Friday, March 26, 2010

Time and the Art of Climbing: Notes from a work in progress

After a long session bouldering, maybe one that goes well into dusk, the environment subtly alters. The feel of the forest changes as the darkness envelops the rocks and trees. The day moves into the past tense, and the lights of the city below the mountain call you back to civilization, warmth, light, conversation. Maybe another try, maybe it’s time to pack it all up, maybe time to wait and consider things. Time exists somewhere between present and past right then. It’s a place where you begin to drift, to wander among the artifacts of memory and revive a few images, revisit sensations of times past. I find myself beginning to wonder where this uncanny feeling comes from and where it leads.

I have long been preoccupied with the understanding of time. Like water-immersed fish, we swim in a world of change, flux as Heraclitus describes it. We cannot isolate ourselves from time as our own selves change along with the world. Yet occasionally something slows down, a window or door opens and a brief sense of understanding emerges. In the company of stone, as when considering great works of art, something of the eternal urges consideration of the fleeting present, its origins and afterlife

For me climbing is a remarkably persistent vehicle for this avenue of inquiry, a mode of travel through time, whether personal or historical. Rocks, through their relatively enduring forms, act as a medium for traversing these phenomena of change, the shifting points of light and shadow, currents of air, sounds of water, even my own breathing. Groups of people flock to a nearby boulder for a while, their voices echoing through the pines in the distance. But at some point, that laughter and conversation moves on and stillness reasserts itself, broken only by the call of a bird or a sudden rush of wind from the west.

I have lived this experience a thousand times, drifting along with the current of time as the day plays itself out and the dusk steadily falls. Suddenly I see myself as older, not necessarily wiser, but more aware of the oddly fluid quality of time and memory. Then I am young, peering into a deep and obscure past where certain facets of lived experience, the texture of stone, the reflections of light on water, live on, preserved in amber but with striking freshness and clarity. Words, language, even thought are clumsy approximations, at best mere prompts to feelings and ideas and I keep coming back to natural forms. I see once more and always the crystal matrices of granite or sandstone, the arc of a sweep of wall, the contrast between dark stone and open sky, the clouds drifting serenely over the world.

This essay is part of an online magazine at Be sure to visit and check out what other contributors have done.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spring Break Update

I have been off work for the past week, spending it reading, writing and climbing as much as possible along with painting. On the climbing front, I have been pretty active, mostly repeats of V8 and V9 problems on Flag. In the past two weeks, I have done about 8-10 ascents in that range. I still have issues with something in my right middle finger but it's not prohibiting too much. The weather has been pretty erratic, limiting serious commitment to anything local.

I finally wrapped up work on a short essay for The Alpinist, a meditation on the meaning of history and the creation of legend in climbing. Interestingly, it was a by-product of work I have done writing for this blog and reflects the potential for old and new media to work together. In some ways I really appreciate the opportunity to move back and forth between the two as I can work out ideas more freely here and then finish them in print. Much thanks to Katie Ives and Michael Kennedy for their help with this. I hope to have more news along this line soon.

Last week I spoke with Royal Robbins on the phone and will produce a distillation of our conversation in the next week. As the previous post indicates, his autobiography is an important and compelling portrait of an adolescent awakening to his potential. Powerful and moving writing indeed.

I have many topics and too little time to address them so will be writing furiously when and if I can. Deadline looming for a contribution to an online collection called A Steady Drip, the brainchild of Andrew Kornylak, one of the best photographers I know. It will be ready Andrew, I swear!

Monday, March 15, 2010

To Be Brave by Royal Robbins: A Review

Last fall, Royal Robbins, perhaps the most prominent name in American rock-climbing, released the first volume of his autobiography, My Life. To Be Brave is one of the most interesting and important forays in the genre of climbing autobiography that I have seen in a long time. It is an important book for two reasons. The first is that it marks the emergence from relative silence of one of the sport’s most innovative and eloquent practitioners. The second is that Robbins has produced perhaps the most profound exploration that I have read of the ways in which climbing can impact a young person’s life.

The book itself is a powerful narrative of recollection and retrieval from an era now long gone, not just from American climbing but from America itself. However it is not a nostalgic portrait but at times harshly drawn, hard-bitten, relentlessly direct in its description of a life on the edge of real poverty, a life bereft of any real emotional connection with his biological father and amply furnished with drunken rage and abuse from his stepfather. Robbins chronicles with unflinching and simple prose what he regards as the “betrayal and loss” of his parents’ divorce and its effects upon him. With the Great Depression as background, Royal’s early years are a story of a life on the move, from state to state, from house to house, father to father, even name to name. Drifting into petty crime, Robbins only narrowly avoided following in the footsteps of his friends who went to jail or drifted into oblivion, just as his father and stepfather had. According to Robbins, he was saved from this fate by joining the Boy Scouts and it was with them that he ultimately discovered the mountains and the art of climbing. But most importantly he also discovered that there were men out there whom he could respect and ideals he could aspire to.

Readers looking for climbing narrative will be relatively disappointed. Though the book is bracketed by beautifully written accounts of Robbins’ groundbreaking solo on the Leaning Tower, its value lies elsewhere. Throughout the volume Robbins is exploring the problem of what it means to be a man and tracing the radical alteration of that idea in the time that he was growing up. This is made abundantly clear by the characters of his biological father and his stepfather. The first he describes as a hunter, an outdoorsman, a gifted athlete, who aspired to be “a romantic adventurer, masculine but sensitive…” Yet his father could not make a commitment to his wife or family, his love of himself always rising above any feelings he might have for others. As Robbins relates it, both father and son were grappling with and frustrated by images of what they were supposed to be to each other. The resulting disappointment and alienation proved to be a major influence in his life.

His stepfather is just as tragic, representing not the gallant, handsome adventurer, but a machinist, a working man, and most unfortunately an alcoholic, at a time when jobs were desperately hard to find. Renaming Robbins with his own name, his abusive behavior and violence left Robbins with yet another indelible image of masculine failure. His mother remained the only source of stability in his life, while the men in his life became ghosts, haunting his inner sense of self, indeed haunting the pages of this book. This is perhaps because they represent now-vanished types of American masculinity, the first made extinct by the closing of the American frontier, the second by the post-industrial world of the post-World War II American economy. Both types were never anything more than images anyway but the degree to which men were, and still are, invested in them, is testimony to their attractive power and their potential for tragedy. Certainly equivalent stories could be and have been told about women and their expected roles and images, though I am unaware of any related to climbing from the era of Robbins’ adolescence in the 40s and 50s.

Climbing itself, to make a parallel of sorts, was also changing, and radically. The image that Robbins seized upon for inspiration as a youth, a fuzzy black and white photograph of a rock climber somewhere in the Dolomites, shod in heavy alpine boots, his rope dangling uselessly, this image would soon be extinct as well, ironically enough in large part due to the technical advances made by Robbins and his colleagues in Yosemite. Yet for Robbins, as an adolescent in Los Angeles poised above an abyss far more deadly and deep than any found on a cliff, the idea of climbing proved to be an escape from the dead-end examples of his father and stepfather.

I suspect many climbers have followed this road, finding in the sport of climbing a kind of escape from the flawed and distorted stereotypes prescribed for young men and women. Perhaps the crucial ingredient for both sexes has always been the elemental presence of nature and natural forms. Robbins describes it as follows: “When I touched the rock, it had in turn touched my spirit, awakening an ineffable longing, as if I had stirred a hidden memory of a previous existence, a happier one.” To me there is no question that Robbins has touched upon the core of the meaning of climbing in this passage, perhaps the most important in the book, and among the most cogent descriptions of this feeling that I have ever read.

Whether future volumes will match the promise and excellence of this first one, only time will tell. The initial plan is apparently for seven volumes in all, a considerable number. However given the intensity, focus, and realism of To Be Brave, and of course the spectacular achievements of Robbins both as a climber and a person, I find it hard to believe that they will not also prove to be compelling and important books. Robbins’ voice is clear, powerful and articulate, and free from ego or selfishness, a much-needed quality in a book of this kind. I certainly look forward to more.

Friday, March 12, 2010

"Manning Up"

The spring-like weather last weekend has brought out many more climbers (I think there were two rescues last week in Boulder and Eldorado Canyon). As I go through my warmup circuit at Flagstaff, I have been encountering more than a few nervous boulderers out there. One of the more common scenarios is a young woman accompanied by one or more incompetent young male climbers. Through lack of fear and/or common sense or too much hormones, these young men often scrape up moderate highballs and then call down to the woman, "Go for it!" The other day, I actually heard someone tell a young woman to "Man up" as some kind of encouragement. Seriously?

Anyone who has been climbing a while will hopefully understand that climbing up little rocks next to the road has very little to do with real courage or depth of character. But associating courage or bravery in climbing with the male sex is a depressing trend which I am calling for an end to right now. "Manning up" or "sacking up" or any of the other equivalent phrases are simply bogus. If you really want to man up, get a career, have a family, serve the public in some important way, and especially don't perpetuate sexist stereotypes.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Climbing Outside

The weather finally cleared up on the weekend so I was able to boulder outside. The snow has been so persistent that only very sun-exposed features at Flagstaff were climbable. Saturday especially was the day that the crowds really hit the mountain, not climbers so much as beer-drinking high school kids. I felt really tired and couldn't climb much of interest. However a shout out to OSMP for sandblasting the graffiti off the traverse on the backside of the Amphitheater

Sunday was a bit better. After a long warmup and some time spent helping a dad set up a top-rope for his son on Crown Rock, I went over to the Red Wall and did Moffatt Direct first try and Firewall a low RH start to the Red Wall problem, in a few tries. MD is given V8 and Firewall is V8/9.

I have been feeling somewhat drained on the writing front and the fact that little news of real interest has been happening locally hasn't helped. Or maybe it's been a long winter. It was good to get moving outside though.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

M&W Three Years On

Somewhere along the line, I forgot how long I have been writing this blog and realized that it has been just over three years. Over that time I have gone a lot of places, discussed many topics, met many interesting people, and developed ideas for larger writing projects. It has been a difficult process at times and I apologize for the many missteps, hoping that for most readers,visiting this blog has been a valuable experience, at least some of the time.

I want to write more about the changing shape of this type of media on another occasion but right now would like to say how important this blog has been for enforcing writing discipline and keeping a steady flow of words and thoughts moving along. I have consistently tried to create wholly original material that truly reflects an alternate and independent voice and view on things climbing-related.

In the future, I will continue to do my best to produce new stories that reflect the ever-changing and diverse aspects of the climbing world, that reflect the latest ideas, profile interesting and important people in the sport,and sometimes even discuss my own climbing. I hope you will continue to join me.