Years ago, a friend of the familyand a very smartfellow 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 partya 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.
Huge numbers of people will try climbing for the first timein 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.
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 attitudemight bea 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…
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…
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.
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.
*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.
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…
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.
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!”
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.
Remember Opposite Day? That special time when we were kids where everything we said was magically inverted to mean the contrary? Such power we wielded! I recently discovered that January 25th is the pseudo-official date of this imaginary “holiday.” But in my opinion, the best thing about Opposite Day is that it can be invoked at any time — a sort of floating Shangri-La of sarcasm that materializes when called.
With that in mind, I have compiled the following 10 tips for how to climb on Opposite Day, for total beginners and experienced rock wrastlers alike. Follow these tips carefully to become a great climber… Not!
1. Hold your breath -Science has shown that only through holding your breath can you create the proper body tension required to climb. To prepare for vertical voluntary apnea, practice not breathing in a safe place close to the ground. That way, when you pass out, you won’t have far to fall. Recommended breath-holding practice locations include a sofa, bed, or crashpad. To be avoided: hot tubs, the high limbs of trees, a closed room containing a pack of hungry pugs.
2. Care about looking cool - Few things are more important to a real climber than appearance. Favorite skinny jeans and striped tank top in the washer? Better to stay home than to head to the crag. Feeling a little bland at the gym? Try getting an arm-sleeve tattoo, capping your matted crop of dreadlocks with an ill-fitting trucker hat, or growing an ironic mustache. The self-confidence you gain from your new appearance will be all you need to power you up the wall.
3. Carry as little water and food as possible - The only edible thing Clint Eastwood brought up the Totem Pole in the cult classic The Eiger Sanction was beer. And he didn’t even mean to bring that — his good-for-nothin’ partner slipped it in his pack. The takeaway here is that hydration and nutrition are for sissies. A good rule of thumb before a long multi-pitch day in the desert is: one tall glass of water before you leave in the morning and, if you feel you need it, another when you get back to your van. As for that gobbledygook about “bonking”? Go sit in an empty chair — Clint will tell you what you can do with your Camelbak and Clif Bars.
4. Use you arms – Can you do 10 pull-ups? Then you can do at least 10 climbing moves. It is commonly known that the best rock climbers have spindly little legs, and that’s because their lower limbs, like the human appendix, are borderline vestigial, used only for transporting their powerful upper bodies to the base of the climb.
5. Wing it – As it’s Opposite Day, I won’t hesitate to let you in on a little secret: belaying requires neither information nor practice. I mean, you pull the rope through the doohickey and then when your climber falls, you grab tight and hold on for the ride. It doesn’t matter how far the climber falls as long as he stops short of the ground. Or at least slows significantly before impact. And to answer your question: Yes, those rope burns on your palms are normal.
6. Throw your helmet in the trash - You probably have one of those friends who swears that it’s safer to drive without a seatbelt because, in the event of an accident, he’s likely to be thrown from the car and safely into a soft pile of dried leaves. Turns out your friend is right. And a similar logic applies to helmets. For example, if you’re struck by lightning, today’s modern foam-and-plastic brain buckets would almost certainly be fused to your head. Not worth the risk!
7. If you can’t climb it, chip it – There is more than enough rock in the world for everyone to climb. Therefore, if you’re trying to do something that’s just too hard, or maybe tweaks your shoulder a little bit, grab a hammer and a chisel and make like Michelangelo. No one will notice, and even if they do, they’ll probably thank you for transforming nature’s half-assed rocks into king lines. Boom goes the dynamite!
8. Freak out - No one ever climbed anything worthwhile with a level head. When you realize that you don’t have enough cams to protect the rest of the crack you’re trying to tackle, do the following very important steps: 1) contract all the muscles in your body. 2) Start hyperventilating. 3) Babble hysterically to yourself, the wall, and your belayer. 4) Start unclipping the remaining gear from your harness and flinging it into space. 5) Disrobe as much as possible. 6) Give up on life and climb as high as you can above your last piece of gear. Good luck!
9. Pump up the volume - Birds singing, a babbling brook, the whistling whisper of wind between the trees and boulders… Eff that ish! Time to bust out the iPod and portable speakers and blast some dubstep. How else are you going to get psyched?! Of course, once you’re up on the rock, breaking the rad barrier to the unrelenting, grinding pulse of Deadmau5, you’re also going to want to cut loose with some Ondra roars and unedited expletive explosions. How else will people know you’re not just out climbing some rock like all these other n00bs?
10. ABC (Always Be Climbing) - Any fast food chain owner will tell you: success isn’t about quality, it’s a matter of sheer volume. Climbing every day or even multiple times per day, is the quickest way to get stupid strong. Tendon pain? Partially dislocated shoulder? Exhaustion-induced illness? Meer bumps in the road to glory. Now get back on that wall and give me 20 laps.
The first precept of karate is that it begins and ends with a bow of respect. If you respect your opponent, you respect yourself. If you respect yourself, you respect your opponent. Similarly, one of the four principles at the heart of the Japanese tea ceremony, rooted in Zen, is Kei, or respect.
I don’t physically bow to the rock before I climb, but perhaps I should start. I’m sure it would draw some funny looks, but it would also be a good reminder of what I’m doing there in the first place: looking for a challenge to help me deepen my knowledge of self and broaden my understanding of the possible.
When mountaineers speak of conquering or doing battle with a mountain or using siege tactics, they use the language of colonialism and war. They confuse the matter by implying that there is some sort of victory or ownership to be won on a peak. Words are easily disregarded as mere labels, but they influence our thoughts and our perspective even as we speak them. When a climber says he wants to “crush” or “take a dump on” a climb, it is funny in one regard, not serious. But on another level, it makes it harder to come to the climb with respect.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was a great lover of nature. He saw it as our first teacher and a mirror to the self. “Nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part,” he wrote in his oration “The American Scholar.” “One is seal, and one is print. Its beauty is the beauty of his own mind.” Climbing is an intimate interaction between human and stone — it teaches us through direct experience. Rock and body, nature and mind — all spring from the same source. When we puzzle out the lessons of the stone, we can’t help but learn something of ourselves.
Or at least, we can learn something if we approach the matter with an empty cup. When we come to a climb without respect or an interest in learning, we see nothing but a goal to be achieved. In such a state, we might wish to skip to the end by any means, as a child who moves his piece to the final square of a board game and mistakes himself the winner. We might want to announce our accomplishment or log it on a scorecard, but what we have really learned cannot be verbalized or assigned a numerical value.
I have never physically bowed to a rock, but perhaps I should start. Or at least make the bow in my mind. If nothing else, such a gesture will serve to remind me why I am here in the first place.
Balance is central to the act of climbing; it allows for controlled movement, for rhythm and flow from one hold to the next. Balance between a pushing foot and a pulling hand, between two feet pressing against the sides of a chimney, between the downward pressure of a foot and the equal and opposite upward pressure of the rock.
Without balance, climbing becomes nothing but a test of strength: who can haul his poor bones farther up the wall before exhaustion sets in. One who climbs out of balance looks, in climbing parlance, “thrutchy,” which is as graceless as it sounds.
To climb with balance is to climb efficiently. For every degree of misalignment, you must pay with strength. Out of balance and you are out of control, at the mercy of gravity, easily pushed and pulled about in its unrelating warp.
“In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher,” said the Dalai Lama. In the practice of climbing, gravity is both adversary and instructor. Balance is the language of gravity. The climber speaks it with his body. Fluency comes only through time, study, and relentless practice.
A strong climber might appear impressive, but a climber in balance makes difficult things look easy.
I have a very athletic friend who routinely asks me, “I want to climb 5.13. What do I have to do to get stronger?”
I always tell him the same thing: Don’t worry about getting stronger; work on your technique, your balance. Strength is my friend’s crutch — he thinks it will solve his problems to have more and more of it. In reality, he could do with a little less, as it’s confusing the real issue. He can do many moves using mostly strength, but really, he could do them much more easily if he relied less on his muscles and more on his balance.
The lesson is replayed every time a young couple visits the gym for the first time. The man climbs with his arms, as if trying to pull the wall down to the ground. The young woman dances up the wall, balanced over her feet. “The softest things in the world overcome the hardest things in the world,” wrote Lao Tzu in the Tao de Ching.
Of course, both strength and balance are required to climb. Too much of one and not enough of the other is its own kind of imbalance. Likewise, the mental and the physical must be balanced. Activity and rest must be balanced.
In climbing and in the rest of life, it is easy to forsake one thing for another while completely passing over the Middle Way. Many of my climber friends have let promising careers and relationships stagnate in exchange for more and more time to climb. Many of my career-oriented friends have let their bodies and their senses of adventure atrophy in exchange for advancement or money. These just are a few examples of lives lived out of balance.
I have found it is helpful to constantly monitor balance and to adjust whenever things fall out of line.
When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.
“Give me the best piece of meat you have,” said the customer.
“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best.”
At these words Banzan became enlightened.*
Many moons ago, a friend of mine with a hankering for a good, chewy argument asserted that climbing is the best sport. (I’ll use “sport” here, even though we all know that climbing is a “lifestyle,” or a “way of life,” or even a “metaphysical journey” — it’s just easier this way.)
“That’s a ridiculous thing to say,” I said. “Climbing is only the best sport for those who love it. What about all those people who prefer surfing, or football, or golf? To them, those are the best sports.”
“Those people are wrong,” he said.
“You can’t be wrong about something that’s totally subjective!” I cried.
“Climbing is, objectively, the best sport.” He stated, and then proceeded to tell me why: Climbing is not a competition with others or with a clock; it is a battle against one’s own limits and fears. Climbing combines intense physical and intellectual challenges into one activity. Climbing is inherently dangerous, requiring fortitude and focus in the face of ultimate consequences. Climbing often requires an understanding of physics and weather. Many forms of climbing embody the ideals of exploration, adventure, and self-reliance. As descendants of primates, we have climbing in our DNA. Climbing is a form of communion with the natural world. And so on…
I couldn’t argue with one thing he said. I could only explain that none of that changed that fact that many people – most people – don’t care about much about climbing. You could easily build similar arguments to elevate a thousand other pursuits.
“Whatever. You know I’m right.” He said.
But I didn’t know he was right. I only knew I loved to climb. Over the past 20 years, it has played a role in my social life, my identity, my job… Still, I just couldn’t believe in the intrinsic superiority of one pursuit over another. After all, even within the climbing microcosm we can’t agree: Mountaineering is just glorified hiking. Climbing on plastic isn’t real climbing… come to think of it, neither is aid climbing. The only pure climbing is done naked, free solo, and without shoes or chalk. Bouldering is just practice for full-sized climbs. Friends don’t let friends climb crack. Sport climbing is neither… . If climbing is the best, as my friend suggested, which kind in particular? The farther one follows such an argument, the larger the logical holes become, until there’s nothing left but opinion and empty space.
At the root of this disagreement was something we seem sadly unable to escape in this world: the idea of mutual exclusivity — for one thing to be right, the other must be wrong. If climbing is the best, well, then, something else can’t be the best, too, now can it? Our society, with its irrational fear of relativism and its “unhealthy obsession with winning” does little to dispel this troubling belief.
Here’s a common example a very powerful and subjective feeling against which no one would argue: My wife thinks I’m the greatest guy in the world (or at least, I hope she does!). Obviously, I am not the greatest guy in the world to those billions of women who have never met me, nor to the handful of fine ladies who have dated and dumped me. These differing opinions, luckily, have not the slightest bearing on my wife’s feelings for me or mine for her. We each hold the other to be the best for us.
Most of us are pretty good at accepting the subjective nature of love and relationships. But sometimes – too much of the time – we have a hard time recognizing the subjective in our tastes. Religion plays on this very human weakness – there can be only one truth, say the holy texts of nearly every belief: OurTruth. This is without doubt religion’s most dangerous aspect. Invested in such misconceptions, people of one religion have oppressed and killed people of other religions for millennia. Likewise, belief in the supremacy of one race or nationality over another has spurred genocide. Luckily, in the case of climbing debates, things rarely turn violent… although I have heard tales of punches being thrown and threats being made over issues as objectively piddling as bolting, red-tagging, and chipping.
Looking back, I’m sure my friend was playing the role of devil’s advocate, deadpan as he may have been. Even if some part of him believed that climbing was truly the best of human pursuits, he accepted the fact that not everyone agreed. Just like my wife’s love for me, he knew his admiration for climbing wasn’t mutually exclusive with other people’s equally fervent love for other things.
And in a way, my friend and I were both right. Climbing is the best… but so is mountain biking, ice skating, and sure, why not, cup stacking. As long as there are people to love them, there is no sport that is not the best, thus rendering moot the very idea of “best.”
This type of open thinking underlies Alex Lowe’s ever-popular (and much-debated) quote, “The best climber is the one having the most fun.” If we all spent less time worrying about who or what was best, and more time doing what we love best, well, I believe we’d all be a happier and more fulfilled lot.
I’m also willing to admit you might not see it that way.
Want to know how to use your climbing skills to earn a cool half-mil? Ok, here goes…
Step 1: Climb pretty hard (at least V8). Step 2: Find a parkour training facility and make sure you’re reasonably fit and nimble. Step 3: Submit your audition video for “American Ninja Warrior,” the American version of a Japanese obstacle-based game show called “Sasuke.” Step 4: Get accepted to compete in “American Ninja Warrior.” Step 5: Make your way through the regional qualifier and semi-final competitions… Step 6: …and the four-stage national competition. Step 7: Collect $500,000.
This was Brian Arnold’s approach, anyway, and with it, he got pretty damned close to the jackpot.
Of course, this is all much, much easier said than done, but for all the hype “American Ninja Warrior” has received lately, it might be worth considering that climbers are among the few athletes who are uniquely suited to competing on the show’s obstacle courses, many of which involve gripping ropes, bars, wooden edges, and even standard-issue plastic climbing holds to maneuver across stretches of water.
Arnold, a 34-year-old rock climber with problems as hard as V12 under his belt, completed roughly 90% of the seven-step process outlined above on his first try at the show. An athletically gifted maintenance director at a nursing home, Arnold currently lives out of his van in Boulder, Colorado. He first caught wind of “American Ninja Warrior” the same way millions of other Americans did: the TV.
“I was watching an [“American Ninja Warrior”] marathon with Brian Capps. One of the contestants, Paul Kasemir, was on the show, and he’s from Longmont, near where I live. We were watching and were like, ‘Any climber could do this stuff.’”
Arnold happened to know Kasemir, as the two climb at the same bouldering gym, The Spot, so he made contact to learn more about the show. Tryouts were coming in February, Kasemir told him, and encouraged Arnold to make an audition video. Arnold took his advice.
Arnold’s audition video shows him doing an apparently casual dead hang from a mono pocket, bouldering on a steep wall, pulling two-finger moves up a campus board, and even one-arming a pinky-finger pull-up. The autobiographic talking portions take place in front of an oversized Bruce Lee poster.
But Arnold didn’t submit the video right away. First, he needed to build up some confidence. He entered a competition via APEX, a local parkour gym that holds regular Ninja Warrior-themed events. (Parkour is “about efficient movement,” said Kasemir, who also trains at APEX, in this interview with CBS Denver. “Finding a way over an obstacle, over a fence, over a box, jumping from rail to rail, balancing … basically getting from one place to another as fast as you can.”) Arnold won the local competition and got bumped to a “pro” division, where more experienced competitors face off. He took second place there.
In a region that has already produced several strong “American Ninja Warrior” contestants, Arnold was among the top athletes. That seemed like reason enough to send in that audition video.
The folks at the show recognized Arnold’s talent and invited him, along with 100 other hopefuls, to Dallas, for a regional competition. He placed a respectable 15th and moved on to the semi-finals with 30 competitors. In semis, he placed 3rd, his ticket to Las Vegas for the finals.
“As a climber, you have a huge advantage,” explains Arnold. “Most of the other guys who were in Vegas were pro parkour instructors and stuntmen. It suits the parkour guys, because the earlier stages are a lot of running and jumping, but the farther you go, it starts to suit climbers.”
In Vegas, Arnold passed the first stage, but fell off a tricky rolling-cylinder passage in the second. After that, only one competitor passed the second stage, Brent Steffensen, a freerunner hailing from Salt Lake City. Stephenson was eliminated in the third stage, on an obstacle called the “Hang Climb” (a very steep 15-foot section of climbing on juggy holds that Arnold likely would have completed with ease), thus, no one claimed the show’s $500,000 prize.
Only three competitors, out of more than 2,700, have completed the final course in the history of the American and Japanese versions of the show (the courses are identical in the two versions), and not one American. Still, with the intense popularity of the competition and scores of motivated, athletic people anxious to throw their hats in the ring, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before someone from the States pulls the sword from the stone.
For his part, Arnold is confident that his climbing skills give him a real shot at the big prize. “Physically, you’re swinging on ropes – it’s all grip strength,” he says. “A lot of parkour guys fell on the ropes – their hands just opened up. The globes, in semi-finals, they were jugs. For climbers, it was easy, but if you don’t climb regularly, you just don’t have the endurance.” He made it through the first stage of the finals this time around, and that was with a torn calf muscle, injured during a practice run at home – next time, if everything goes well, he could go all the way.
In the meantime, how does Arnold plan to prepare for the next season of “American Ninja Warrior”? “I’m going to build an obstacle course and practice,” he says. And don’t be surprised if you run into him bouldering and sport climbing in areas across the Western US, of which, Utah’s cobble-choked Maple Canyon is one of his favorites. “I love that place,” he says, “the climbing is just so weird!”
Society has long applied the blanket label “climber” to a motley assortment of vertically inclined souls. Indeed, “climbers” have been so often lumped together, despite deep and obvious differences, that it’s easy to forget just how many types and subtypes there really are.
There are the obvious categories, of course — alpinists, sport climbers, trad daddies, blocanistas, and so forth. But if you climb long enough, you will start to notice another layer of divisions beneath these divisions — personality profiles that cut across climbing-style lines.
Here, an abridged and alphabetical list of ten common climber personality profiles. Pay attention, as you will encounter these personalities at the crag or the gym, at the coffee shop and the campground. They will mystify and amuse you. You might even recognize yourself in one or a couple of these groupings. In the end, they are loose categories certainly in need of refinement. If you have noticed some personality types not listed here, please help make this a living document and add them in the comments.
Couch Crushers (aka Naturals) — This rare breed’s strength and skill are unaffected by a lack of practice, fitness, or sound diet. No one is more envied than the Couch Crusher, who can often send the Self-Worther’s project after a six-month break from climbing during which the Self-Worther cross-trained, lived off of kale and unsweetened yogurt, and took expensive dietary supplements of dubious origin. Perhaps because it comes all too easily for the Couch Crusher, this type is easily distracted from climbing by career developments, romantic relationships, drugs, or even other sports.
Elites — Elites focus their efforts on the hardest climbs and rarely deign to interact with other types at the crag or gym. Though they pretend otherwise, Elite’s believe in the inherent value of their status and view the climbing world as a meritocracy centered around finger strength. They band together and share stories of hard climbs, secret areas, and the injuries that keep them from reaching their full potential. If complemented on their performance on a difficult climb by a non-Elite, an Elite will downplay their own achievement in a show of false modesty while secretly feeling a sense of validation, powerful fuel for the Elite climber’s ego fire.
High Rollers — High Rollers are middle-of-the-road climbers with high-end incomes. Their interest in climbing is genuine, but they often seek shortcuts to improvement, such as paying exorbitant fees to Elites for private climbing lessons. Because their careers, relationships, and other interests keep their calendars well inked, they rarely stick to a climbing schedule long enough to truly excel. They are often sought after as investors for start-up rock gyms, climbing apparel companies, or climbing magazines. They can be found in luxurious accommodations near popular climbing areas with Elite climbers as their guests. One interesting subset of the High Roller group is the Industry Maven — the owner or head of a successful climbing company — who is, perhaps, the highest ranking character in the perceived hierarchy.
IKEs — An acronym for “I Know Everything”, IKEs can recite move-by-move Beta for every route you’ve ever climbed, thought about climbing, or read about in a magazine. They are supremely self-confident in their grasp of training techniques, performance diets, as well as climbing history and gossip. Strangely, IKEs themselves are rarely accomplished climbers and tend to spend much of their crag time hanging out on the ground and proffering unsolicited factoids to anyone within earshot.
Original Climbing Gangstas (OCGs) — OCGs are climbers who take great pride in their long climbing careers, the inordinate length of time they’ve been able to maintain dirtbag status, and their (often apocryphal) connections to well-known climbers of bygone eras. They can be heard declaring that “new” routes or problems in their local areas were actually done years ago, without the aid of chalk, sticky rubber, or boar’s hair brushes. Many OCGs, despite their relatively advanced age, enjoy pontificating on Internet forums on topics such as “The Decline Of Climbing’s Moral Fibre In The Age Of Gyms,” “The Dangers Of Locking Assisted Belay Devices And Other Spawns Of Laziness,” and “Barbarians At The Gate: Roustabout Youths Are Ruining My Crag.” They also enjoy posting grainy, scanned black-and-white photos of themselves in proximity to real-deal OG climbers, i.e., Fred Beckey, Henry Barber, Jim Bridwell, etc.
Purists — With upturned nose, Purists look down on some types of climbing (typically sport climbing, gym climbing, and bouldering), while holding up certain other types as high expressions of the sport (light-and-fast alpinism, bold traditional climbing, ground-up new-routing with a hand drill, rack of nuts, and hobnailed boots). Purists, however, come in many forms. Less common variants include sport climbing Purists, who eschew the use of stick clips or knee pads, and even chop bolts or remove “permadraws” when they deem them unnecessary. Bouldering purists believe that short, un-roped, exceedingly difficult climbs are the most direct means to experience climbing. Habitual free-soloists are, de facto, Purists, and come in three forms: 1) Zen-like in their acceptance of death, 2) compulsively drawn to the brink of self-annihilation, or 3) willfully ignorant of the deadly stakes of their activity.
Self-Worthers — These climbers base their personal worth on their prowess on the rocks or in the mountains. The result: severe frustration when faced with a climb that “isn’t their style,” competitiveness when encountering a climber of similar skill level, dismissiveness upon hearing of other strong climbers, and depression when injured or otherwise unable to climb. Self-Worthers, basically climbing addicts, are unable to experience more than fleeting moments of joy when climbing. It has been observed that Self-Worthers are incapable of holding anything more than a passing conversation without identifying, by number grade, how hard they have climbed. When under-performing in public, the Self-Worther will compulsively generate excuses, such as, “This is my fifth day on,” “I’m still recovering from a blown tendon,” or “I ate a cookie yesterday and I feel fat.” On bad days, they will share these excuses before climbing. These “prescuses” help relieve the pressure they feel at climbing in front of others. Another close relative of the Self-Worther is the climbing addict, who may or may not base their happiness on climbing, but nonetheless cannot moderate the impulse to climb. The end result is typically injury, career suicide, and relationship meltdown.
Soul Climbers (aka Unicorns) — Like the hover board from Back To The Future, everyone wants to believe that Soul Climbers are real. Alas, little hard evidence exists to support this belief. Several reported sightings have later been revealed to be climbing addicts with outwardly mellow demeanors and dreadlocks.
Trainers – These muscle-bound souls can be seen obsessively pushing their physical limits at the gym or the crag, climbing with weight vests, pumping iron, campusing, and strapping in to semi-legal electrical muscle stimulation devices imported through Eastern Europe’s grey market. They drink protein shakes and pop glucosamine chondroitin, vita-packs, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories to keep their bodies going past the point of exhaustion. Trainers ostensibly train in order to climb harder, but can lose sight of climbing and become obsessed with the cleansing act of self-mortification through extreme physical activity. This subtype is common amongst mountaineers and alpinists, as masochistic tendencies is integral to these types of climbing.
Widgeteers — Obsessed with the gear of climbing as much, or more, than with climbing itself, the Widgeteer will routinely divert the majority of his or her paycheck to the purchase of draws, cams, stickclips, Big Bros, prismatic belay glasses, Ball Nuts, grip strengthening devices, crampons, rope bags, and so on. Ironically, though Widgeteers are well-versed in the intricacies of load distribution, impact force, and lobe geometry, they rarely have as keen a grasp of the physiological techniques of climbing itself.