Thursday, December 22, 2011

Climbing and the Olympics: Will Climbing Lose its Soul?

About a month ago, before I went on unplanned hiatus from writing this blog, I read a very interesting commentary at on the Olympics and climbing. There has been a consistent push in recent years for the inclusion of competition climbing in the Olympics, perhaps in part because the potential resulting higher profile could bring bigger sponsors on board for events such as the World Cup. Here are some thoughts translated from the French, originally authored by Jean Pierre Banville:

"Elle va y gagner la perte de son âme ! La perte des valeurs qui ont fait de l’escalade et de la montagne des sports totalement hors-normes. Je ne suis pas Luddite et certainement pas contre le profit, contre le juste retour de l’investissement. Mais l’escalade s’est toujours positionnée au-dessus des valeurs purement mercantiles. L’escalade est un sport de passion dont les valeurs et l’histoire sont ancrées beaucoup plus profondément dans le psyché humain que la lutte, le golf ou le rugby.

Il n’y a pas de héros dans la lutte ou le golf. De vrais héros. Des géants hors du commun, des êtres hors-normes. Et, non, Tiger Wood n’est pas un être hors-norme. Par contre Cassin et Preuss et Dulfer et Desmaison… ce n’est pas la lutte ou le ping-pong. Guido Lammer, ce n’est pas le curling! C’est l’antithèse du curling… franchement !
On va me traiter de vieux crouton, à ressortir ces figures oubliées. Vous en voulez de plus récentes? Berhault, Bonatti, Arnold… ouvrez les magazines d’ici et d’ailleurs et vous retrouverez ces personnages d’exception qui ont fait et font la montagne mythique !
C’est notre âme collective et c’est ce que nous avons à perdre.

What it will win is the loss of its soul. The loss of values which have made climbing and mountaineering sports completely out of the mainstream. I am not a Luddite and certainly not against profit, against a fair return on investment. But climbing has always placed itself  above purely mercantile values. Climbing is a sport of passion where the values at the history are anchored much more deeply in the human spirit than wrestling golf or rugby.

There are no heroes in wrestling or golf. No true heroes. No heroes beyond the everyday,no superhumans. And no, Tiger Woods is not superhuman. By contrast Cassin, Preuss, Dulfer, and Desmaison...this is not wrestling or ping-pong. Guido Lammer, this is not curling! It's the antithesis of curling...obviously!

You could call me out of touch, to refer to these forgotten figures. You want more recent examples? Berhault, Bonatti, the magazines here and elsewhere and you will find the exceptional people who have made mountaineering mythical.

It's our collective soul and it's this that we can lose.

In essence, I agree with the author of this piece, in the sense that climbing has always set itself aside from other sports in a number of ways. Initially, this was seen in the sport's location, the peaks and glaciers of the Alps which had been rejected as desolate  and frightening wasteland in Western culture for centuries. There was also the ever-present risk of death in this environment which made the game much more serious than most. Finally there was the deliberate search for difficulty, seen in the ever more closely refined definitions of desirable objectives, from unclimbed summits to unclimbed ridges to unclimbed walls and so on. To play this game in any serious sense meant a total commitment of mind and body.

This set of rules was more or less consistently understood until after the First World War when new technologies and an expanding leisure class began to transform the sport, turning it away from the heroic age. In the present era, adventure has had to be even more carefully defined, lending a certain paradoxical air to the enterprise. For example, Tommy Caldwell's epic efforts to free climb the Dawn Wall hinge upon microscopic flakes of rock, with his attempts broadcast to the world straight from the portaledge via Facebook and Twitter. There is no question this is a serious climb with an uncertain outcome. But does it pass the hero test when compared with the aura-laden landmark ascents of the past? Perhaps there is literally too much baggage these days for such a climb to exist.

Maybe a look at the antics (and tragedy) surrounding the first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger will illuminate the issues involved. Similarly high-profile, observable from the safety of a hotel balcony, the climb, which closed the book on the pioneering age of alpinism in Europe, became the object of mass media coverage and its ascensionists were feted by Adolf Hitler. Indeed prior to the 1936 games, Hitler had promised Olympic medals to the first party to climb the route. Ironically, the groundbreaking, even heroic, ascent of the Matterhorn North Face by Franz and Toni Schmid was rewarded with an Olympic medal in 1932. According to most histories of this "golden age" of modern alpinism, much was made of this heroic, even mythic, mode of climbing by fascist governments in Italy and Germany, a phenomenon that may have contributed to the IOC not awarding further medals in climbing.

All of which is to say that the issue of the relationship of climbing to organized sports, indeed organizations of all kinds, is an old one and the heart of the debate is still alive and beating. It seems unlikely that the face of climbing in the Olympics will be anything other than competition climbing as we already know it, in all its sanitized, athletic and commercialized senses. I am not sure that inclusion in the Olympics will change anything in climbing from what it is already, a multifaceted game with all kinds of players and places and ways to play. I am not saying that climbing being in the Olympics will be the huge benefit to the sport that some claim but I doubt it will be the downfall of climbing as we know it. The history of climbing seems to show otherwise.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

About that Citibank Ad (or why I will never be in an Outside Magazine Top 10 list)

In a previous post, I discussed my feelings about the transformation of climbing into a luxury sport, at least at a certain end of the socio-economic spectrum. I posted a Youtube Video of an ad made by Citibank that features Katie Brown and Alex Honnold.

Here's the video:

Given the dismal economic picture in the US right now and the fact that big American banks in particular have had a great deal to do with it, it was natural that the ad would spark a certain degree of controversy. A forum post on Mountain Project and another on Super Topo both alluded to Alex Honnold selling out to the "1%", an argument that was roundly quashed by most of the people who bothered to respond.

I thought to myself, this is interesting. Since when did climbing become so capitalistic? Obviously climbers have "sold out" before. We all have to some degree. But that a cadre of apologists for squillionaires in suits would praise their economic masters in a climbing forum caught me a bit off guard. A remarkable number of posters stood up to defend Fortune 500 companies (and thank heaven for that) because, somehow, without them we would be unable to, well, do pretty much anything. And this was offered up without a trace of irony, nor any suggestion that such a state of affairs might be less than desirable, especially given the self-image of climbers as individualistic, self-reliant, or independent. I saw a few posts suggest that somehow because Alex and Katie received compensation for this ad, that the money was (paraphrasing here) "going back into the climbing community" and this was a good thing. Not sure exactly how that was going to work, anymore than Jay-Z's T-shirts are going to help anyone but Jay-Z himself.

Now I am not suggesting that Alex should do anything in particular with his own money, though we may all want to think before we put our money there. This video provides a useful corrective to the consumerist (and fairly sexist "what girl wouldn't need new shoes?") picture of the world that Citibank would love us to believe in.

To me the bigger and more important question is that of meaning, both in our lives and in the sport of climbing. In other words, is climbing about striving for something outside commodification and marketing? Are there actually values worth sacrificing our material well-being, even risking our lives for? Alex's incredible achievements in the realm of free-soloing, to name but one example, seem to indicate there are. The commercial he was in indicates the opposite.

As I see it, climbing, and on a broader philosophical level, Western capitalist culture itself, is on a collision course with materialism in its deepest sense. The problem with materialism, philosophically speaking, is the basic equation between input and output. Expenditure of power equals a predictable determined result. Basic physics stuff. No sense of moral engagement or ethical questions about the well-lived meaningful life. In the end we are presented with a multi-sensory fantasy of endless and meaningless power played out in all its forms, from political to physical, applied in ever-more spectacular but increasingly hollow actions, creating ever more empty, even hopelessly self-contradictory, forms.

For example, I don't know if anyone else noticed the ironic position of Katie Brown at the end of the ad, a position intended to convey a sense of excitement and desire. She stands suspended over a seemingly infinite expanse of, well, emptiness, perched on a tower of visibly eroding sand, a point that appears to be a dead-end, a place of no hope or return. Maybe this image, intended as the perfect consummation of consumerist desire, is also an apt metaphor for the unsustainable and vertiginous trajectory of the Western economic system, of which Citibank is a prime example. The sport of climbing would do well to think a bit more carefully about how far it wants to go down this path.

Now I know this kind of negative thinking runs against the current of most climbing writing out there on the Web. A climber new to the sport, given the virtual amusement park of videos, blogs, news items, and so on, would think that all was well in the sport. And truth to tell, there are a lot of cool rides out there. But there is a lot of selling going on as well and I wonder if we are all really aware of what we are giving up long-term in our quest to fulfill our short-term desires. Going pro has its cons.

Friday, November 25, 2011

An Introduction to My Book

I have written a brief introduction to my new book on bouldering. Please check it out. If you have bought the book already and would like to let me know what you thought of it, please contact me via email or Facebook.

The Bouldering Book on Facebook

Also here is an image of the review in Rock and Ice:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Against the Grain, or Why I Climb at Flagstaff

Well, this afternoon I failed, by the smallest of margins, on a project that the lords of bouldering around here would describe as a turd, that is, a problem of minimal height, dubious rock quality, and an awkward fairly licheny beached-whale finish. Needless to say, I mostly climb alone on this kind of problem. This time of year especially, many prefer to migrate to Hueco or Bishop or even Switzerland, where the real climbing is happening, the kinds of places where climbers are somehow able to live for weeks even months on end, never punching a clock, seemingly on permanent vacation in the midst of the worst economy in over three generations. My vacations usually come in three-hour stints a few times a week and I have it easy compared to most, as I have a flexible schedule, summers off and living next to an amazing variety of excellent climbing opportunities. I know I am privileged.

Yet I climb a lot at Flagstaff Mountain, the place that more than any other location I have heard of, possibly even worldwide, endures all kinds of abuse from the type of climber mentioned above. Dude, it's such a pile, such crappy problems and that rock is so sharp! Yeah, I might climb there if I have to, say before another week off to Joe's then maybe a month at Bishop, before a really long trip, maybe South Africa...

Well why do I climb here? There are a few reasons. Obviously I can be climbing in a few minutes from the car, meaning I don't have to drive for hours and be gone all day in order to climb something interesting. And there is a lot to climb here, even if it's not very cool. With a family and job, I simply don't have the freedom that many do in this town. Fair enough, I can live with that.But there's something else. I like being contrary, I think. I like finding value in things that the mainstream ignores, that the bandwagon passes by, especially when that bandwagon represents an increasingly commercialized vision of the sport.

Andrew Bisharat recently wrote, "I recently observed one interesting difference: Climbing used to be a refuge for social derelicts. The best climbers in the world were often the poorest people. Today, the best climbers are instead some of the richest. You need money and free time to be able to train in gyms, compete on the World Cup, and be constantly traveling all over the world to different areas in order to be exposed to that variety of rock. That’s what it now takes to be operating on this top-tier level. The leisure class has always existed on both ends of the economic spectrum."

I agree with this description. To be able to perform at a level that is worthy of notice these days requires more than just commitment and desire. It requires a substantial amount of cold hard cash, cash that is not going to come from a steady job since you are perpetually on the road. In order to become world class, you will need unlimited amounts of free time, time that most employers in the real world would never grant you, especially in this country. The world of climbing never talks about that reality, referring instead to the "dirtbag" lifestyle, a cliché that is sounding just a bit too detached from the economic trauma this country is currently undergoing. If you have time to go off and climb rocks all over the world and not have to work all the time to support this habit, you are not a dirtbag. You are the 1% or damn close to it. And the demographics of the sport reflect this fact. Climbers are typically white, male, and typically have incomes in the upper five figures or higher. In other words the leisure class really only operates these days on one end of the spectrum, assuming the pretend climbing hoboes of yesteryear ever really belonged to the other.

I think it's a safe bet that nobody is going to make a commercial about climbing at Flagstaff Mountain, even though the rock is usually better than that found at the Fisher Towers. Frankly I like it that way. For my part, I will keep working on understanding and repairing the climbing areas in my backyard so to speak. There is a lot of work to be done up there. Few climbers I read about or hear about right now seem particularly concerned about where we are heading as a climbing community and the impacts we are having on our environments, natural and social. I feel if I talk about it, I just sound old and grouchy or out-of-touch. So be it. Reality is not going away just because the cameras are pointed in the other direction.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Is Climbing a Unique Sport?

At, Jens proposed a topic for discussion "The uniqueness of climbing" based on the following premises:

"Climbing is in comparison to other physical sports totally unique on the following parameters.
Gender: Some female almost at male top level
Age span: World class between 9-50 years
Specialization: Some equally good at 1 move boulders - 40m onsight - 500m Multi Pitches
Training: Most just climb without a programme
Comeback: 20 sessions after 1 year break makes you often equally good"

While much of the discussion degenerated into name-calling and back-and-forth examples, the question is an interesting one, not least because it assumes that there is a sport called climbing in the first place.

I think this is an important question to consider, that there is something called climbing, constant enough such that we can actually compare performances between individuals or across time. One of the critical steps towards commodifying the sport has been establishing grades, categories of climbing, even markers of quality. Currently it seems to me climbing sits in an ambiguous relation to other sports, with a relatively tenuous relationship to quantifiability (e.g. grading scales) or any widespread public understanding of what might make it difficult or not. The efforts of commercial interests (media and/or gear manufacturers) to endorse and broadcast markers of excellence such as higher grades of difficulty or times on a route seem to me only to diminish the multiple textures of the sport.

Currently climbing does seem to have at least some vestiges of the depth and complexities of its past, complexities that at least in part explain the phenomena that Jens pointed to. However, the professionalization of the activity at the elite level offers the prospect of an ironically flattened view of climbing, reducible to "objectively" assessed performances and rankings, even in the outdoors. That this should become the norm seems both unavoidable and irreconcilable with the origins of the sport, which seems to have been situated in an aesthetic and moral realm rather than an athletic one.

Curiosity, respect for the risks of climbing, a sense of discovery both of the self and of nature and a respect for the past, and the ways in which these emotions and ideas were conveyed formed the core of the climbing experience for many well into the 1990s. A new norm is emerging forming itself around socialization, corporate sponsorship, increasingly rapid and sophisticated media dissemination and quantification. While rewards of a kind are promised to those who excel in this environment, it is unclear to me how either the climber, and more importantly, the natural environment can benefit from this in the long term.

Which brings me to a final "uniqueness" of the sport, that it is able to co-exist, more or less, with its natural environs. I anticipate in the next few years a radical critique of climbing's effects on the environment. The effects of the sport's popularity and accompanying human presence on fragile niche ecosystems, going well beyond marquee species such as birds of prey, will be on some researcher's agenda in the coming decade with sobering results.

It seems to me that the ongoing emphasis on consumable phenomena such as news founded on gradable achievement, media broadcasting said news, and gear sold with the aid of both activities will encounter increased limits and even pushback from environmental groups and land managers Climbers who seek to make a living from this system should be encouraged to emphasize not just the metrics of achievement but also those subjective factors that make the sport unique.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Alpine Bouldering Season Wrap-up

I think it is safe to say that the regular bouldering season is finished as of about 12 noon this last Tuesday. Currently most of the Front Range is under about 8 inches or more of snow. I made one last-ditch effort to try European Human Being on Monday afternoon but was unsuccessful, make that completely out of it altogether. Angie Payne, who was trying Freaks of the Industry, was also unsuccessful that evening. To top it off, just as I was at Bear Lake, having navigated every stretch of ice successfully on the way down so far, I slipped and fell on the tiniest little invisible patch. Chaos Canyon was obviously not done with me yet.

My highpoint on European was reached in mid-October

Anyway, it's been an uneven sort of year overall, it seems to me. Dave Graham and Carlo Traversi started things up with a splash at Endo Valley, especially the opening up of Flux for Life a V13 roof problem. The weather rapidly warmed up but high snow levels in the Park limited activity for much of June and into July. Even after the snow retreated, the summer at Chaos was marked by no particularly difficult first ascents or repeats. This may have been the first time in a long while that Jade saw no repeats and Daniel Woods' Hypnotized Minds from 2010 remains unrepeated as well.

There was a lot of activity at Lincoln Lake, especially from the Southern team of Jimmy Webb and Brion Voges. Nate Draughn and Brad Weaver also checked in with notable ascents on Mount Evans, Nate on the Big Worm V14 and Brad with a flash of No More Greener Grasses V12, both at Area A. The primary weakness of Lincoln Lake, its crumbly granite, was revealed once again with the altered holds of Evil Backwards which went from V14 to V12. Once again the Daniel Woods testpiece of the area, Warrior Up V15 remains unrepeated since last season as does the amazing Let the Right One In V14.

Dave Graham on The Ice Knife Cameron Maier Photo

Most impressive perhaps was Dave Graham's ascent of the Ice Knife V15 in Guanella Pass, near Georgetown, south of I-70. Done less than a week before Dave left for China and of course the massive recent snow, this was the latest in a long line of contributions Dave has made to Colorado bouldering. No doubt there are a few more projects still being considered in his fertile mind. But if it's alpine it will have to wait until next spring.

Here's a great little video of the indefatigable Ryan Silven in action in RMNP, again from Cameron Maier.

The publication of Jamie Emerson's alpine bouldering book, if the lack of crowds I encountered is any indication, did not prove to be the ruin of these special areas and I hope the publication of my own book on bouldering will encourage others to responsible and safely enjoy them as well.

For me it was a season of discovery as I finally began to understand more clearly what the task of bouldering hard at altitude is all about, especially with limited time and usually no companions. I have a clearer picture of what I want to do moving forward, especially in Lower Chaos. For now the lower elevations will have to do but I am definitely looking forward to next June (or earlier!)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Thoughts on the World Cup (or what happened after)

OK, I admit it. I have been putting off writing about climbing. Not because of the latest compliment/putdown by Andrew B. And it's not because I have been trying desperately to get in just one more decent session on European Human Being before the snow entombs it until next July, though that has been an issue. It could be apathy, could be laziness, it could be burnout. Whatever, as people used to say before whatever became, well, whatever.

Then the World Cup rolled into town last week and I began thinking a bit more about what this implies for climbing moving forward. Or to be more precise, what Ramon Julian Puigblanque's onsight of the Crew at Rifle, a few days after the event, implies. Comp-wise, Puigblanque placed 8th in the World Cup, primarily stymied, as was the similarly height-challenged Sean McColl, by a peculiarly long dyno move relatively low on the final route.

The event by the way was a blast to watch at home via a web feed that worked very well. Well done Jon Glassberg and the IFSC. Though the men's final looked as though a compass and GPS would have been handy for finding your away around, the comp went very well in my view, and the push for inclusion as an Olympic sport seems justified. But back to the Crew.

This ascent was rapidly spread about the Internet and with considerable justification. But there has not been much comment in US media on what it implies about the state of European climbing. First, the Crew has long been a rite of passage for Rifle climbers since its establishment by Chris Knuth, the hardest route there for ages, worked over weeks if not seasons for many. Furthermore it is a top route in a place that prides itself on hard grading. And furthermore again, it was the first onsight of the grade for Puigblanque. The ascent was made without kneepads or esoteric kneebar beta, both considered mandatory for the Crew. The question has to be asked. Is there any climber from America remotely capable of such a feat anywhere else in the world? And that is setting aside the myriad other hard routes Puigblanque onsighted in Rifle, including Living in Fear earlier in the day.

I am going to go ahead and say no. I am not going to pontificate on whether that's a good or bad thing. After all climbing is a lifestyle, not a sport, or something, which is what people would say when they left comments on this kind of thing before. But regardless, it is an ascent that should certainly leave American pro climbers wondering what's next. Olympics indeed.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Window Shopper V12?

I had recently been going through a drought of sorts in bouldering, focusing on unproductive projects that were draining my energy. A hint of things beginning to turn around popped up when I was able to start linking up European Human Being last week, actually falling off the last move from the start. A cool day last week but not much time meant a quick visit to Flagstaff Mountain where I haven't climbed in months.

Though it was bit warm at first, warming up felt OK and as the sun went down the conditions got better and better. I was hoping to finish up a long-long-long term project called Window Shopper, a problem first done by Will Lemaire in 2006 and unrepeated since, especially after various minor breakages. A few tries on various moves didn't promise much much, especially when I couldn't do a few of them! However after a brief rest, I could do everything and felt a potential link was on the horizon. I came very close after two tries, dryfiring off a poor left hand as I was establishing at the lip. Realizing this could go the next try, I waited for the air to get cooler and for good recovery from the last effort. The next attempt was successful, aided by a subtle change in foot placement.

 Here's the video:

After some thought, and considering that despite its proximity to the road, its being done by a boulder with a serious reputation, and its fairly high quality, the fact it has not been repeated in five years indicates a fairly high grade is in order. So I am suggesting V12 for this problem and believe that if it was in the Park, it would certainly earn that grade.

Speaking of the Park, a session last night saw me just missing the send on European Human Being. The weather (thanks to global warming/weirding?) is still too warm in October to try these problems much before 5 pm but I got my fingers on the last edge and couldn't stay on. Urgh. Hoping to finish this one off very soon. And then the next one. And so on...

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Foundation of Modern Climbing: The 50th Anniversary of John Gill's Ascent of theThimble

This year a remarkable anniversary in the sport of climbing has gone virtually unnoticed. I was particularly reminded of it when I sat down to talk with John Gill yesterday in Pueblo at a local coffee place. In the spring of 1961, over fifty years ago, according to an interview in the first edition of Master of Rock, John Gill did the first ascent of the Thimble Overhang, a 30-foot problem/route that became legendary in the history of world climbing. Climbed onsight solo over a very serious landing, it was probably the hardest single pitch in the country, a climb that went unrepeated for literally decades. Today rated V4 or approximately 5.12a or b, it was put up in a time when, in the US, 5.10 was the absolute limit and the average free climbing standard was closer to 5.8.

John Gill on the Thimble, from Master of Rock

But beyond the difficulty (after all Gill had bouldered V9 in 1959!), The Thimble represented the future of climbing. Whether runout on the granite knobs of the Bachar-Yerian (1981) or perched on the miniscule edges and pockets of To Bolt or Not to Be (1986), the climber is on terrain that was first definitively explored by Gill. Sustained steep face climbing, especially once the bolt wars had been resolved (more or less) has been the common currency of cutting-edge climbers world-wide.

Furthermore it marked a new era in terms of the scale and nature of the objective. None of Gill's more famous contemporaries would have viewed the Thimble route as a desirable objective, given the size of it and the blatant risk. Certainly none of them repeated it, nor is it likely they could have, given the specialized strengths of body and mind required for the route. But more interestingly none would really have seen the formation itself as much more than a footnote or afterthought, being too small in stature and too mundane in location to merit the effort and risk of an ascent, especially given that an ascent of El Cap probably posed less physical hazard.

This is where climbing went by the 1990s, to locations unheard of in the 60s or 70s, far way from the canonical sites of Yosemite or the Gunks to out-of-the-way spots such as Rifle or the Red River Gorge or a thousand areas in Europe, sharing in common the resource of steep featured rock. The pursuit of difficulty in climbing inexorably diminished the relevance of many of the big objectives in many people's eyes

The concentration of effort to free climb such a short objective, developed considerably already by Gill with his boulder problems, was a foreign concept in world climbing at the time. Perhaps it was his personality, reflected later in his mathematics career, patient, understated but deeply persistent in the pursuit of a solution to a problem that proved to be crucial. But prior to this ascent, the notion of a climber spending days working out a free-climbing challenge was unheard of. This obsessive quality is taken for granted now, like many of Gill's contributions to the modern sport of climbing, and its origin is for the most part forgotten.

We are all tempted to forget the place of history in the sport of climbing, to see it as lived in the present moment, in some edenic ahistorical state of mind or place. This is small-minded and ungenerous to the past. I try to imagine instead a young man, strong and determined, focusing his considerable powers of mind and body on this rock, listening to the wind whispering through the spires and pine forests of the Black Hills and making the decision, contrary to all expectation, in defiance of the norms of the time, to explore this undiscovered realm. This happened fifty years ago and utterly and irreversibly transformed the idea of climbing forever. Hopefully we can honor this achievement in our own memories and our pursuit of climbing.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Walter Bonatti Dead at 81

Walter Bonatti, who was one of the most influential climbers in the postwar scene in the European Alps and Himalayas has died at 81. Noted especially for his solo ascent of the Bonatti Pillar on the Dru in France, he was also embroiled in controversy regarding the Italian expedition to K2 in 1954. He retired for the most part from serious climbing at 35, after a solo new route on the Matterhorn in winter.The author of a number of books on climbing, he was regarded as one of the best writers on the sport.

The best obituary I have seen so far in English is at Planet Mountain.

An excellent profile from the Guardian in the UK is online as well.

At the end of the Guardian profile Bonatti was quoted as saying, "You see, the real essence of mountain climbing – of really knowing and loving the mountains – is not getting to the top. It's having the humility and self-awareness when necessary to be able to stop 100 metres from the summit and make it down alive."

Monday, September 12, 2011

Letting Go of Summer

Now that the fall semester is over, the days of multiple visits to the Park have ended. But something else seems to be going on as well. Last Saturday, I hiked up to Upper Chaos to give another go on Barbed Wire Beard, a classic "It's just the one move" kind of problem and found myself completely unmotivated and incredibly tired. I bumbled my way down to look at Freshly Squeezed and still could not shake the sense of deep fatigue.

There is a slightly surreal ambiance of warm sun and wildflowers still in effect up there but for who knows how much longer. Perhaps this fall season will be another long one, allowing a few more visits on weekends but the feeling of lost momentum lingers even as the temperatures become more favorable.

The move on Barbed Wire Beard
Stasis is the word the ancient Greeks used to describe the absence of progress when opposing forces of equal strength meet, not so much in stable equilibrium but in constant conflict and disruption. For me this is my life as far as bouldering is concerned right now, unproductive effort resulting in frustration. Philosophers such as Aristotle would say that I might working against something in my inner nature and I have thought about this myself. What would a meaningful goal in climbing really consist of? A number? A specific problem? Something else? To realize this goal may require letting go of others, goals that only appear to be meaningful from a sufficient distance.

A webmaster in Europe wrote of a recent piece, "It is targeted to climbers/boulderers who are interested in a deeper sense of doing such an activity and I guess that your article could be hardly understood by any younger climbers..." I am concerned not just about younger climbers not seeing the problems in current climbing attitudes and practice but all climbers. Is climbing merely a way of evading/avoiding the deeper signs of crisis that are sounding everywhere in our time? Perhaps this is the conflict that is weighing on my mind, a conflict that even the grandeur of the Park cannot overcome.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Chuck Frybergers New Film The Scene

Chuck Fryberger's latest film is premiering at the Boulder Theater tonight so I thought I would give a quick review of it. I have been a big fan of his previous films, Pure and Core, films which garnered mixed reviews from audiences owing in part to Chuck's willingness to experiment with locations, filming techniques, and offbeat themes. With The Scene, those concerns can be set aside. Beautiful camera work, check. Hard routes and problems, check. Interviews with climbing stars, check. But aside from Dave Graham's segment, which is admittedly not very representative of the scene in Boulder (or anywhere else), the feel of the film is much more conventional than past efforts. I found it enjoyable to watch, for sure, but the dynamic visual and emotional range that Chuck has shown elsewhere is mostly absent.

The only scene that hinted at something more innovative, a bit darker and more interesting, was the opener for Bishop, but it's not developed. There are hints of something different in the profile of the comp/pro scene in Innsbruck, a sense of a vacuum beneath the logos, crowds and bright lights, a feeling that, like the slopers and crimps on the problems, the climbers are holding onto, well, nothing really. It is a relief to turn to the limestone around Innsbruck for a little while, though all too brief a while before we are back at a World Cup in Slovenia.

The segment on Spain seems to find its way more successfully than the others though again, there is this avoidance of any exploration of the meaning of all this activity, any searching for a deeper dimension. The potential for getting something more out of an aging Chris Sharma or Dani Andrada seems there but instead they are treated the same as the rest. Just climbers working their way up the chalk marks on a steep limestone wall, apparently with nothing else to do in life. Chris Sharma describes his life as a climber up to this point as mostly "passing through" and the feeling of the film is very similar. Climb a climb, get the word out to the public and sponsors, move on. To where? A muerte?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Climbing Dictionary

While I was at Outdoor Retailer, I picked up a couple of books, one a memoir by Margo Talbot, the other a compilation of climbing terms by Matt Samet. I plan on writing more about the first book later but this review is about Matt's book. First a couple of disclaimers. Matt is a friend of mine and indeed has been interviewed on this blog. Plus his book is published by Mountaineers Books, the same company that is publishing my book.

So naturally I would like to start off by saying that this book is amazing. When I showed it to the folks at the counter in the SLC airport, I was immediately upgraded to first class and had 10,000 miles added to my frequent flyer account. When I first opened it, a hundred dollar bill fell out, then another and another, which I found remarkable. Reading it on the plane, I noticed that attractive women continually stopped by my seat and casually dropped phone numbers in my lap, forming a confetti pile which created quite a nuisance by the end of the flight.

Brushing aside this importuning, I delved deeper into the text and found that I had the distinct sense that immediately billions of new neural connections had formed in my brain and that somehow I could see into the future and far into the past. A pleasant glow tingled along all of my chakras. It turns out that the universe does have a purpose and that its design is the work of benevolent yet somewhat absent-minded deity who resembles Dumbledore. Pretty cool so far, I thought, but how can this little volume help me as a climber?

Well as it turns out it can help a lot. After getting back to Colorado, I immediately went bouldering and now, armed with a better command of the lingo such as Euroblow and drive-by and gaston, started crushing my projects left and right. In fact last week I cut up my RMNP annual pass since I had nothing left to do there. I may in fact have to go back to Rifle and build up my jessery skills.

I have also lost five pounds and recently discovered a gold vein in the backyard while cleaning up after the dog. Now these results may not be typical, but why take a chance and miss the fun? For more information, visit the website and become enlightened.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Solitude and the Art of Bouldering

Lower Chaos Canyon
The summer is almost over and with it the opportunity to go up to the Park on a regular basis. As I look back on the past two and a half months, time which has evaporated with incredible rapidity, I am reminded of the precious quality of solitude and contemplation which these days in the mountains have offered. For many bouldering is a group activity, something done in the company of friends, acquaintances, even a random group of fellow boulderers. For me it is something different, even essentially different. This is partly because of age. In my late 40s, I have very little in common with boulderers in their 20s and most climbers my own age are interested in other goals. But there is also a different mindset at work, a different worldview perhaps. I don't really know.

I boulder for its intensity. Intensity and concentration in a beautiful environment is the essence of the pursuit. Colors, forms, light, atmosphere and the fine edge between success and failure; these are the essence also of making good art. You can't pay close attention to them with a lot of extraneous distraction in the background, which sadly enough is what too often is the case when other climbers are near. Quiet, distilled time, time that is all too short, is what I need, time to think, time to focus, time to see what is really going on.

What am I trying to see? I am looking for patterns, lines of strength and weakness, shapes that regenerate themselves in infinite variations over time. The movement of water over the land or in the sky, the outline of tall spruce trees battered by the wind, the bands of quartz set in a dark matrix of stone. If I happen to climb something in the process, all the better. But the art of bouldering has become something different over time for me.

In a sense, I am returning to the patterns I knew as a child in Maine. Long walks along the shore were spent studying the eroded forms of the rocks, the beauty of the sky, and the movement of the ocean. The instinct to seek solitude seems to me at its heart an instinct to seek meaning, meaning that is inaccessible in the company of others. As the weather begins to shift in the high country and I have to settle for the tamer low-lying areas closer to home, my thoughts will constantly be shifting back to the mountains and the hours spent there, alone but in the company of the infinite.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Outdoor Retailer 2011

For only the second time in my life, I got up too early Saturday morning and caught a plane (which left two hours late for a one hour flight)from Denver to Salt Lake City. A quick bus ride into town (no expense account for a taxi) left me blinking in the bright sun outside the Salt Palace, a sprawling building surrounded by vendor tents and athletic people on cell phones. With no time to waste, I picked up my media badge and strode in, more or less beelining it to the climbing ghetto in the farthest corner of the hall. The usual buzz of music, people chatting, and the occasional presentation on a PA system (Ueli Steck doing something for Wenger) began to drum against my skull urging me forward. Going to OR is, for me, like a party where you start with the hangover and gradually begin to feel a bit better as time wears on.

I was here to check in with my publisher and touch base with sponsors as well as meet up with friends and acquaintances who are usually flying around the globe looking for fresh rocks to climb. OR is a bit like academic conferences where, by flying a few hundred, or thousand, miles, you may be more likely to have time to talk with someone who literally works down the hall at the same college. And just like at academic conferences, I never quite feel I really understand what's going on or what I should be doing differently. That said, I had a great, albeit abbreviated time at the show. I talked a good deal with Ben Moon, who traveled an epic distance to bring his excellent clothing to the show, sadly having his newest stuff held up at Customs.

I also finally met up with Josh Helke, owner of Organic, whose pads have saved my backside on too many occasions to count. The talent certainly ran deep among those hanging out at the Organic booth including some I have not seen in quite a while. Paul Robinson was excited about plans for an extended tour of southern Africa while Angie Payne and Alex Johnson were psyched to be back in the US after epic flights from Europe. Sonnie Trotter, whom I have not seen in years, was at the Five Ten booth, where we discussed the need for someone to repeat Tommy Caldwell's materpiece, The Honeymoon is Over, on the Diamond. Chuck Fryberger handed off a DVD copy of his new movie, The Scene, a review of which will turn up soon on this site. And so on.

So the time went way too quickly, especially thanks to Delta Airlines (note to self: do not fly with them unless absolutely necessary) and I had to get back to the airport where this time I got back to Boulder on time. As I said before, I am not quite of this tribe of hardcore OR-ers. Full-on merchandising and branding leaves me with an ambivalent feeling as I tend to admire companies who are original, make great products and stay true to their communities. Seeing the likes of Adidas and Fila trying to make inroads on the climbing market, for example, makes me concerned about the fate of smaller, grassroots companies. Some might argue that that is what capitalism is all about. But should a full-on commodification of the experience of climbing should be too eagerly pursued, what is left over once the marketeers are finished? Some photos on a wall? An ad campaign in a magazine? In the end, I find it extraordinary that such a production can be made of something so simple as someone stepping outside and going for a hike or climbing a rock.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Summer 2011 in RMNP

I have been trying to get in as much time as possible bouldering in the Park, building up strength and muscle memory for several projects in hopes for sending when the temperatures begin to let up. Most of these trips have been solo, grabbing a window of time when I can for as long as I can. Besides age, this is the primary contrast I have with most boulderers up here. Time, or rather the lack of it.

Time is a relentless opponent in the game of getting anything interesting done up here. The season is ruthlessly short, the approach and drive anything but swift and convenient, and conditions are constantly changing from hour to hour. There is also the bigger picture of time as in my age and the question of physical decline. I perceive a narrowing window of possibility with every visit. How many seasons more? Can I become strong enough to realize my ambitions? Persistence and luck seem to be the answer, in roughly equal measure.

The compensations are tremendous. The setting here is sublime, unparalleled in the pursuit of bouldering. The boulders are sculpted with a master's hand, not literally, but metaphorically. The shapes, colors, arrangements, and textures seem the result of some native spirit, a spirit who has shaped a private garden of stone, water and trees, a site that constantly reveals new insights into the natural world. Though temporarily lost in the flurries of crowds and chatter that occasionally drift by, this sense of understanding and engagement with nature returns with solitude. One is faced with the rock and one's own mind and spirit and body. This is all that matters. That and the light that illuminates the forests and distant peaks.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Schengen Files: A Review and Interview with Paul Robinson

Paul Robinson has been on a sustained bouldering trip for a while now, starting in Europe, then South Africa and after that who knows. Fortunately he began recording some of the problems he has been doing in conjunction with his girlfriend Alex Kahn. I say fortunately because Paul has been somewhat under the radar in terms of video recently and there are few boulderers with better style out there right now with such an impressive ticklist. Paul also has a degree in the fine arts from the University of Colorado and is a painter with a well-honed visual sense. So when I heard of his new film, I was hopeful that this would be something special. The editors at DPM set me up with a copy and I sat down and watched right away.

At the beginning, the film sets itself apart when Paul talks about history in Font and the way past and present blend in the boulders. As he discusses the sense of place at Font, the visuals are remarkably beautiful photographs and close-up video of natural forms of moss and leaves. After an homage to the past masters with an ascent of Karma, a repeat of the Dave Graham problem Sideways Daze V13 follows. From then on we mostly see problems that are relatively little known stateside, all of the highest quality and filmed in such a way that we seem to understand not just the climbing but the environment around them. Readers may recall my review of Between the Trees, which also focuses on Fontainebleau. This movie is very reminiscent of that and yet is a bit more detached, less intense.

This is seen on the two last Font sequences of Trip Hop 8c and Angama, both brutally difficult problems. Paul climbs basically alone, except for Alex filming and a solitary spotter on Trip Hop. On Angama, a linkup of the Fata Morgana boulder, the rock itself has this peculiar looming quality, like the hulk of an old battleship, gray and green with brown rust streaks. Paul moves across it with certainty and finesse making for one of my favorite climbing video segments of late.

The Schengen Files closes out with an ascent of The Story of Two Worlds, an 8c Dave Graham testpiece on Swiss granite in the Ticino valley. The aesthetic is different here, more intense, dynamic and acrobatic, with a harsher light for filming and a rock that is more aggressive in its form. With this very significant repeat the film ends and naturally the viewer wants more. The Schengen Files is an impressive debut on the part of Paul and Alex and a reminder of how much can be done with minimal gear and support. I really look forward to seeing more.

Below is an interview with Paul about the film.

1. What kind of look did you want for the film? It seems you deliberately tried to avoid the hype/shock and awe approach.

The look Alex and I were going for on this film was more of a grunge art approach. The film was not a high budget endeavor in the slightest. I wanted to really get down and portray pure climbing. The goal was, through the use of music, color and shot choices, to portray climbing as a harsh sport, which we as climbers all know it is, but yet visually pleasing at the same time. There is no shelter or pleasantness when you are curled up on your crash pad amongst the freezing cold wilderness unable to feel a single part of your body. I wanted people to see that and to not over-glorify hard bouldering. The film was not shot in a climbing gym or even outside on fairly pleasant days. Nearly every climb filmed for the movie, it was slightly above or below freezing outside.

2. How about camera and other gear? Was this a low-key, low budget affair?

The shooting for the film was done on my canon t2i with the 17-55 f/2.8 ef-s lens and an old tripod. This definitely made the video what it was. Having a zoom lens with such a low aperture is a necessity when it comes to shooting video with a DSLR. We unfortunately did not have any other lens or a microphone for the interviews. The filming of this movie has been a huge learning process for both Alex and I and we are very much looking forward to getting a bit more professional gear for the next film.

3. You're an artist, so tell us something about color and light in Fontainebleau.

For me, It was amazing to be able to film in such beautiful places as Fontainebleau and Ticino. Alex also has a very artistic eye as she has been shooting photos for years. It was really fun to arrange shots together for each of the different climbs we chose to shoot. I learned a ton about light while shooting for this film. Light is an extremely harsh element when it comes to shooting video on a DSLR. In France, it was not super hard because we had mostly cloudy even lit days but in Switzerland it was quite difficult to set shots up so that it would be relatively metered correctly. The colors in Fontainebleau were incredible and being there to film them and then see them on the big screen was mind blowing. It made it easy to compose interesting and visually pleasing angles!

4. What natural forms interest you most in Font? For example, how did you find that framing shot on Elephunk?

When I am thinking about creating a shot. I tend to think about how the rock is going to be seen by the viewer. Some angles in person will look incredible but on film can be distorted and leave the viewer not having a good idea of how the climb actually goes. I have been peeved in the past by films that make it nearly impossible to understand the problem as whole. I watch climbing films to get psyched on going to areas and to have an idea of the climbs there. In making my own film, I wanted to gather angles that would really show the problem as a whole and give people a real understanding of every boulder I climb. The framing shot on Elephunk was kind of luck. My friend and I noticed a cool vine patch that could make a cool shot. it was really bright outside, so we did what we could, but in the end I think that shot looked pretty cool and gave the viewer a nice account of the scenery around the boulder.

5. I think the sequence on Angama was really the most successful from a visual standpoint. What were you the most pleased about?

I really did enjoy the Angama sequence as well. I don't think that I have a favorite climb, however, there were certain shots that when I got home and saw them on my computer I was really happy about. One of those was the close up shot of the slap move on Karma, another being the top out sequence on Trip Hop, and some of the cool nature/color shots i got along the way that were nice addition and filler footage to the movie. I think I was genuinely most pleased about the whole process it took to make the film and how all of these clips came together to make the movie what it is today. It was a long process to make everything fit well and to be visually pleasing as well as work with the music I had.

6. Finally why not more from Switzerland?

To be honest, I wish I did have more from Switzerland. The idea for creating this film came when we were in Fontainebleau, after our four month stint in Ticino. We had already used a lot of the footage we had shot in Ticino over the last four months in various online clips. We did not want to use any footage over again so, we decided that from that point on we would with hold the hardest footage for the movie we were making. When I went back to Switzerland, the plan was to film a lot more after climbing TSOTW, but unfortunately, the weather went bad on us and we made a quick return to Fontainebleau! I still have many amazing projects in Switzerland that I will definitely be filming and putting into the next film!

The Schengen Files is downloadable at for $6.99 and is well worth it. If you are a serious boulderer, buy a copy now.

Thanks to Paul for the interview and DPM for supplying the film!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Back to The Park

After several weeks of hiking into Evans Area A, I was getting the approach dialed but getting less and less climbing actually done as the temperatures on the Front Range  crept higher. The webcam at RMNP seemed to show that the snow was beginning to recede in earnest so I began heading to the Park instead. The snow was mostly gone where it mattered but a huge mini-glacier obscured most of the boulders east of the Gobot sector. Thus the Warm-up Boulders, The Centaur Boulder, Bush Pilot and European Human Being were completely buried in many feet of snow last week.

My first visit I focused on relearning the beta for Element of Surprise. I managed to get the moves back in order despite a constant onslaught of showers, hail and lightning. I really look forward to finding the right day and conditions for this crimpy and technical boulder problem. While the thin sharp edges are relatively positive, the south-facing aspect of the problem is a real drawback at the crux especially.

Sizing up the exit on Hi Fi

The next two visits I went to investigate the problems around the Large Boulder, across the canyon from Whispers and The Kind Traverse. I was especially interested in a problem called Hi Fi, a V11 put up in 2004 by Harry Robertson, a low-key boulderer who has always had an eye for good crimpy lines. My first visit was unsuccessful as I did not figure out the start correctly but I could see that if I got the first two moves in hand, the rest would be relatively straightforward. The next visit, after watching some video to ascertain start positions, I did the first move quickly and climbed the entire problem third try from the start.

As has the been the case most of the summer so far, I was alone most of the time. Whether the popularity of Lincoln Lake is the reason or just plain luck, the experience of roaming the extraordinary landscape of the Park in relative solitude has been fantastic.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Cheating in Climbing

The interweb is abuzz recently with items that touch on the issues of cheating in climbing. Jamie Emerson started off with a post on steroids and then followed up with a discussion of Evil Backwards being altered and made easier than the V14 it started out as. Andrew Bisharat, in his post on "Climbers Who Cheat,"  asks the question 'Is dropping weight in order to succeed on a hard ascent “cheating”?' And so on...

While I would not make the argument that cheating doesn't exist in climbing, I wonder if these kinds of questions start being asked in earnest when the bird of inspiration has alighted on another tree so to speak. I am beginning to feel this is happening in climbing to some extent. Aspects of these "controversies" are all too reminiscent of the old days of sport climbing in the late 80s and 1990s when the default modes of suspicion and envy suppressed progress in climbing in the US to a shockingly obvious degree, especially relative to Europe.

The scene in Colorado can be remarkably supportive and beneficial to be part of. It can also be remarkably envious, divisive, and fractious at times. Standards tend to rise when the first situation is in effect. They tend to stagnate when the second one is operative. Ethical squabbles in particular distract from the real struggle which is finding and solving interesting and important challenges on the rocks. In the realm of bouldering, Colorado, over the past decade, saw a period of genuine inspiration and achievement, as Jamie Emerson has eloquently described in his new guide.  But that wave is now subsiding. The pickings are getting slimmer and farther apart and the scene is changing and evolving yet again. To see climbers obsessing over the fragments of the past or dissecting the finer points of "cheating" is dispiriting to say the least. It might be time to ask how we can move on instead of trying to scrape one more morsel from the carcass. Bisharat is correct in his essay when he argues "...the real meaning and purpose and spiritual fulfillment is found in the struggle, not in the ends." Choosing which struggle can be the hardest part.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Five Ten Dome

I have been climbing primarily in Five Ten shoes for the past five or more years, being converted instantly by the properties of the now-extinct V10. For my money, the Dragon is one of the very best bouldering shoes ever made. Recently Five Ten sent me a pair of their new trail-running shoe, the Dome, to try out. I put the shoes through their paces this spring and into the summer, beginning pretty much out of the box in North Wales. I wore these shoes on everything from the approach to Rainbow Slab in the slate quarries, where they were super-reliable on the slippery sharp talus, to a run/hike up Mount Snowdon where they proved comfortable and reliable on varied and steep terrain, even when I was very tired. They required no breaking in and worked well right out of the box.

The Dome passes muster on the street as well, proving up to the task of roving London for hours of sidewalks, the Tube, and a lot of museum walking. The understated style and natural colors of gray and green go well with normal street clothing and are inconspicuous outside while hiking.

The Five Ten Dome, Area A, Mt. Evans

The real acid test for me has been the numerous hikes this year to Mount Evans. Those who have completed the three mile hike to Area A know that comfortable durable shoes are a must. If you are packing close to 30 pounds of pads and other stuff, a stable solid shoe is even more important. They have been great in the early summer snow, mud and talus and I have not even come close to blisters or other foot pain. The breathable upper has been super comfortable on some pretty hot days recently.

The fit is generous but not sloppy and can be tightened down easily with the handy doubled lacing over the instep. While I wouldn't recommend the shoe for hard climbing or bouldering, they proved solid enough on a V4 I did in them recently at Flagstaff. The rubber is Five Ten's Stealth S1 which is very sticky but also shock absorbent, making it a good choice for talus-hopping down from Upper Chaos or the approach to Lincoln Lake.

Although I haven't been in them too long, only a few months, the finish and durability seem excellent and I look forward to seeing how they handle the steeper and more rocky approaches in RMNP. I unhesitatingly recommend this shoe for any hiking application where you need a solid but not too heavy trail shoe with sticky rubber. For bouldering in the Colorado high country they are perfect.

The Dome's colors blend in with gray granite and green lichen

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Alpine Bouldering Guidebook by Jamie Emerson

About a decade ago, an eon in the ever-evolving world of climbing, a new niche of the sport was born when boulderers started visiting a relatively obscure corner of Rocky Mountain National Park, Chaos Canyon. Hidden in plain sight, the boulders there truly revealed their potential with the arrival of Dave Graham and suddenly bouldering in Colorado became important again.

It has taken a while, but thanks to the efforts of Jamie Emerson, there is finally some documentation, presented in book form, of the fantastic climbing opportunities awaiting visitors. I recently went over the e-book version of his new guidebook Bouldering Rocky Mountain National Park and Mount Evans published by my friends at Sharp End and was very impressed by what I saw. It is a clear and wide-ranging guide, well illustrated and complete with extensive material about contexts such as geology and flora and fauna. High quality action photos of important problems are plentiful as well.

It should be emphasized that the book is not comprehensive. The author and publishers, by agreement with land managers at Mount Evans, decided not to include anything besides Areas A and B at Evans. This means that what is likely to become the most popular and accessible alpine bouldering in the state, Lincoln Lake, is not included, along with the less popular Areas C and D and the Aerials. The newly re-discovered area of Endo Valleyin RMNP is also not here. And there are many spots and boulders in RMNP left out for environmental considerations as well. This book could be seen as partly a record of an extraordinary era in bouldering, a remembrance as much as a guide, of a time the likes of which is unlikely to occur again in Colorado. For visitors, it is an essential guide and companion to one of the most beautiful bouldering areas in the world.

Looking over the book in more detail, it is very usable, tackling head-on the daunting challenge of navigating the endless talus of Upper Chaos. Detailed maps, accurate distances and elevations and many useful photographs should get first-time visitors where they want to go. Just as importantly, the book renders good advice on dealing with the specific nature of the alpine environment, its weather especially and of course altitude. It might have been a good idea to note typical patterns of cell-phone reception and also emergency numbers in case of an accident and perhaps some basic first-aid advice. Also important are the reminders to behave in this environment as responsible stewards rather than thoughtless consumers. Jamie’s work on this book has been thorough and I can’t find any serious flaws in terms of names or grades. He has done his homework and it shows throughout.

The excellent essays that are found throughout the book give readers and visitors a good sense of why bouldering here is a uniquely enriching experience, how the presence of powerful natural forces makes a climbing day here much more significant than most. The long approaches, severe weather and stark terrain stand out in contrast to the tamed surroundings of many other bouldering meccas. I won’t describe the tone of the book as nostalgic but there is a sense that many of the writers have moved on, either to different areas or even different phases in their lives. The boulders still stand, for now, as witnesses to a brief period of incredibly focused and creative climbing that transformed the sport in important ways, not just locally but nationally. The sense that something special happened here is inescapable. I wonder, now that many have moved on to the much more accessible and concentrated terrain of Lincoln Lake, whether visitors may, even with the publication of this book, be able to recapture something of the peace and solitude that existed here before.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Other Side of the Mountain

I have been very busy working on the book this past week but have squeezed a few visits in at Area A, Mount Evans. The snow has been piling up in RMNP all spring and although a few have ventured up that way, the action has clearly been at Lincoln Lake. The earlier (re)discovery of Endo Valley had primed the pump (in a manner of speaking) and the news coming from Wolvo/LL has been mostly fast repeats of last year's new problem testpieces along with the usual downgrades. Cool stuff to be sure and I look forward to heading out there later this summer. But all this focus on the east side has had a beneficial side-effect on the west side.

My acclimation treks to Area A have been marked the near-total absence of other boulderers. This has its downside, namely an absence of extra pads to work the problems at the Dali. But to be able to sit on a sun-washed boulder, drinking in the sky and clouds and the light changing across the cliffs above the talus, and hear nothing but the wind is a treasure beyond price.

The project is of course Clear Blue Skies (the hardest V11 in the state?). Easy first move, annoying and very difficult second move off the small crimp, strenuous cross-through to the most frustrating hold I have ever used. Pulling on this flat semi-crimp with minimal texture, I continually come up short throwing for the finishing jug. To me this problem feels as hard as European Human Being and much harder than the old pre-break Small Arms. I feel it coming together for sure and the hike is such good training (much harder than Wolvo or RMNP)that I will persist a while yet.

In a following post, I will discuss two very valuable tools I am using to aid in this quest.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Daniel Woods Interview

Please visit my other blog to read more about Daniel Woods in an interview I just did. More on my activities in a bit.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Moon Gear Review

Since joining the Moon Climbing team this year, I have had the opportunity to try a number of items made by this small grassroots climbing company based in Sheffield. Though many climbers of a certain age will automatically recognize Ben Moon’s huge contributions to sport climbing and bouldering in the 1980s and 1990s, these days a younger generation may know him primarily through his company. I ordered a number of items that I felt that I could use and that might find favor with American climbers and boulderers. Since roughly March, I have been consistently putting this gear to the test in a number of settings, both at the gym and outside bouldering and roped climbing. While it is true that this review is going to be somewhat partial, I believe it will prove helpful to anyone thinking of trying out this brand. There is no question that Moon is very popular in the UK and Europe but it is less well known in the US, except among a relatively small circle of climbers. I would like to help change that so read on.

The Cypher Pant, Moon T-Shirts, and Logo Hat
As some readers of this blog may know, I have long been looking for good pants for bouldering for some time. These pants need to be lightweight, able to withstand abuse, have a natural feeling fabric, fit well, and look good both at the boulders and on the street. I have been wearing the Moon Cypher pant pretty much nonstop for the past three months and can say that they meet the above criteria with flying colors. I have taken them on brush-choked gully approaches in Clear Creek, waded with them through thigh-deep snow at Mount Evans, and climbed all sorts of terrain in them from low-angle trad to steep gym bouldering. They are reasonably loose without being too baggy and come with a very lightweight closure at the ankle or can be rolled up. They fit well under a harness or during bouldering. They are very windproof and felt warm even while belaying near the sea in a brisk damp breeze in North Wales. The poly/cotton fabric dries very quickly and breathes well during warm strenuous hikes.

I wore nothing but Cypher pants during my 10 day trip to the UK where they performed very well in all conditions from a breezy and cool session at Stanage Edge to navigating the crowds in the National Gallery in London. Easy to wash and quick to dry, they could be the perfect traveling climber’s pants, especially as they resist the “grimy” look common with other fabric types. They also pass easily style-wise from cragwear to streetwear with understated colors and a moderately loose fit. While some may wonder about the reversed pocket “elephant ear” flaps, they become unobtrusive quite quickly and provide a distinctive look. I would absolutely recommend trying these out. The Cypher also comes in a ¾ length and shorts style suitable for warmer conditions. Recently these pants have been made available in organic cotton as well. For my alpine bouldering trips, the poly/cotton blend will be perfect.

Other items I have tried include several t-shirts and a very nice light-weight and warm beanie. In particular, I liked the hemp t-shirt with the Bus Stop 8b design. All the t-shirts have clean striking graphics with an urban feel and fit well.

The Warrior Pad and Bouldering Shoulder Bag
The Warrior Pad is an excellent pad, very lightweight but durable, which has a unique design that keeps the shoulder straps on the landing side so that the pad stays relatively clean. When folded, the side that rests on the ground stays on the inside keeping backs, car interiors, etc, free of dirt and mud. A velcroed carpeted flap goes over the straps while climbing and then folds across the bottom when it’s being carried, keeping gear and shoes securely in the pad. As an alpine boulderer, I find the lack of a waist-strap a bit of a problem but the word is that this may change, especially with their upper-end pad, the Saturn. For me, especially because of its light weight, the Warrior is the perfect second pad as a recent snowy carry into Mt Evans proved.

Moon’s Bouldering Shoulder Bag is a great deal. It is a compact and very versatile design allowing a lot of storage in a small space. You can carry it as a shoulder bag or as a backpack, the adjustment between the two taking just a few minutes. I have used it extensively both in the gym and on recent travels and found it a hassle-free way of carrying everything from chalkbag and shoes to a netbook and passport. The zippers and Velcro all work very well and it carries fairly heavy weights easily. At only $46, this bag is a real bargain given its versatility and quality.

Bouldering Chalk Bag and Moon Dust
The Bouldering Chalk Bag is a superb simple chalk bag with a secure roll-top and Velcro closure. It sets up well at the base of a boulder problem and closes easily on its own if it tips over, a very convenient feature. I really like the Moon brand of chalk and have found it works well across all sorts of conditions and rock types. I also appreciate the message of respect towards the environment that is printed on each bag.

In sum, I have been very happy with the performance of the gear that I have had the opportunity to use and am very enthusiastic about spreading the word to other climbers. I believe that you will find it money well spent. The quality is excellent and the prices are very reasonable. In the US, Moon is a very small company with a personal touch, being run primarily by well-known boulderer, photographer and author Wills Young. Please visit the website to find out more. I will be testing more gear and writing about it over the rest of the year and hope to continue to promote here in the US and abroad.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


After my all-too-brief stay in North Wales, I went to Sheffield with Alan James director of Rockfax Publishing and UKClimbing. This was a great opportunity to revisit a place I had not been to since college when I spent a couple of semesters at the university and doing a lot of climbing, especially on gritstone.

Coming from a background of New Hampshire granite, the cracks and slabs of Peak District gritstone were a natural fit but there was also the allure of entering an intense urban climbing scene, the likes of which Sheffield was probably the first to inaugurate. This was aided immensely by the institution of the dole, essentially welfare payments for the chronically unemployed. By the time I arrived in fall of 1985, the hard free-climbing revolution was well under way, propelled in large part by the proximity of motivated impoverished climbers and a huge variety of climbing options. The only drawback was really the weather which in turn gave rise to climbing walls, public and private, and lots of training. Coming from an insular and parochial New England scene, it was a profoundly transformational trip, especially when combined with a stay in Buoux in the spring of 1986

I spent most of my time on gritstone, as it was closer to the city by bus and much less expensive to reach. Burbage, Millstone, Froggat, and Curbar Edges were the most popular options though I did make the trek to Stanage on oocasion, most memorably to onsight solo Archangel and Right Unconquerable. The sense of space, light, and atmosphere I always found more compelling than the humid overgrown and often polished limestone cliffs in the valleys below. On the other hand there is no denying that if you want to get strong, limestone is the way to go.

The first afternoon Alan and I went for a walk over to Burbage North where I took a few laps on the 20-foot crack, a perfect 5.7 hand crack, and scoped out the Remergence area, ticking the venerable classic Banana Finger and scoping out some other problems. Sadly, being sans pads, I didn't put any time on the harder ones. The intermittent rain and strong winds didn't help much either.

Next we went over to Stanage, just next door. A quick look at the outcrop that holds Hamper's Hang netted only more wind so we headed down to the Plantation Boulders, perhaps the most famous collection of gritstone boulders in the Peak. The first boulder problem I tried was The Green Traverse, probably about V6, and a really fun series of moves on fairly large holds. I flashed it and then had to repeat it for the video! After looking around a bit at the testpieces such as Brad Pit (V10) and Careless Torque, a beautiful and tall V11, I set to work on Crescent Arete a relatively moderate but fairly insecure and tall V2. This took a few tries to get the feel for the crux, especially with no pads. The landing is fairly flat but you would be jumping from high up with excellent ankle injury potential. A couple of pads would reduce the commitment and perceived grade substantially. Anyway, after I got the balance worked out, I committed and reached the easier upper bit without any problems. A great pair of problems! Here's the video.

Thanks again to Alan for shooting the video and taking the nice shot of me on Crescent Arete.

The next day I was picked up by climbing legend and owner of Moon Climbing, Ben Moon, along with his daughter Sylvie, to check out Burbage West and perhaps meet up with some friends. After a quick tour and some easy warmups, the rest of the crew turned up including Jerry Moffat, Marcus Bock, Gerhard Horhager and Andy Cave. We set to work on some slightly harder problems including a cool little V5/6 overhang called the Nose, which I shot a picture of Jerry on, spotted by Gerhard.

After this, we moved on to West Side Story, one of the most famous problems on grit, a vertical wall with a thin seam, graded V8/9. This has a couple of methods, one coming in from the left which I tried and another coming in from the right, which Gerhard tried. The key for the more direct method on the left is getting a fairly bad sidepull with the right hand and standing up on poor feet to throw for a good break. A highball finish awaits. I was making pretty good progress but having trouble finding the sweet spot on the sidepull. Increasing sun made completion unlikely as well. A good problem to try in fall or winter with a few thick pads.

Ben and I decamped for Stanage to find some other friends of his. We spent the afternoon relaxing in the midst of Stanage on a warm weekend. I already was thinking of my trip to London scheduled for the next day and then one more day before heading back to Colorado.

Monday was my last climbing day before going back home and I decided, since the weather was rainy and I really needed to train a bit harder, to check out Climbing Works, the newest gym in Sheffield, and the only one dedicated to bouldering. It was a good choice though a bit idiosyncratic for a visiting climber. The walls were fairly slabby throughout though the so-called competition wall was fairly steep. Perhaps the biggest issue was the lack of tape for finding problems. This made it very hard to follow sequences or locate starting holds. Once found the problems were actually quite good but after about an hour and a half, I focused on the campus board. There was also "The Motherboard" a steep woodie covered in terrible little wood holds but again the lack of clear problems and a number of arcane rules made this option unappealing.

Nevertheless, I got a solid workout in and felt like I had sampled (or resampled after 25 years) a bit of the Peak scene over the past few days. Looking back to that time, I recognize that one of the motives for going to Sheffield in the 80s was finding a place where residents really focused on climbing but within an urban context, that a critical mass of climbers lived climbed and trained together but not in a campground like at Yosemite. Now of course, such locales are much more common, perhaps nowhere more so than here in Boulder. But in the 1980s such places were very rare. For me, in my early 20s, this time was a revelation of sorts and left a lasting impression of what could be achieved in climbing.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Climbing in Wales

I am leaving the UK tomorrow, barring any complications from volcanic ash, and since the world has not ended, it is back to life in Colorado in a short while. The Welsh portion of the trip finished with a day on the slate quarries and an early run/hike up Mount Snowdon before heading to Sheffield. Slate is a very interesting surface/medium on which to climb as it looks very steep and difficult from below yet upon actually climbing you discover that typically the angle is 80 degrees and many small sharp edges emerge. The rock can be anything from mirror-smooth to sharkskin-rough and all on the same route. It is very reminiscent of many areas in New Hampshire that feature fussy steep slabs, such as the South Buttress of Whitehorse Ledge.

What is particularly striking is the landscape and approach. An entire side of the valley above Llanberis has been transformed by terraces and slopes of excavated slate. Hidden from immediate view are the huge bays, holes and caves that form an underworld of gigantic proportions. We didn't get to explore more deeply here but Mark Reeves, Llanberis local and climbing author regaled us with stories of the history of the place. It is an evocative place, shaped not by the impersonal and natural forces of wind and water but by the minds and hands of human beings. There are vast walls, terraces, buildings, platforms and other structures, creations that lead one to wonder what the lives of the miners were like. The Llanberis Slate Museum, which I didn't have time to visit, has an excellent website to get an idea of what this era was like. The Dinorwic quarries closed down in 1969 and a sense of the past, especially of the 19th century, is particularly strong as you approach the cliffs.

The next morning I got up early with the thought that I might climb Snowdon before breakfast. The hope was that despite a relative lack of hill-running fitness, some memory of previous seasons could provide inspiration and lead to the summit. As it happens, Snowdon from Llanberis is a stout excursion, especially after about 2/3 of the way. If I had known that it was 9 miles round trip, I might have reconsidered but the chance to immerse myself, if even briefly, in the heart of the Welsh mountains, was too important to pass up. Even if I could barely walk the rest of the day. Strangely a side trip to a small sportclimbing area proved that climbing is perhaps the easiest of physical activities. I was easily able to climb a few 5.10s while the 5 minute walk to the cliff was agonizingly slow.

More on my visit to the gritstone edges in the next installment.