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.

Fear, Fun, and Trying One More Time

A woman sitting below a boulder getting ready to climb

My wife Kristin is relatively new to climbing. Like most beginners, she faces regular challenges in her climbing, both physical and mental. Recently, we took a last-minute trip to the gym so she could try her project before they stripped the bouldering wall for a competition (a sign, I feel, that she has been bitten by the climbing “bug”). The problem was a tall V2 with long reaches between big handholds on a steep overhang, and she could do all the moves but the last one. Every time she got up to it, her body went slack and sagged, as if she just wanted to drop down instead of powering up to the finishing jug.

“OK, what’s wrong?” I pressed her. “The floor is twelve inches of foam padding, I’m spotting you; you’re safe! What are you afraid of?”

“I guess it’s scary because I don’t know what will happen if I fall,” she answered. “What if I hit a hold on the way down or fall out of control?”

I’ve heard this, and felt it, many times before. When we lack information, our minds fill in the blanks for us, often creating images of pain and suffering. It seems to be a human instinct — perhaps an ancient survival mechanism designed to keep us on our toes in a world full of predators and other threats. But this attachment to or fear of a picture in our minds can be as much a problem as any physical danger.

As the old saying goes, there is nothing to fear but fear itself. In a way, this is a very Buddhist sentiment. Like Kristin, most of us fear one kind of suffering and in doing so generate another.

After a half-dozen attempts and some odd advice from a very nice girl who had no problem leaping through the air and falling awkwardly to the ground, Kristin looked frustrated.

“I’m done,” she said, unlacing her shoes. “It’s just not that fun anymore.”

“Sure, if that’s what you want,” I replied. “But let me just say: I watched you, and I know you can do this problem.” To me, it was perfectly clear that she could make the move that stymied her — that the real problem wasn’t on the wall, but in her head.

Although she looked unconvinced, I guess she decided to try one more time anyway. On her next attempt, Kristin pulled through the opening moves, made a slight adjustment to her foot placement, and then simply stood up and grabbed the finishing jug, slow and in control.

She came down babbling gleefully. Watching her was like watching myself twenty years ago, and it brought back all that old excitement. When you first realize how quickly you can go from seemingly hopeless to definitely successful in climbing, it’s like discovering something new inside of yourself. You start to wonder, “If I can do that, what else can I do?”

Seeing a newer climber make such discoveries can be renewing. Who hasn’t come to the point where some blockage, mental or physical or both, seems to strip the fun out of our game on the rocks? But we should remember that “fun” is a state of mind and not a tangible object in the outside world. The goal is to find fun in as many moments as possible. Or, at least, not lose sight of the fact that fun can lie just around the corner, so to speak, in the next attempt, or the next, or the next…