Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lord of the Rings and Climbing

The Dave Graham problem Mithril 8b at Cresciano from Moon Climbing.

Periodically I reread the classic fantasy trilogy by JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. For some reason, this year I was really struck by the impact this book has had on climbing. Granted that climbers can be a nerdy bunch, but a search of route names in the US and abroad shows a prevalence of borrowing that no other work of literature can compare to. In the quite literally Misty Mountains of New Hampshire, route after route was directly named after places in the book with examples like the Mordor Wall, Mines of Moria or the less appealing Orc, a nasty 5.8. Here in Colorado, boulder problems such as Gandalf indicate the enduring appeal of the books. In Switzerland, a place that had a great affect on Tolkien's vision of Middle Earth, Dave Graham problems such as Shadowfax and Mithril seem to reflect the atmosphere of Rivendell. As it happens the Swiss valley of Lauterbrunnen was the model for this mythic valley, based on Tolkien's visit there as a young man. The list goes on and on.

Paul Robinson on Shadowfax 8B at Chironico, photo from 27 Crags.

What is the appeal of Tolkien's writing for climbers? I think there are a number of possibilities. First the books are ultimately about a long expedition to climb a mountain to find, what else but The Cracks of Doom, later immortalized in climbing history as the first 5.10 in Yosemite Valley. The terrain that the characters traverse in the book is very well-known to climbers including mountain passes, craggy valleys, deep forests and so on.

There is also the whole idea of the quest that appears on the face of it ridiculous. Many critics have found fault with the idea of the Ring as an object of desire because it seems too small and innocuous to have such power associated with it. What could be more similar to a boulder problem?.

Finally there is the idea of creating a fantasy world out of the raw material of nature. Climbing is at its essence an act of imagination, imposing order and meaning on the chaos of the natural environment. Tolkien's genius created entire languages and geographies that mirror in interesting ways the naming practices and customs associated with climbing. Little wonder then that many climbers over the decades following the publication of LOTR have honored this connection.

I think there are many other parallels and connections that have made the climbing world find particular resonance with Tolkien's creation. Somehow, I feel confident that the associations made so long ago with these books will persist well into the future.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Rich Simpson Controversy

Recently I have been steering away from current events in climbing, mostly because it really has been more of the same, and also because I have been too busy with other things, especially in terms of writing. However a special case has emerged that says some very interesting things about climbing and its meaning, and particularly its intersection with commerce. If you have been using the Internets, you were probably alerted to the situation by a remarkable article at UKC which in essence declared that owing to a lack confirmation by the climber, "UKC has now removed all news items and article references from our website regarding Rich Simpson's climbing achievements. These have not been deleted however, and we would be happy to republish these news articles if proof of these ascents comes to light." (Full Disclosure: I have had a couple of reviews published by UKC, albeit with no compensation)

The article/editorial also noted that Simpson's primary sponsors Wild Country and Scarpa have apparently dropped him though with a bit of searching, he is still on their websites. According to statements published by UKC, Simpson, when asked to verify his accomplishments, declined to do so and submitted resignations with both companies. He is still listed at Moon Cimbing.

A number of topics on message boards in the UK discussed the topic, sometimes at agonizing length, but with little resolution to the central questions, questions that will persist well after this instance has faded from the headlines.

What is the best response to the appearance of doubts about a climber's achievements? It seems to me that this case is a difficult one and in part because Simpson appears to have the strength and ability to have made good on his claims. However also peculiar is the absolute media silence about the bigger picture, that is the process of vetting and confirmation of news and sponsorship agreements. In a properly professionalized sport, such as world track and field, it seems that this situation would have been handled very differently. Indeed it appears that claims by Simpson about running almost certainly brought to light questions about his climbing record.

Running is by nature a more verifiable and quantifiable sport, even at the amateur level. Chip timing and the internet have made verification of race times a matter of a quick web search. Climbing is much more murky, and bouldering even more so, relying on one climber's word or a previous record of achievements. In the world of alpinism, especially solo alpinism, controversy and debated ascents are surprisingly common.

Is it really a problem that there will be individuals who take advantage of a relatively loose scoring and monitoring system? Perhaps, but given the lack of openness about sponsorship contracts and criteria for them, it is hardly surprising that these things can happen. Maybe the loosely enforced and mostly honor-system-enforced historical record of climbing is just an intrinsic part of the experience that athletes and sponsors must deal with as best they can. In this regard, the silence surrounding this particular episode, at least in terms of real news and not just secondary commentary, is telling. We may never know the real story behind this turn of events but we may see a change in how the climbing industry does the business of reporting news and checking climbing CVs moving forward.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Breakthrough Bouldering Clinic Recap

After some speculation whether anyone would show up, I had at least 10 people at the Boulder Rock Club last Thursday night for a clinic that went close to two hours. I started off explaining my philosophy of climbing better, namely paying better attention to what you are doing and understanding why. To me this is the essence of maximizing your potential as a climber and yet is so hard to do well. Then we had a little bit of falling practice. Much like in sport climbing, safe effective falling technique is crucial to feeling confident trying moves. Because trying harder moves is the key to doing harder problems, I wanted the participants to feel free to fail safely.

After the opening part, I had people move through a relatively easy but steeply overhung sequence getting them to think about body position,foot placement and speed. I am not trying to critique their climbing so much as open up other possibilities for thinking about climbing. Then we tried a long dyno type move, working on seeing the differences that momentum and foot placement can make, as well as speed of execution. Another harder problem was used to illustrate the need to make the most of good foot choices to use smaller handholds.

Finally I made some suggestions about effective bouldering gear, especially slippers, as many intermediate boulderers use shoes that are too stiff and take too much time to put on and take off. I also showed them what makes a good crashpad (representing Organic!) and why you need one (or two, really). I answered a ton of great questions.

I had a few chalkbags to distribute, courtesy of Chris Danielson at Trango climbing, and some free chalk, courtesy of Metolius, as well. I will be working on the schwag for the next clinic, for sure. Where to hold it next is the question.

I think the comments of one BRC member (on my previous post) said it best:

"I was lucky enough to go to the clinic, and it was great. Thanks for all the good advice! I thought it was a great balance of on-the-wall work, and mental training. I got some new perspective on trying hard, redefining failure and success, and some great training and technique tips. I'm ...trying to break out of the v5/6 grade, and I got a lot out of it. I'd go to another one of these in a heartbeat."

Definitely looking forward to doing more! If you think your gym might be interested, let me know.

Friday, December 3, 2010

BRC Bouldering Clinic Next Thursday December 9

I am very psyched to be offering my first public clinic on bouldering at the Boulder Rock Club next Thursday evening from 7 pm to 8:30. This clinic, titled Breakthrough Bouldering, is intended to help the serious boulderer or roped climber make the next step in proficiency and difficulty. If you are a boulderer who has had trouble getting out of the V2 or V3 grade, I will offer some ideas on how to self-assess and take concrete steps to improve. My primary focus will be on the psychological and mental paths that can be explored in conjunction with better utilization of physical strength, hoping to dissolve the artificial distinction that too many climbers make between the powers of mind and body.

The clinic will be a great learning experience for me as I wrap up my book, listening to climbers and their reactions to my experiences and ideas. Aimed at typical time-pressed climbers, I certainly hope it will help them learn to make the most of the limited time that most of us have to practice the sport we love so much

While this first offering is only open to BRC members, I will be contacting Boulder and Denver-area gyms with the offer to conduct this clinic, free of charge, for their members and guests. I will keep you posted on how it goes. It sounds like there may be some serious interest already