The Mountain With No Top


After several months without a single day of hard climbing, some friends took me out to a California crag called Owl Tor, named after the UK’s Raven Tor (home to Ben Moon’s great boulder problem on a rope, Hubble). Like its namesake, Owl Tor is steep and bouldery. There’s one gronky 5.11 on the left of the cliff band, a 5.11d in the middle, and it gets rapidly harder from there.

So, feeling out of shape and mentally unprepared, I tied in and spent the whole day working the 11d. I gave the beta-intensive 60-foot celebration of drilled pockets and glue four or five tries before admitting to myself and my companions that it just wasn’t going to happen. I had a good time, but felt demoralized; I used to run warm-up laps on routes of this grade, now I was projecting one.

But every time I start to get down on myself about such things—about my performance or lack thereof—I get a funny feeling. I’ve long harbored doubts about the validity of the underlying motivation that drives me and, from what I can tell, most members of the “type A” clan. I see a certain needfulness in it: to prove oneself, to put oneself above others, to feel the affirmation of success and excellence. When I look closely, it’s hard to see it as much more than an addiction. It’s an addiction that’s certainly reinforced by popular culture, that holds up select people as heroes for their athletic prowess or intellect or other skills and talents. The successful are addicted to their accolades while the masses dream of being successful one day, as if it might give their lives some rarefied meaning.

“Like drinking salt water to relieve our thirst, trying to satisfy momentary desires just leads to more desires.” It’s a quote I’ve seen around the web, usually attributed to Buddha. Though I can’t verify the source, the concept stands on its own. Many of us will dedicate our whole lives to satisfying momentary desires. The cynical might suggest that’s all there is, the accumulation of accomplishments like the constellation of brass plaques on The Big Lebowski’s wall. But it’s hard not to feel like we’re chasing our tails when we fall into that belief system.

Sure, I want to climb 5.13 again. But after that, I’ll also want to climb the next grade, and the next. There’s no ultimate satisfaction, only the passing affirmation that, yes, I can do that. I can run 10 miles or 13.1 or 26.2 or 100. I can climb route X or make salary Y. I did it. I can do it. I’m special goddamnit! Now onto the next thing.

And maybe that’s it. Maybe there’s nothing else but the eternal hamster wheel of accomplishment. But somehow it doesn’t feel right. After all, at some point we’ll all hit our peaks. Some day we won’t be on the upswing, no matter which key performance indicators we use to measure ourselves. And when that happens, no matter how high our point on the metaphorical mountain, we won’t have reached the top and we won’t have made a dent in the universe.

What then?

It seems like a silly question, but I think it’s one worth asking. And sooner rather than later.

While climbing at Owl Tor I felt that, with some effort, I’d likely regain my prior prowess. But I also saw someday that wouldn’t be the case. I looked out ahead and saw a life that, at its longest, would never be nearly long enough to satisfy my human obsession for more. I decided the only sane thing to do is work to drop the baggage that was weighing me down. I climbed with the pleasure of someone who might never climb any better than on that day… and it was enough.

One day. One climb. One blog post. One run. One moment. The past is a dream and the future isn’t guaranteed. There’s not much room in the middle to be overly concerned with bullshit.

Or at least, that’s how it seems to me these days.

Climbing Gyms: The Saga Continues

A woman climbing on a steep wall in a gym in Colorado.
Robin M. climbing at one of the first American Mega Gyms, Movement Climbing + Fitness, in Boulder, Colorado.

When I started climbing a quarter century ago, there was really only one kind of indoor climbing experience. It involved simple plywood walls, mostly vertical, that were rarely more than 30 feet tall. These would be sparsely populated with a mix of homemade and “professionally made” handholds.

These first-generation gyms could be found in non-descript business centers, shoehorned into whatever space could be had on the cheap. As such, they were often dark, dusty, and/or drafty, full of exposed cinderblock, rubber chip, and stained old carpet.

Most gym owners in this era were themselves ex-dirtbag climbers who wanted a cool place to train in the off season and couldn’t stomach the idea of working for the man. Few of them could have foreseen the brave new world of plastic pulling that lay just ahead.

Sometime around the turn of the millennium, the boom of climbers who had taken to the walls thanks to those early gyms drove new economic opportunities, leading to more gyms, substantially bigger and nicer than before. Health clubs added walls to their banks of fitness machinery and universities constructed them in their rec centers.

Today the artificial climbing wall landscape is more varied and more professional than ever. It’s growing steadily, too, as evinced by the existence of outlets like the Climbing Business Journal (“news and advice for the indoor climbing industry”) and the non-profit Climbing Wall Association.

If you’re a climber in America looking to get inside, you’ll encounter a landscape packed with many great (and some not so great) places to climb. Among them, I’ve noticed the following major classes. Feel free to add others I’ve missed in the comments.

A climber on a wall at an old school gym
Climbing at an OG Gym.
  • OG Gyms – Basic, aesthetically uninteresting, and often found in windowless and poorly ventilated warehouses, these gyms were the trailblazers of their day. Now OG Gyms are phasing out—either closing down or modernizing in the face of increased competition and a more demanding clientele. Still, many persist. A good crew and a sense of humor are key to surviving if you’re stuck with an OG Gym.
  • Woodies – Home walls designed for the ultimate in easy-access training. Most people build woodies—so called due to their all-wood construction—in their garages, basements, or backyards. Unfortunately, the only way to access a woody is to have one at your place… or be buds with someone who does.
  • Co-ops – Co-ops are collectively supported gyms that operate for the good of the membership (read: sans profit). Typically a group of climbers will go in on a rental space and supplies to build a wall, and then others who want to join kick in a membership that grants them access and covers rent, setting, and maintenance costs. An advanced example of a co-op is Slo Op Climbing, in San Louis Obispo, California.
  • Bouldering Gyms – It wasn’t long ago that bouldering was considered practice for longer climbs, but these days it’s booming as a pursuit of its own, and the gyms are following suit.
  • Health Club Hangs – Health clubs can be pretty boring. In order to keep people excited about consistently going inside a space that feels like an office stocked with futuristic torture devices, management needs to constantly up the ante. New classes, new machines, and, when the budget’s there, a craggily new climbing wall. Quality in these places varies immensely based on the club’s level of dedication to climbing. One spot I used to frequent, the Manhattan Plaza Health Club, had a pretty solid climbing scene going.
  • Educlimbables – I was an early employee at my university’s wall in NYC. Built in the diminutive space of a converted racquetball court, it offered minimal diversity, but it was an early example of what would become a hot trend. Today, colleges and universities, high schools, and even elementary schools have taken up the climbing craze. As a part of their effort to get climbing into the Olympics, USA Climbing established the Collegiate Climbing Series. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie even took it on himself to criticize the so-called rock wall “epidemic” sweeping higher ed and wasting unsuspecting parents’ dollars.
  • Mega Gyms – In addition to huge amounts of climbing surface and professional-grade setters, mega gyms offer extensive fitness and wellness facilities. Pilates, yoga, full weights and cardio equipment, even day care—the mega gym is designed to operate as much like a high-end health club as a training center, albeit with the focus still squarely set on vertical activities. Mega Gyms are well lit, clean, and modern where it counts. Some have full service pro shops and a few even have cafés with wifi. The Climbing Business Journal put together a list of the biggest gyms in the country as of 2013. Most of these would fall into the Mega Gym category.
  • Urban Crags – This category has one standout player in it, but I think it’s significant enough to warrant mention. Brooklyn Boulders has four locations in major urban zones around the country and appears to be adding more. The Sommersville, Massachusetts, location was described in a Bloomberg news piece as “a rock-climbing gym designed to double as a co-working haven for entrepreneurs.” These gyms are catering to a different crowd than your typical spot in the midwest or mountain west. More diverse, more affluent, and more career oriented, BKB and other urban gyms are specifically targeting groups not traditionally associated with climbing, and they’re doing really well in the process. What will the climbing demographic look like in 20 years? Brooklyn Boulders may offer a preview…


Adrenaline Is a Fact

Chris Sharma falling at Psicocomp.

It’s always bothered me when folks characterize climbing as a thrill sport, painting climbers as adrenaline junkies seeking their next fix on the sharp end. I haven’t bothered to deal directly with this topic for a variety of reasons, but a recent public radio interview stoked the longsmoldering ember.

The show was To the Best of Our Knowledge, and producer Anne Strainchamps asked celebrated war photographer James Nachtwey about the stereotype of the thrill-seeking war journalist. “Adrenaline is a fact but it’s not a reason,” Nachtway responded, adding, “adrenaline is part of the job because it’s actually necessary to survive. But there are deeper reasons for pursuing the profession than adrenaline.” Great answer, James.

Likewise there are deeper reasons for climbing than the thrill. For example, I’ve seen climbing help rebuild confidence and connections for those traumatized in battle. I’ve built lifelong friendships on the shared foundation of climbing. Climbing can be a profound tool for reconnecting the modern, hyper-distracted consciousness with the all too often sedentary modern body. And climbing has long served as gateway to a personal connection with the natural world—a connection that, in turn, has spurred many to help protect our precious and ever-threatened wild places.

Yes, the tang of fear can add a heady complexity to climbing’s flavor profile, but the thrill-seeking component of climbing is, for the majority of us, seasoning and not the meat of the matter.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that climbing is about control. A little adrenaline can focus the mind, but when adrenaline surges, tunnel vision sets in and you’re more likely to overgrip, to make wild movements… to make a mistake.

Alex Honnold, whose forte is the long, difficult—and to most climbers, horrifying—ropeless climbs, isn’t down with adrenaline. “If I get a rush, it means that something has gone horribly wrong,” he said in a 60 Minutes interview. The rush that kicks in when we push too far into the danger zone is the climber’s enemy.

I’ve been climbing for a good quarter century and I’ve faced my share of hairy moments: run out over questionable cam placements, topping out highball boulders, sacrificing clips in favor of a redpoint go. But it was never the rush that drew me—it was the question posed by the challenge, of which fear and the attendant exhilaration were only components.

And in the end, learning to face and control fear can be an important journey. After all, to deal with this life, full of suffering and guaranteed to end in death, we must find a way to face the gravest possibilities with a modicum of composure, to not let ultimate consequences distract us from the task at hand.

As a climber, the adrenaline may in fact be there, and it may even heighten the experience so that it sticks in my memory like an iridescent shard, but the adrenaline is not the reason I climb. The reason, or reasons, are far bigger than that. Big enough to last for decades and serve as the cornerstone of a life. For some reason I feel that’s an important distinction to make.

Let My People Go Flailing

Wipeout - Lennox Head Surfers - 7 Mile Beach. Photo: Neerav Bhatt via Creative Commons
Wipeout – Lennox Head Surfers – 7 Mile Beach. Photo: Neerav Bhatt via Creative Commons

“So do I wear clothes under this thing or…?”

“Nah, you can just go buck. That’s what most people do,” said Jimmy, handing me a beach towel-poncho hybrid I was to don for coverage while changing into a borrowed wetsuit in the busy parking lot at Ventura’s hyper-popular C Street surf break.

I took off my glasses and immediately realized I’d be flying, or rather floating, blind during this exercise, my first foray into art of riding ocean waves. (“It’s the hardest thing ever,” my climbing buddy Alex had explained, perhaps in an effort to save me from underestimating the nature of the challenge.)

A short wrestling match later and I was in the wetsuit, feeling both comforted and constricted by its strange, rubbery embrace. I hoisted the huge, glaring white foam beginners board up under my arm, barley spanning its breadth. Down to the water we went, picking our way over waterround rocks and into the shallows, where I could not keep my footing on the slick bed of uneven cobbles obscured by recurring washes of whitewater.

It all started that morning in the office when, in true Patagonia Let My People Go Surfing fashion, my boss declared it was time to hit the waves. I closed my laptop and packed my bag, feeling excited, a little nervous, but hopeful. I ended up feeling like even more of a beginner than I imagined. A super beginner. A true gumby (or “jerry,” if you will). Alex estimated he was a 5.8 surfer. I’m not sure I’d even be able to locate myself in the fifth-class scale.

Just paddling was substantially harder than I’d expected, and I kept getting turned around or tipped off into the water. My shoulder muscles were depleted within minutes. I had to rest constantly and feared getting so tired I wouldn’t be able to slog my ass back to shore. The guys I’d started with were already long gone, fuzzy dots in a distant crowd to my uncorrected vision.

I floated around on the periphery of the lineup, trying to stay out of the way, then made a half-hearted effort to catch a wave. Really I was just hoping to get a boost in my landward quest. My arms were too tired to produce the necessary burst of speed to match pace with a cresting wave, much less pop me up onto my feet. I used up the rest of my reserve tank just returning to shore, belly firmly on board.

The concept of “beginner’s mind” is popular in Zen philosophy. The famous quote from Shunryu Suzuki goes “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” After my first experience with surfing though, I feel the urge to call bullshit.

While it’s true that I brought an unstructured approach to the matter, paddling into the ocean was so hard for me that I was almost completely occupied with basic survival. My “beginner’s mind” was rather narrow, in fact, focused as it was on not panicking or drowning. I felt none of the pliant openness a newbie supposedly brings to a task. I felt stiff and uncomfortable—flowless, if you will.

There’s a particular discomfort that comes when first trying something for which you have no aptitude. As a climber of 25 years, I’m accustomed to a certain level of comfort with vertical challenges, even ones that require serious effort to tackle. This makes starting at square one in the ocean all the more humbling.

So what’s the point?

The point is, I think, to face up to a new activity without needing to be good at it—in the near term… or maybe ever.  And because it’s not “my thing,” I look forward to using surfing as a way to practice an openness and humility that can be hard to bring to crafts with which I’m more familiar, like climbing.

Now that I think of it, maybe that’s the beginner’s mind Suzuki was talking about.

Where Surf Meets Stone

Surfers at a point break in Ventura, California.

The sun was setting on the Pacific Ocean as my wife and I took our first walk together along the beach in Ventura, California. We passed drifters talking in manic monologues, slowed to a crawl behind shuffles of retirees, and were passed by joggers hustling to make it home before the sun’s light fully faded. We strolled the paved promenade upcoast until we saw them: schools of waveriders undulating in the water at Surfer’s Point Park.

There we leaned on a fence railing and watched them for a while. Scattered unevenly outside the foamy chaos of the break, the surfers watched the horizon intently. Whenever a promising swell approached, a few would rotate and begin to paddle towards shore. One or two would find himself caught up in the lip of a cresting wave, at which point he’d kip up onto his feet and, depending on skill level and luck, catch a ride along shore. The repetitive dance of it was hypnotic.

In the parking lot behind us were old Winnebagos, Sprinter vans, station wagons, SUVs, and minivans, all converted in one way or another for surf life, with racks on top and livable (depending on your standards) quarters inside. There was even a bike leaned up against the rail that some dedicated soul had modified with an improvised surfboard carrier on the side, all plastic piping and foam and duct tape.

A couple of guys jogged up off the beach with boards under arm. At their vehicles, they began the process of peeling back wetsuits and rinsing off sea water. Chatting to each other about the conditions and the rides of the afternoon, they seemed so similar to the climbers I normally found myself with—the lifestyle of it, identities intermeshed with the activity itself, jobs and possessions carefully crafted to enable as much time in pursuit of the passion as possible…

Surfing and climbing have long invited comparison. Both are, despite wavelike peaks in mainstream popularity, largely countercultural, particularly when held up beside big-money sports like football, basketball, soccer, etc. Both are one-player games (the partnership aspect of roped climbing not withstanding). Both take place in natural settings and thereby encourage a certain environmentalist mindset. Both feature a heavy focus on flow states bordering on mysticism. Both inspire questing, dirtbag lifestyles, as acolytes seek out the next great spot—ideally one the crowds haven’t yet discovered.

Of course, there are many differences too, but the similarities are too numerous to dismiss. On the whole, those who live to surf and those who live to climb seem cut from a similar cloth.

I’ve been reading a book called Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan. The author is a lifelong surfer and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and his book is an extensive memoir structured around the surf spots that were both backdrop to and integral part of his personal development. Throughout the book, there are passages that could as well be describing the experiences of a climber as a surfer. A few examples:

  • “I did not consider even passingly, that I had a choice when it came to surfing. My enchantment would take me where it would.”
  • “Waves were the playing field. They were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration. At the same time they were your adversary, your nemesis, even your mortal enemy.”
  • “I did love the water, and even saw it, from an early age, as my own medium of escape from dull striving, from landlocked drudgery.”
  • “Chasing waves in a dedicated way was both profoundly egocentric and selfless, dynamic and ascetic, radical in its rejection of the values of duty and conventional achievement.”
  • “Being rich white Americans in dirt-poor places where many people, especially the young, yearned openly for the life, the comforts, the very opportunities that we, at least for the seemingly endless moment, had turned our backs on — well, it would simply never be O.K.” [This one is particularly interesting.]

I suppose my thesis is that climbing and surfing share a certain essential nucleus, even if their specific expressions are quite different. Living here in surf-centric Ventura, less than a half-day’s drive from Joshua Tree and Yosemite, I’m looking forward to testing this hypothesis on a more intimate level.

Would love to hear your thoughts on the matter, too.

9 Reasons to Not Wear Your Helmet

A damaged rock climbing helmet.
This helmet has seen some action.

These days I wear my helmet while cragging, mostly because I’ve been around long enough to hear and see firsthand what can happen when you don’t. I’ve witnessed climbers who hooked the rope behind their heel, flipped upside down, and swung into the wall back first. I’ve heard of belayers dropping their climbers into melon-splitting talus. I’ve watched as climbers dislodged chunks of rock down onto their belayers with bloody results. I’ve seen cobbles spontaneously drop from the roofs of caves as unsuspecting climbers strolled through the landing zone.

All of the above took place at sport crags, where most climbers consciously opt out of cranial protection. Horror stories abound, and yet legion are the climbers who will go to the mats over their belief that helmets need not be standard-issue equipment. Following are just some of the common arguments I’ve heard against helmet use, along with a brief response. I’m happy to hear your thoughts on the matter in the comments section.

Not all Cases

“If you get hit by a big-ass rock, a helmet’s not going to do anything anyway.”

The Stone Mind responds: Yes, and if a semi rolls over your car, your airbag isn’t going to help, either. But in many cases helmets will help, so it’s better to wear one (and also to have an airbag) than not.

Pick and Choose

“I only wear a helmet in high-risk scenarios: on multi-pitch routes, crags with known rock fall problems, in the mountains, or on ice climbs.”

The Stone Mind responds: I think of a helmet like health insurance: hopefully you never have to use it, but when you need it you’ll be very glad to have it. Add to that the fact that few of us have the Sherlock-like perspicacity to safely judge when and where we truly need a helmet, anyway. Particularly ill-equipped to make such judgements are all the new climbers flocking from gym to crag. Hence, you’re not only protecting your own dome when you helmet up, but you’re setting an example for all those innocent n00bs.

Born Free

“Climbing is about freedom, and helmets detract from that experience.”

The Stone Mind responds: Motorcyclists make this argument, too. It holds up really well until an accident happens. Then all that freedom is goes the window and you find yourself in a hospital bed, relearning how to use a fork and knife. Plus, how much freedom does a lightweight helmet really suck from your experience on the rock? More than your harness and rope?

Slippery Slope

“Next you’ll say we should be wearing helmets in the car or walking down the street!”

The Stone Mind responds: Probably not. I mean, the car analogy doesn’t hold up because in any modern vehicle you’re already surrounded by multiple layers of safety, like antilock brakes, airbags, impact zones, seat belts, and more. And clearly, walking on a sidewalk and scaling a wall of friable stone with nothing but a strand of rope for protection exist on different ends of the risk spectrum when it comes to the likelihood of head injury. But you know who does wear helmets? Cyclists, skateboarders (in parks, anyway), snowboarders, football players, (most) motorcyclists, race car drivers, and many other user groups who run a significant risk of cranial impact.

Hot Headed

“Helmets make me sweat, are heavy, chafe, and in general aren’t comfy.”

The Stone Mind responds: Maybe back in the day, but modern helmet technology has come a long way. Most major brands now offer well ventilated, ultralight options that weigh half a pound or even less… not much more than that  beanie you insist on wearing even when it’s hot enough to take your shirt off.

Pay to Play

“I can’t afford a helmet; I spent all my money on cams.”

The Stone Mind responds: That is a good point. Can’t skimp on those cams. Still, I bet you can find a brain bucket on sale somewhere for under fifty simoleons. Or your buddy who works in the industry can probably hook you with a bro deal, amiright??!

The Catch

“I heard someone once got a carabiner hooked on their chin strap and then fell and ended up getting hung.”

The Stone Mind responds: This kind of reasoning is often trotted out by seatbelt haters, who suggest buckling up is actually dangerous because it could trap you in a flaming car. I’m sure such tragedies have occurred in the history of the world, but I think we should be more concerned about the scenario likely to happen 99.9% of the time versus the one that happens 0.1% of the time, don’t you? Like the scenario where your helmet prevents injury and doesn’t cause it…

Peer Pressure

“No one else at the crag is wearing one!”

The Stone Mind responds: The standard mom response works pretty well here: if everyone decided to jump off a bridge, would you?! (Don’t answer that, BASE jumpers.) Luckily, helmets appear to be more and more common at the crags, perhaps as a result of a younger generation accustomed to wearing protection on bikes, boards, and skis.

I Do What I Want

“I don’t care what you say—you’re not the helmet police and no one can make me wear one.”

The Stone Mind responds: This is absolutely correct. If you understand that a helmet might help save you from serious pain and suffering, and that wearing one needn’t be a great burden in terms weight or comfort or financial cost, and you still choose not to wear one, then there’s not much to be said. You can also choose to climb without a rope, live without health insurance, and drive without a seatbelt (though the latter is illegal in most states). It is your life and your health—may the force be with you!


Disclaimer: I work for Petzl, a company that manufactures helmets. However, as a climber of more than two decades, the views in this post are entirely my own and informed by my own experiences. This blog is in no way intended to advocate the use of any particular brand of helmet over another. Add to that the fact that helmets are not designed for nor capable of preventing all the dangers of climbing. Educate yourself, read the manufacturer’s technical information provided with your helmet, and decide for yourself when and how to use your helmet.

The Climber’s Religion

Devil's Tower at sunrise. Photo by Bradley Davis: BackpackPhotography (via Creative Commons)
Devil’s Tower at sunrise. Photo by Bradley Davis: BackpackPhotography.

“Climbing is my religion.” I’ve heard it many times, often in an effort to express the depth of feeling the speaker holds for climbing. Other times it’s been a response to the diminution of climbing as “recreation,” a “pastime,” or a “sport,” or to conflicts between more commonly accepted religions and climbing,

Typically, such conflicts have arisen in the mountain West, between Native American tribes and climbers, who by dint of public land use statutes have been allowed to climb on rock formations that various tribes deem sacred. Perhaps the best known such site is Devil’s Tower, where over a dozen tribes claim religious or ancestral ties. Many climbers claim a religious connection of their own in the act of climbing the 1,200-foot igneous intrusion.

I lean towards skepticism when it comes to such claims of climbing’s deeper significance. Just because we love rock climbing and dedicate our time, money, and energy to it, doesn’t mean it’s our religion. A religion has so much more to it, doesn’t it? There’s ritual and context, history and culture. Us climbers, we were just fooling around—albeit in a pretty serious way—right?

But for some reason the idea of climbing as religion stuck with me, maybe because I’ve never been entirely clear on what a religion is or isn’t, anyway. Is a holy book required? Millions of followers? A thousand-year-old history? The Internal Revenue Service defines a “church” for the purposes of taxation or lack thereof, listing attributes such as: definite and distinct ecclesiastical government, established places of worship, schools for the preparation of its members, literature of its own, and more. It would be hard to see climbing fitting this admittedly loose definition… And yet…

In his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, the famed late-nineteenth century philosopher and psychologist William James reviews an assortment of specific cases of religious believers. He concludes that there is “a common nucleus to which they bear their testimony unanimously,” and that it consists of two parts: “1. An uneasiness; and 2. Its solution.” The first is an uneasiness about ourselves, that we are fallen from grace or under the spell of a delusion. The second is the belief that “we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.”

A connection with higher powers, in the religious context, is often described as an overwhelming sense of oneness with something greater than oneself and a disconnection from the day-to-day struggles and worries that consume our conscious minds. A Christian might call this a direct connection with God. A Buddhist would say it’s a taste of Nirvana. Plenty of climbers have felt such connection high above the earth, moving over rock faces and mountain slopes.

In an attempt to further unyoke such connection from any specific belief system, the contemporary philosopher Sam Harris writes, “Spirituality must be distinguished from religion—because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences.” In his book Waking Up, he defines spirituality simply as “repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self.”

With all this in mind, I might suggest that many climbers (though certainly not all) share this essential human experience that is so often tied to religion but, depending on who you ask, need not be. Many climbers experience an uneasiness with the world as it is and life as it is commonly lived. We also believe we have found a solution in the act of climbing, which helps us connect with something bigger than our day-to-day selves.

Neither the IRS nor practitioners of the world’s many recognized religions are likely to buy climbing’s holy claims. Where is our good book? Our ordained ministers? Our formal code of doctrine? In the end, the only thing we have is our direct experience of the sublime, those moments where the self dissolves into pure being and acting, often in the original and most primal place of human worship: nature.

It may not be enough to garner any official designation, but I think this is the experiential underpinning on which all religions are built, and without which all the hallowed traditions and rituals of the world would seem as flat as filling out a tax form.

Three Elements of Climbing: Balance, Timing, and Power

Three elements of climbing: balance, power, and timing

As a student, I worked at the university climbing gym with an odd character I’ll refer to as KP. This fellow claimed a disorder that somehow linked his left and right hand; when he gripped with one, the other was compelled to contract sympathetically. To adapt his climbing to his condition, KP developed a unique approach to climbing. He needed to execute moves very efficiently to be able to climb at all.

This approach, in turn, formed the basis of his teaching technique. Balance, timing, and power—these three elements were the building blocks of all climbing movement, KP believed. By mixing and matching them in various degrees, once could achieve the highest level of ability. And like the “four humors” of medical history, an imbalance of any of these elements would impede one’s development as a climber.

I’m not sure I ever fully bought in to KP’s philosophy. Still, there was something to it. It encapsulated some useful truths about climbing and allowed people an entrance into the subtle art of vertical movement. Here, a few thoughts on the three elements, based only vaguely on the ideas KP espoused those many years ago.

Balance – The most fundamental element of climbing is balance. Without balance, we would be flailing and straining constantly. It is the foundation on which everything is built.

Balance is the art of using our skeletons to support our weight under the pull of gravity. When we stand over foot holds on a vertical or slabby wall, we can hold ourselves easily on the smallest of pockets and edges. Our muscles can relax, almost as if we were standing on flat ground. This changes with the angle and shape of the wall, but the basic concept still holds, even if that means we’re balancing the pull of opposing holds against one another on an overhang.

The problem with balance is that moving the center of gravity requires us to exit perfect balance, in which case power and timing come into play. For example, when you go from standing to walking, you immediately begin to fall forward, swinging your leg out to catch yourself before going too far out of balance. In such a case, timing is critical to not falling on one’s face. Which leads us to our next point…

Timing – On a climb, timing allows us to move without relying only on power (strength, muscular exertion) to stay on the wall. A deadpoint is a moment that takes full advantage of timing. At the top of an upward movement, our bodies experience a brief moment of respite from gravity’s pull. Before our mass begins accelerating down, there’s a chance to grab a hold and control it. This is the deadpoint. Grab too soon or too late, and the movement becomes significantly harder to execute. Timing is the thing.

The points in a climbing movement that free us up to move our feet and hands are often fleeting, and a kinetic sensibility and general practice allow us to make the most of them. This is the art of timing. Paired with balance and power, it makes for that effortless style that the best climbers exhibit.

Power  I put power last not because it’s the least important, but because it’s the flashiest of the three elements and therefore can distract from the development of a well-rounded style. Most climbers think the best way to improve is to do pull-ups, lift weight, and hangboard, ignoring the development of balance and timing skills. Strength is the first attribute we cite when describing an impressive climber: “Oh, she’s strong,” or, “He’s a beast.”

One would be well served to focus on the development of balance and timing solely for much of one’s early climbing days, in an effort to become more efficient and controlled. Muscular fortitude will come somewhat naturally as a result of practice, and can then be augmented as needed through training after such good techniques are in place.

The three elements of balance, timing, and power are really inseparable. To develop one without developing the others at all is nearly impossible. But it is certainly possible to rely too much on one at the expense of the others.

A climber who leans on balance too much is often afraid to attempt dynamics, and thus get stumped by anything he can’t reach with a relatively static motion.

A timing-reliant climber will move too quickly, often putting herself out of balance and relying on fast reflexes to stay on the wall—the problem here is that the slightest misfire will result in a sudden descent.

And power climbers, while able to lock off or campus through moves impressively, can easily find themselves in situations where a simple balance shift or a deft dynamic snatch would have yielded the same result with half the exertion, leaving more fuel in the tank for later.

KP’s theory of balance, power, and timing, provides a pretty good framework for addressing individual moves, and I’ve found that martial arts practitioners, baseball pitchers, and golfers, among others, break movement down similarly.

I also feel that one could apply these three elements metaphorically to life as a whole:

Balance is the ability to find one’s center no matter the orientation, to remain relaxed even in challenging contexts.

Timing is needed to move from one balance state to the next. In these periods we are vulnerable to disruption, but we must use timing to our advantage to move in the desired direction. It is often the most efficient way to move from one circumstance to another.

Finally, extreme reliance on power should be used as a last resort. Balance and timing typically allow us to move with greater efficiency, but when we meet a cruxy moment in life and there’s no way around but through, power becomes a necessity.

Even then, the sparing, and wise exertion of power is required, and this understanding is best had when moving from a position of balance.

True Rock Climbing Facts

Here at The Stone Mind, one of our core missions is to shine the unwavering light of scientific research into the darkest corners of the climbing universe. We wish to show things that perhaps would not be evident to the untrained eye. Here, we’ve used the most current sociological methods and also recent exciting developments in big data mining to create new insights and bring them to you in the form of these handy infographics…

What are we doing at the climbing gym?

happening-at-climbing-gymIn a five-year longitudinal study following over 10,000 climbers who frequent the gym one or more times per week, and whose ages, genders, and socioeconomic status run the gamut, we found that the most common climbing gym activity, by a large margin, is socializing, and that a wide variety of non-climbing activities account for the lion’s share of the average individual’s time.

Relative likelihood of dropping a piece of climbing gear

climbing-gear-drop-chancesAdding nuance to Murphy’s Law, which states “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” we present this near-perfect linear relationship between the critical nature of a piece of climbing gear and the likelihood that said piece of gear will be dropped. Therefore, if you will need to perform many rappels, you are likely to drop your belay device. If you are facing a long section of technical ice on your summit bid, chances are good that you’ll bobble one or both ice tools. On the other hand, virtually no one will ever drop their Nipple Portable Bluetooth™ Speaker.

Trends in climbing fashion over time

climbing-fashion-trends-chartThe style trends of the modern climber have changed considerably since the 1970s, but as this chart shows, certain items (Spandex pants, headbands or bandanas, and tank tops, for example) are making a strong return to favor. For those who want to stay ahead of the fashion curve, these figures also indicate it might be time to get those work pants and rugby shirts out at the crag again.

The Path of Most Resistance

A climber bouldering in Little Cottonwood Canyon

The hardest thing I ever climbed took me probably 50 tries to finish. It was a boulder problem in the woods of New York, and from start to finish it couldn’t have been more than 15 feet long. Each hold was so small and each move so strenuous that I would frequently spend a whole afternoon just trying to puzzle out one little section.

The irony wasn’t lost on me when, after finishing this climb at the very outer limit of my skill level, I turned and walked down to ground level via the boulder’s sloping backside.

I could have easily walked up this backside in sneakers and ended up in the same spot I got to through weeks of concerted effort directed at the overhanging face. A non-climber might see this and think I had wasted my time, and from a practical standpoint, he’d be right.

But really, the thing that makes any climb worth the time has got to be the challenge. The challenge itself, often viewed as an obstacle, is the source of something deeper. It’s the tool we use to dig into ourselves and find that beating, luminous core.

Things that don’t challenge us often bore us. Art that’s merely pretty is decoration; art that challenges can transform. A job that challenges us is engaging; while one that requires little thought or special effort is monotonous.

Luckily, as with that boulder problem I tangled with, we can find challenges almost anywhere, even where easier paths already exist. The challenge isn’t necessarily inherent to a thing or an act, but is something we create for ourselves.

In the book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about an assembly line worker who sets challenges for himself that allow deep engagement in his very repetitive job. In the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, we follow master chef Jiro Ono, who has dedicated his every breath to the perfection, tiny step by tiny step, of the art of sushi making. Both used the challenge of continuous improvement to generate a deeper sense of significance in what could also be seen as workaday employment.

We climbers are sometimes criticized for our obsession with quantifiable improvement, also known as number chasing—indeed, I think a grasping mindset can easily become detrimental to balance and happiness—but most of us are just looking for a well-matched challenge. It’s that feeling of total focus that takes us out of ourselves and while teaching us about ourselves… that fully engages us with the act of living.

As climbers, we choose the hard way not because we’re masochists, but because the path of most resistance is often the fastest route to our true objectives.

Arrive With Every Step

Hikers walking along a trail in Wild Iris, Wyoming. The Stone Mind.
Hikers walking to the crag at Wild Iris, Wyoming.

My wife hadn’t been in the mountains much before she moved to Colorado from Philadelphia eight years ago. So the first time she came out with me and my climbing buddies on the long, steep approach to Chaos Canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park, she got frustrated. “Why are you guys hiking so fast?” She asked. “The boulders will still be there if we slow down, I bet.”

At the time, I attributed her comments to the suffering of a sea-level dweller struggling at altitude, but looking back, I see it differently. What were we hurrying for, after all? I still find myself doing it: hustling to the crag like it was some sort of a race, with competitors hot on my tail. But now I try to slow down and make more of the process.

I’ve been listening to a Zen monk named Thich Nhat Hanh on Spotify. His soft, accented voice and halting cadence are mesmerizing. In one of his lectures he talks about hiking up a mountain—Mount Wǔtái, a Buddhist sacred site in northern China:

There was a tourist guide to lead us and she was holding a little flag. … But we did not follow her—but we did not follow her way—so we made a strange group who climbed very, very slowly. And after having made 10 steps like that we sit down and enjoy looking around. And then we stood up and continue for another 10 steps. We had plenty of time—nothing to do, nowhere to go. Just enjoy. The means become the end. We want to arrive with every step.

His words reminded me of that early hike with my wife. She wanted to look around, take in the mountains and the plants and the little alpine critters skittering and fluttering around us. Up in Rocky Mountain National park, things are always changing: clouds rush in and soften the daylight, storms boom lighting down around the high lakes, winds stir fallen leaves, huge snowflakes fill the air like sudden moths…

But me? I just wanted to be sure to get to my project 15 minutes faster. I guess I thought it could mean the difference between sending and not sending.

“Mindfulness” always struck me as a word tainted with the scent of new-age cheese. It conjured images of dreadlocked kids in Boulder sipping yerba mate from dried gourds and wishing namaste to all the passers by. But again, I’ve come to see things differently.

At root, mindfulness isn’t about ideology but about discovering for ourselves: what are we thinking and feeling, what are our motivations, what are the effects of our actions? To act mindfully is simply to act with deeper awareness and honesty. Rushing towards goals is rarely an act of mindfulness but is instead a result of our desires or fears.

It’s a little much for me to walk quite so slowly as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, but I do remind myself to be more mindful on my hikes: to bring intention to every step, to be aware of the breath in my nose, to let my skin tell me little stories about the direction of the wind, humidity, the energy of the sun… .

Even when climbing a route, I think most of us could do better to direct focus away from the burning in our forearms, the distance to the next clip, or visions of success or failure. Instead, return focus to the moment, breathe and inhabit the heartbeat. Feel what it is to hang from a sheer wall of rock, which muscles can be relaxed and which should remain tight, and so on.

In short, really experience the climb rather that rush to finish it. The climb itself becomes a joy. The means become the end. With each move, you arrive at the destination.

Routesetting Wu Wei

Holds and an impact driver for routesetting - The Stone Mind

We Petzl employees are lucky enough to have a bouldering wall at our Salt Lake City offices, and sometimes a few of us use our lunch breaks to put up holds. During one such lightning setting round, I noticed we had a surplus of one particular kind of hold: a rounded, pad-and-a-half edge colored like the marbled paper I used to make in elementary school art class. On a whim, I grabbed all the marbled edges and went to work on a traverse.

My lunch break drawing to an end, I slapped up the edges in a hurry, with only the loosest sense of the moves I wanted to create. In a state of “flow,” I bolted on all the handholds in five minutes, then nabbed a box of foot jibs and sprayed those up even more quickly. Certain I’d have to do some serious editing to this hastily crafted route, I grabbed my chalk bag to give it a test run.

Right away I was surprised. Everything flowed better than I suspected. I hadn’t pictured every detail of the climb, but was pulled by an intuition of the moves as I set them. The result, I think, was a more complete representation of my intent than I could have reasoned out with precise planning and goal-oriented forethought.

In routesetting as in climbing, the best performances often come when following our instincts. First we must assiduously practice our art of choice, of course, but then, when given the appropriate circumstances, we can go beyond what we could have done by willful action alone. Many view this state as the unification of body and mind or even self and universe. Ultimately, this idea of acting without striving or “non-doing” (wu wei) is a cornerstone of Eastern religions, from Hinduism to Taoism to Buddhism.

One of my favorite Zen stories, “The First Precept,” deals with this concept nicely:

The Obaku temple in Kyoto has a carving over the gate which says “The First Principle”. The 200-year-old carving, with exceptionally large letters, is admired by many as a masterpiece of calligraphy. It is the work of Kosen, the master carver.

Kosen would sketch the letters on paper and they would be carved on wood by his workmen. Now, Kosen had a rather audacious student who prepared large quantities of ink for his master. He was often very critical of his master’s technique.

“Not good enough!” said he, about Kosen’s first attempt.
“How about this one?” asked Kosen after his second drawing.

“That’s worse than the previous one!” exclaimed the bold pupil.
Kosen wrote out eighty-four sheets of “The First Principle”, but none met with the student’s approval. Then the young man stepped out of the room for a few minutes. Kosen thought to himself “Here’s my chance to escape his sharp eye!” Freed of distraction, he hurriedly wrote “The First Principle.”

The student returned. “Brilliant! A masterpiece,” he exclaimed.

It’s so simple: we practice with intention again and again, always weighted down by the desire for a particular outcome. Then, eventually, we find ourselves freed from the desire for whatever reason, and we are able to act from a deeper place. You might say this place is within us, or that its part of some underlying force (the tao), or that they are one and the same. Regardless…

So what’s the lesson then? That to do our best, we must let go of the desire to do our best. It’s another of those pesky puzzles that reason can’t solve. Words can only point us towards the answer, but as the old Zen saying goes, “Don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.” Instead, quiet the conscious mind and let the answer appear.

Chuck Odette Facts

It's not the fall that kills you… it's Chuck Odette waiting for you at the bottom

Master Chuck

Chuck Odette managed the demo gear fleet for Petzl’s national events. This meant that our sales rep force would contact Chuck to request demo harnesses, helmets, and headlamps for events like the Ouray Ice Fest or the Red River Rendezvous. Chuck was notoriously meticulous when it came to scheduling, and he was frustrated to no end when stuff didn’t make it back to Petzl HQ in time for the next event.

One year, at a sales meeting, Chuck stood up and made a demonstration to impress on the sales reps the consequences of not returning gear on time: he had me hold up a thick pine board while he punched it in two with perfect karate form. Those reps would think twice before delaying a return shipment again…

Chuck was in his mid-50s then, yet he had the physique of an athletic 30-year-old. His sandy blond hair was long and he tied it back into a ponytail when he practiced yoga poses and karate katas at lunch.  It was around this time that I started to equate Chuck with legendary caucasian martial arts movie star Chuck Norris.

Last week, at the age of 59 and after twelve years at Petzl, Chuck retired. Unlike your average retiree, however, Chuck sold his house in Ogden, Utah, gussied up a Scamp camper trailer, and hit the road with his wife Maggie on a quest to climb (and bolt) hard sport routes.

For his retirement party, I put together some memes based on the famous Chuck Norris Facts that have been circulating on the web for the past decade or so. I didn’t write any of the facts in the memes below; I just copy/pasted and switched out “Odette” for “Norris”—they seemed to work just as well. I think they do a lot to capture this hard-climbing, karate kicking grandpa’s badass personality and sense of humor.

More from Chuck

If you know him…

…feel free to submit your own Chuck Odette facts in the comments.

Chuck Odette Facts

Heights are afraid of Chuck Odette

Chuck Odette doesn't have a mullet… his mustache just has a back-up

Girls open doors for Chuck Odette

Chuck Odette doesn't actually need food. Food just uses his body for protection

Chuck Odette looks 30 although he is 59 because age tried to catch up with him but he roundhouse kicked it back ti 1985

Chuck Odette is the only person who can kick you in the back of the face

When Chuck Odette smoked his first cigarette, the cigarette coughed

When it's cold outside, frost gets Chuck-bite

Chuck Odette can't go bald. His hair is too scared to leave.

If at first you don't succeed, you're not Chuck Odette

The Stone Mind T-Shirts Are Here!

The Stone Mind logo T-shirt


Available now! The Stone Mind T-shirts via Adorned on the chest with a logo designed by artist Kristin Marine, these organic ringspun cotton shirts are lightweight, double needle stitched, and come in three colors.

Recommended uses: climbing, writing, meditating, or even chilling with a fine whiskey on a fall day.

More designs to come…



I don’t feel like writing anything today

Keyboard with no letters - The Stone Mind

After breakfast Sunday I waded desultorily through my mental list of possible blog topics, and all I could think was, “I don’t feel like writing anything today.” My wife and I took the dog for a walk and ate some leftover saag paneer for lunch. Then I thought some more about writing and decided to read another chapter of Dune and take a nap.

It was just one of those days. I wasn’t feeling inspired. Then I remembered that thing Chuck Close said in a letter to his 14-year-old self, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Which is a weirdly inspiring thing to say.

So I sat down at the ol’ laptop and clacked out, “I don’t feel like writing anything today.” Even as I typed it, a second half of the sentence jumped onto the page: “I don’t feel like writing anything today… but I’m going to do it anyway.”

From there, the thoughts began to roll. I followed one thread, decided I didn’t like it and backtracked, followed another one. I started reading some blogs on the topic of inspiration and motivation. I re-watched some videos that touched on similar ideas. Connections started to make themselves and ideas spawned new ideas. I wrote the better part of a blog and deleted it and then wrote this one.

In that same letter to his boyhood self, Close wrote, “Every great idea I ever had grew out of work itself.” It’s worth pinning up over your desk, or carrying around in your wallet or something.

In a post celebrating his blog’s three-year anniversary, my friend Brendan wrote, “Basically this thing turns three today because I’m too stubborn to not let it turn three.” His very popular blog,, is by turns uplifting, insightful, hilarious, and touching. And it would not exist if not for stubbornness.

Stubbornness gets a bad rap. When someone stubbornly refuses to admit they made a mistake, for example, it doesn’t do anyone any good. But all those people society holds up as great and significant were, I guarantee, stubborn as hell. It’s the only way to really accomplish anything in a world heavy with inertia and full of seemingly good reasons to give up on whatever it is you’re interested in doing.

I think stubbornness can be an excellent attribute to cultivate, though, because it allows us to move forward even when everything seems to be pointing in the other direction, even our own desire. Often people attribute the drive to push ahead to passion, but that’s really only half—or less than half—of the story. There are too many days when the passion just isn’t firing. You gotta be stubborn, unwilling to bend to the whims of the moment. Confident that you’ll thank yourself later, as when the alarm goes off for dawn patrol.

In a TEDx video, pro skater Rodney Mullen explains that for every few seconds of success on a skateboard, there are hours and days of failure. “What we do is fall…all the time. And we get back up,” he says. Climbers engage in the same quixotic pattern, stubbornly chasing the moment when impossible becomes possible. To do anything well and explore it deeply, this ability it required.

It’s of primary importance to show up again and again and do our thing, whatever that may be, with earnest effort and open mind. Dig deeper, work smarter, think different—yes, yes, and yes… but first you have to show up. And sometimes that’s the hardest part. It was for me when I started writing this.

In the end, if we’re stubborn (and lucky) enough, the result might be something revolutionary or ground-breaking or world-changing. Or it might simply be a life well-lived, which I think is even better.

7 Crag/Drink Pairings for the Thirsty Climber

Clint Eastwood and George Kennedy enjoy an Olympia Beer at the top of the Totem Pole.
Clint Eastwood drinking Olympia Beer at the top of the Totem Pole, in Arizona’s Monument Valley. From The Eiger Sanction.

Traveling to climb is great: it gives us the chance to experience not only new stone and unfamiliar cultures, but also to sample various beverages full of local flavor. Below is a tiny slice of the many, many fine crag/drink pairings to be found at famous climbing areas around the world.

What libations should visitors be sure to sample when visiting your local climbing area? Add your crag/drink pairing in the comments…

1. Rifle, Colorado / Avery Beer

Home to blocky limestone routes and the highest concentration of sticky-rubber kneepads in the United States, Rifle Mountain Park also plays host to a strange initiation ritual involving beer and climbing. Adam Avery, proprietor of Boulder-based Avery Brewing Company, is said to have set a challenge: a climber must down a sixer of Avery beer in three hours and then redpoint “certain routes” in order to earn a Team Avery hoody. Even if you’re not trying out for the team, after spending several hours greasing off Rifle’s notoriously sandbagged sport routes, you might want to try a Redpoint Ale, and Ellie’s Brown Ale, or perhaps a Salvation Belgian Golden Ale… to help sooth the sting of defeat.

2. Céüse, France / Gigondas 

In France’s Haute Provence, Céüse is routinely ranked amongst the wold’s finest climbing spots. The blue-and-white streaked, pocketed limestone there easily makes up for the long approach. Even better, the region in which this Platonic ideal of a climbing spot rests is full of vineyards and wineries. Among the area’s popular appellations is Gigondas, “a little brother of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.” The town of Gigondas, about 60 miles from Céüse, lies at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail, a mountain range with climbing that actually overlooks the area’s vineyards. While in Céüse, you might also catch a glimpse of Chartreuse on local spirits menus. This tasty herbal aperitif produced by monks in the nearby Chartreuse Mountains is well worth a try.

3. New River Gorge, West Virginia / Mountain Moonshine

With thousands of sport routes, trad routes, and boulder problems on the area’s exceptionally high-quality Nuttall Sandstone, it’s no wonder the New River Gorge frequently ranks on climber’s lists as one America’s finest climbing destinations. The region in which the beautiful NRG is found, however, is economically depressed and not particularly known for its beers, wines, or liquors…  except, perhaps, for the famed moonshine that locals have been distilling illegally for well over 100 years. Nowadays, there are numerous legal, tax-paying moonshine distilleries across Appalachia who produce the high-octane, corn-based, unaged white whiskey. One of them, Appalachian Moonshine, can be found in Ripley, West Virginia, about 100 miles from the New River Gorge. Y in liquor stores around the state.

4. Kalymnos, Greece / Mythos Beer

Home to massive, tufa-studded limestone sport routes, the Greek Island of Kalymnos is known as a climber’s paradise. Relatively dry, with year-round climbing possible, many visitors here rent scooters to get around. In keeping with the general holiday mood that Kalymnos inspires, a light, easy drinking lager called Mythos Beer is popular among locals and visitors alike, according to Aris Theodoropoulos. It’s light on alcohol, so it won’t leave you with a hangover to ruin your climbing on the mythic formations the next day. Another popular Greek liquor you can find on the island is Ouzo. It’s a strong, clear booze flavored with anise, lending it an aromatic licorice taste. Add some water and it turns cloudy white… typically served with small plates of food called mezedes.

5. Red River Gorge, Kentucky / Bourbon (various local labels)

Miguel’s Pizza, the prime hangout and campground for Kentucky’s sandstone climbing paradise, is in a dry county. Still, one has only to drive an hour or two to access over a dozen bourbon distilleries. From Maker’s Mark to Woodford Reserve to Evan Williams, there’s no shortage of Kentucky’s famous barrel-aged distilled spirit in these parts. If you choose to tour these distilleries, be sure to assign a designated driver… or better yet, just pick up a bottle on your way into the Red and enjoy it around the campfire. (If you want to blend in with the locals, you might do better to hit the beer trailer just over the country line and grab a case of Budweiser or Miller Lite.)

6. Blue Mountains, Australia / Victorian Bitter

A few hours east of Sydney, the Blue Mountains (aka “the Blueys”) area in New South Wales is a massive red sandstone canyon chock full of amazing climbs. While perhaps not as popular among international visitors as the Grampians, the Blueys is worth a visit, both for the climbing and for the scenery. The small towns of Katoomba, Blackheath, and Mount Victoria offer coffee shops for morning fuel-ups and pubs to entertain in the evening and on rest days. Here, says Australian crush Chris Webb Parson, “The bogan drink—or cliché drink—is a beer called Victorian Bitter. We just call it VB. It’s funny though… If you’re from Queensland, you drink a brand called XXXX (four X).”

7. Frankenjura / Beer (various local brews)

This massive limestone climbing area comprises over 1500 crags spread over hundreds of miles and hundreds of little villages. Home to one of the largest collections of hard climbs in the world, as well as the first 9a ever climbed (Action Directe), visitors and locals looking to unwind after a day of pocket pulling will typically hoist one of the many hundreds of local brews. In fact, Frankenjura is in the Oberfranken region, described in the Huffington Post as “quite possibly the pinnacle of beer awesomeness in Bavaria,” which easily puts it near the top of beer awesomeness pretty much anywhere. Prost!

But wait! Before you click off to that cat video compilation your cousin sent you last week, don’t forget to add your favorite crag/drink pairings in the comments!

A Rare and Confounding Thing

What Dean Potter did with his life was risky. Wildly so, by any average American’s estimation. From climbing without a rope, to highlining without a tether, to jumping from cliffs with a parachute strapped to his back, all of Potter’s passions could reasonably be classified as “crazy.” He knowingly dedicated his life to “pursuing some of the most dangerous endeavors man can undertake,” as he put it in an interview on photographer Jimmy Chin’s website.

But amidst the media hype and the dismissive critics, it’s easy to forget that this pursuit required great skill and intense dedication, applied over years with care and focus. From every indication, Potter’s climbs and jumps and highlines were calculated and considered, executed in the face of deep fear by a disciplined practitioner. I do not think it would be too much to call his actions a form of art (he did). An art with the highest stakes, but an art nonetheless, and one that inspired many… Or more importantly inspired many debates and much reflection in the hearts of those who bore witness.

In his interview on Chin’s site, Potter said:

The common thread in my three arts is pushing into fear, exhaustion, beauty and the unknown. I willingly expose myself to death-consequence situations in order to predictably enter heightened awareness. … I empty myself and function within a meditative state where I focus on nothing but my breathing. This manifests emptiness. This void needs to be filled, and somehow it draws in and makes me recognize the roots of my most meaningful ponderings and often leads to a feeling of connectivity with everything.

To access this type of elevated state of awareness, religious practitioners across time have taken to asceticism, self-denial, and self-mortification. They have ingested psychoactive substances, handled venomous snakes, and wandered the desert alone. Athletes of all kinds have pushed themselves to the edge of disaster and beyond in search of the perfect, transcendent moment. Potter was not the first nor will he be the last to seek enlightenment on the razor’s edge.

Some of us are lucky: the life we want can be found in the relatively safe confines of white picket fences, the climate controlled halls of office buildings. I count myself among this group. The styles of climbing I engage in are fairly low on the risk spectrum—probably not much crazier than riding a bicycle on a city street—and my joy for writing has not (yet) put me in harm’s way.

But for others, it seems, the activities that energize and bring life meaning can only be found out on the fringes, past the bounds deemed socially acceptable. This was clearly where Potter needed to be. Whatever you think about him, it’s worth bearing this in mind.

In the final analysis, no one can say for sure what drove Potter. As Andy Kirkpatrick put it, “Dean was ungraspable—the reason being perhaps because his greatest struggle was grasping the contradictions of himself.” Regardless, the imprint left in his wake is clear: like his physical form, it is outsized; like his words and deeds it is awe-inspiring, disruptive, and controversial.

Was he selfish? Reckless? Such judgements, already being bandied about in the comments of popular news sites, seem glib and pointless. Potter’s life, and now his death, deserve more thoughtful reflection.

When considering a man who lived “like plankton” on the rock beneath an overhang of the Eiger, meditating and drinking meltwater for more than a month at a stretch, it’s hard to see Potter as anything less that a human dedicated to the deep exploration of his own being, in all its boundless, ragged, fragile glory. A rare and confounding thing indeed.

Goals vs. Process


Climbing is a funny game because it lends itself to a goal-focused mentality and at the same time requires us to be in the moment.

We climbers tend to go from one project to the next, often focusing on doing what’s needed to attain a specific end result. Through this constant project questing, we naturally enter moments of intense presence, when all the training and the preparation fades away into a flow experience.

But it’s easy to spoil the perfect simplicity of these in-the-moment moments when our goals loom up and influence decisions, stirring feelings of inadequacy or disappointment when things don’t go as planned. The goals seem so important, but instead of chasing them, I think life can be more satisfying and free when lived from a core understanding that guides each moment.

The nature of water as it interacts with gravity, earth, and stone is what dictates each twist and turn of a river. So too can our own nature, our own central principles, serve as guides for a sort of effortless action.

In the book Mindful Work, former Patagonia CEO Casey Sheahan describes a boyhood fly fishing lesson from company founder Yvon Chouinard:

“He got me to work on my casting, and slowing down, and working on an efficient, easy-to-perform cast as opposed to just going out and trying to hook a bunch of fish,” Sheahan said. “So if you focus on the process and get better at that, you will actually have a happy outcome. You’ll have a better process, and you will catch fish because you’re in tune with what’s happening in the water and your surroundings, instead of going out and just trying to catch fish.”

In other words, the less focused you are on a goal (catching fish, climbing a certain grade, making money, etc.), and the more engaged you are with the process, the more likely you are to achieve your goal. (Paradoxical, isn’t it? It conjures up the Chinese concept of wu wei, or the “flow state” that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about.)

Fly fishing gives us a good metaphor for talking about ambition and goal-focused behavior, but I think Sheahan’s story is missing an important component: when your motivation comes from the right place, catching fish at all is not so important. Fish or no fish—send or no send—it’s still a “happy outcome” when your approach is grounded in process and in the moment.

This can be a particularly hard thing to embrace for a CEO, whose job is to make a business profitable, but really it’s hard for us all. If we’re not focused on goals, how do we know we’re improving? How do we judge ourselves against others? How do we know whether to be disappointed in ourselves or proud? The simple answer is, “we don’t.” But maybe that’s for the best… .

After all, what is today’s outcome but another step in an endless process? Where does the process stop and the goal begin? And if life is all process and no goal, what choice to we have but to make the most if it, every step of the way?

When In Doubt, Go Higher

Looking out from the Lost Canyon Trail, Zion. Photo: Justin Roth / The Stone Mind

“When in doubt, go higher.” It’s the tagline for a classic outdoor publication called the Mountain Gazette. I worked at the paper briefly, once upon a time.

“…Go higher.” It’s a fun little phrase, though, if not one apt to get you into trouble. (“When in doubt, go down” might have better served many an unfortunate climber or backcountry skier, alas.) Still there’s something to it. It resonates with a certain type of person.

When I was young, I unintentionally lived by this dictum. I went too high up the giant conical pine trees in our front yard and came down covered in insoluble sap. No more than six years old, I chossaneered up short, exfoliating shale cliffs in the ravine by my house in what felt like Honoldian feats of soloing.

“When in doubt, go higher” was knocking around my head this weekend as my wife and I plodded up Zion National Park’s steep Hidden Canyon Trail. What makes going up so damned appealing, I wondered?

I’ve been reading a book called The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease, by Daniel Lieberman, which offers evolutionary explanations for many of our traits, from skeletal structure to mental issues and food tastes. The book, in theory points towards a possible answer to the above question.

Maybe many of us feel an unconscious pull towards higher ground for the same reason that bodies of water are almost universally attractive: at some point, they might well have been instrumental to our survival.

According to The Story of the Human Body, our evolutionary ancestors of 5-8 million years ago—our last common ancestor (LCA) with chimps, its believed—lived most of their lives at height. The LCA, a primate, sought out high perches for sleeping as a means of protection from predators. Most modern monkeys and apes sleep in trees, and chimps even build comfy nests there. Gelada baboons spends their nights like big-wallers, dozing on cliff faces.

Human ancestors not only sought shelter high above the earth, but they found sustenance there, too. Sub-Saharan Africa, where the LCA lived, was a warm and wet place around 10 million years ago. Rainforests there would have been abundant sources of nutrient-rich fruits.

But between 10 and five million years ago, a cooling climate caused the rain forests to recede. In their place grew up woodland habitats where ripe fruits became, as Lieberman puts it, “less abundant, more dispersed, and more seasonal.” To cope, the LCA started walking more and more on two legs, venturing out in search of additional sustenance.

Obviously, we humans still walk on two legs and no longer live in trees. But like many old, seemingly outdated biological traits picked up along the evolutionary way, a love of getting up off the ground has stuck with us. One might call it a vestige of a former life.

So then maybe “When in doubt, go higher” is a phrase born subconsciously from an ancient pull towards a vantage point that offered some comfort in a wild and dangerous world. Go higher for a view of any large carnivores lurking on the horizon. Go higher for those pulpy fruits that fuel a hungry metabolism…

Go higher for a sense of peace and freedom that many of us to this day seek on the cliffs and mountains, despite the enormous changes that have made the modern world all but indistinguishable from the one our ancestors navigated millions of years ago.

Climbing Didn’t Save Me

The author shoeing up on the Carriage Road in the Gunks, New York.
The author shoeing up on the Carriage Road in the Gunks, New York.

My anxiety didn’t start when I was in college, but it crested then. In middle school and high school I struggled with anxiety about my studies, about the judgement of my classmates, about meeting girls—I gather this is normal, but mine could get pretty bad. When things were at their worst, I lived in a headspace of bleak scenarios of my own creation.

Not long after I moved into my freshman year dorm in downtown New York City, things grew worse. Life came to feel deeply stressful much of the time. This stress affected my appetite, my sleep, my health.

I adopted mechanisms for coping. When I wasn’t in classes, I walked or skateboarded all over the city, burning off the worry and calming myself with steady movement. I sought out quiet spaces like the library, where I could hide and distract myself amongst the stacks. At night I listened to public radio to fall asleep. The calm, even voices (often British at that hour) were a lifeline of reality trailing down into my turbulent dreamscape.

And of course, I climbed.

I’d been climbing since I was maybe 12 years old, and I always found solace in it. I was most engaged by the challenge of hard boulder problems and sport routes, the way they demanded complete focus. The puzzle of each climb temporarily unified brain and body. The way a climb that seemed impossible and frustrating one minute became possible and exhilarating the next give me an inkling of something deeper: that reality is more a product of our minds than I’d previously suspected.

I worked in climbing gyms to more easily get my fix. Most weekends, I escaped the relentless downtown noise with trips to the Gunks.

For an overstimulated city dweller with anxiety issues, there was nothing more therapeutic than the combination of climbing, good friends, and being outdoors. The relief of a fall day on the Carriage Road was intense after many nights of fitful sleep. The brilliant orange sunsets up there had a way of evening out my palpitating heartbeat.

Those trips allowed me to get my bearings, to remain upright in a world that often felt like it was spinning out of control. The lifestyle of climbing, which required rigorous physical activity and frequent trips to the woods, was critical at that juncture. It helped me find an all-important quiet within myself.

Many of my friends were climbers at that time, too. They were confidants, supporters, encouragers. We talked through our thoughts while walking the dirt paths in the shadow of 300-foot conglomerate cliffs.

Eventually I learned that the calmness I found climbing in nature was actually something I carried within me. I read Zen stories and Eastern philosophy and the works of Henry David Thoreau and Marcus Aurelius, all of which suggested that the external world is almost always less the problem than our reactions to it.

It was when I was struggling most with anxiety and finding relief in climbing that I started to form the perspectives that underpin much of the writing on this blog. Sharing this perspective on climbing and on life has emerged (unintentionally) as one of the aims of The Stone Mind.

I called this post “Climbing Didn’t Save Me” not because I wanted to get persnickety with semantics, but because it’s so easy to look for solutions outside of ourselves. I think it’s important to remember that external things, no matter how positive they may be, can only point us to something that’s already there.

It’s been said that We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are. I think this is right. The act of climbing helped me to see things differently, to approach the world differently. The perspectives I formed via climbing allowed me to cope with and eventually leave behind the anxiety that had plagued me.

So I guess climbing didn’t save me, but it helped me save myself. Or maybe even better: it helped me realize I was never in need of saving in the first place.