Friday, May 29, 2009

Master of Rock: An Appreciation

In 1977, two seminal books in the history of rock climbing literature were published, Climb! Rock Climbing in Colorado by Godfrey and Chelton and Master of Rock by Pat Ament. Both have become classics, even seeing later editions published, but I am beginning to think that the first edition of Master of Rock was the most significant book published about climbing in the U.S. since Chris Jones Climbing in North America. Its significance lies in its innovations and its sense of pointing forward rather than backward, but also in its peculiar homemade feel, its unique mixture of the mystical and the mundane, the surreal and the ordinary. (This may be a merely personal view but the second revised edition lacks much of the magic of the first.)

I am struck particularly by the contrast that exists between John Gill as a biographical subject and the typical climbing biography that preceded the book, the likes of Hermann Buhl, Gaston Rebuffat, and so on, in other words the hero par excellence who eventually faces the existential sublime on the high peaks, returning with frostbitten extremities, if at all, reticently muttering words with faintly ironic implications. Ament wrote about a college professor of mathematics who explored a world of microscopic dimension by comparison, whose struggles were within the ordinary confines of human experience. By way of example, recall that Gill's legendary ascent of The Thimble, a formation named after a diminutive household implement, presented its most formidable hazard in the shape of a parking barrier below the hardest part of the climb.

Even more striking though was the extraordinary series of images that include so many mundane aspects of mid-60s suburbia. Iconic in this regard is the famous image of Gill doing a front lever on a child's swingset, the chains of the swings pulled around the uprights, the profile of a slide visible in the background.

And there is an image of Gill doing a one finger pull-up, his torso intersecting with the curving contour of a camping trailer. The same trailer shows up in a photo labeled "Fort Collins, Colorado, late '60's" with Gill doing a one-arm pullup with two weights added on. In the background are a chain-link fence, a utility post and folding lawn chair, their ordinariness standing out against the imagined intensity of Gill's athleticism. 

Today in the age of Instagram, Youtube, and Facebook such images are accepted as the inevitable result of everpresent cellphone video and digital cameras, now as common as air and water. Yet the sheer mundane quality of much of the photography in the book anticipates a new aesthetic for climbing that refused the consciously heroic and crafted images of an earlier age as here:

Master of Rock emphasized the domestic, the intimate, the unrehearsed and in so doing unleashed the potential of a new psychology that saw climbing for what it was, simply the act of moving across rock. Ironically the master of alpinism and big walls, Yvon Chouinard, saw it clearest, "I think it's going to be Zen and the art of rock climbing...When it gets to the point where we can, at will, conjure up these exceptional days, there'll be some incredible things occurring. It'll happen in the boulders before it happens in other areas of climbing." Yet to get there, a lot of baggage had to be dispensed with. In fact you can see it in Gill himself. The heroically static and poised photos of the 60s give way to a more dynamic and relaxed vibe in the 70s, my favorite being a pair of photos of Gill on the Ripper Traverse wearing a funky fishing hat. The future lay not in the existential agony of climber versus big wall but in the small scale laboratory of a suburban backyard in mid-60s Colorado and nearby boulders. Ament deserves credit for not merely seeing this but articulating and expressing this new mode of climbing. Master of Rock documented the beginning of the sport of climbing as we know it today.

Pat Ament Part 2

Here is the remainder of the Ament interview about Flagstaff bouldering:

3. What are the most memorable problems from this era for you and why?

During the 1960's I was particularly taken by certain routes. One was the north bulge of Cookie Jar Rock, called Jackson Overhang. I first saw it done one day when Bob Culp and I went up to boulder. He worked at Holubar, and after work he drove me up the mountain. Still in his suit and tie, we strolled up to the rock from the parking spot. He slipped off his suit jacket, laced on his Kronhoeffer shoes, and climbed Jackson Overhang, spreading his tall body out over the rock. I was amazed at his ability, and he would remain one of my initial bouldering inspirations. I couldn't quite figure the route out that day, as it has a long reach, but soon I did it. Even in my best form, years later, I found that route to be a respectable challenge. I also was impressed with Northcutt's Roll, on the southeast side of Cookie Jar. Legend had it that Ray Northcutt fell off and rolled down into the road. We weren't sure if Ray ever had actually done the whole route or simply gone up to try and fallen off. We did know he was strong. That was when the tree was still there and much more actual earth and ground around the rock than there is now. Since the road cut widened, it's now a drop almost straight to the road, but one day Dalke did the route, in his Hush-Puppies. Larry Dalke was my high school buddy, a grade and year older. He could perform miracles in those Hush-Puppies. He might possibly have made the first ascent of that route, although only Northcutt could tell us. I also was taken by Pratt's Overhang, although the famous Yosemite climber, Chuck Pratt, had never actually done the route. It simply was named after him, in part because of the legendary mantel problems he authored in Camp 4, in Yosemite. Later these routes became moderate alongside the routes I began to put up, such as the Right Side of the Red Wall.... I often enjoyed simply climbing moderate routes, one after the other.

4. What was meeting with John Gill like? Did you meet him first at Flagstaff? What was his view of the bouldering there?

I had participated on the University of Colorado gymnastics team, as a "walk-on," and I was bouldering and training at gymnastics quite a few hours every day. In 1968 I learned John Gill had moved to Fort Collings (he had gone there to finish his Ph.D. in math). I simply phoned him. He had heard of me, and he invited me to visit him in Fort Collings. We went out bouldering, with his protege, the very talented Rich Borgman. We took a tour of the Dakota sandstone around Horsetooth Reservoir. John was every bit as amazing as all the legends. But he was humble and human. He was so far beyond other climbers of the time he could have had a big head or been arrogant, but he remains one of the finest people I've ever met. It wasn't too long after my visit to Fort Collins, a humbling experience, that he and Rich visited Flagstaff. Rich never did anything in the way of a new route himself but could virtually repeat anything anyone else could do. Rich was very light, had hardly any weight to lift. I learned he was on the gymnastics team at Colorado State University, and soon he and I competed against each other, when CSU, CU, Denver University, and Air Force Academy had a meet. I was on parallel bars, and Rich was on side-horse. On that visit to Flagstaff, Gill was wary of the knobby, flaky sandstone. He refused to try certain routes, such as my South Face of the Amphitheater, because of his fear the nubbins would break off in hand. I assured him the knobs were really solid and rarely ever broke off. Right at that instant, he grabbed a softball-sized quartzite crystal that looked good, and it pulled right out in hand. He stood there laughing, that deep "ho ho ho," with the crystal in his hand, and said, "They never pull out, eh?" It was always fun to be with Gill, and many times we visited each other, at Flagstaff and at Fort Collins, and lots of times later at Pueblo, where he moved when he got a teaching job. Gill was impressed with my routes on Flagstaff, atlhough he one day put up an amazing first ascent of his own not far to the right of Pratt's Overhang, called the Gill Swing. He pinched a slimy hold at about chest level and swung far up through space to where his open left palm slapped onto a ragged, slant of rock. He then did a one-arm pull-up and completed the route. I've never seen anyone do that route, although I've seen a few concoct some variation of it.

5. In your view how does Flagstaff Mountain fit into the history of bouldering?

Flagstaff Mountain was one of those places where, through quite a few decades, the standards of the time were set. There were the boulders of Yosemite, the boulders of Ogden, Utah, where Greg Lowe developed, and there were the short routes of the Needles of South Dakota. But Flagstaff was a premier bouldering location that, perhaps at one time during the late 1960's, had routes that were at the top, if not slightly beyond, the standard. Of course wherever John Gill went, that was the top of the standard. But there were areas around the United States where a certain level of difficulty was pioneered, such as the Gunks, in New York, and Devil's Lake, Wisconsin, and the Tetons, and the Needles of South Dakota, and various places in California. Boulder was one of the two or three main climbing meccas, and through the years it has continued to produce some of the best climbers in the country, such as Jim Holloway.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Recreation versus Procreation

The local paper publishes a regular climbing column by Chris Weidner, a well-traveled and experienced local climber. It is typically a thoughtfully written (and often thought-provoking) exploration of the more human side of the climbing experience and this week was no exception. You can find the column here. In it he ponders the potential problems of a life dedicated to climbing past the age when many adults have opted for domesticity and child-rearing. While I agree that the experience of climbing is intense and committing, in the end, I would have to assert that its value is insignificant related to the intensity and commitment of caring for a child (and we have an easy one!). Climbing is a game which ultimately is contrived to its core, a lot like art, another passion of mine. Its value I would suggest lies elsewhere, outside of the actual practice of the sport, perhaps more in reflecting on the experience.

For me a large part of maturity (and I am by no means mature) is recognizing where real value lies and I feel that while having children and long-term relationships are not essential to a fulfilled life, going completely in the opposite direction and focusing on "a lifestyle where things like climbing, travel and self-awareness are priorities" will ultimately prove a dead end. Boulder is definitely a bubble in this regard as many people who live here have chosen this path; however I am not sure that genuine "self-awareness" is a likely by-product of following it. In any case, it is not and really should not be an either/or proposition that one chooses climbing or family. This is seems to be an American thing, and I applaud the more appealing European example where one sees multiple generations climbing, often together at the same time. I look forward to seeing more recognition by climbers that life doesn't end with a mortgage and children; it just gets more complicated and if climbing isn't about solving problems, what is it about?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Watch this Film

I've been lying low with a bad cold and carefully watching a slight soreness in my left elbow. It's been OK since the weather has been damp cloudy and raining for almost a week anyway.

I found this movie at the Grimper website. I think it's pretty cool; though it's only in French, you can get the drift pretty quickly. Climbing is about doing what we can with what we have...

Monday, May 25, 2009

Pat Ament Interview about Flagstaff Mountain Bouldering

Anyone familiar with the history of climbing in the U.S. is aware of the contributions of Pat Ament in terms of climbing but perhaps even more importantly for a new approach to climbing culture as seen in his books and films. I asked Pat a few questions about the history of bouldering at Flagstaff and he very graciously replied at length with great stories and details that evoke a now-vanished time. I present the first part of the interview here; the second will be posted shortly with stories about John Gill and much more. Thanks Pat!

1. How did you start bouldering at Flagstaff?

I don't remember the first time I visited Flagstaff Mountain, but it was certainly very early in my career, probably in about 1959. One of the first memories I have was with Joe Fullop, who wanted to teach me how to climb. To make that story short, Joe set up the rope to make the rappel off the overhanging west side of Pumpkin. I started off the edge, with great reluctance, lying there and scraping my whole front side as I went over. Just off the edge, I saw a ledge to the right and somehow stepped onto it. I don't know, to this day, how I managed to get standing on that ledge (because since then I tried to repeat the maneuver, as an experienced climber, and couldn't do it). Anyway, to resume the rappel I would have to swing back left, and the idea of the swing made me freeze. I wouldn't move for hours. Joe yelled and threatened, exasperated. Baker Armstrong, forty years my senior (I was 13) happened along, through the forest. He instantly recognized the situation and, an experienced and very gifted instructor, scrambled quickly to the top. Suddenly a loop of his gray-whie Columbian rope was lowered to me. He told me to slip it around my head and arms, and he made me feel safe enough to continue. That was the beginning of an eternal friendship, with Baker. I think I went to Flagstaff often after that, with one of the "rock schools" I first participated in as a student and then for which I became an instructor. It didn't take long to become a real boulderer, though when I was fourteen I fell off Pratt's Overhang one night. Larry Dalke and I found ourselves up there after dark, when our parents agreed to have a picnic dinner. Larry was spotting me, as I attempted this challenging, overhanging boulder. I was over the hardest part and got standing up on the big horn, which meant all I had now to do was walk over the top and traverse down the descent. Larry saw I had made it and walked away, when suddenly I found myself on my back, on the ground, and the stars were spinning around. I started to say, "Nice catch," but I couldn't say a word. It was that horrid feeling of when the wind is knocked totally out of you. I got up, walked around a bit, then fell back down, in agony. Larry started pushing on my chest, a form of artificial respiration, and surprisingly it worked. I got to breathing again, and panic on both our parts turned to uncontrolled laughter. In the morning, I woke up and had a fierce pain in my wrist. It was stiff as a board, and an X-ray revealed a fracture. I must have hit it on the ground when I landed, or on the big round boulder that sits there at the bottom. Flagstaff Mountain... a place I spent many hundreds of hours bouldering, often during the later 1960's all by myself in the evening as the sun would go down. I was the most serious boulderer in Colorado for years, apart from John Gill -- who first moved to Fort Collins and then to Pueblo. He and I also became lifelong friends. I must have done fifty or more of those routes over a hundred times each.

2. Can you describe the ambiance of bouldering at Flagstaff in the mid-1960s?

The atmosphere of Flagstaff, during my prime in the late 1960's, was not terribly unlike what it is today, although there were far fewer people and far fewer serious boulderers. I often had the whole mountain (or at least the bouldering areas) all to myself. I have precious memories of standing up there at the start of some problem and hearing a slight wind in the pines. I would notice the color of the clouds. It seemed the rock itself, that fragile sandstone with which I was so intimate, had a spirit and was alive. It almost seemed to welcome me as a friend. I listened to the sound of a block of chalk, as I brushed it against my fingers and palms. I felt there was some kind of communication between myself and the whole environment. It was very nice to be up there alone. I could set my own standards. I had a high standard and, for example, climbed that direct South Face route in the Flagstaff Amphitheater without a rope. There was no spot, no top rope, only my ability and control. I reached a point where I could smoothly climb the Right Side of the Red Wall, hold in with my left hand and arm, with the fingertips of my left hand in that finger-tip hole. I felt those were days of mastery, but within my own world. No one else would know or comprehend what I had done or was doing.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Is Climbing in Pause Mode?

Did I miss something somewhere? The main bit of news recently is Matt Wilder's 9th (by the Climbing Narc's count) ascent of the Fly. Is there anything actually new going on or are people just making Facebook entries and tweeting while the world goes by? Let me know if there is anything I am missing here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Running Mount Sanitas

A nice run up Sanitas this morning which I haven't done in a long while. I never cease to be amazed by the sudden sight of Boulder laid out below you once you get past the first steep section below Dakota Ridge. I didn't feel too out of shape which was nice though it was definitely a bit warm. I really hope to get some high-altitude trail running in later this summer once the snow retreats a bit.

I am working on a review/appraisal of the famous Pat Ament book, Master of Rock which should be ready soon...

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Successful Session

Last Saturday went pretty well for once. I have been trying to develop a little more endurance and spread out my efforts across different styles of problems but owing to various factors have stalled out early on. Saturday conditions were quite reasonable so I did the following problems: Don't Touch the Glass V7, Full Nook's Traverse V9, Valhalla V7, Valhalla Eliminate V8(?), Reverse Battaglia V8, Shadowline V9, Hagans V5, and the Consideration V4. As I have written before, I want to break the 70 V-point barrier for 10 problems and time is the usual issue, plus of course finger skin. I suppose it's a bit like golf in a way (and it would be nice to have a pad caddie). You have to know the terrain pretty well and gauge how many attempts you can make before you are out of contention for further progress. Summer conditions up the ante considerably so I am hoping for a trip to Evans or RMNP soon.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Blogging will Resume

Now that the semester is over I am ready to resume authoring. Coming shortly: Flagstaff bouldering tours, the new resident climbing wall, and thinking about the places that we climb at...

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Players Trailer

Normally I can take it or leave it when it comes to climbing film trailers, but for some reason I really like the look of Brian Solano's new film, The Players. Watch and let me know what you think.

The Players Trailer from Brian Solano on Vimeo.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Video of Valhalla V7

I took a short trip to Flagstaff yesterday evening after an epic week of paper-writing was over. After doing Don't Touch the Glass V7 and falling off the very last move of the V9 Nook's Rock Traverse, I did Valhalla, a great steep V7 with a committing last move. Conditions were summery to put it mildly. The video doesn't do the angle justice but it may help others interested in finding this problem.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Five Questions for Joe Kinder

Joe Kinder has been in the climbing headlines quite a lot recently, especially with his new route Re-up 14d in Southern Utah. I wanted to get a little more insight into his world with a short interview. Find out more about this larger-than-life personality at

1. Joe what does it mean to you to be a professional climber?

To be a “professional” is by standard and definition, to earn a living in a certain engagement or livelihood. I would say that a professional climber is simply a person who makes a living through the climbing world.

2. Who are some other professional climbers that you admire and why?

I would honestly rather answer this question with ‘who are some professionals in the industry in which I admire’?

There are climbers, there are photographers and there are people who work in companies that I have lots of respect for. There’s Tim Kemple, because of his professionalism, productivity, and imagination. He has business class that shows from years of making his product valuable and innovative. Now he is able to make a fine living taking photos, which is his passion and livelihood.

Chris Sharma is another example of how it is possible to create and utilize marketability. He has created a “staple-name” in climbing that will last forever. He has a great approach to the sponsorship business, and really does have it figured out.

I am also a great advocate for certain companies’ motives in advertising. Like La Sportiva’s Solution Tour and Gregory Pack’s endeavors to create packs geared for climbing. Right now I am actually participating in a video and photo campaign with Tim Kemple to expose the development process and concept of the packs. Also Petzl’s Roc Trips and Eastern Mountain Sports’ Nor’Easter event are huge ways to give climbing notoriety and a great name.

3. How does a climber become a professional?

People seem to ask me this question all the time. I have been in this game for a while now and learned lots about how to make a living as a climber. It is really not for everyone, as it can require some traits that not everyone has. The best way I can explain to someone about how to make a move into the professional direction is this…. It is vital to separate CLIMBING and the BUSINESS side. They are completely different entities and only correlate in small ways. Rock climbing is the love, the passion and the greatest game in the world. The business is a world of network, time, effort, value, marketability, confidence, work, and basically a means to keep your head afloat so you can continue doing what you love.

4. How long do you think you can remain a professional climber?

I would say as long as you can offer your sponsors a reason to support you.

5. What does the future hold for the climbing industry in your view?

Well, more people getting involved with climbing is inevitable. It’s such a great sport and with the media, gyms, athletes, and companies advertising properly it will grow. How big? Who knows, big enough for the next generation of professionals to make even a better living than now.

Thanks Joe and good luck to you and Colette on your travels!

Everest=Sport Crag

This news item courtesy of UK Climbing is quite interesting...