Monday, August 4, 2014

25 reasons I am a lousy climbing writer

I have been thinking about why my writing career is languishing and besides the usual reasons like actually having to earn a living or not having enough cash to head to the Trango Towers or even Alaska, I realized what the real problem is or more precisely what they are. Basically I do not have the right profile. So in the spirit of self-improvement and working on my weaknesses, here is a shortlist of reasons I am a lousy climbing writer. There are probably more but thanks to my daughter's pestering, I can't concentrate long enough to come up with more.

1. I have never been to Alaska.
2. I have never met Alex Honnold.
3. I have never lived in a van.
3. I scare easily.
4. I do not have any crazy hookup stories from the Valley or Hueco or anywhere else.
5. I never went soloing because of a bad breakup.
6. I can’t use “stoke” or “stoked” in a sentence with a straight face.
7. I have not climbed El Cap.
8. If I drink more than two beers I will pass out.
9. I have never flown in a helicopter or small plane.
10. I have never slept on a glacier.
11. I have never been to the Himalaya. I think I can find (some of) them on a map.
12. I have never broken a crampon 1000 feet up a north face of something.
13. I have never eaten anyone’s leftovers in Yosemite Valley.
14. I have basically forgotten how to climb cracks.
15. I cannot remember what a summit looks like.
16. I do not beard well.
17. I have never ridden on a “third-world” bus along with livestock and colorfully dressed natives.
18. I do not own glacier glasses, snow pickets or a Jetboil.
19. I cannot set up a portaledge.
20. I have never ferried loads of any kind.
21. I have never beheld a glorious dawn from a precarious ledge on the side of a remote mountain.
22. I have never been published in Outside magazine, Men’s Fitness, National Geographic or the New York Times.
23. My frequent flyer miles stand at approximately zero.
24. I have never ridden out an avalanche or been pinned down by a storm (longer than half an hour).
25. I have never met Yvon Chouinard.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Great Everest Articles

Grayson Schaffer at Outside Magazine has just published this very good piece on the 2014 Everest season which I highly recommend you all read.

Grayson Schaffer's awesome photo of lights heading up the Khumbu Icefall at dawn hopefully before the ice starts to move
For anyone looking for a survey of the many factors that went into the disastrous 2014 season, this is a great place to start. I also recommend "Everest Interrupted" by Tashi Sherpa in the latest Alpinist (#47) along with some wonderful portraits of Charlie Porter, one of the most important and least-heralded American climbers of the last century.

Speaking of high altitude siege tactics, I am mostly up to this kind of climbing. Here's a photo I took of Fort Collins local Blake Rutherford on Wildcat, on the other side of the boulder from Jade, which was just repeated by Sam Davis, the talented photographer.

 Alex Puccio's back-to-back ascents of Top Notch and Nuthin but Sunshine were the other big news of the past week. Can't wait to get back up there myself after a week of training on the flatlands. Hoping to one-hang Automator after figuring out the end of it last week. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Maybe Blogs are Dying After All? This Isn't Just Clickbait! :)

There are times when I begin to wonder if Andrew Bisharat was right after all. OK so that link doesn't work. Here's my response to it if you are interested. And maybe I was too harsh on it and got blocked by him, like everywhere. Which I may well have deserved but whatever. Water under the bridge, as they say.

Anyway, maybe climbing blogs are getting old. Having just turned 50 myself, it's logical enough to see a connection between one's one encroaching mortality and a decreasing lack of enthusiasm for writing about the latest trend/event/marketing campaign in the world of climbing. And said lack of enthusiasm has been abundantly manifest in my not updating this blog in close to two months. And something important surely has happened in the world of climbing (besides Everest getting shut down). OK so nothing really important has happened but maybe I just forgot about it. Middle age has its blessings.

But seriously, what has happened in the last two years to climbing blogs is not inspiring much confidence in their future existence as a corrective to what is being published out there in the climbing MSM. I may be oblivious but I have not read a good polemic on the internetz in a long time (except maybe Stevie Haston's) and even Jamie Emerson is apparently off doing something a lot more interesting than updating B3Bouldering these days. In fact in an ironic twist that only Hegel could appreciate. Bisharat's blog is by far the most productive, excepting the ever-industrious Climbing Narc. (OK he's linked on my blog but I might as well be consistent.) AB even gets real comments which makes me extremely jealous as all mine are spambot generated ones like "very inform blog. much informing and links. OK."

For now I will be thinking about what to do next and spending as much time here while I do. That's all for now. And if you actually want to know what I am up to, please follow me on Instagram.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Everest Show and the Post-Mountaineering Era

Anyone following the climbing scene (which is just about everyone these days including NPR and the New York Times) has been following the disastrous inauguration of the 2014 Everest season with the tragic deaths of 16 Sherpas in the Khumbu icefall. This catastrophe, which is one of the single highest death tolls ever in modern mountaineering history, finally has exposed the contradictions inherent in the Everest system in a way that nobody can now ignore. There are conflicting reports that the mountain is "closed" though the financial implications of that for the country as a whole, as well as the Sherpa community are significant. And there are the grieving families of the victims, for whom one's heart goes out to.

But it was all coming to this point, inevitably. The photos last year of the hundreds of climbers on the Western Cwm, the traffic jams on the Hillary Step, the incessant coverage of Everest the annual event and of course the occasional casualty, no more to be noted than a freeway car accident. In my view, there is no question that Everest is a spectacle now, feeding on its own image, becoming a bigger version of itself, if that is even possible. It is not just the tallest mountain on earth, it's the biggest show on earth, a Barnum and Bailey three-ring circus with ringmasters, roustabouts and tents galore.

Adventure as far as the eye can see. Photo from the Times of London

Isn't there some way to kill off the Everest mystique once and for all? The environmental degradation, the commercialized media events (the first wingsuit flight was to be televised this year), the frozen corpses, and of course the ceaseless tide of updates on weather, conditions, and ascents and behind it all money, money, money. At this point, I can think of no reason why anyone would want to climb Everest under the present set of conditions. It is devoid of all significance, the process being so methodical and choreographed that it resembles more closely the flotillas of gondolas one sees in that classic ersatz sea-level tourism locale, Venice.

It has been fascinating to see the debate about whether it's right to go on climbing this season, that somehow the deaths of sixteen young men crushed by falling ice has this time truly gone too far. But Everest has long been going too far, pushing it in exactly this fashion while watching the trash and bodies pile up. And for what exactly? Because it's there? The Sherpa deaths are forcing us to look harder and closer at that question. If we are climbing for money, why are we climbing at all? If people are dying en masse so that we can claim we climbed something, why even bother?

The question is pressing harder and harder in the world of climbing overall. What is the merit in climbing anything when the drift is constantly toward commercialization and professionalization? When the media clich├ęs fall thicker and faster, it becomes clear that what is happening now is empty ritual, and more than ever, the closer the camera is, the farther away the truth becomes. The reality show of modern climbing has run into real reality and we are alarmed that this could ever have happened. The blogs, the news reports, the press conferences, the articles; all of them try to sidestep the question, "Why are we doing this?"

Sir Edmund Hillary, upon returning to Base Camp, uttered the classic quote, "Well George, we knocked the bastard off." His later line, "It's all bullshit on Everest these days" seems to close perfectly the arc of modern mountaineering from the nineteenth century to the present. All we are doing is shoveling it into ever more ornate piles. Let's stop.

(for an amusing and naive view from 2003, read "The message is this – stop calling Everest a circus, and stop calling it bullshit.")

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Notes from A GenX Climber

I am not necessarily a fan of defining generational eras, not least because it always seems to boil down to what cool bands you listened to in your 20s. And whining about your fate in the clutches of a less-than-providential historical trajectory seems so, well, negative in the age of social media's Upworthy-esque positivity and uplift. Given the contemporary emphasis on personal brand-building and the "community," it's hard to imagine that there was once a time when many top climbers apparently had an attitude problem best summarized by the 1991 profile of American star Jim Karn titled " The Positive Aspects of Negative Thinking."

I think this stereotype of so-called Generation X has persisted into the present era with remarkable durability. The lycra tights, the wobblers, the dieting, the finicky obsession with technical mastery are all seen as hallmarks of a best forgotten age. Almost without exception the climbers from that era have disappeared from the common knowledge and history of the sport. I think this ought to be changed.

The period of 1985 to 1995 was plagued by dysfunction on a lot of levels but I think its bad reputation is wildly overstated. Among other things this period marked the last time that Americans male or female were serious contenders on the world competition stage. It was also one of the most creative periods in American climbing as the focus shifted from the well-known areas of the 60s and 70s such as Yosemite and Eldorado Canyon to radically different locales such as Smith Rock, American Fork, and Rifle. That era is almost 30 years old yet I don't sense a lot of enthusiasm for remembering it. No photocopied articles or extended reminiscences on Supertopo or coffee-table books  sold through Patagonia books. At least so far.

I think it is increasingly an article of belief that modern sport climbing and bouldering suddenly emerged fully formed in the person of Chris Sharma, a genial and phenomenally talented wunderkind who appeared to refute the intensity and obsessive approach of earlier leaders in the sport. Well maybe. But what is forgotten is the degree to which the leaders of new trends in climbing in the 80s were quite literally attacked by the old guard. Comments by the likes of John Bachar or Henry Barber that hard sport climbing was the equivalent of golf or that the likes of Fred Nicole were merely number-chasing Euros were matched by the destructive and hypocritical bolting wars (of which I was part of). In other words, there was next to no genuine support or positive recognition from the older guard that the world of climbing was changing. Karn lived in Europe in a cheap tent on terrible food while competing in the World Cup. Meaningful sponsorship was unheard of. Too many top-level climbers from the mid-80s to the mid-90s were considered the bastard stepchildren of the sport. We even had the famous "You Suck!" article by Dave Pegg in 1996. There was a reason we sucked and it wasn't just about anorexia and bad attitudes. Who really wanted us to get as good as the Europeans? Answer: not too many people, especially of the previous generation.

This changed with the arrival of the cute and youthful stars who emerged in the mid 1990s such as Sharma, Tommy Caldwell, Beth Rodden and Tori Allen. Often with substantial parental support or at least approval, they swiftly eclipsed their predecessors, breezing past the obstacles once posed by the old guard of the past. Climbing became a youth sport, not the pursuit of grumpy old men obsessed with ethical purity. Suddenly nobody cared about bolting on rappel. "Number-chasing" was seen as a media-savvy move for climber and manufacturer. Selling-out became a mark of authenticity and commitment to the sport, not a cause for ostracism.

For climbers who came of age in the GenX era, there is a certain satisfaction in seeing the old verities and personalities that dismissed their dreams now fading from view, or at least issued restraining orders, as in the case of Ken Nichols. Sport and gym climbing, and of course competitions are now the standard, not the exception. Bouldering is not just "for practice" anymore. Climbers from the US are still mostly irrelevant in the international scene, with only a few exceptions. And oddly, outside a very very elite crew, the standards set by the climbers of 20 years ago have proven quite hard to get past.

The standard take on Generation X is that they were the most neglected children in American history, overshadowed by the sheer numbers and cultural momentum of the Baby Boomer and superceded by the successive generations,Generation Y and the Millenials. I think this has been echoed in the climbing world to a large extent and those of us who emerged as young adults in the later 1980s are more or less resigned to it. Perhaps, however, a few more people will begin to look around and recognize the degree to which the shape of the sport of climbing is defined by the ideas and ultimately the attitudes of a now obscure group of climbers.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Review of The Circuit: World Cup and Performance Climbing

Recently I had heard via Facebook of a new climbing media project  called The Circuit, a magazine dedicated to the World Cup and the climbers who compete in it. I was interested in this for several reasons, not least because it was actually being published in hard copy form at a time when climbing media (and sports media in general) has been focusing on its online aspects. Also, as Eddie Fowke points out below, English-language readers do not get much in terms of stories and interviews about this kind of climbing in general.

 Eddie Fowke, the publisher and editor of The Circuit, kindly sent me a copy for review and I have to say right away that this is one of the most interesting and entertaining magazines I have seen in a long time. Long interviews with leading competitors and other figures such as longtime routesetter Jacky Godoffe and coaching and climbing analysis wizard Udo Neumann provide the best insight into contemporary competition climbing you are likely to find between two covers. Some of the climbers interviewed include Shauna Coxsey, Mina Markowic, Alexander Megos, and Chris Webb-Parsons.The magazine is loaded with high-quality photographs from around the world printed on very high quality stock.  This issue focuses on bouldering both inside and outside but future issues will have other themes.

The first issue has virtually no advertising, though I would expect this to change going forward, meaning an uninterrupted reading and viewing experience more similar to a book. In fact it reminded me of two books from the 90s, Rock Stars by Heinz Zak and The Power of Climbing from David Jones, both of which opened a window onto the state of the art at the time. Also published a yearbook for a few years which I thought was worthwhile for the record it preserved for the world sport climbing and bouldering scene.

Anna Stohr at Milau FR
If you want to get a better picture of how the competitors approach the challenge of climbing in World Cup comps or what the routesetters are trying to do, The Circuit is an invaluable documentary effort in that direction. If the climbing world wants competition climbing to be taken seriously, as in being part of the Olympics, it will need publications like this to help make the case.

I think this is a great project to support so to purchase a copy just go to for more info.
Make sure to check out the Facebook page and blog as well.

In order to get a better idea of what Eddie is trying to achieve with this project, I did a short email interview with him.

1.      When and how did you get the idea that international competition climbing needed a magazine like this?

I’ve always loved climbing magazines and in the early 90’s it was the only way to follow the competition circuit. Sadly even with growing participation and following worldwide there never seemed to be much content in the existing English Language magazines. It’d always be a paragraph or two at best.

If you look at any other sport or activities they have specialist publications that act as aspirational and educational platforms, climbing magazines (again I only speak of English language ones) had never had this niche filled.
I felt it was time to fill that niche and get some psyche out there!

2.      How did you actually get the process started and what did you need to learn along the way?

I’ve been taking photos of some of the top climbers, boulderers especially, for several years now. After my friend James Kassay did some of the IFSC Bouldering World Cups in 2012 and it watched the streams of all of them I decided to attend some of the World Cups myself in 2013.
For the World Cups I was shooting and writing competition reviews for the Australian digital magazine Vertical Life which gave me the opportunity to get really involved and the more people I shared my vision of a high performance climbing magazine with the more engagement and psyche I got back. It just gained momentum from there.
I had to learn every aspect of assembling a magazine from scratch, I was a competent photographer so that I was comfortable with but I had to learn to interview and how to transcribe the interviews. Some interviews I left very natural as I felt by anglicizing the answers it would take out some of the subject’s personality and personal flavor. For instance Mina Markovic is one of the most passionate climbers I’ve ever met, to her English is not a first language but when I tried to paraphrase her answers I would lose some of her passion, her absolute love for the sport. It was very much the same for Jacky Godoffe who spoke with such flair and belief, an open integrity that it wouldn’t have done him justice to water that down.
The hardest two aspects for me so far have been layout and logistics. I had only very limited experience with indesign from about 7 years ago so I had to learn that basically from scratch. I put so many hours into watching tutorials and reading about how to put together a magazine, then I just flogged myself, putting in hour after hour laying up pages… Discarding them… Repeating… It was hard, soul crushing work at times.
Lastly the logistics of freight has been an intense learning curve. To make a self-published print magazine work I needed to keep the costs as low as possible and mailing to purchasers directly from Australia was going to be a nightmare so I ended up having to find a workable freight solution. Not easy!

3.      How did you finance the project? I noticed that there is virtually no advertising.

The single biggest expense for The Circuit has been the time I’ve put in. Compared to most startup businesses, the actual financial commitment has been kept in check by doing the vast bulk of the work myself. Sure traveling to the World Cups last year was expensive but I was going for me, it was also a holiday so I don’t really consider an expense.
Now though, the simple truth is I need to sell plenty of copies to fund this year’s trip where I intend on getting the raw material for the next couple of issues.
I ran issue 1 almost devoid of advertising for two reasons. Firstly I was just so busy that I didn’t get the time to write up proposals for prospective advertisers and secondly I didn’t want to undervalue the advertising space I had available by giving cheap adverts as The Circuit was an untested product. As an aspirational magazine I only want quality advertising and the companies I want to advertise need to be supporting the sport in a positive way.
I know the current magazines operate on a very advertising dependent business model but I think a lot of magazines are just drenched in advertising so I’ve made a conscious decision to limit the advertising space available to let the content shine through.
I only had a single advertising spot in Issue 1 and that was given as a free ad to CAC (Climbers against Cancer). I strongly believe in their cause having spent time with John Ellison in Europe last year and seeing my own father lose his battle with cancer while I was writing the magazine. I don’t have a lot to give back but if The Circuit can raise awareness and give a few thousand dollars to CAC to help in the fight against cancer then it’s a start. 

4.      Is the magazine going to be annual, bi-annual, or more frequent?

Initially we will be an annual publication but long term the goal is to go bi-annual. With the content we have being based around the athletes and legends of the sport two issues a year should be easily manageable. I would rather have a content heavy, quality magazine that is collectable than dilute the content over a number of issues and chase the more news based market of existing magazines. Although magazines have a definite place reporting news, for the most part they can’t compete with the internet. Paul Robinson’s thoughts on reporting news such as a hard first ascent are in the closing interview of issue 1. I agree with what he’s saying and think magazines become the archives for the exceptional, not the 8c’s in a hole as he so succinctly describes them.
I think that climbing news these days is very immediate. It’s like if somebody does something it gets reported on and it’s old news in 24 hours. Whether it’s 8c, 8b flash, whatever it may be. So in that regard I think yes, however I think that really important news like mega first ascents, lots of though needs to go into the news. Grading it, creating it, the climbing media gets such a small amount of the story and for me, when I do a really hard first ascent, a really meaningful first ascent I like to try and bring as much of that story to the forefront of the media as possible. It’s not just “Oh Paul did another 8c first ascent” you know I mean that’s happened in the past and whatever but…
If I do an 8c first ascent and it’s in a hole you know I’ll shoot some pictures, I’ll put them up on Facebook, ok cool, I’m psyched. But if I do an 8c or 8b+ first ascent that means the world to me, I want (and not because I want popularity and fame or whatever) I want people to know because I’m just so proud of the line. I don’t want it to be just another of these little news stories on like “Paul’s done an 8c, here’s what he said.” That’s like, ok, that doesn’t mean anything. That’s why I’m always trying to capture photo, to capture video of these lines that I put up because you get just such a small percentage of what really went down and what went into these lines. That’s what I hope people get from my Instagram and my blog and the photos I post on the internet. It’s not that I’m climbing just to do hard grades, I’m climbing because I want to produce, and make the sport a better sport. To make the sport more worldly in all essences.” (Eds. note, read the rest of Paul's interview in The Circuit)

5.      What kind of readership are you aiming at, what do you want the magazine to provide for its readers?

The Circuit is a platform to capture the history of high performance professional climbers. Through interviews and feature articles I want to get into the heads of these amazing athletes, to learn their stories and share them with climbing lovers worldwide.
I see The Circuit being aimed at two main groups in the climbing community. One group is the aspiring elite who want to augment their vision of the sport with the wisdom of their heroes. The juniors, the local elite who want motivation to put in that extra hour of training in their goal of one day being an elite climber. The other group is normal climbers, lovers of the sport like me who just want to know what makes this incredible sport tick. The people who get up all over the world and watch the IFSC World Cup streams at stupid times of the day just because they love the sport.

6.      In an age where print publishing is apparently on the decline, why did you opt for a glossy high-quality print magazine?

I believe that a printed magazine can have collectible value. A digital file doesn't have that. If a magazine like The Circuit can capture a time and place in the history of climbing it can be placed on a shelf and referenced later. With a digital file odds are it’ll end up on some hard drive that’ll eventually fail, some tablet that’ll get superseded.
One of my main inspirations for The Circuit was Rock Stars by Heinz Zak. Even though it came out in 1997 it is still a fascinating view of climbing in the 90’s, the birth of professionalism. If through a periodical format The Circuit can achieve the same in the 21st century than it will be mission accomplished. To do that I believe print is the best medium.

7.   What directions do you want to see the magazine take in the future?

Building on the first issue I’d love future issues to be more collaborative efforts. I was lucky enough to have a great multilingual European correspondent in Nat Berry help me with issue 1 as well as the talented Dutch photographer Bram Berkien and Dave Mason from the UK supplementing my own photography. For the future I would like more interviewers and photographers on board to bring different perspectives and to let me have some degree of a normal life again!
Ideally I’d like The Circuit to be available at the IFSC World Cups where fans could buy copies and get them autographed by the pro’s. Like how you’d buy a program at a major sporting event now.
Lastly I want to theme the issues. Issue 1 had a working title of Origins and looked at where the included climbers came from. For the coming issues I want to look at climbers who are doing it all on their own for the love of it. The trail blazers of their countries on the international stage.  That and the growth of the sport in the east. From the time of Yuji Hirayama coming to France to pursue his dreams through till today where the Asian climbers are among the best in the world.

Thanks Eddie and good luck with this magazine!