The missus and I headed down for some bouldering in Moe’s Valley this Thanksgiving weekend. The mornings were cold and the middays and afternoons just right, bordering on too warm. For much of the day, the naked sun created a sharp contrast in the scrubby desert landscape that lent itself nicely to black-and-white imagery. Here, a little gallery following Kristin (and our dog Pebble) through a day at the boulders. Did you get out this Thanksgiving weekend?
The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
I stare into the glow. My mind races. Images and words scroll by without end. The river of information, of which I see only one tiny rivulet, rages on, a mighty Ganges of human experience from the absurd to the sublime.
As I scan, my mind dances through a chaotic jumble of emotions: delight (kittens, baby sloths), envy (pics from friends’ exotic vacations and climbing trips), annoyance (knee-jerk political posts, chronic over-sharing), frustration (all the intractable problems of humanity’s own making), confusion (what does it all mean?!)… . There is so much information “out there,” but staring into the screen only pushes me deeper into my own head, creating a cacophony of disembodied voices and stoking a sourceless anxiety that feels all too real.
I set down my phone (does anyone else think it’s ridiculous to call these things “phones” anymore?) and drive up into the nearby canyons of the Wasatch. I park my car and walk away from the road as quickly as possible, rock-hoping up a steep talus slope towards a different headspace.
An hour of slow plodding later, perched on a high boulder with the noise of the road a faint shush, I get a view out across the facing slope of the canyon and to higher peaks in the distance. A large bird lands on the twisted old branch of a long-dead tree and watches me across a wide expanse of open air. We sit like this for minutes, both of us the most recent representatives of our respective, billions-of-years-old evolutionary trees. The scale of this place starts to pull my gaze out towards the world, away from my own special blend of worries and desires. The considerations that earlier had filled my entire awareness now feel small and inconsequential.
“How important is a constant intercourse with nature and the contemplation of natural phenomena to the preservation of moral and intellectual health!” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his journal back in 1851. Sitting on a plank of granite, feeling its cool rasp, following the acute green arrows of a hundred thousand pine trees all pointing in unison towards distant peaks and cloudless skies, I cannot help but agree.
Now the metaphors of the natural world begin to present themselves. There are lessons in the talus fields (something about chain reactions and unintended consequences). There is meaning in the bushwhack (a funny realization that you can only really be off-trail if you have a destination in the first place). Looking out over a landscape marked only faintly by human passage, I start to get the sense that the separation between “here” and “there,” between “me” and “it” is much fuzzier than it felt just hours before. Like the moon in the daytime sky, these realizations were always present, just hidden.
My phone is in my pocket, just in case: maybe I’ll score a selfie with the local moose, or need to call for help when that seemingly stable talus block shifts ever so slightly onto my tibia. Later, I’ll use it to map the coördinates of the boulder I found, as big as a McMansion, near the top of the ridge. Later still I’ll open up my laptop and start typing this blog post. I’ll use Google to find that Emerson quote I was thinking of and to look up the etymology of the world talus (disappointingly, it’s French for “embankment”). There’s nothing inherently wrong with the world of the screen, after all, just the eyes with which we regard it.
That night, half asleep in my room with the window open, the crickets chirp so loudly and in such synchrony that for a moment I think the neighbors alarm system has been triggered. A stormy wind respirates the curtain in and out. Thunder rolls back and forth across the sky. The trick of taking lessons from nature is, I think, carrying them with us wherever we go: at home, to the office, in the subway, on the airplane. It’s keeping the perspective that nature offers us on our tiny but integral place in this world and on the even tinier worries that loom large until we hold up a finger and realize they’re no bigger than our thumbnail and no closer than the moon.
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?
“I expected it to be bigger,” I say.
“Yeah, me too…” my wife responds.
We stand at Rozel Point, in Utah’s Box Elder County, where Robert Smithson’s famous earthwork strikes out into the shallow, super-saline waters of the Great Salt Lake. The work comprises over 6,000 tons of black basalt and earth taken from the surrounding landscape, arranged into a 1,500-foot long spiral that looks precisely like a fiddlehead fern. Smithson and a team of workers with heavy machinery built the great shape in 1970, before either of us was born.
To get here, we drove north from Salt Lake along the still snow-capped Wasatch mountains, past gravel mines and oil refineries, grain silos and endless miles of fenced-in farmlands, past small towns full of people who’ve never heard the name Robert Smithson. Past ATK, “a world-leading producer of ammunition, precision weapons and rocket motors,” and the Golden Spike National Historic Site, where the rails of the Union and Central Pacific Railroads were joined in 1869.
For most of the trip out to the Jetty, signs of human industry and habitation are unavoidable, persistent. But on the last stretch of fenceless gravel road, surrounded on all sides by open grassland spotted with scrubby brush, you could be almost anywhere or in any time if it weren’t for the dark clusters of cattle with their fluorescent ear tags.
Loitering in the hillside parking lot overlooking the Jetty, we speak briefly with some reporters from a local newspaper who came out for the same reason we did: to watch the “Return to the Sea,” the culmination of Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto’s salt-based installation piece at Westminster College.
“I’ve lived in Utah my entire life and have never been out here,” one of the reporters says.
During his brief stay in Salt Lake City, Yamamoto meticulously created a huge, labyrinthine pattern on the floor of Westminster’s science center using only a squeeze bottle and monastic patience. After a few weeks, the piece was swept up for a symbolic return to the source—in this case the Great Salt Lake, which was once an inland sea. (I wrote an essay about the installation for the blog dxMag. You can read it here.)
Now, a large group of students and other folk carrying the remains of Yamamoto’s work in baggies and boxes and tubs unceremoniously flings the crystals into the water, shouting and laughing. It’s more of an undirected celebration than a contemplative gesture. Still, I imagine Yamamoto must be happy to enter into such an artistic dialogue with the legendary Smithson, even if neither man is directly present for it.
After an hour or so, the group departs and the Jetty almost immediately feels like a place out of time, a bridge between nature the familiar creations of human ingenuity. This simple shape, set in an expanse of salt and mud and mirror-like water tinged red by bacteria, somehow blurs the lines that normally separate and define. Is the Jetty natural or man-made? And what’s the difference, really? “The flowing mass of rock and earth of the Spiral Jetty could be trapped by a grid of segments,” wrote Smithson wrote, “but the segments would exist only in the mind or on paper.”
The space surrounding the jetty is littered with the remnants of old industry. In describing the site in his 1972 essay “The Spiral Jetty,” Smithson mentions a wooden hut that “could have been the habitation of ‘the missing link.’” On our visit, the hut is no longer, though its decrepit wooden pilings remain, as does a rust-corroded steel ball sunk partway into the muck. “This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes,” Smithson writes.
At the same time, Smithson saw an eons-old palimpsest when he looked out into the horizon at Rozel Point: “The products of a Devonian industry, the remains of a Silurian technology, all the machines of the Upper Carboniferous Period were lost in those expansive deposits of sand and mud.”
Like a musician with synesthesia (or perhaps like one under the influence of LSD), who sees shapes and colors with every note, Smithson experienced the site for the Jetty in his viscera, “it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake.”
As we walk down into the jetty and trace its course on foot, its spiral form breaks down. We are too close to see it whole. Instead, we see the arcs of the spiral as rough forms mirroring the mountain ranges on the distant horizon. We see black rocks, belchings of a long exhausted volcano, with white and yellow and green rings of salt crystals grown up in delicate papery fringes around their peripheries.
We stand out on the salt flats around the Jetty and look back. The sculpture appears bigger now. On the blank canvas of the flats, perspective changes every couple of steps. “The scale of the Spiral Jetty tends to fluctuate depending on where the viewer happens to be,” Smithson explained, and we experienced his observation repeatedly throughout the day.
Another excellent place from which to experience the uniqueness of the Great Salt Lake is Antelope Island, some 30 miles southeast of the Spiral Jetty. But here, looking out into the expanse, there is little to connect our humanity to the place. Everything is background, with no subject. Smithson’s spiral gives us a subject, uses the materials of the place and the tools and mind of human intention to offer a subject, at once natural and unnatural, through which we can enter and participate in this particular bit of geography. Like Wallace Stevens’ jar on a hilltop in Tennessee, “the wilderness rose up to it, and sprawled around, no longer wild.”
The Spiral Jetty, nothing more than a bit of rock arranged, is also a portal—a reminder that we are no more out of history than the dinosaurs who once dwelt here. We, dear reader, just happen to be at the current tip of history, soon to be subsumed in its ever-spiraling line.
My personal experience of The Spiral Jetty was moving, but not dark or fatalistic, which is why I was surprised to read Smithson’s own words on the piece. “On the slopes of Rozel Point I closed my eyes, and the sun burned crimson through my lids. I opened them and the Great Salt Lake was bleeding scarlet streaks,” he wrote. And, “Perception was heaving, the stomach turning, I was on a geologic fault that groaned within me.” It was if the place wracked him with an existential dread. I couldn’t help but recall Meursault’s walk on the beach in The Stranger:
Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.
Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift.
It left me glad that the intent of the artist and the experience of the art are, if not entirely, then mostly separable. I tend to prefer the more Eastern perspective on time and mortality in Motoi Yamamoto’s artwork. He, like Smithson, uses the symbol of the spiral, but in a purified form and isolated indoors, to be destroyed in a controlled manner. The Spiral Jetty was meant to be slowly eroded by the work of weather and tides, by nature in all its entropic messiness.
It’s as if the two artists and the natural world are all saying the same thing, only in different languages.