Tag Archives: bouldering

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.

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.

 

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…

Everyday Climbing

Jason Danforth on The Mercy Seat, New River Gorge, West Virginia. Photo: Teddy Au

The new fall air was just starting to settle into the Salt Lake Valley, so I took a quick solo trip up Little Cottonwood Canyon to boulder. After topping out a tall problem, I walked down the backside of the formation, taking precautions not to catch a toe. Even a minor slip up on that sloping surface could have been very unpleasant, likely funneling me down into a pit of angular blocks and ankle-snapping tree roots.

So I was very aware of my body as I moved, as aware as when I had been while climbing the problem itself, and it occurred to me that the walk-off was still a part of the climb. The climbing mindset of focused, unselfconscious awareness, fluid motion paired with steady breath, continued here.

Back on my bouldering pad, unlacing my shoes, the nerves of my fingertips hummed the chords of the rough rock. I straightened my spine and regarded the wind, visible in the wobble of the sun-lit leaves. This too, was a part of the climb.

All at once it was clear that the boundary between “life” and “climbing” is actually quite fuzzy, if not imaginary, and that we probably should resist the urge to divide the two. It made sense to me that we should climb as if eating breakfast — just an everyday thing. Also, we should live our everyday lives as if climbing in some wild place — it is an extraordinary thing.

A lot of accidents happen on the descent from or the approach to a climb, on some easy fourth-class scramble, on the drive to or from climbing, even around the house. I think this is because we let our awareness slacken and treat what we’re doing in the moment as an aside, thus becoming more vulnerable to the mundane catastrophes of the world.

With or without the distractions of the digital era, most of us are just barely aware of ourselves or our surroundings during the day. We run on autopilot, focused on fears and fantasies projected onto the screens of our minds.

One thing that most people mention when talking about climbing is the nowness they experience while doing it, the stilled thoughts and clarity of being. It’s not always like this, of course; we can be scared or bored while climbing, exhausted or preoccupied with problems from work or home. But climbing’s mental and physical challenges can help quiet the noise of what Shunryu Suzuki calls our “monkey mind.”

Where do you draw the line between the climb and your life? Do you write on your Facebook page things like, “In the office, dreaming of climbing”? You are saying that your time in the office is not really living, and that you will live your life at some future moment, and under some special circumstances. This doesn’t seem right to me. I think it’s much better to be in the office (or at a family reunion, or the DMV, or wherever) as if you were on a climb.

Don’t wait for the rock to fulfill you; the rock can only show you what is already there. Carry the stone inside your mind. Let it be part of your life at every moment.

How to Make a Climbing Movie

make_a_climbing_movie

Video is all the rage these days, and thanks to increasingly affordable and powerful cameras, not to mention social media and the mobile web, the barrier to filmmaking stardom is thinner than at any time in the history of planet Earth. If you like climbing and you have a DSLR, there really is no good reason to wait. All you need is a subject (a strong-ish climber and a good route or problem), an afternoon, and a laptop with a pirated copy of Final Cut. That, coupled with the following 10-step structure will help you make a hot vid that’ll get you rich, 100% guaranteed.*

1. Set the scene… - Slider footy of beautiful natural places surrounding the climbing area. (“Footy” is slang for “footage,” if you’re not in the know.)  If you can’t afford a slider, a simple pan will suffice, I guess… but you should really get a slider.

Bonus footy: Grab a time-lapse of sunrise, clouds zooming over crag. 

2. Hi, my name is…  - Sit your subject(s) down in front of idyllic landscape or at least a nice-looking tree. Have them say the following: “Hi, my name is [name], I’m from [location], and I’ve been climbing for [number of years]. Cut interview footage with shots of your climber getting geared up: pulling on shoes, tying in, brushing holds, etc. Pro tip: Be sure to bring your sticks (aka tripod) for rock-solid talking-head shots.

Bonus footy: Have your climber tell the story of how he / she started climbing at a friend’s climbing gym birthday party, or whatever.

3. Introduce the area - Show images of the crag — shallow depth of field always a plus — and splice in close-ups of running water, birds in trees, common insects, and / or grass blowing in a field (this is called B-roll in the biz… hey, you got that slider, right?). Have your climber endorse the area: “[Area X] is one of my favorite places. I’ve been climbing here for [number of seasons], and the routes / problems are as good as anything else I’ve seen. [Something positive about the rock and / or local culture].

Bonus footy: Throw focus (i.e., make the image blurry and then sharp) a bunch.

4. Introduce super rad route / problem - Have your climber say something along these lines: “This one route / problem in particular really caught my attention — it’s called [route / problem name] and it’s about [grade]. It follows a super aesthetic line. It’s really classic…” Etc.

Bonus footy: Have your climber drop some knowledge about the route / problem history: the original route developer / first ascentionist / funny story behind the climb’s name.

5. Capture the struggle - Show your climber trying and failing on the route / problem over and over again. You almost can’t show too much failure, as it simply builds the suspense (“Will he / she send?!”). In a bouldering video, it is good to show the climber falling on every move of the problem two or three times. Have your climber show the camera his / her chalky, calloused, possibly bloody fingers as proof of dedication.

Bonus footy: Show us a real-life wobbler — a fully grown man / woman screaming obscenities, kicking a wall of solid stone, or whipping his / her chalk bag, all because he / she was unable to climb up a rock.

6. Show progress - Show the climber linking sections of the climb, but make sure he / she still repeatedly falls at the crux. We need to taste the excitement of a possible send before it actually happens. At this point, the climber should describe the crux section or sections: “The crux is really tricky and powerful — it involves a [shallow mono-pocket / skeezy knee bar / all-points-off slab dyno to double fist jams]. After that, you get a quick shake and then have to [fight the barn door / make a blind toss to a razor-sharp undercling / execute a full bat hang]. The finishing jug is guarded by [the world's smallest crimper / a below-the-waist lock-off on a completely natural five-mono "bowling ball" hold / a rabid Chihuahua].”

Bonus footy: In the middle of this section, show your climber breaking off a key hold and then shouting, “Shit!” [dramatic pause] “[Sigh…] I don’t know if it even goes any more.” Fade to black…

7. Build the dramatic arc higher - Show your climber triumphantly working through the crux against all odds. If you got the broken-hold money shot in the previous step, make sure to show your climber working out a new-and-improved sequence. A glimmer of hope when everything seems darkest.

Bonus footy: Candid shot of your climber sitting alone, eyes closed in meditative silence, methodically rubbing chalk into his / her fingers.

8. Witness the fitness - Cut to your climber setting out on the route / problem from the beginning, but this time be sure to up the volume on the music track (hip hop or electronic, preferably), to signal something sick is about to go down. Multiple angles (from above, from the side, from the ground) will allow the audience to experience the movement in a sort of 3-D hyper-reality. Close-ups of fingers and toes grasping tiny edges and pockets are key to show the viewer that, No, those are not jugs. Tight shot on the climber’s face as he / she grasps the finishing hold and hoots or yodels in victory.

Bonus footy: Get creative — super-slow-mo or GoPro POV footage add “depth” to your “story.”

9. Coming back down - All that training and paleo dieting paid off, so be sure to nail a shot of relieved joy on your climber’s face as he / she is lowered to the ground / stands atop the boulder with arms raised in victory. Interview footage here would include phrases like, “I’m so psyched to be able to climb this [awesome route / rad problem]; it really filled the aching void in my soul,” “That was pretty sick, for sure, but I’m a badass so I never really doubted it would go down. In fact, I’m surprised it took as long as it did,” or, “I’m glad that’s done; now I can eat a burrito.”

Bonus footy: Fist bumps for everyone.

10. And… scene - A few good cuts of everyone packing up their gear and cracking brewskis. Grab that time-lapse footage of the sun coming up and just flip it to create a sunset / feeling of closure. The climber should offer some heart-warming nugget of wisdom like, “You know, sending felt really good, but just spending a day out with good friends is the best part. It’s really special…” Classic heroic journey drama set in nature. It’s in the bag.

Bonus footy: If your video has any sponsors, now’s a good time to put their logos on screen. Go ahead and thank mom and dad for getting you your camera, while you’re at it…

–––––

*Not guaranteed.

 

Bouldering Alone

When from our better selves we have too
Been parted by the hurrying world, and
Sick of its business, of its pleasures
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude

— William Wordsworth, The Prelude

LCC_solo

For the most part, climbing is a pursuit of two or more individuals—climber and belayer is a typical arrangement—and many a word has been written about this unique relationship. Among climbers, few things are held in higher regard than the so-called brotherhood of the rope, the mutual trust and interdependence of two people whose fates are literally tied together. (On the other side of this equation, few things are less appealing than partnering with one you do not fully trust or respect, or with whom you share no natural connection or understanding. At best, such a pairing is annoying; at worst it’s dangerous.)

Bouldering is a particularly social sort of climbing. Many boulderers feed off the energy of a small crew and push higher and harder when cheered on by others. It is not uncommon for a herd of boulderers to descend on an unassuming rock, liberally pad every inch of exposed ground, flick on an iPod speaker, and commence to crack some brewskis. Such gatherings are as much about hanging out as they are about climbing, which is all well and good, but…

But bouldering is also a perfect activity for those seeking solitude, as long as you can manage to find some rock away from the crowds, which isn’t always easy. In such settings, I seek reprieve from the ceaseless piling on of responsibilities that grows only heavier as years advance. A man “must sequester and come again to himself,” writes Montaigne in his essay “Of Solitude.” For me, few things are as suited this task as a cool day among the smaller stones, the trees and sky, where the only sound of humanity is the distant passing of a car, or not even that, if I am lucky.

One short week has passed since images of the bomb-ravaged Boston Marathon and the smoking ruins of a Texas fertilizer plant filled the news. Only a few months since the Newtown school shooting. North Korea continues to posture, Guantanamo is still open, the drones are buzzing, the gun lobby screeching, half the nation cries for one thing while the other half cries for the opposite. Deaths in the family, work overflows its nine-to-five boundaries, the lawn needs mowing, the dog wants a walk… sometimes, I find, a solo mission to the boulders is as necessary as sustenance or sleep.

I drive into the canyon known as Little Cottonwood, its spring-lush slopes littered with pale granite blocks cast off from the soaring slabs above. A slow Sunday, cool and breezy, I park on the snaking road’s narrow shoulder and wander into the trees, just as two other climbers take their leave for the day.

Perfect.

I lay down my old crash pad, faded by sun and chalk dust and beaten soft by the repeated compression of falling bodies. There is no one here for me to converse with or consider. The air is free of ego or competitive spirit, of the half-urge to make a connection or ask some question.

Alone, the simple acts, typically done with haste and mind churning on some distant task, expand to fill my consciousness. Tying my laces, arranging the pad with the predicted plumb line of my fall, placing the pointed toe of my climbing shoe on a little cluster of crystalline points. Without distraction, I explore the granite texture with my fingertips and consider its implications. I begin to puzzle out these physical koans, minutely controlling seldom-used muscle groups and the position of limbs in space. Such thought just to move! But the mind can only get you so far; the body must come to its own understanding.

A quick rest. Chalk particles dance in an angled bar of sun. I taste my water, lukewarm and metallic as it rolls from the lip of this old stainless steel bottle. Thoughts traverse the space of my mind, twirling, frictionless, and disappear. I reside in each dust-laced breath like a yogi. Maybe on this day I climb better than usual. Maybe I complete the climb I’ve been working on…

Or not. Either way. In solitude, it’s easier for everything to be just right, or to be alright with everything.

But the real trick is to carry that self-contained peace of solitude back into the world of people, to hold it, undisturbed like a fragile, gem-like flame in the wind and chaos. That’s the long game, but in the meantime, a quiet wood and a fine chunk of granite to puzzle over will do.

 

 

Connecting the Dots: Climbing and the Creation of Meaning

Rat Rock in Central Park. Photo: © Andy Outis - andyoutis.com

Rat Rock in Central Park. Photo: © Andy Outis – andyoutis.com

White chalk patches speckle the dark grey schist of Rat Rock. Sunlight streaming through the leaves layers another pattern on top of the first. Horns honking, jackhammers chattering, radios squawking, passersby conversing, cyclists chirring, flocks of pigeons exploding into flight… Central Park can be chaotic.

But on Rat Rock, a block of stone the approximate size and shape of a single-family home that’s been partially squashed, I met a middle-aged Japanese guy named Yuki who slowly but surely worked to create order on the boulder’s surface.

I first encountered Yuki in the late 1990s, when I was a college student at NYU. On my early visits to Rat Rock, he was there: wiry and hollow-chested, forearms snaked with muscle. He had short-cropped black hair and a stout mustache and wore a T-shirt, slacks, and an old pair of black and green Boreal rock shoes to climb.

Smooth and choreographed, he climbed as if performing a vertical Tai Chi. Every move was perfectly calibrated for balance, so he could reach from one tiny edge to the next without having to jump or swing or snatch. He was quiet and unobtrusive, but if prompted, Yuki would offer sage snippets of climbing wisdom to the young, graceless climbers like me as we yanked on the holds like we wanted to take them home as souvenirs.

“Center your hips. Pull more with your toes. Hold less but reach farther.”

So thoroughly had Yuki explored the possibilities of Rat Rock that he eventually took to climbing in patterns, geometric shapes. One day, he suggested I join him in this new challenge.

“Try to climb in circles.” He said, and proceeded to show me a path of concentric rings he’d discerned connecting the chalky dots. First a tight circle in the center of the face, then a larger circle encompassing that, and a larger one still, never touching the ground. I tried, but found myself unmotivated. Yuki’s circles seemed overly contrived, and the lack of a grade probably made them less appealing, too. But now, more than a decade later, they make more sense to me.

Climbing a rock is undeniably arbitrary. When we set our sites on a mountain or a piece of stone, we overlay logic onto something random. We see the potential for movement, for a challenge, but the surfaces themselves are meaningless. The climb exists only at the intersection of stone, body, and mind — not in any of these alone.

The universe is chaotic and is growing ever more so (see: the second law of thermodynamics) – this chaos has shaped our brains, trained them to hunt for order and patterns as a means of survival. It’s how we learned to predict the motions of the bison across the plains and how best to hunt them. Perhaps it is even the same reason we painted the bison’s likeness on the walls of caves. It’s why we see familiar objects in the shapes of clouds and human faces in the knotty grain of a wooden fence. It’s why we name the world and map it. Why we make music and formulate equations. The act of ordering offers a comforting sense of understanding and control.

“Through art, create order out of the chaos of living,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote. Like art, climbing is an act of creation. Through climbing, create order out of the chaos of stone.

Hueco Lessons

Hueco Tanks

I tendered my resignation via email from the computer in the Hueco Rock Ranch.

The year was 2007, and I found myself stranded in the Texas desert. My flight back to Ohio, back to my job writing words I didn’t mean for companies I didn’t care about, had been delayed due to ice storms slicking the country’s midsection. The upshot was a few extra days spent among the cactus and creosotebush, honey mesquite and soaptree yucca. I got to see the rock art of Cave Kiva and the Starry Eyed Man with his unique green pigment. With held breath, I spied a family of mowhawked javelina trotting through low vegetation. From the front deck of the Rock Ranch, I regarded the star-sprayed flank of the universe, sublime in the crystalline February night, and the neon yellow and orange sunrise in the morning. As I climbed, my bones and sinew played a tune on the textures of eons-old syenite porphyry like the needle of a music box clicking over its patterned wheel.

How could I go on doing something that didn’t inspire me in a world where places like this exist? I knew I had to make my way towards something more fulfilling, even if that meant multiplying the uncertainty in my life. I sat down at the small desk by the door of the Ranch and clacked together an explanation of my decision for my boss, certain in a way I rarely have been in my life.

What I take from this story is the power of a place like Hueco, where all kinds of time — geologic, cultural, and personal — intersect on an extra-dimensional plane not unlike “The Dreaming” aboriginal Australians speak of. I’ve felt a similar intensity of being in places all over the country and the world. Looking out over the autumn fire of trees gone red, yellow, and orange in the Shawangunks in upstate New York; staying in the deserted Mount Stapylton Campground in Australia’s Grampians National Park; hiking the serpentine trails of Antelope Island, populated with long-eared jackrabbits, bison, and antelope like some sort of parallel reality afloat in a great saline lake.

In a 2012 New York Times article, Eric Weiner talks of “thin places” — spots where the atmosphere separating heaven and earth narrows so much we can see to the other side. In such locales, Weiner writes, “for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again.”

“Thin places are often sacred ones,” the article goes on. It lists churches and mosques rich with history. Other thin places on Weiner’s list include airports, bars, Rumi’s tomb, the Buddhist village of Boudhanath, in Nepal… All very human places — places made by our hands and our conscious ingenuity. I too have felt a transcendental pulse in such places, but more often I find it in coördinates that evince little trace of human busywork.

This year I returned to Hueco for the first time since I wrote my resignation email. As I circumnavigated the giant jumble of textured stone known as East Mountain, our tour guide offered to take us to another of the area’s ancient petroglyphs.

“Can we please hurry up and get to the rocks you climb instead of the rocks with drawings on them?” said one of the other climbers on the tour, sounding like a spoiled kid. It pulled me out of the moment and reminded me that we climbers must approach the beautiful places where we ply our trade with eyes, minds, and hearts open. From the most broke dirtbags to the richest trustafarians, we do ourselves and each other a disservice when we climb with nothing but the masturbatory self-satisfaction of ticking projects in our hearts. We must remember that reverence and respect don’t stifle the mood of climbing but deepen it. In an era of rapid growth in our little sport, the time to live and teach this lesson is evermore upon us.

At Hueco, regulations abound. You can’t climb until the park is open and you must be out before 6 p.m. You need guided tours to travel in most of the park and must reserve spots for self-guided tours in the rest. Newcomers are required to watch a 20-minute instructional video before entering the park and several of the most popular areas — the Mushroom Boulder being only the most recent — are closed indefinitely to protect the fragile environment and cultural artifacts. Climbers, like artists, are an individualistic bunch. We chafe against rules and restrictions — I’m certainly no exception, but I also believe in the strange magic of places like Hueco. For me, the thing that makes such places thinner than the those I inhabit on a day-to-day basis is their natural state, the possibility of solitude, and the lingering echoes of eons past.

As climbers, we find ourselves in such places more often than most, and more than most we should respect and defend them. Thin places are keys to understanding important things, though what those things are differs greatly from person to person.

Back in 2007, Hueco helped me to see deeper into myself and make a simple decision that I’ve never really doubted since. “In thin places, we become our more essential selves,” Weiner writes. Once you realize such places exist, it’s no waste to spend the rest of your life questing to find them again and again.

The Language of Stars

Boulders and stars, Triassic, UT.

If the stars should appear but one night every thousand years how man would marvel and stare.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

This Friday I turned 34. Other than that fact that the first and second digits are consecutive, it was not a particularly significant birthday. Rather than throw a party in honor of the occasion, Kristin and I packed our trusty Honda Element and headed south and east of Salt Lake City, to a bouldering spot called Triassic, which feels every bit as prehistoric as the name would imply.

Located between the rural town of Elmo (pop. 368) and the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, site of “the densest concentration of Jurassic-aged dinosaur bones ever found,” Triassic is a desert sandstone bouldering area comprised of a few caches of rock in what was once an ancient seabed. The feeling one gets in this desolately beautiful spot is one of timelessness, as if a herd of Allosaurus fragilis might at any moment come lumbering over the crest of a hill.

Triassic: the land that time forgot

Although the environs at first appear lifeless, an attentive eye will pick out the movement of many a creature — little rock-crawling lizards, chipmunks, jack rabbits, and even antelope — all camouflaged in the dusty tones of the landscape. Humans tend to be the least represented creatures in Triassic. Which is half the reason why Kristin and I chose the spot in the first place. We went there to climb, but also to spend the night isolated in a more wild setting, enjoy a celebratory drink in front of a camp fire, and, among my favorite pastimes in nature, stargaze.

That night, the stars were out in their full regalia. By 11pm, the sun was long gone, the moon had not yet crested the horizon, and all the constellations were razor-sharp and twinkling. Through the middle of the sky was a broad swath of diffuse light, the combined glow of billions of stars forming the spiral-armed Milky Way, seen from on edge like a cosmic Frisbee hurtling towards us.

Communing with the campfire

Dinosaur fossils, the pictographs of ancient civilizations, great geologic landscapes like the Grand Canyon or the Himalaya, the open ocean — all of these are magical to behold, but nothing puts a person in his or her tiny, insignificant place quite like a full-blown sky full of stars, viewed on a clear cold desert night.

To each observer, the vast starscape becomes a celestial Rorschach test. What we see in the unfathomable vastness is a testament to what our hearts most want to see. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “How is it they live in such harmony the billions of stars – when most men can barely go a minute without declaring war in their minds about someone they know.” To him, stars were an example from God of how humans can better carry out their lives. Marcus Aurelius saw them as exemplary of a realm above and beyond petty human concerns: “Look round at the courses of the stars, as if thou wert going along with them; and constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another; for such thoughts purge away the filth of the terrene life.” Van Gogh said simply “The sight of the stars makes me dream.”

Basic view of the Milky Way

To me, the stars serve as proof that we’re the center of nothing in particular, and that our actions leave not a scratch on the broad side of the universe. In the Zen tradition, they remind me to take “serious” things more lightly, and “small” things more seriously, and remember that our only legacy is the example we set in this life, and our ultimate return to the elemental star dust of which we’re made.

The next morning when we woke, the stars had once again disappeared behind the blue veil of the sky. We approached the day with no particular goal in mind. Alone, in the desert, with some water and a few crash pads, we set off walking to see what we could see. But the stars had left their faint impression in our minds and, at least for a little while, we would follow their example.

Photo Friday: Southeast Bouldering Moderates – Part 1

A few years ago, a group of friends and I headed to the Georgia-Tennessee area for a New Year’s bouldering trip. Originally, the plan was to shoot a Southeast bouldering moderates photo essay for Urban Climber, but another magazine ran a similar piece around the same time, so I put mine on hold. I left the mag shortly thereafter, and the photos have been languishing on my hard drive ever since. Until now, when they become the content for a two-part Photo Friday!

Alex “Lowthzilla” Lowther keeps his head on Guillotine (V4), Rocktown.

When it came time to write captions for this post, I couldn’t remember anything. Not the problems’ names, grades, or even the areas they’re in. The notes in which I took down all this information were nowhere to be found, so I contacted my friend Nick Greenwell to help me fill in the blanks. He’s one of those climbers who ticks off all his climbs in the guidebook and adds notes. If there isn’t a published guide, he’ll find info on the web, print it out, and bring it to the crag. All this seems almost unnecessary, as he has a near-photographic memory when it comes to climbing. When I sent him the pictures, he quickly bounced back the info I needed. Color me impressed.

As you peruse these photos, you will hopefully get a sense of the quality of the Southeast’s bouldering. It is truly excellent. I’ve bouldered in Fontainebleau, Hueco Tanks, Bishop, the Gunks, and all over Utah and still the Southeast is at the top of my list. The biggest strike against the region is the weather: rain, bugs, and humid, blistering heat all conspire to shrink the windows of climbing opportunity. But when the weather is good, the air crispy-dry and cool, as it was during our trip, there is nothing like a climbing day on the diverse sandstone formations of the Southeast. (There’s an excellent guidebook for Rocktown, available here and one for Stone Fort here.)

Thanks Nick.

Justin Vining puttin’ the moves on Dragon Lady (V4), Stone Fort

Robin Maslowski gets The Scoop (V3), at Rocktown. This problem is notable for its beautiful shape, but also for its searingly unoriginal name.

Joey Joe-Joe Junior Shabadoo (not his real name — I don’t know who this is) sending Spyro Gyro (V7), Stone Fort.

Amy Hartman Cryan on the very technical The Crescent (V1), Stone Fort.

Nick Greenwell taking a piss on Golden Shower (V5), Rocktown.