Saturday, July 31, 2010

David Lama and Cerro Torre

Red Bull can found in Upper Chaos Canyon, July 2010

One of the most interesting debates raging in the climbing community right now is the issue of Austrian climber David Lama's attempt to free climb Cerro Torre in Patagonia. Lama's sponsor agreed to underwrite the trip but wanted a high-production value film out of it. The quick summary is that in the effort to make a film of the climb, a team of guides added extra bolts  to safeguard the film crew and ultimately abandoned a fair amount of gear on the mountain. The initial story is best read in this article from

Recently Lama, no doubt after prompting from Red Bull, issued a statement which if anything only aggravated the situation more. Primarily, as far as I can tell, Lama was unrepentant about one central point. "Bolts or no bolts, for many the controversy lies in whether or not someone should even attempt a production like ours on such a mountain. That question is what divides climbers. Film projects and photo shootings will always be a part of professional climbing and with that also a part of my life." This naturally leads to a question which is what is the point of climbing media of this type? Today climbing video and photography are increasingly available for free to a degree that I would never have believed possible when I was a teenager. And for the most part, I think it's OK. But I am wondering why there isn't more emphasis on environmental preservation, especially when a great deal of the media being produced is repetitious depictions of climbs that are neither new nor intrinsically interesting. I have reviewed a number of videos on this blog and increasingly find myself bored by those that focus on physcial action, such as sport climbing or bouldering. That was interesting for its own sake in the 80s and 90s when climbing was changing radically. Now that type of climbing is commonplace. Nobody cares about, say, video of Hueco Tanks, unless it tells an interesting story or in some way brings an important new angle to the place.

My feeling is that so-called "adventure climbing" is in much the same spot, that in the end nobody will care if Lama free climbs Cerro Torre, just as at this point another free ascent of El Cap is ho-hum. Climbing media as a platform for sponsor promotion is going down a similar road. Adrenalin rushes and spectacular scenery are a short-term fix and as the media becomes more disposable, the environment can only suffer collateral damage in the process. As the priority shifts from the climb to the film, clearly something is being lost. In chasing an image, we are looking at ourselves in the mirror and ignoring the self within and the world outside.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Bradbury Mountain State Park

The second place I wanted to visit in Maine was Bradbury Mountain State Park. While there I had found some obvious and pretty good bouldering near the top of this hill (not really much of a mountain), it was only while wandering around the lower slopes that I found a remarkable small pile of huge boulders. This was back in the early 90s, well before crashpads, so I brought out a rope to rappel down and clean the best lines. The first was the amazing arete called Heaven, a V3-4 that would compare favorably with any problem I have seen of the grade anywhere. I did most of the others in the area,with difficulties up to about V8, before moving to Colorado in 1994.

On this trip, I mostly wanted to revisit the area and look around from the perspective of passed time. The first problem was finding the place as it had been 13 years since I last came there. Thus I missed a turn on the trail and embarked on a half hour of unnecessary bushwhacking through the trees. But at last I stumbled upon the boulders and took a look around. The first thing I noticed was the size of them. Although I had two good pads, the average height of the problems is over 15 feet, making the place more committing than most. The second was the nature of the rock, very crystally and sharp. So every attempt had to count, especially in the humid woods.

I really wanted to repeat Heaven so I set up the pads and started up. A few moves up, I could not find a crucial left hand, owing to the complex crystalline texture. But after a few more false starts, I found the good holds at mid-height and worked my way to the top. The second half is an elegant balancy, mid-5.10 arete section with just enough security to offset the sight of pads shrinking at the base. A classic highball experience.

Sadly I had to get back to the boat and didn't have time to climb much else so I found my way back out of the woods. Reflecting on the drive back to Portland, I realized that while I loved these areas, small, unique and rarely visited, they also had a role in limiting my vision of what was possible. The terrain around here is low-angle, technical, small hold climbing that ultimately rarely added up to a substantial level of difficulty. Yes the potential exists for harder problems at Bradbury but even for locals, I doubt the motivation is very high for working them out. So these boulders will remain as they more or less always have been, looming gray presences in the Maine forest, seeing the seasons come and go, and hosting occasionally the visit of a pilgrim or two.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sea Level Climbing

Yesterday, I took the ferry from Peaks Island, where we are staying for a short vacation in Maine, into Portland. Growing up in South Portland, I learned to climb on the local sea cliffs and spent a lot of time climbing at Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth. The rock is a very featured and fragile metamorphic type offering all kinds of holds and moves, typically in a gorgeous setting. Deep eroded pockets and extruded fins of gold quartz are common making unique and interesting holds. Though the climbing is not worth a trip unless you are already in the area, it is very different from the more typical granite in New England and I have no doubt that this kind of climbing made me more focused on bouldering as a climber overall.

I started at an area in South Portland that I actually first climbed at when I was about 10, soloing a fairly tall 5.7 wall when I was wandering along the shore with friends. Although I didn't start climbing seriously until a few years later this was a really transformative experience for me, making me in the end the person I am today, still deeply involved in climbing and the natural world. Climbing this wall alone, ground-up, with no idea what was ahead, instilled in me the idea that something was special about the act of climbing, something that has stuck with me since. Here is a still from video I took of doing this route on this visit, at least 20 years since the last time I climbed it.

Another important climb I did, this one a bit later, was on an adjacent formation called the Anvil, a striking 20-25 foot roof. I have rarely seen anything quite like this anywhere else I have climbed. A great jug haul leads to a committing reach at the top off very loose holds. It still tested me when I did it this time. Somewhere I have a picture of me on it at the age of 14 or thereabouts, painter's pants and EBs casting off up this amazing problem.

I did a few other problems that were standards for me when I climbed here regularly in my teens in the late 70s, mostly in the V2-3 range, with good movement on steep terrain, climbing more like limestone than anything else. In a very real way this area served as my local climbing gym, even down to the cushy landing on deep sand. Sadly, the terrain was so featured that harder climbing was not really feasible, limiting my ability to push limits further, but nevertheless it was a great training ground. I was interested to see traces of chalk visible and am pleased that people still climb here. I will have a video of some of the problems up shortly.

After this I went over to Fort Williams to do a little climbing underneath Portland Headlight. There is an excellent slightly overhung 12' wall with numerous problems on it, some a bit committing due to the width of the shelf below. I spent many hours here developing problems and climbing them repeatedly. Again nothing really hard here exists, with the hardest clocking in at V7 or V6 but the position is superb and in summer, once the sun is off the wall and the sea breeze kicks in, you are experiencing probably the best conditions south of Bar Harbor. I climbed most of the best problems here including the traverse and called it a day and headed back for the ferry to Peaks Island.

In a way every time I come back to these areas, I am revisiting my childhood and the memories of the places and people from a different time. However it doesn't feel nostalgic but more reaffirming of the value of choices I have made to be a climber. Even as I have followed different paths in life, this theme remains constant.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Alpine Bouldering Ethics

I have been up in the high country quite a bit recently and have been considering what it is that makes alpine bouldering different from bouldering in the lowlands or the gym. Clearly above all it is the magnificence of the surroundings, their relative inaccessibility and the presence of powerful natural forces, sublime even, that have created the playground upon which we climb. Other famous bouldering areas in the US such as Bishop, Hueco, etc., in the end lack this fundamental characteristic of an austere and almost alien distance from civilization and culture. In a word they are closer to wilderness.

Sadly this sense of wilderness is a fragile presence, one easily displaced by signs of human activity. Is it possible to respect these vital characteristicsof the alpine setting, those ultimately untamed and untamable aspects that make the high country so desirable? Here are some points for discussion.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Chaos Theory

Lots of high-altitude hiking this week. After doing Gang Bang Arete, I decided a change of scenery was in order. Unfortunately Boulder got rained out on Wednesday so it was off to the Spot and a good session there, doing more 5-spots in one session than I have done for a while. I felt reasonably rested by Friday so this time I headed up to Upper Chaos. I really wanted to look at Barbed Wire Beard and Golden Rows of Flows and get a better look around up there. After an epic boulder-hopping hike with two crashpads, I found myself at the base of Pterodactyl, an amazing looking V12, but also a sign I had gone a bit too high so I dropped down and made my way to the meadow. After bumbling around a bit, I managed to orient myself properly and found Barbed Wire  and also two crash pads. Uh-oh moral dilemma time here. But actually I didn't think too much about it. Opting to be a hypocrite and also preserve my back and head I moved them to the base of the El Jorge Boulder to try to the right problem. Right around this time Ryan Y from Boulder showed up so now the landing was pretty safe. After some intense inspection, I tried R El Jorge and flashed it.

I was quite surprised to do this, especially as it had taken me at least a week of serious attempts and literally dozens of  tries to do GBA, rated V8 and only one try to do R El Jorge, rated by many at V9. While I put it down as V9 on my 8a scorecard (hypocrite again, I know), really V6 would be appropriate, V7 tops, if I judged by how it felt. Then I wanted to try Golden Rows of Flows. This is essentially a two move problem, hitting a very small edge LH off a sloping undercling and grabbing a decent edge from there. Stepping off the ground felt pretty easy and within a few goes I was hitting the crimp. After some frustrating attempts, including slipping off both holds simultaneously, I stuck the crimp and did the rest of the problem. This presented another dilemma. Again if GBA took numerous attempts and days and GRF took about 45 minutes and maybe 10 tries, should it be given V7? Grades. Sigh...

Sunday I went up to Upper Chaos again on a very quick trip to try to do Barbed Wire Beard. This is essentially a nice v3 traverse into a hard V10. Very cool thin edges and a crux near the very end. Lots of rain, a bit of wind and thunder; it was feeling like October up there. I was under a tight time deadline here, made worse by a twenty-minute rain-induced timeout on the hike through the big talus. When I got to the problem, there was water dripping down it and things were not encouraging. Even a paper towel stuffed in the good keyhole slot couldn't keep it dry. The hoped-for quick send was not to be. But I did most of the moves quickly and hope to be back up there when I return from a vacation trip to the East Coast.

So back to the stashed pads. Someone commented in a previous post, and obviously the gossip train rolls quick in Boulder, that I had used the two stashed pads (by the end of the week, the word will be I used four and I will have left my own up there as well) and hence was "all talk." This is a tough call, and related to some issues that I had recently been discussing with Jamie Emerson. Jamie urged me to moderate my comments and tone and after some consideration, I have agreed with this approach. To be doctrinaire on the point is to be unrealistic. If you are alone up there and can add to the safety margin, would you be a hypocrite for using stashed pads after you had denounced their use? Sure, why not but then again so what? Does carrying two of them up there with you offset the sin? Maybe, in part. But the truth is they are up there, just like the many improved landings, and it is common sense to go ahead and use them, unless you are really trying to make a point. I have tried to make my point already by carrying more than most other boulderers ever will. Will I rely on their presence? No. Will I haul them out of there? Again, no. It is far too much effort with the load I already am bringing up and will only annoy people I know who they may belong to and who do rely on them. I am not going to play law enforcement on this issue. If this makes me inconsistent and a hypocrite, I will just have to try to live with myself. I know that a. I am not stashing pads myself and b. I am carrying far more up there than others. If you have constructive comments on how to resolve this point, please feel free to contribute.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Bouldering Book Project

In the past two months or so I have been busy researching and writing for a new book I am working on for The Mountaineers Books on bouldering. Along with this writing I have started another blog called The Bouldering Book. This blog will include snippets from the work in progress, thoughts on the process both of writing and mastering the art of bouldering, photos, interviews with boulderers, and so on. The blog is in its incipient phase right now but will continue to build through the fall and winter as I develop the book. It's a big project but one that I am excited about and will keep you posted on continuously here as well.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Park Life Contd.

Conditions were excellent up at RMNP yesterday but I was feeling tired from several hard previous sessions. After a sluggish warm-up and some chalk-testing, (I have tried three different types of chalk out up there since Metolius is just not working out anymore. Results to follow), I wandered over to the Centaur boulder to see how GB Arete felt. It felt terrible but slightly more doable, so I started working on it again. Strangely, I found I had the strength to cut down the swing after the first move and soon had the dyno move in hand. After a couple of failures, I stuck the dyno and held it together on the throw to the top and the nemesis was done. The hardest "V8" around has been climbed and I can move on.

A couple of things to note. While I like climbing alone, there is no question that group energy can assist in getting some motivation that initially might have been absent so thanks to the crew that was there that afternoon. Also the air was dry and breezy like I have almost never found recently there so the slippery opening holds felt quasi-sticky. Anyway, I will be moving on, though the Marble Sit looks appealing. Two recent videos give some perspective on this side of the boulder.

Alex Puccio: The Centaur from Prana Living on Vimeo.

Aslan V14 - Carlo Traversi from Carlo Traversi on Vimeo.

Props to both climbers, especially Carlo's proving you don't need to stash a pile of pads to do a hard and scary problem. Thanks everyone for the suggestions on dealing with  this issue and yes, stashing pads definitely is coming back in vogue this season. It's a shame. Keep the ideas coming.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

How Not to Leave Your Mark in Chaos Canyon

Obviously RMNP is not the pristine bouldering area it might once have been but it is clear from a number of things I have seen and heard recently that boulderers are not doing what they could to help keep it as natural as possible. Above is someone's contribution to the problem. This information was added to the overhang just left of the Automator, a pretty ordinary piece of rock at best. Nobody really needs to know (and probably nobody cares) about the grade of this problem but in any case, nobody needs to write it on the boulder itself. I am assuming this has been erased by now. I didn't have a brush when I took the photo. Obviously it's not as bad as the photo below. This was some graffiti recently added to Flagstaff Mountain and a great argument for outlawing spray paint. Thanks to Andy Mann for the photos.
 But the impulse to mark the rock is essentially the same and it should be stopped. No excuses, no rationales, no nothing. Leave the rock the way you found it.

I am also seeing and hearing indications that pad-stashing is creeping back into style. I am thinking Upper Chaos especially but I have heard of climbers leaving gear elsewhere as well. I have seen a few groups of "hikers" who were obviously boulderers (sorry, the big shoulders and Organic packs don't fit the typical hiker profile) cruising on up the trail, free of pesky burdens like crashpads. I guess they were going to "freebase" Eternia or some similar objective. I cannot emphasize enough A. how weak it is to stash gear and B. how easily Chaos could be closed because of poor climber behavior while RMNP comes up with a more restrictive management plan. Needless to say I feel a bit foolish carrying two and a half pads plus gear when I see others carrying nothing but a light daypack but I know it's the right thing to do. I am planning on a survey hike very soon to see what's up at Upper Chaos. I am not looking forward to the results.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Rocky Mountain Highball: The Mountains and Water Review

Rocky Mountain Highball, a climbing movie three years in the making, is a truly unique production since it is that rarest of creatures, a meditative bouldering movie. As an exploration of what it's like to climb on the edge of soloing, it mostly lacks the usual dynamic double-digit efforts of the typical bouldering video, RMH depicts a niche of climbing that only a few brave individuals routinely explore, a niche that ironically was once mainstream in bouldering, especially before the advent of bouldering pads. The historical interviews at the beginning illustrate this truth well and time spent with John Gill and Jim Holloway, among others, is always instructive on what it was like when bouldering was not the popular pursuit it is today