Surviving A Honnold “Rest Day”

Photo of the Flatirons. Boulder, CO.

Perspective isn’t just a difference of opinion — it creates the very world we inhabit. Just as one man’s trash might literally be another man’s treasure, so is one guy’s rest-day activity another’s near-death experience. That’s what Alex Honnold is teaching me right now as he climbs away from me effortlessly, hundreds of feet up the steep slab of sandstone known as the Fifth Flatiron.

Or is it the Sixth? Are there even six Flatirons? I don’t know, and I don’t think Alex does either, but this is beside the point. The point is I’m stuck up here without a rope with a guy who free-solos 5.12 finger cracks for breakfast, I don’t trust a single hand or foothold on this whole godforsaken rock, and I’m kind of freaking out.

As I consider my next move like a chess player deep into a death-stakes match, Alex lifts his hands from the stone and deftly steps up the slab, waving his arms tightrope-walker style. I imagine he’s doing this because he wants to prove the climb is “no big deal” (Alex’s catch phrase), or maybe he’s just getting bored waiting for me, nearly paralyzed as I am by an internal voice whisper-screaming, “This was a terrible fucking idea!” I came up here hoping to glean some insights for a magazine article, but now I’m just hoping to survive.

Strangely, the sight of the world’s most accomplished free-soloist cavorting merrily on what might be the last route I ever climb does little to calm me. I settle into a stable stance on the blank stone and close my eyes. I draw breath with slow intention to slow my runaway heart rate. A cold sweat prickles my scalp and soaks my T-shirt. I chalk and re-chalk my hands with rhythmic compulsion. I hold this pose and wait for something to change inside of me.

When I finally look up, Alex is maybe 10 feet away, his eyes preternaturally round, unblinking, as dark as holes into another dimension. He’s pointing to a little flat spot to the right of my right hip.

“There, dude. That’s a pretty good foot.” It looks like a piece of shit to me, but I try to keep it cool.

“Is that what you used?” I ask, voice cracking.

“Uhm. I’m not really sure. But seriously, that’s a solid foot. No big deal.”

I size up the spot Alex has indicated. It’s the diameter of a half-dollar and only slightly less slick. I scan the surrounding rock and realize there’s no other way. I accept with sadness that this moment has become a fulcrum on which my existence rotates. If the friction holds, I will live. If it does not, or if my panic twitches me off the wall, I will go hurtling down.

“Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily,” it says in the samurai’s handbook Hagukare. “Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon … falling from thousand-foot cliffs. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.” Samurai used this tactic to dispel their fear of death, a hinderance in battle. I try to picture falling over and over, but it’s not helping. I guess it takes practice.

Suddenly, there’s a shift. Without my brain’s consent, my body moves. A quick step up onto that little spot and over. The friction holds and I’m through the simple crux and into the clear. The air in my lungs burns with limitless potential. I want to shout, but Alex makes no sign of acknowledging my momentous victory, so I tight lip it.

“C’mon, we should get down soon. Looks like there’s a storm rolling in,” he says friendly, relaxed, and then continues on. I follow him, humbled, relieved, grateful. We push to the summit and down a crumbling chimney of stone, a mini epic in its own right, to safety and a long slog to our vehicles.

It is common with the benefit of hindsight to feel as if things happened the only way they could have happened. So it is that, back on flat ground, it seems so obvious that Alex and I would have safely completed our climb. Why all the sweating? But this feeling is an illusion. Closely related to the illusion that causes certain types of people to fancy themselves invincible. Every sketchy encounter survived strengthens such beliefs. The really lucky ones live to old age having taken every risk in the book. Others experience a little face-time with death and come away with a new perspective. The unlucky never get a chance to understand how narrow the line between close call and direct hit really is.

I’ve always felt pretty well in tune with my mortality — as a kid, it kept me up many nights. A hypochondriac teenager, every time I went to the doctor’s office, I expected him to break it to me that I had cancer, AIDS, or Ebola. I once had a panic attack when I realized the sun would burn out several billion years down the line. Perhaps it’s why the fate-tempting act of free soloing never held much appeal. (The downside is all too present and the upside is nebulous at best.) Still, sitting in the front seat of my car, face smudged, fingertips raw, sweat drying to a fine layer of salt on my brow, I try something, just to see how it feels.

“No big deal,” I say to myself. With my little outing with Alex filed safely in the past, I almost believe it.

How to Spot a Climber in the Wild

As a budding young climber from Ohio in the early ’90s, I was eager to define myself as more than just another Midwestern suburbanite who bled scarlet and grey. Perhaps to feel more like a member of the tribe, I took pride in identifying climbers on the street, Sherlock Holmes style, based on telltale aspects of their appearance — chalky hands, a prAna T-shirt, a rope-worn biner for a keychain. There was something affirming in just knowing… and maybe getting a curt nod from a fellow climber who’d just performed the same analysis on me.

Two decades later, I no longer care whether other people climb or know that I climb. Nonetheless,  I’ve refined my aptitude for picking out one of my own from a crowd. Below and in no particular order, a list of climber traits you can use to profile folks based on looks alone when they’re nowhere near a crag or a gym. Spot the Climber can be a fun game to play while people watching, or a good way to strike up a convo at a boring social event with someone who shares your love of the vertical. But take heed! One must exercise caution when making assumptions, as all of these traits on their own have crossover with other activities, making them “false tells.” And, of course it’s always important to remember that our generalizations are easily shredded by those folks who don’t particularly look like climbers (too tall and lanky, too short and stocky, too much fat, not enough muscle, “wrong” clothes, etc.), but who will teach you a lesson when it comes to moving over stone and ice.

Obviously, this is an abridged list. What are some of the traits you use to identify a climber in the wild?

Battle-Damaged Hands  

The hands are the most critical body part in climbing, and they get used and abused to no end. Climbers are constantly gripping sharp or highly textured rock surfaces, leading to all manner of scrapes and flappers. Climbers’ digits often grow thicker and more knuckly with age, until they take on the appearance of overstuffed sausages and are so bound up with scar tissue and tendonitis they can barely sign the credit card receipt for a new hang board. Crack climbers’ hands are perhaps the most unsightly, with patches of raspberry-textured scabbing from getting squeezed and screwed between two immovable planes of sandpapery stone. Climbing in cold weather, plus the use of drying agents like chalk, liquid chalk, and antihydral, can lead to cracked and split skin. Finally, holding the rope while belaying transfers dirt and fine metal particles onto a climber’s hands, leading to black streaks across the middle of the palms. Oy vey!

False tell: mechanic, construction worker, craftsman

How does that saying go? The hands are a window to a climber’s soul…

Wears Approach Shoes

In order to sure-footedly scramble over rock slabs, teeter across talus fields, and even edge up sections of moderate fifth-class, climbers purchase a special sort of sneaker. From the outside, many of these “approach shoes” look no different from trail runners or even skate shoes, but a true climber knows how to spot the brands (Five Ten, La Sportiva, Scarpa, Evolv, Mad Rock, etc.) that make real approach shoes, and the gluey black rubber (with names like Vibram and Stealth) that give them their secret sticking powers.

False tell: Non-climbing outdoorsy types who shop indiscriminately at the REI sale rack, parkour practitioners

Chalky Clothes & Face

First used by gymnasts for grip on various apparati (pommel horse, rings, and bars), chalk, aka magnesium carbonate, serves as a drying agent on sweaty hands. Little surprise, then, that John Gill, godfather of modern bouldering, adopted chalk for climbing way back in 1954. Over the years, chalk has become ubiquitous enough that pretty much every climber at a crag or in a gym carries his or her own bag full of the stuff. Now every popular route and problem has a heathy trail of the stuff leading to the top, and every climber has chalk compacted beneath his fingernails, dusting his hair, forming ghostly hand prints on his clothing, and rattling around in his alveoli (“I think I’m getting the white lung, pop!” *cough cough*). One friend of mine has a funny habit of chalking up immediately before putting the rope in his teeth to make a clip, leaving him with a chalky lip that screams, “I plundered the powdered donut jar.”

False tell: Baker, cocaine addict, gymnast

The tell-tale chalk prints of recently active climber.

Carabiners on Person

The climbing carabiner as we know it today was devised by a guy named Otto around the turn of the 20th century. Originally used to connect to anchors, biners have come into popular favor and are now put to use connecting any two things that need connecting. Many climbers use retired biners to clip a leash to their dog’s collar or hold their keys. Less experienced climbers (or non-climbers) can often be seen using large, heavy, and expensive locking biners for such non-intended uses. A common sight on college campuses, for example, is a $20 locking carabiner dangling from the faux daisy chain running down the side of a The North Face backpack… you know, just in case.

False tell: Pretty much anybody

Careful there, that biner’s only rated to 22kN! (Oh, and your gate’s open…)

Lives In Boulder

The small college / mountain town of Boulder, Colorado, is one of the most climber-dense regions in the world. If someone says they are from Boulder, it is a pretty safe bet that they have a “project” at the “crag,” know how to sharpen an ice screw, or are preparing for an “objective” in the mountains.

False tell: Cyclist, endurance runner, perma-stoned college student, super-wealthy bleeding-heart liberal

F*#$ed-Up Feet

For maximum performance, rock climbers typically downsize their rock shoes. In extreme cases, this crushingly tight, down-turned footwear amounts to little more than a form self-inflected foot binding. But even when climbing shoes aren’t tight, climbing itself is a foot-intensive pursuit. Multiple pitches of tiptoeing up granite edges or torquing toes into splitter cracks will take its toll. The result is bruised, missing, or fungus-infected nails, swollen toe-knuckles, and skin discolored by the climbing shoes’ dye. Alpinists and ice climbers subject their “dogs” to a different form of abuse: frostbite. In extreme cases, this can leave toes black and necrotic, resulting in permanent damage or even amputation.

False tell: ballet dancerendurance runner, dogsled racer 

The medical term for this condition is “Climbers Foot.”

Ripped Back, Lats, and Shoulders

Under the constant strain of a rock climber’s pulling motion, shoulders, back, and latissimus dorsi muscles often tend to grow large — especially in those who boulder or sport climb. Due to this powerful upper-body physique, climber dudes are incredibly prone to removing their shirts, even when it’s cold enough for them to wear a knit beanie. Likewise, climber gals will opt for open-backed dresses or even underwear masquerading as, uh, overwear (see: Verve).

False tell: Gymnast, rower, fitness fanatic, Bruce Lee

Popeye Forearms

It is common knowledge that rock climbing’s constant grip-release motion results in overdevelopment of anterior flexor muscles of the forearm. The result is a large, veiny “Popeye” forearm  that makes it difficult to roll up one’s shirtsleeves. Big forearms, though in many cases genetic, are taken as a point of personal pride amongst the climber set, as they are emblematic of the all-important grip strength.

False tell: ice-cream scooper, professional arm wrestler, body builder

Drives a Subaru

For their generous internal capacity (think: room for packs crammed with gear, crashpads, beer coolers, and all your bros and brosephinas), off-road capabilities, high reliability marks, and relatively good fuel economy, Subaru wagons have become the chariot of choice among climbers nationwide. An informal survey suggests that “Subies” account for a full 67% vehicles in the parking lot of the Boulder Whole Foods. (Toyota pick-up trucks, Honda Elements, Audis, and fixed-gear bicycles make up the remaining 33%).

False tell: Tree hugger, liberal




Reflections On A Personal Wedding

I’ve been to a few weddings in my day. Long weddings and short weddings. Jewish weddings and Catholic weddings. Simple weddings and opulent ones. Of the two most unique weddings I’ve attended, one was secular, between two lawyers — it was full of cerebral legal metaphors and took place on the beautiful, grassy lawn of the Oakland Museum of California. The other, and I think the most unusual, was a Zen wedding, performed in a back yard in Ohio. The Roshi, or teacher, who officiated the wedding began by explaining that in Zen, there is no formal recognition of marriage. “Still,” said the robed man, “Thomas is such a great student and a great guy, I couldn’t say, ‘No.'” Looking back, there was something so very Zen about the whole scenario.

To mark the beginning of the Zen ceremony, the Roshi rang a bell, meant to rouse the attendees from the illusion of their everyday perception. Then he lead us through a lengthy series of chants. The syllables, which had no literal meaning, filled more than a full page of the little paper programs and were nearly impossible to follow. All around me, the crowd of mostly Caucasian non-Buddhists chanted away in earnest.  The act was at once strange, humorous, touching, and enlightening, which I think is a wonderful blend. I knew then that I wanted my own wedding, if ever I had one, to be likewise unique, to be representative of my passions and philosophies, as well as those of my wife. Years later, I would finally have the chance to carry out this plan.

Kristin reads her vows
Kristin, a little choked up, delivers her vows. The Reverend Tim and I are awestruck. Photo: Nick Greenwell.

On June 15th, 2012, Kristin Marine and I were married atop Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, Colorado. From the time we were engaged, our shared understanding of marriage has been that it is a vow between two people to spend a lifetime together — nothing more, nothing less. With that in mind, we decided that our wedding ceremony should be small and simple, informal, secular, in a natural setting, and that the officiant should be someone we know and who knows us. If I were to pick a word to describe my ideal wedding, it would be “honest.” In fact, our desire for a minimal wedding more than once had us ready to hang it all and head for the courthouse with a witness, the way my parents did nearly 40 years ago. But, after some discussion, we decided we wanted to do a little something after all. It just seemed right.

There were 16 people at our wedding, including Kristin and me. Of those, six were immediate family and eight were close friends. There was, as one might expect, some vague pressure to invite more people, to make the wedding something grander, but we resisted. In the end, we decided to exclude many people we love, not because we didn’t want them there, but because we didn’t want that kind of wedding.

The guests of the Marine - Roth wedding
All the guests of the Marine-Roth wedding. Photo: The Stone Mind.

For a venue, we picked the Sunrise Amphitheater atop Flagstaff Mountain, a little peak just north of the Flatirons that we used to frequent when we lived in Boulder. We made the decision quickly and without much hemming and hawing. As you follow the switchbacking, two-lane road up the minor mountain, you rise rapidly above the city and your view opens out onto the plains of the east. Along the way, you’ll likely pass a few crazed cyclists standing up on their pedals, tilting ambitiously towards the summit (on the way down, they coast as fast as the cars). There, too, hikers gambol along the winding trails, climbers dance up the towering sandstone boulders, and deer graze amongst the brittle grasses. Sunrise Amphitheater, at around 7,000 feet elevation, is a popular wedding venue. It features a classical amphitheater layout, with curving, stone bench seats in a three-quarters circle, all looking down on a central stage. Though the amphitheater is large enough to seat 150 people, we had everyone gather at the edge of the stage, to better hear Tim Erickson, the officiant, over the perpetual hiss of the high wind in the fragrant pines.

Like the venue, our choice of officiant required little deliberation. Tim is my sole friend from graduate school and a hell of a poet. He’s also a heart-on-sleeve romantic, the keeper of a bountiful sense of humor, and an English teacher unafraid to speak before an audience. When we asked him to lead our little ceremony, he agreed without hesitation and  went about getting his official credentials from the Universal Life Church. He crafted an entirely custom, secular ceremony, including a beautiful “cento,” which is a poem composed of lines from other poems. His artful words, informed by many years of marriage, were wise and honest and touching, and he delivered them with a grace that belied the fact that ours was the first wedding he’d officiated.

Stenciled wedding cup
Wedding cup of Kristin’s design. Stenciling these literally took days of effort. Spraying onto the curved, tapering surface was a logistical challenge, to say the least. Photo: The Stone Mind.

We approached our wedding the same way we approach life in general — we took what we liked from the old ways, left what we didn’t, and made up the rest. One of the traditions that we decided to stick with was the “best man” / “best woman” speeches, though we didn’t identify them as such. We simply each asked one of our friends to say something, if they wanted. Kristin’s friend Rachel donned a guitar and sang Willie Nelson’s “Everywhere I Go”, which left not a dry eye in the house. My friend of more than 20 years, Michael, pulled astutely from our many shared experiences to illustrate why Kristin would be a sure cure for my numerous, if not understandable, flaws.

Of all the things we did at our wedding, I think writing our own vows was among the most important. As I labored over mine, fearful of falling short in my role as a “wordsmith,” I came to realize that the old “in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, for better or for worse” line is, in fact, a very good one. It is hard not to come back to that type of promise. Still, I wanted my vows to be a little more personal. At first glance, the task seemed so simple — “Just say what you mean!” I implored myself while hunched over the keyboard. But, of course, there’s more to it than that. It is only when we try to make what we mean concrete, put it down in words, that we realize how unclear our meaning really is. It was hard work, mentally and emotionally, to convert love, a promise of a lifetime, into a few short paragraphs. It was a worthwhile exercise though, and one that added something of immeasurable value to the ceremony, at least for me.

Poppin' the Chandon
Poppin’ the Chandon. Photo: Nick Greenwell.

From what I have observed, a lot of people get married with the assumption that some great event is required. I read recently that the average cost of a wedding in the United States is now $25,000. I can only imagine that romantic movies, the burden of tradition, and the flourishing commercial wedding industry’s marketing engine have conspired to convince us that cost = value. (Which is, of course, not necessarily the case.) In the end, our wedding was, for us, as close to perfect as a wedding could be — a moment set aside for a dame and a fella to say some important things to each other before a small collection of loved ones. I cannot think of anything more there should be to a wedding.

The cake, courtesy of Boulder’s own Tee & Cakes, with a design inspired by Kristin’s paintings. Photo: The Stone Mind.

I am grateful and a little surprised that it all worked out as well as it did. I like to think it was a testament to our decision to do things our own way, and not be swayed too much by tradition or the expectations of others. But realistically I think it was good old-fashioned preparation, some help from our friends and family, and also luck. (For example, had the wedding been a week later, our venue would have likely been smoked out by raging wildfires.)

If, after reading this, even one couple is emboldened to create the wedding they want — rather than the wedding they think they should want or the wedding their family would prefer — I will consider this post a success. If the wedding you want is no wedding at all, more power to you. Same goes for those who genuinely want a big, sassy, opulent wedding. You cannot lose for following your heart. After all, what responsibility do we have in life but to make a world of the sort we want to live in. In every decision and every moment, we have a new chance to do just that.

It was a good day
It was a good day. Photo: Richard Roth.

Special thanks to Kristin Marine Roth, Herb and Kathy Marine, Aaron and Brock Marine, Richard and Susan Roth, Tim and Camille Erickson, Ted Chubb and Rachel Ryll, Nick Greenwell and Robin Maslowski, Michael Driskill and Rebecca Resnick Driskill, and to all the friends and family who weren’t present in body but who were there in our heart. We love you all!