Taking A Break

Panorama of the lighthouse at Fort Williams Park

Every Tuesday for a year and a half, I’ve posted a short essay here. Most of them have revolved around the intersection of climbing, outdoor life, psychology, and philosophy. One blog a week probably doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you have a busy desk job and a home life and a persistent climbing habit, putting in four or five hours a week to write something that you’re not even sure anyone will read and that you’re certain won’t make you any money can, at times, wear on one’s spirits. Still, it’s a labor of love, as they say, and always worth it in the end. I learn something (and not always what I expected) with every post.

But this week, I’m going to phone it in. Why? Because right now I’m on vacation. It’s the first real vacation—during which I sleep late and hang out by the ocean and don’t check work emails—I’ve taken in a while. And you know what? It feels good… important, even.

So I’m not going to offer up any climbing-themed life metaphors or decision trees or top-10 lists this week. This is it—a picture of a lighthouse by the ocean here in Maine and a message to you: If you’re a working stiff, a go-getter with dreams of saving (or dominating) the world, a driven soul who reads and studies and collects experiences like there’s no time to waste, you need to take a break from time to time. It’s as true in general life as it is in climbing. Without rest, there can be no recovery. Without stepping back and away, we can’t achieve that all-important broader perspective.

So what will my perspective be after this little reprieve? I can’t really say. But that’s the point, after all…

What Kind of Roadtripmobile is Right for You?

My friend Rick told me he planned to get a Sportsmobile, a converted van with features like four-wheel drive, sleeping accommodations for four, a heating system with thermostat, even a water tank complete with outdoor shower attachment. It’s basically a pint-sized RV with serious off-road capabilities. Even used, Sportsmobiles aren’t cheap, but it’s worth it to Rick because that’s the way he spends his free time. For me, a Sportsmobile would be overkill. I love to get out, but my wife and I are more day-trippers, only camping occasionally. We drive a Honda Element, which allows plenty of room for gear and crashpads, and allows us a place to sleep in relative comfort without setting up a tent and inflating our sleeping pads.

The longer I spend in the climbing world, the more roadtripmobile options I see, each suited to a particular need or lifestyle. Popped tops, raised sleeping platforms, tailgate cabana tent attachments, etc. On the modest end of the spectrum, you’ll find people who sleep in pretty much any vehicle. (I spent several seasons crashing in the parking lot of Miguel’s Pizza in my Honda Accord, rear seats folded forward and feet shoved into the trunk.) On the extreme other end lies the 52-foot long all-terrain mobile command truck called the KiraVan, brainchild of Bran Ferren, former R&D head for Disney’s Imageneering Department. Most of us fall in the middle.

To help you find the roadtripmobile that suits your needs, dear reader, I’ve put together this handy decision tree. May it help lead you to the right-sized vehicle of your road-tripping dreams… sort of.

Roadtripmobile decision tree

Inside Out

Mountains in the Wasatch

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.

Plaid Free

Plain in a land of plaid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Psicocomp Just Make Speed Climbing Cool?

Climbers racing to the top at the 2014 Psicocomp deep water soloing competition

Competitors gunning for the top at the 2014 Psicocomp in Park City, Utah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prime Movers: Who Were Your Climbing Influences?

Klem Loskot deep water soloing in Spain. Screengrab from Dosage Vol. II.

“Suddenly the ground goes to the side and there is just sky.” Klem Loskot goes deep. bigupproductions.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blocks Pushing into Space

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

Chris Schulte following the tao of Indian Creek blocs.

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

IC-blocs-3way

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

schulte_IC_bloc_1

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

schulte_IC_bloc_3

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

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

schulte_IC_bloc_2

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

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

 

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

A Climb for What Ails You

Couch crusher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re Probably Not A Great Belayer

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

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

The Good, the Bad, and the Oblivious

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

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

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

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

The Problem with N00bs

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

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

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

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

Have You Ever Been Experienced?

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

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

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

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

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

The Good News

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

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

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

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

 

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

Climbing Season

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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