Climbing Towards Enlightenment – the John Shrader Interview

John Vincent Shrader climbing at the Red River Gorge
John Vincent Shrader clipping bolts on Dracula, in the Red River Gorge.

I met John Vincent Shrader in the early 2000s in the Red River Gorge. Stocky and muscular, with rectangular spectacles and close-cropped hair, he was studying history, psychology, and Japanese studies at the University of Kentucky. John hailed from Louisville and frequented the Red, ticking scores of the area’s classic test pieces, including Nagypapa (5.13d), Darth Maul (5.13c), and White Man’s Overbite (5.13c). He stood out for his climbing ability, sure, but also for his reserved, thoughtful demeanor. He came off as a mindful person in a place where many were unabashedly focused on their own accomplishments.

One day, I noticed I hadn’t run into John for a while. I asked around, but no one could tell me where he got off to. Eventually, he faded into the haze of memory.

Then one day last year, he appeared in my Facebook feed. A recent picture showed John with bushy beard and hair in a topknot. Clad in a red tank top, he looked thinner than I remembered. Seated beside a small shrine, he smiled broadly, well-worn lines wrinkling the corners of his eyes. The pictures in his Facebook gallery told a peripatetic tale: India, Japan, Mexico…. He appeared deeply engaged in yoga and meditation.

My curiosity was piqued, so I reached out with a message and asked if we could maybe do an interview. He agreed, and explained that he now lived in San Cristobal de las Casas, a mountain town in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico, where he teaches yoga and meditation. It was fun to catch up with an old acquaintance and get a fresh take on the intersection of climbing and philosophy from someone with intimate experience in both.

It appears you’re quite into yoga, meditation, and the philosophy of the East. How did you get interested in this stuff?
My journey into yoga began in college. It was kind of a religious, spiritual crossroads for me then. I had grown up with a Christian background, and many of my friends in college were Christian, and I began to have a lot of questions. Christianity, at the time, simply didn’t have answers for me. It was in learning about Buddha and his message that the spiritual path is a personal one, where only you can provide the answers for yourself, that I became more interested in the philosophy of the East. At the same time, I learned that a good climbing friend’s dad was a master at a Zen center near the Red River Gorge called Furnace Mountain. I went to my first silent meditation retreat there and fell in love. I was fascinated by the simplicity of approaching the ultimate through working with the intimacy of your own mind and awareness. Later, yoga became the perfect bridge for connecting my passion for moving the body with climbing and sitting meditation.

Are you a Buddhist?
Nowadays, I don’t say I’m anything. Buddhism and Buddha’s teachings have had a profound influence on how I see and approach the world and myself, but I wouldn’t consider myself Buddhist. I’m seeing more and more that at the core of any authentic spirituality the teachings are similar and universal. I try to adopt all guidance and philosophies that increase my awareness and help me be a better human being.

When and why did you stop climbing regularly?
I stopped climbing regularly when I went to India after college. I spent a few months climbing at Hampi, in South India, then the journey of India simply took me to other places. It was never by conscious choice, per se, just that logistics and location didn’t allow for regular climbing.

John Shrader at a yoga intensive in Mexico
John at a yoga retreat at the Ananda Healing Center.

Were you ever climbing and practicing yoga at the same time?
Not as intensively as I would have liked, in hindsight, but I was meditating and starting to do more and more yoga the last few years I was still climbing consistently.

Do you feel yoga helped you to climb better?
Absolutely. I was always shorter in stature, so the increased flexibility was much welcomed for raising my foot to my armpit and ridiculous drop knees on cruxes that taller friends would just reach past! Now, I feel so light and flexible and also super strong in the core, I would love to see how it translates to the rock. Not to mention the mental focus and learning to move from a place much deeper in. I always intuitively incorporated the breath with climbing to work through hard sequences, and now seeing how deep and profound a role it has in yoga, I would love to blend this more consciously again. With yoga, it begins to feel like the subtlety of the breath is moving the body, and not the force and brute of the body. I’m sure this would translate to a super smooth climbing experience.

Do you feel there’s a meditative or yogic aspect to climbing?
Absolutely! The amount of present-moment awareness and control of the mind and body that climbing calls for brings heightened states of awareness and a magnified view of your inner world. I would fall off the crux so many times and was sure that 90 percent of the time it was just one thought, usually negative, rather than physical incapacity, that threw me off. More mental mastery always related to stronger climbing.

Have you experienced a transcendent moment during climbing?
For sure, there are times climbing where time and space fade away, a crystalline clarity of the present moment and a sense of tapping into something infinite, undefinable, yet magical and alluring at the same time. It was this state of flow that was always the strongest pull for me to return to the rock.

You lived in Japan for five years; would you say there’s a different approach towards climbing there than in the US?
I didn’t climb so consistently [when I was in Japan]. When I did though, the climbers were always super stoked. No matter where I’ve been in the world, the climbing community always has this same vibe running through it. In Japan, there was so much psych and enthusiasm, but also this deep calmness when out climbing and I felt more of a respect for nature. More into really making sure they clean up after themselves and, at least when I went, no sense of any competition and a lot of shared encouragement and enthusiasm.

Do you think there’s a natural tension between the Buddhist concept of non-attachment and the typical climbing mindset?
Unfortunately, I would say there’s a certain tension that is present. One of the “goals” of Buddhism is to achieve a state of equanimity and non-reactivity, a mind that is serene despite outer circumstances of pleasure or pain. So often, there is attachment to sending a route or not. If there is failure, there is negative thinking and self-criticism—sometimes subtle, sometimes quite intense and vocal! Oftentimes, one’s happiness and state of mind are deeply influenced by success or failure on routes. I can understand that there is so much physically and emotionally invested in attaining a route or a certain grade, but it’s also silly, of course, in hindsight, that climbers get so caught up in these very transient concepts. I love the Bhagavad Gita‘s teaching of karma yoga. It basically says: give everything your very best effort, no holding back, but simultaneously completely detach from any result or fruit from the effort. I think if climbers approached climbing more like this, there could be more freedom and space in their hearts, and more of a pure joy for the action itself.

The Furnace Mountain Meditation Hall in Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky. An outcropping of Corbin sandstone in the background.
The Furnace Mountain Meditation Hall in Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky, where John first experienced a silent meditation retreat. That’s an outcropping of Corbin sandstone in the background.

Can any activity be a path towards enlightenment?
Yes, this is again the message of karma yoga: that simply acting with the best intention and with all of one’s heart, and maintaining a sense of service towards all without attachment to result, there is a burning of personal karma and the possibility to attain freedom. Any activity, done with this in mind and with a heart of awareness and devotion can be a path towards enlightenment.

What is the importance of mindfulness?
Mindfulness is bringing a spotlight to all the patterns and tendencies of the mind that are the source of our suffering. When doing things with great attention and awareness of our internal state, every moment becomes an opportunity for meditation. Mindfulness is great because you can practice it every moment of every day, and not necessarily have to be doing yoga or sitting meditation—although the former greatly supports mindfulness through the rest of the day. A favorite Zen Master of mine, Hakuin, says “Meditation in the midst of action is a billion times superior to meditation in stillness.”

Do you think you could apply mindfulness to climbing?
So, of course, mindful climbing is the future! There is so much opportunity to make climbing into a more meditative experience, and I think many experienced climbers are intuitively doing this. It is the perfect environment: on a natural stone in the middle of nature, already so much stillness and tranquility around—to make the art of climbing into a process of deep mindfulness fits just perfectly. I remember in one of Aldous Huxley’s books, Island, he describes a utopian society, and I distinctly remember he mentions climbing as something of great importance that the community does for self-discovery and training of the mind. They also used a lot of psychedelics! I can’t quite remember the ending, but I think they were taken over by a giant oil company and the climbing and psychedelics stopped… . Maybe we still have a chance.

Do you think one day you’ll return to climbing, bringing with you these new perspectives? 
Absolutely, I feel climbing will at some point come back into my life. I’m not sure in what capacity, but as long as we would be living close to rock, then I’m sure I’ll get back into it. There are times now and then when I make it to a gym or occasionally outside and am immediately struck by the organic communion of yoga and climbing. I’m always feeling very whole after climbing even just a bit. To be honest, sometimes I’m even dreaming about finishing up unsent projects and get a little giddy inside. But there certainly isn’t a need to climb like I used to feel. Before, it was always something that I deeply craved, and felt like it gave me balance, perspective and peace of mind. Now, yoga and meditation are bringing this spiritual contentment, so climbing would probably be another dimension of self-expression and connection to nature, or another way to approach yoga.

Running It Out

The author climbing on Paradise Lost

Seventy feet up an overhanging arête known as Paradise Lost, deep in the hollows of Kentucky’s steamy Red River Gorge, I hang from shallow horizontal striations streaking the Corbin sandstone like lines of Morse code. I resist the waves of fatigue slowly overtaking me and look up to the crux above, from which I have fallen so many times already. Then I look down.

I’ve skipped a bolt, and between my shoes my last point of protection feels frightfully far away. The rope bellies out from the wall between each quickdraw. As I follow its line down, it appears to grow thinner, more string than cord. At ground level, my belayer’s little face turns up to greet me.

My adrenal gland does its thing, mainlining fight-or-flight stimulant into my system. My heartbeat accelerates, breathing goes shallow, sweat beads on forehead, hands start to quiver.

Nothing about my circumstances has changed except my awareness of those circumstances. The real risk of my situation is small, but I find it almost impossible to climb with a clear mind. My vision funnels in, and around me the possibilities disappear into a haze. In the words of Samuel Butler, “Fear is static that prevents me from hearing myself.”

How do you climb when a big fall looms beneath you? Do you tighten your grip? Hold your breath? Lock your muscles as if bracing for impact? It’s only natural.

What you’re afraid of in such situations — what we’re all afraid of, by design — is death and injury. Deep down, we’re programmed to respond this way to threats, real or perceived. This response is probably very effective in some circumstances — if you’re being chased by a predator, say — but it’s not very useful in climbing or in many of the scenarios we encounter in modern life. And while fear can inform our decision-making process in important ways, the survival instinct unbridled can lead us to make poor decisions.

Instead of pushing on, trying to climb as calmly and confidently as possible to the next bolt and accepting that I might have to fall, I attempt to down-climb through a difficult sequence. As I reach back, quaking, for a lower hold, I hook the rope behind my calf just as my I lose my grip.

“Falling! Shit!” I bark as I slip into space. The rope zings across the back of my knee, whipping me upside down and leaving a weeping burn. But the fall is clean, and I quickly right myself before my belayer lowers me back to Earth.

A few weeks later, I come across a Zen story, one of the Buddha’s parables:

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

Of course, the Zen story is just a vision of life painted in exaggerated colors. Aren’t we all suspended by a metaphorical vine, with no control over when the mice will chew it through? How do we appreciate the smell of fresh spring flowers with a stressful presentation looming on the horizon? How do we enjoy a meal with family, knowing that at some point there will be no more family, no more us?

One answer is that we try to put any undesirable thoughts out of our heads, ignore or otherwise wish them away. But I think we can only ignore things for so long, and so I can only see one reasonable response to our very natural fear of what lies ahead: to commit to the task at hand with all our hearts. To do our best to climb on with clear eyes, resolve, and with joy, despite the promise of a fall gathering in the space below.

Put A Lid On It: Some Thoughts On Helmets In Sport Climbing

Put a lit on it

I knew a guy named Mike who loved to climb. He was a young, smart guy — studying to be a lawyer, in fact, and a talented climber, too. He was as sarcastic and as honorable as the day is long. He moved to Ohio right around the time I left for Colorado, sliding into my group of friends and becoming an integral member of the small but dedicated Columbus climbing crew.

I say I knew a guy because Mike died on April 23, 2010, the result of head trauma incurred during a sport climbing accident at the Red River Gorge, in Kentucky. I wasn’t there and I don’t know exactly how it all happened, but what matters is that Mike hit his head on the ground after falling some 30 feet to a stone ledge, and then another 20 feet off that ledge. Like most accidents, this one was almost certainly the result of multiple factors aligning in a tragic chain. But I think it’s safe to say that if Mike had been wearing a helmet, he would have had a better chance of surviving the fall, regardless of what precipitated it.

I can’t fault Mike one bit for not wearing a helmet. Truth is, I’ve sport climbed at least 10 days without a helmet for every day with one. But as I grow older and more “responsible,” and as I hear about or witness the accidents that can happen anywhere and at any time, wearing a helmet seems less like a burden and more like a given.

Once, while sport cragging in the Red, I watched an experienced 5.13 climber hook his heel on the rope mid-fall. As dictated by the laws of physics, he flipped upside-down and collided back-first with the vertical stone about 10 feet below his pitch-off point. The heavy thudding sound made my stomach drop, but the guy drew the golden ticket and didn’t crack his helmetless head, narrowly avoiding a trip to the ER.

Another time, my friend knocked a rock, no bigger than a dice, off a sport climb in American Fork Canyon. It tagged the belayer on his bald head, splitting the thin skin and producing a mask of blood across his forehead and face. The injury was superficial, but again, it could so easily have been worse.

A certain professional rock climber said to me during an interview years ago, “Wearing a helmet in the mountains is ridiculous, like wearing a condom during sex.” I found his analogy to be problematic on several levels, but I’ve since met a lot of otherwise intelligent climbers who hold similarly confounding views when it comes to helmets. From comfort to fashion to the belief that crag X or climbing style Y are “safe,” the reasons we leave our protection at home rarely make good sense.

Most of us won’t climb routes without a rope because free soloing lies on the wrong side of our risk/reward threshold. Likewise, few of us drive sans seat belt or mountain bike without a helmet. So why the resistance to helmets at the crag when we routinely see them in skate parks and terrain parks, in the Tour De France and in kayaking competitions — when they require so little effort to employ and we know they work?

I can only take it to mean that sport climbers believe what they’re doing is relatively safe. Compared to alpine climbing, with its many objective hazards, I guess that’s accurate, but as anyone who works in the climbing industry can tell you, “safe” isn’t a word you can rightly throw around in regards to climbing. Even if you’re clipping bolts at a convenient little roadside crag, there’s no way around it: falling through space with only a thin nylon cord to catch you entails undeniable hazard.

Climbing isn’t shuffleboard, after all, and that’s precisely the point. The added spice of risk is at least a part of why we climb. But the cost of a lightweight, comfortable helmet is so low, and the degree of suffering such helmets can help prevent is so high, that whoever thinks it’s not worth wearing one just isn’t doing the math. Hang out with a person who’s suffered a traumatic brain injury and then tell me you don’t want to wear a helmet because it doesn’t look cool.

Mike’s accident occurred at a crag called The Dark Side. One commenter on a redriverclimbing.com thread about the fall quipped, before Mike’s passing was announced, “Ridiculous as it may seem, you guys would surely be the first climbers at Dark Side wearing helmets if you were to do so. Who knows, you could start a new trend!” If only that were the case.

So it is with Mike in mind that I wear my helmet while clipping bolts as well as plugging gear. I understand that helmets aren’t magical force fields; climbing and mountaineering helmets don’t need to pass rear or side-impact tests to meet UIAA standards*, and no helmet will save you given a long enough fall or big enough rock. Still, a layer of shock-absorbing material around my cranium offers an extra measure of protection without taking away from the experience of the climb, so I’m going to damn well wear one. My mom will be happier, and hey, maybe I’ll even start a trend.

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*For a great piece on the state of helmets in climbing, check out Dougald MacDonald’s feature in the August 2013 issue of Climbing Magazine.

Disclaimer: I work for Petzl, a company that manufactures helmets. However, as a climber of more than two decades, the views in this post are entirely my own and informed by my own experiences. This blog is in no way intended to advocate the use of any particular brand of helmet over another.