Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Story of Two Worlds: Conversations with John Gill and Dave Graham

In the last two weeks, I have had the curious pleasure of talking at length with two of the most influential boulderers in the history of the sport. By curious, I mean that they essentially bracket the beginning and the end of the development of the idea of bouldering. The conversations made me reflect on the constantly evolving nature not just of bouldering but of people and culture overall.

About two weeks ago, I met up with John Gill at the American Alpine Club Museum in Golden. It was a great time and began with us touring the actual exhibits before sitting down for a conversation. It felt a bit like touring the Louvre with Leonardo da Vinci. John is a truly modest man, reserved yet with a penetrating sense of humor, as he recalled the ways in which he thought about bouldering and essentially founded the sport. We talked for close to two hours, exploring the meaning of climbing in our respective lives and the way in which our thoughts about moving on rock, training, and even thinking itself affects the experience of climbing. I recorded the conversation and hope to have the time to transcribe it in the near future. While John began climbing in era steeped in the auras of alpinism and big wall climbing, his ideas about bouldering ultimately revolutionized all areas of climbing. I felt while talking with him, that I was meeting not just a historically important character but one essentially contemporary in his thinking, who did not seem caught in the past. I have been talking recently with some truly legendary figures in climbing but my time with John was one of the most interesting moments in my climbing career.

The week after, I talked with Dave Graham in Boulder. Dave, much like John, needs no introduction. Dave rewrote the rules of the sport of bouldering in the mid-1990s, much as Chris Sharma did for sport climbing. Tearing through the standard testpieces in Fontainebleau, Dave then went on to establish numerous testpieces in Switzerland and all over the US. His intensity and keen intelligence are notorious in a sport where exuding a sense of laid-back cool and detachment are more typical.

The conversation was fast-paced and wide-ranging as we discussed his plans for the Island, the media outlet he is forming to distribute his vision of contemporary climbing. A child of the 90s, Dave is into electronic media in all forms: video, audio, the Web, anything and everything, all pasted together. His international celebrity and reputation within the climbing community ensure his ideas will bear fruit somewhere on a global stage. As with John, two hours flew by like nothing. Dave's restless mind hopped effortlessly from one subject to the next, digging deeply though never for too long, giving me some insight into how he is able to read rock so quickly and so intensely.

There is an interesting contrast in meeting with these two very different characters so close together. It shows that really there is no such thing as the typical climber and that while there must be some commonality among climbers across time, there are also huge differences, differences shaped by truly profound influences and forces. The world that I live in sits somewhere between the two, offering I hope, some perspective on both the world of Gill and Graham.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

An Accident and Some Thoughts on the Cost of Climbing

Shannon Forsman and I were getting in a short late afternoon session at Flagstaff Mountain. The air was calm and still a bit warm, though the rock was beginning to feel crisp where it had cooled facing away from the sun. I felt like I was moving fairly well, nothing out of the ordinary, just OK. It's times like this that I sit back somewhat mentally as I climb and think about the simple beauty of light on stone, the straightforward presences of the rocks swelling up out the earth, and visually drift, like a bird, across the distance space above Gregory Canyon.

We were talking about the Adventure Film Festival at the Boulder Theater (which I did not go to) and I commented on how so many climbing films still seem focused on selling the adrenalin rush, the sensation, and the difficulty. It seemed to me that climbing film makers seem deliberately to decide to avoid the merely human, the humble reality of the act of climbing. I speculated on why nobody that I knew of had really gone there, looking for example at the impact of serious climbing injuries and fatalities on people's lives, the ways in which lives are altered forever, ruined even, in the midst of a search for, well, what exactly?

I was moving across the initial jugs of the Monkey Traverse when another climber came running down the hill saying that a rescue had been called in and that a crew would be coming down the trail very soon. We headed down the trail ourselves and I saw a man lying near the base of one of the many gullies below Alamo Rock, awkwardly perched on a slab, clearly not in good shape, vomit dripping from his lips, eyes half-opened. He looked like any number of typical visitors to Flag, not really a climber, just a guy who was out with his friends and decided to scramble up a rock. Shannon went up to see what she could do while I went up to the parking lot to see if I could carry gear or assist in any way.

The sirens coming up the road grew louder and louder and soon a group of vehicles from Rocky Mountain Rescue, OSMP and the Sheriff's Department were parked, their walkie-talkies scratching away under the glare of flashing red-blue lights while the rescue group got under way. I followed them down the trail, watching with growing respect the way in which the situation was quickly assessed, duties assigned, and gear deployed. While it didn't seem to be a particularly difficult spot, the victim was pretty big and his situation seemed serious. Within a few minutes the location was thoroughly covered with personnel and the victim secured.

Within less than an hour he was loaded on an ambulance and taken to the hospital. I talked briefly with Rick Hatfield, ranger with OSMP, who commented that, despite the obvious risky nature of the rock formations in the area, such incidents were rare, considering the visitor numbers. Yet, he added, these accidents seem to come in sets, with long gaps punctuated by closely grouped accidents. He didn't know why, just that it happened that way.

On the drive back down, the rescue teams having dispersed, I mused on this observation some more, considering how one person's tragedy becomes in the long view, a statistic of sorts, part of a pattern as natural as the rhythm of the pines growing across the mountainside or the distribution of the boulders. We want to take meaning from all of this, find something deeper and valuable, but is it really there?

In the face of this dilemma, do we as climbers face the facts of death and injury with a sort of insouciant denial, a recognition that we are all condemned to this fate in some sense anyway? This is one option but not the most interesting or meaningful reaction in my view. The truth is most of us will not suffer any heroic martrydom on the slopes, washed away by an avalanche, obliterated by rockfall, or buried deeply in a crevasse. Instead, we will succumb to gravity slowly, bit by bit. We fall by degrees but finally, inevitably, we fall.

I kept contrasting in my mind the simplicity and clarity of angular holds basking in the light of a late fall afternoon, glowing orange and red in the fading light, with the ugly complex and amorphous truth of a man's body, sprawled, bleeding and in shock, his mind unclear of place or time, his fate completely at the mercy of others. What can we, as climbers, make of this state of things? Do we acknowledge, but ultimately ignore, it as simply the cost of doing business or do we take a more human view of it, recognizing that in a quest for this experience of climbing, there will be failures and catastrophes and that these failures make us human, make the sport meaningful? I don't pretend to have the answers. My faith in climbing is far too tentative for that. But the question seems important, too important to leave unexplored.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Winter Bouldering, The Book and the Big Stone

I finally had a session at Flag that would begin to count as winter bouldering. After some recent light snows, the weather has cooled down considerably and shaded north-facing formations are still holding the white stuff. On Sunday, I stayed out almost until dark in 40 degree temperatures trying a silly contrivance on Red Wall. A couple of things are needed. One might be some good sized handwarmers, another would be a light on a tripod, like the Gorilla Light, to make the most of the little time I have. Anyway I am refining my winter kit and will let you know what the final ensemble looks like.

On the bouldering book front I am excited to have some prominent people in the bouldering community helping me out at this point (names to be named later) and hope for more contributions as the word gets out. Sending out emails for this help is like sending messages in a bottle, one hopes for the best. Thanks to all who have generously helped so far. And if an email from me is languishing in your inbox, please consider responding. You will be making it the best how-to book on bouldering published.

On the climbing news front, the most exciting (and ongoing) event is surely Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson on the Dawn Wall, freeing a humongously difficult sequence of pitches in what will be certainly the hardest big wall freeclimb on the planet. Kevin is posting updates on his Twitter feed at this point. If this climb goes on this trip, there will be likely contenders for hardest sport climb (Sharma on Jumbo Love at Mount Clark), hardest big wall free climb, and dare I say it, hardest boulder problem with Daniel Woods on The Game right here in Boulder Canyon, all in the US, not in Europe. I should add also hardest trad pitch with Beth Rodden on Meltdown. Speculation but a potentially very interesting state of affairs in my view.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Writing, writing, writing

I have been keeping my posts and short and far apart recently due to my commitment to writing the bouldering book and keeping up with my college work. I have been getting out only a few hours at a time, meaning the gym or Flagstaff at most. The Park is becoming a distant memory at this point. A cherished one nevertheless.

Nevertheless, I feel reasonably strong and am inspired by the goings on out there and of course Internet video. The ever-productive Jon Glassberg has a new short video from Switzerland:

as well as a new installment from his work on Lincoln Lake:

Lincoln Lake GIANTS! Chapter 2 • Bones... from Louder Than 11 on Vimeo.

These give a good comparison of the cinematic potential of some locales versus others. Chironico has changing light, interesting backgrounds, amazing texture, and best of all life. Things grow there such as trees meaning the frame always has something else besides rocks. And this is the problem with Lincoln. Almost always you are shooting someone climbing a grainy round rock with piles of other rocks, mostly identical in nature, sitting just behind. The light is almost always a dull flat gray owing to Lincoln's east facing sunken location. Great for bouldering,lousy for video. I think Jon has done a pretty good job with the limitations of the area. I look forward to see if he can get something really good out of Switzerland,especially something without a hip-hop or techno soundtrack:)