Quiz: What Kind of Climbing is Right For You?

Three climber types - a woman carrying bouldering pads, a man on top of a mountain, and a main with a big trad climbing rack
(See below for image credits)

Tommy Caldwell came out to Ventura the other day to present and screen the movie A Line Across the Sky. If you haven’t seen it, A.L.A.S. is pretty much a home movie shot with a point-and-shoot by two of the world’s most accomplished rock climbers and then professionally edited into a bromance that happens to take place against the backdrop of the world’s most impressive alpine enchainment.

In the movie, Caldwell and his partner Alex Honnold (a master of stone but, we learn, an alpine gumby), traverse the ragged skyline of Cerro Fitz Roy and its satellite peaks in the monumental, weather-wracked wilds of Patagonia. Despite legendary prowess in the vertical realm, the duo is pushed into uncomfortable territory more than once, as when Caldwell must lead the half-frozen upper face of Fitz Roy with one ice tool in the dark, leaving Honnold, who is wearing approach shoes with ill-fitting, borrowed crampons, to follow.

At work the next day, my friend asked me how I liked the movie. I explained that my attention was riveted to the screen throughout, which doesn’t often happen with climbing movies these days. Then he asked me if I’d done much alpine climbing. No, I explained, the suffering and danger quotient had always been too high for my taste. Complex body movement, a peaceful communion with nature, and the social aspects of climbing have long been my prime motivators; as such, I tend to prefer sport to trad and bouldering to big wall.

As we talked, I realized how bright the line has been for me: key elements of alpine climbing like complex logistics, prolonged period of extreme physical discomfort, and numerous objective hazards, hold no appeal. But to my fiends who excel in the mountains these are part of the attraction.

I find it fascinating the distance between one type of climber from the next: alpinists and gym climbers, low-angle traddies and red-point obsessed sportos—at times, it can feel like we’re different species. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to use the label “climber” to say anything valuable, or to explain what’s so great about climbing. After all, the answer is different from group to group and person to person. Rare is the true “all-arounder” who relishes all types of climbing at once, perhaps because each style has certain core elements that cut across a few sub-disciplines, but rarely all.

As I pondered such frivolities, I drew in my notebook a little matrix of climbing styles and their particular attractions. Then I went ahead and put together a “handy” online quiz to help identify the types of climbing that best suit your particular tastes. I have no idea if it will work for you. Give it a try and let me know…

TAKE THE QUIZ

 

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Image credits (left to right): Kasia Pietras with maximum paddage, photo by Terry Paholek. By Tom Murphy VII (taken by uploader (user:brighterorange)) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons. By Garrett Madison (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

On the Evolution of Plastic

Alex Puccio bouldering on plastic at Momentum Climbing, Lehi. Photo: Randyl Nielson.
Alex Puccio climbing on holds you probably wouldn’t find in nature. Photo: Randyl Nielson (www.nielsonphoto.com)

In the old days, it seemed like the epitome of a good indoor climb was one that evoked an outdoor climb. Many of the most classic shapes ever carved from foam came out of this mindset.

I used to pour holds at a place called Pusher, and I remember filling latex molds to produce plastic approximations of Fontainebleau’s sandstone slopers, Little Cottonwood Canyon’s granite flakes and edges, Hueco’s eponymous dog dishes, and limestone pockets and tufas like you might find in France and Spain. I’ve even seen sets designed to replicate the holds of specific routes, like Chris Sharma’s Biographie (back then is was still called Realization). But over time, as any art form does, plastic climbing evolved.

In design speak, skeuomorphism is a style that copies structures that were once necessary elements of the medium or manufacturing process, but no longer. For example Apple used skeuomorphic design in its old Calendar app that looked like a physical paper calendar, complete with leather stitching and the torn remnants of past months’ pages. The design-saavy tech giant eventually did away with such elements and adopted a “flat” design more in keeping with the digital times.

Similarly with hold design, shapers came to see that plastic could do more than imitate rock, and setters realized that the gym’s canvas allowed for more than the simulation of outdoor climbs. Holds shaped like cubes and spheres, or like household objects (lightbulbs and telephones) began to appear.

The only limitations, folks realized, were in the materials and the imagination. There are still plenty of hold sets designed to look and feel stone, but plenty more that aren’t, and the shapes just seem to get funkier all the time.

New production techniques now allow for the creation of big holds, enormous “volumes” to which holds can be affixed, and even modular wall systems, all of which means more possibilities in the setting realm. When I was pouring plastic, the size of the molds, the cost and weight of the plastic resin, and other limitations of our rudimentary production system kept our holds to a certain size and complexity.

These days I’m routinely entertained by the abstract shapes I find waiting on the wall in the local gym. They look cool and often require creative thinking to navigate. I’ve even noticed a trend towards routes that enter the realm of visual design. Beyond just creating cool moves, routesetters are using holds to create arresting patterns of shape and color. Maybe it’s gym climbing’s version of the aesthetic draw found in classic outdoor lines?

At first glance, you might ask, How well do the otherworldly forms of the modern climbing wall prepare people for outdoor climbs?

But I’d suggest that they don’t have to. Indoor climbing is no longer just preparation for outdoor climbing; it is its own pursuit. (We’ve seen such cleaving off of climbing sub-disciplines time and again: bouldering outdoors was once practice for technical sections of longer ascents, but has grown to be very much a stand-alone activity.) Therefore, indoor climbing is free to go as far as routesetters, hold shapers, gym owners and of course climbers are willing to take it.

I’d also suggest that today’s funky indoor antics will allow climbers to bring new skills and strengths and, most importantly, new eyes to the rocks. An example of this fresh vision for climbing outdoors might be Chris Sharma’s Three Degrees of Separation. First climbed in 2007, no one has completed the route in the years since. The route’s name comes from the three massive dynos required to climb it. It’s hard to separate out Chris’ unique vision as an individual and the lessons he learned coming up in the age of plastic, but undoubtedly the two are interconnected. If my guess is correct, the next generation of climbers will continue to make quick work of former dynamic testpieces and add their own where previous climbers saw no possibilities.

Today, gym climbing is taking influences from outside climbing, too. The popularity of dynamic activities like parkour, CrossFit, and American Ninja Warrior has pushed increasingly gymnastic styles of movement into the world of indoor climbing. Some of this is controversial in setting circles, as purists insist that such “circus” climbing—routes that involve running and jumping, monkey-barring, holds suspended on the ends of ropes or chains, or other trickery rarely or never found outdoors—is no longer climbing at all, but something else entirely. Of course there are others who disagree and welcome the change.

What will people be doing in climbing gyms in 10 years? The future is unwritten. What’s cool is that the folks putting their creative energies into this arena today will be the ones shaping the future. I’m pretty sure it’ll be cool to see.