell on them or (gasp!) spray about them.

Who would have the guts to create a new climbing area without names?

“What’s this route called?” a visitor might ask.

“Well, it’s the third one from the left,” the local would reply.

“How hard is it?” the visitor would counter.

“It’s as hard as it is. Why don’t you give it a try?”

It sounds pretty good to me, at least in theory. What do you think? And what do you think it is we’re naming when we give a problem or route a name?

Fear, Fun, and Trying One More Time

A woman sitting below a boulder getting ready to climb

My wife Kristin is relatively new to climbing. Like most beginners, she faces regular challenges in her climbing, both physical and mental. Recently, we took a last-minute trip to the gym so she could try her project before they stripped the bouldering wall for a competition (a sign, I feel, that she has been bitten by the climbing “bug”). The problem was a tall V2 with long reaches between big handholds on a steep overhang, and she could do all the moves but the last one. Every time she got up to it, her body went slack and sagged, as if she just wanted to drop down instead of powering up to the finishing jug.

“OK, what’s wrong?” I pressed her. “The floor is twelve inches of foam padding, I’m spotting you; you’re safe! What are you afraid of?”

“I guess it’s scary because I don’t know what will happen if I fall,” she answered. “What if I hit a hold on the way down or fall out of control?”

I’ve heard this, and felt it, many times before. When we lack information, our minds fill in the blanks for us, often creating images of pain and suffering. It seems to be a human instinct — perhaps an ancient survival mechanism designed to keep us on our toes in a world full of predators and other threats. But this attachment to or fear of a picture in our minds can be as much a problem as any physical danger.

As the old saying goes, there is nothing to fear but fear itself. In a way, this is a very Buddhist sentiment. Like Kristin, most of us fear one kind of suffering and in doing so generate another.

After a half-dozen attempts and some odd advice from a very nice girl who had no problem leaping through the air and falling awkwardly to the ground, Kristin looked frustrated.

“I’m done,” she said, unlacing her shoes. “It’s just not that fun anymore.”

“Sure, if that’s what you want,” I replied. “But let me just say: I watched you, and I know you can do this problem.” To me, it was perfectly clear that she could make the move that stymied her — that the real problem wasn’t on the wall, but in her head.

Although she looked unconvinced, I guess she decided to try one more time anyway. On her next attempt, Kristin pulled through the opening moves, made a slight adjustment to her foot placement, and then simply stood up and grabbed the finishing jug, slow and in control.

She came down babbling gleefully. Watching her was like watching myself twenty years ago, and it brought back all that old excitement. When you first realize how quickly you can go from seemingly hopeless to definitely successful in climbing, it’s like discovering something new inside of yourself. You start to wonder, “If I can do that, what else can I do?”

Seeing a newer climber make such discoveries can be renewing. Who hasn’t come to the point where some blockage, mental or physical or both, seems to strip the fun out of our game on the rocks? But we should remember that “fun” is a state of mind and not a tangible object in the outside world. The goal is to find fun in as many moments as possible. Or, at least, not lose sight of the fact that fun can lie just around the corner, so to speak, in the next attempt, or the next, or the next…