Climbing Community

Climbers in the Red River Gorge
Climbing brought us together: the old Ohio crew hanging out in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

At the end of the song “Cliff Hanger,” by Blackalicious, there’s a sample from a 1968 Stokely Carmichael speech. It goes: “Wherever you go, the first place you go is to your people … And once we begin to understand that the concept of community is simply one of our people, it don’t make a difference where we are. We are with our people and, therefore, we are home.” Carmichael was talking about the African diaspora, about black Africans living not just in the U.S. but all over the world. This remains a serious topic, and Carmichael’s context, as an activist during the civil rights era, was exceptionally charged. Despite coming from a very different background, that snippet of his speech alway seemed to stick in my ear. Sometimes I’d wonder, Who are my “people”? Who do I go to first when I’m in a new place?

My parents moved to Virginia a few years after I went away to college. The first time I visited my new familial home base, I immediately located the local climbing gym and the nearest outdoor gear shop. If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you won’t be surprised to hear that, more than any other group to which I claim membership, climbers are my people. Wherever the climbers are, that’s where I find a certain sense of home.

In an interesting essay, climber and CU-Boulder Religious Studies Professor Greg Johnson writes, “I am certain that I have more in common—in terms of passions, appetites, ideals—with climbers from, say, Thailand, than I do with my neighbors. So it is that climbers can travel the world and have ready-made communities waiting to accept them.” This last sentence rang particularly true for me, and following are two of quite a few examples that illustrate it:

In 2006, I went to Italy. There, a guy named Lorenzo, who I met on a bizarre, nearly defunct internet forum called boldering.com, picked me up at a train station and took me to his local climbing spot. Lorenzo knew next to nothing about me except that I climbed. Still, each of us took it on faith that the other would be a good and agreeable person. Just hours after meeting, we sat under big boulders in an ancient wood and spoke like old friends. That night we drank wine at an osteria and ate pasta his friend’s 500-year-old apartment. Without the climbing community to act as bonding agent, I doubt Lorenzo (or anyone) would have shown a random tourist such hospitality.

The second example is set in Australia, where I was rolling around solo for a month after a friend’s wedding. Here, a small group of climbers I met while at the crags in Grampians National Park offered me beer, beta, and places to crash. One of them showed me around the Blue Mountains, and another took me to a little sport crag called Nowra, which I’d probably never have visited otherwise. Another of these guys, a pro climber named Chris, handed me the key to his house back in Sydney and told me to make myself at home while he stayed on to climb.

“The very ritualism of climbing is so explicit and marked that it constitutes the primary identity of most adherents,” writes Johnson in his essay. “This makes climbers remarkably visible and sympathetic to one another.” And it’s true. How else would a lone traveler find such warm reception amongst strangers? No, not all climbers are so welcoming, but the fact remains that a strong connection exists between and among many of us, sight unseen.

Communal connection is by no stretch unique to climbers. Stokely Carmichael believed that blackness was the most important form of community (indeed, he believed it was a matter of survival that black people stand together in the face of extreme racism). For many, religion is the primary identity that binds them to others. Most of us belong to multiple communities, based on language, sexual orientation, interests, alma maters, and on and on…

The great thing about these communities is that they all can be powerful sources of human connection, and therefore strength, happiness, growth. The bad thing about these communities is that they can be grounds for excluding the “other,” and therefore negativity, anger, blame, and—with depressing frequency—violence.

That is why, as climbers, I think we should embrace our shared identity in positive ways, as we often do when a fellow climber is injured or in need, while at the same time rejecting the inter-group strife (sport vs. trad, gym vs. outdoor, experienced vs. n00b) and the unhealthy desire to exclude and judge that belonging to a community can encourage. We must remember that we draw strength from belonging not only to specific groups, but also to that most general of groups, humanity, to which we all belong.

Take it even farther and consider that we share the Earth not only with other humans, but also with living beings and natural places of unimaginable variety and beauty. That these, too, can be treated as if they are “our people.” Learn to do this and wherever you go can be your home. It’s a bit of a tall order, I admit, but a noble quest, if ever there was one.

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.

Top 10 Posts of 2014

In the two and a half years since I started this blog, I’ve been consistently surprised that people other than my wife and parents have any interest in my odd ramblings. In fact, this past year saw an increase in traffic—so thanks! In case you missed any of them, here are the top 10 posts of 2014, ranked by page views, on thestonemind.com. Your favorite post not make the list? I’d be honored if you’d take a minute and post it in the comments. Enjoy, and I’ll see ya next year…

1. What Type of Climbing is Right for You? 

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

2. What’s That Thing on Your Back? 10 Answers

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

3. How to Carry a Crashpad 

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

4. What Kind of Roadtripmobile is Right for You? 

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

5. What I Know Now: Collected Insights on Climbing and Life

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

6. 8 Symptoms of Climbing Deprivation 

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

7. You’re Probably Not A Great Belayer

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

8. Just How Risky Is Climbing? It Depends…

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

9. The Death of Plaid?

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

10. The Nine Stages of Getting Gripped 

Top 10 Posts of 2014 - The Stone Mind

The Ritual of Chalk

A climber's hands an a chalk bag

Like the probing face of a star-nosed mole, my fingers rummage the powdery contents of the little cloth bag: magnesium carbonate, MgCO3, “an inorganic salt that is a white solid,” occasionally used as a laxative, it’s a taxidermist’s trick to mix the stuff with hydrogen peroxide when bleaching skulls. I switch hands back and forth into the bag while I consider my course of action. This is the ritual of chalk.

Sixty years ago, Gill imported its use from gymnastics, where it served as a grip aid on the various apparatuses. “When I demonstrated the efficacy of chalk—which I had bought at the Jackson Pharmacy—most climbers were instantly seduced,” he wrote, “although some purists initially rejected it as unethical (Chouinard had qualms).”

The western rim of the canyon cleaves a long, straight sliver off the edge of the setting sun, sends it beaming down through the bare tree branch lattice and straight into the shadowy space between me the granite monolith. The climb is tall—taller than I’d like, given my single sketch pad slumped over roots and rocks at the base.

Smooth-cornered chalk clumps tumble lightly under the motion of my fingers. I pore over the rock for ghostly traces, signs of previous passage. For every stab of anxiety, I compress a clump, feel it fracture and disintegrate into tiny fragments and dust. I rub it between my thumb and forefinger and it fills the contours of my fingerprints, absorbing the fine moisture.

I withdraw my hand and a pale cloud expands into space. The golden sunbeam catches it and throws each meandering particle into high-definition relief against the dark hillside. I press two columns of breath through my nose, blasting the dust into turbulent whorls.

Finally, I put the bag down and clap once. The report echoes off the cottonwood trees and into the shadows. The chalk is everywhere now, filling the air around me. I can feel it dancing in my lungs, taste it in the back of my throat. It tastes as close to nothing as anything.

I make contact with the monolith—skin, chalk, stone. I move up, away from the ground, buoyed on invisible currents, lit by the winnowing sunlight for a moment, just before the canyon drops fully into shadow, leaving me and the chalk dusk in the cold blue space, doing our little dance for no special reason.

Big Goals, Little Goals

A boulderer strives to reach the hold on Round Room, Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. Photo - J. Roth / The Stone Mind

“The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede.”
—Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel

We all have goals. We want to improve, be better, have more, do more… This is the natural state of affairs, especially here in the West. The opportunity strive, to rise above, to achieve greatness of stature and wealth—it’s the American dream, isn’t it? The reason so many immigrants have sought a life here…

At the same time, this goal-focused mind is also the source of a lot of problems. For many, having enough isn’t satisfactory. There is an excess of greed and thoughtless waste. On average, we’re wealthier than many other nations, but not necessarily happier with ourselves and our lives.

I think what’s happening is that many of us focus only on the next goal, the next want or need, without considering the foundational goals that are lifelong and fulfilling, that give lasting happiness instead of just a temporary fix. Constantly focusing our energy on small goals and their transient rewards, I’ve noticed, can lead us farther away from where we really want to be.

As a long-time rock climber, I’ve been striving to improve for over 20 years, always chasing some goal or other: a new grade, a particularly proud route, a powerful boulder problem… . When I’m not in shape, I feel a little frustrated and want to climb at least as I did when I was fitter. When I’m fit, I want to climb harder than ever before. Of course, at a certain point, I will climb the hardest route I’m ever going to climb. I’m not sure if I’ve reached that point yet, but I might have and don’t even know it. It would be hard to accept, but accept it I must—we all will peak and, in keeping with the basic rules of living, decline. What then? Will climbing no longer bring me happiness?

I don’t think people want to ask this question, or they’re come up with a funny answer to deflect the unpleasantness of it. But it’s worth asking, because it can put our motivations in a different context. Just as the man on his deathbed isn’t likely to say, “I only wish I could have bought more stuff,” so will we find few climbers facing their final hours saying, “If only I could have climbed one grade harder.”

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the desire to improve. There are many valuable lessons to be learned in the perfection of one’s craft. But it’s the fixation on the improvement, the numbers and personal bests, that can muddy our vision. It’s the gaining mindset, an addiction to the rush of accomplishment or accolades rather than a steady seeking of a deeper sense of fulfillment that a well-centered, lifelong practice can bring.

Sometimes I’m happy with my climbing performance, and some days I’m not as happy, but I always try to let those feeling pass through me and not hold on to them. Instead of seeking my satisfaction in the latest challenge, I try to let myself enjoy each day as it comes; to be comfortable with myself, my thoughts, and my mortality; to act in accordance with my beliefs and values. Like distant peaks, goals like these can seem impossibly large and far away, but when taken one moment at a time and one step at a time, the become more manageable.

In the end, climbing can lend itself to the goal-seeking mindset, but I think it can also can show us the way to larger understandings, to spiritual fulfillment, if you want to think of it in those terms. In his introduction to Zen in the Art of Archery, Daisetz T. Suzuki explains that the practice of archery in Japan and other Eastern cultures is “not intended for utilitarian purposes only or for purely aesthetic enjoyments, but [is] meant to train the mind; indeed, to bring it into contact with the ultimate reality.”

Big, right? But by working tirelessly and in earnest for mastery for its own sake, without the desire to hit some specific target (or tick some grade), art forms like archery or climbing can afford us such contact.

If only we can learn to let go of the little goals that obscure the big ones.

Mind or Body: What’s Limiting You?

Training wall at the bouldering gym - Mind or Body: What's Limiting You? - The Stone Mind

“No, I can’t do it!” she said, “I”m coming down.”

“C’mon now, just try the move; I’m right here,” I said.

We were bouldering in the climbing gym, and my wife Kristin was about eight feet off the ground, hanging from a sizable jug and eyeing down a long move to another jug. To me it was clear that she could make the reach with some momentum and a fat slice of commitment, but to her it seemed beyond reach.

“Nope,” she said, and let her feet dangle, a sure sign she was ready to drop. Back safely on the ground, she explained that she maybe wasn’t tall enough to make the move. “Well, what’s wrong with trying?” I asked; the worst that would happen would be a fall onto a squishy expanse of mats, nothing she hadn’t experienced a hundred times before. She just shrugged.

“Let’s go upstairs,” she urged. Instead of engaging with the uncomfortable, my wife was redirecting her energy towards something less threatening. Upstairs was a steep plywood training wall, packed from end to end with holds on a grid—it was about half as high as the one we were standing beneath. “Upstairs it is,” I agreed. I might be an old dog, but I’ve learned not to force such issues.

Up on the training woody, we tried a game I used to play with my climbing buddies back in New York, each making up problems for the other on the fly. “Now the blue pinch!” I said, stretching to point out a hold while she clung to the wall, awaiting the next move. I was quickly surprised by some of the moves she was pulling—much harder than the one that had stumped her on the taller wall downstairs. I indicated a long lateral pull to a small edge, expecting she wouldn’t quite be able to stick it. But she did… and several more like it before she ran out of steam.

Back at home, we talked about our trip to the gym. I pointed out that she’d done much harder moves on the training woody than on the taller bouldering wall downstairs.

“Yeah, because I wasn’t scared,” she said with a sheepish grin.

The problem was deceptively simple. Fear (mostly irrational) of falling and injury was clearly the cause of my wife’s hesitation on the wall, but how could she change the way she felt?

I think there were several factors that played into Kristin’s fear. One was the fact that she didn’t trust her own ability. She’s still relatively new to climbing, and isn’t used to slipping into the climbing mindset. When she’s on the wall, she brings her analytic mind with her, holding a conversation in her head about the consequences of each move. The makes it hard to just climb, without hesitation and inhibitions.

An idea for addressing this came from my friend Nick. He suggested that whenever Kristin starts to feel scared on a boulder problem, she should look down and, assuming a safe landing zone, drop. This helps her realize that a fall from the spot that was causing anxiety really wouldn’t be so bad, after all. Similarly, I used to take controlled lead falls with a trusted belayer until I was thoroughly accustomed to the sensation. Such techniques can help build a foundation of experiences in which falls don’t result in anything negative. With that in place, letting go of fear becomes easier and easier, freeing us to climb with mind in body in synch, instead of at odds.

Improving strength through specific training—like our little game on the woody, hangboarding, pull-ups, etc.—is also a good way to build a sense of confidence. When you grab a small crimp high above your last piece of pro, doubting your ability to hold on creates stress. Feeling strong and in control can ease the sense of risk and allow you to move up without fear and even use your strength more efficiently. Likewise, playing around with balance drills and footwork exercises will improve one’s sense of security. These are just a few of the many ways in which mind and body are intertwined in climbing.

In the book Performance Rock Climbing, authors Dale Goddard and Udo Neumann talk about the idea of “engrams,” which are complex body movements coded into our neural networks. There’s an engram for doing a backstep on a steep wall, comprising the many muscle actions that need to happen to execute the motion. Same for a big dyno or a campus move. Solving new problems is usually a matter of applying engrams from our libraries to the challenges at hand. That’s why experienced climbers can often perform well even when out of shape or advanced in years—their engram libraries are stocked with high-quality tools, applicable to nearly limitless situations. 

If the theory is correct, engrams are another example of the fuzzy boundary between mind and body in climbing. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki says, “Our body and mind are not two and not one. If you think your body and mind are two, that is wrong; if you think that they are one, that is also wrong. Our body and mind are both two and one.” I think this is an important thing to remember when we are working on improving our climbing. We can work on our physical strengths and our mental strengths independently, but in the end we can’t separate them entirely. When we climb, we must use both and work to find ways that the one can reinforce the other in a positive feedback loop.

Kristin seemed excited by our session on the training wall because it allowed her to push her limits without worrying so much about safety. She plans to go back and continue to strengthen the mental as well as the physical. After that, I have no doubt she’ll be able to apply what she’s learned to the taller boulders downstairs at the gym and outside, too. But the most important thing is that she does it because it continues to be fun. As long as that’s the case, nothing is unpossible.

Thanksgiving Bouldering in Moe’s Valley

The missus and I headed down for some bouldering in Moe’s Valley this Thanksgiving weekend. The mornings were cold and the middays and afternoons just right, bordering on too warm. For much of the day, the naked sun created a sharp contrast in the scrubby desert landscape that lent itself nicely to black-and-white imagery. Here, a little gallery following Kristin (and our dog Pebble) through a day at the boulders. Did you get out this Thanksgiving weekend?

Click a pic below to enlarge the images…

A few info sources on Moe’s Valley bouldering:

An Outsider’s Game

A rock climber standing underneath a route in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky. Photo: Justin Roth / The Stone Mind
My friend Derrick in the Red River Gorge, taken during one of my early climbing trips, circa 1995.

Polo shirts and loafers, church groups, BMWs, big houses with porticos and sprawling lawns, golf clubs, box seats at the game, Jeeps, ski vacations, baseball caps, football parties…

These spring to mind when I think of my hometown. It was for the most part a white, Christian, yuppy town with a culture of wealth and status. Of course, not everyone in Upper Arlington, Ohio, was well to do, but it was tacitly assumed that everyone wanted to be.

There were plenty of us who didn’t fit (or even understand) this vision of perfection, however. We were the outsiders in a monoculture, chaffing against what we saw as an  inflexible norm. For this reason, after years of straining to keep up on the lacrosse team, full of people I didn’t get along with and coached by a guy I didn’t much respect, I threw myself fully into climbing, even though it didn’t have a well-defined place in the social hierarchy. It was my game; an outsider’s game.

I used to skateboard, too. Skateboarding was a countercultural act in my town. People saw you cla-clacking down the sidewalk and pretty much wrote you off. You were a punk, a druggie, a roustabout, to use a term from the way back. A lot of skaters did it only for the love, sure, but there was also that element of rebellion that drew many of us to it. Like punk rock, it was a middle finger to the established order, even as it was in the midst of becoming mainstream.

Climbing was different though—it was so new in the Midwest in the 1990s that it didn’t carry many connotations with it. This was exactly what I liked about it. It was a tabula rasa of sorts. The fact that it took place in a dusty old gym or out in the woods, where I would never run into any of my classmates, was even better. It was barely connected to the messy world of adolescent preppie-town social hierarchy I was so tired of navigating. The only fear involved was the fear of falling, which seemed so much cleaner and simpler than the fear of not being accepted by my peers. Climbing wasn’t pro or anti, high class or low—it was just something I did because it felt right. And there were others like me…

My dad was an art professor at Ohio State University, and his graduate students were my baby sitters when I was young. Blue hair, piercings, tattoos—my parents looked straight through their appearances and judged on words and deeds. And for the most part, these students were great influences: romantic intellectuals who followed their hearts with rare gusto. They were every bit as moral as the minivan families dressed in Sunday best, but, it seemed to me, even more honest, more free.

I soon discovered there were people like this at the climbing gym, too. Idealists, environmentalists, people who cared about health, about nature, about living in accordance with their beliefs. They were more interested in making the most of life while they had it than keeping up with the Joneses. Climbers and artists alike seemed after something more personally fulfilling and spiritually grander than the whatever it was the Midwestern suburban value system was offering.

I started climbing in the same athletic shorts I wore to lacrosse practice. I bought an Alpine Bod harness and a pair of 5.10 Spires from the closeout bin in the local outdoor outfitters. I wore my ball cap turned backwards, a vestige of my high school uniform. Slowly, I accrued the hallmarks of the climbing trade: a pair of bright red Mocasym rock shoes, Verve pants, a Prana hoody. I built a new identity around the fine art of climbing up a wall. Absent the pressures of a team, I focused on overcoming my own doubts and weaknesses. No coach was there to tell me I was screwing it up; no teammates scoffed at me when I blew it in a drill. I went at my own pace, motivated by my own interest and excitement. It was precisely what an outsider like me needed to grow.

Interestingly, the solitary game of climbing has helped me to become a better team player. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder like I used to, or much fear of being judged. I also bring more sympathy and empathy to every endeavor I undertake. Life isn’t simple, and people aren’t one dimensional, I’ve noticed. We’re all more alike than we’d like to admit, and more different that we’re often comfortable allowing…

Now, after 20-plus years in the climbing world, having worked at rock gyms, edited magazines, and hung around with pro climbers, I feel more like an insider than ever before. Somehow, I still feel like I’m playing an outsider’s game, though; it just feels right.

Just How Risky Is Climbing? It Depends…

The Fuzzy Calculus of Climbing Risk - The Stone Mind
The author atop a highball V1 warm-up. How much risk was there in the ascent? It depends… . Photo: Kristin Marine.

Fighting flared on the border between Turkey and Syria just days before I was to fly to the region for Petzl RocTrip. Over the phone, my parents sounded nervous. My co-workers joked I should wear a Canadian flag and call them if I got kidnapped by ISIS. A friend already in Turkey told me his wife cancelled her visit after watching the news. It almost got to me. Then I sat back and considered the risk from a more sober perspective.

Since August, only five “westerners,” have been killed abroad by the terrorist organization known as ISIS, and none of them was abducted or killed in Turkey. The only record of an American being recently murdered in Turkey I could even dig up was of Sarai Sierra, who was apparently bludgeoned to death a by a homeless man after she refused to kiss him (this was in early 2013). Clearly, Turkey was not a high-danger zone for tourists. So why all the anxiety?

The simple answer is that we humans are terrible judges of risk. Take for example the recent thigh-high wave of terror that swept the United States after Ebola made it to our shores. Despite all of the doctors and scientists offering cool-headed analyses of the actual threat level, your average American seemed convinced that every person who sneezed in line behind her at Starbucks was in the grip of the virus. To date, there have been two fatalities in the U.S. due to Ebola.

The thousands of TV hours and millions of written words dedicated to ebola’s tiny presence in the US belie the fact that, in the three-months since ebola’s squiggly appearance on American soil, upwards of 8,000 people will likely have died motor-vehicle related deaths. For more perspective, James Ball of The Guardian kindly reminds that, in the coming year, as many as 500,000 people will die worldwide of influenza.

As cryptographer and computer security expert Bruce Schneier sums it up, “The very definition of ‘news’ is ‘something that hardly ever happens.’”

Risk is a particularly hot topic in the climbing world, for obvious reasons. Being high off the ground carries with it a potential for injury and death that standing on terra firma, all else being equal, does not. Still, the average climber’s reality comes nowhere near the danger level most non-climbers equate with the sport.

At climbing’s bleeding edge, you have alpinists like Ueli Steck, “skyrunners” like Kilian Jornet, free soloists like Alex Honnold and Dean Potter (both recently dropped by sponsor Clif Bar due to the perceived risk of their activities), along with a handful of edgy others. The very reason these people are newsworthy is that they don’t represent the norm. If a camera crew followed a group of friends to the local crag or gym with a camera, they’d be sorely disappointed. Not much death defiance here, folks.

One big problem with evaluating risk in climbing, as with most things, is that all climbing isn’t equally risky. Bouldering, due to its lower heights, is very unlikely to end in a fatality, but relatively likely to end in a lower-extremity injury (read: rolled ankle). In trad climbing, death is a bit more likely, but probably you’ll just twist your leg in a cockeyed fall or get tagged by a falling rock (wear your helmet!). In the mountains, a route can be relatively safe or totally hairball depending on the time of year, or even time of day, you choose to climb it. These are all things people tend to gloss over when they talk generally about the “dangers of climbing.”

But the factor that really scuttles our ability to codify the risks of our vertical game is us. As in all human pursuits, we are the cause of most of our problems. Climbing gear hardly ever fails, and when it does, it’s often because it was poorly maintained or inspected, or improperly used. (Ten thousand times more likely than the tearing harness buckle of Cliffhanger fame is the buckle that the climber forgot to double back.) The most urgent threat to a climber’s safety is the actions of other climbers: bad belays, misunderstanding of equipment function, bad communication, foolhardy decisions, and the like.

In the absence of extensive statistics about the danger of climbing and climbing’s many subgenres, we can only bring our empathy to bear. I would probably die if you put me up there, thinks a normal human when watching Ueli Steck hurtle summitward, alone and unroped on a steep slope overlooking the void. Of course, a normal human can’t quite make sense of Steck’s ability or the risk equations that dictate his decision-making process. There is undeniable risk in the things he does, yes, but to apply a layperson’s understanding of that risk to him makes as much sense as municipal traffic safety laws do in a Formula 1 race.

The nebulous nature of human behavior, combined with the sliding scale of climbing risk, makes it hard to pin down exactly how dangerous something like climbing without a rope really is. I once free soloed with Alex Honnold on a slab in the Flatirons. For me, the crushing pressure of ultimate consequences made the 1,000-foot 5.5 feel like it was at my limit. For Alex, it offered no challenge and a vanishing level of risk. Even as he solos harder routes, one gets the sense that he’s no more likely to fall to his death than a drowsy child walking down a flight of stairs. Yet another climber’s odds would almost certainly prove less favorable.

Think of it like driving: We might say, “Driving is dangerous,” but the danger varies wildly depending on factors such as: the driver’s experience level, blood alcohol level, and predilection towards high-speed texting; the make and model of car, presence of safety systems like seatbelts, airbags, and anti-lock breaks; and also the weather, time of day, and so forth. So how dangerous is driving really? And how risky is climbing? The answer in both cases is, “It depends,” which isn’t the kind of answer that makes for simple conclusions… or good headlines.

As climbers we seek to keep the odds in our favor to the extent possible. This entails learning from more experienced climbers and reliable information sources, practicing key techniques, training physically and mentally, learning the uses and limitations of our equipment, learning how to plan well and also what to do when things don’t go as planned. It also means that we must understand our own hearts and our own weaknesses as much as the weather and physics. And everyone of us has to tally his or her own risk-reward equation given the information at hand. In the end, the choice to pull on to that climb, to make that next move, is always our own responsibility. That’s one of the greatest things about climbing, and what can make it such a resounding metaphor for life.

However you do the math, just remember that if it’s on the news, you can probably stop worrying about it. (Unless it’s climate change, then you should be worried.)

Good luck.

The Transient Power of Travel

Two traveling climbers in front of a small bungalow in Geyikbayiri, Turkey.

It was the last day of Petzl RocTrip and all of the participants were re-packing their enormous bags. Mylène, a member of the video crew documenting the trip, grabbed me to help shoot some closing interviews with RocTrippers who had stayed on for the whole 40-day journey, which started in Romania and finished in Turkey. These folks, who hailed from all over the world, had taken to the road for over a month with only a rough outline of a plan. Most of them lacked vehicles and so either hitched rides or rode the RocTrip buses from one country to the next. They camped everywhere they went, rain or shine, on rocky ground or flat, subsisting on minimal supplies and tight budgets. They relied on their own resourcefulness and the kindness of strangers to get by, and, on the whole, trusted in the fates to bring them safely through it all.

As we called these nomadic climbers into our makeshift studio in the back of the Petzl Airstream trailer, I was surprised at the similarity of their answers. “How do you feel now that the trip is over?” asked Mylène. “I feel full,” said one woman. “I’m really satisfied,” said one of the guys. “I feel enriched,” said a third person, “and ready for more.” No one said they were burned out or eager to return home. Several suggested that they would travel on after the trip, seeing new places and meeting new people for as long as they could. Clearly, there was some underlying source that powered these wanderers through the challenges and uncertainty such travel entails…

When I was in college, a buddy and I took a month-long backpacking trip across Western Europe, bouncing from hostel to pension to campsite, exploring great cities like Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Prague. Along the way we met people who made us think outside the insulating bubble that American culture and media had built around us. We threaded old cobblestone streets, gazed at millennia worth of art and architecture. We drank too much and stayed up too late, talking to locals and fellow travelers. Exhausted, we dozed off sitting up in train stations, under the boughs of old trees, and on city benches, lulled by the murmur of languages we didn’t understand. But always we awoke ready for more.

On our trip, my friend and I tapped in to the same energy as the RocTrippers, I think—the energy of people on the move, untethered from the responsibilities of life and the banality of the familiar. If you don’t stay in any place too long, you can, in a way, game the system and experience only the new and the exciting, constantly feel thrill of fresh friendships, uncomplicated by past history, unburdened by obligation. …

But, of course, there’s a catch. Stop in any one place for too long, and the radiant sheen starts to fade. The wonders of the place—seen in three-dimensional hyper-clarity by the starry-eyed traveler—become mere background, just part of the everyday scenery of a more static life. The new people, brimming with new ideas and perspectives, become known quantities. (As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it in his essay “Circles”: “Men cease to interest us when we find their limitations.”)

In this light, it made sense that the people we interviewed about RocTrip were ready to keep going, despite the long and tiring miles they’d already logged. To stand still would be to gather moss. To return “home” would be to admit that the adventure was over and accept the staid and pragmatic travails of a more stationary life.

Freedom or stability, short-term excitement or long-term fulfillment, newness or consistency—it seems we’re always being asked to take one at the expense of the other. Often, the flashiness of the itinerant lifestyle is held up as the antidote to our modern malaise, our workaday routine that keeps us moving predictably, as if on rails. I tend to think that the best we can do is to seek a balance between motion and stasis, to move when it’s time to move and also to stay put when it makes sense, letting the contrast of the one enhance and inform the other.

At the same time, I want to believe that we can carry a certain mindset of home with us wherever we go; a certain comfort within ourselves, whatever the circumstances. And on the other hand, wouldn’t it be ideal if we could also bring the traveler’s sense of openness and fresh eyes when getting groceries or walking the dog? What is the perfect balance, after all? I suppose it’s up to each of us to find that point in accordance with our own nature and time in life. What’s been the best balance for you? Are you a constant traveler or a homebody, or some creative combination of the two?

Turkey: A Trip Worth Taking

I’m writing to you from Kadir’s Tree House, a funny little tourist resort in Olympos, Turkey. I’m here for Petzl RocTrip, which, by the time you read this, will be over. This was a work trip, mind you, so I didn’t do much climbing, but it was still an experience worth sharing. I’ve heard the value of a picture can be quantified in terms of words, and that, in fact, it takes more than a few words to pay for one picture. Therefore I’ll turn to some pictures to tell you, in a very broad sense, the story of my two-week trip to turkey, which was localized to Olympos and an area called Geyikbayiri.

It’s important to note this post focuses on the places I visited more than the people I met. Indeed, it’s harder to translate the new friendships and the perspective-stretching discussions one has during a truly international event like this one (people from over 60 countries attended RocTrip’s 40-day road trip across Eastern Europe). In my last post, I wrote that climbing was a wonderful vehicle for connecting with people of different backgrounds from yourself. After this trip, I believe that more than ever… but that’s a topic for another day.

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When you fly into Turkey’s Antalya airport (usually via Istanbul or Munich), you pass over the Taurus mountains, home to Mount Olympos and the town and crag of Geyikbayiri. These peaks, up to 3,756 meters, rise almost directly out of the Mediterranean sea, which is, as they say, preternaturally blue and clear and warm.
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The city of Antalya was built 150 years before Christ, give or take, but really grew and prospered under Roman rule during the Pax Romana. The city looks Roman in its layout, my mom pointed out when I sent her this arial image. I have no idea if that’s true, but it sounds good, so I’m going with it. (Fun fact: in 2013, Antalya was the third most visited city by international tourists behind Paris and London. Who knew?)
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You can either camp or rent bungalows or pitch a tent at several spots in Geyikbayiri. Here, climbers chill at a place called Rido’s Camp, which has tents and this nice gathering spot with beer and wine, water, good food, and bad wifi. Other places that offer accommodations are Jo.Si.To, with its camping, bungalows, nourishment and beverages. The Climbers Garden is also a great option—it also offers camping, bungalows, and food and drink. I didn’t eat much at these places, but the steak at the Climbers Garden restaurant was exceptional.
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In Geyikbayiri, bands of limestone are in no short supply. They range from clean faces, to sweeping caves, to clumpy, funky, globular formations that require stemming and stink-bugging and other 3-D climbing techniques to navigate. Here, the view from the Trebenna crag, just a 10-minute walk from Rido’s Camp (which you can see it in the lower left hand corner of this picture).
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The climbing at Geyikbayiri is quite good, and also plentiful. A variety of rock types and difficulties can be found there, all detailed with excellent pictures and topos (many of which will have to be updated thanks to the RocTrip sending spree) in Öztürk Kayıkçı’s new guidebook. Here’s a list of spots to get the guide: http://bit.ly/turkeyclimbingguide.
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While here, we checked out a super-crag called Çidtibi, which was bolted almost entirely for the Petzl RocTrip. The routes here range from 60 feet to 500 feet in length and feature limestone tufas of many shapes and sizes, along with your other, more typical holds. Climbing these formations is really a full-body experience, which some climbers referred to as “going to the rodeo.” Here, Heather Weidner at the rodeo.
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Plentiful in the region are fruits, most famously pomegranates. Vendors at Geyikbayiri’s local market will kindly sell you a liter of freshly squeezed, deep-red pomegranate juice in an old water bottle for just a few bucks. Way cheaper than that Pom stuff they sell at Whole Foods.
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Some ladies in Geyikbayiri crankin’ out the gözleme, a tasty Turkish pastry typically filled with cheese, spinach, potatoes, meat, or some combination thereof. Gözleme shops in this area and in Olympos can be found every couple of doors, and while I’m sure some are better than others, I know not how to make a determination. If I stayed here for long, I might make it my mission to try each one.
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After a few days, the Petzl RocTrip caravan headed to the town of Olympos, down on the coast. Most folks stayed in a funky, touristy spot called Kadir’s Treehouse, which actually used to offer accommodations in elevated tree houses, but I was told they burned down. Now you just stay in roughly made wooden structures that are vaguely tree-house-ish, tightly packed, and with almost no protection against the transmission of sound waves. Wild cats, dogs, and chickens roam the grounds, along with German tourists.
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The three most striking feature of Olympos are the history, made visible in the form of ruins dating back to the Hellenistic period, the stony mountains, and the clear blue sea. Here, two of the three are visible. The freshwater flowing in the foreground actually drains into the Mediterranean, just five minutes down the road.
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There’s a bunch of cool sport climbing within walking distance of the accommodations in Olympos, but the most interesting experience overall was the deep water soloing, accessed by a 45-minute boat ride. I’m not sure if this is something the average person can arrange, or if it was specially orchestrated for RocTrip, but just cruising out along the mountainous coast was reason enough to head to the DWS section. Chances are, if there’s money to be made taking climbers out on such excursions, someone will make a business of it.
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The climbing at the Olympos DWS area was described by those who experienced it as “sharp,” “slippery,” and “scary” … however these same climbers proclaimed the experience to be absolutely amazing and not to be missed. The cliffs were up to 25 meters high, but have no fear: the water at the base is far deeper than the wall is tall. It’s important to have a good boat driver who will swing over and pull you out of the water after a hard landing.
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When the sun sets on the ruins of ancient Olympos, the energy of a thousand generations resonates in the air. This land is a palimpsest of human activity, and the climbers visiting for RocTrip were just another brush stroke on the canvas. If you’re in search of a new climbing experience and looking to travel, and provided political relations remains stable, I suggest adding Turkey to your short list.

 

The 5 Achievements of Climbing

Seated Bodhisattva carved in stone at Hakdoam temple in Seoul, Korea. By Eggmoon (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Seated Bodhisattva carved in stone at Hakdoam temple in Seoul, Korea. By Eggmoon, via Wikimedia Commons.
As a climber of more than two decades, I’ve noticed there’s often a pattern to my behavior: climb regularly, get stronger, grow obsessed with projects , succeed… and turn immediately to the next project. The quest for improvement drives me ever forward and busies my mind. When I’m not training or eating right, I feel a twinge of guilt. When I’m feeling fit and strong, I’m motivated to train even harder, to push through to that rarefied next level to which I’ve never before risen. And so, fit or fat, topping out or falling on my ass, I’m hardly ever perfectly contented.

It got me thinking: maybe the next level doesn’t involve being stronger, after all—maybe it’s something else entirely: Being fulfilled by each moment, being selfless, feeling not lighter in body but in mind, unburdened, open, free… Maybe climbing, if we let it be, is actually a stepladder to get us somewhere else, where climbing is no longer necessary. (This is just a theory, mind you.)

In the movie Hero, a master swordsman plots to assassinate the king of Qin during China’s warring states period. Addressing his would-be assassin, the king offers his interpretation of the three achievements of swordsmanship: First is “the unity of man and sword.” Second is “when the sword exists in one’s heart when absent from one’s hand.” The third and ultimate achievement is “the absence of the sword in both hand and heart.” It’s counterintuitive that the greatest achievement of the swordsman is non-violence. Or is it? Below, in the style of Hero’s king, the five achievements of climbing:

1. Neophyte – Never having climbed, the first-timer brings few expectations. He or she operates almost entirely on instinct. Depending on his or her fitness level and comfort with heights, the state of “beginner’s mind” can allow the new climber to operate with surprising creativity. Still, having no specific strength or flexibility, the neophyte can only play in the vertical world a short time before running out of gas.

2. Intermediate – Armed with just enough knowledge to get in his or her own way, the intermediate climber often over-grips and uses more advanced climbing techniques at the wrong moments, exhausting him or herself while at the same time battling internal demons of fear and doubt. The limitations of physical strength are still apparent here, as the intermediate climber still hasn’t developed the musculature, tendon strength, flexibility, or catalog of engrams to allow him or her to execute complex movements efficiently. An overriding focus on getting to the top drives the intermediate climber, often at the expense of technique or a deeper sense of fulfillment.

3. Expert – Training and consistent practice have built strength, a sense of body position, and an eye for reading sequences. Now able to quickly decode the puzzle of the stone (or plastic), the expert moves with confidence and grace, occasionally achieving the “flow” state, mistaking it for enlightenment. However, the goal of finishing the climb still hangs heavily in the heart of the expert, creating a fixation on training and on the self-propagating delusion of success and failure.

4. Master – Having moved beyond mere strength, the master’s technique is so complete that he or she can execute even the most difficult moves with perfect efficiency. Having moved beyond the goal-oriented mindset, the master climbs only for the transcendent moment the climb provides. A master has no need to burn off other climbers or to receive recognition for his or her achievements, nor does the master hide from attention. With no ego, the master is happy to help others before working on his or her own project.

5. Bodhisattva – Climbing’s ultimate achievement is the transcendence of the climb in both body and heart. The boundaries between climber and climbed, between self and other, between good and bad dissolve. Any climb is now possible, yet no climb is necessary. The climber is at peace with the world and vows never to chase numbers, sandbag n00bs, or judge others, but instead focuses on bringing peace to mankind.

What’s That Thing on Your Back? 10 Answers

 

A boulderer with a lot of crashpads on her back.
A refrigerator filled with crag snacks? Kasia Pietras is packing some serious foam. Photo: Terry Paholek

During a trip to Maine’s Acadia National Park, I decided to do a little bouldering. I brought one of the new Petzl pads from the office—it’s a standard mid-sized pad in outward appearance, but it’s also bright orange and emblazoned with a sizable Petzl logo. Its highly visible color scheme might have factored into the onslaught of questions with which passing tourists pelted me, most of them a variation of What’s that thing on your back?

I’ve bouldered for 20 years now and have been asked this question hundreds of times, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised when yet another stranger stops to gape at my admittedly Spongebob-like form… but I am. Every time I try to answer, I feel myself getting frustrated. Invariably, the curious person’s face grows more, not less, confused as I offer my explanation:

“Excuse me, but what is that thing on your back?” Asks the well-meaning passerby.

“It’s a pad. We put it on the ground when we’re rock climbing,” I’ll say.

“Oh, so you use it instead of a rope?”

“Not really. We’re climbing really short rocks, so when we fall, we just fall on the pads.”

“Oh, that sounds dangerous.”

“It’s not really dangerous. We’re usually only five or 10 feet off the ground…”

“So you’re practicing for bigger climbs, then?”

By this time, the futility of the conversation has started to sink in. To explain the intricacies of the various types of climbing is a surprisingly complex endeavor. Believe it or not, the differences between gym climbing, bouldering, sport climbing, trad cragging, ice climbing, big walling, and alpinism aren’t widely known or even intuitively grasped by the layperson. For most, the Alex Honnold profile on 60 Minutes and maybe the movie Vertical Limit comprise their only climbing reference points.

In an effort to shorten the length of such trail encounters, my friends and I have devised a list of short responses that, while patently false, might offer enough of an explanation (or create sufficient bewilderment) to allow us to plod on towards our little projects on little rocks. Following are 10 favorites (but I’d love it if you’d offer your own in the comments section)…

What’s That Thing on Your Back? 10 Answers:

  1. A portable massage table.
  2. Folded up hang glider—we’re hiking up to the top of this hill to jump off and fly back down.
  3. It’s just a big backpack. I like to have my bases covered while out on a hike.
  4. A sleeping mat for camping. Way more comfortable than those little roll-up ones!
  5. We’re training for the world stair-climbing championships, and walking trails with unwieldy 200-pound squares on our back has been shown to be the most effective way to improve quad and glute strength.
  6. It’s a parachute; I’m a BASE jumper!
  7. This a pad for climbing. We wear them on our backs while we climb big cliffs. If we fall, we try to lean back and land pad-first, so we don’t get hurt.
  8. Oh, these? These are components of a large robot, which my friends and I will assemble when we get out far enough into the woods.
  9. It’s a dog bed… hey, where is my dog? Oh damn, she was here a minute ago! Peaches! Where are you Peaches?!
  10. This is a trail rickshaw seat. For 20 bucks, I’ll give you a ride to the next viewpoint. Hop on!

Angie Payne’s New Project: Photography

This week’s guest post is from pro climber Angie Payne. Aside from being one of the strongest boulders in the country, she’s also a gifted, self-taught photographer. 

Angie Payne self portrait
Self portrait by Angie Payne

I started climbing in a gym in Cincinnati, Ohio, when I was 11 years old. When I moved to Colorado at the age of 19, spending time outside wasn’t high on the list of reasons why I climbed. I was too intimidated by the raw, inhospitable nature of nearby high-altitude bouldering areas like Rocky Mountain National Park to appreciate their splendor.

My first serious project in The Park was a V12 called European Human Being. The climb required three seasons of hard, often frustrating work, but it was during that period that the rocky armor of the alpine environment began to fracture, revealing a delicate beauty. As I progressed through various climbing projects, I started taking pictures with my iPhone in an effort to capture the beauty all around me. Soon, capturing the essence of the place where I now spent so much of my time became another kind of project that filled the spaces between attempts on the boulders. Climbing brought me to these gorgeous places, but photography added a new depth to my enjoyment of them.

Starting in 2012, I shot thousands of images using only my iPhone 4s. Eventually I added magnetic lenses and some basic editing apps to my quiver and posted my favorites to Instagram. The images below are a small sampling from the resulting collection. They are among my favorites, because I think they convey the essence of certain places and moments that I have experienced mostly thanks to climbing.

—Angie Payne

 

Sunlit clouds in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo: Angie Payne

I first tried Freaks of the Industry in 2010 and spent nearly 60 days working on it [Angie sent in July 2014 —JR]. During one moment of intense frustration in 2012, the setting sun ignited the sky for a moment, leaving me no choice but to abandon my anger and enjoy the fleeting display of color.

 

Ice crystals in Rocky Mountain National park. Photo: Angie Payne.

But the distractions didn’t always come to me in the form of spectacular sunsets. When potential success was maddeningly close and I needed to force myself to rest, I would often walk away from the boulder and search for new details I had overlooked, like small ice pillars in a frozen pond. The more subtleties I found, the more at ease I felt up there. It soon became my second home.

 

Greenland landscape photo triptych. Photos: Angie Payne

I stepped far outside my comfort zone to go to Greenland. The raw beauty was overwhelming, and the volatility of the landscape was intimidating. Trying to capture the huge, magnificent vistas with a tiny iPhone felt futile, but it did help me get more comfortable with the remote cirque. 

 

For photos from Greenalnd. Photos: Angie Payne

Greenland had a seemingly endless collection of icebergs, each with its own perfect shapes and lines. Seeing these behemoths opened my eyes to the fantastic artwork that nature can create, like a perfectly fragmented piece of sandstone or an improbable snow sculpture.

 

Photos finding beauty in the mundane—triptych. Photos: Angie Payne

Not many places can hold a candle to the splendor of Greenland. Still, armed with my iPhone and a new “project,” I began to recognize beauty in more mundane things: an old chain, the classic airplane view, a puddle outside my front door—when the light, wind, and weather hit them just right, they are all quite pretty. 

 

Detail shots of bubbles and a snowflake. Photos: Angie Payne

And then there are the details. One layer below those beautifully mundane things is… well… more beauty. Sticking a small macro lens on my iPhone illuminated a world of intricacies. I quickly learned that capturing these details with clarity is much like perfecting the subtleties of a boulder problem. Frustration comes quickly, but with a lot of patience and a little luck, the results can be rewarding. 

 

Carlo Traversi catching his breath after climbing in the Psicocomp competition in Park City, Utah. Photo: Angie Payne

I’ve heard it said that the best camera is the one you have with you. My phone is almost always with me, so it just seemed logical to keep using it as my camera. Doing so allowed me to capture moments that would have otherwise been left to my imperfect memory. One such moment came at the 2013 Psicocomp in Park City, Utah, after Carlo Traversi finished an intense race to the top of the wall, careened into the water, and barely dragged himself out again. As he struggled to catch his breath, I snapped a photo that came to epitomize the experience for me.   

 

Train tracks derailed by the great Boulder flood of 2013. Photo: Angie Payne.

Another moment of this sort came during the thousand-year flood in the Front Range of Colorado, also in 2013. While cleaning out a friend-of-a-friend’s mud-filled basement, I took a break to wander through the neighborhood. The train tracks had been tossed about, turned into a roller-coaster of sorts. It almost felt wrong to snap that photo, but I did. That there was some kind of beauty in the midst of such devastation seemed deserving of documentation.   

 

Four nature photos from Rocky Mountain National Park. Photos: Angie Payne

Eventually, when the rivers of the Front Range retreated and the routines of life in Boulder resumed, I found myself back where it all began. Beautiful new scenes continue to reveal themselves in Rocky Mountain National Park, even after hundreds of trips up there. Freaks of the Industry, The long-term project that was to thank for many a photo has finally been put to rest. The new interest that it helped birth, however, lives on. In fact, I just invested in a new DSLR. While capturing immense or intricate beauty with my humble little iPhone is still an appealing challenge, it seems I have found a new project in learning to master a more complicated device. And so, the cycle of projecting continues…

 

 

Headshot of Angie PayneAngie Payne is based out of Boulder, Colorado. She’s sponsored by Mountain Hardwear, eGrips, Five Ten, Organic Climbing Company, LifeSport, and Mac’s Smack. In addition to climbing and obsessing over iPhone photos, she enjoys watching TV murder mysteries and washing dishes (seriously). Check out her website and follow her on Instagram.

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…

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.

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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.

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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…