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.