Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How Internet Video is Transforming Climbing

In my previous post, I suggested that Adam Ondra's recent run of 9b ascents and 8c+ onsights marked a kind of watershed moment in climbing. But I don't think that Ondra is the only one transforming climbing. There is also a collective transformation that has been underway in the sport for several decades, a transformation that has been accelerated by the power of the Internet. This transformation has to do with the transmission and distribution of images of climbers and climbs and is present in both a quantitative and qualitative sense.

In a previous post about Master of Rock, Pat Ament's groundbreaking book on John Gill, I suggested that "the sheer mundane quality of much of the photography in the book anticipates a new aesthetic for climbing that refused the consciously heroic and crafted images of an earlier age..." However there is another aspect to these photos that I did not develop further which was their documentary specificity. The book acted as both guide and inspiration to more than one generation of climbers because it showed specific moves on problems in a way that few if any books had done before.

Today, in a media-saturated climbing environment, it's hard to recall even back to the 1990s when climbing video was first available for viewing. This was the first time that climbers could replay live action footage of a particular climb. Among the pioneers in this genre was the series Masters of Stone. Looking at the videos now, I am struck primarily by the efforts to make climbing something spectacular and mediagenic, that could be packaged according to a showbiz aesthetic. The first one even had a ridiculous contest to "win" the arm of some woman with a torch. Staged falls, big but easy lunges, free solos; these videos had just about everything except ascents of routes from which we could learn how to climb well. There were indications however of other directions such as a video called State of the Art, made by Metolius Climbing in 1989, that was intended to show sequences of specific routes at Smith Rock.

I think that the problem was financial in nature. There was no market for "straight" video of boulder problems or climbs at the time and producers were still thinking in terms of cable or broadcast media and its production values. The filming equipment was expensive as was production and editing so the spectacular was emphasized rather than the mundane.

This consensus first started to fracture in earnest with the low-budget amateur-looking videos made by Mike Call such as Yank on This and Fast Twitch. These videos were quickly produced and based on the skateboard and surfing models of ephemeral promotional videos made by companies to promote products for a season or two at most.

With the development of broadband internet, attempts were made with sites such as ClimbX Media and Momentum Video Magazine to market video on a subscription model. These efforts ultimately failed for a variety of reasons not exclusive to climbing but applying more generally across the media landscape. Video increasingly became a free commodity, boosted by the presence of sites such as Vimeo and Youtube and readily available low-tech digital cameras and free editing software.

In the midst of this explosion of video, a transformation in how we think about climbing has been in progress. Gone are the efforts to present climbing as a heroic or spectacular activity. The average teenage climber may be more interested in footage of a local boulder problem than a professionally produced segment on Alex Honnold soloing Half Dome. But more compelling is the idea that this widespread distribution of free information about climbing and how to do it well is contributing to a rapid evolution of the sport. By viewing what works and imprinting its lessons in our own climbing, we collectively change the way we climb to degree unseen in the past, a process that is occuring globally across large populations of climbers in much shorter periods of time.

It may be the case that the feature climbing film will persist into the future, that marquee names such as Chris Sharma will be presented in spectacular locales. But the actual redefining of the norms of the sport will increasingly be done on the fly, in DIY video clips of increasing sophistication and for free. Climbers will view them, learn from them, and then rapidly move on, advancing both their knowledge of the sport and the boundaries of film-making. The film as physical artifact is certainly gone.

As a postscript, I searched for clips of the Masters of Stone videos on Youtube, etc to link to this post. A few turned up, mostly trailers, and not really worth watching. The producer is still selling them via the old-school method of shipping DVDs.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

What Adam Ondra Means for the Sport of Climbing

There is no question that Adam Ondra sits at the very pinnacle of the disciplines of sport climbing and bouldering. His onsights of five 8c+ routes, two 5.15 FAs and ascents of 8C/V15 boulder problems in the first few months of 2011 form a record unmatched by anyone else on the planet. In the global combined rankings at, he is 2000 points ahead of Gabriele Moroni, the runner-up. I cannot think of anyone else in the past ten years who has so convincingly set himself apart from the pack and been so unassuming in the process. He is the Chris Sharma or Dave Graham for the next generation.

So what does this mean for climbing? Well begin by watching the video of him onsighting the 8c+ Mindcontrol in Oliana, Spain:

This is a remarkable document of a sea change in the sport of climbing. It is a real-time, minimally edited climbing video of a remarkable achievement grade-wise that could soon become the norm internationally, at least in part due to this video.

Ondra's style is one of relentless progress earned through exact placement of hands and feet and fearless response to the route's challenges. He routinely skips clips or delays them facing falls of 30 to 40 feet on very difficult terrain, confident that he will find a spot to recover and clip again. He climbs according to the needs of the route, square to the wall when necessary and is fantastic at high-stepping and reaching while staying in balance. His decision-making process is usually immediate and highly accurate, even in unlikely sequences. "If you are lucky and your quick decisions are right, it's almost the same as redpointing," Ondra says but there is something vitally different and that is the comfort level with the decisions.

Where most of us are second-guessing or retreating into bad movement patterns, Ondra is immediately adapting to the moves. He climbs as if he has nothing to learn from the moves, no need to adjust or rethink them, just to push ahead into the next one and repeat until the chains. Most of us only feel like this on onsights in very familiar terrain or of very low difficulty compared to our limit.

Ondra is revising the definitions of what it means to climb at your limit because he finds a way not so much to make it look easy but make it look sensible, feasible even.

I can think of no more important video to watch currently then this one if you are interested in learning how to climb your best. He is redefining the sport for those who take it seriously, at whatever level.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cleaning up Our Act

A recent controversy in Boulder got me thinking about the connection between climbing and the environment. A professional mountain biker, Mike West, was caught by rangers riding an illegal trail down the north side of Flagstaff Mountain. News of this event was published on the day before a major vote on a plan for Boulder's open space, a plan that continued to exclude mountain bikes from the so-called West TSA. This is essential the mountain backdrop to Boulder between Eldorado Springs and Mount Sanitas. Mike West initially claimed to be unaware of any restrictions, a highly unlikely possibility as there is literally not one square foot of public land in this area that has allowed off-road biking in over 20 years.

What was even more surprising were the reactions in the message boards of mountain biking sites and the local paper. A surprising number, perhaps even a slim majority, applauded the actions of West and derided the actions and policies of OSMP. His sponsor, Yeti Cycles, immediately dropped him, however. Much of the impulse to defend him seemed rooted in a feeling that Boulder OSMP had not provided sufficient riding opportunities and that illegal trails and riding were inevitable as a result.

Which led me to wonder. How would climbers feel if the same kind of restrictions were in place for climbing? Not merely a bolting ban, which in fact went into place in the Flatirons around the same time as the biking ban but in fact a simple ban on climbing on certain formations or times of day, unrelated to birds or other environmental concerns? How about a simple ban on the use of chalk? It's hard to say. Despite the presence of substantial bird bans in the Flatirons, Eldorado and Boulder Canyon, climbers seem very disinclined to climb in posted areas and I have not heard of any well-known climbers getting into trouble with rangers for illegal climbing or other problems.

However I have recently heard of things happening on nearby public land that do not reflect well on climbers as stewards of the land, especially altering environments to make problems feasible. I wonder if in 2011, something is changing in climber attitudes that is making it acceptable unilaterally to use tactics that substantially modify the very landscape we are bouldering in so that we might squeeze a few more moves from a problem or create a "new" one altogether.

I think that the climbing community's place as a welcome user of public lands in the vicinity of Boulder is secure. There is a huge constituency, expert political advocacy (the Access Fund is based in Boulder), industry presence, and of course a huge array of climbing possibilities that disperses climber presence and impact effectively. But I wonder if we take that relationship a bit too much for granted, or even believe that as climbers we are, like Mike West, entitled to go where we like, when and where and how we like, justifying our behavior because climbing feels important to us.

I am pleased to see the work being initiated by the BCC on Boulder Canyon. Please read this proposal to find out more about this much-needed initiative to repair the effects of laissez-faire management and climber practices.

Mountain bikers have their faces pressed against the glass when it comes to public land access around Boulder. There may be very good justification for restricting their ability to ride in the West TSA and given the current political climate, I doubt that the efforts of the BMBA will come to anything substantial for many years if ever. The appearance of a pro rider on an illegal trail in the middle of a heated debate certainly didn't help the cause. But climbers shouldn't rest easy. Climbers should instead be redoubling their efforts to proactively anticipate problems, environmental or social, that arise from the practice of the sport and not rely on flying under the radar for much longer.