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.


Micah Bryan Humphrey said...

Please, for my sake, keep talking about it. That commercial was HI-larious! Definitely a topic that needs to be addressed, especially the environmental impacts.

Lloyd Family said...

Great post!

"I like being contrary, I think. I like finding value in things that the mainstream ignores..."

I can definitely relate to the feeling. There is so much that the mainstream ignores that is much more interesting than what it pays attention to.

Scott said...

As a guy that's looking to pull in six figures for the first time in his life after 15 years of putting in really hard work, I gotta say I don't feel as though I'm anywhere close to the 1%. Granted, my income comes via a skill I've cultivated since a young age, I can't really say I would sleight any climber for bumping a six figure income because they've cultivated a skill since a young age and managed to make a career of it.

I certainly can't because I didn't get into climbing until after I had established my career and income. In my brief time climbing the fact I've got a j-o-b with a flexible schedule has allowed me to climb a lot more than most of my friends.

But in my climbing adventures, I've met some true dirtbags that are scraping by. They're not climbing 5.15, but they love climbing enough to eat peanut butter sandwiches and tuna every night for months. I met them on my first trip to Hueco. They even turned down my offer to buy them dinner with my big fat bonus check.

They still exist. Minimal income, maximum psyche. And I wish I could do it, but I realize I'm too old (too old at 31) and far too comfortable in my career to throw everything out the window. And I'll never climb at a level that I could pull income to maintain a similar quality of life that I have now.

But you're right. No one seems to be addressing the fact that climbing is becoming commercial and we're seeing people with no idea of where climbing has come from, engaging in the sport.

It has to be addressed proactively, not reactively like we're seeing. There has to be some way to expose new climbers to this kind information and get them educated.

Anonymous said...

I have been thinking a lot about where climbing is heading too, but from a slightly different perspective. What concerns me is that climbing is increasingly dissociated from appreciation of being outside and adventure. 20+ years ago, a climber was a climber and there was a sense of adventure regardless of what sorts of climbing one did. These days it seems that climbing outside is increasingly like climbing indoors. It is not really surprising given the number of people who start climbing in the gym and slowly start climbing outside. The end result is that in many areas it is hard to have the same kind of wild and adventurous experience that we used to have. As a corollary, it seems that many of the gym raised climbers do not value their role as stewards of the environment in which the climb. I think I am glad I started climbing when I did.

Linden's Blog said...

Great post Peter. Flagstaff is such a great place to have in the backyard. And if people cant enjoy it for the obvious, beautiful surroundings and great rock, let them all drive to Joe's Valley or Bishop. It will remain nice and quiet for the working stiffs.

jriggedy said...

A response to / different perspective on this line of thinking: "If you have time to go off and climb rocks all over the world and [do] 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."

I don't know where the cutoff for the 1% is, but there are plenty of people who do exactly what you describe above but have just enough money to buy their plane tickets or gas, some food, and a block of chalk every now an again. I meet them all over the world: no insurance, a meager savings account, a little unsteady income from time to time, plus, often, a hand from mom and dad, too. But they are almost never well to do. Wealthy people, the vast majority of the time, are wealthy due to their (time-consuming) employment. There aren't really many millionaire trustafarians out there climbing, though it's common to joke that the crags are full of them. The ones you meet stand out because they're the envy of the campfire, but most people on the road, climbing for a year at a time, are running up credit card debt and living at a very basic level.

Likewise, none of the profesional climbers I know (and, via various climbing industry jobs, I have known quite a few) are in the 1%. Most of them, even those we think of as Living Legends and who have appeared in print and TV ads for big corporations, are always hustling to make ends meet through slideshow tours, books and videos authored, and fickle sponsorships. There are a few who stack papers, in the parlance of our times, but they are certainly the exception rather than the rule.

To sum it up, from what I have seen, you can either have time to climb, or you can have stability and cashflow, but rarely both (those few lucky folks who do have both tend to keep their situation under wraps, to avoid being hit up for beer and cash by their dirtbag friends). Money is time, and time money, this is all ye know on earth and all ye need know.

Rambo said...

I'm not sure that the course of rock climbing is headed in the wrong direction at all. Yes there are a handful of big names wearing big names on their backs, just as with any non main stream sport that gets popularized (ie. snowboarding). But you are out there a lot Pete, and tell me if there, is a marked difference in the community actually climbing regularly. I grew up trad climbing in Eldo, and despite shinier racks, and brighter down jackets, the overall feel and experience in the canyon is the same. The experience of climbing in an extraordinarily beautiful place like Flag or Eldo is available for many people of many different backrounds and lifestyles that dont detract but add to the experience climbing there.
Even those jet setting around the world are still just climbers when the camera is off. Look a Alex Honnold. One of the highest profile climbers right now, lives in a van and eats mac n cheese and tuna every night.
It is the web sites and blogs that give a commercial feel to something that is inherintly a lonely, dirty, scary, humbling experience.
This blog is such a nice counterpoint and thoughtful sharing of your experience.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I do wonder what all these pro climbers will do when they hit their forties and fifties (and beyond); they have no marketable skills and job experience, and will have to settle for minimum wage jobs at best. Unlike mainstream sports where pro athletes make enough to retire during their prime years, the pro climbers will be unable to buy a home, raise a family or retire for that matter. Seems like a big sacrifice given the pro climbers these days don’t climb much harder than many of the weekend warriors.

Kent A Prior said...

Impacts on Wilderness - On a practical level, I wonder what sorts of ethics you’ve seen expressed by the bouldering communities you know best? For example, has the ‘Leave No Trace’ ethic been widely adopted? Ie, What sorts of practices are promoted for human waste management? Cat holes? Carry out? Other? Esp. in high alpine. Is construction of a pit privy the norm once a wilderness area gets above a certain level of visitation by climbers? I ask in part because of what colleagues have told me about areas along the Ice Fields Parkway in Banff National Park. Areas that have become popular destinations for ice-climbing (often catalized by blogs) have frankly become covered in shit – something that’s esp. evident after spring melt. In some cases Parks Canada was able to install porta-potties to serve the climbing community. But, if authorities like Parks Canada are NOT on site to service our ‘need to go’, then what are we to do….?

Arizona Teacher said...

What a crock pot post, top 1%, get out of you limited view of the world and see what the top 1% really are. Even the wealthiest of Globe trodden climbers don't come anywhere near that tier of society.


You climb on Flagstaff mountain because it's convenient to where you live and work. All of us find our local crag to be wonderful and special.

Anonymous said...

Today, the best climbers are instead some of the richest.

Is this really true? Seriously?

I have a really hard time believing in the veracity of this seemingly silly generalization....

Anonymous said...

BTW, a ~260,000 per annum income enters one into the top 1% earner bracket (I have no idea of what the top 1% asset owner classification is....).

which climbers qualify?

I've heard second-hand info about a few top-tier climbers who are trustafarians, but not most....

splitter choss said...

Thanks for such an insightful post. There's a lot to be said for the backyard choss, how very "american" to not be satisfied with what we have close to home, and drive for hours on end to get to the "better" stuff. I was also thinking recently about how the top pros these days are flying all over the world, and how they have little connection to "real" climbers. Folks who are balancing life, work, play, jobs, kids, a mortgage, and still manage to pull off high level sends. The dirtbag lifestyle isn't alive in the pros, how many of them are actually sleeping in the dirt? But the dirtbags are still out there, at least our version of it. Folks who have made sacrifices in life to live a balance, to climb four days a week outside, to give back to the community. Thanks again for a great post!

Marc B said...

As a former Colorado climber (250+ days a year for over a decade while working at least 30+ hours a week), I was constantly perplexed by how many people living along one of the best regions for rock climbing in the whole world traveled so much, especially people who lived in Boulder, just a few minutes from Eldorado, Boulder Canyon and short slog to Flagstaff Mountain or the Flatirons. Reading so many articles about Colorado based climbers traveling far and often to climb makes me wonder why they even live there. And what about the larger environmental impact of all that travel?

There was an article in Outside magazine praising David de Rothschild as an environmental messiah while creating a carbon footprint from his global travels "saving the world" that I can assure you he would discourage among those of us not members from a wealthy and powerful banking oligarchy from creating. That wouldn't be sustainable, you know.