Tag Archives: Rock Climbing

Climbing Season

 

a climber crimping and a pair of hands typing on a keyboard

Years ago, a friend of the family and a very smart fellow gave me a book of short stories called Winesburg, Ohio. He handed the faded little Penguin paperback to me with a sense of reverence.

“I’ve been really into Sherwood Anderson lately. His prose is just amazing. I think you’ll really like it—the way it captures the lives of the people in this little Ohio town.”

That night, I read the first few pages and fell straight asleep. Nothing about the writing or the subject matter engaged me. I should have given the book back, but it slipped my mind and it ended up following me from state to state as I moved across the country. It’s been riding the pine on my bookshelf for some seven years now.

Last week, I picked up Winesburg, Ohio again for no particular reason. I’m not sure what changed since my first attempt, but now I was fascinated by the observations that Anderson put on the page. In the very first story, “The Book of the Grotesque,” I found this passage:

“It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque, and the truth became a falsehood.”

There was something going on here—something vague and barely graspable, yet deeply important—that was pushing through the surface of his words, and it immediately resonated with me. I felt I understood why my friend had given the book to me. But why hadn’t I seen it before, the first time I read the story?

I ran into an old friend at a party a few weeks ago and we started talking about climbing. No big surprise. As a Salt Lake climber who has worked in the outdoor industry for more than 10 years, that’s what most of the people at most of the parties I go to want to talk about.

“Yeah man, I’m just really psyched about climbing right now!” my old friend said. “I’m focused on climbing a lot and building a base and just ticking all the classics in the area.”

My friend’s sentiment stood out to me because not a week earlier, another acquaintance had, nearly verbatim, expressed the same thing: Focused. Stoked. Climbing.

I remember that feeling, when climbing was all I wanted to do. It was a good feeling. Pretty simple. Scaling rocks was the focus of my life, and I built my schedule and my budget around it. But these days, I’ve had a lot of other goals and interests (writing this blog, which is surprisingly time-consuming, being just one of them), and climbing is no longer the main character in my life; it plays a supporting, yet enduring, role.

There’s a verse in Ecclesiastes that goes something like, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” Beyond skiing season, mountain biking season, or climbing season, I take this to mean that the interests and the goals in our life are bound to change, and this is natural. We might look back and the things we can’t image living without don’t mean as much, while the things that floated in the background, uninspiring, can suddenly rise to the surface and become significant.

Things change. Interests change, contexts change, relationships, passions, perspectives… . To those who close themselves off to new discoveries and cling too tightly to old beliefs, there’s a danger of becoming one of Anderson’s “grotesques.”

In a recent blog post, the writer Andrew Bisharat said, “I think it is OK to be open to changing up your interests. What is important is that you still find a way to have goals that remain relevant and interesting to your life. We are human beings first and our goals are simply supplements to our own weird journeys.”

I feel this sums it up nicely. The key to navigating the shifting landscape of life, as far as I can tell, is be open to the inevitable changes. It’s up to each of us to either reject and lament change, or to accept change as the wellspring it is—a constant source of energy and surprise.

What type of climbing is right for you?

Huge numbers of people will try climbing for the first time in the years to come. Statistically speaking, most will have their first flirtation with the vertical world in a gym, while a percentage of these will go on to specialize in just one or two of climbing’s many sub-disciplines: sport, trad, alpinism, what have you. If you’re a n00b, you’ve probably already wondered, “Which type of climbing is right for me?” Rather than wasting your time trying a bunch of dead-end genres, use this handy decision tree to find the style that best suits your personality.

What type of climbing is right for me?

Another Kind of Sport

Climber Anna Stohr bouldering at a competition in Colorado.

Who are we competing with when we climb? Anna Stohr at the 2011 Bouldering World Cup in Vail, CO.

On the way back from a day out bouldering, a story came on the radio about some classic pigskin rivalry that I don’t follow. When I got home, I surfed over to Google News and found a headline about an airport shooting with a subhead that read: “Analysis: Hawaii team’s flight for Utah State game could be delayed.” Ah yes, football season, I muttered to myself. It got me thinking about just how different climbing and football really are.

For instance, tens of millions of my countrymen and women spend large chunks of their free time watching other people play sports, rather than engaging in any physical activity themselves. The fantasy football industry alone has been valued at over $70 billion. Meanwhile, a first-place purse in a really big climbing competition might clock in at $5,000, and the number of rock climbers who have achieved household status can be counted on one hand.

To me, the disparity in climbing’s popularity and that of competitive sports like football isn’t so surprising. Team sports are all about drama and performance. The elements of the battle are visually evident. Players collide, snatch balls out of the air, arc hail-Mary passes towards uncertainty, spin and juke and leap over each other…

In climbing, the battle is more internal.

This is why climbing videographers must constantly work to amp things up, focusing on foot-swinging dynos and gut-clenching falls, setting it all to throbbing electronic soundtracks. When Hollywood gets its hands on climbing, it churns out absurdities like Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit, and zooms in on a ropeless Tom Cruise suspended in a reverse iron cross on a sandy desert tower. But climbing is a game played as much on the inner landscape as on the wall. If it is a battle against anything, it is against oneself. This can be hard to translate for mass consumption.

Yes, there are plenty of climbing competitions. I’ve taken part in a few. But the vibe at most of these events is so chill that the competitors cheer each other on instead of psyche each other out. Score is typically kept on the honor system. Climbing events that create the tension of head-to-head combat, like speed climbing, can often feel contrived. High-level competition, while serious, has yet to make it into the public eye or the Olympics, and high-level competitors rarely make magazine covers or command much screen-time in the vids.

I think climbing’s attitude might be a byproduct of its exploratory, if not a little anarchic, roots. It started with mountaineers whose mantra was “to the top, by any means necessary.” With twenty- or thirty-thousand-foot adversaries covered in snow and ice and wracked with avalanches and brutal storms, there was challenge aplenty without further regulation. And while mountaineers constantly seek to climb in better “style,” winning or losing on the mountain is a far more subjective matter than on the gridiron.

ABC’s Wide World of Sports opened with the phrase, “The thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat.” In the climbing sphere, quotes like Alex Lowe’s “The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun,” seem to resonate more strongly. Meanwhile, the modern climbing hero tends to be the first-ascentionist, or the bold free-soloist who risks everything, artfully and for no discernible reason, rather than the competitor festooned with medals. Many of us are happy to remain what Lionel Terray called “Conquistadors of the useless” — there’s a certain freedom in it.

Ultimately, climbing can and should be many things to many people. Right now, there are fledgling gym rats poised to change the way we think of climbing, and there are plenty of climbers who love competing above all else. But I tend think a lot of us out there love the climbing life precisely because there are no numbered jerseys, screaming coaches, or rulebooks. Because we each get to develop firsthand our own understanding of what climbing is over the course of years or, if we’re lucky, a lifetime. Who climb not in spite of but because no one cares whether we reach the top or don’t, and there’s no money in it in either case. Who climb not to beat anything but our own idea of what we can do, after all…

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…

Everyday Climbing

Jason Danforth on The Mercy Seat, New River Gorge, West Virginia. Photo: Teddy Au

The new fall air was just starting to settle into the Salt Lake Valley, so I took a quick solo trip up Little Cottonwood Canyon to boulder. After topping out a tall problem, I walked down the backside of the formation, taking precautions not to catch a toe. Even a minor slip up on that sloping surface could have been very unpleasant, likely funneling me down into a pit of angular blocks and ankle-snapping tree roots.

So I was very aware of my body as I moved, as aware as when I had been while climbing the problem itself, and it occurred to me that the walk-off was still a part of the climb. The climbing mindset of focused, unselfconscious awareness, fluid motion paired with steady breath, continued here.

Back on my bouldering pad, unlacing my shoes, the nerves of my fingertips hummed the chords of the rough rock. I straightened my spine and regarded the wind, visible in the wobble of the sun-lit leaves. This too, was a part of the climb.

All at once it was clear that the boundary between “life” and “climbing” is actually quite fuzzy, if not imaginary, and that we probably should resist the urge to divide the two. It made sense to me that we should climb as if eating breakfast — just an everyday thing. Also, we should live our everyday lives as if climbing in some wild place — it is an extraordinary thing.

A lot of accidents happen on the descent from or the approach to a climb, on some easy fourth-class scramble, on the drive to or from climbing, even around the house. I think this is because we let our awareness slacken and treat what we’re doing in the moment as an aside, thus becoming more vulnerable to the mundane catastrophes of the world.

With or without the distractions of the digital era, most of us are just barely aware of ourselves or our surroundings during the day. We run on autopilot, focused on fears and fantasies projected onto the screens of our minds.

One thing that most people mention when talking about climbing is the nowness they experience while doing it, the stilled thoughts and clarity of being. It’s not always like this, of course; we can be scared or bored while climbing, exhausted or preoccupied with problems from work or home. But climbing’s mental and physical challenges can help quiet the noise of what Shunryu Suzuki calls our “monkey mind.”

Where do you draw the line between the climb and your life? Do you write on your Facebook page things like, “In the office, dreaming of climbing”? You are saying that your time in the office is not really living, and that you will live your life at some future moment, and under some special circumstances. This doesn’t seem right to me. I think it’s much better to be in the office (or at a family reunion, or the DMV, or wherever) as if you were on a climb.

Don’t wait for the rock to fulfill you; the rock can only show you what is already there. Carry the stone inside your mind. Let it be part of your life at every moment.

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.

 

How to Make a Climbing Movie

make_a_climbing_movie

Video is all the rage these days, and thanks to increasingly affordable and powerful cameras, not to mention social media and the mobile web, the barrier to filmmaking stardom is thinner than at any time in the history of planet Earth. If you like climbing and you have a DSLR, there really is no good reason to wait. All you need is a subject (a strong-ish climber and a good route or problem), an afternoon, and a laptop with a pirated copy of Final Cut. That, coupled with the following 10-step structure will help you make a hot vid that’ll get you rich, 100% guaranteed.*

1. Set the scene… - Slider footy of beautiful natural places surrounding the climbing area. (“Footy” is slang for “footage,” if you’re not in the know.)  If you can’t afford a slider, a simple pan will suffice, I guess… but you should really get a slider.

Bonus footy: Grab a time-lapse of sunrise, clouds zooming over crag. 

2. Hi, my name is…  – Sit your subject(s) down in front of idyllic landscape or at least a nice-looking tree. Have them say the following: “Hi, my name is [name], I’m from [location], and I’ve been climbing for [number of years]. Cut interview footage with shots of your climber getting geared up: pulling on shoes, tying in, brushing holds, etc. Pro tip: Be sure to bring your sticks (aka tripod) for rock-solid talking-head shots.

Bonus footy: Have your climber tell the story of how he / she started climbing at a friend’s climbing gym birthday party, or whatever.

3. Introduce the area - Show images of the crag — shallow depth of field always a plus — and splice in close-ups of running water, birds in trees, common insects, and / or grass blowing in a field (this is called B-roll in the biz… hey, you got that slider, right?). Have your climber endorse the area: “[Area X] is one of my favorite places. I’ve been climbing here for [number of seasons], and the routes / problems are as good as anything else I’ve seen. [Something positive about the rock and / or local culture].

Bonus footy: Throw focus (i.e., make the image blurry and then sharp) a bunch.

4. Introduce super rad route / problem - Have your climber say something along these lines: “This one route / problem in particular really caught my attention — it’s called [route / problem name] and it’s about [grade]. It follows a super aesthetic line. It’s really classic…” Etc.

Bonus footy: Have your climber drop some knowledge about the route / problem history: the original route developer / first ascentionist / funny story behind the climb’s name.

5. Capture the struggle - Show your climber trying and failing on the route / problem over and over again. You almost can’t show too much failure, as it simply builds the suspense (“Will he / she send?!”). In a bouldering video, it is good to show the climber falling on every move of the problem two or three times. Have your climber show the camera his / her chalky, calloused, possibly bloody fingers as proof of dedication.

Bonus footy: Show us a real-life wobbler — a fully grown man / woman screaming obscenities, kicking a wall of solid stone, or whipping his / her chalk bag, all because he / she was unable to climb up a rock.

6. Show progress - Show the climber linking sections of the climb, but make sure he / she still repeatedly falls at the crux. We need to taste the excitement of a possible send before it actually happens. At this point, the climber should describe the crux section or sections: “The crux is really tricky and powerful — it involves a [shallow mono-pocket / skeezy knee bar / all-points-off slab dyno to double fist jams]. After that, you get a quick shake and then have to [fight the barn door / make a blind toss to a razor-sharp undercling / execute a full bat hang]. The finishing jug is guarded by [the world’s smallest crimper / a below-the-waist lock-off on a completely natural five-mono “bowling ball” hold / a rabid Chihuahua].”

Bonus footy: In the middle of this section, show your climber breaking off a key hold and then shouting, “Shit!” [dramatic pause] “[Sigh…] I don’t know if it even goes any more.” Fade to black…

7. Build the dramatic arc higher - Show your climber triumphantly working through the crux against all odds. If you got the broken-hold money shot in the previous step, make sure to show your climber working out a new-and-improved sequence. A glimmer of hope when everything seems darkest.

Bonus footy: Candid shot of your climber sitting alone, eyes closed in meditative silence, methodically rubbing chalk into his / her fingers.

8. Witness the fitness – Cut to your climber setting out on the route / problem from the beginning, but this time be sure to up the volume on the music track (hip hop or electronic, preferably), to signal something sick is about to go down. Multiple angles (from above, from the side, from the ground) will allow the audience to experience the movement in a sort of 3-D hyper-reality. Close-ups of fingers and toes grasping tiny edges and pockets are key to show the viewer that, No, those are not jugs. Tight shot on the climber’s face as he / she grasps the finishing hold and hoots or yodels in victory.

Bonus footy: Get creative — super-slow-mo or GoPro POV footage add “depth” to your “story.”

9. Coming back down - All that training and paleo dieting paid off, so be sure to nail a shot of relieved joy on your climber’s face as he / she is lowered to the ground / stands atop the boulder with arms raised in victory. Interview footage here would include phrases like, “I’m so psyched to be able to climb this [awesome route / rad problem]; it really filled the aching void in my soul,” “That was pretty sick, for sure, but I’m a badass so I never really doubted it would go down. In fact, I’m surprised it took as long as it did,” or, “I’m glad that’s done; now I can eat a burrito.”

Bonus footy: Fist bumps for everyone.

10. And… scene – A few good cuts of everyone packing up their gear and cracking brewskis. Grab that time-lapse footage of the sun coming up and just flip it to create a sunset / feeling of closure. The climber should offer some heart-warming nugget of wisdom like, “You know, sending felt really good, but just spending a day out with good friends is the best part. It’s really special…” Classic heroic journey drama set in nature. It’s in the bag.

Bonus footy: If your video has any sponsors, now’s a good time to put their logos on screen. Go ahead and thank mom and dad for getting you your camera, while you’re at it…

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*Not guaranteed.

 

Climbing Back to the Beginning

Gym climbing scene distorted into a circle

Before you study Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; while you are studying Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers; but once you have had enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and rivers again rivers.
— Zen saying

On the first attempt, Lois tied in and climbed the blue route almost to the last hold. Somewhere near the top, she was too tired to sort out a tricky sequence and sagged back onto the rope.

“Aw, shoot!” she shouted, “I almost had it!” I lowered her to the ground.

Lois was a new climber, a woman in her 40s looking to try something different. Like most people coming to climbing for the first time, she was unsure of herself on the wall, afraid of falling, and quick to shout, “Take!” when something didn’t make sense. The route she just attempted was at the edge of her ability. As her instructor, I had recommended she try a new climb, just to see how she would do. We were both a little surprised at the result.

“Nice work up there!” I encouraged her. “Let’s rest for five minutes. You’ll get it next time.”

But when the five minutes were up, and Lois re-checked her knot and began to climb, things didn’t go so smoothly. She managed to reverse every move she had done just right the first time, steeping left foot where she should have gone right, crossing up her hands and having to match on every hold, throwing herself around awkwardly instead of using balance to stand up and reach. Whatever intuition had propelled her up the route on her first attempt was now mired in a fog of indecision. After much frustration, Lois reached the top of the wall and asked to be lowered down.

“I don’t know what happened,” she said. “Everything just felt wrong. I was trying to remember what I did the first time, and threw me off.”

Lois’ experience is not unusual. There is a funny phenomenon in climbing where your first attempt is near perfect, but your second (and third, and even fourth) are all mixed up. From what I can tell, it’s a case of your body understanding the best course of action and your brain subsequently getting in the way.

Philosophies and religions throughout history have suggested that we must seek to return to some sort of original state. In the Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra identifies this as a central aspect of Zen: “The process of enlightenment consists merely in becoming what we already are from the beginning,” he writes.

In Ecclesiastes, the speaker writes, “God, when he made man, made him straightforward, but men invent endless subtleties of their own.”

In the Tao Te Ching, passages like this one are common:

Open yourself to the Tao,
then trust your natural responses;
and everything will fall into place.

Similarly in climbing, I believe most of us carry a certain innate understanding of movement in our bones, but that we have forgotten, or confused that understanding.

Lois, like most of my students at the climbing gym, came to me from a life spent seated: at work, at home, in the subway, in a car…. I don’t believe she had ever done anything much more physically complex than riding a bike on a paved surface or assembling Ikea furniture. In her decades of risk-averse life, she had grown afraid of heights. Any original knowledge of movement had been overwritten by a set of culturally accepted rules designed to minimize risk.

But on her first attempt on that blue route, for whatever reason, maybe because she didn’t have time to think about it, her unconscious self was able to flow freely up the wall. When she tried to remember what she had done, she created layers of anxiety and doubt that muddied the process. Her third attempt was little better than the second, the fourth a bit better still. On the fifth attempt she finally managed to climb better than the first. It took her almost an hour to return to her starting point and consciously understand what some part of her understood almost instantly.

It seems silly, but I think this kind of cycle is necessary. Intuition alone or intellect alone will only take us so far. Each person must work through long, confusing, or awkward periods of trial and error to come back to the place where he or she started. Through the course of a lifetime, we make many such circuitous journeys, on the wall and off, but it is not a case of simple repetition. When we return to our starting point after trials and tribulations, everything looks different because we have changed. We have gained a new perspective to take with us on the next climb.

“First” Ascents for Everyone!

Ethan Pringle on the FSOA of Lost in Translation (5.13; four pitches). The Great Arch, Getu, China. Photo: © John Evans

Ethan Pringle on the FSOA of Lost in Translation (5.13; four pitches). The Great Arch, Getu, China. Photo: © John Evans

The world of climbing is all about firsts. First climb of the grade, first free ascent, first female ascent, first ascent in winter… . To do a thing before anyone else is to become a glorious human bullet point in the history books — or history blogs, as the case may be today.

But damn, being first is hard! Not everyone can be first — that’s why it’s called “first.” After that, well, the scrap heap of history is full of unmemorable people who did things second, third, fourth, or seventy-sixth. As Ricky Bobby said, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

This state of affairs is all well and good for the Sharmas and DiGiulians, the Messners and the Hills of the world, but where does that leave the rest of us, who dwell unexceptionally in the middle of the bell curve? Nowhere special, that’s for sure.

Luckily, with a little creative thinking, there is hope for us all.

First, consider what makes you wonderful and unique, like a snowflake. Consider your physiology, your skill sets and perspectives, the clothes you wear to climb, your cultural background, etc. Therefore, it should be no great challenge to find a way in which your ascent can be the first of its kind — a qualified FA, if you will. Below are just a few examples. Can you think of any others?

FCA (First Costumed Ascent) – You might recall a scene in the old Cooper Roberts climbing flick Sessions in which Ana Burgos climbs some boulder in Hueco Tanks while wearing a rabbit costume. This was almost certainly the problem’s FBSA (First Bunny Suit Ascent). Similarly, the late Kurt Albert made the FLCA (First Lederhosen Clad Ascent) of Devil’s Crack, in the Frakenjura, and Ethan Pringle made the FSOA (First Spiderman Outfit Ascent) of Lost in Translation (5.13), a limestone multi-pitch on the Great Arch in Getu, China. Thousands of FCAs (not to mention their opposite, First Nude Ascents) await. In fact, I know a friend who has a banana suit you can borrow if you’re interested…

FTFSA (First Tripping Free Solo Ascent) – The late Major League Baseball player Dock Phillip Ellis, Jr., claims to have pitched a perfect game while under the influence of LSD. Along similar lines, legend holds that a certain Gunks climber showed up at the Lost City area tripping his balls off and proceeded to free solo Survival of the Fittest, a powerful 5.13 with a jumble of big pointy rocks for a landing. Although not recommended for a whole slew of legal, ethical, and safety reasons, many FTFSAs remain to be claimed the world over. On the other hand, FSAs — First Stoned Ascents — have pretty much all been ticked at this point (sorry, dudes).

FMURA (First Most Undesirable Route Ascent) – In the Tao de Ching, Lao Tzu writes: “True goodness is like water. … It goes right to the low loathsome places, and so finds the way.” So can the crafty FA-hunter find what he or she is looking for by going straight to the lowest, chossiest, most tick-and-spider-infested pile in an area and proceeding to climb. Enjoy!

FSTAA (First Shorter Than Average Ascent) – Shorter than average climbers (≤5′ 9″ for men and ≤5′ 4″ for women) will often use height as an excuse for failure on a route. Such excuses rarely hold water, as many of the world’s best climbers fall into this category and most rock climbs offer a variety of holds for short- and tall-person beta alike. However, it is true that certain climbs are known for their “reachy” nature. A prime example is Dogleg, in the Red River Gorge. For those six feet or taller, it is appropriately graded at 5.12a. But for the 5′ 5″ Mike Doyle, who made the FA of Lucifer, the Red’s first 5.14c, Dogleg‘s reach-crux was a serious challenge. After sending, he logged it on sendage.com with the note, “1000th attempt, finally stuck the dyno. Some people say 6c-/7a+, I say 8c+ :)” With typical Canadian modesty, Doyle suggests his ascent might not be the FSTAA: “For all I know, Lynn Hill and Katie Brown tag teamed flash ascents of this beast.”

FNCSA (First Non-Climbing Shoe Ascent) – Before 1980 and the invention of sticky rubber climbing shoes, pretty much everything was a FNCSA. But in the modern era of climbing, the undeniable advantages of skin-tight footwear with super-sticky soles means that few new routes or problems get done in sneakers, flip-flops, unshod feet, etc. The world is your oyster here, but first a tip: train on a campus board and pull-up bar to prepare for those footloose moments when your painted wooden kletterclogs refuse to stick.

FPPA and FGA (First Pre-Pubescent and First Geriatric Ascent) – For the very young and very old among us, simply doing a climb at whatever age you happen to be might qualify as an FA of sorts. But don’t count on it — the roster of wee tikes and old farts getting after it grows longer every day.

F[Insert Your Ailment Here]A – Erik Weihenmayer, Hugh Herr, Craig DeMartino, Ronnie Dickson — all guys who climb harder than you despite facing challenges like blindness or missing limbs. Their FAAs (Fist Adaptive Ascents) are the stuff of legend and not for the average climber I’m addressing here. For folks like us, there are far-more accessible FAs for the taking, such as the FEDA (First Explosive Diarrhea Ascent), the FAUA (First Alopecia Universalis Ascent), or the FNAA (First Nut Allergic Ascent). Are you one of the 6.974 billion people on planet Earth who suffer from a physiological or psychological ailment, impediment, or challenge? Then there is a qualified FA out there waiting for you. To quote Brad Pitt in Troy: “Take it; it’s yours!”

Surviving A Honnold “Rest Day”

Photo of the Flatirons. Boulder, CO.

Perspective isn’t just a difference of opinion — it creates the very world we inhabit. Just as one man’s trash might literally be another man’s treasure, so is one guy’s rest-day activity another’s near-death experience. That’s what Alex Honnold is teaching me right now as he climbs away from me effortlessly, hundreds of feet up the steep slab of sandstone known as the Fifth Flatiron.

Or is it the Sixth? Are there even six Flatirons? I don’t know, and I don’t think Alex does either, but this is beside the point. The point is I’m stuck up here without a rope with a guy who free-solos 5.12 finger cracks for breakfast, I don’t trust a single hand or foothold on this whole godforsaken rock, and I’m kind of freaking out.

As I consider my next move like a chess player deep into a death-stakes match, Alex lifts his hands from the stone and deftly steps up the slab, waving his arms tightrope-walker style. I imagine he’s doing this because he wants to prove the climb is “no big deal” (Alex’s catch phrase), or maybe he’s just getting bored waiting for me, nearly paralyzed as I am by an internal voice whisper-screaming, “This was a terrible fucking idea!” I came up here hoping to glean some insights for a magazine article, but now I’m just hoping to survive.

Strangely, the sight of the world’s most accomplished free-soloist cavorting merrily on what might be the last route I ever climb does little to calm me. I settle into a stable stance on the blank stone and close my eyes. I draw breath with slow intention to slow my runaway heart rate. A cold sweat prickles my scalp and soaks my T-shirt. I chalk and re-chalk my hands with rhythmic compulsion. I hold this pose and wait for something to change inside of me.

When I finally look up, Alex is maybe 10 feet away, his eyes preternaturally round, unblinking, as dark as holes into another dimension. He’s pointing to a little flat spot to the right of my right hip.

“There, dude. That’s a pretty good foot.” It looks like a piece of shit to me, but I try to keep it cool.

“Is that what you used?” I ask, voice cracking.

“Uhm. I’m not really sure. But seriously, that’s a solid foot. No big deal.”

I size up the spot Alex has indicated. It’s the diameter of a half-dollar and only slightly less slick. I scan the surrounding rock and realize there’s no other way. I accept with sadness that this moment has become a fulcrum on which my existence rotates. If the friction holds, I will live. If it does not, or if my panic twitches me off the wall, I will go hurtling down.

“Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily,” it says in the samurai’s handbook Hagukare. “Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon … falling from thousand-foot cliffs. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.” Samurai used this tactic to dispel their fear of death, a hinderance in battle. I try to picture falling over and over, but it’s not helping. I guess it takes practice.

Suddenly, there’s a shift. Without my brain’s consent, my body moves. A quick step up onto that little spot and over. The friction holds and I’m through the simple crux and into the clear. The air in my lungs burns with limitless potential. I want to shout, but Alex makes no sign of acknowledging my momentous victory, so I tight lip it.

“C’mon, we should get down soon. Looks like there’s a storm rolling in,” he says friendly, relaxed, and then continues on. I follow him, humbled, relieved, grateful. We push to the summit and down a crumbling chimney of stone, a mini epic in its own right, to safety and a long slog to our vehicles.

It is common with the benefit of hindsight to feel as if things happened the only way they could have happened. So it is that, back on flat ground, it seems so obvious that Alex and I would have safely completed our climb. Why all the sweating? But this feeling is an illusion. Closely related to the illusion that causes certain types of people to fancy themselves invincible. Every sketchy encounter survived strengthens such beliefs. The really lucky ones live to old age having taken every risk in the book. Others experience a little face-time with death and come away with a new perspective. The unlucky never get a chance to understand how narrow the line between close call and direct hit really is. 

I’ve always felt pretty well in tune with my mortality — as a kid, it kept me up many nights. A hypochondriac teenager, every time I went to the doctor’s office, I expected him to break it to me that I had cancer, AIDS, or Ebola. I once had a panic attack when I realized the sun would burn out several billion years down the line. Perhaps it’s why the fate-tempting act of free soloing never held much appeal. (The downside is all too present and the upside is nebulous at best.) Still, sitting in the front seat of my car, face smudged, fingertips raw, sweat drying to a fine layer of salt on my brow, I try something, just to see how it feels.

“No big deal,” I say to myself. With my little outing with Alex filed safely in the past, I almost believe it.