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