The 36 Chambers: Climbing Lessons from a Kung Fu Classic

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, released more than thirty years ago, is to kung fu movies as The Good, The Bad, And the Ugly is to spaghetti Westerns. In typical fight-flick form, the act of training, of mastering one’s self and one’s art, is the focus. That makes The 36th Chamber a great metaphor for just about any pursuit, but especially for climbing: we set our sights on projects, objectives, and grades, but as soon as we attain them, they lose their luster, and we must set new goals. Even the Chris Sharma’s of the world are still learning, still fighting against their own inner struggles. 

A product of the Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers Studios, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (aka Shaolin Master Killer) is the tale of a young man, San Te (Gordon Liu), who seeks revenge after his family is killed and his home burned by the oppressive Manchurian government. San Te makes his way to the a Shaolin temple, where he is allowed to stay on and train with the badass kung fu monks. The film follows San Te’s passage through the temple’s chambers, each holding a particular kung fu lesson. (Not all thirty-six chambers are actually portrayed, Buddha be praised.)

The training methods employed by martial artists have inspired diehard climbers over the years. The intensity of focus and the acceptance of suffering, coupled with the strong desire to master and control one’s body, make martial arts training and climbing training close cousins. Also, there is danger inherent in both activities — in martial arts, other fighters; in climbing, gravity.

For those looking to truly understand and master the intricate psycho-physical art of rock climbing, San Te’s travails at the Shaolin temple serve as a solid framework. It’s not a one-to-one correlation, to be sure, but mostly because kung fu is awesome and so is climbing I have here adapted five key training tips for climbing from The 36th Chamber of Shaolin for climbing purposes.

A brief disclaimer: the recommended exercises below are not based on any formal education, just decades of climbing experience and exposure to the thoughts of other, far more skilled rock jocks. Know thy limits. If you tweak your groin or sprain your scapula trying one of these exercises, you have only yourself to blame. 

Step 1: Footwork, balance, timing

“I kept it moving: fast, balanced, light… that is the secret. So, balance your movements.”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
Balance, footwork, and timing. These are the foundation upon which strength must be built. Skip them at your own peril.

Soon after San Te begins to study kung fu at the temple, he finds that he must cross a pool of water to access the dinning hall. Floating in the water is a bundle of logs, the only stepping stone to help him across. Try as he may, he cannot make the leap, and always ends up in the water. In the end, he learns how to combine timing, momentum, force, and balance to cross the gap.

In climbing, balance and timing are basic critical elements. It is typical to watch experienced climbers “float” up difficult routes and think that their strength must be very great, but, in fact, balance and footwork are the foundation of any skilled climber’s repertoire. Without them, strength will only take you so far.

Recommended exercises: Climb slabby routes or problems without grabbing any handholds — use only your palms flat against the surface of the wall or rock to balance yourself, relying on your legs for support and your toes and sticky rubber for contact with the wall. To do this, you’ll need to focus on balance, timing, and momentum to shift your weight from your lower foot to your higher foot and gain upward progress.

Step 2: Shoulders, upper body strength

“Most techniques need strength of arms.”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
The shoulder joint is the most vulnerable part of the climber’s body. All the force generated on a climb must pass through this complicated joint. Weak muscles here will lead to poor form and injury.

San Te’s next challenge involves carrying water buckets up to the top of a long chute. He must dump the water into a chute to help the monks below wash dirty robes. (I can’t help thinking there must be a better way… .) The catch comes in the form of knife blades strapped to San Te’s upper arms, pointed inwards. He must carry the buckets with arms outstretched or risk stabbing himself in the ribs.

For climbers, a powerful upper body is important, especially on overhanging climbs. But it’s not only about pulling hard… pushing is involved in a variety of scenarios, from stemming in dihedrals to Gastoning to manteling. Most importantly, strong shoulders, upper arms, and back offer support while climbing, allowing you to move upward with control and precision, and without injury.

Recommended exercises: To prepare the upper body for the rigors of difficult climbing, you can’t go wrong with the basics: pull-ups, push-ups, curls, dips, front and side shoulder raises, rows, and overhead presses. When using weight, it’s best to avoid lifting too heavy — anything you can’t control (read: move smoothly, without shaking or hoisting) through the whole range of the movement is likely to cause more harm than good. If you don’t know what these exercises are or how to perform them, best to consult a trainer or at least a really good YouTube video. As always, if you feel any pain, other than the pain of muscles burning with fatigue, stop immediately and don’t do what you were doing ever again. If you’re like me, you already have problems with your shoulder joints. This article does a good job offering basic exercises to help develop the small, weak muscles around the shoulder that help protect against rotator cuff implosion.

Step 3: Wrist, grip strength

“How are your wrists? Are they real strong?”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
Forearms, wrists, and fingers allow the climber to maintain a firm grip on holds.

In a later chamber, San Te has to lift a hammer on the end of a ten-foot pole and with it bang a massive bell. The exercise was devised to strengthen the hands and wrists, to create and unbreakable grip on one’s own weapon or an opponent’s weapon or body.

Finger, hand, and forearm strength is the hallmark of a rock climber. They are responsible for maintaining contact with the rock. Just a glance at a persons digits (are they calloused? Are the knuckles enlarged?) or forearm muscles (are they bulging, laced with veins?) will tell the story.

Recommended exercises: Better than all the fitness-shop grip-strengthening doodads combined is hangboarding. Workouts are brief (mine usually run for twenty minutes) and you don’t need to do them more than twice a week, especially if you’re mixing them in with a regular climbing routine. You can probably find a used hangboard on Craig’s List or eBay, and your local gym almost certainly has one, too. The most effective hangboard routines don’t involve much movement: you basically grab a pair of holds and dangle for three to eight seconds (if you can hang for longer, the holds are too easy for you), and take a brief rest. repeat three more times, and then move on to another pair of holds. I usually warm up on the bouldering wall, then start with a set of hangs on jugs. Then I progress through slopers, two-finger pockets, medium edges, small edges, and finish with slopers again. Simple. The Moon Fingerboard has consistently received good reviews , and Moon provides a nice, battle-tested workouts you can use with it.

Oh, and  don’t forget to climb. Climbing tends to be the best training for climbing.

Step 4: Eyes, focus, relaxation

“A man who wants to fight, he must have perfect eyes.”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
Often neglected, the eyes are critical in the act of climbing. 

To make sure San Te can track rapid motion with his eyes while keeping his body still, he is asked to place his head between two burning incense sticks (they’re more like logs, really). The instructor in this chamber then whips a lantern back and forth, asking San Te to follow it only with his eyes.

Most climbers often think first about their hand holds, then their foot holds, and then maybe a third thing, like breathing or core tension. How you use your eyes, though, is important. Just like batting in baseball, where you keep your eyes on the ball until contact is made, when making a deadpoint or dyno, maintaining visual contact with the goal hold is key. In addition, what you do with your eyes at a rest can make a big difference in de-pumping and preparing for the climbing ahead.

Recommended exercises:  Find or set dynos and practice making the leap. Once you’ve stuck a particular dyno three times, staying conscious of your gaze’s direction, find a farther dyno or pick goal hold that requires more accuracy (obviously, this will be easier to do in a gym). Breathe, focus your eyes on the prize, and jump, watching your hand all the way to the hold.

You can also practice using your eyes to recover.  The simple act of looking down and “softening” your focus (letting your vision go slack, so that everything is blurry) while on a rest hold allows for a more rapid relaxation and, therefore, recovery. This I picked up from the Boulder-based climbing trainer, Justen Sjong. Get yourself good and pumped on a long route, series of problems, or treadwall, and then settle in to a rest and look down, practicing deep, belly breathing until you feel your heart rate slow. Continue climbing and repeat as many times as possible.

Step 5: Head, determination, toughness

“This phase here usually needs two years. You must pass it, or you’ll never go any higher.”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
Of particular importance to The Blockhead Lord, a strong head is good for more than just cracking walnuts. One must cultivate a stone mind when tackling highballs, cruxes high above protection, or other sketchy maneuvers.

The final chamber shown in the movie is focused on the head. Not so much a matter of thinking, it’s all about toughness. Heavy sandbags dangle from the ceiling, and San Te must run through them using only his shaved dome to clear a path. It’s painful to watch as he butts the bags this way and that, stumbling around drunkenly with red welts on his forehead from the impact. Still, he passes through, and goes on to train with various weapons and fighting techniques.

I have seen more climbers stymied by their own fear and doubt, usually baseless, than by any lack of strength or skill. For instance, the second most of us experience a deep pump setting in, though we might have a good bolt, cam, or pile of pads at our feet, we start to climb like a fall means certain death. We manhandle every hold and fling our feet from one solid perch to the next in terror, literally shaking ourselves off of the wall. Nearly paralyzed, we attempt to downclimb to a safer position, only to fall awkwardly in the process. But letting fear guide your decisions on the wall is almost never a good idea. Unless you are certain that a fall from your position will result is injury or worse, it’s better to pause and breath and try to let the adrenaline blinders fall away before deciding where to go next. Often, we are just a move or two away from a good stance, a huge jug, or the next point of protection.

Recommended exercises:  Look, I’m not going to recommend people go out and start taking mondo whippers on purpose. But that’s what I did. At the gym where I worked, my friend and I agreed that we’d each lead  climb out the wall’s long roof, turn the lip onto the headwall without clipping the last bolt (or two) beneath the roof, and then jump. That first moment, when no clipped bolts were visible and the air started to move around my ears, was terrifying, but the bolts and my belayer were steadfast. The falls were soft pendulums into empty space. After a while, they became less scary and more fun. It helped build the trust in the system required to climb without spirit-sapping anxiety. A similar exercise could be performed with much smaller falls than the twenty footers we took, but only on an overhanging wall with plenty of ground clearance. Of course, this is not to be attempted if you’re not a confident and competent lead climber and your belayer doesn’t have a Word’s Greatest Belayer mug. As with all things in climbing, the wisdom of taking “practice falls” is yours to determine. As the disclaimer goes, climbing is inherently dangerous, and so on and so forth.

Even more basic, the simple act of climbing more frequently can help reduce discomfort on the wall. As you get used to moving in the vertical, everything becomes more tranquil. Climb up to the point where your fear starts to kick in, then pause and practice steady, deep breaths, until you feel composed enough to look up and read the route ahead. Practice using your eyes to steadily scan the terrain around you, spotting holds that might be good for resting or for clipping, making a mental note of their location and possible sequences to attain them. Then, focus on moving to the next good hold and the next, rather than aiming for the top all at once. This works as well outside as it does in, on a trad climb as on sport routes. It is the art of confident, purposeful climbing, and it takes time and practice to perfect. In the end, no matter how you do it, you must develop a strong head if your hope to move on to climbing proficiency and even mastery.

More training stuffs:

FUN FACT: The star of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Gordon Liu, appeared as the wizened, deadly, white-bearded martial arts master Pei Mei in the movie Kill Bill.

Peter Beal: Climbing’s Gadfly

Reading Peter Beal’s blog, Mountains and Water, can be a frustrating experience. He assumes a dour air and seems to relish poking the climbing establishment (if there be such a thing) in the eye. He can, at times, make it sound as if the world of climbing has been corrupted, hollowed out, sold up the river, and that we climbers are all somehow complicit. Though I rarely agree with the viewpoints Beal expresses on Mountains and Water, I have, of late, come to see him in a new light.

In a recent post entitled “Sell, Sell, Sell: Is There An Alternative?” Beal employs the following language to describe the current state of affairs in climbing media: “mundane,” “monotonous,” “sponsor-friendly platitudes,” “endlessly repetitive,” “feel-good bromides,” “sentiments lifted from self-help pop psychology and faux humility,” “trivial thoughts,” and “Ever crisper, more highly defined, and artfully manipulated images of nothing.” In the same post, he suggests that “the climbing environment is reaching a tipping point in terms of how much more commodification it can stand before a total vitiation of the core of the sport is achieved.”

In all honesty, I have yet to figure out exactly what Beal was getting at with his hyperbole, though he did do a nice job laying out some more valid and specific points in a follow-up post, published a week later. Regardless, for those who give a shit about climbing and climbing media, these knocks can feel very personal. Since “Sell, sell, sell,” Beal has been described publicly on the Internet as “sanctimonious” and even as a “pretentious douche.” Whether you agree with him or not, it’s hard to deny that he is an effective rabble-rouser. He seems to revel in attention, even the negative sort.

Whenever I disagree strongly with an argument, I take it as a sign. It means that argument has hit a sore spot. And any sore spot we have within us is worthy of further examination. Beal’s critiques,  and the less-than-tactful means he chose to express them, certainly made an impression on me. One minute I was making my coffee, and the next I was locked in a mental spasm, trying to formulate exactly how and why I disagreed with him. I was drawn back repeatedly to the act of poking holes in his arguments. Then, all at once, I saw that I was on the wrong path. The issue isn’t so much whether Beal’s specific points are valid, but whether his  intellectual monkey-wrenching is valuable. I have since come to think of Beal’s blog as a service to the climbing community. He is our gadfly.

The calssical Greek philosopher Socrates was famous for his use of carefully concocted arguments to stimulate thought in his fellow citizens. He saw debate as critical for the health of a society. Unfortunately, Socrates’ views so irritated the Greek state that he was sentenced to death by the ingestion of a hemlock-based poison. But before this, as recorded in Plato’s Apologia (which translates to “defense” or “explanation”), Socrates made the following statement during his trial:

“…if you put me to death, you will not easily find another, who, to use a rather absurd figure, attaches himself to the city as a gadfly to a horse, which, though large and well-bred, is sluggish on account of his size and needs to be aroused by stinging… .”

In his metaphor, Socrates is a biting gadfly on the flank of the state, a horse that is grand, beautiful, worthy of devotion and respect, but also prone to sleeping. A sleeping state, as Socrates sees it, is one that does not think deeply or consider important questions. It is the gadfly’s job to ensure the horse remains awake, that the state remains vibrant and alive.

If Beal is a gadfly and climbing is the state, then his pointed questions and critical language are intentional — it is a method to rouse us from our complacency. His acts have drawn the ire of many in the climbing community, but that is to be expected. “You, perhaps, might be angry,” says Socrates, “like people awakened from a nap.” Indeed, it is natural to take up arms when confronted by a disruptive voice. Our first response is to strike out and defend our cherished viewpoints and, ultimately, convince or compel the disruptor to be silent. But this is the wrong response — there is more good than harm in Beal’s writing, regardless of how “right” or “wrong” we might deem him to be. Already, his posts have had an effect. Editors from Alpinist and Rock & Ice have responded to his discontents, and quite a few commenters have weighed in on his posts. Discussion and reflection have been stimulated.

Socrates suggests that, without him, the people of the state “would pass the rest of [their] lives in slumber…” Perhaps he was right; it is all too natural for humans to settle into a comfortable existence, where one is to be had. Although I do not compare Beal to Socrates on other fronts — Beal is not the progenitor of Western philosophy, for example — I do see the value in his incendiary tactics. With a few sharp strokes of his keyboard, he has stung the flank of climbing. It is no mortal wound — only a small drop of crimson has sprung up — but the gadfly has served its purpose. The state is awake, at least for a little while.

Attack of the Drones: Shooting Climbing from Any Angle

Drone helicopter in action
A drone helicopter in action. This image is from a guest post by the Swiss climber/photographer Fred Moix.

I recently watched (via DVD) Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson attempt to free climb a particularly blank line up Dawn Wall in Yosemite. Even though I’m a jaded former climbing magazine editor, I was amazed as the camera revealed a barren, vertiginous world of golden granite that few humans will ever visit. I watched, slackjawed, as the duo battled to crimp down on ripples and slivers, took massive whippers thousands of feet above the valley floor, slept on a portaledge, pooped… . It was clear to me how the climbers got to their lonely, suspended perch, but, hey, how did those get cameras up there? Perhaps you’ve wondered the same thing when watching vids like these.

Well, I know a few of the crazy dudes who do this high-angle camera work, and the truth is, they’re climbers, too. The camera operators must be comfortable with the heights and inherent dangers of climbing, fit enough to get where they need to go while hauling a big fracking bag of camera gear up with them, and have a solid understanding of safety gear and techniques. Oh, they also have to know how to point a camera in the right direction and a push the little red button, too.

While the grueling process just described isn’t bound to change anytime soon, there is a new weapon in the climbing documentarian’s arsenal: the remote-control helicopter. I came across this guest post from Swiss photographer Fred Moix on Nikon Rumors today and felt the urge to share. In it, Fred explains his use of aerial drones for getting far-out shots from pretty much any angle. Fred isn’t the first to use this technique, and the rig he shows in the post, while effective, seems to be pretty DIY. A more polished version can be seen at Mammut enlisted the aid of the folks at Dedicam in the making of the video below, which really captures the feel of exposure, height, and freedom that climbing offers.

While no climbing video has really pushed the limits of this technology yet, I think it’s only a matter of time before we see aerial shots incorporated to into more videos from big-name production companies, just as we’ve come to expect artsy DSLR depth-of-field focus pulls and mechanized time lapse slider shots.

Media makers are constantly pushing to document the act and beauty of climbing in greater detail and from wilder perspectives. And while no series of images, words, and sounds will ever match the soul-expanding intensity of a great day out on the rock, quality documentation does offer new ways of looking at, understanding, and sharing our passions. It brings new climbers to the sport and inspires old ones to don their dusty shoes again. In this regard, I see the untethered, dragonfly views that aerial drones enable as a welcome addition to the photographer’s or videographer’s quiver. And I’m excited to see what’s next.

Anyone out there have some other rad examples of climbing footage (or footage from any sport, really) shot with aerial drones? I’d love to see ’em. Post your links in the comments.

 — Update —

A commenter pointed out, as did the videographer Corey Rich himself, via Twitter, that the D4 premier video Why incorporated RC heli shots. These appear in both the kayaking (or extreme canoeing, as I like to call it) and climbing segments of the movie. I watched Why several times and, frankly, I’m very disappointed in myself for missing that [snaps self with one of several rubber bands worn around wrist]. Embedded below are both the making-of, where you get to see the RC heli crashing and being repaired, and the original short movie, which is masterfully put together.

Spotting: You’re Doing It Wrong

So this weekend I headed back to the Valley that is Joe’s, to do some practice climbing on the small cliff chunks there. More importantly, I wanted to meet up with my dear friends Nick and Robin, of Boulder, Colorado. Climbing with these two is always a great time, plus Nick promised to bring me some Avery beers, which I cannot find here in Disneyland – Wild West Edition, aka Salt Lake City.

While climbing with these two go-getters, I noticed Nick had a strange habit of climbing up to the top of the boulder and spotting from above. I don’t think this is the recommended technique, but as Robin is super strong and never falls, I guess it doesn’t matter. Maybe it was some sort of early April Fools gag. Regardless…

I’d also like to give a big shout out to the future Mrs. Blockhead Lord, as she broke the V1 barrier with ease this weekend. She’s a Couch Crusher in embryonic form, if I’ve ever seen one.

Climbing Narc: Harbinger of a Post Mag Era?

The Climbing Narcissist, aka Brian Runnels
The Climbing Narcissist, aka Brian Runnells. Photo courtesy of Brian Runnells.

Climbing Magazine was founded in 1970, and for most of the forty-two years since, print media has been the primary means of tracking the people, places, gear, and ascents of the climbing world. But no longer.

Today, print magazines are just another source amidst a rising flood of climbing media. The Internet is positively awash with information by climbers, about climbers, and for climbers, to the extent that, if one is so inclined, one can consume thousands of words, hundreds of pictures, and dozens of videos every week. For free. (In the months and maybe even years to come, this is one topic I’ll be returning to.)

But is it quality? you’d be wise to ask. The answer is the same here as with the Web in general: Some of it is, and some of it ain’t. Either way, it’s all out there, and you can search it, share it, comment on it, and more. There are videos, photos, podcasts. There are gear junkies, training nuts, and high-on-their horse pontificators. There are perspectives from pros, companies, moms, and everyone else in between. (Some people are excited by the diversity; others, not so much.) Thanks to the communicative powers of the Internet, climbing, like every other topic, is now displayed and picked apart in minute detail from a hundred different angles on a constant basis.

In this brave new world of climbing media, an unlikely hero has come to the fore: The Climbing Narcissist.

When he’s not wearing his blogging cape, the Climbing Narcissist is known as Brian Runnells, a twenty-eight year old software developer born and raised in Wisconsin. He started climbing twelve years ago and started his blog five years ago. In the beginning, says Runnells, he never expected the blog to take off the way it has. Today, he estimates his blog receives around four-thousand visits on any given weekday. Recently, Brian was named the number-one climbing blogger by Outside Magazine.

And as a surefire sign that The Climbing Narcissist has moved beyond the realm of pet project, the Narc has recently launched his very own iOS app. Below a quick Q&A with the Narc himself, a brilliant yet reclusive computer dork (that’s how I imagine him, anyway) with his finger on the pulse of the climbing world.

It looks like your new iOS app is basically a slicker way for people on an iPhone or iPad to get their updates. Is that correct?
That sounds about right.

Is there anything about the app that really changes the experience of browsing your site’s content?
As a native app, I think it provides a much more responsive experience and it makes it easier to really dive in to all the content I’ve built up over the years.

What was the motivating factor behind the app?
The main impetus behind doing it in the first place was a desire to broaden my skill set as a software developer.  I actually started working on the app over a year ago, but various factors led to it taking much longer than I initially expected.

Do you have middle/long-term plans for the app? Features and functionality you’d like to add?
I have a pretty long list of things I’d like to do with the app, but it’s difficult to come up with content for the site and work on the app at the same time, so we’ll see how that goes.

Who actually developed the app?
Much like the website itself, I did all the work myself.

Do you think this app will increase feedback on your site, since people will be able to read from anywhere (the bathroom for example, where there’s nothing better to do than weigh in on a climbing debate)?
I’m actually curious to see how that goes. I would hope that it would increase interaction, but typing on smartphones tends to lend itself to shorter responses. And commenting on the internet is already a perilous experience for moderators (me), so I’ll be keeping a close eye on that.

You’ve been voted Outside Magazine’s No. 1 Climbing Blog; how do you keep stardom from going to your head?
I whisper the words “stay brave and humble” to myself one hundred times each night before bed.

But seriously, how do you feel about that designation? Do you feel that you deserve it? Do you think the idea of a “top climbing blog” makes sense yet? Have we come that far?
I do put a lot of energy and passion into the site, so it feels good to have people recognize that in any manner. I think the idea makes sense, but like any good list one could argue endlessly about who/what deserves to be included. That’s ninety-five percent the point of those things anyway, isn’t it?

Since you are No. 1, does that mean you make enough money off of ads to quit your day job?
If the topic of my site were anything other than climbing, that might be true. If you know anyone that might want to advertise or needs help working on a web-related climbing project that pays actual money, please inquire within. Have computer, will travel.

Does your blogging ever interfere with your day job?
Almost certainly, but I’m a pretty good at multitasking.

Writing is painfully difficult for the Narc, as is climbing...yet he does a lot of both.
Writing is painfully difficult for the Narc, as is climbing...yet he does a lot of both. Photo courtesy of Brian Runnells.

I assume you started your blog out of personal passion — did you ever expect it to grow into something bigger like it has?
Not for a second.  I still remember the early days when I was super psyched to get ten, twenty and then one hundred visits in a day (even if eighty percent of them were me refreshing the page).  Even though the readership of my site is still small in relative terms, I do feel very grateful that it has grown the way it has.

What do you see as your role in the climbing media world? What are you offering that the climbing mags and their websites do not?
My main focus has always been to provide a personal perspective on what’s happening in the climbing world. Through that effort, I think I’ve been able to capture something many people identify with, which is why the site has achieved some modicum of success.

Do you think that print magazines are becoming less relevent as blogs grow in number and popularity?
Magazines everywhere have been marginalized by the internet — climbing mags are no different. I’m not sure what they need to do to keep up with the times, but I know I will be closely following what they do end up doing.  I do think they will always have a place though, but probably not as many of them as there are right now.

Have you encountered any issues with image-use rights? I have had several discussions about what constitutes acceptable use in the age of embedding and linking, and there are a lot of different perspectives. For example, do you feel there is anything wrong with citing a climber’s blog and embedding an image (that they did not take) from their blog in one of your posts?
I actually spend a lot of time thinking about this and I don’t know what the right answer is. I could go on about this for a while, but in general I try to limit my use of other people’s images, crediting them as much as possible when I do.  Whether it’s right or wrong I think most people recognize at this point that if they put a picture online, it’s likely to be used anywhere and everywhere. It sort of turns into one of these “everybody’s doing it” scenarios…

How do you keep track of all the news out there? Personally, I use RSS feeds, among other things, like IFTT.
RSS feeds are obviously a big tool, but social media has increasingly been a place where people are talking about climbing, so I spend a lot of time perusing those outlets as well.

Which of these terms/roles do you most closely identify with: Journalist, Aggregator, Blogger? And why…?
I don’t know what would be a good term, but the one I am most uncomfortable with is “journalist.” I’ve never pretended that what I’m doing abides by any tenets of journalism, and the reality is that little of what happens in the online climbing news sphere has much to do with actual journalism.

Having seen a ton of climbing news come and go in the past couple of years, where do you think the “sport” is headed? Climbing in the Olympics, for example…
The more I read about it, the more unlikely it seems that climbing will make it in the Olympics, but that would certainly be an interesting development on multiple fronts. Otherwise, I think there will likely be a lot of changes with regard to access issues, kids crushing, consolidation of gear companies and the like that should be very interesting to follow.

What do you see as the future of the Climbing Narc blog? Do you see it growing to include other writers, kind of like an Adventure Journal for climbing? Or will it always be you and you alone?
I think about the future of the site all the time, but I haven’t really come to any conclusions as to where it should go. I think the fact that the site has always been a solo venture has given it a lot of flexibility, but this has also limited the kinds of things I can do because one person can only do so much.  Do I try to press ahead and make the site into something more, do I keep the status quo or do I move onto something else?

Do you think it makes sense for bloggers like you to band together and sell ads across multiple sites, as a way to increase advertiser interest and reach a wider audience? Is this a direction you find interesting?
I’ve had discussions about this sort of thing with a few people over the years, but not much has come from it as of yet. I do think there is a lot of value a site like mine (and others) can offer to potential advertisers out there, but trying to frame the message and reach the right people in the industry has been difficult. The Internet in particular is a place where the industry is a bit behind the times in how content creators and companies can work together to create value for both parties.

What blogs and sites do you frequent most?
It’s hard to make a list since I actually visit very few sites directly on a daily basis. I try have as much information as possible pushed directly to me in one fashion or another. is probably the only site I actually go to regularly, although that might change if they make it any harder to browse their site. 

Anything else you’d like to add?
I think people might find it ironic how much I dislike writing given how much of it I’ve done the past five years. It’s almost painfully difficult for me and I’m not very good at it, yet I keep on doing it. Sounds kind of like my climbing career now that I think about it…

The Climbing Narc Now Has An iOS App

I, for one, am excited to check out the Climbing Narc’s new iOS app. Looks like climbing blogs are growing more and more advanced. I spoke to The Narc (aka Brian) about it and his blog the other day. I’ll be posting an interview shortly. Stay tuned…

No Time To Waste: Memories of Garrett Smith

Garrett Smith on the airport shuttle
Garrett (left) on the airport shuttle with his friend Dustin during the first leg of a long trip to Mexico.

We meet a lot of people in a lifetime. Most of them we forget within hours or even minutes of a first encounter. Those who stick with us are woven into our neurons by repetition, over the course of years, through shared experience — a parent, a significant other, a best friend from childhood, for example. But there is another sort of person, those with whom we share much shorter, simpler relationships, who leave unexpected impressions on us, too. Their presence sticks in our subconscious like a fine cactus needle unwittingly picked up on a desert walk. Only a brief encounter, but then, later — sometimes much later — we touch the spot where the needle has nestled and feel its sting. To me, Garrett Smith was one of these people.

Garrett died a year ago today in an avalanche. He we swept away in the backcountry, ironically and unbearably while testing snowpack stability. He was with his wife and several of his friends, experienced and cautious backcountry skiers.  His loss was particularly painful, because Garrett was only twenty-six years old. He was young and driven. He followed his passions — photography, skiing, and climbing, among many others — with an intensity few would or could match. It is cliché to say someone was taken in their prime, but here it is hard to avoid the expression. Married less than a year, just coming into his own creatively and professionally, Garrett seemed poised on the cusp of great things. But in the end he found himself on the wrong side of the line when that slope fractured and gave way. When his friends dug him out fifteen minutes later, he was already unconscious, unbreathing, without a pulse. They performed CPR enough to bring his heart back online, but his brain never followed. When his body arrived at the hospital, it had just enough life left in it to offer a final gift to the world of the living; his organs were given to others in need.

Garrett at the Hammers Inc. Art Festival
Garrett at the Hammers Inc. Art Festival, which he founded. The festival was another one of those things that a lot of people talk about doing, but that Garrett actually did.

Looking back, I didn’t know Garrett that well. Mostly, he was my co-worker. Less than a year after I was hired he passed. Our encounters were limited. We both went for pho lunches on Mondays with a small crew of co-workers, we both went to Mexico for an international climbing festival hosted by our employer, and I once participated in a photography workshop that he led in Big Cottonwood Canyon. Other than that, we spoke briefly around the office and nodded to each other on the train when commuting to work. Our conversations were never exceptionally personal, mostly snippets of camera and climbing chat. But still, his memory sticks with me. I feel its sudden twinge from time to time. I felt it just the other day.

*   *   *

Garrett was six foot seven, bass-voiced, with a ruddy nose that seemed always to be running, and a rotating selection of facial-hair configurations. He wore unorthodox outfits — Hawaiian shirts and sandals with socks, colorful scarves from the Middle East. After pre-dawn ski runs, he’d come into the office and work in his thermal underwear, one long-boned leg pronged unabashedly up on the desk, much to the chagrin of his co-wokers in neighboring cubicles. He was expansive in both physical form and in his passions.

Garrett bouldering in the distance
Garrett in the distance, climbing as my model during his photo workshop up Big Cottonwood Canyon.

One of the first times I encountered Garrett was on a northbound train, heading from Salt Lake City to Clearfield, where our office is located. On the bench seat, his knees came up towards his chest, like an adult sitting in a child’s chair. His bike rested next to mine at the end of the train car. He was quiet, and we didn’t speak. When we got off the train and mounted up, I started to pedal hard, interested to see how this lanky introvert would keep up. Within seconds, he had opened a large gap between us. I eased off a few blocks later, realizing I’d have to go all out just to catch him. Clearly, I was outgunned. Later, I learned he biked miles to and from the train every day, through rain and heat and the slushy Salt Lake City winter, all in an effort to save up for a car. But that was his way: he had plans and refused to compromise. At the time, I didn’t think much of encounters like these, but, it turns out, they were leaving impressions in my subconscious.

Now, Garrett’s memory needles me, inspires me not to just kick back in front of the TV with a beer at the end of the day, but to create something. He is one of the reasons I started writing this blog, taking photography more seriously, and believing that there is no time to waste when it comes to going after what you want in this world. The fact that he died while in the thick of this pursuit only makes me want to work harder, write faster, think bigger thoughts.

*   *   *

I went up into the foothills surrounding Salt Lake City the other day. It had snowed at elevation, but the valley was dry. I chugged up the steep, rocky path with my camera bag, my blue heeler Bodhi out in front. After a while, I arrived at the snow line. The cover was thin and muddy at first, but soon grew thick, until I was breaking trail shin deep. On the high ridges, the snow was up past my knees and every step was a battle. Even Bodhi, hyper-active by breed, looked exhausted by the slow, damp progress.

Salt Lake Valley panorama
The panorama I shot while hiking up in the foothills above Salt Lake City. Whenever I carry my camera gear into some remote or scenic location, I remember Garrett. (Click to magnify the image.)

Heart hammering and quadriceps burning, something triggered my memories of Garrett: flying away from me on his bike; in Mexico, loaded like a burro with bags of camera gear; in Big Cottonwood during his photo clinic, bounding over teetering granite blocks in search of the perfect composition. He was perpetually kinetic, happiest when he was moving forward, constantly working towards something. My bag felt lighter at the memory. I pressed higher, to a peak with a view of the entire valley. The whole of downtown was just a little pile of rectangles, with the Great Salt Lake laid out like an old, tarnished mirror beyond and the snow-capped Oquirrh mountains beside it.

I remembered some of the landscape photos Garrett had taken, which I hadn’t really appreciated until after his death, probably blinded by a stubborn sense of competitiveness. I stood in the snow with my camera and starting snapping, changing lenses and snapping some more, letting the snow melt and soak my pants and shoes. My fingers went numb but I kept shooting. Cold, wet, it was no problem; I’d be warm again as soon as I started moving. It wouldn’t have stopped Garrett. The light wasn’t perfect, and I knew the difference between me and Garrett is that he would have been up here hours earlier, just as the morning was igniting the valley in its first, golden light. He would have gone the extra step to get the shot.

I told myself next time I’d do it that way, too.

Click here for Garrett Smith’s portfolio on the Hammers Inc. Photography website

Click here for a nice post from the Adventure Journal on Garrett

Photo Friday: Seven Utah Bouldering Spots

This is actually a belated Photo Friday post. You’ll have to excuse me, as I was in Joe’s Valley bouldering yesterday and didn’t get around to putting it together. On the up side, I grabbed one more photo to add to the gallery. Unfortunately, I also grabbed a nice sunburn.

Every spot pictured below is worth a visit except Stansbury island. That area has very little good bouldering and is also home to an active shooting range. The geniuses who were shooting there during our visit did not seem particularly concerned with safety; from up on the hillside, we could see their bullets sending up dust plumes less than fifty feet from where we parked, seemingly outside the island’s loosely designated shooting areas. Of course, no one stopped shooting in our direction as we walked back to the vehicle, very visible in our brightly colored clothing and with a massive crashpad sticking up in the air. The constant echoing report of the bigger guns alone was enough to put us on edge for the few hours we were there.  Proceed with caution.

…And I guess I wouldn’t drive too far to go to the Ogden Boulders, either, although they do offer some good lines and are perfectly climbable on a sunny winter day.

One classic granite bouldering spot I frequent that’s not represented here is Little Cottonwood Canyon. Maybe I’ll get a LLC-specific gallery together for a future Photo Friday post. Until then…

Andrew B. working Resident Evil
Andrew B. working Resident Evil (V10), New Joe's, Joe's Valley, UT.
Nate W. warming up at the Ogden Boulders
Nate W. warming up at the Ogden Boulders, Ogden, UT.
An unknown climber on Golden, at the Triassic Boulders
An unknown climber on the moderate classic Golden (V1), at the Triassic Boulders, UT.
The Blockhead Lord posing down on some unknown hard problem in Moe's Valley
The Blockhead Lord posing down on some unknown hard problem in Moe's Valley, UT. Photo: K. Marine
Chris S. sending Ju (V7), on the Big Red Monster Boulder
Chris S. sending Ju (V7), on the Big Red Monster Boulder, Ibex, UT.
The Blockhead Lord on a random slab on Stansbury Island.
The Blockhead Lord on a random slab on Stansbury Island, UT. Photo: K. Marine.
The Blockhead Lord on an unkonwn arete problem outside of Moab.
The Blockhead Lord on an unknown arete problem near the Big Bend Boulders, outside of Moab, UT. Photo: K. Marine

Photo Friday: 11 Shots from Oz

Years ago, I took a trip to Australia for my friend’s wedding. I took a month for the trip, so I’d have time to go climbing and exploring the countryside. I rented a Subaru in Sydney, learned to drive stick and drive on the wrong side of the road, and went on a mini-walkabout. It ended up being one of the greatest trips of my life. (Up there with the trip where I proposed to my fiancée in Paris, a trip to Greece with my parents when I was in my teens, and the RocTrip China trip.) I could easily write a five-thousand word travelogue about my time in Oz, but I have neither the time nor the inclination. Instead, I’ll share a few selected photos of the thousands I took. Happy Photo Friday!

A view of Sydney Harbor
So first I flew to Australia and got a hotel in Sydney. I was sure to find one with a nice view of Sydney Harbor and its famous bridge, which offers tours up on top of the arched supports.
Roos on the horizon
Then I drove out to the countryside for my mate's (that's Aussie slang for friend -- "G'doy, moite!") wedding which was at a nice country club. On the way, I passed a lot of roos. That's Aussie shortspeak for Kangaroos. Roo bangers are not people with a kangaroo fetish, but sausages made out of kangaroo meat. (Think: bangers and mash, the British dish... Australians are descended from British stock, you know!)
Wallaby and wallababy
Here's a shot of a roo and its joey (joey means offspring -- love it!). These were plucking around country club. They're as common as deer on the East Coast of the US, but much cooler to watch. I mean seriously, they jump to get around. Crazy!
Taipan wall in the Grampians
This is the Taipan wall, a climbing area in the Grampians, which is a National Park. (If you look closely, you'll find a climber in a red shirt hanging on rope somewhere on the wall.) Taipan may be the single raddest sport climbing crag in the world. The routes are long (150 feet or more), runout (in Aussie fashion), and ascend gorgeous lines on perfect sandstone pockets, edges, and slopers. I traded belays with some locals and a nice Austrian couple who were on an around-the-world climbing trip. Lucky there were there, as I was all flying solo on this trip.
Taipan under moonlight
Taipan under moonlight.
Herpin' at Hollow Mountain
Herpin' at Hollow Mountain. Here, Klaus, one of the Austrians mentioned above, holds one of the Grampians-area lizards, of which there were many. We found this one just around the Hollow Mountain Cave area (see below). No reptiles were harmed in the making of this photo.
Klaus goin' for it in the Hollow Mountain Cave
Here we find Klaus goin' for it in the Hollow Mountain Cave. This V8 sat at the very lip of the 40-foot deep cave and guards the end of the famous Wheel of Life, which is boulder problem / route that was originally graded V16 by Japanese climber Dai Koyomada. I think Klaus sent this rig. I can't remember.
Chris Webb Parsons gunning for Wheel of Life
Here's a shot of one of the locals I climbed with. His name Chris Webb Parsons. While I was in the Grampians, he was very close to sending Wheel of Life (pictured here). When I had to head back to Sydney, he handed me the keys to his house in Sydney and told me I could crash a few days until my flight left. He was going to stay and work on Wheel, he explained. I did, and he did, and then he sent the Wheel, which was, I think, its second ascent. Helluva nice guy and really very strong, too.
Flower field
After a week in a tent at the Grampians, I started to get a little funky. On the way to find some showers in town, I drove past this nice little scene. Australia is full of vistas like this. Because the population density is so low, it's not uncommon to get a view without any man-made structures. Oh wait, there's a barn there in the distance. Never mind.
The climber's life
Another one of the nice locals who made me feel at home. This fellow had a nicely appointed climber's road-trip van and a plucky pup to go along with it.
Syndey Aquarium
Before heading back to the States, I decided to take advantage of my time in Sydney and hit the aquarium there. I haven't been to many aquariums, but this one seemed excellent. Here, the sharks get to watch the people watching them, thanks to a handy glassed-in walkway.

Couch Crushers to Widgeteers: 10 Climbing Personality Types Identified

Society has long applied the blanket label “climber” to a motley assortment of vertically inclined souls. Indeed, “climbers” have been so often lumped together, despite deep and obvious differences, that it’s easy to forget just how many types and subtypes there really are.

There are the obvious categories, of course — alpinists, sport climbers, trad daddies, blocanistas, and so forth. But if you climb long enough, you will start to notice another layer of divisions beneath these divisions — personality profiles that cut across climbing-style lines.

Here, an abridged and alphabetical list of ten common climber personality profiles. Pay attention, as you will encounter these personalities at the crag or the gym, at the coffee shop and the campground. They will mystify and amuse you. You might even recognize yourself in one or a couple of these groupings. In the end, they are loose categories certainly in need of refinement. If you have noticed some personality types not listed here, please help make this a living document and add them in the comments.

Couch crusher
The Couch Crusher can hardly be bothered to get up… unless it’s time to take a dump on your project.

Couch Crushers (aka Naturals) — This rare breed’s strength and skill are unaffected by a lack of practice, fitness, or sound diet. No one is more envied than the Couch Crusher, who can often send the Self-Worther’s project after a six-month break from climbing during which the Self-Worther cross-trained, lived off of kale and unsweetened yogurt, and took expensive dietary supplements of dubious origin. Perhaps because it comes all too easily for the Couch Crusher, this type is easily distracted from climbing by career developments, romantic relationships, drugs, or even other sports.

Elites — Elites focus their efforts on the hardest climbs and rarely deign to interact with other types at the crag or gym. Though they pretend otherwise, Elite’s believe in the inherent value of their status and view the climbing world as a meritocracy centered around finger strength. They band together and share stories of hard climbs, secret areas, and the injuries that keep them from reaching their full potential. If complemented on their performance on a difficult climb by a non-Elite, an Elite will downplay their own achievement in a show of false modesty while secretly feeling a sense of validation, powerful fuel for the Elite climber’s ego fire.

High Rollers — High Rollers are middle-of-the-road climbers with high-end incomes. Their interest in climbing is genuine, but they often seek shortcuts to improvement, such as paying exorbitant fees to Elites for private climbing lessons. Because their careers, relationships, and other interests keep their calendars well inked, they rarely stick to a climbing schedule long enough to truly excel. They are often sought after as investors for start-up rock gyms, climbing apparel companies, or climbing magazines. They can be found in luxurious accommodations near popular climbing areas with Elite climbers as their guests. One interesting subset of the High Roller group is the Industry Maven — the owner or head of a successful climbing company — who is, perhaps, the highest ranking character in the perceived hierarchy.

IKEs — An acronym for “I Know Everything”, IKEs can recite move-by-move Beta for every route you’ve ever climbed, thought about climbing, or read about in a magazine. They are supremely self-confident in their grasp of training techniques, performance diets, as well as climbing history and gossip. Strangely, IKEs themselves are rarely accomplished climbers and tend to spend much of their crag time hanging out on the ground and proffering unsolicited factoids to anyone within earshot.

Original Climbing Gangsta
You can’t pull one over on the Original Climbing Gangsta! Chalk hadn’t been invented when he started climbing. They used dirt, and they liked it that way.

Original Climbing Gangstas (OCGs) — OCGs are climbers who take great pride in their long climbing careers, the inordinate length of time they’ve been able to maintain dirtbag status, and their (often apocryphal) connections to well-known climbers of bygone eras. They can be heard declaring that “new” routes or problems in their local areas were actually done years ago, without the aid of chalk, sticky rubber, or boar’s hair brushes. Many OCGs, despite their relatively advanced age, enjoy pontificating on Internet forums on topics such as “The Decline Of Climbing’s Moral Fibre In The Age Of Gyms,” “The Dangers Of Locking Assisted Belay Devices And Other Spawns Of Laziness,” and “Barbarians At The Gate: Roustabout Youths Are Ruining My Crag.” They also enjoy posting grainy, scanned black-and-white photos of themselves in proximity to real-deal OG climbers, i.e., Fred Beckey, Henry Barber, Jim Bridwell, etc.

Purists — With upturned nose, Purists look down on some types of climbing (typically sport climbing, gym climbing, and bouldering), while holding up certain other types as high expressions of the sport (light-and-fast alpinism, bold traditional climbing, ground-up new-routing with a hand drill, rack of nuts, and hobnailed boots). Purists, however, come in many forms. Less common variants include sport climbing Purists, who eschew the use of stick clips or knee pads, and even chop bolts or remove “permadraws” when they deem them unnecessary. Bouldering purists believe that short, un-roped, exceedingly difficult climbs are the most direct means to experience climbing. Habitual free-soloists are, de facto, Purists, and come in three forms: 1) Zen-like in their acceptance of death, 2) compulsively drawn to the brink of self-annihilation, or 3) willfully ignorant of the deadly stakes of their activity.

Self-Worthers — These climbers base their personal worth on their prowess on the rocks or in the mountains. The result: severe frustration when faced with a climb that “isn’t their style,” competitiveness when encountering a climber of similar skill level, dismissiveness upon hearing of other strong climbers, and depression when injured or otherwise unable to climb. Self-Worthers, basically climbing addicts, are unable to experience more than fleeting moments of joy when climbing. It has been observed that Self-Worthers are incapable of holding anything more than a passing conversation without identifying, by number grade, how hard they have climbed. When under-performing in public, the Self-Worther will compulsively generate excuses, such as, “This is my fifth day on,” “I’m still recovering from a blown tendon,” or “I ate a cookie yesterday and I feel fat.” On bad days, they will share these excuses before climbing. These “prescuses” help relieve the pressure they feel at climbing in front of others. Another close relative of the Self-Worther is the climbing addict, who may or may not base their happiness on climbing, but nonetheless cannot moderate the impulse to climb. The end result is typically injury, career suicide, and relationship meltdown.

Soul Climbers (aka Unicorns) — Like the hover board from Back To The Future, everyone wants to believe that Soul Climbers are real. Alas, little hard evidence exists to support this belief. Several reported sightings have later been revealed to be climbing addicts with outwardly mellow demeanors and dreadlocks.

The Trainer in action
The Trainer, seen here getting “ripped” for “climbing”.

Trainers — These muscle-bound souls can be seen obsessively pushing their physical limits at the gym or the crag, climbing with weight vests, pumping iron, campusing, and strapping in to semi-legal electrical muscle stimulation devices imported through Eastern Europe’s grey market. They drink protein shakes and pop glucosamine chondroitin, vita-packs, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories to keep their bodies going past the point of exhaustion. Trainers ostensibly train in order to climb harder, but can lose sight of climbing and become obsessed with the cleansing act of self-mortification through extreme physical activity. This subtype is common amongst mountaineers and alpinists, as masochistic tendencies is integral to these types of climbing.

Widgeteers — Obsessed with the gear of climbing as much, or more, than with climbing itself, the Widgeteer will routinely divert the majority of his or her paycheck to the purchase of draws, cams, stickclips, Big Bros, prismatic belay glasses, Ball Nuts, grip strengthening devices, crampons, rope bags, and so on. Ironically, though Widgeteers are well-versed in the intricacies of load distribution, impact force, and lobe geometry, they rarely have as keen a grasp of the physiological techniques of climbing itself.

Daniel Woods Crunches Numbers at the Rock Rodeo and Comes up with 76… AGAIN!

Daniel Woods – Hueco – 76 V-Points from Louder Than 11 on Vimeo.

This video gives a clear picture of what cutting-edge bouldering looks like in 2012. The formerly bleeding edge of difficulty is now just a stop on a circuit. This is the way of progression — nothing new, really — but it somehow it never grows old. In the vid, you’ll see Woods send the following:

  • Nagual (v13)
  • The Machinist (v14)
  • Crook by the Book (V14)
  • Phantom Limb V12)
  • Full Monty (V12)
  • Two Days With Gene (V11)

Worth noting is the fact that Daniel scored the same amount of points when he won the Hueco Rock Rodeo last year, though with five V13s and one V11. He increased his peak difficulty, but not his average. In the 2011 Rock Rodeo, Woods sent these problems:

  • Li (V13)
  • Liane (V13)
  • Mo Mojo (V11)
  • Evangelion (V13)
  • Slashface (V13)
  • Crown Royale (V13)
Daniel Woods, Champion
Daniel Woods, champion once again. Photo: © J.Roth

Oh, and in 2010, Woods ALSO scored 76 points, but with a higher high point than even this year. (Oddly consistent, isn’t he?) Here’s his ticklist from that comp:

  • Desperanza (V15)
  • Alma Blanca (V13)
  • Tequila Sunrise (V12)
  • Loaded Direct (V12)
  • Barefoot on Sacred Ground (V12)
  • Diaphanous Sea (V12)

And while we’re one the topic of Daniel Woods and his incredible powers of crush, it appears he recently declared his intent to climb Jumbo Love  (5.15b; unconfirmed, since no one has yet repeated it), Chris Sharma’s king of the king lines. How do seventy-six V-points translate to a monster 250-foot 5.15b? I, for one, am excited to find out…

Top 10 Posts From February screenshotThis blog has only been around for a month and has been publicized almost entirely via my Facebook and Twitter accounts, but it already has over four thousand hits. I have no frame of reference, but I’m going to go ahead and tell myself that’s pretty good anyway. A few of the thirty-odd posts I’ve made thus far have had a lot more traffic that the others, so I figured I’d make a post dedicated to them. Kind of an “in case you missed it” for my own blog. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the most popular ones weren’t always my personal favorites. So if you like the Top 10 listed below, be sure to scan through some of the other posts, too — hopefully, you’ll find something else that strikes your fancy.

  1. Bullshit Lowball Choss: Climbing Irony from East to West
  2. Pro-Spective: Who is the D800 for? Part 3
  3. The DOSE energy drink will make you So Ill
  4. WTF: Fitness Equipment and Hostess Sale
  5. About A Blog: Splitter Choss on Cerro Torre
  6. Open House: Art On Iowa
  7. Pro-spective: Who is the Nikon D800 for? Part 1
  8. Pro-Spective: Who is the D800 for? Part 2
  9. Bros on A Rope and Other Swingers
  10. You haven’t heard of Jonah Lehrer?!

Chris Sharma and the Difficult Balance

Letting Go: Chris Sharma and Mark Coleman from Prana Living on Vimeo.

“Some of these things are so difficult, I have to want it more than anything else in the world. It has to mean so much. But that can work against me…”
— Chris Sharma

As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, although the title of this blog comes from a Zen story, I’m no Buddhist. Like a bird building a nest from odd scraps and detritus, I take only the parts of Buddhist philosophy I need and leave the rest. The concept in Buddhism that seems to resonate most with me is the lesson of non-attachment.

In the video above, there’s this exchange between Chris Sharma and “Mindful Living Ambassador” Mark Coleman:

Coleman: You’re balancing the intense desire…to achieve something — but as you say you can’t do that and be tight, because it just contracts everything: body, mind, and your climbing — so how do you balance holding a goal, and at the same time not being attached.

Sharma: It’s a difficult balance, because, if you don’t take it seriously, then why even try so hard?

Here the riddle of greatness is stated clearly. And, of course, the video never actually answers any questions, only identifies the challenge. “It’s a difficult balance,” says Sharma. He probably strikes it more often than most, and yet he cannot express how to strike it. It is something you must seek without seeking. You must care, and work, and try… and then it just happens.

In Zen, similarly, to reach enlightenment is the goal, but the means of reaching it involve not focusing on the goal. Like Zen koans, the logical inconsistency is uncomfortable to the brain, like an Escher print. However, with assiduous practice and constant repetition, one can enter the state of doing without trying.

Chris Sharma at RocTrip China
Chris Sharma at Petzl RocTrip China

Many classic Zen stories identify a moment of sudden awakening. For example: a monk is walking through the market and overhears a conversation between butcher and customer. The customer asks which cut of meat is the best. The butcher answers that they are all the best; he carries no cut that is not the best. And with that, the monk is enlightened. (So simple, but what the story doesn’t mention is the many years the monk would have spent in a state of constant effort, trying to understand the nature of existence.)

In my life, I try to hold many goals in mind, but to hold them lightly. A violinist should not clutch his bow, nor a painter her brush. Similarly, to make use of our bodies, we must practice letting go, loosening ourselves until we are pliable like a reed and not stiff like a dry old stick. In climbing, constant tension is the enemy, always defeating us on our way to the top. In life, too, a constant clenching of the mind is self-defeating.

To know this intellectually is simple — just a matter of linking one word to the next. But to live it every moment, now that truly is a difficult balance.

Bullshit Lowball Choss: Climbing Irony from East to West

You Did a Rock Climb - A Decision Tree from Bass For Your Face
You Did a Rock Climb – A Decision Tree from the funny East Coast jerks at Bass For Your Face

This is a post about a blog called Bass For Your Face. But before I say anything about this blog, which strikes a perfect, zine-like balance between awesome and stupid, I have a question for you: If you’ve climbed in both the Eastern and Western United States, you might have noticed that many climbers in the West are lacking something. Do you know what it is?


OK, I’ll tell you.

It’s a sense of irony. In other words, a deep love of sarcasm. A shit-talking streak that will make you feel like a total moron while at the same time letting you know that, even though you probably are a moron, your climbing buddies love you anyway. Having lived in Ohio, New York, Colorado, and now Utah, I’ve gotten a good sense of this difference. Often, when talking to a climber from the Western states, I’ll make a snarky East Coast comment, like shouting “Dab!” as a climber enters the crux of a climb. Or suggesting we go climb choss at Little Cottonwood Canyon. “What? I didn’t dab!” They’ll say, totally missing the point. Or, “LCC isn’t chossy! It’s, like, bullet granite, dude!” C’mon, son!

I don’t know what it is about New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and the rest of those frozen, Blair Witch-looking little states packed together in the Northeastern corner of the country, but the people out there just have an edgy, self-deprecating sense of humor that the people in the West tend to lack. Maybe it’s because the population density in the East is so much higher, or the weather is so much more hateful. Or maybe the vast, open spaces of the West just make the human brain go slack.

And maybe it’s related, but Western climbers also tend to take their exploits on the rocks more seriously. In the East, you can’t even start to spray about your accomplishments without getting smacked down by your “friends”. It’s like the scene in Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where big paddles shoot up out of the earth and whack the protagonists in the face every time they have an idea. In the East, you’ll just have to learn how to turn off your ego and have fun. In the West, when some dude throws a wobbler because he fell of his project again, his girlfriend and two other dudes will run over and start rubbing his back and telling him how strong he looked. Jet fuel for the narcissistic ego fire.

B4YFers climbing rad boulders
B4YFers climbing rad East Coast boulders

Now before you go getting your sarcasmically challenged panties in a bunch, Westerners, I know this doesn’t apply to all of you. And I know there are plenty of insufferable tool bags on the East Coast, too. But it’s something I’ve noticed and I just felt the need to finally get it out.

Ahhh… much better.

Back on track: If you’d like a taste of the New York climbing vibe, raw and uncut, I recommend checking out In the “About” section of their site you’ll find this little tiddlybit of language: “Not satisfied with Louder Than Eleven (inches)? Bass For Your Face will make you cry for FIFTEEN.” This gives a pretty good sense of the kind of content contained therein. B4YF is run by a hyper-ironic band of rowdy hipster rock climbers constantly working to put up (or just repeat, as the case may be) new boulder problems in the Gunks. In a climbing area widely regarded to be picked cleaner than a turkey carcass at Joey Chestnut’s Thanksgiving dinner, the B4YF crew, along with Ivan Greene and some other enterprising bloc-jockeys, have been adding instant classics left and right. For example check out all the V4+ goodness in this professionally shot and edited YouTube masterwork:

Finally, if you want to see an East Coast, off-topic snarkfest to end all snarkfests, don’t miss out on, a message board centered on the depraved lives of Internet nerds who climb up little rocks for fun. This board was starting by at least one East Coaster so intensely sarcastic he’s almost impossible to talk to. You keep asking yourself, “Is he being serious, or is he making fun of me?” (Or at least, I do.)

On this post, as will all my posts, if you don’t like what I write, you can tell me to STFU in the comments.

Photo Friday: Three From China

I’ve been taking pictures since I was a wee lad. My parents got me a basic film SLR when I was in high school, and I shot as much as I could afford to develop (ah, the good ol’ film days!). Starting in college, I began to work my way up the digital ranks. An early Sony point and shoot, then a D70, D80, D700, and I just put in a pre-order on the D800.

These days, I live in scenic Salt Lake City. Well, the surrounding mountains are scenic, at least… when they’re not shrouded in lung-searing smog. I also travel a lot for work and for pleasure. Both things offer plenty of great photo opportunities. Recently, I went to China for the Petzl RocTrip. I managed to grab a few nice shots, three of which comprise my first “Photo Friday” post. If you like them, keep your eye out for my travel report from RocTrip China, coming soon. In the meantime, Andrew Bisharat, on his blog, has posted on the same topic, here and here.

A Farmer Plowing in the Getu River Valley, China
A farmer plowing his rice field in the Getu River Valley, China
Climbing on the Rim of the Great Arch
Climbers on the outer rim of the Great Arch, a limestone formation so large that Chinese fighter jets once flew through its mouth, or so I've read.
Two Climbing Couples Being Wed in the Village of Getu He
Two climbing couples getting married in the village of Getu He, just before a big dance party started. A moment later, climbing legend Lynn Hill came out and helped perform the ceremony. It was a surreal moment, at least for the Westerners in the audience.

The DOSE energy drink will make you So Ill

The DOSE energy drink from So iLL
The DOSE energy drink from So iLL

I recently caught wind via the Bookface that one of my favorite hold companies in the universe, So iLL, has created their very own energy drink. In keeping with their other products, it has a medical moniker: The DOSE.

Now, if you know me, you’ll know that I love energy drinks. In fact, I’m slurping one right now. It’s called CRUNK!!!, and I got it because I heard that Lil John makes it in his bathtub. (Can anyone please confirm or disconfirm?!) I once called the 800 number printed on the can and get a recording of Lil John reading me through the phone tree. Besides Lil John, the thing I like most about CRUNK!!! is how much you can taste the horny goat weed extract.

All this is just to say that I’m pumped out of my mind about the idea of an energy drink made just for climbers. Sick. I also love when climbing companies push against the typically boundaries of our little industry. It’s exciting and interesting and makes you wonder which brand, if any, will become the Burton Snowboards of the climbing world.

Continue reading The DOSE energy drink will make you So Ill

About A Blog: Splitter Choss on Cerro Torre

The wind-blasted beauty of Cerro Torre

I am constantly adding snippets to my running list of blog ideas. In this quest, I enlist the help of handy apps like Evernote and Google Docs, pen and paper, and even voice memos. It’s a long list with a few good thoughts and lots of junk. And, of course, not all of the ideas will come to fruition. Ideas are easy; it’s the execution that’s difficult. And then there are those times when someone just beats you to the punch. Such is the way of things.

One of the ideas on my list that actually got my pot percolating had to do with the controversy surrounding Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk’s recent bolt-choppery on the wind-blasted, knife-blade of a Patagonian peak known as Cerro Torre. (Read the dynamic duo’s manifesto official statement here.) I won’t go into detail, but basically, a climber named Cesare Maestri attempted to climb Cerro Torre in the 1970s, using a compressor-powered drill to pepper the immaculate granite wall with bolts. The route, in honor of his technique, is called the Compressor Route. This bolting spree has pretty universally been accepted as wrong, as it scarred the rock and all but ruined the climb for any future climbers who might want to do it using cleaner (i.e, much less bolt-y) means. Fast forward to 2012: two young tough guys climbed the Compressor Route (relatively) cleanly and then pulled out a bunch of Maestri’s bolts. Seems simple enough, but a heated debate followed nonetheless.

The controversy is, in the truest sense of the term, a tempest in a teapot. Climbers on the Internet have tripped over themselves in a effort to share their opinions on the topic, most of whom, as Kelly Cordes pointed out in his most-excellent appraisal of the situation, never have and never will lay a finger on Cerro Torre. Meanwhile, to non-climbers, the “ethical” debate over bolting must be confusing (at best) and, at worst, trite.

With many experts who know far more of this topic than I ever will having already weighed in, I reasoned the only value I could add would be an tongue-in-cheek explanation for non-climbers or climbers who just can’t stand to take things like this so seriously. Then, of course, BJ over at beat me to it:

Cerro Torre For Dummies & Non-Alpinists : Splitter Choss.

My favorite paragraph from the Splitter Choss post:

People leave the controversial route in place, because it’s much easier to get to the top using all the bolt ladders. Over time it becomes generally accepted, even though everyone knows it’s wrong, like porn, or watching American Idol.

I guess I can’t complain — I still managed to make a post (of sorts) on the topic, even if it is a blog about a blog. I’ll cross the idea off my list and start working on the next one. Such is the way of things.

Pro-spective: Who is the Nikon D800 for? Part 1

D700/800 split

[To get the big picture, check out the other two posts in this Pro-spective series. Part 2 with Tim Kemple and Part 3 with Corey Rich]

In a previous post, I mentioned the lukewarm response to the new D800 some Nikon fans have been expressing since its February sixth announcement. (I’d link to evidence of this, but it’s scattered across the Twitterverse, the comments pages of camera blogs, and photodork forums. If you look for it, you’ll find it.) In many cases, these responses are just the typical web junk, where bored or angry people can’t resist the urge to gripe about everything that catches their attention via the unedited broadcast medium known as the Internet. In other cases, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about what the D800 is and who it’s for (“You mean this might be better than my Coolpix? Oh noes! Why didn’t the guy in Best Buy tell me to wait?!” or “$3,000?! Who would pay that much for a stupid camera?! My iPhone takes pictures just as good and I can make calls with it, too!”).

But there is a third, and I think larger, class of user who actually has a valid complaint, or at least question, about the D800: Why did it go the direction it did, if it’s ostensibly to replace the D700? The D700 was an affordable, full-frame rig that enthusiasts and pros alike could use to shoot action and low-light scenes. Photo journalists and sports photogs on a budget were stoked. The D800, as most interested people have already read a hundred times elsewhere, generates immense 36mp images at a rate of about four per second, fast considering the 70m raw file size, but still slow compared to the D700’s 8fps with battery grip or the D4’s 9fps without. The D800 seems to target a different market: studio, landscape, and even wedding shooters. A big segment of D700 lovers doesn’t seem to have a viable upgrade option for less than six thousand dollars.

Continue reading Pro-spective: Who is the Nikon D800 for? Part 1