Climbing Is (Not) The Best

Everyone is first

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: Our Truth. 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.

 

*This story, called “Everything is Best,” and many others like it can be found in the exceptional Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. 

 

 

Attention Climbers: $500,000 Up For Grabs (Sort Of)

Brian Arnold swinging through one of many climber-friendly obstacles on “American Ninja Warrior.” Bill Matlock/G4.

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.”

Brent Steffenson, the highest-placing “American Ninja Warrior” competitor in Season 4, on the “Hang Climb,” which he did not complete. Photo from the Tempest Freerunning website. Steffenson is on the Tempest team.

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!”

Couch Crushers to Widgeteers: 10 Climbing Personality Types Identified

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 crusher
The Couch Crusher can hardly be bothered to get up… unless it’s time to take a dump on your project.

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 Gangsta
You can’t pull one over on the Original Climbing Gangsta! Chalk hadn’t been invented when he started climbing. They used dirt, and they liked it that way.

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.

The Trainer in action
The Trainer, seen here getting “ripped” for “climbing”.

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.