Saturday, February 26, 2011

Two Videos for the Flagstaff Library

Continuing the video reference guide to Flagstaff, here are two problems. The first is the sit start to a problem at Pratt's Overhang called Crystal Corner. This transforms an old V3 classic into an even better V7 problem, that offers some interesting technical and powerful moves.

Crystal Corner SDS V7 from peter beal on Vimeo.

The second is a video of Just Right, one of the most classic of the 70s-era problems. The FA was from Jim Holloway. I am doing it one move lower than the standard high start. I have seen people pile up very tall stacked pads and cheatstones to get off the ground on this problem. For this start I used one folded pad to reach the holds. The grade for this version is somewhere in the low V9 area. This video is the only one on the internet of the whole problem that I know of.

Just Right Lower V9 from peter beal on Vimeo.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What's The Problem? Where to Start...

As mentioned in a previous post, boulderers are getting unwanted scrutiny these days for not following the "rules' for a problem. The most recent example is an ascent by Jimmy Webb of Midnight Express, a V14 in Boulder Canyon. Jimmy can certainly climb V14 so there is no issue of claiming ascents of problems to inflate a climber profile. And of all the boulderers out there, Jimmy is the last one to try to game the system. His video shows straight up what he did.

Ty Landman emailed me about trying to set the record straight saying "I was just hoping to somehow formally (in the guidebook or another way?) acknowledge/record the fact that there is the original start , where the first ascensionist and four others started and a new start/variant that is considered somewhat of a different problem (especially considering those first two moves are the crux)." In the description of the problem in my Boulder Canyon Guide, I specifically describe the exact starting holds that Ty used. In my correspondence with Jimmy, he stated that he felt his start was more "logical" than Ty's start.

Bouldering is a funny game in that unlike most modes of climbing, a problem can be excruciatingly exact with parameters set by the climber or a group of climbers that can seem ridiculous. Yet this problem appears in other forms of climbing as well. In sport climbing, climbers will be taken to task for discovering knee bars or variations to a prestigious route such as Slice of Life in Rifle. Dean Potter's solo ascent of Astroman got a small asterisk in the American Alpine Club journal for bypassing a hard section on the "boulder problem" pitch with a short variation. And on and on it goes, even to the level of big walls and Himalayan peaks.

At its heart, climbing is a really slippery pursuit, both physically and mentally and any attempts to categorize or define it run head on into this amorphous quality. It is only when we try to tack on grades, climbing CVs, sponsorships, news items, and so that this elusive quality makes itself felt. What happens in the end is that climbers will follow the path they choose, even if the first ascent followed a different vision. If there is a common thread in all of this, it is one of learning movement, facing failure and success honestly, and keeping an open attitude toward what you have done and what others have done.

In the case of Midnight Express, the variant method will probably be recognized as such and TY's method considered the original. Grades will be sorted out and the record will reflect the change. And eventually maybe someone will start matched from the low hold on the left and yet a newer problem will emerge. Or not.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Two Ads

In the last couple of weeks two ads have appeared, both with essentially the same theme. The first is a short video for Verve made by Carlo Traversi, elite boulderer and routesetter at the Spot, and the other is a co-production of Organic, Pusher and Revolution. (Full Disclosure: I have received gear from both Organic and Verve and am definitely a fan. I am a sponsored climber for Moon Climbing.)

Here's the video:

The Philosophy Of Verve from Carlo Traversi on Vimeo.

Here's the ad, described by Clark Shelk as "The Crampon Ad."

The simultaneous appearance of these ads speaks to a crisis in the climbing industry which is working itself out in various ways. Many people whom I talk with in the climbing industry feel bullish about the prospects of continued substantial growth in climbing. Business plans for new gyms, new companies, and so on are being written in anticipation of better economic climate and a higher profile for climbing.

Yet at the same time, there is unease about what that might mean for smaller companies who focus on creating products that are aimed at a core climbing demographic, products which are easy to copy using inferior materials or at lower cost overseas or both. With a new emphasis on mass enjoyment of climbing, comes the prospect of climbers who are less concerned or have any real knowledge about the quality of their gear. In bouldering this is particularly the case since the possibility of gear failure doesn't automatically imply severe injury or death. Chillingly, we are seeing potentially lethal counterfeit gear bearing a Petzl brand. In clothing, such concerns are even more remote, to say the least.

If climbing is truly poised to become a mainstream sport, it might well have to adopt the rules of mainstream sports marketing and manufacture, which is not necessarily a pretty sight. In mainstream sports marketing, knockoffs are routine, indeed done by top companies themselves to expand the brand. Overseas manufacture is seen as essential by most companies at this point, if for no other reason than to compete with the other companies who do it. A focus on short-term returns, ceaseless production of new product lines and models, and planned obsolescence are all part of this environment.

I have long believed that climbing is a special sport that ultimately fails to conform well to the principles of capitalist practice which so many pastimes have adopted. I think that climbing works best according to a model of respect for the original ideas and innovations of others and trying to avoid a race to the bottom. However it is difficult to see how this attitude can survive in a new climate of expansion and widespread public participation.

Acceptance of a low profile and small market share are too often the price of integrity in any human endeavor. I applaud the two ads and their message but am concerned that ultimately in a "free" market, their net effect will be minimal. They argue for ethical purchasing decisions in an economic climate that has been trending in the opposite direction. However, their basic point is well taken, especially in a sport such as climbing. In climbing itself, reward is a direct reflection of effort and dedication. The same should be true in the industry that serves the sport.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Finals: ABS Nationals Boulder Colorado

I decided last minute to attend the ABS Nationals and was very glad I did. I picked up a media pass on Friday and nabbed a ticket for my wife (thanks to AIM Media), and we were at the venue off east Pearl at 7:45, 4-year old in tow. The USA climbing staff were super helpful setting me up with a pass at the last minute and giving good photo access throughout the venue.

I had followed the semi-finals earlier in the day on the web. There had been a concern expressed about a scoring system that had, in part, ensured that Daniel Woods would not be in the finals. Despite a stellar performance on the second semi-final problem, Woods failed to to gain and control the bonus hold on the third one. His frustration was evident, as was that of a number of competitors on that wall.

The night of finals, the first set of problems was on the left-most wall, which was split by a fairly large horizontal roof, a feature that in my view should be avoided in competitions. Roof features have a tendency to create bottlenecks, especially at the lip. The routesetters did a good job working around this but the lip area of both the men's and women's first problem stopped a number of competitors. After a number of good efforts, especially from Francesca Metcalf, Alex Puccio stomped all over the problem. Two favorites, Angie Payne and Alex Johnson struggled with this problem, especially Angie. Surprisingly no men topped out their first problem, that I recall, though Sean McColl was very close.

The second set of problems was on a much lower angle feature and the momentum of the evening lagged somewhat on these problems, especially on the women's which was very slabby, allowing protracted times up on the wall. Sasha DiGiulian did well on this wall but I sensed overall a lack of real engagement with this problem from both the climbers' and spectators' viewpoints. The men's problem was a bit more dynamic and possibly too easy as a number of competitors finished it.

The story picked up speed with the final problems. I had a great vantage point for photos, right under the wall at the edge of the mats. Here the best wall was saved for last, a mammoth curving swelling shape, by far the most appealing of the three. Both men's and women's problems were steep and powerful and the routesetters had done an excellent job of sorting out the field. The moves were long but not obviously reachy and the overall pace was sustained and powerful. For the women, both Francesca Metcalf and Alex Johnson made great progress but when Alex Puccio stood beneath the wall there was a certain sense that the problem was going down, right away. Alex took a risky approach by setting a right hand where most had gone left and then throwing a sequential dyno to two decent pinches. Sticking this, she charged to the top.

For the men, the finals problem presented very powerful moves to get to the lip of the first swell and then a series of throws out right. Alex Johnson in a very impressive display of audacity attempted to skip the last three moves with a long dyno to the finishing hold. He came close but didn't connect. Most of the other athletes were stymied by the traverse back right or the lower moves. There was a sense of waiting for the last climber to finally seal the deal, which is exactly what happened. Sean McColl, with no hesitation or error, almost literally ran up the problem and there was no doubt who was winning the comp for both men and women.

I didn't see any real problems with the event. Scott Mechler was MCing and overall I think he kept the pace going well. The crowd was smaller than I would have expected but I really think the publicity could have been more prominent locally. I talked briefly with Daniel Woods about his not making finals and he thought that it may have just been one of those comps where motivation wasn't high. He sounded psyched for the rest of the year though. While he was missed, I think the show went well regardless. In the women's field, as mentioned Alex J and Angie were not on their top game but Alex P and Francesca Metcalf gave really good performances.

I think the scoring system ought be rethought. A scoring system that seems to reward competitors for calling it quits halfway through a problem is not going to bring out the best from the athletes. Given the small number of holds, a point system that rewards real effort and close efforts up high on the problem should be workable. The bonus hold system appears to treat all efforts between the bonus hold and the top as the same and that doesn't seem right. We shall see.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Bouldering Competitions: Does Size Matter?

The big show in town this weekend is the ABS National Bouldering competition, being held at a dedicated location, not at any of the gyms in town. John Stack and a crew have been working very hard to get the new walls up, a glimpse of which is available at Jamie Emerson's site. It sounds like it will be a good time though I will most likely not be there. You can check out the comp live online at the UBC site.

I have already discussed the problem of getting the general public interested in climbing competitions and the press locally has been relatively small about this event. The event is being marketed mostly to local climbers as far as I can tell but the venue, a warehouse space not far from the Spot Gym, is not very big so everything should sell out and go OK. There is a tour of four events, the majority of which are in summer and early fall and again have the feeling of being sold to climbers at climbing venues, like Salt Lake City's Outdoor Retailer. Whether this kind of event can generate mainstream media attention is a very open question. I am thinking that it may take some more time.

I think the more interesting issue is what kind of sport is going to emerge from this kind of competition. Everyone knows that a certain type of problem is beginning to emerge from bouldering competitions, in the same way that routes began to get very similar in roped competition, even to the point that chipping routes on rock to "even out" difficulties became common in the 1990s. The classic comp problem involves big spans between big non-positive holds. The focus is on core strength, bigger arm muscles, and speed. I wonder if increasingly competitors are going to be sorted according to size moving forward, resulting in a relatively homogenous set of body types, reminiscent of trends in gymnastics but without the wide difference between women and men.

Because climbing is more often than not point-to-point specific in terms of its movements (a feature shared by no other sports I can think of), in any given case where the strength of the climbers are equal, the taller climber will usually have the advantage in moving between holds. This is due to increased leverage available by not being fully extended between holds. Some have argued in the past that being shorter has the advantage of being lighter and more easily able to use small holds. This argument is losing steam in the world of competition bouldering, and increasingly in outdoor bouldering as well. Reach and the ability to exert power, not just in terms of pulling on holds but in exerting pressure while moving between them, is key to comp success now. The holds in comps are often very large and sloping, requiring as much skin friction as possible to stay in contact. Smaller hands have less surface area and less leverage in the pinch position. While routesetters can compensate for this to a limited degree, fundamental truths about the physics of climbing movement are beginning to make themselves keenly felt.

In the future I think the top male competition climbers in bouldering will be between 5'10" and 6'2" on average, relatively athletic in build, neither heavy nor super lean. Women will tend to run in the same direction, albeit slightly smaller. Outside, you can pick the boulder problems that suit you at a given level of difficulty but the inside scene will exert a very real pressure on those outside the average. The problem with this over time is whether professionalization in climbing will require, for the first time in the sport, a much more specific body type than in the past, especially in regard to height.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

I Read the News Today Oh Boy

A while ago, when I was establishing this blog, I would post items that I thought were newsworthy, but increasingly have left that to those with more aptitude. You can find these items on the RSS feeds on the right margin. They more or less all read "Johnny Rock (or Gianni Rocco or Jean Roche) does first/second/third ascent of an F8c (Fb8c) free solo/ from the low start/without shoes" and so on. The news cycle of the climbing world is practically 24/7 now and the task of sorting out signal from noise is not getting any easier. More and more, I only feel compelled to comment on what the "news" says about how we define ourselves as climbers. As in the previous post, I feel we are at a saturation point that needs a major change in attitude and a redefinition of the sport's goals and purposes.

What matters about climbing news at this point? I personally like to hear about innovative ascents and have an overall view of the performance curve in various climbing disciplines. By the time the third or fourth ascent of a problem or route is reported, however, it may be time to move on. Hueco, for example, really seems to be played out. The reportage from there sounds more like the news from the North Shore of Oahu with the photogs getting the necessary sponsor-pleasing pics of their athletes on the well-known breaks. Areas and routes move through cycles as the media frenzy moves elsewhere.

The other aspect of the sped-up media cycle is the feedback after ascents. Witness reactions to Alex Johnson's ascent of the Mandala in the Buttermilks. Already climbed by a woman, Lisa Rands, in 2008, it seems to me that Alex just wanted to climb this amazing problem. However, the debate opened up immediately as to which start she used and of course the blogosphere stepped in to try to sort things out. Wills Young, the go-to source for all things Bishop, has patiently explained to outsiders the options for starting the Mandala. Jamie Emerson, the go-to analyst for most things related to the rules for bouldering, has also weighed in on this topic. You can read Alex's views on the problem at DPM.

Then there is the ascent by Portia Menlove of Barefoot on Sacred Ground. Here instead of the wrong start, some anonymous commenters noted that Portia did not finish up See Spot Run, a much easier highball problem which Barefoot joins. Matt Wilder's guide notes that a drop off is an acceptable option but the consensus on is mixed both as to grade and topping out. But again, it seems more like Portia just wanted to climb the problem and the newsworthiness of the ascent is neither here nor there. Thomasina Pidgeon had done it the year before, implying the so-called first female ascent angle was missing.

Others have commented, and I tend to agree, that female ascents of hard problems tend to be met with a degree of skepticism atypical of most male ascents. Things are brought up that seem more than anything else seem intended to keep women in their place. Downgrading or other means of devaluing the ascent are par for the course. I wonder if the "news" becomes part of this process, when ascents come under the microscope of public opinion, creating controversy where none had existed before. How do we account for this distorting effect?

News from the world of climbing is pretty trivial stuff, especially when viewed from the safety of one's laptop. It is impossible to convey through words and pictures, even video, the emotions and sensations that are central to the act of climbing. In the hyperdrive climate of the Internet, this internal, subjective element is either eliminated or reduced to a series of banal cliches. Yet it is the primary thing we pursue when we climb. It would be nice to have it back.