The missus and I headed down for some bouldering in Moe’s Valley this Thanksgiving weekend. The mornings were cold and the middays and afternoons just right, bordering on too warm. For much of the day, the naked sun created a sharp contrast in the scrubby desert landscape that lent itself nicely to black-and-white imagery. Here, a little gallery following Kristin (and our dog Pebble) through a day at the boulders. Did you get out this Thanksgiving weekend?
Last year, after watching the first Psicocomp deep water soloing competition in Park City, Utah, I wrote in a blog post, “Maybe, for the first time, we have the right formula for translating the esoteric art of scaling vertical surfaces into a spectator sport for a wider audience.” But the truth is, the format still wasn’t perfected then: the routes were a little too difficult, and the climbers had to slowly work their way to the top, resting and shaking out along the way like they might in a World Cup comp. Ultimately, there were few top-outs (just one for the men and two for the women) and a lot of mid-route falls, which brought the energy of the event down a hold or two.
This year’s Psicocomp was another story. Here, setters Dani Andrada and Miguel Riera, both from Spain, and Steven Jeffery, a Salt Lake City local, reduced the difficulty of the climbs to something more attainable for the top-level athletes competing—about 5.13a for the women and 5.13d for the men, according to Rock and Ice. The result was a fairly major change in experience. Speed became more of a factor, raising the intensity of the competition and making the duel format more significant. It was riveting to watch Jon Cardwell chase event creator Chris Sharma ropeless up the overhanging wave of a wall at warp speed, or last year’s champ Jimmy Webb go move-for-move with this year’s champ-to-be, Sean McColl. For the first time in memory, my heart raced during a climbing competition as McColl, facing a motivated Daniel Woods in the final round, blasted up 50 feet of steep 5.13+ in just 32 seconds.
Speed climbing has long felt like the ginger-haired stepchild of the competition world. Its focus on hyper-fast ascents (15 meters in 5.88 seconds, as the current world record has it) of vertical walls with specified hold sets feels too far divorced from the act of climbing as many of us know it. In an Instagram post made during Psicocomp, though, Andrew Bisharat quipped: “Speed climbing finally gets cool.” Whether or not this was meant to be taken with a pixel of salt, I think there was something to it. It’s not that the speed component in climbing competition is intrinsically unappealing to climbers, but that the rigid, track and field-like approach that the IFSC takes with the event doesn’t offer the ideal mix of elements to engage a larger climbing audience.
Easier routes also meant that all those climbers who topped out had to jump the full, throat-tightening 50 feet to the little aquamarine pool shimmering below. One by one, they stood atop the wall, chucked their chalk bags off to the side, and then awaited the audience countdown to jump-off (or drop-off, as the case was for those who felt more comfortable downclimbing a bit, first). This added an element of audience participation, which is never a bad thing.
The 2014 Psicocomp ended up even more exciting than the 2013 version. Clearly the event organizers paid attention to issues they encountered on their maiden voyage and tried to remedy them (hot tubs to keep soaked competitors from going hypothermic between heats, for example). Like bakers tweaking a recipe, they adjusted the ingredients and the ratios to create a better overall result. Speed climbing up a steep wall in a head-to-head sudden-death format with little downtime, plus big falls into water, all in a scenic outdoor setting (coincidence that it’s at an Olympic training facility?), attended by some of the continent’s strongest climbers—it turned out to be a heady mix that left the attending throngs stoked.
With its second year in the bag, Psicocomp (and the general concept of deep water soloing comps) still feels like the most interesting development in climbing competition. Perhaps the biggest questions now are, how and when will it expand to other venues, and will people continue to turn out to watch? What do you think?
“I expected it to be bigger,” I say.
“Yeah, me too…” my wife responds.
We stand at Rozel Point, in Utah’s Box Elder County, where Robert Smithson’s famous earthwork strikes out into the shallow, super-saline waters of the Great Salt Lake. The work comprises over 6,000 tons of black basalt and earth taken from the surrounding landscape, arranged into a 1,500-foot long spiral that looks precisely like a fiddlehead fern. Smithson and a team of workers with heavy machinery built the great shape in 1970, before either of us was born.
To get here, we drove north from Salt Lake along the still snow-capped Wasatch mountains, past gravel mines and oil refineries, grain silos and endless miles of fenced-in farmlands, past small towns full of people who’ve never heard the name Robert Smithson. Past ATK, “a world-leading producer of ammunition, precision weapons and rocket motors,” and the Golden Spike National Historic Site, where the rails of the Union and Central Pacific Railroads were joined in 1869.
For most of the trip out to the Jetty, signs of human industry and habitation are unavoidable, persistent. But on the last stretch of fenceless gravel road, surrounded on all sides by open grassland spotted with scrubby brush, you could be almost anywhere or in any time if it weren’t for the dark clusters of cattle with their fluorescent ear tags.
Loitering in the hillside parking lot overlooking the Jetty, we speak briefly with some reporters from a local newspaper who came out for the same reason we did: to watch the “Return to the Sea,” the culmination of Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto’s salt-based installation piece at Westminster College.
“I’ve lived in Utah my entire life and have never been out here,” one of the reporters says.
During his brief stay in Salt Lake City, Yamamoto meticulously created a huge, labyrinthine pattern on the floor of Westminster’s science center using only a squeeze bottle and monastic patience. After a few weeks, the piece was swept up for a symbolic return to the source—in this case the Great Salt Lake, which was once an inland sea. (I wrote an essay about the installation for the blog dxMag. You can read it here.)
Now, a large group of students and other folk carrying the remains of Yamamoto’s work in baggies and boxes and tubs unceremoniously flings the crystals into the water, shouting and laughing. It’s more of an undirected celebration than a contemplative gesture. Still, I imagine Yamamoto must be happy to enter into such an artistic dialogue with the legendary Smithson, even if neither man is directly present for it.
After an hour or so, the group departs and the Jetty almost immediately feels like a place out of time, a bridge between nature the familiar creations of human ingenuity. This simple shape, set in an expanse of salt and mud and mirror-like water tinged red by bacteria, somehow blurs the lines that normally separate and define. Is the Jetty natural or man-made? And what’s the difference, really? “The flowing mass of rock and earth of the Spiral Jetty could be trapped by a grid of segments,” wrote Smithson wrote, “but the segments would exist only in the mind or on paper.”
The space surrounding the jetty is littered with the remnants of old industry. In describing the site in his 1972 essay “The Spiral Jetty,” Smithson mentions a wooden hut that “could have been the habitation of ‘the missing link.’” On our visit, the hut is no longer, though its decrepit wooden pilings remain, as does a rust-corroded steel ball sunk partway into the muck. “This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes,” Smithson writes.
At the same time, Smithson saw an eons-old palimpsest when he looked out into the horizon at Rozel Point: “The products of a Devonian industry, the remains of a Silurian technology, all the machines of the Upper Carboniferous Period were lost in those expansive deposits of sand and mud.”
Like a musician with synesthesia (or perhaps like one under the influence of LSD), who sees shapes and colors with every note, Smithson experienced the site for the Jetty in his viscera, “it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake.”
As we walk down into the jetty and trace its course on foot, its spiral form breaks down. We are too close to see it whole. Instead, we see the arcs of the spiral as rough forms mirroring the mountain ranges on the distant horizon. We see black rocks, belchings of a long exhausted volcano, with white and yellow and green rings of salt crystals grown up in delicate papery fringes around their peripheries.
We stand out on the salt flats around the Jetty and look back. The sculpture appears bigger now. On the blank canvas of the flats, perspective changes every couple of steps. “The scale of the Spiral Jetty tends to fluctuate depending on where the viewer happens to be,” Smithson explained, and we experienced his observation repeatedly throughout the day.
Another excellent place from which to experience the uniqueness of the Great Salt Lake is Antelope Island, some 30 miles southeast of the Spiral Jetty. But here, looking out into the expanse, there is little to connect our humanity to the place. Everything is background, with no subject. Smithson’s spiral gives us a subject, uses the materials of the place and the tools and mind of human intention to offer a subject, at once natural and unnatural, through which we can enter and participate in this particular bit of geography. Like Wallace Stevens’ jar on a hilltop in Tennessee, “the wilderness rose up to it, and sprawled around, no longer wild.”
The Spiral Jetty, nothing more than a bit of rock arranged, is also a portal—a reminder that we are no more out of history than the dinosaurs who once dwelt here. We, dear reader, just happen to be at the current tip of history, soon to be subsumed in its ever-spiraling line.
My personal experience of The Spiral Jetty was moving, but not dark or fatalistic, which is why I was surprised to read Smithson’s own words on the piece. “On the slopes of Rozel Point I closed my eyes, and the sun burned crimson through my lids. I opened them and the Great Salt Lake was bleeding scarlet streaks,” he wrote. And, “Perception was heaving, the stomach turning, I was on a geologic fault that groaned within me.” It was if the place wracked him with an existential dread. I couldn’t help but recall Meursault’s walk on the beach in The Stranger:
Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.
Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift.
It left me glad that the intent of the artist and the experience of the art are, if not entirely, then mostly separable. I tend to prefer the more Eastern perspective on time and mortality in Motoi Yamamoto’s artwork. He, like Smithson, uses the symbol of the spiral, but in a purified form and isolated indoors, to be destroyed in a controlled manner. The Spiral Jetty was meant to be slowly eroded by the work of weather and tides, by nature in all its entropic messiness.
It’s as if the two artists and the natural world are all saying the same thing, only in different languages.
I had been working a route up at a limestone crag called the Billboard, in American Fork Canyon, about thirty miles south of Salt Lake City. Beeline, the route is called, an old Boone Speed classic that feels pumpier than its eighty-foot height on account of the meandering course it charts through rasping pockets and slots. Slightly overhung with mostly positive holds, an endurance climber might call it soft. But for a convenience boulderer like me, trained on forty-five minute lunch sessions in the gym and weekend projects of eight moves or fewer, it might as well have been El Capitan.
A few weeks ago, I reached a tricky section less than half way up Beeline and asked my belayer to take. I didn’t have an ounce of extra juice to get me through the uncertain sequence. I decided I would have to pick apart the most efficient way to do each move, so that I could eventually race from bottom to top without thinking. If I didn’t make any mistakes, I reasoned, I’d have just enough gas for the trip to the anchors. I dangled from the rope and scrutinized each possible foot hold (there were a lot) and rehearsed the section of climbing until it felt pretty good. Then I climbed on, falling several more times along the way.
My next two attempts were only marginally better. It was hard not to compare myself with my self of eight or nine years earlier, when I warmed up on routes not much easier than this one—it’s a tricky mental trap. At the same time, it was because of past events that I had some strange faith that I could do the climb next try, if only I came at it from the right angle. But what was the angle?
Seven days later, my partner and I returned to the Billboard and warmed up on two of the only quality moderate lines there. It wasn’t long before I stood below Beeline again, wondering if I could beat my highpoint from last time.
I quickly passed through the familiar opening section of the route and through a low crux. At the first good rest hold, I was only a little pumped, but because I had done well up to that point, anxious words began to spin around and around in my head. “Don’t blow it now. You don’t want to have to do this thing again.” Tension locked my muscles, made my breathing shallow and rapid. “You should have done it by now. Don’t mess up this time…”
I was caught in the cycle of worry, but I worked to stop it. “You have nothing in the world to do but this next move,” came the counter to the nervous voice. I started to relax again. With deep breaths, the pumped feeling receded. As I moved on the tension crept back, but I returned to my mantra: “Just this move… Just this move…”
I had to extinguish the sparks of anxiety repeatedly along the route. As I neared the top, I was surprised to find I had energy left. The final redpoint crux, for the first time, felt like no big deal. I pulled through to the anchors, sat back, and called for my belayer to lower me, a little surprised at how the climb had gone.
I knew the route well enough, but hadn’t memorized it move for move. Nor had I gained any significant amount of endurance since the previous week’s session. All I had really done was not fight myself.
You’ve probably heard the saying, attributed to Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Or the one about the best way to eat an elephant (one bite at a time). Like many adages, they fall on our ears as platitudes until, often all at once, we grok their inner meaning.
A route is composed entirely of individual movements, a life of individual moments, and we really can only deal with each as it comes. It’s so obvious, yet it’s not so simple to climb or to live that way; a constant remembering is required.
It must have been seven years ago that a small group of climbers, myself included, sat around a table in the downtown Manhattan offices of Urban Climber discussing a new approach to climbing competitions: deep water soloing.
We pondered the best way to do it. Perhaps in a lake, where we’d build a free-standing wall and then the climbers would get dropped at the start by boats. Speed boats. There would be revealing swimwear aplenty, a la surfing or beach volleyball, and a danger element in the form of big belly smackers from 30 feet. It would have that je ne sais quoi that bouldering and sport climbing and speed climbing comps just did not. We could see it in the X-Games or even the Olympics.
As so many had before us, we envisioned the next big thing. But our vision never moved any closer to reality than speculation. Despite a not-yet-unspoiled optimism, we hadn’t the money, time, or connections necessary to pull of a DWS competition, so we stuck to gear “reviews” and first-person essays about soul bouldering.
Fast forward to 2013, to the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Salt Lake City. The Unified Bouldering Championship comp held on the roof of the parking structure adjacent the Shilo Inn, despite the throngs it once drew and a certain energy, is no longer. In its place this year, a duel-style competition on an artificial wall towering more than 50 feet above the 750,000 gallon aerials pool at the Utah Olympic Park Training Center in Park City. In this event, known as Psicocomp, two competitors are pitted against one another in every round — whoever falls lowest gets the chop and winners advance to the next tête-à-tête. Still, even the victors can take breathtaking whips through air, clapping and plooshing into the pool with explosive results.
As I watched from the sidelines, jostling for position with more than a dozen photographers, I felt a vague sense of satisfaction. I had no involvement in the competition, but this idea that had been bandied about, expanded on and delved into for the better part of a decade had finally come into being. And it was just as cool as so many of us had imagined.
In science, great minds, famous and unknown alike, will often flit around the periphery of a major discovery for some time. Then, all at once, multiple parties will simultaneously come to the same conclusions. So it was with Charles Darwin, the guy who created the working theory for natural selection, and Alfred Russell Wallace, who you’ve probably never heard of but who discovered pretty much the same thing at pretty much the same time.
For unknown reasons, certain ideas can float in the zeitgeist and then suddenly catalyze, seemingly from thin air. This is how the Psicocomp felt to me. It is the manifestation of a concept that has been laying dormant for years, periodically almost surfacing, but never quite having the right conditions to sprout and mature. For whatever reason, the planets are now aligned and the deep water soloing competition is reality.
Still, questions remain: will such comps survive the test of time? Or will the Psicobloc Masters Series ultimately become another Snowbird — a huge event laden with promise but lacking the fan base and commercial support to reproduce at scale? Only time will tell. I think the Psicocomp organizers are heading in the right direction, but they need a driving force, someone with serious clout, like Chris Sharma, who’s willing to keep his foot on the gas for as long as it takes to get this thing not just off the ground, but flying at safe altitude.
What happens after that is hard to predict, but maybe climbing will return to the X-Games (are they even cool anymore? I haven’t been paying attention). Maybe climbing will finally make it into the Olympics, after all. Or maybe these flashy DWS competitions, in tandem with the mushrooming gym culture and increased visibility of climbing as a whole, will take the sport to that rarefied next level that everyone is always talking about.
Personally, I hope the Psicobloc Masters Series is a big success. Maybe, for the first time, we have the right formula for translating the esoteric art of scaling vertical surfaces into a spectator sport for a wider audience.
What do you think?
Dec. 30, 2012 – My wife Kristin tells me how much fun she’s having. We’re out bouldering in the lunar basin of Moe’s Valley in St. George, Utah, and she’s not even climbing — just hanging out and offering moral support, which I think is damned decent of her.
“I like to get away from home … from our day-to-day life,” she explains. “I feel like I can actually see you now, without all the anxiety about work and schedules and things we have to do.”
I feel the same way. We see each other differently out here, surrounded by nothing but dirt and rocks and sky. It reminds me of those early days of our relationship, when there was still so much we didn’t know or assume about each other. We were experiencing “beginner’s mind” — that state of being where everything is new, even if you’ve seen it a million times, as Kristin and I have seen each other.
In one popular Zen story, a teacher pours tea into a student’s cup until it overflows and spills out across the ground. The student jumps back, surprised, and asks the teacher what he’s doing.
“Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations,” the teacher answers. “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
Travel can help empty one’s cup, as it did in Moe’s Valley for Kristin and me. I also think it’s a grand goal to be always working to empty your cup.
Most folks take the turning of the year as a time to reflect on milestones and accomplishments, to set goals and make resolutions. Indeed, the month of January is named for Janus, an ancient Roman god with two faces, one looking towards the past and the other to the future. Personally, rather than looking behind or ahead, I like to think of the new year’s transition as a great time to start living precisely in the center, in the eternal Now.
The day after our trip to Moe’s Valley, Kristin and I headed to Zion National Park, about 40 miles northeast of St. George. We wanted to hike to Angel’s Landing, even though we’d heard it could be sketchy this time of year. In the visitor’s center, a woman told a group of tourists, “Oh yes, Angel’s Landing: people fall to their deaths on that hike all the time!” Which seemed a little alarmist to me. We decided to go anyway.
The hike was mellower than we had expected, not too steep and well-paved most of the way. Towards the end, we donned Microspikes — little chain-and-spike slip-ons that give your hiking boots great traction on ice and snow. We clambered up some steep sections of snow-frosted stone secured with chain handrails. The going got a little hinky, so Kristin hung back on a flat platform under a dead tree where a California condor the size of a small child hunched silently in the sun. I went ahead a ways to see what the terrain was like.
I headed out across a narrow bridge of stone, maybe two feet across. The ground dropped away hundreds, maybe a thousand, feet on either side. Striated red walls reared up again in the distance, forming towers and walls and arêtes. A meager river meandered through the valley to my left. I felt the wide-open void pulling at me. I let the moment radiate out from me and back into me. My thoughts tumbled into space, melting into air as they fell. My cup was empty.
In his essay “Zen and the Problem of Control,” philosopher Alan Watts writes “When the will is struggling with itself and in conflict with itself it is paralyzed, like a person trying to walk in two different directions at once.” It is tempting to look ahead and back, not just at year’s end, but all the time. We see the world in terms of past and potential actions. We’re constantly writing and rewriting the narrative of who we are and what we might be, all the while judging ourselves against this fictional character. I do it. We all do it.
We can reach specific goals through this process, but we can also lose track of the more important things that underlie those goals. We think, If I can just lose weight, or climb a certain route, or make more money, then I will have succeeded! Those are all fine things, but really what we’re after is to feel more like what Watts describes as a person “all of a piece with himself and with the natural world.” We assume we know the path that will make that happen, but for many reasons — because we’re trying to walk in two directions at once, perhaps — it’s easy to misdirect our energies.
Our resolutions may or may not move us towards a sense of deeper satisfaction, but I’d like to take this symbolic entering of a new year as a reminder, like the ringing of a bell in a Zen ceremony, to start this moment with an empty cup. As for the next moment, I’ll deal with that when I come to it.
As an aspiring photographer, science and nature lover, and generally curious fellow, I find few things more fascinating and aesthetic than the forms of living creatures. They are at once alien and familiar. A strange mirror, they show us something of ourselves we are quick to forget.
Look at the frog, with its smooth, glistening folds of skin — can you not see some obtuse hint at our own origins? Look at the long muscles of its leg, not so unlike our own quadriceps. Look at the bulge of the belly, the short, chubby forelimbs; do they not remind of that rotund man at the gas station with his tight watchband and straining shirt? Regard the wide-set eyes and broad mouth; are they really so different from ours? View a frog from head on, add a jaunty hat and a pair of spectacles and what do you have? The gent you passed on the street the other day, grinning with a distant look in his eye.
The deer, the grasshopper, the squirrel, the snail, the giraffe… they are our not our charges; they are our brethren. They eat, mate, seek shelter from the elements and from predators. Had they only the words, can you imagine they would express sentiments so different from our own? But as they cannot speak, the best we can do is observe them closely and learn the lessens their ancestors have been teaching our ancestors for time immemorial.
A friend pointed me to an awesome video of Bear Grylls “rock climbing” in southern Utah. It’s a commercial for Degree antiperspirant, though I reckon pit sweat is not a man’s biggest concern when he’s hundreds of feet off the deck jamming in a sandy crack.
UK Climbing has a nice post on the video, in which they identify the route as Rigor Mortis (5.9 C2), on the Tombstone.
If you watch closely, you’ll notice that Grylls himself is never actually shown climbing, only jumping around and vigorously slapping areas of the rock where there appear to be no holds.
We can only assume that the climbing was done by a stunt double. My question is, who was this masked man? Any climbers involved in the making of the video have a duty to come forth and tell us how hilarious it was working with Bear Grylls… unless of course you are contractually obligated not to do so.
A few more burning questions I have after watching this video: Why was Grylls running through the desert (see opening image — after examining the footage closer, I believe I have found the answer)? Why was he climbing in a pair of old, ill-fitting approach shoes? Why was he tied in to a toprope and a lead line? Where was his belayer? Why was he doing the splits and on a blank wall wearing approach shoes? And, most importantly, what type of antiperspirant could a man wear to stay dry on such a daunting adventure? At least we know the answer to the last question.
So this weekend I headed back to the Valley that is Joe’s, to do some practice climbing on the small cliff chunks there. More importantly, I wanted to meet up with my dear friends Nick and Robin, of Boulder, Colorado. Climbing with these two is always a great time, plus Nick promised to bring me some Avery beers, which I cannot find here in Disneyland – Wild West Edition, aka Salt Lake City.
While climbing with these two go-getters, I noticed Nick had a strange habit of climbing up to the top of the boulder and spotting from above. I don’t think this is the recommended technique, but as Robin is super strong and never falls, I guess it doesn’t matter. Maybe it was some sort of early April Fools gag. Regardless…
I’d also like to give a big shout out to the future Mrs. Blockhead Lord, as she broke the V1 barrier with ease this weekend. She’s a Couch Crusher in embryonic form, if I’ve ever seen one.
It is a strange phenomenon when people who live very near to something extraordinary pay it no mind. I call it local’s apathy. I myself have suffered from local’s apathy. I lived in New York City for eight years and never once visited the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. I went to the Natural History Museum and Times Square twice each.
Now that I live in Salt Lake City, I make it a point to check out as many of the cool parks and preserves as possible, from the Shoreline Bonneville Trail to Arches National Park. In part because I’m new here and apathy hasn’t yet settled in. But also because I keep encountering people who have been here their entire lives without visiting the amazing natural places Utah has to offer. Antelope Island is one of those places.
My fiancée holds a romanticized vision of the American West close to her heart, so Antelope Island is a fantasy land for her. There are rolling vistas textured with decomposing stone outcrops dating back to the dinosaur age, an unlikely herd of America Bison nearly 800 strong, an old settlers’ farmhouse kept up for educational purposes, and a wild view of the Great Salt Lake, one of the world’s largest inland bodies of water. (And yes, there are also Antelope on the island.)
And all of this is just thirty miles from downtown Salt Lake City. Thirty miles! You can actually see Salt Lake City from the Antelope Island. Other than the funky Salt Lake smell and buggy summers, I can think of no reason not to go. Salt Lakers who haven’t been here yet are suffering from the worst kind of locals’ apathy.