Monday, September 28, 2009

"Is Europe Taking America’s Lunch on the Rocks? Yes…and No". Ummm, Yes

In this post I am responding to a guest post at the Climbing Narc:

"In short, holding two cultures up next to each other and saying this one is “behind” the other is this or that regard is to take things out of context. It’s certainly no big deal to do this, but I think it reveals maybe too glib an interpretation of micro trends in the reported (with emphasis on reported) ascents."

Well at the danger of being perceived as "glib" I would argue that on every front and for quite a while American climbers have been behind the curve. The trend is not "micro" and the idea that "unreported" ascents would somehow affect this argument is not tenable.

Let's look at gear climbing. European/foreign climbers have had little trouble with fast ascents of some of the hardest gear-protected routes in the US. The examples are too numerous to count at this point. The thought that there is any US supremacy in this field can be dismissed at once.

In big-wall free climbing, Alexander Huber dominated El Cap for years. If Tommy Caldwell was excluded, Americans would be virtually absent from significant contributions in this area. The difficult 5.14 multi-pitch alpine "sport" routes in Europe (the ones with 30+ foot runouts) have been done by no American climbers that I know of.

The example of Jorgeson, Honnold,and Segal on English grit would be interesting but for the fact that most of the routes they did were first climbed more than 10 years ago, 20+ in the case of Gaia and End of the Affair. They were done in good style, but they are not exactly cutting edge at this point.

High hard boulder problems? What about Huber doing a 14a solo? Hasn't Evilution has been done by many Euros at this point? Nalle's new V15 problem in SA looked pretty tall in the photos.

To turn to sport climbing, have any Americans since Dave Graham and Chris Sharma really been able to climb at the same level as say Dani Andrada or Paxti Usobiaga, let alone Adam Ondra? Seriously, who are they?

Stating that because American climbers focus on rock not competitions obscures the fact that Americans have been behind on rock as well and for years now. Again set aside Dave, Chris, and Tommy and what do you have? Remember the standard is 5.14b/c onsight, 2nd try 14d, redpoint 5.15a/b. In bouldering, flash V13, do V15 after work. Take out Paul Robinson and Daniel Woods and then who? The European depth in numbers is astounding by comparison.

To assign the cause to cultural values is to exclude the commonalities that climbing shares across national or geographic borders. In other words climbing is about getting to the top of the rock. Claiming that Americans are somehow playing a different kind of game or in a different cultural context is passing the buck at this point. Europeans would be the first to admit that they are inferior at American football and vice versa for soccer. However climbing is climbing everywhere and the bolt wars are not really the issue they were.

Oddly, Justin omits the role that climbing media plays in this situation. As I pointed out in my previous posts on this topic, I feel that American climbing media could do more to promote solid achievement over image, starting by not reporting the 5th ascent of anything, even if it has killer photos. Climbing companies could be supporting solid achievement in a similar way. Instead it's about appearance, lifestyle, and staying cool and laidback.

The reason so many top climbers are attracted to Europe is that is where they can learn and become better climbers. The routes are there, the culture is there, and the support is there. And most of all, the better climbers are there.


justin roth said...

"To assign the cause to cultural values is to exclude the commonalities that climbing shares across national or geographic borders. In other words climbing is about getting to the top of the rock. Claiming that Americans are somehow playing a different kind of game or in a different cultural context is passing the buck at this point."

As much as Beal disagrees with my musings on the Narc's site, I certainly disagree with Beal's comment above. Go to France, Spain, Germany, etc. and ask any climber at the crag how many cams they own, or what a Big Bro is. Here in the States, the hold of trad is deeper and stronger, and I think that's due to the culture, which is due to our geology and the perhaps the whims of history. The examples of super-high-end Euros matching American climbers in trad makes sense only at the very top crust and at a hand-picked group of such climbers, to boot. Again, what I'm talking about is a deeper cultural trend. A few top American's match Euros in terms of sport climbing, and a few top Euros match Americans in terms of trad and big-wall climbing. But dig down into the mid-range pros, and into the hoi polloi, and you'll see the cultural (and maybe i should add the word "environmental") differences start to crop up. Take Europe's higher per-capita climber population, their a generations-deep mountain culture, and then put that behind a longer-running, more pervasive sport-climbing tradition, and i believe you have the makings of the trend we're seeing today -- that older, younger, and more European climbers are sport climbing at a higher level than American climbers. Beal doesn't buy the parallel between this type of trend and say, Europe's dominance in soccer vs. America's dominance in football, but I think that analogy holds. Could one say that Europeans are outclimbing Americans on gear on the whole? I feel this is a hard sell, despite the notable exceptions Beal cites. True, the bolt wars are no longer much of an issue, but that doesn't mean the cultural context that spawned them isn't still affecting American climbers.

On the Grit: though some of those grit climbs were done a while back (though not The Groove, which Jorgeson sent on that trip -- and yes, I know he used a different upper sequence than did James Perason), I was under the impression that they still hold some of their cutting-edge status, for mixing subtle, challenging movement with danger. Admittedly, grit (on which I've never climbed) seems like it was a bit of a bubble waiting to be popped. The mystique around it lead people perhaps to inflate the danger/difficulty there. But is mere coincidence that a team of American's who excel at hard, dangerous climbing were the one's to pop that bubble? And with such force? Perhaps. Or perhaps to dismiss Team America's rampage as "no big deal" (to quote Honnold's sentiments on just about every topic), is, after all, a little glib. [Just kidding, Peter -- you know it's all in good fun!]

As a member of the climbing media, I would say in my/our defense, that reporting on climbing is more than just keeping track of the first ascent -- many times, what's interesting is who did a climb, or how. In Phil Schaal's case -- assuming the UC article about Schaal is what Beal's referring to with his remark about "not reporting on the 5th ascent of anything..." -- the relatively unknown Schaal is more the story than Jade, which may or may not be the hardest boulder problem in America. I think a near-exclusive focus on numbers is part of the all-too-common fallacy that strong climbers or hard climbs are more valuable that less-strong climbers or more moderate climbs. I think there's more than enough of this myopia in the climbing world already. I still believe that the human story is what's most interesting about climbers, and that the talking about the actual physical act of climbing -- not to mention any of the highly subjective numbers assigned to that act -- has value in certain times and contexts, but ultimately does little to transform or inspire us as climbers or human beings.

Peter Beal said...

Great answers Justin but I am talking about the top-crust there and here. I would say that very few Americans equal European abilities in any area of the sport of climbing that you can name.

"Could one say that Europeans are outclimbing Americans on gear on the whole?"

I don't know what this sentence means exactly but I would say that at the very least parity exists in that, for example, many good and relatively unknown European climbers have repeated Yosemite big-wall free-climbing testpieces easily. It is certainly clear that only a small handful of American sport climbers are anywhere near the European standard.

The gritstone achievements last winter were pretty good but then again so were those of 15 year-old Toru Nakajima this summer who not only hiked a number of serious routes but did at least one E9 FA.

I wasn't referring to Phil Schaal's ascent of Jade but instead to a number of reference to post-3rd ascents--Cobra Crack for example, etc., that have appeared in the media.

"I think a near-exclusive focus on numbers is part of the all-too-common fallacy that strong climbers or hard climbs are more valuable that less-strong climbers or more moderate climbs."

While I agree with this statement in principle, I can think of few other arenas in American sports where that would genuinely apply. ESPN and Sports Illustrated don't profile second or third-stringers for example, unless there's compelling human interest. Is that what I want for climbing? Not at all but it is possible to go too far the other way as well. Because climbing is seen primarily as a lifestyle in this country, we have not kept up. Call it numbers-chasing or whatever. Europeans are better. This was not always the case; it is now.

sock hands said...

plz apply this level of detail to explaining how the economics of the proposed health care plan will work out in favor of patients and the national budget. to make this reasonable in favor of the commonly held desire for national health care reform, plz frame answers in the context of a 25 year economic outlook.

also, debating who is in the lead in international climbing does not really fall into the realm of worthy blog posts as described in a prior blog post.

peter, i want to hear about your feelings, not who is at the top of the pyramid.

thnx/lolz, as applicable.

sock hands said...

here's a topic: how to introduce a child to climbing without making them hate it and while supporting their own divergent interests despite knowing, deep down, taht climbing is the only worthy passtime.

justin roth said...

Very cool. I'm enjoying the discussion. Wondering if you feel this is part of a pendulum that's destined to swing the other way?

Speaking of which, when were Americans on top of the sport-climbing scene, then? From what I remember, most of our top sportos have been making pilgrimages to Europe since the 80s, coming back with tales of superior technique and super strength ... we've always had an upper crust of great climbers here, Sharma and Graham being the obvious names, but have we ever had a consistently superior (to Europe) cadre of top sport climbers (if that's what you're suggesting)? I mean, most of the first-of-their-grade sport routes came at the hands of Euros like Güllich. I don't know if we've fallen from grace so much as we never achieved grace, at least not in the way you're (maybe?) suggesting we did.

Also, I was attempting to suggest not just that there is more parity between Euros and 'Merican's than your previous blog would allow, but also that any real differences in ability are due at least in part to contextual factors. Would you not agree? If more people try sport climbing and value sport climbing in a given area, and there're more sport routes to be climbed, doesn't it follow that there should be more strong sport climbers coming out of that area? Would you expect Jamaica to have a great Olympic bobsled team? Wait...

To clarify, when I'm talking gear, I'm taking as much the smaller stuff (like all the 5.14 one- or two-pitch cracks in Colorado (Orangutan, Iron Monkey, etc.), California (Meltdown), and Canada (Cobra Crack)) as I am big wall. That's a style that, sure, some Euros COULD rock if they wanted to, but it's just not their bag. Ondra could certainly match Ethan Pringle's 5.14 trad spree if he decided that would be fun. But that's where my cultural argument comes in: Ondra hasn't yet done that, nor have more than one or two Euro pros. I think if there was a deeper tradition, great respect for sport climbing, and, probably, more sport climbing in America, you'd have more folks sending 5.14d in a few tries. I think now that Woods and Robinson are on the clip-up train, we'll see a lot more of the spectacular sends like those Sharma's been turning out for years. (And I'd wager the American kids who are following in their footsteps are going to be like Ondra or stronger. You know where they're starting? Gyms. Invalid salad! Heh.)

mb said...

Here is my beef Peter. You are comparing America to Europe, which is not really fair as Europe is made up of many countries. Individually, I don't think you could say "the French are better climbers than the Americans," or same with the Spanish, German, etc. Europe's population is much denser and larger (750 million vs. 300 million) than the U.S., and there is more climbing in proximity to large population centers. It's like saying "North America is taking Japan's lunch on the rocks" which really isn't a fair comparison, and if you include those actually exposed to climbing Japan is looking really quite good (particularly because Yuji, Dai, etc. are top notch in terms of world standard) There are also climbers in America, like Tommy and Beth, who participate in many aspects of climbing, which I don't think you find as much of in Europe at such a high level. Comparing Alex Huber's solo of a 14a (which is a short route at his home cliff that he used as a training route) to Alex Huber's solos or the like is comparing apples to oranges. I would not underplay what those guys did on the grit also, it fundamentally changed how grit is perceived, ask a brit who is familiar. Furthermore, Sharma is likely the best out there. Name a European climber that onsighted 10 or so 14a,b routes last year, put up likely the hardest route in the world, did around 5 5.15 routes, several of which could be 15b, placed in the top 3 of several competitions with no training, and a couple were bouldering comps and he has not bouldered in over a year, won the Petzl Rock Trip, established many 5.14/15 fa's from Spain to China to the U.S. etc., and did a zillion other 5.13,14 routes that don't even get mentioned.
This debate is age old, and always meaningless, but always rousts people's defense mechanisms and provides good banter for boring nights at the office.

Peter Beal said...

mb, It may be erroneous to compare Europe and the US as the population sizes, density etc., don't match well and perhaps give more reasons for why the US is not keeping up. But leaving that aside and focusing on climbing, I am unconvinced.

There are numerous top-level European climbers adept at all aspects of the game including high-altitude mountaineering. Although I don't have the specifics, many guides in locales such as the Dolomites or Mont Blanc range have summitted 8000 meter peaks and sport-climbed 5.14 or 14+. I am assuming that you meant to compare Alex Huber to Alex Honnold but Huber was already there with a very bold solo of the Brandler-Hasse, 2000 feet 12a. There have been other harder ones in the Dolomites recently. The 14a solo was in comparison with highball boulder problems such as Jorgeson's.

I am pretty familiar with gritstone having climbed on it extensively and while impressive, those climbs were hardly groundbreaking at this point. There are a number of even more serious headpoint routes waiting for Americans to do.

It is interesting how everyone, myself included cites Chris Sharma who is indeed a true master. However, imagine him saying, "I quit"; then what?

I argue the debate is not meaningless as it points out how a society's priorities, whether speaking big picture, such as the American social policy, or micro, that is, within the climbing world, can manifest themselves in actual outcomes. And like it or not, Europe is producing better climbers. If you think climbing is important, then the next question is why.

To respond to Justin's point that "It was ever thus," not so; in the mid to late 1970s Euros came to America to learn about free-climbing. Gullich is a prime example. Unfortunately the style/bolt code of the US prevented that lead being built upon. Bachar's visit to Germany where he put up routes on lead ultimately had the US "Chasin' the Trane."

I agree that cultural context is important for producing the next generation of achievers. However, scanning the horizon, I have not seen anyone with the raw ability, strength and drive of Sharma, Graham, or Caldwell. That generation is beginning to pass. What will replace it I don't know. Which leads me to SH's question about how to encourage a child to climb. An excellent one and one which I will revisit soon.

Peter Beal said...

One last point in response to SH. I have alluded elsewhere that the health care mess is actually one feature of American life that is holding back climbing progress. Climbers are especially vulnerable to injury and would prefer, I imagine, to live in a world where they weren't tied to a full-time job for insurance, were free to become entrepreneurs without risk of financial ruin because of medical expenses, and were able to count on a social safety net if needed.

These are certainly part of my feelings as I feel that the US climbing scene and society in general have not done a good job of supporting actual achievement in climbing.

tommy said...

environmental determinism. longitudinal climbing cultural differentiation. case closed.

you're welcome.

Peter Beal said...

Determinism, schmeterminism. But nice little jargon spray though...

tommy said...

jargon spray, shargin gray.

the allusion to 19th century darwin-infused cultural theory was - in the words of Ice Cube - a "diss" aimed at the crude conceptual usage of "the" culture.

when i spray, it always has a number attached to it; single digit prefaced by a v.

sock hands said...

when tommy said single digit, i thought of the middle one prefaced by a peace sign, which makes no real sense, but was funny to me and me alone and therefore, has worth in this world.

my issue with universal health care is that it forces someone to be "tied to" a job in order for the others to climb freely.

the obvious rebuttal to this is that the tax dollars could just come from the defense budget or otherwise. yes, maybe that's true. i'm just not sold on the railroad it now and sort it out later argument. on a very small scale, i've seen the mass confusion and inefficiency caused by legislative changes. to do this quickly and on a major scale is terrifying to me and many americans. many of which are dismissed as ignorant because they do not see the rainbows and butterflies in the grand promise of universal health care. i certainly do not think that things are well handled right now. i do not catagorically oppose universal healthcare, but if somehow some way it was implemented within four years, i fear that we'd all be set back and unhappy with the outcome.

bueracracy sp sucks and is infuriating in its sluggishness and resistence to change, but systems have evolved not for the sole purpose of screwing people, as spun by proponents, but rather they evolved as a way of making sense of the madness.

unfortunately, i do not feel there is a right answer here, but i do question anyone who pushes blindly for reform as much as i question anyone who pushes blindly against it.

so, aside from the theory behind universal healthcare, i'd be very interested in learning more about the nuts and bolts, the mechanics of how everyone thinks a new system will work.

so far, it has just been rhetoric and rose colored promises.

they talk about the code being thousands of pages. note that the CFR which explains to providers how to implement any given code is usually four times that.... and people still bitch that it doesn't work... loopholes, illogical conclusions based on the written text, conflict of policies and disconnections between processes.


the onus is on you, the thinking man of climbing.

Peter Beal said...

Quick comment re: fixed to a job so others can freely climb. This is the case with all other forms of government support/services as well so red herring argument.

More later...

sock hands said...

yes. it is endemic of other government programs. which i may or may not have similar views on.


in seriousness, i have very strong internal conflicts with the pull your own weight versus civilization leaves no one behild concepts.

i feel that both sides of the pendulum swing are awful.

unfortunately, all humans are dirty greedy lazy savages, whether they have lots or have little, and this fundamentally corrupts any system-wide form of support.

and yes, i am a human and i realize that the dirty greedy lazy savage applies to me.

Peter Beal said...

JJ, here's an interesting perspective on your somewhat Randian outlook.,0

I will probably write on why healthcare reform is good for climbers

deleted user said...

“Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.” — George Bernard Shaw