Saturday, September 19, 2015

Reel Rock 10: A Review

Last night I caught the second showing of Reel Rock, the closest thing the climbing world has to a blockbuster release, or at least it was until Meru and Everest came out making this fall one of the busiest for climbing video in quite some time. I doubt I will ever see Meru or Everest so this will have to do.

Reel Rock is kind of a big deal here in Boulder, since it acts as a showcase not only for Big Up and Sender Films ( they are the only outfits whose work is shown at Reel Rock) but also for local and national climbing and outdoor brands, whose tables and tents I wandered by in the "vendor village" after picking up my ticket. So it's a thing for sure, especially for the increasing number of young adventurepreneurs who seem to be flocking to Boulder to feed off the outdoor media buzz the town generates.

Readers of this blog know that I have a jaundiced view about outdoor media buzz as it is, that my view is that the distance between reality and image seems only to be widening as the public's access to climbing via HD video is increased. I wasn't impressed by last year's "Valley Uprising" and wasn't planning on going to this year's Reel Rock until I was offered a ticket by a generous third-party donor. So why not? At least I would get to check out the latest style in plaid short-sleeve shirts.

After the usual sponsor shout-outs faded away in the dark cavernous interior of the Chautauqa Auditorium, the films opened with "A Line Across the Sky" which chronicled the voyage of Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold across the Fitzroy massif's ridgeline. This climb was a big deal and the trailer on Youtube gives a good sense of the full movie, in fact to be honest, it's not a bad substitute for it since the vast majority of the footage is that taken by Honnold and Caldwell presumably from a Go Pro. Comedic moments from the climb dominated the full-length feature giving a bro-ey vibe to the film even as Tommy tried to explain the conflicts between high-level, potentially fatal, alpinism and the desire to be there for his family after it was all over. The fact that really nothing went wrong, the weather held and that the climbers were certainly more than equal to the task meant that any real sense of conflict, suspense or uncertainty was pretty much absent. Just a couple of guys up in the mountains having a good time.

Next up was a tribute to the recently killed Dean Potter. Again nothing that reached deeper into this man's life, just "sick" footage that most in the audience would have seen elsewhere of the usual highline, BASE jumping, soloing stuff. And then the lights came up for an intermission.

The next film "High and Mighty" was ostensibly about bouldering but what it was really about, apparently, was that bouldering is all about "manning up" and falling from way up there. Daniel Woods felt a bit like a sacrificial victim here, set up in the film as a lowball hero who finally learns the "real" way to climb from Jimmy Webb, especially after Jimmy repeats the Nalle Hukkataival V15 monster in South Africa called Livin' Large while Daniel is shown flailing on TR on the same problem.

The only problem with this plotline is that it is total BS. Daniel has plenty of gnarly highballs to his credit including Lucid Dreaming and Evolution in Bishop and Shining Path in Red Rocks. Furthermore his ascent of the Process, which is what "High and Mighty" was supposed to document, actually occurred six months before Jimmy repeated Livin' Large." Thanks to the way the film was edited, uninformed viewers would assume that Daniel, who is shown earnestly trying to master his fear of falling from the top of the Process (and no f#*king wonder) via meditating and self-help books was some kind of novice at "real" bouldering, at least as it's described by the double-artificial-hipped and multiple-concussed John Sherman.

Really, this segment upset me the most as Daniel is one of the strongest climbers in the world and has established first ascents and demolished numerous testpieces around the world. To fabricate this rivalry between Jimmy and Daniel, who are very good friends, on the basis of who can "man-up" when the occasion demands is nonsense and does a disservice to the sport of bouldering as a whole. I have discussed this with John Gill on occasion and he has made clear his impatience with the notion that bouldering needs to be dangerous to be considered worthy. Heroics were precisely what he sought to avoid back in the 50s and 60s when his most innovative problems were established. Only a later wave of boulderers sought to create a different approach, often based on the headpointing style common in Great Britain. Gill's answer to these debates? "Use a toprope." Problem is that doesn't create crazy footage or a compelling story for a general audience. Oddly the film omitted the fact that not long after Daniel's ascent, a crucial hold broke off the problem rewriting the story yet again.

In terms of actual audience response, by far the most popular was the segment about the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell. The rivalry angle was played up again here between, yes him again, Alex Honnold, and the team of Nik Berry and Mason Earle as to who could get the most points/climbing done in 24 hours. Laugh-out loud funny at times, its light-hearted approach to climbing was welcome relief from the earnestness of the previous three segments.

The last piece was a short preview of the Dawn Wall ascent from this spring and not a finished film so I'll pass over it in the hopes that it will reach fruition later this year.

Overall reactions: No stand-outs, that's for sure. Upside? Lots of laughs at times which was welcome. Some excellent aerial footage in Patagonia and elsewhere. Downside? Kind of a bro-fest. Virtually no women appeared in any of the films. A few comments from Becca Caldwell, some drunken women turning up at the Horseshoe, and other assorted brief appearances but in 2015 for no women to be profiled in-depth seems a shame. Another peculiarity and maybe blame climate change, but there's a lot of night-climbing and headlamp footage and frankly that's something nobody's going to be psyched to see a lot of.

In conclusion I would like to see a climbing film collection that was much more widespread in its scope featuring other film-makers and locales. The other issue is the types of stories being told. They ultimately feel relentlessly upbeat, even awkwardly jokey when they shouldn't be, naturally triumphant at the end and in some ways profoundly unreal. Great stuff for a studio's highlight reel or a sponsor's marketing campaign but hardly a believable portrait of what it really takes to get these remarkable climbs done. It would be nice to see truly innovative film-makers emerge to take advantage of the remarkable new technologies out there but so far I haven't seen it. Maybe someday.

For more info about the 400+ locales Reel Rock is going

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What We Talk About When We Talk About Death in Climbing

"To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth" Voltaire
The world of climbing has been in a state of shock since learning of the death of Dean Potter and his companion Graham Hunt in a BASE jumping accident near Taft Point in Yosemite last Saturday. Among other effects, this accident rapidly brought back to earth the climate of euphoria and celebration that existed in the wake of the Dawn Wall ascent in March and the movie Valley Uprising that ends with footage of bootleg BASE descents in Yosemite. Maybe climbers are revisiting hard truths about the vertical environment that cannot be easily dismissed as handwringing or timidity or obscured through redemptive fantasies of "he died doing what he loved" or the like.

The truth is that climbers become remarkably inarticulate in the face of death. Far too many use euphemisms like "passing" or even worse "transitioning" as if slamming headlong into granite at 80 mph is like switching trains or getting a new job. Others implicitly praise themselves for somehow learning something profound or growing from the death of another climber. Pseudo-mystical or poetical utterances about imagined afterlives and "happy hunting ground" scenarios abound. But the truth seems to me to lie elsewhere, away from the quasi-religious speculations and faux-Zen platitudes, the worst of which are expressed in this video interview with Dean Potter. What business a clothing manufacturer has discussing the most serious and unknowable aspect of human existence is beyond my ability to fathom but there it is.

Death is something about which we ultimately know nothing beyond our perceptions of a once-living thing now gone. In climbing it takes on a spectacular aspect because of the nature and locations of most climbing deaths. In dangerous situations climbers like to say they have "cheated death" or "escaped" it, the most foolish saying they "defied death." Death doesn't get defied or escaped, it just is, like math or physics. Climbers like to credit their will or their "mindfulness" or whatever in somehow overcoming death but it seems to me that death works in the way of most things in the universe, things that exist eventually are destroyed, dissolved, disintegrated, and obliterated. In the words of David to his son Solomon in the King James version of the Bible we "go the way of all the earth..."

Climbers have an especially hard time with death because it brings up a number of unpleasant truths we all devote considerable time and energy avoiding. Among the mot important is the fact that we do not have the level of control over ourselves and our environment that we like to pretend we do. There is a kind of selection bias involved whereby, having survived a situation, we imagine that it was because of our preparation, our courage, our choices, even our moral character when of course any number of things could have happened beyond our ability to control that would negate those factors. A climber's death is the surest evidence of the limits of this way of comprehending the world. Thus we turn away and imagine that we would never be caught in that situation ourselves, that we are somehow made of the right stuff

We also like to believe that our aesthetic responses to dangerous situations confer some kind of immunity to harm or catastrophe, or at least provide a justification for being there. As with the magical thinking described above, climbing deaths abruptly foreclose on the rapturous wonder of high places forcing the awareness of the terrible price to be paid for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just because we have or believe we had certain feelings about climbing can we really claim that a violent death is justified by those feelings?

Most chillingly to me, that aesthetic feeling leads to the "he died doing what he loved" reaction, a dubious consolation at best. Climbers die hitting objects at high speeds or being hit by those objects. They die smothered in snow and ice or freezing to death. They do not expire blissfully having just completed the climb of a lifetime. Again reality is elided in favor of a fantasy best summed up by the ridiculous but oft-quoted phrase from Peter Pan: "'To die will be an awfully big adventure." This romantic Rupert Brooke-ian nonsense, which was seen often in late Victorian and Edwardian England, died a less-than-glamorous death in the muddy battlefields of the Somme and elsewhere in World War I. However it keeps popping up in the sport of climbing, a sport which in many ways finds its historical origins from that time and culture.

Climbers know deep down that their sport, which is by any rational measure, without real purpose or justification, is potentially very very dangerous. By some this is seen as a form of character-building virtue in its own right, "the moral equivalent of war" as the founder of Outward Bound Kurt Hahn quoted William James. I am skeptical of the extension of this to climbing, not least because there is no moral equivalent of war, war lacking any morality in the first place. Arguing for climbing as a morally virtuous activity because of its danger ignores the very real consequences of that danger and its largely amoral component. The serac doesn't care when it falls, the loose hold merely breaks when it's pulled on. Just because climbers might project a psychological or moral structure to their activities hardly necessitates that such a state actually exists in reality.

Too many authors to count have commented on the fundamentally amoral aspects of combat. From the beginnings of Western literature with Homer' s Iliad and Odyssey, we see the first-hand accounts of those who were there emphasizing not glory or redemption but confusion, disaster, decay and misery. Knowledgeable climbers know that the same applies to climbing accidents yet the same tropes are pulled out to justify what we do: the aesthetic response, the joy, the intensity, the bonds of friendship ("we happy few, we band of brothers" to quote Shakespeare) the claims to heightened awareness, the "carpe diem" BS that clogs online climbing forums every day.

Particularly frustrating is the fact that at least in part this is used in the service of commercial interests, a game that Dean was forced to some degree to play to remain a professional climber. Are words like "risk" and "extreme" just euphemisms for "potentially deadly," euphemisms that are used to sell a vicarious adrenalin rush to an uncritical audience? Should we be thinking more clearly whether the vision of sports sold by Red Bull, to take the most egregious example, is really worth supporting? As long as we stay in denial about the realities of death and dying in climbing apparently the answer is yes.

So how should we respond to climbing deaths? In my view, we do best by acknowledging the truth about them, that they are ugly, they are real and to some extent unavoidable, simply statistically unavoidable since we are imperfect beings in an imperfect world. We should also acknowledge the possibility that there is really only loss to the survivors, that trying to create redemption in fantastic or magical thinking only denies the truth of someone's death. If the climber or climber's family was deeply religious, that is their business and not the concern of those outside that close circle. We should certainly not try to fit a climber's death into a preconceived idea about how or why climbing should be practiced. Nor should we be fatalistic about climbing deaths, overly accepting of them. They are as mentioned above, unnecessary, ugly and devastating. If we learn from them, it should be on the most humble terms possible, acknowledging and honoring the sacrifice of life above all.

I still think it was best expressed by the survivor of one of the most notorious climbing accidents of all time, Edward Whymper: "Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.” What the end might be for each of us is unknown but I think we would do well to consider it deeply from time to time. In the words of John Donne, "never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Valley Uprising: A Review

Some months after the Boulder premiere of Reel Rock 9's feature film "Valley Uprising" I was finally able to view it. It played to sold-out crowds here in Boulder and generally the reaction to the film that I heard was favorable. At least two other bloggers were given advance viewing (I wasn't invited or given access to the film before or after its release) and they were a bit more skeptical, with Andrew Bisharat decrying the nostalgia aspect of Stonemaster-oriented media and Wesley Summers noting, quite accurately, that the film consists largely of deftly recycled visual material from earlier productions.

I knew from the trailer I would have a skeptical response and not being a member of the inner circle of the climbing world has its advantages in this respect. I have the freedom to step outside what has become a very self-celebratory scene and give an honest opinion and appraisal of its products. Because of the serious scope of the project, I think this film deserves a serious and more objective view.

I think a lot of this self-celebratory tendency is revealed in the reactions to "Valley Uprising" which is a historical survey of climbing in Yosemite Valley from roughly the late 1950s up to the present. While its main audience is intended to be climbers, there are nods to a general audience, not least in its paradoxical title which hints at rebellion and unorthodoxy, which is of course a staple of mainstream corporate marketing these days. In aiming at this broader audience however, something important is being lost.

"Valley Uprising" is organized into three main eras defined by (more or less) the leading personalities of the day. This lends itself to broad generalizations and myth-making as occurs in the case especially of Royal Robbins and Warren Harding and the Dawn Wall episode. Harding died in 2002 and while I am sure he would have thought this film project amusing, I doubt we are given a clear picture of his personality which seemed above all to be that of a regular working Joe with a penchant for suffering. Robbins, who I talked with after the publication of the first volume of his autobiography, was a genuinely creative and highly motivated climber whose greatest hour might not have even been the famous Salathe Wall but the unmentioned North America Wall, an ascent which ushered in the great age of El Cap's right-side A4 and A5 horror shows.

The era of the Stonemasters is complicated by the absence of Charlie Porter, again recently deceased, who reshaped the future of El Cap with routes like Mescalito, Tangerine Trip, The Shield and the well-traveled Zodiac and possibly just as important, Ray Jardine, whose redefinition of style and method ushered in the era of hard free climbing and whose "experimentation" on the Nose facilitated the free ascent by Lynn Hill. Both individuals seemed never to have been embedded in the Valley scene and Jardine in particular was viewed with considerable suspicion because of his "hangdogging" and willingness to work routes initially too hard for him.

The star of this period is of course Jim Bridwell but even more so the air of rebellion and counterculture embraced by Bridwell and his followers. Part of this of course was linked with the popularity of drug use at the time but it is telling that in interviews with climbers from the time, it is clear that in the only actual "uprising" from this time, the Stoneman Meadow riots of 1970, climbers stayed conspicuously away from the action. The only net result of this conflict was apparently a tighter presence of law enforcement, something the resident climbers would have been anxious to avoid. This supertopo discussion fills in the story from the climbers' side and makes clear that this non-climber related incident really changed the dynamic between park officials and climbers, a dynamic that remained in place well into the 90s when the demographics of climbing began to change and it became more mainstream. In the end the movie fails to flesh out the fuller picture as to why rangers have to do the job they do. Climbers are described as somehow special, above the law by virtue of being climbers, not realizing that without laws, without "the man," the park would not exist at all. It is certainly naive to imagine that because you can climb a big wall, you should have free run in a beautiful place a few hours drive from a major city.

(This PBS documentary gives some background on the job of a ranger and what rangers were thinking of their jobs in the mid-1980s. A persistent theme of rangers not wanting to be cops emerges.

This supertopo discussion has more on the theme of rangers and climbers. Needless to say it's a popular topic but the advice of the majority of commenters is keep your head low and don't break the law. Not exactly the stuff that's going to entertain audiences. )

More important is how the rebellion theme basically overlooks hugely important things like, say, climbing. So the free-climbing achievements of Ray Jardine are not mentioned, Ron Kauk's achievements are overlooked, though his routes are critical for the time and at the tail end of this time, the incredible achievement of the Salathe Wall being climbed free is not even mentioned. The exploratory efforts of Mark Hudon and Max Jones aren't mentioned either. Henry Barber, definitely not a rebel, is ignored. Instead it is the familiar narrative of John Bachar, super soloist, which brings up another issue.

It is remarkable how much of this film features recycled footage from films that many many viewers will be familiar with. TV show such as American Sportsman, Wide World of Sports and excerpts from Masters of Stone videos abound, not to mention standbys such as "El Capitan" by Glen Denny. Interspersed with the special-effects altered still photos from this era, the visuals add to an overall patchwork/collage effect and serve to undermine a bigger sense of visual or directorial unity. In an extreme example of this, a voice-over describes the first ascent of Half Dome's NW face while footage and pictures of El Cap are shown. To a non-climber none of this matters, I suppose, but it reveals the degree to which the vibe of the story outweighs actual accuracy.

This is echoed, so to speak by the interviews which are mostly choppy and extravagantly larded with profanity, perhaps to emphasize that the greying and paunchy men you now see were once upon a time actual masters of the universe who could stand up next to a mountain and chop it down with the edge of their hands. It seems to me that bourgeois middle-aged guy profanity should be reserved for times like hitting your thumb with a hammer or drinking with your friends, not films where families and kids might be present. But I digress.

That is why it is such a breath of fresh air to see and hear Lynn Hill, one of the few real survivors from this period (along with Peter Croft who, you guessed it, isn't mentioned.) Lynn Hill has remained a serious climber in a way unmatched by virtually all of her contemporaries and there is a certain wry wisdom in her words as she dissects the testosterone and posturing of the male peacocks of Camp 4. One wishes there was a lot more from the women of this time, especially regarding the pretensions of the male-dominated scene, but unfortunately we are left wondering how they fit in.

The film closes on the more-or-less present where the Stone Masters are replaced by the Stone Monkeys. Setting aside the issue as to whether such a group ever had the status of the Stonemasters, these individuals lack the historical distance and gravitas of their seniors and for them is reserved the indignity of hiding out in dank caves as opposed to the luxury of endless weeks in a restriction-free Camp 4. There is something very reflective of the general economic picture for young people these days but that is not developed very much, if at all. Dean Potter, who blew the lid off speed climbing The Nose, is the patron saint of these climbers, climbers who increasingly are mixing walls and vertical mediums, especially the medium of BASE jumping.

By far the best scenes in the film are the contraband BASE jumps. The blather with escaping rangers etc. is neither here nor there. Obviously BASE jumping in the Valley needs to be prohibited or it would be a nightmare on many levels. But for cinematic appeal, there is no doubt that a GoPro view of tunneling through groves of pine trees at high speed beats the heck out of crawling up granite walls, even if you are watching Alex Honnold soloing Half Dome. However the history of BASE jumping goes way back, well before the present day. Ray Jardine has an intriguing mention of hang-gliding into the Valley on his website.

And speaking of Alex Honnold, those in the know will savor the irony of watching America's best known (and very lucratively sponsored) climber living the simple life, driving into the Valley, and punching in at the entrance station, before heading off for another day of hair-raising soloing. You have to wonder if only Alex can afford to live a pure climbing lifestyle, unlike Chongo Chuck or the other cave-dwelling ne'er-do-wells. He and Tommy Caldwell, who, along with Kevin Jorgeson recently (yesterday, just Google it) freed the Dawn Wall on El Capitan, are the new face of Valley climbing, about as far from rebellion as it gets. The only people I have seen that were upset by Tommy Caldwell's work on the Dawn Wall for example were some querulous SuperTopo residents warbling about whether there were too many added bolts on the formerly aided sections, a ludicrous question but one that periodically reappears.

In a nutshell, I'd argue that the rebellions contained within the history of Yosemite climbing were largely internal, fueled by the prosperity of the American empire and in no meaningful way offering real alternatives to that empire's triumphant vision of capitalism and materialism. The fact that a significant number of the stars of the 60s and 70s went on to establish very successful businesses of their own speaks to this. The true rebels such as Chuck Pratt or Charlie Porter again are mostly left out of the picture. Even more troubling is the degree to which the Native American presence is written out of the history of the Valley. As the original inhabitants and shapers of the landscape of the valley floor, they deserve some time in the film.

Valley Uprising is an uneasy mix of celebration and history that in the end, for better or worse, may stand as the last word on the subject, at least in terms of video, for some time. However it would be really helpful if there was more conversation about the degree to which this film clarifies or distorts the history of this critical period in world climbing. The film is a serious document that is worth a serious discussion at some point soon.

Valley Uprising is available via DVD and download at Sender Films

Friday, January 9, 2015

What is Really Not Being Said about the Dawn Wall Free Ascent

The long dreary winter here in Colorado is teasing climbers with occasional glimpses of sun that give hope to dreams of finishing projects before plunging them back into the grim reality of iced over roads and snowed in crags and boulders. It's so bad out there that America's rockclimbing sweetheart,Sasha DiGiulian, is going to the Ouray Ice Festival!

It's hardly surprising therefore that the goings on of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson on El Capitan have garnered so much attention in the climbing press. Besides Ashima doing the Swarm (the most famously slash-graded problem in the country) literally nothing is going on (except sends of Lethal Design, photos of which are now banned on Instagram, along with those of Scare Tactics). Basically if you are not on a huge overhanging south-facing granite wall, you aren't rock climbing in North America.

But it's not only breathless up-to-the-minute updates from Andrew Bisharat at Evening Sends on Facebook. In the past two weeks (and we are at something like day 14--I've lost track) virtually every major major news outlet has weighed in on this climb. Naturally the lack of familiarity with the practices of big-wall free climbing has led to some amusing (to climbers anyway) journalistic faux pas, the choicest of which have been compiled by the good folks over at DPM. And then then there are the comments from the readers of the New York Times, who are by far the most polite of the major news outlets. A surprising number of these readers find the Dawn Wall attempt ludicrous, incomprehensible or contemptible, reactions which should give pause to those dedicated to expanding the sport. Brendan Leonard over at Adventure Journal has collected some of these to save time for any of you who want to understand how the American public looks at cutting edge (literally--the climb depends on sawtoothed granite edges for its existence) free climbing. For proof of the problem with skin, one need only consult Tommy's Instagram page where we learn, "I have resorted to setting my alarm to wake myself up every four hours to reapply @climbonproducts." This is what we call media saturation, I believe.

Besides the numerous chronicles of the duo's progress including Tom Evans's awesome El Cap Report, there have been the "what does it all mean" pieces, including this one, perhaps most prominently a piece over at a blog called Fringe's Folly written by Chris Kalman. This essay diplomatically brings up the possibility that somewhere, somehow, that perennially cited and honored (mostly in the breach) quality known as "adventure" may have gone missing. For daring to mention this, Kalman was savaged in various online fora including mountain project. I thought Kalman was being too polite in his arguments and told him so but lo and behold, Freddie Wilkinson referenced his post in the New York Times op-ed section. Why the Gray Lady opts to probe the world of climbing so frequently is a mystery that someone must tackle at some point but I digress...

Anyway the most popular response was framed in roughly this fashion, "It's really hard and what do you know anyway. And Tommy and Kevin are really cool." Which is true. But that's not really an answer and it's especially not an answer because the Dawn Wall has long been the locus of discussion, brutal at times, as to what the point of climbing is. It's really interesting to see how the history behind this climb has melted away because in 1970, Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell's 27-day epic first ascent gripped both the general public and the climbing world alike. The aftermath of the ascent and the afterlife of the route forms one of the most interesting chapters in the overall story of climbing in Yosemite and indeed world climbing.

Climbers today are unused to the idea that someone would be watching over your shoulder to make sure you climbed something correctly, that in essence you had to "deserve" to get the first ascent of a route. Climbing was seen in very moral terms in the Yosemite of the 1960s, an ethic that ultimately borrowed much of its ideas from British practices, summarized by the statement, "The sort of man who would drive a piton into English rock would shoot a fox." The object of scorn and derision was not the piton, which was pretty much essential to protect the Valley's many cracks, but the bolt. Ironically the insistence on removing pitons left countless scars in the rock, most famously on Serenity Crack's first pitch. Bolts were a symbol of weakness, of not having "the right stuff" and the high point of this attitude was the Salathe Wall, a circuitous route left of Harding's sieged  100+ bolt masterpiece, The Nose. The Salathe was climbed with only 13 bolts and had a number of serious free climbing sections, making it emblematic of the approach favored by Royal Robbins, the leader of the first ascent team.

Over the course of the 60s, there was a rivalry of sorts between Robbins and Harding. Robbins' advocacy of so-called "purist" methods caused Harding to call him and his followers the "Valley Christians." This difference of opinion reached its climax when Robbins decided that Harding's route to the right of the Nose, now called the Dawn Wall, had too many bolts and needed to be erased. As it turned out Robbins found himself acknowledging the difficulty and quality of the line and stopped chopping bolts very early in  the route. The initial action however was enough to raise a firestorm of controversy, a controversy that saw its final gasp of breath in the rappel-bolting wars of the 1980s. Incidentally both Robbins and Harding no longer climbed seriously in the Valley after that. For many, the Dawn Wall episode was the closing of the so-called Golden Age of Yosemite climbing.

Now we are in a very different place, style-wise, where aid climbing is seen as no longer cutting-edge, indeed not even as actual climbing by many climbers. The flanks of El Cap are criss-crossed by multiple lines, some free, many still requiring aid. The blank on the map no longer exists as far as El Cap is concerned and if the blank on the map is gone for El Cap then basically it's over for climbing in North America. And this, in my view, is the reason for the media frenzy, that we are watching the extinction of an old frontier in climbing in real time. This is the first thing nobody is really saying about the Dawn Wall free ascent. People said this about the first Dawn Wall ascent and they were right.

There will be other free climbs on El Cap, especially once the obsolete insistence on not adding bolts to old aid routes passes away, as it will. Perhaps there will be harder free climbs on El Cap, especially on the right side where the steepest and most featured rock exists. But there will never be another blank canvas like the Dawn Wall, nor another meeting of climber and climb quite like this matchup. So our celebration of this extraordinary achievement is tempered by the knowledge that for better or worse it's the end of an era of exploration that began in earnest with the post-war achievements of climbs such as the Lost Arrow Chimney.

That is the important adventure in the end, not knowing what is next in the bigger picture. What happens when we are done scouring cliffs for difficulty? It will take some serious thought to get past the current mindset that climbers are athletes, that difficulty is an objective reality that can be measured and compared and that exploration and first ascents and the heroic mode of climbing achievement actually matter, as all these ideas are becoming obsolete and washing away beneath our feet like sand on the edge of the shoreline.

The confusion of the average American news reader is forgivable because honestly, and this is the other thing nobody is really saying, climbers don't really know what they are doing right now or why. As climbers we are pushing ourselves into an unknown future where the complexities and uncertainties faced by Tommy Caldwell in 2015 will seem as quaint and out of touch as using actual stove legs for pitons on the Nose or the idea of chopping a bolt ladder because there were "too many" bolts. Ashima's effortless dispatching of a reachy and powerful V13 (or V14, depends on who you ask!) points to the dubious validity of what a really hard climb actually consists of these days. Adam Ondra's 100+ 9a or harder ascents, most done in a matter of tries, undermines any notion that we really understand what hard free climbing consists of.

On the Dawn Wall, as on most of El Cap, we are climbing over ghosts and relics of a bygone age, tiptoeing past the presence of those who came before, a striking number of whom are dead or no longer climbing at all. We share the rock with this past but it's time we also recognize that the present has a claim on this place. The old definitions of adventure may yet apply but in ways that we have yet to recognize. As I have written elsewhere, the temptation to mythologize and idolize the past is especially strong in climbing. The Dawn Wall reminds us that a new era is always just around the corner.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Trouble with Hubble: Be a Climbing Locavore

The climbing manufacturer Mammut has been releasing a series of short videos about classic hard routes from the beginning of sport climbing. Most recently Hubble, in the Peak District in England and freed by Ben Moon in 1990, came in for this treatment with a short segment featuring Sean McColl, the super-strong Canadian climber. McColl came in for some heckling because he wore a kneepad in order to kneebar his way through the undercling crux. I had a theory that McColl was set up by some Sheffield locals in the pub the night before. These locals saw that since McColl was new to the Peak climbing scene, he could be persuaded that,"of course we're all kneebarring this (iconic power) route these days." This might explain a certain sense of detachment that can be seen on the part of Ben Moon when McColl discusses the beta he's using. Regardless, the film concludes with McColl walking away empty-handed as all contenders have done since Steve McClure.

Here's the Mammut video:

Here's Steve McClure on it with no kneebars along with footage of Ben Moon on it.

Ire was expressed at where this kind of situation was seen as a national emergency, which in a way it is, primarily because what the route represented and still represents for British climbing. In an era where "pros" seem to spend most of their time on 40 meter monster pitches in sunny Spain (whatever happened to France?) or on quickly forgotten film projects in some previously unheard of remote tropical/desert/arctic locale, Hubble is a semi-obscure relic of an era when top climbers in Sheffield had issues affording bus fare to far-flung destinations such as Cheedale. During my time in England, only a few years before Hubble, affording the 2 or 3 pound round trip fare to the limestone areas in the Peak was a real issue, one that apparently also hampered the efforts of the second ascensionist Malcolm Smith.

 Thanks in part to the overtaking of media production by commercial interests, climbers get the impression that the best chance of recognition and sponsorship comes from tackling projects that look good, that are so-called "king-lines." A certain degree of scorn is visited upon local testpieces that lack the perceived quality of routes or problems in celebrated (and often more softly graded) areas. For sponsor-fed media, grades, which are hard to settle on and even harder to portray on video, are secondary to photogenic qualities which can be reproduced for branding possibilities across multiple social media platforms. The reality of these king-lines often enough turns out to be more complicated in retrospect. Does anyone remember Ambrosia or Luminance in the Buttermilks?

 Relatively scruffy short roadside testpieces such as Hubble are overlooked today. Indeed it is easy to write off failure on such routes as the inevitable effects of their "uninspiring" nature. Even Adam Ondra felt it necessary to apologize for both his Hubble-like 5.15c  route Vasil Vasil and the 2011 V16 (and still unrepeated) boulder problem Terranova. Sadly both will probably go unrepeated unless someone puts up a bounty of some sort. There is no question that  Hubble clearly needs to be upgraded.

  In my view this situation has got to change and should be actively discouraged by all means possible. Are we reaching a point where many elite climbers actively avoid investing effort in creating and repeating local testpieces,  instead pursuing photogenic sponsored projects in distant attractive and "exotic" locales? My view is that the future is in local testpieces which among other things offer more sustainable climbing practices and much lower carbon footprints. Here in Colorado, I feel especially blessed with the plethora of local roadside projects across the difficulty spectrum. Lacking the mysteriously copious financial resources of my underemployed peers, I will have to make a virtue of necessity and remain a climbing locavore. I hope that others follow in the footsteps of climbers like Dave Graham and Daniel Woods, who, in addition to various globe-trotting adventures, have found so many good accessible problems here on the Front Range. Who will produce the next Hubble?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Clif Hanger: Raising the Bar on Sponsorship?

The latest mini-whirlwind to strike the micro-world of climbing was the announcement, first made by Rock and Ice, then confirmed by the company, that Clif Bar was no longer sponsoring five climbers (and no I won't call them "athletes" or "ambassadors"), the most prominent of whom, Alex Honnold, is primarily known for hair-raising solo exploits. Vituperation was swift from the Internets, including a remarkable variety of unflattering flavor comparisons and vows to never eat Clif Bar products again, because you know, there's a picture of a climber on the wrapper and now Clif Bar hates climbing. Or something. Clif Bar will surely rue the several thousand dollars it loses from all the slackliners out there who will take a hard stand against this injustice

Clif Bar's take on this was relatively sane. As a company with over 500 mil in sales, they realized the potential for liability lawsuits and bad publicity linked with promotional material featuring soloing, especially.  The statement noted:
 "We concluded that these forms of the sport are pushing boundaries and taking the element of risk to a place where we as a company are no longer willing to go. We understand that some climbers feel these forms of climbing are pushing the sport to new frontiers. But we no longer feel good about benefitting from the amount of risk certain athletes are taking in areas of the sport where there is no margin for error; where there is no safety net."

 The rest of the world, outside of climbing, tends to be horrified by the thought of climbers plummeting to their deaths from a high height, and finds statements such as "at least he/she died doing what he loved" small consolation to those left behind. The company's association with the Yosemite "outlaw" epic "Valley Uprising" (in the spirit of which, can someone send me a bootleg copy so I can review it? Just kidding, kind of....) must have clarified some thinking up in the executive suite as well since illegal BASE jumping and drug consumption, among other diversions, feature prominently.

The climbers let go were relatively nonplussed because, well, you have to be when every OR can bring the hatchet down on your measly stipend. This stuff happens, like, a lot. Apparently Clif Bar had second thoughts with a couple of them but Cedar Wright rebuffed the offer of renewed affiliation, being quoted in the New York Times as saying, "It’s like your girlfriend who breaks up with you and wants to get back together. But she’s not really that loyal.” I wonder though, if one had a girlfriend worth half a billion and is paying you to go climbing, whether there are more than a few self-professed "dirtbags" who could overcome their scruples to come back, for a little longer anyway. But I digress.

So what's the upshot of all this? Mostly the sorry spectacle of a climbing scene once again seriously overestimating its marketing clout, let alone its purchasing power, and even more laughable, endorsing the notion that somehow a company has a responsibility to support climbers and activities that are "pushing the boundaries of the sport" or whatever it is that sponsored climbers are supposed to do. I'm sure we can all think of prominently publicized and sponsored climbers who are not all that. If I name a few everybody will hate me so discuss amongst yourselves.

Perhaps most laughable of all is the utter absence of actual dollar figures, that perennial conversational staple of sports with real compensation. If an NFL player is let go because of criminal activity, we know what's at stake. A lot of green. But in climbing, what are we talking about? What a lousy semi-pro golfer makes at a master's tournament? Is this like academia, where it is said, "the fighting is so fierce because the stakes are so low"? Will we never know what so-called pro climbers actually earn, what  kind of income they are supposed to be risking their necks for? Apparently that topic is reserved for the lower orders in the climbing hive such as the Sherpas on Everest who actually work and really risk their necks and are dying en masse in recent years.

None of the media covering the story bothered to ask and nobody has offered to tell. That all fits nicely into the self-deceptive narratives of climbing and its threadbare concepts of individual freedom and independence. How gauche to discuss money and corporate policy and while we're at it, damn the man for not paying me to climb rocks! Whatever. Dear pro-wannabes, my advice is, if Clif Bar comes knocking, answer the door quickly and reply nicely, even enthusiastically, "YES." And wear a helmet while you're at it. Plenty of room for sponsor stickers there.

(Full disclosure: I have eaten many Clif Bars including the frequent free samples left at local gyms, and not having such sensitive taste buds as others in the climbing community, have found them delicious)