Sunday, February 28, 2010

CORE Trailer

CORE Official Trailer from Chuck Fryberger on Vimeo.

My review of Chuck's previous film Pure is here. An interview with Chuck is here. Chuck is a great cinematographer/director/producer and I am hoping his new film is up to the same high level. World premiere in Boulder on April 7.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Matt Samet Interview Part 2

In this installment, Matt Samet describes what the job of editor-in-chief was like. For anyone who has wondered what goes on behind the scenes in print media, this is a great introduction to the realities of the position. I know it certainly opened my eyes. Especially important is his point that with ever-decreasing staff levels, running the magazine was more and more a solo operation, making it difficult to distance himself from comments made about the magazine. I think readers will find Matt’s remarks about advertising enlightening as well. Financial realities in a free market make advertising essential but it is a balancing act keeping commercial and editorial concerns separate.

As a writer/editor on the Web myself, I found Matt’s comments on the relationship of print to digital media to be reasonable and worthy of serious consideration. I know I have occasionally gone too far in proclaiming the demise of traditional print outlets. Especially crucial is the role of editing. I like to think I can write reasonably well but a recent piece I worked on for the Alpinist really made me appreciate the presence of a good editor. When the money is no longer there for that function, good editing is impossible to sustain and the writing quality suffers.

Matt’s description of the change in photography acquisition and editing is striking. Tim Kemple recently wrote on this topic and I sense there is growing discontent with the direction that publishing climbing photography is taking. Clearly the use of digital technology has changed the process immensely and a higher degree of technical proficiency is out there as well. But I also sense a lack of what might best be described as “soul” in many of these photographs. I doubt that the disappearance of the position of photo editor is helping resolve this problem.

It’s clear to me that what Matt has described indicates an uncertain future, not just for the individual title of Climbing, but also for the entire genre. Pressures from corporate interests in the form of owners and advertisers, reader migration to new media, especially online, and of course the incredibly diverse and wide-ranging climbing scene, all point to a complex set of challenges. In the next and final installment, we consider the future of the climbing media.

What does the editor-in-chief do?

Well, at a big title with a larger stable of editors, the editor-in-chief (EIC) would basically be like the director of a film: the person with the overview of the product, providing the voice, the direction, the focus, the tone. When I started as a desk editor in 2002, Jonathan Thesenga had that role and he’d hold weekly edit meetings in which all of us editors would discuss queries, track deadlines for the issue we were working on, bring up ideas for new features or departments, talk about any issues with reader perception or contributors, etc, etc. The EIC, with the publisher, also makes sure the various divisions of the magazine are synching up: that the ad sales team is keeping editorial abreast of how many pages they’ve sold for the next issue (this determines the page count, as a reflection of the publisher’s targeted ad-edit ratio); that the EIC and his editorial team, including the photo editor, have all their materials ready for the art director and production team in time for each production cycle; that any circulation initiatives (say, subscription cards or ads) that need editorial input are moving along well; that the newsstand and subscriber numbers are where they need to be; and so on. The EIC usually also has a hand in writing and editing, too, especially at the more-detailed, feature level; the smaller the title, the more hats the EIC has to wear – he essentially becomes the managing editor, as well. He should see every word of every story before it prints, too, and have input at some level.

What this title involved specifically at Climbing is a different discussion. I started the editor job in February 2007 and the resources I was given over the next year were one full-time (senior) editor and a half-time photo assistant, and at one point a half-time editorial assistant; and that was it. No office manager, no associate editor, no gear editor, etc. Our skilled and dedicated art director, Andy Outis, and Skram’s business offices were in NYC, so Andy and I stayed in touch via phone, Skype, and email, and I’d use a T1 line to open the layout files remotely once we hit the production (layout) phase. The magazine was at 116 pages then, so with that level of support I had to work at least 6 days a week, sometimes 7, usually 80 to 90 hours. If I had one day a week to get on rock, it was a good week; otherwise I just grabbed late-night sessions at the gym. I remember once buying groceries at midnight, having just finished my workday (a Saturday) and wondering, ‘How long can I do this?’ I was editing three and sometimes all four features in each issue, writing at least half the news, and first-editing the bulk of the departments. The way it was set up — with such minimal staff — I’d have to edit text as soon as it came in, even if we were on deadline for the current issue, because I couldn’t let stuff logjam or I’d be even more doomed. I operated this way for three years. Climbing/Urban Climber has also had some great, talented editorial interns: maybe two or three days a week of support, but since we could never pay them, the internships typically lasted only 3 months or so

2008 was a better year in two ways: Climbing dropped to 98 pages, so a little less content to generate; and we brought a different senior editor on board – the very talented Justin Roth – who was up for the workload. So it was me and Justin and then my now-wife, Kristin, half-time as an Associate Editor and helping us with the office-manager stuff. I left Climbing in February 2010, so 2009 was my last full year. For the duration of 2009 it was just me full-time and Kristin three days/week as Senior Editor/Office Manager; the magazine also dropped to 90 pages, so again a little less content to generate but not so much less that I felt the workload was sustainable. Not for me, at least — not after three years of consistently working well beyond the 40-hour workweek every week. Editorial work is tough stuff and it’s understood that you’ll have to put in extra hours on deadline, but sustaining those hours even during the “lag time” will burn anyone out. You feel sick, dizzy, tired all the time; your thoughts grow scattered; you can no longer focus.

Matt that sounds like a back-breaking workload! How did you see the job changing over your tenure, aside from the issues associated with fewer hands on deck? Did commercial aspects begin to intrude upon the editorial job more overtly or has this always been the case?

It was a lot of work — too much for one person. As I stated above, the EIC’s job is to be the voice of a magazine, but he’s also only as strong as his staff lets him be. Thus with hardly any staff, as was my case, where does that leave you? ...

Another thought I’ve had is that with climbing and with Climbing, our sport is so geographically diverse and fragmented into so many specialized sub-disciplines — and this an an age-old discussion, I realize — how do you provide a magazine that speaks to the sport as broadly as possible, and appeals to as many readers as possible? I only ask because I think it ties back to staff. My background is as a rock climber who started in the 1980s and mostly likes to crag (which, I think, is what most of us do anyway, most of the time), so whether I choose to admit it or not, that bias will inevitably creep into the content. The corollary is I can’t be a rock climber who started in the 1980s and also be a mountaineer who started in the 1960s, a big-wall climber who started in the 1970s, a boulderer who started in the 1990s, and a gym climber who started in the 2000s. And I don’t really think it’s an editor’s job, either, to go out and do the kind of climbing that either terrifies or doesn’t interest him just so he can pretend to write/speak about it with authority; it wasn’t my job to get the chop ice climbing or free soloing or what-have-you, but it was my job to stay up on the literature, stay in touch with practitioners within each community, etc. This much I always did to the best of my time and abilities. But it still goes back to staff — the best product, at least in a generalist climbing magazine, will come from the collusion of a team, each member with his or her own diverse background and areas of expertise.

So my job changed over my tenure in that I suddenly had to wear ALL the hats even as outside (industry and reader) perceptions and expectations remained the same, even as the criticism (look at the climbing forums) continued unabated. So at a certain point, what do you do? When people go off on “Climbing Magazine this and Climbing Magazine that,” which they always have and always will, suspecting some sinister agenda or corruption of the sport or just venting their bizarre hatred of magazine editors, you of course start to take it personally when the magazine is basically only you. This can internalize into very unhealthy feelings about yourself and about climbing, which is one reason I had to leave. Even if I were 100 times smarter, 100 times better traveled, and had climbed 100 times as many routes, I’d still be only one person; and one person shouldn’t have to pretend to be the voice of something as complex, enormous, and sacred as climbing nor absorb the not-always-constructive criticism and antipathy that gets leveled at magazines. It will make you insane.

As for commercial pressures, I’m not sure I saw any movement one way or another during my tenure at Climbing. If you look at the history of the magazine, it was at its fattest during the boom economy of the 1990s, when it also had the peerless Michael Kennedy steering the ship. Take a look at the ads — a boatload of non-endemic (non-outdoor-industry) advertisers like car manufacturers kept the book very fat, which in turn allowed a large staff, more (and more diverse) content including longer articles and bigger photos, and the like. As the economy has shrank and then so recently cratered, it’s much harder for niche publications to lure non-endemics, themselves squeezed by reduced marketing budgets. Thus if most of your advertisers are endemics, the battle between competing titles to lure these advertisers can become fierce — in my opinion, way too fierce for a pond as small as the outdoor industry. I think very few people are truly getting rich in this industry, and the bulk of us do it because these jobs can be great fun and because we care deeply for our sports. I suppose the flip side is that if most of your advertisers are endemics, then of course you don’t want to alienate them in any way. I’ve only super-rarely felt this pressure overtly, but I think it’s nonetheless a presence.I’ve only super-rarely felt this pressure overtly, but I think it’s nonetheless a presence. I can certainly remember a few times having compiled lists of contributors or featured climbers (already published or who were upcoming) who were on a company’s athlete team, so that the ad department could share that with the company as a possible lure or because the companies just wanted to compile information about their athlete team’s media presence. But again, this was content already printed or under way – not developed especially for that purpose. I don’t think this was anything new under the sun. Only in a very few cases has the pressure been more direct than this.

Speaking of ads, what do you think of readers complaining about space devoted to ads? What's the alternative?

That’s an interesting question. I guess anyone complaining about ads should consider that, especially for titles with smaller circulation, ads are most of what sustain the business: it’s part of the magazine model and always has been. The friction seems to come up when climbing magazines take ads. To most diehard climbers (and by that I mean don’t mean just the best climbers, but simply those who love the sport so much it consumes them, or they put it before all other mistresses), climbing approaches something of a belief system. It’s not just a sport or a hobby or a pastime. There’s also, especially in the older generations, a strong countercultural, anti-establishment current — many of us got into climbing because we were tired of coaches and teachers yelling at us, of our parents telling us what to do, of all the damn rules we’re told to follow.

So I think all outdoor titles feel this pressure: a duty to capture what’s sublime, freeing, and ultimately the most motivating about their sport, but to do so in a way that doesn’t seem like pandering to the readers or that crosses the line into obvious commercialism. Maybe that’s why some climbers find ads so offensive — because, yes, they are obviously selling a product within this “holy” context. But look at most of the ads in the magazines: they’re selling products we all use anyway (harnesses, shoes, ropes, you name it) from brands we’ve known and have trusted for the duration of our climbing careers. And many of these ads feature some of the best photography and design work in the outdoor industry. I just refuse to see them as intrinsically evil. I subscribe to a bunch of magazines — The New Yorker, Esquire, Rolling Stone — and if there’s an ad for a product I’m not interested in, I just flip past it. It’s never offended me.

So I guess I don’t see anything broken or crass about this model. Until the rise of the Internet and social media, magazines were the main media outlet most manufacturers used to present new innovations and new products. Take a look at some of the magazines in the 1970s and 1980s and the earliest ads for cams and sticky-rubber rock shoes. Where would we be now if these products hadn’t found their way to the market, helped in part by the magazines?

The alternative would I suppose be going to a subscriber-based model, perhaps reducing the frequency of each issue, and maybe bolstering the magazine’s online presence and charging an online subscription fee for a digital edition or updated news-feed. But again, who pays for all this? Well, the subscribers will, probably in the form of higher subscription fees; and I really doubt anyone would pay for online climbing news when it can so easily be found for free. So while it might be lovely to think we could keep climbing “intact” and “pure” by not acknowledging the business side of the industry, in my mind that actually does a disservice to the manufacturers we trust our lives to and who work their asses off to bring us sound, reliable, innovative gear. Sure, the companies have many, many other ways — athlete teams, social media, climbing sites, pro-climber blogs, events, etc. -- these days of marketing their products as compared to the past four decades. But that doesn’t mean magazines aren’t still a valid outlet. It’s ultimately disingenuous to pretend that a climbing magazine, just because it covers this thing we all hold so near and dear, could exist outside the rules of the market. And I think it will be a horrible day when the magazines disappear. I don’t know about you, but I can only read so much on a computer screen, and climbing photography shines best on the printed page.

Speaking of online, how did that begin to change the editing job and the mission of the magazine?

The Web has had a huge impact on print, undeniably. Throughout 2007, the book at Climbing was still big enough that we had lots of need for Hot Flashes (cutting-edge climbing news) info, so we made it a goal to try to find “fresh” news — news that hadn’t appeared in another title or that had had only minimal mention on the Web. Around 2008, we realized this goal was becoming less and less feasible: how can a print journal that publishes at fixed dates, in five-week cycles, keep up with information that can be posted and disseminated that very day, if not hour? Especially when pretty much everything ends up on the Web these days. You can’t, though I disagree with all the critics who say this somehow makes print an inferior medium.

Sure, the Web is fresh and you can get video/photos and spray instantly, and with the sport’s standards rising and more climbers at a higher standard than ever, I think it’s killer how freely the info circulates. Before, there were only so many pages in the news section, so you’d have to make these often arbitrary calls, like what was a “Hot Flash” and what wasn’t? Was the second ascent of a 5.14d news, or was it only news if you had a good photo? What about the third ascent of a 5.15a, or the first alpine-style ascent of an existing line, or a free-solo ice climb...? The list goes on, and with the minimal resources we had at Climbing, the sheer size of the (Web)-globalized climbing community, and the need to wait until late in the production cycle (to keep the news fresh) to compile Hot Flashes, it became exceedingly difficult to keep up.

But what does this mean for print? Well, in 2008 and 2009 we tried to retool Hot Flashes — to devote more space to an individual ascent and get the story behind the story, or to print analyses of macro trends at the cutting edge. I think you can keep the news well in a magazine relevant by trying different things like these, but the bottom line is if a reader wants the straight dope/raw facts on the hardest climbs, he’ll get it more quickly from or any similar site. So sure, that changes the magazine’s role from being a journal of record and puts more of an emphasis on, what can we do differently that complements but doesn’t try to keep pace with the Web? Another way to regroup is to put less effort, then, into news and try to spruce up the other departments and the feature well.

I really do think there’s room for both print and online media to exist, but in the last 5 years I’ve also noticed a disheartening trend in online climbing media — blogs, news sites, etc. -- in which it seems some authors can’t WAIT to see the demise of print. Yes, Gen Y and Gen Z have grown up with the new media, but that doesn’t mean there still isn’t room for the old media or its “antiquated” practitioners. I probably sound like Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” here... Jesus, I’m getting old. The key thing is that all of this is still shaking out: as a tool, the Web’s an infant within the span of human creative history, and we’re still in the process of adapting to and figuring out how best to use it. Do online climbing sites make any money? I’m not sure, but whatever the medium, the best content will be edited, original content, which in turn implies paying contributors for the material and an editor to parse and compile it. At the time I left Climbing, the budget for Web content other than the news was $0, so that makes it a hard fight to fight: you can only demand so much of your contributors when you’re asking them to work for free. That said, I think Luke, the site’s editor and webmaster, and Dougald, compiling and writing the news, have done an amazing job, and my sincere thanks go out to all the contributors who’ve donated their work, as well. At some point, I hope the climbing sites find a way to remunerate their contributors, because it is the future, evolving daily, of how we share information.

One last question. Photography is such a big part of the editorial package in a climbing magazine. How do photographs get produced and selected for a magazine such as Climbing?

Photography is a huge part of the outdoor magazines, especially Climbing, where you get these spectacular shots and such wild imagery from places only climbers can reach. Up until 2006, the magazine always had a full-time photo editor, which was a key role. Photos are your most important entry points onto the page, and much more goes into selecting and prepping just the right images than you might imagine. There’s also a huge amount of communication that needs to go on with photographers, who often submit the same shots to multiple outlets when looking for a home: catalogs, multiple magazines, etc. -- it can take a while for a shot to find just the right home in print, so the photo editor and photographer try to stay in touch all the way down the line so an image doesn’t get double-submitted, say, and end up printing in two competing titles. The Photo Editor might also send out needs lists to a large group of climbing photographers, a memo along the lines of “Our shoe review is coming up and we’re looking for good shots of people smearing on slabs” or “We really want some imagery of women trad climbing for the Gallery,” etc.

Up until the digital revolution, the photo editor would send slides out for scanning and then work on color-correcting those scans; today that’s done so infrequently — everything is digital. So the photo editor will usually look through a low-resolution submission, pick the shots he’s interested in, call in the high-resolution versions, and prepare those for print using Photoshop. We had a part-time photo assistant in 2007, Cody Blair, who helped manage this content and shoot the occasional in-house photo (say, a gear-review opener or product shots), but then the budget dried up for that role and the “photo editor” became a role we divvied up among what little staff we had. Basically, if you were the top editor on a feature or a department, it was also your job to call in the images; which meant it was mostly my job. We’d do our best, always having two people sit down and look at each batch of photographs together, so a consensus could emerge about the strongest images. But, I mean, I don’t have any formal training in photography, so the technical nuances a photo editor would pick up on I’m sure have eluded me at times. I can tell you which shots appeal to me as a climber and someone who’s been reading the magazines for 25 years, but I’m certainly no expert.

You also have the deluge of cold queries, random photos sent in and Gallery submissions and news-type photos and all these things, sometimes dozens or even hundreds of images pouring in each day. It takes a huge amount of time to look through these shots (note to contributors: only send in your best, tightest edits, especially if a magazine no longer has a photo editor), and I often fell behind or just couldn’t deal with it anymore. One positive note from 2009 was that the super-talented Andrew Burr, one of the most industrious climbing photographers I know, signed on as Senior Contributing Photographer, meaning we locked into a lot of content with him issue-by-issue. I think his Gallery of Michigan ice climbing in No. 280 and his Gallery of Rob Pizem and Peter Vintoniv freeing the Shark’s Fin in No. 282 are two of the stronger pieces I’ve seen in print.

Over the last two years, the task of color-correcting fell to our art director, Andy, who’d do crazy things like pull all-nighters right at the end of deadline to get the images prepped for print. Given that in 2009 Andy also had to lay out Urban Climber and Mountain Gazette, this was a heroic effort. We only had two weeks to produce the entirety of Climbing each deadline cycle (as opposed to the five or six from years past), so Andy would come in at the end and pre-flight the images for print. A big shout out to Andy!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Matt Samet Interview Part 1

For the next couple of weeks I will be talking and corresponding with Matt Samet, longtime climber and until recently, editor-in-chief at Climbing magazine. Give the trends in climbing journalism, the current economic climate, and the historical importance of the journal he worked at, I thought it would be a good opportunity to hear from someone who knows from the inside what it takes to produce a magazine. In this interview, Matt tells us a little bit about where he came from as a writer and how he became an editor. In future installments, he will discuss the day-to-day responsibilities and difficulties of editing and his view of the future of climbing journalism. This type of interview has never been published before to my knowledge and I would sincerely like to thank Matt for undertaking this challenge.

As I hope to show, it is increasingly difficult for editors to present a picture of the sport without real pressure from commercial or financial interests. The new world of Internet media has great potential in this regard, presenting views that need to be heard without regard to financial benefit. I will leave it to readers to judge on the success of this particular experiment. In my view it is a story that needs to told.

Matt has a long resumé in climbing as well as in writing, indicating his commitment to the sport in a variety of styles. His bouldering ascents include the first ascent of Trolling for Skank (V11), the Ghetto, Flatirons, 1991/92 and 1998 first ascents (from the ground, no ropes or rehearsal) of the West Mountain, Hueco Tanks, highballs Big Right (V9) and Chewbacca (V10), both unrepeated and probably X climbs. In sport climbing he achieved early American flashes of 5.13b, with Rendezspew and Dry Doctor at Rifle (1992) and first ascents of the early Rifle testpiece climbs Fluff Boy (5.13c) and Dumpster BBQ (5.13c/d), also in 1992. He redpointed a few of the Rifle 5.14a’s Zulu, Roadside Prophet, Gropius, and Get Shorty — mid-1990s to 2002. His first ascent of Primate (5.13b X) in the Flatirons, a 95-foot pinkpoint-style headpoint on Seal Rock (2000) is still unrepeated. He made a first ascent of Choose Life (5.14), a 100-foot toprope, next to Primate (2002) He also achieved an early repeat of Peter Croft’s mega-route Evolution Traverse (VI 5.9), Sierra Nevada, California, solo in 2002.

Matt, it sounds like you have a long history of working in climbing journalism and media. How did you get started? What was your first article? Who did you look up to a model of writing?

My first published piece for Climbing was a comp write-up on the White Rock Meltdown, in autumn 1991. I forget the exact details, but the upshot was the usual New Mexico Basecamp correspondent, Doug Coleur, couldn't attend, so I -- back in my home state from my freshman year at CU-Boulder -- wrote up a little half-page report and sent it to the mag. I'd ended up winning, so was flailing around trying to find a self-deprecating way to weave in that fact; hard to do when you're 19. I think it was something about "Matt Samet and his crap footwork," a sentence you could just as well print today.

I graduated from CU in 1996 with a BA in journalism (news-editorial) and called the magazine before I moved to Italy, to be with my girlfriend and do some website and translation work for her father's magazine, Alp (basically, the Outside Magazine of Italy). I talked to Mike Benge, the Managing Editor at Climbing then, and said I was keen to give them some newsfeed for Hot Flashes from Europe, so I sent odds and ends to those guys in 1996 and '97 on the Italian sport scene and the World Cups. Dave Pegg, now running Wolverine Publishing, was a huge help with that and the first editor I worked with consistently. I wrote a Vantage Point about my bumblings in Europe for them right around that time, and they liked it enough to give me a column, the Sporting Life, around 1997. I continued to work on that with Dave for many years, and he was always a huge help and a great mentor. This was the heyday of the magazine: fat, 150-page and even 190-page books with the need for lots of content, and before the advent of climbing-news sites in any meaningful iteration. It was probably easy enough for Climbing to figure, this guy climbs, he has a journalism degree -- let's load him up with work!

As a model of writing, it was John Sherman - his features, the column Verm's World, and probably most of all his first Hueco Tanks guidebook. The way he poked fun at stuff while still presenting good factual information showed that you could make climbing writing entertaining, though in any good comedic enterprise laughs have to come at someone’s expense, even if it’s your own. This much, at least, I've learned over the years. ... I'd read some of the earlier anthologized stuff from David Roberts (Mountain of My Fear) and Jon Krakauer (Eiger Dreams), as well as most of the classics of mountain literature, and these books, too, had an enormous influence and to this day still feel like high-water marks for mountain writing.

Sherman and David Roberts? Quite an eclectic mix. But both have a real desire to show things in climbing for what they are. Did you also believe that climbing writing should reflect this desire? What did you feel that you could offer readers? Was there anything about your background in climbing that you felt you should/could share?

I really do remember connecting with Sherman’s over-the-top, tell-it-like-he-saw-it humor, yes, but also the threads of darkness and introspection coursing through Roberts’ and Krakauer’s essays. My first climbs were in the Cascades starting at age 12, so I’d felt that pull of the peaks early on. When I got into rock, later at age 15, we did a lot of bouldering around New Mexico and, of course, Hueco, which was one of the areas Sherman wrote about at the time. He had that seminal piece in Climbing about bouldering out See Spot Run before crashpads, and I remember being so gripped just reading it. This epiphany that A) You could have this magnificent, hairball adventure on 25 feet of rock. And that B) You could concoct an amazing narrative from such a “small” ascent.

I did connect with these writers’ honesty, yes. Climbing isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and noble conquest. At its rawest, it’s a dirty, gritty, individualistic, anarchic sport where anything can happen and does. People are maimed and killed; people argue and cut each other to ribbons over things like “style” and “ethics.” You don’t know or believe this early in the game, but as the decades go by you stop counting friends killed in the mountains and on the cliffs. You just accept this reality, and the best writers in the genre seem not only to touch on the darkness but on the peculiarity of spirit that pushes us to take these risks. On our otherness.

I never thought too much about what I could offer readers. I just figured, here’s a chance to make some money writing about the thing I love to do, so I guess I’ll do it. Early on, I was cast as the resident cynic with the column The Sporting Life — poking fun at sport climbing and sport climbers from a practitioner’s perspective. I was reading a lot of Charles Bukowski, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Henry Miller, and De Sade then — the 1990s — these dark, bleak, angry but overarchingly funny authors. So I suppose one goal was, however clumsily, to import that spirit into the climbing world. It’s always met with mixed results, but whatever. Life to me is basically meaningless and horrible, and I wasn’t going to change my outlook just so people could keep rooms full of stuffed animals in their heads.

That then, would be the one thing I tried to share: that you also need to embrace the insanity, absurdity, and ego-feeding side of climbing as a counterpoint to the sublime. And that none of us, despite how we want to appear to our peers, are truly exempt from this push-pull or safe from our lesser instincts. I don’t think my background as a climber brought me to these conclusions, but maybe just my life background and the way I’ve always seen things.

Can you talk about how you made it into editing as a full-time proposition?

I took a full-time job at Climbing in spring 2002, probably April or May. I’d just finished up getting a Master¹s degree in English ¬ Creative Writing from CU-Boulder. I’d helped pay my way through school by teaching undergraduate creative writing for four semesters and by continuing to write regularly for Climbing, but once I defended my thesis, the joy ride at school was over. I was just about out of money and had put in application at a local bagel shop when the position opened up at Climbing, to be Associate Editor. Half the staff had left Climbing for Big Stone/Rock and Ice, which had been bought from its owners in Boulder, Colorado, and moved to Carbondale, pretty much across the street and one block down from Climbing’s offices. Interesting times...

The Climbing editorial staff that first year I worked there was Jonathan Thesenga as Editor, Matt Stanley as Senior Editor, me as Associate Editor, and Zach Reynolds as Photo Editor. I left Climbing in 2003 during another transitional time that left too much work to be done, and not enough staff being put on the ground quickly enough to do it. The magazine at that point was owned by Primedia, at the time one of the world's largest magazine conglomerates. Primedia acquired the title when they swallowed up Cowles Media (1999? 2000?), which had bought Climbing from Michael Kennedy around 1997.

I rode a desk at Rock and Ice the next two years (2003-2005), one year as Senior Editor, and one year as Editor. I wrote for Rock and Ice as a Contributing Editor for nine months after that, then came back to Climbing (again, during another period of transition that left many desks to fill) in January 2006 as Senior Editor, working again with Jonathan as Editor. Primedia sold Climbing to Skram Media (publisher of Urban Climber) in December 2006, and I started as Editor in February 2007, a position I held until February 2010. The magazine moved from Carbondale to Boulder in February 2007, as well. Carbondale’s a small town, and if you look at the subtext within the series of shifts and transitions above, the decision to move Climbing to a different city makes good sense.

So basically, I'd just sort of happened into that very first desk-editor job, and from there moved into these other positions. Magazines typically call on their roster of contributing editors when it’s time to hire staff, and since Jonathan and I had then (2002) been friends for four years, he offered me that opportunity.

Without going into the politics of the matter, the one thing I will say about alphabet soup of job titles and positions above is that it illustrates that not all the decisions relating to editorial staffing (and even content) are made solely by a magazine’s editors. The publishers/owners have the final say, and in the case of an absentee owner, like, say, Primedia, with their corporate offices in California, it’s almost impossible to keep up the level of detailed conversation the creative (editorial) and business sides of a magazine need to be having every issue, if not daily. This sort of communication breakdown can demoralize the core creative staff and even destabilize an otherwise healthy title...for reasons that have nothing to do with editorial competency. Making magazines is difficult, stressful work, and I think it’s best to have all your staff under one roof, at least for morale if nothing else.

End of Part 1

Friday, February 19, 2010

Green 5.14? Not so sure

Last week I received the new issue of Climbing described as the "Green Issue." I believe strongly in climbers, and of course the industries that supply them, making sure that the environment is the first priority. However I was surprised to see a large amount of space devoted to the concept of "green" 5.14 touted in an article by Peter Mortimer. The thesis is that the absence of bolts on a hard route somehow makes it more environmentally friendly.

To me this idea, while initially attractive, is not tenable. Besides the simple fact that there are something like a few dozen climbers in the world for whom such a route is feasible, there is a deeper point of missed focus. First there is the problem of presenting climbing ethics masked as environmentalism. Sometimes they coincide, sometimes they don't. What is the impact, for instance, of multiple top-roping sessions, as opposed to a few ground-up working sessions. What about the need to clean out cracks? I am not sure what "green" 5.14 really means in this context? Maybe there should be a requirement that until you redpoint 5.14 in the gym, you can't climb outside. That would certainly cut down on environmental impact.

Second, while "green" 5.14 seems appealing from a media standpoint, it is really green 5.10 that is the issue from both trad and sport standpoints. The impact of the sport on the environment from numbers of participants, regardless of discipline is an issue. Whether Shelf Road or Eldorado Canyon, the ultimate factor is visitor numbers and behavior and those numbers don't reflect high-end sport climbers or boulderers. These issues involve some real soul-searching questions that I am not sure that the climbing industry and media are really ready to ask.

On a related note, Climbing 283 was the last under Matt Samet's editorship. I am working with Matt on an interview series about what it's like to be an editor in the climbing media these days and his thoughts for the future. This promises to be very interesting based on what we have discussed so far. In my view, Matt represented an individual, authentic voice and his departure as editor is a real loss for the sport.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The World's Hardest Problem?

For once the video title might not be total hyperbole...

The Game, World's Hardest Boulder Problem? from Cedar Wright on Vimeo.

For more background on Daniel's amazing strength, consider the report from James O'Connor.

"Daniel has finally returned from Europe(but is now in Hueco) and had the new best day in CATS history flashing 3 V12s and a V13, he also FLASHED the first ascent of a new Razor Ladder V14 in the steep, and sent a V15 in the steep after maybe 5 tries, and that is the short summary of the night."

Some might scoff at a gym report or consider the grades to be fluff. They would be advised to talk with regulars at CATS who have seen the problems and the top-name climbers who have worked some of them for days if not not weeks.

The Game provides a fitting bookend to Daniel's ascent, quite a while back now, of Hardboiled V11 which is at the other end of the canyon.

In other Woods-related news, he won the ABS nationals, a feat that will no doubt be ignored completely by the local paper. We'll see.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Boulder Canyon Update

Lowly Boulder Canyon, long the neglected relation in Colorado bouldering, now has a testpiece at the world class level of Fb8c+/V16. Daniel Woods, according to Big Up Productions, has ascended the Cob Rock Roof Project, calling it the Game. Daniel recently made quick work of the Fred Nicole problem Terremer. Naturally I will be updating the section on Cob Rock in the Boulder Canyon blog.

Another report from Cedar Wright is here.

It's worth noting that this is the second time Daniel has established the new standard in Colorado. RMNP's Jade, from 2007, was likely the first V15 in the state and probably the first established by an American in the U.S. Terremer was done in 2005.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Climbing Action Contd.

The most recent highlight of a dim winter was wrapping up the SBS (Spot Bouldering Series) and not feeling too bad. In the end, if I had registered in Open Men, I would have been in 11th place overall, based on the best three results. So far in the Master's division there is not much participation but perhaps that will change over time. The comps at the Spot have the primary virtue of forcing a different style, one that requires big and powerful moves on massive sloping holds. It is also one that is potentially very dangerous to connective tissue. There is, by the way, a very interesting comment about this change in indoor climbing from Dave MacLeod at his excellent blog. So all in all, especially considering that most of this winter, I have been feeling below par, I am happy with that outcome. Definitely no Psychedelia though next year. Too dangerous by far!

I have hardly climbed outdoors at all in a month and am hoping for some change there. To make up for it, I have been focusing on the home wall and getting some real gains for a change. Yesterday, I completed a problem that could well be V10. I have some other really cool projects in the works as well. It is amazing what you can find once you start getting creative with a small space. Given my schedule, a home wall is the best solution for making the most of a short session.

My elbows have definitely been feeling better and in large part I credit a serious amount of pushups for this improvement. For anyone with lateral epicondylitis, if you can do them at all, working up to around 80-120 a day is probably a good step to consider. A small refinement is when you are at the extended position, i.e. when you have straightened your arms, push a little off your fingertips. Not violently, but firmly. I think this activates and stretches the extensor muscles and tendons that are such an issue. Pushups also extend the biceps and work the pectorals and other core abdominal areas. Other measures such as ice, heat, and massage are helpful too.

On the news, I am impressed by how little is going on in Hueco. Nothing really of note so far and the season is wrapping up soon. Third ascent of Terremer is cool but what else?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

9 out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes; The M&W Review

9 out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes
Dave MacLeod, Rare Breed Productions, 2010

Available at

There are a lot of climbing books out there these days that offer to help climbers improve and raise their abilities. In recent years, the sophistication of these has risen considerably. The gold standard remains, in my mind, Performance Rock Climbing by Dale Goddard and Udo Neumann but a number of other important volumes have appeared including those by Eric Hörst and the Self-Coached Climber by Dan Hague and Doug Hunter.

Now a new entrant to this crowded field has appeared, an unlikely-appearing contender for the best in its field. It is slim, has no color illustrations or accompanying DVD, in fact no illustrations at all save an unhappy over-muscled gorilla on the front cover. It contains no chart-laden prescriptions for training cycles, hangboard workouts, or other programs. Furthermore, it assumes that the reader, like the gorilla on the cover, has got issues. In other words it is not a relentlessly positive upbeat kind of book, such as most American productions tend to be.

Yet as I say, this may be the best training book out there for a certain kind of climber, the climber for whom the positive attitude and encouraging words of the other books are no longer working. They have done the training programs, followed the routines, visualized the heck out the routes and are still stuck in the rut. MacLeod’s book is a healthy reminder how hard climbing can be and how it is to work out of a plateau. The book comes with a kind of warning at the very beginning: “This book is for anyone ready to challenge and change their climbing habits.” This book is not for the beginner. Indeed a beginner will not understand the world it describes, a world of struggling with frustration on routes or problems that should present no difficulty thanks to years of experience and training. The climber who needs this book is the one who gets aggravated because “5.12 should be easy by now” or “Anyone can climb 5.13 these days, why can’t I?”

For me, who has lived in this world on and off for years, owing to life changes, injury, etc, MacLeod’s book is a refreshing back-to-basics approach that emphasizes reality over wishful thinking. He reminds the reader that the natural tendency for climbers is to seek a comfort zone and call that success. However comfort turns into a trap owing to the simple reality that climbing is hard and hard climbing is really hard. MacLeod seeks to remind the climber about how many subtle or underrated factors can direct climbers away from the path of actual improvement and toward stagnation and frustration.

So what are the concrete ideas or practices that MacLeod proposes? Early on he offers the thought that climbers are afraid of change more than anything else since change implies a risk of failure. Failure for many climbers is both personal and public, at least in their minds, and the sense of self-worth that climbing gives has an ugly side when climbing fails to deliver it. As MacLeod rightly points out, they will compensate by working on what they know they will succeed at, which is typically strength training or a single type of climbing or even hold. For example, I know that I prefer climbing on small crimps in a quiet, relatively cool place. But, sometimes, I know I have to climb at the Spot on slippery blobby pinches in the heat and fail on 4 spots in front of a crowd. It’s frustrating but there it is. MacLeod himself recommends the same thing as it keeps him honest about how he’s doing. He sums it up by adding, “Sticking with what’s comfortable isn’t a slow steady way to improve. It’s a slippery slope that starts off too shallow to notice but steepens alarmingly down the line.”

Macleod argues that technique is at the heart of climbing well which of course everyone claims to know already. But do they really? MacLeod’s analytical approach turns the screws a little tighter. Ask yourself, he says, how much time you actually climb in a given training session. Maybe 30 minutes out of two or three hours? What are you doing in the meantime? If you aren’t focusing on remembering what worked, what didn’t, and thinking about why, you have cut the time value of the session by half or more by not learning from it when the experience is freshest. The same theme is encountered in his discussion of doing climbing drills. If you are not consciously developing skills by lower intensity climbing movements done really well, you are missing a great opportunity to focus on improvement instead of staving off failure. Throughout the book this theme of extracting value and efficiency provides a foundation for clarity on thinking about how to improve.

And really the rest of the book goes on in this vein. It is so concise, so direct, and so rich in terms of advice that this review could go on for pages, picking only highlights. If there is a quibble I have it might be the lack of illustrations which in a few instances could clarify points the author is making. However since this is aimed at the experienced climber, most of us can visualize what he is getting at pretty easily. Part 3, about falling, I am somewhat ambivalent about. I agree that removing the fear of falling is a vitally needed skill. However I am not sure whether the analogy of climbing being safer than driving is quite accurate. In other words, even in really safe settings, a mismanaged fall, whether bouldering or sport climbing, can have quite bad consequences, even when the situation was thought to be under control. I can’t count the number of friends who have badly injured themselves like this. It takes a long time to get back the confidence lost after an injurious fall. Curiously, the idea of wearing a helmet is not mentioned, even for trad falls. So tread warily but confidently out there unless you know for sure what you’re about.

Overall, I would unhesitatingly recommend this book. The insight the author gives into the world of high-end climbing is invaluable and his candid, thoughtful, and clear prose conveys advice in a way that is likely to be heeded. If you have been there, frustrated and at a plateau and haven’t really thought out why, buying this book would be a good first step towards getting out of the rut. 9 out of 10? More like 10 out of 10.

I should add that Dave's Online Climbing Coach blog is invaluable as a resource for more information and ideas.