Wave Pools & Climbing Walls

Source: Vimeo - Kelly Slater Wave Company
This wave could be in Kansas. Source: Vimeo – Kelly Slater Wave Company

My social feed’s been gushing with articles about a new artificial wave pool from the Kelly Slater Wave Company. The company’s promo video shows some sort of underwater wave-making apparatus spinning up a ripping righthand barrel in cola-colored water at an undisclosed location (rumors put it in Lemoore, California). The 11-time World Surf League champion Kelly Slater christens this wave with some snappy turns, then tucks into the tube and hangs out for a while before emerging, victorious as usual. Could this be the beginning of a new era in surfing? If so, climbing might have some lessons to offer, for the road ahead is long and fraught.

“This is the best manmade wave ever made, no doubt about it,” says Slater at the end of the video, which is appearing as free content on all the endemic surf sites and finding its way into the flow of general interest pubs like the The Washington Post, the The Huffington Post, and Men’s Journal. The headlines, in typical hyperbolic fashion, declare this latest iteration of wave pool technology a “breakthrough” that “could change surfing forever” or even “change the world.” Web commenters, meanwhile, have voiced more mixed (though generally positive) perspectives.

On Kelly Slater’s Facebook post, a commenter wrote: “One of the most important aspects of surfing for me is the connection with nature, the respect and admiration for its awesome beauty and power … Isn’t this eroding the soul of the sport we love so much?” This comment, which garnered nearly 500 responses in a few days, is a perfect parallel to the climbing purist’s lament. We can see the surf community working through the ramifications of an easily accessible, consistent, manmade surfing experience decoupled from the sea.

Aside from killing climbing’s soul, rock gyms also offer many benefits, such the ability to train and enjoy climbing regardless of weather, season, or proximity to rock. The overall level of pure climbing ability has rapidly risen thanks to gyms and their near-ubiquity. If wave pools like Kelly Slater’s really do catch on, they will likewise allow for a much more concentrated experience. Instead of bobbing in the water for hours, waiting for your moment in the lineup, you’ll have access to a predictable, on-demand wave, accelerating technical riding skills. On the other hand, these wave-pool earned skills could make for a lopsided surfer, one who hasn’t had to deal with the vicissitudes of the ocean.

Climbers at the Psicocomp deep water soloing competition in Park City, Utah.
Climbers at the Psicocomp deep water soloing competition in Park City, Utah.

“If this catches on, and these things are built all over the inland empires of the world, they will be training hundreds of thousands of kids to surf,” wrote a commenter on surfermag.com. This potentially portentous statement describes precisely climbing’s glide path in the gym era. Most in the climbing community feel gyms are directly responsible for increased crowding—and also accidents—at the crag, which is why new climbers are currently the target of multiple “gym-to-crag” educational campaigns. The climbing community has taken the tack of education and mentorship to address the growth of test tube climbers (those born in artificial environments)—perhaps surfing will have to follow suit.

Also like climbing gyms, high-quality wave pools could help surfing find its way into the Olympics. In September of this year, the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee proposed both surfing and sport climbing be included in the Olympic Games. An artificial, standardized playing field allows both sports, despite being rooted in wild and unpredictable settings, to fit more easily into the competitive structure of the Olympics. Like climbers, many in surfing see the Olympics as anathema to the lifestyle they know and love. Regardless, the draw of Olympic gold is strong, and both climbing and surfing seem to be moving in that direction, for better or for worse.

At the end of the day, its impossible to conclude that climbing gyms have been either good or bad for climbing. Climbing is not a single activity, nor do climbers all share the same interests and goals. Some will forever feel that plastic climbing robs the activity of its soul, while creating overcrowded and dangerous crags. Others see climbing gyms as the very future of the sport, to be celebrated and cultivated. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, understanding that gyms have advantages as well as disadvantages.

If the Kelly Slater Wave Company really is poised to bring a string of world-class, artificial waves to the world, the surfing public will have to cover much of the same terrain climbing has been covering for the past 25 years. Should be an interesting ride.

Ode to the Old-Ass Gym

Climbers stretching and talking on the floor next to a climbing wall in an old climbing gym in Ohio.
A scrappy Midwest climbing crew in an old-ass gym.

Back in my Urban Climber days, I wrote a feature called “The Rise of the Super Gyms.” It was about new climbing gyms that were sprouting up around the country and taking the indoor scene to a “higher level” (get it?!). The trend, in its early phases then, is now well underway and huge, custom-built, professionally operated climbing and fitness facilities are becoming the norm rather than the exception. Today, 20,000, 30,000, even 40,000-square-foot facilities are appearing across the country, sometimes in areas far from rock and far from the pre-existing climbing communities that once served as a gym’s customer base.

When I lived in Boulder and Salt Lake City, I was lucky enough to frequent such “super gyms,” with their fancy workout decks (this treadmill has a fan?), yoga rooms, and highfalutin air-conditioners that worked, even on hot days. They were plush and almost always busy. Their holds were new and clean (can you say jug rash). Their tall, steep walls created inhumanly strong youngsters and demoralized n00bs and out-of-shape old timers. Such gyms are clearly the future, but at the same time, they’re missing something that the old-ass gyms we used to climb at had in spades. I guess you’d call it guts.

“It’s got everything you need: free weights, punching bags, a steam room, fat guy with a mop,” thus spake Staten Islander Danny Castellano, describing his boxing gym on an episode of The Mindy Project I watched last week. It reminded me of the way I grew up thinking of working out. Basically, the more rustic the set-up, the tougher you could get. Think: Rocky doing heavy bag work on a side of beef in a meat locker, Alexander Karelin running through waist deep snow in Siberia, Marky Mark bench pressing cinderblocks in an abandoned factory. Thus, a frilly, high-tech climbing gym was at best frivolous, at worst a place where a Russian super villain might climb / get injections of an experimental gene drug for cheaters that rendered him unstoppable on crimper dynos.

There’s just something about the old-ass gym that invites you to get strong. It challenges you, makes you uncomfortable, forces you to adapt. The holds are often sharp or tweaky, the setting uneven and full of random, shoulder-wrenching moves, even on easier climbs. The lighting is poor—brightly spotlit in some areas and shadowy in others, making it hard to discern the color of the chalk-faded tape (whatever tape, that is, hasn’t already peeled off and attached itself to your shoe).

And the feet—oh the feet! They are slick as hoarfrosted cobblestones on a riverbank, their once-candylike colors layered over with a mirrored black shellack of sticky rubber. These are part of the training though. Master the use of footholds like these, the likes of which exist only on the most trafficked outdoor routes, and you’ll become a subtle god of friction.

The old-ass gym also has a soundtrack. Maybe you remember it? Usually a mixture of grunge (Nirvana, Soundgarden, STP) and classic rock (Led Zeppelin, The Stones, Hendrix), with a handful of rap hits (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Outkast). In the original old-ass gyms, they just turned on the local FM rock station and let it ride, or had a 6-CD changer set to random. (Later, people plugged in their clickwheel iPods.)

There are weights in the back—an eclectic mix of dumbbells and barbells and floating plates picked up at yard sales. Next to them, some sort of cardio machine, but it doesn’t have a fan or a TV screen. Maybe it has a heart rate monitor that doesn’t work and a squeaky belt deep inside that sounds like a frantic gerbil trying to escape. Any workout implements not used frequently are coated in a quarter-inch of dust. There is a poster on the wall taken from an old issue of Climbing, back when it was 180 pages per issue and had Rolex ads in it. There is a sign that says “Must be 18 or older to enter the workout room.”

Nothing is handed to you on a silver platter at the old-ass gym. This is where people like Todd Skinner and Jim Karn and Tony Yaniro trained. And if you’re too young to know these names, trust me when I say they were more hardcore than you. The regulars at the old-ass gym are there because they love climbing deep down, even when no one else in the world is watching or cares. They say adversity builds bonds between people, and the old-ass gym supports this theory; scrappy climbing crews formed in old-ass gyms seem to have a stickiness that is lacking in fancier establishments.

I recently moved to a small, coastal California town where you’re about 20 times more likely to meet a surfer than a climber. There’s one gym in the area and it feels like an old-ass gym. When I first checked it out, I was a little panicked. I had grown accustomed to the niceties of places like Momentum, in Salt Lake City, or Movement, in Boulder. I wanted setting that was comfortable to the joints and grades that were easy on the ego. I expected a hot face towel to start things off, and lavender scented lotion in the locker room. In short, I’d grown soft.

Luckily, this old-ass gym has everything I need: a few thousand square feet of climbing terrain, some hang boards, an old treadmill and Exercycle, some open floor space to do push-ups and sit-ups and squats, and a loading-bay door in back that opens to let the air in. When the breeze blows and you close your eyes, it’s almost like you’re outside…

Where Do Climbers Poop?

Toilet paper hanging from a climbing gear rack. Where do climbers poop?
Where do climbers use the bathroom, after all?

Click on over to Google and start typing “Where do climbers…”

You’ll find that, for some reason, a lot of people are concerned about our bathroom habits.

Where do climbers poop, Where do mountain climbers go to the bathroom, Where do rock climbers go to the bathroom, Where do Everest climbers use the bathroom… These are among the most popular queries.

Now do the same thing with golfers and the results are decidedly less fecal: Where do golfers live, Where do golfers stay during the Masters, Where do golfers hang out, and so on.

I guess it makes sense. When non-climbers imagine themselves high on the side of a wall or the frozen flank of a mountain, they picture a world devoid of modern conveniences. Among those, perhaps the hardest to imagine going without is the bathroom, with its sink and shower and toilet—the root of our civilized humanity, if you will.

And of course, there are the purely logistical questions: After one manages to drop a deuce while suspended a thousand feet in the air, what does one do with the result? Chuck it? Bag it? Burn it?

As any seasoned climber knows, the answer to “Where do climbers poop?” varies greatly, depending on the type of climbing, the specific area, and the particular climber’s education and respect for the rules. Here, a very high-level outline of the different scatalogical scenarios that we climbers encounter.

In a climbing gym

The bathroom. The answer to “Where does a climber in a climbing gym poop?” is the bathroom.

At the crag

Often, we climbers spend our time at crags where we’re only actually on the rock for short periods of time. Sport crags like the Red River Gorge, predominately trad spots like Eldorado Canyon, or bouldering destinations like Bishop are all examples. Here, pooping ideally happens before and after a day on the rocks, in a toilet at the campground or a gas station, restaurant, etc. At crags located inside parks or other managed lands, there are often toilets of one sort or another on site.

In the event that the call of nature comes when the climber is far from designated toilet facilities, it’s typical to make like a bear and shit in the woods. According to Leave No Trace, in most places, burying your poo is the best way to roll. But beware: there’s a right and wrong way to do this. Check out the Third Principle of Leave No Trace for details. (Pro tip: don’t burn your TP, especially in dry areas. Years ago, a friend of mine learned this lesson the hard way.)

On the big stone

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson recently made headlines for their ascent of Yosemite’s Dawn Wall, becoming the most ogled and interviewed big wall climbers ever. No doubt the viewing audience, most of whom had never partaken in any climbing activities, were spellbound by the duo’s feats of endurance and daring… and by their ability to live in a little tent on the side of a sheer rock wall for weeks on end without proper plumbing.

To get some insights into the potty practices of such big wall climbers, I contacted my old friend Justen Sjong, of Team of 2 Training. Justen spent several years free climbing El Cap in the early two-thousands. His impressive Valley tick list culminated in 2008 with Magic Mushroom (VI 5.14a).

Justen explained that the use of Cleanwaste Go Anywhere Toilet Kits (formerly known as WAG Bags), or other similar products, is the proper method for vertical turding. “Many local shops sell these bags. I suggest having one on any multi-pitch climb. I’ve shared them with my climbing partner to save on weight—the beta is to use it before your partner :)” According to Cleanwaste, the kit “traps, encapsulates, deodorizes and breaks down waste with a NASA-developed gelling agent.” After using, the bag can be discarded like any other piece of trash.

Justen also recommends planning for lots of human waste on multi-day trips into the vertical. Metolious has a mini haul bag kit specifically designed for doodoo. Homemade PVC waste tubes (aka, “poop tubes”) can also work… or a mini bucket “with a really good lid.” He also offers a few pro tips, such as adding kitty litter in the waste bags to help absorb “the massive stench that builds over days in the hot sun.”

Of course, sometimes climbers don’t plan ahead, forget important items, or even drop stuff while on the wall. In such cases, Justen cited several last-ditch “plan B” methods: In remote areas where there’s no chance of hitting people below, he uses the “Flat Rock Toss”: “When I feel nature calling, I keep an eye out for a flat rock to place a coiler onto. Then I lean out and toss away from any classic climbs and use a smaller rock or stick to wipe.” Others methods include lowering down to an off-route ledge, swinging to the side and letting loose, or going in a paper bag and tossing it (“Make sure you toss it with the wind and clear all parties,” he says.) Needless to say, it’s far better to come prepared…

In the mountains

Like big-wallers, climbers on mountain expeditions can face some challenges when it comes to going number two. For example, in Denali National Park, climbers heading up Mt. McKinley are issued Clean Mountain Cans designed to allow parties to pack out all their human waste.

On busy Everest, mountaineers venturing above basecamp are supposed to bag it up, but for various reasons often end up digging holes in the snow and dropping trou. Unfortunately, the cold and altitude mean that there aren’t sufficient bacteria to break down the climber droppings. The results have been pretty gnarly and the topic of some news coverage as of late.

I reached out to Emily Harrington, who climbed Everest in 2012, and her boyfriend Adrian Ballinger, of Alpenglow Expeditions, to get the scoop on the poop situation on the world’s highest mountain. “At basecamp, they go in a barrel and it gets carried down to the nearest town for waste disposal,” Emily explained. “But [some] teams don’t do that; they just go anywhere. Plus there’s still shit left from forever ago.”

Even when climbers at Everest basecamp use barrels, there can be issues with the sheer volume of excrement. According to a National Geographic article, porters remove upwards of 12 tons of human waste every year, bringing it to open pits at Gorak Shep. Not surprisingly, this waste is causing contamination problems with the village’s water supply.

To help combat this unwanted side-effect of expedition life, a climber and engineer from Seattle named Garry Porter launched the Mount Everest Biogas Project, whose mission is to “convert human waste from base camp into environmentally safe products for the people of Nepal, by designing a biogas system that can operate at high altitudes.”

Where (or how) should climbers poop

“A 2014 survey of 264 land managers showed that 41% of respondents rated improper disposal of human waste as a ‘moderate’ to ‘severe’ impact on the lands they manage,” pointed out Jason Alexander Grubb, Education Programs Manager at Leave No Trace. Clearly, doody is a problem that climbers need to think about.

When it comes to pinching a loaf in the wild, Grubb offers some handy big-picture guidelines: “Know the ecology of the area you intend to visit, understand local land manger regulations, always carry a pack-out system along with trowel and toilet paper, or just go at the restroom at the trailhead or parking lot.” If you’re having a hard time finding official recommendations for human waste disposal at your destination, Grubb outlined the following four objectives that should help guide your decision-making process. Proper human waste disposal should 1) eliminate contamination of water sources, 2) prevent spread of disease, 3) minimize aesthetic impact, and 4) maximize decomposition rate.

The goal in all cases is to protect the environment, access, and other people’s experience. As climbers, we need to take our poops mindfully. I mean just think: if you don’t wont to deal with your shit, imagine how much less everyone else wants to…

The Climbing Dojo

A kendo demonstration at The Comp of the Rising Sun, circa 2007. The Spot Gym, Boulder, Colorado.
A kendo demonstration at The Comp of the Rising Sun, circa 2007. The Spot Bouldering Gym, Boulder, Colorado.

In Japanese martial arts, the dojo is a place for formal training. The “do” in dojo means “way” or “path,” and the full phrase dojo means “place of the way.” Similarly in Chinese, tao or dao—as in Tao Te Ching—carries a similar meaning. In Japanese Buddhism, dojo is also used to refer to a hall for Zen meditation. In essence, a dojo is a place where one seeks to learn not just for practical purposes, but for something deeper.

This is how I have come to see the climbing gym. Humble, dusty spaces they may be, often times housed in roughly converted warehouses, a climbing gym can be a dojo, granted you bring with you the proper mindset.

A first step to this recognition of the gym as more than a gym is to remember it is not a place to prove things to others, or to conquer anything. It is “a place where we discipline ourselves and improve ourselves to be a better person,” according to Kendo instructor Masahiro Imafuji. When you think of it this way, it is always a privilege to spend time and a dojo. Every success in a dojo is just a fleeting step on the endless journey; every failure is a gift, at least as valuable as the successes.

It is traditional to bow on entering and leaving a dojo, but it’s important to remember that bowing in this way doesn’t mean lowering yourself in a worshipping sense. Instead, the bow is meant as a show of respect. That respect is not only for your teacher, if you have one, and for your fellow climbers, but also for oneself and for the lessons that you have the honor of learning. (When you bow to an image of Buddha, you do not bow to the physical image or to a man from the distant past, but to the Buddha nature in yourself.)

There are myriad lessons to be had in a simple climbing gym. And under the definition of dojo above, I’d include every crag or mountain, too. In a sense, all the blog posts I’ve written about climbing have been encapsulations of lessons learned in a dojo of sorts. Lessons about fear and ego, about flow and balance, about strategy and respect—climbing can teach us all these things and also things beyond expression.

But climbing is not the only means to such lessons. Martial arts, painting, skiing, woodworking… many—I might even say any—activities can, if practiced in a mindful and disciplined manner, help us to understand and find “the way.”

Simply living life can be enough to find this way, but it can often be more difficult, as life can seem at once too complex and too mundane to teach us clear lessons. Instead, we take one interesting activity, climbing for example, and elevate it to the level of ritual. We find our dojos—the rocks and gyms and mountains—and we train and learn.

This is the power of the dojo. There, we learn not just about climbing but about ourselves. We learn about the things climbing allows us to be, not just to do.

12 Tips for Making the Climbing Gym Uncomfortable

12 Ways to Make the Climbing Gym Uncomfortable

My friend Brendan recently wrote a great blog about how to make the people trapped with you on a ski-lift feel uncomfortable. I haven’t skied in a while, but I could sympathize, maybe because I’ve been around a fair number of people in the gym who’ve created a cringe-worthy dynamic. If you want to be one of those people, whether for fun or for serious, here are 12 tips for making things in the climbing gym uncomfortable. (Add your own tips in the comments!):

1. Play the shadowing game

Pick someone and follow them around the gym climbing all the same routes or problems. Hop on the second they finish. Never say anything to the climber you’re shadowing, but eye contact is OK. Make sure to put your stuff down near the climber so he or she can see you at all times. Beware, shadowing a member of the opposite sex can easily be construed as a form of stalking (which it kind of is).

Bonus points: Shadow your subject’s non-climbing movements as well. OK, we’re drinking water now… now were putting on our shoes… time to chalk up!

2. Fart while climbing

In his blog, Brendan mentioned passing gas on the chairlift, which is great because you have a captive audience. While we’re typically not in such close quarters in the gym, letting a ripper slip while making a dynamic move can be a great way to put everyone within earshot in a funny position. Do they laugh or hold their tongues? Key here is frequency: the more air biscuits you free from the oven, the better. Meanwhile, you must never acknowledge the sounding of your butt trumpet under any circumstances.

Bonus points: After a particularly loud peal of brown thunder, sprint directly to the bathroom.

3. Give creepy beta

Stand as close as possible to the climber and in an aggressive whisper say things like, “Yeeeeaaah buddy… you got this man, you so got this. Oooooh yeah, that next hold looks sweeeeet… you’re gonna get it… you’re gonna stick that hold soon goooooooood… .”

Bonus points: Give creepy beta while offering a touchy feely spot on the bouldering wall, or even while climbing on a route directly adjacent.

4. Climb with your shirt off

For the sake of your fellow patrons and all that is decent, many gyms have asked respectfully that you climb fully clothed. To make things awkward, remove your shirt and stand conspicuously next to any signage asking you to please not remove your shirt. Then get yourself all sweaty through climbing, deep knee bends, burpies, etc., and lay down on the mats, making big “sweat angels.”

Bonus points: “Accidentally” bump up against other climbers with your bare, clammy back skin.

5. Clip your nails

Keeping your nails in check is important in climbing, but we all know it’s also totes gross to watch those funky little slivers come flying off of a stranger’s toes. That’s why you should sit yourself down in the middle of the floor where everybody is climbing and start snipping away. Being sure to leave your trimmings scattered about like so many crescent moons. Ignore the incredulous stares.

Bonus points: Bring a full mani-pedi kit, including files, pumice stone, and cuticle trimmer, and go to town.

6. Give hugs

Whenever someone sends a route or shows any kind of excitement about their performance on the wall, run over and give them a big hug. Combine this with tip No. 4 for maximum effect.

Bonus points: Ask them if they want to go get milk and cookies after, to celebrate.

7. Fight with your significant other

Nothing puts people on edge faster than a PDRT (public display of relationship turmoil). Whatever frustrations you have with the person you’re currently snogging, be sure to air them in a room full of strangers. Don’t like the way your S.O. belays? Or the fact that he or she would rather say “Take!” than take a fall? Or maybe you just import your random disagreements from home (uncapped toothpaste tubes, unwillingness to do the dishes, etc.) to the rock wall and have it out mid-climb.

Bonus points: Bring your kids with you to the gym and give them a hard time when they get scared and want to come down from the wall, telling them to “tough it out” even though they are clutching at the brontosaurus-shaped holds and sobbing / blowing snot bubbles.

8. Vocalize

Whether on the wall or in the workout area, emitting loud, nonsensical noises during moments of high effort is a sure way to create an uncomfortable feeling amongst fellow gym goers. The louder and stranger your vocalizations the better. (See: Will Ferrel’s performance in this satirical cold medicine ad for examples.)

Bonus points: Get a group of friends to go in on this one with you, turning the gym into a jungle-like space of bird screeches and monkey calls.

9. Feedbag it

Instead of chalk, fill your chalk bag with tasty treats like peanuts, sesame sticks, or chocolate chips. Conspicuously eat these while standing around and while climbing, both. When anyone looks at you, proclaim, “Gotta keep my energy up!”

Bonus points: Offer a snack from your sack of goodies to every person that comes within 15 feet.

10. Be the Minister of Hygiene

Remind everyone that a recent study revealed the presence of a “fecal veneer” on climbing holds from commercial gyms. Urge them not to eat or prepare food, or touch their face or mouth, until after they’ve washed their hands. To help address this problem at its root, stand in the restroom and call out every person who exits a stall without making a stop at the sinks.

Bonus points: Tote a large bottle of alcohol-based hand-sanitizer gel and wander around offering people “a squirt for hygiene.”

11. Compare anatomy

What’s your “ape index”? How big are your hands? Whose forearms or shoulder muscles are bigger? These questions and others like them are a great way to catch a stranger off his or her guard. Simply walk up to two or more people and identify one of them to compare body parts with. Ask the other one to be a judge. Often, this will involve physical contact of some sort. Comparing wingspans, for examples, requires two people standing back-to-back and stretching their arms as wide as possible.

Bonus points: Talk people into having pull-up, push-up, sit-up, or breath-holding contests.

12. Tickle spot!

While spotting a person on a boulder problem, tickle them.

Bonus points: Run away when they try to punch you.

Vertical Dispatch: Guy In Gym Not Even Climbing

Illustration of guy hanging on rope eating an energy bar

CINCINNATI, OH — After pulling at the climbing wall with great visible effort, the guy hogging the third toprope from the left sat back down into his harness having made no visible upward progress, sources confirmed.

“This guy’s ignoring the three-hang rule, that’s for sure,” said eyewitness Jeff Horvath, 32, adding that the man, who had a belay device and pair of gloves clipped to his harness for absolutely no reason had the worst footwork he had ever seen and that there was no way he was going to finish the route before the gym closed and everyone had to go home for the night.

“I could have climbed this route literally three times by now,” said Horvath. “I think this guy is actually making negative progress.”

At press time, the climber had gone in direct to a quickdraw about one-third of the way up the wall and was eating a protein bar.