Wave Pools & Climbing Walls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Psicocomp Just Make Speed Climbing Cool?

Climbers racing to the top at the 2014 Psicocomp deep water soloing competition
Competitors gunning for the top at the 2014 Psicocomp in Park City, Utah.

Last year, after watching the first Psicocomp deep water soloing competition in Park City, Utah, I wrote in a blog post, “Maybe, for the first time, we have the right formula for translating the esoteric art of scaling vertical surfaces into a spectator sport for a wider audience.” But the truth is, the format still wasn’t perfected then: the routes were a little too difficult, and the climbers had to slowly work their way to the top, resting and shaking out along the way like they might in a World Cup comp. Ultimately, there were few top-outs (just one for the men and two for the women) and a lot of mid-route falls, which brought the energy of the event down a hold or two.

This year’s Psicocomp was another story. Here, setters Dani Andrada and Miguel Riera, both from Spain, and Steven Jeffery, a Salt Lake City local, reduced the difficulty of the climbs to something more attainable for the top-level athletes competing—about 5.13a for the women and 5.13d for the men, according to Rock and Ice. The result was a fairly major change in experience. Speed became more of a factor, raising the intensity of the competition and making the duel format more significant. It was riveting to watch Jon Cardwell chase event creator Chris Sharma ropeless up the overhanging wave of a wall at warp speed, or last year’s champ Jimmy Webb go move-for-move with this year’s champ-to-be, Sean McColl. For the first time in memory, my heart raced during a climbing competition as McColl, facing a motivated Daniel Woods in the final round, blasted up 50 feet of steep 5.13+ in just 32 seconds.

Speed climbing has long felt like the ginger-haired stepchild of the competition world. Its focus on hyper-fast ascents (15 meters in 5.88 seconds, as the current world record has it) of vertical walls with specified hold sets feels too far divorced from the act of climbing as many of us know it. In an Instagram post made during Psicocomp, though, Andrew Bisharat quipped: “Speed climbing finally gets cool.” Whether or not this was meant to be taken with a pixel of salt, I think there was something to it. It’s not that the speed component in climbing competition is intrinsically unappealing to climbers, but that the rigid, track and field-like approach that the IFSC takes with the event doesn’t offer the ideal mix of elements to engage a larger climbing audience.

Easier routes also meant that all those climbers who topped out had to jump the full, throat-tightening 50 feet to the little aquamarine pool shimmering below. One by one, they stood atop the wall, chucked their chalk bags off to the side, and then awaited the audience countdown to jump-off (or drop-off, as the case was for those who felt more comfortable downclimbing a bit, first). This added an element of audience participation, which is never a bad thing.

The 2014 Psicocomp ended up even more exciting than the 2013 version. Clearly the event organizers paid attention to issues they encountered on their maiden voyage and tried to remedy them (hot tubs to keep soaked competitors from going hypothermic between heats, for example). Like bakers tweaking a recipe, they adjusted the ingredients and the ratios to create a better overall result. Speed climbing up a steep wall in a head-to-head sudden-death format with little downtime, plus big falls into water, all in a scenic outdoor setting (coincidence that it’s at an Olympic training facility?), attended by some of the continent’s strongest climbers—it turned out to be a heady mix that left the attending throngs stoked.

With its second year in the bag, Psicocomp (and the general concept of deep water soloing comps) still feels like the most interesting development in climbing competition. Perhaps the biggest questions now are, how and when will it expand to other venues, and will people continue to turn out to watch? What do you think?

Is Psicocomp the Next Big Thing?

A climber catches air at Psicocomp
A climber catches air at Psicocomp

It must have been seven years ago that a small group of climbers, myself included, sat around a table in the downtown Manhattan offices of Urban Climber discussing a new approach to climbing competitions: deep water soloing.

We pondered the best way to do it. Perhaps in a lake, where we’d build a free-standing wall and then the climbers would get dropped at the start by boats. Speed boats. There would be revealing swimwear aplenty, a la surfing or beach volleyball, and a danger element in the form of big belly smackers from 30 feet. It would have that je ne sais quoi that bouldering and sport climbing and speed climbing comps just did not. We could see it in the X-Games or even the Olympics.

As so many had before us, we envisioned the next big thing. But our vision never moved any closer to reality than speculation. Despite a not-yet-unspoiled optimism, we hadn’t the money, time, or connections necessary to pull of a DWS competition, so we stuck to gear “reviews” and first-person essays about soul bouldering.

Fast forward to 2013, to the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Salt Lake City. The Unified Bouldering Championship comp held on the roof of the parking structure adjacent the Shilo Inn, despite the throngs it once drew and a certain energy, is no longer. In its place this year, a duel-style competition on an artificial wall towering more than 50 feet above the 750,000 gallon aerials pool at the Utah Olympic Park Training Center in Park City. In this event, known as Psicocomp, two competitors are pitted against one another in every round — whoever falls lowest gets the chop and winners advance to the next tête-à-tête. Still, even the victors can take breathtaking whips through air, clapping and plooshing into the pool with explosive results.

As I watched from the sidelines, jostling for position with more than a dozen photographers, I felt a vague sense of satisfaction. I had no involvement in the competition, but this idea that had been bandied about, expanded on and delved into for the better part of a decade had finally come into being. And it was just as cool as so many of us had imagined.

In science, great minds, famous and unknown alike, will often flit around the periphery of a major discovery for some time. Then, all at once, multiple parties will simultaneously come to the same conclusions. So it was with Charles Darwin, the guy who created the working theory for natural selection, and Alfred Russell Wallace, who you’ve probably never heard of but who discovered pretty much the same thing at pretty much the same time.

For unknown reasons, certain ideas can float in the zeitgeist and then suddenly catalyze, seemingly from thin air. This is how the Psicocomp felt to me. It is the manifestation of a concept that has been laying dormant for years, periodically almost surfacing, but never quite having the right conditions to sprout and mature. For whatever reason, the planets are now aligned and the deep water soloing competition is reality.

Still, questions remain: will such comps survive the test of time? Or will the Psicobloc Masters Series ultimately become another Snowbird — a huge event laden with promise but lacking the fan base and commercial support to reproduce at scale? Only time will tell. I think the Psicocomp organizers are heading in the right direction, but they need a driving force, someone with serious clout, like Chris Sharma, who’s willing to keep his foot on the gas for as long as it takes to get this thing not just off the ground, but flying at safe altitude.

What happens after that is hard to predict, but maybe climbing will return to the X-Games (are they even cool anymore? I haven’t been paying attention). Maybe climbing will finally make it into the Olympics, after all. Or maybe these flashy DWS competitions, in tandem with the mushrooming gym culture and increased visibility of climbing as a whole, will take the sport to that rarefied next level that everyone is always talking about.

Personally, I hope the Psicobloc Masters Series is a big success. Maybe, for the first time, we have the right formula for translating the esoteric art of scaling vertical surfaces into a spectator sport for a wider audience.

What do you think?

 

Climbing Gyms and the Power of Plastic

Brock bouldering at Vertical Adventures in Columbus, OH
Brock climbing with a mind of play. Vertical Adventures, Columbus, Ohio.

This weekend I brought my nephew, Brock, to Vertical Adventures, a climbing gym in Columbus, Ohio. Brock is seven, and Vertical Adventures — Vert, as some regulars know it — is one of the first places I ever climbed. It’s also one of the first places I worked, where I met many good friends I keep in touch with to this day, where I learned how to set a route, smack talk, belay, use proper footwork, train… . It’s also where I first developed that love of the vertical that binds a motley subset of humans into a strangely vibrant community.

Brock is still new to climbing, but he clearly has the bug. At Vert, He climbed with a mind of play, not much interested in following the specific routes or problems. He grabbed whatever holds looked good, cutting his feet dramatically every couple of moves and then dropping to the pads and rolling around. He watched the other climbers, tried out some new moves, and even brushed chalk off the holds for his aunt Kristin. When I asked if I could get a dip of the white stuff, he offered generously, “You can use my chalk; I don’t mind!” Kristin and I left after a few hours, but Brock and his dad stayed on to climb until dinner.

Alexis and Carrie Roccos opened Vertical Adventures in January 1994. At that time, gyms were just starting to sprout up around the country and were especially novel in the heartland. (Vertical World, widely regarded as America’s first commercial gym, opened in Seattle in 1987.) Together with a friend, Alexis constructed the gym’s walls out of plywood and two-by-fours, paint and elbow grease. It was a leap of faith for the couple, who moved to Columbus from the East Coast.

I started climbing at Vert as soon as it opened. I was so excited to have a real climbing gym in town, I shadowed Alexis for my freshman year career day. I helped him pound T-nuts in the sawdusty warehouse space near the Anheuser Busch brewery. Later, in the summers when I returned from college, Carrie and Alexis kindly hired me on as a temp worker, which helped pay for gas, food, and CDs.

Vert and the people I met there over the years played an important role in my development as a human being. Not long before the gym opened, I’d gotten in some trouble hanging out with what you’d call bad seeds — kids who used drugs, huffed paint, stole, fought, basically did whatever they could to numb or lash out against the pain of their broken, abusive households or emotionally absent parents. In great contrast, my parents, loving and supportive, helped me through my own poor decisions in those angst-filled years. Meanwhile, the community that gathered on the walls of a small Midwestern climbing gym offered examples of what healthy friendships were like, what it meant to live a life centered on something you love rather than reacting to things you fear, hate, or resent.

Community is the best word I can conjure for the group of regulars that developed at Vert during the years I climbed there. We not only climbed, but socialized together, watched the Super Bowl together, attended each other’s weddings. When one of our own, a strong young climber named Jeremy, was injured in a car accident one night on the way home from the gym, a group of his friends organized a fundraiser at Vert to help offset some of his heavy medical costs. When Jeremy needed a wheelchair ramp, the crew from Vert, among others, came together and built one.

“I think that people will meet in a variety of settings. Church, on a bike, at a climbing wall, in a pub, at work, etc.,” Alexis wrote to me in an email, but added, “The gym does make that process easier. (Kind of like lube.)” Personally, I felt Vert was more than just lube: it was a hub, a catalyst. But perhaps that was due in part to its location far from natural crags. Still, there are many, many towns similarly situated, and for them, gyms really can create a community of climbers that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

A lot of climbers talk trash about gyms. For some reason, they like to remind others and themselves that climbing outside is real climbing, and climbing in gyms is practice, for gumbies or for kids. Now, I’d be hard pressed to trade time on the rocks for time on plastic, but the truth is, gyms are the biggest thing to happen to climbing in decades. Gyms are the wide end of a funnel through which people of all backgrounds and walks of life can access the climbing life, not just those lucky enough to grow up close to Yosemite, the Gunks, Southeast’s bouldering goldmine.

I started climbing in a gym, but I’m not alone. So did Alex Honnold and Beth Rodden, Sasha DiGiulian and Chris Sharma, and many other climbing heroes today held up as exemplary in the media. Plenty of kids escape the frustrations and pressures of adolescence at their local rock gym. A lot of folks make lifelong friends in the gym, not to mention partners who one day will accompany them up big walls or high peaks. Plenty of busy working parents find the time to keep climbing thanks to the convenience of gyms. Without gyms as training centers, few of today’s hardest climbs would have seen their first ascents. Gyms and the competitions held in them may well be the key to climbing’s future inclusion in the Olympics. The list goes on…

Brock is young yet; there’s no way to tell if he’ll be a lifer or if he’ll move on to other pursuits and forget about climbing. Either way, he has already found a rich new activity through which he can bond with his dad and other kids his age. Lately, he’s been learning to tie knots with a strand of cordelette he bought at Vert, and has plans to come visit Kristin and me in Utah, where I hope to take him out onto the beautiful sandstone in the south of the state — an experience he probably wouldn’t have been so excited about if it hadn’t been for the humble climbing gym.