Friday, December 7, 2012

Saying Farewell to the 80s: Why Have So Many Climbers Died Young?

The recent death of Patrick Edlinger at the age of 52 came to many as a sad, even tragic surprise. Edlinger was the face of rock climbing to many when the sport was just beginning to find its public identity in the early to mid 1980s. There is no question that Edlinger had a truly remarkable personal style coupled with incredible climbing ability, both with a rope and without. Gifted in all disciplines of free climbing, he made his most lasting impression in the USA with his 1988 win at Snowbird, the first really publicly significant climbing comp in the country. I reflected that his death meant that many of the publicly known male rock climbers from this period are no longer with us, something that struck me as extraordinary.

The first to go was perhaps the most impressive talent of all, Wolfgang Gullich, who died in 1992 in a car crash, reportedly from falling asleep at the wheel. Patrick Berhault died in 2004 in a climbing accident in Switzerland. John Bachar died more recently in 2009. Derek Hersey in 1993. Dan Osman in 1998. Todd Skinner in 2006. These are the ones I can think of at the moment. There are probably more. When I think of prominent survivors, a few that come to mind are Peter Croft, Jibe Tribout, Jerry Moffat, Ben Moon, Ron Kauk and Stefan Glowacz, Glowacz being by far the most currently active. For women, interestingly the mortality rate seems much lower.

 Obviously this is not a rigorous statistically valid study but I find it curious that so many expert climbers from this time have died young, and many of them in completely preventable circumstances. (Edlinger was in particularly difficult circumstances owing to alcoholism and depression and though the circumstances of his death have not been conclusively stated, it has been reported that a fall down the stairs at his home may have been the cause.) The question ought to be asked about whether climbing at very high levels could have a tendency towards higher mortality in early middle age, even outside of traditionally dangerous disciplines such as alpine or Himalayan climbing. I traditionally think of climbing as a force for keeping people young, engaged with the outdoors and alert, but the recent deaths of so many prominent climbers has me wondering about a darker side to the sport, especially for male climbers. Being not much younger than Edlinger myself, I see his passing as a reminder to all of us to be thankful for the time that we have and the extraordinary experiences that climbing can give us and yet be aware of the costs.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Elkland Explorations

I finally got some time to get at least a little bit out of town over the Thanksgiving break and decided to scope out some bouldering I had seen images of at various sites including B3 Bouldering. This was the spot variously described as Elkland, Nicky's Boulders or The Billiards. (Although I usually go with past precedent, Elkland seems a better name so I will use it for this post.) There has been a lot of recent activity in the area resulting in some impressive projects going down and unlike the alpine areas, they are accessible over the winter. So I thought I would look around.

 After a bit of a thrash wandering around looking at dozens of huge round and mostly blank orange globes, I found the boulder with Carefully by Hand on it. I was looking for a problem called The Real Deal Peter Beal, a crimpy face that was originally rated V9 but apparently had broken. I found it northeast uphill about 100 yards above Carefully by Hand. I looked over the holds and it was pretty obvious that a mid-height crimp was gone. However the wall was covered in small holds and after a little bit of searching I discovered a small pocket on the left that allowed progress by trending just left on the same holds. With some brushing the problem was set to go and I did it in a few tries. I like the idea of calling it the New Deal.

 The problem is very reminiscent of crimpy problems at Flagstaff Mountain with orange grainy rocky of middling quality. I think the grade might be soft V8, maybe less but a fun problem and worth doing if you like that style of climbing.

I looked over Dreamclimb V8 or V10 SDS which is just east. A rising traverse across a steep boulder, it looks quite good. The big kids version of the problem is Pocket Frogs, uphill about 50 yards from Carefully by Hand, and rated V13. After doing the New Deal and looking around, I texted Chad Greedy and got the directions to Memory is Parallax which is in a different sector, just to the west. This problem is very impressive and beautiful with an easy layback intro to four very hard moves to topout. Definitely worth checking out if you are climbing in the V13/14 range. In a sightseeing mood, I continued into the park proper and scoped out Mirror Reality, another instant classic. For the grade, this problem looks like one of the easier ones on the Front Range, on immaculate stone and 2 minutes from the road.
Dreamclimb Boulder
Pocket Frogs V13
Smile for the Blade V10

 A couple of days later I went back up to Elkland to work a little more on Carefully by Hand. This problem involves a tricky move off a small crimpy hold to a good break, then a very difficult sequence left along a sloping seam to a crux slap to an edge. While I was able to do the other moves quickly, I found it very difficult to get across the last gap. While sharp, the rock is very good and the features make for an obvious line on an otherwise relatively smooth and featureless boulder. Since this area is very feasible in winter, I see this problem as a good project in coming months. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a crimpy technical problem at the grade. While Elkland may not be to everyone's taste, my visits reminded me that the Front Range is stacked with possibilities in all grades from V0 to V15. Get out there!
The last crux on Carefully by Hand V12

(Just a side note: since other posts do not describe the approaches, a quick description is posted here. For the problems in the vicinity of Carefully by Hand, park off the road across from Nicky's Resort on Route 34 west of town. The large dirt lot is posted so avoid using it, or the private road just west. On the east end of the lot is a dirt path that heads north for a few yards before you encounter a fence with an opening. Go through this and then head east on an obvious path/old road that eventually winds around a small ridge before heading steeply uphill northwest. Soon the obvious boulder with the Plague and Carefully by Hand will appear. Other problems in the vicinity are Smile for the Blade, Pocket Frogs, and Dreamclimb as well the New Deal (Real Deal Peter Beal) For Memory is Parallax, Mind to Motion, and Desperate Houseboys walk (or park) about one hundred yards west from the Nicky's parking lot and head up an open wide wash/meadow to a saddle just east of a group of houses. Head up and right towards an obvious rib of rock. Memory is Parallax is right at the base of this rib in a deep slot. Allow about ten minutes for both approaches.)

And if you have descriptions and ratings for other problems, email me or put them in the comments.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Time for a Change

It's been about a month since I last wrote anything and it's been great. My primary reason is that my time has been spent either working (something that no one else I read about on the Internet actually has to do), family stuff, climbing, or learning guitar. The last activity has actually been really helpful in refocusing my mind away from the ceaseless flow of non-events in the climbing world, reaching its logical culmination in the news from the Red River Gorge, news that is truly non-news. Please, no more reports of ascents of Southern Smoke, even if your dog climbed it. And the same goes for all boulders in Switzerland, South Africa, as well as speed ascents of anything anywhere. If you became an "athlete" on a "team," nobody cares. If you actually care about climbing being in the Olympics, you are part of the problem. I am wondering what something actually original and interesting will look like in the world of climbing

My other pursuit, which I file under work, is coaching climbing. Not 11 year-olds who climb 14c but people who want to do the best they can under the strictures of age and real schedules. This has proven to be a really valuable experience for me, pressing me to get to the essence of what it means to be a better climber. For me this consists of understanding yourself and what you really want to do. And the more smoke and mirrors imagery that is pumped out by the publicity machine (harnesses that are also shorts? No wonder Jakob Schubert looks so unhappy) the more confused everyone is about climbing well. In short, you don't need to train on a Beastmaker or a Moon Board or whatever  gadget of the week is just out. You need to to think clearly about what you are doing. Maybe you need to buy a guitar and an amp. It's OK to have a life with purpose outside of climbing. In fact it helps. You certainly don't need to watch the latest sponsored video of 20-something climbers on permanent vacation.

If you want to do something productive climbing-wise, you might sit down for a few minutes and ponder the questions that my friend Brady Robinson is raising in a TEDx talk he gave in Boulder. The essence of his thesis is the need for conservation groups to engage with outdoor recreation groups, especially those with younger participants. While I agree with the basic drift of the argument, I am increasingly concerned that climbing has become an extractive industry with companies and individual entrepreneurs focused on mining the "outdoor space" mostly in a figurative sense, with negative consequences down the road primarily for the environment. While I agree that climbing is not as blatantly destructive as say ATV riding or building a new ski lift, the shift towards a consumerist approach to the sport is a defining feature of the past decade. I am especially struck by the lack of concern expressed by climbers about this trend. As Brady points out, there was once a strong undercurrent of resistance to societal and economic norms in the earlier vision of the sport. Now climbers enthusiastically accept marketing and a entrepreneurial approach to the sport, proving that capital can co-opt and colonize just about anything that has perceived value.

My primary concern in all this is that climbers have begun to fundamentally lose sight of the deeper environment in which they move, perceiving instead a kind of artificial theater in which they act, separated from any real consequences, organic or personal, a theater defined by symbols and imagery that are increasingly the product of capital. While in the short term, this approach can seem to promote an interest in the outdoors, in the long term, unless a deeper understanding of the environment emerges, it can reverse the equation, making the human element seem more important and shifting the balance towards convenience and well, access. We see this in the use of perma-draws and pad-stashing for example, as well as a constant push for "development" of  new crags without any regard for the ambient environment.

If I gave a TED talk, which I never will, I would urge climbers, and humans in general, to pull back a bit more, to give the landscape some room to breathe, to recover. In time we would see the bolts rust away, the trails grow over, the chalk wash away and the cliff renew itself and become real again, not just a screen for ephemeral human desires. Given the horrendous impact that humans are placing on the environment in general, this may be misplaced idealism. I don't care about that so much. If we depend on a natural environment to give our sport meaning (and I am not sure how climbers today really believe that) we may have to give up access to some parts of that environment, letting it alone to be as natural as it can be in an increasingly unnatural time. UPDATE: BAM!! Adam Ondra Flashes Southern Smoke Direct. Should have seen that coming! :)

Monday, October 1, 2012

Local Heroes: The Stoney Point Documentary

Not too long ago I received a request to view a film called "Stoney Point: Portrait of an American Crag" and finally made some time to sit down and see it, making a tiny dent in the heap of new climbing media that I have to check out. This one is almost by default unlike most work out there, as it focuses attention on a climbing area that in terms of visitation, is one of the most popular in the country, yet virtually unknown outside Los Angeles.  When most films/videos (and I wonder what the difference is) try to put something new out there, or at least try to present the old as new, the Stoney Point film supports the quaint notion of tradition as worth celebrating for its own sake.

Stoney Point is an example of that much-maligned yet essential climbing area, the urban crag. Although with the arrival of climbing gyms, these kinds of cliffs and boulders are not as central to the climbing experience as they were decades ago, they remain a vital part of the scene across the country, whether at Rat Rock in NYC, Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, or Indian Rock in Berkeley. They can usually boast a few famous alums, several sandbag "classics" and one or two epic stories. Often the rock is a little off center as well, being either an unusual type or of uneven quality or both. Problems are usually dialed down to the last millimeter by old school climbers and every possible variation explored to its logical (yet often absurd) conclusion. Beginners can be found bumbling along and (barely) staying out of trouble navigating the problems and the ruthless gamesmanship of the regulars. The best climbers will never stay here long since the problems are rarely cutting edge yet you might catch a glimpse of legends of long ago, as I have done on a few occasions at Flagstaff Mountain, once-brilliant climbers revisiting memories of the past.

Stoney Point is just such a place with its less-than-optimal sandstone and relatively moderate level of climbing. Nobody would make a pilgrimage here, yet as the film makes clear, there is a certain sense of devotion among regulars, climbers who make the best of necessity and find themselves inexorably drawn into the area's orbit, absorbing its peculiar genius loci and finding themselves initiating others into its lore.

The film itself is neither spectacular nor awe-inspiring in the conventional sense., though nice camera work and thoughtful interviews are found throughout. Vintage photos and footage from way back in the day give the historical context so central to the spot. Royal Robbins recalls the way in which sessions at Stoney allowed him to develop the skills and rock sense that would take him up some of the biggest steepest walls in the world. Sadly several alumni of more recent times are now dead, including Michael Reardon, John Bachar and the enigmatic John Yablonski, all of whom left their mark on the place. It's the contemporary characters that give the film its distinctly local flavor.

I think there will be more films of this kind as the voices and faces that have defined the past five decades are aging and disappearing. They provide a much-needed corrective to the ceaseless appetite for the sensational and the action-oriented videos that dominate the visual culture of contemporary climbing. You can download this important film at

Saturday, September 15, 2012

ABYSS: A Review

The summer bouldering season this year has been a strange one. A lot of heat, wildfires, road construction in RMNP and people traveling has left a kind of void, with very few significant new lines or hard repeats. Matty Hong repeated Warrior Up, Toru Nakajima of Japan did some fast repeats at Lincoln, but really nothing super exciting.

That's what make LT11's new film, ABYSS, so refreshing. It's about the (re)discovery of a huge pile of boulders near the summit of Mount Evans and the simple joys of exploring and inventing new boulders. There's a bit of a conversation, which I was part of, about the ethics of "development" both in terms of the environment and the community of climbers. This dialogue is not too intrusive and is woven in nicely with lots of excellent landscape scenes, time-lapse that is actually interesting, and of course plenty of footage of climbing.

None of the lines, except maybe Death to Traitors and of course the spectacular 5.14 arete Doubloons, look that amazing by themselves but the ensemble adds up to a compelling collection of climbs and an interesting look into the mindset and personalities of first ascensionists. Maybe what is more even interesting is that Jon and Jordan have stepped up their game considerably in this film, maybe the first that is really ready for prime time. The concept is sustained throughout the length of the film and the photography is first-rate. The editing is tight and well-paced.

The 48 minute film is available Monday September 17  for online viewing or download free of charge at LT11. I highly recommend it!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Climbing and Community on Flagstaff Mountain

I was thinking a bit about community yesterday as I was hauling rocks around Flagstaff Mountain to help with a trail building/rehab project. This was much-needed work for one of the most heavily climbed on areas of the mountain, meaning de facto one of the busiest bouldering areas in the country. It was a nice sunny Saturday, a little hot for the kind of manual labor being undertaken, but overall not too bad. But as I looked around the crew of volunteers, I noticed that, well, I didn't see too many people I knew. That is, if any of Boulder's many serious boulderers or climbers were helping out, they were being pretty stealthy about it, or maybe what is more likely, they were heading up to snag a prime day in the alpine instead of giving back in a tangible way to the climbing community. Here's a look at what they should have been doing.
Flagstaff Trail Day September 8 2012 from peter beal on Vimeo.

This got me thinking about a few things I saw last week. One is the excellent short film by Andrew Kornylak called the Tribe
The Tribe from Andrew Kornylak on Vimeo.

Made in support of the famous Triple Crown Bouldering Series on its 10th anniversary, the film celebrates climbing in the South and conveys a sense of awareness of the greater community of climbers and their environment. Upon a little reflection, I could not think of a similar film having been made about Boulder, even though it claims the title "Center of the Climbing Universe."

 Then I thought about a recent item posted by Gustavo Moser titled "the climbing industry is growing, let’s understand what that means." Moser says that while many applaud the mainstreaming of climbing, few are willing to step up and take responsibility for the resulting impacts and that this needs to change, especially at the industry level. This is something I agree with completely. But I want to argue that change also begins within each individual. We each make a choice on how to spend our time and our resources. And up to a point that's fine. But at some point we have to come together to recognize that a shared responsibility exists to physically maintain and protect the environments in which we live and climb.

 In my view, what is needed at places like Flagstaff (and many other locales) is a serious continuous long-term investment in stabilizing and rehabilitating the physical environment to reflect the reality of human impact. This kind of investment of time and material and labor is not feasible on an individual level. It takes resources and commitments that only a community can make, commitments that are ongoing and substantial. It takes hard work, lots of planning and occasionally sacrificing a prime weekend day to help out at an area you don't even climb at. I haven't climbed at Flagstaff in many months myself.

What I would love to see, as the crowds converge on the Trash Bash on Wednesday, and then just down the road for the Reel Rock Festival on Thursday and Friday, is some serious publicity at both events for the Flagstaff Trail Days work and a big uptick in climber participation in the next two sessions on the 22nd of September and the 6th of October. It's good for the environment, it's a good hard physical workout, and it's great for creating a sense of a genuine climbing community here in Boulder.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Flagstaff Mountain Trail Work

I want everyone in the Boulder area to be aware of an initiative spearheaded by Scott Rennak, in conjunction with Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks, to renovate and rehabilitate the bouldering areas on Flagstaff Mountain. This is vitally needed work to restore badly eroded landings, redirect and reduce climbing trails and generally stabilize the bouldering environment so many of us use on a regular basis.

The initial phase will focus on the First Overhang/Upper Y area with a series of Saturdays, starting on the 8th (this coming Saturday) and continuing on September 22 and October 6. All the information you need is at the website

Scott has put in a lot of work into this and it would be great if the Boulder climbing community all gets behind this much-needed event and pitches in to help preserve an important local climbing resource!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Goodbye Rock and Ice (Actually Hello Again!)

I had hoped I would see the last of the business with Andrew Bisharat's rant but Rock and Ice decided to run it, solecisms and grammar issues intact, on their web page.  Well done. I will not be renewing my subscription to the magazine going forward and their news feed has been removed from my site. I can understand AB posting it on his own page but I cannot understand why a "legitimate" media outlet would put up such a hastily and poorly written rant except to bolster the "controversy" and generate page views. While there is an opportunity for a real debate on this topic, the magazine has done the climbing community a genuine disservice by endorsing the piece which is neither funny nor accurate. I know nobody at R&I will lose sleep over my actions but I feel it is the right thing to do.

UPDATE: I just received word from an editor at the magazine that Rock and Ice will be taking down the rant mentioned above. Accordingly I am retracting the above statement. I am sure this will not be the last of this story but I am happy to see a constructive step being taken!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Climbing Blogs Are Alive and Well: Some Examples

Now that the reaction has died down a little from my batting back against Andrew Bisharat's overblown and incoherent polemic against climbing blogs, it's time to switch to the positive side of the ledger. Frankly, I am revising some of the things I have thought about blogs myself in the past. This is because some interesting new voices (and some old ones) are adding new life to independent climbing writing and they should be recognized for their contributions.

In no particular order, therefore, here a few examples of writers and sites that I would encourage readers to check out for an alternative perspective. Some are pro climber blogs, some are not. Some are sponsored by maufacturers, others are completely independent. They tend to be very regularly updated and of consistently good quality. The list is biased towards sport climbing and bouldering right now. Maybe another post for some more in the alpine/big wall, etc. Please give them a visit and let them know what you think of their work. I recommend all of them.

and so on. In fact, the state of climbing blogging is better than ever. If you are bored after looking over the contributions of these writers, you may need to take up another sport!

The major news sites and magazine sites are omitted here.If I didn't mention a writer that you like please add it in the comments section!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Are Climbing Blogs Getting Old? A Response

If you are into reading this kind of post, (and if you started reading this, you probably are, so too bad) you may have stumbled across a recent screed authored  by the irrepressible Andrew Bisharat, editor at Rock and Ice and self-styled iconoclast/gonzo journalist of the climbing world. It's titled "Are Climbing Blogs Getting Old?" and has some of the most peculiar writing of his since he wrote "Her name was Chiaki, she was the first girl I ever kissed back in third grade, and ever since then I have always had a certain fondness for Asian women." See this link for more on this topic.

Now Andrew and I have crossed keyboards on a few occasions but since I always find it edifying to review the work of a professional senior editor to see how I can improve as a writer, I have decided to wade in once more. Let us begin at the beginning. (I have censored the gratuitous obscenities that pepper this post. Check out the original if you need to feel the gritty urgency up close.) The original essay is all in bold.

"It seems like just yesterday that the usual pundits were filthy with glee in their wholesale conclusion that all print media was in decline and the almighty BLOG, the innumerable (if forgettable) voice of the everyman, was here to stay. But you know what? I can’t wait to read next year’s issue of ASCENT, and I’m bored to sh** by today’s climbing blogs."

Well then. I wondered who these "usual pundits" are? Why are we not forthcoming with names and duly cited filthily gleeful posts from said blog pundits? It was also good to know that "the innumerable (if forgettable) voice of the everyman was here to stay," except that innumerable refers to a plural of something, not a singular. I guess the proofreaders catch this kind of mistake at some point. I am confident by the way that this " innumerable  (if forgettable)  voice" would constitute a fair percentage of R&I subscribers (Full disclosure: I am one of them).

"I have a nice little directory of climbing websites, blogs and forums bookmarked in my Safari browser, and throughout the day I’ll click through them, ostensibly to see what’s shaking in the climbing world. Part of my job, after all, requires staying abreast to climbing news.

Safari browser. Smart. I use Chrome myself, not being much of an Apple fanboy,  Anyway, correct usage is "abreast of" not "abreast to" which sounds, well, a little more intimate than I want my readers to be. But continuing...

" But that’s not always what I’m doing when I scan through these sites. Often, increasingly, I’m procrastinating. Filling time. Essentially making, in the mostly heinously vapid way, flashes of color and words appear on my screen in order to stimulate my brain in some feeble, reptilian manner. The Internet is no different than a Vegas slot machine in that you can push a button over and over and randomly be rewarded for it when something interesting, funny or shocking appears on your screen. Jackpot! In labs, rats have been conditioned to neurotically press the same button just so long as it randomly dispenses a morsel of food one in a thousand times. I’m ashamed/appalled to admit to being no different than the rats, sometimes scanning 20 different sites in as quick as a minute and somehow having the stomach to do it again five minutes later. Perusing this the glut of content has become, for me, an entirely stultifying habit. "

Good to know my subscription is helping to pay for this work ethic. I wouldn't go so far as to be ashamed of this, though I wonder how it is possible to scan 20 sites "in as quick as a minute" (thinking we want "quickly" there). I am going to wait for uncut video to confirm. Maybe delete the "the" after "this" in the last sentence. Proceeding on to...

" I’m not alone. According to, the typical amount of time spent looking over the average webpage was less than a minute, but the average amount of time spent online per month totaled up at over 30 hours. So we’re spending lots of time looking at stuff we either don’t care about, or don’t have the attention spans to digest. It begs the question: what the f**k are we doing!? "

We are all probably wasting a lot of time on the Internet. It is incredibly popular and lots of us check in on websites from time to time. And at least there's a source for this factoid. Personally, I like to use but I am just a lazy blogger. However this thought does not "beg the question" as anyone who studies the phrase will realize. Questions that are begged are questions that are omitted/not asked altogether because the argument assumes they are true in the first place and hopes you won't notice. As in, writing a blog post about why blog posts suck begs the question, "Why am I writing a blog post in the first place?" And no, sprinkling our writing with F-bombs is not a gauge of seriousness or sincerity.

" The pro climber blogs are updated infrequently, and when they are, it’s with the same diarrhea explosion of photos and words from their past month of travel around the globe to climb the same routes people have been climbing for the last decade. Only now they are either down- or up-rating them … so, you know, it’s interesting. "

Now I have said kind of the same thing already, though it wasn't because I was just bored to s**t about it. On the positive side, at least the pro climber blogs are updated infrequently meaning we don't have to read them so much. But more to the point, why don't we see some names of these "diarrhea explosion" producers so they know what a real writer really thinks of them? Because sponsors might see that and get upset? Maybe just a little?

The so-called “issues” we face as climbers are endlessly recycled and spun through the blogosphere. The veracity and meaning of grades, environmental and first-ascent ethics, style of ascent, the role of media, access and so on. It’s the same two-bit opinions, inciting the same recurring “responses” to the first post, inciting yet more responses to the responses. Responses to the responses to the responses. BO-RING!

Oh right. "Issues," which is to say they are not issues but instead "two-bit opinions," that apparently result in the same old responses that are BO-RING! Where I come from that's called conversation and sometimes it's not very exciting, especially to someone who was once, according to his own account, mistaken for Chris Sharma. Other less enlightened people feel that these non-issues are important anyway. But on to the big one. 

The sites that are the most successful, though, are the ones that don’t actually have to come up with anything new, or even recycle the old stuff; they just need to be updated and any content at all will do just fine. These “aggregators” have it easier in that they don’t have to create their own idea/video/article—they can just post a link to someone else’s, maybe make a snarky little remark about it, and sit back and watch as the hits and comments come diarrhea-exploding in. (Diarrhea explosions and the Internet go hand in hand, according to an article I read somewhere on the Internet.)

So aggregators are the problem now. They aren't even creative on their own, like say, the writer of a climbing blog posting about why climbing blog posts suck. Now I am thinking to myself that there is only one major aggregator out there and I have been annoyed myself at times to see that site get more comments about a piece I wrote than my own site. But so what? Well then I remembered this post and wondered if this sentence pushed someone over the edge:

"I told myself I wouldn’t link to Rock & Ice until they made the font on their site more readable, but Alison Osius’ piece on her connection to Tony Scott, the acclaimed movie director who took his own life last weekend, is well worth reading:"

Which it was, by the way. Good work Alison! Maybe that really stung, to hear one's font criticized like that. (It looks like they may have changed it by the way) No wonder the phrase "diarrhea explosion" had to be deployed twice! Plus a funny (and maybe a bit snarky) reference to an article he read "somewhere on the Internet." LOLZ!

When WordPress and Blogspot et al. gave anyone with a computer and 15 free minutes the power to make their own pretty sweet-looking website, there was an explosion (diarrhea-esque, some say) of fun climbing-related blogs to check out. But then they all started repeating each other. Then they started trying to outdo each other. Everyone tried to be original by imitating what the other guy was doing.

I remember when you actually had to type a manuscript and send in real slides. So in a way, it is all too easy now. But speaking of diarrhea explosions (and having been the father of a small child, I know what they are really like), what's up with that recurring theme? 

For awhile, all this was cool—but then it started becoming too much. For the bloggers, it was too hard to always update. For the readers, it was too hard to read everything. Just too much of Ev-ery-thing. Too many people doing more and more and MORE of the same stuff that everyone else is already doing.

We originally created these blogs for freedom: the freedom of expression. Yet we can’t possibly keep up with technology’s pace. So whatever creative deliberation we hoped to derive from these amazing platforms to an easy audience has instead become overwhelmed by the burden of needing to constantly update them—with, by necessity, increasingly trivial, watery content. Success isn’t measured by originality, let alone quality, but rather by hits. It’s all about f**king LIKES and HITS!

Now, I feel like it’s all collapsing on itself. Half the climbing-related bookmarks in my browser haven’t been updated in months. The ones that have, are boring. 

This just in from the department of hasty generalizations. It's all "started becoming too much." Does this mean that it was  beginning to start to become too much or was it well on the way? When did it actually become too much? What is so watery and trivial? When did it become all about f**king LIKES and HITS!? We never actually find out.  The good news is that those stupid blogs aren't being updated frequently, meaning, by necessity, there is less of that increasingly trivial watery content to read. So we all WIN, right? 

It’s surprising to me to take a step back and remember how young the Internet is. And yet I can’t remember or envision my life without its own frightening shadow online. Facebook was cool, but now I’m sick of that, too. Do you know that Facebook has only been around for eight years? J.K. Rowling took nearly that long just to write the first Harry Potter book. How is it at all surprising that Facebook’s IPO tanked? What are you investing in? Like, dude, what the fuck were you thinking? These online juggernauts are unproven, all over-hyped trends. They’re hollow facades. Flimsy and easily replaceable every one.

Facebook has only been around for eight years and someone is actually sick of it? (Maybe that's why AB defriended me) Not a particularly original thought, that Facebook is a problem.  But we have all been there. I sympathize. "Like dude, what the f**ck" makes the fourth or fifth gratuitous F-bomb in this post.

Now comes the moment of "difficult" self-deprecating self-realization, a consistent feature of AB's writing that appears to be meant to disarm any hostile reactions to his rant.

"I write all of this with the complete and difficult self-awareness that I contribute just as much, if not more, to this problem as everyone else. Two-bit opinions are cheap, especially mine that I’ve written here. It’s easy to criticize or speak of “the Internet” as if it’s this abstract thing existing on some other plane, as if it’s some construct of the universe, as unchangeable and uncontrollable as the stars. But, let’s remember …


The Internet is us! We are the ones making it. If the Internet is boring, it’s because we are boring. If the Internet is wrong, it’s because we are wrong. If the majority of content on the Internet caters to that vile, vapid, easily-distracted reptilian side of our brains, it’s because we are vile, vapid and easily distracted."

Good news! We are boring, we are vile, we are vapid!  Never mind that some of us have a different view of human nature and its creative potential. But it will be OK because:

So really, this is less a criticism of what other people are doing, and more just my own cheap therapy. If I am bored by what these sites have to say, then why am I visiting them? I don’t have any good answer to that other than I wish I didn’t.

I’m always happiest away from my iPhone, e-mail and the never-ending stream of RSS feeds. There are many studies only now emerging that show just how much better, happier and more productive we are when we remove these new distractions from our lives

Many studies only now emerging? This is one of the "top ten" lazy journalistic generalizations. And I didn't just make that up. I saw it on a website somewhere. Get an intern and find some links for heaven's sake! Sources tell me that they are available. 

And apparently things are tough all over. The photo editor of Surfing, a journal that is all about critical depth and authenticity, has apparently channeled Walter Benjamin and mourns the loss of aura in digital photos. Now I read those magazines in the 1990s and as far as I can tell nothing has changed since then. Lots and lots of pictures of choice waves (maybe some bikinis) served up again and again to satisfy the craving of adolescent males of all ages. The formula was set a long time ago, and it works. Is it a bummer that everyone can do it now? Want to escape the sinking feeling that it all is weightless, meaningless? It's really simple, as it turns out because:

For me, that answer is always out climbing. To be out of reception and into a potentially deep, meaningful experience in the vertical world where I feel happiest and most engaged. To have my brain shut off and be absorbed in the movement of a hard route. That’s obvious. But the answer is also found, for me, sitting down in a quiet place and reading a book or quality magazine printed on real fucking paper. To be immersed in that contemplative experience of reading something that took someone a long time, even years, to write. To read something that wasn’t just diarrhea-explosioned out in between the pings of the e-mail, and the compulsive refreshing of the web browser.

To me, that’s where you get away from the madness.

All we have to do is get out of reception and be absorbed in the nature. Maybe read something written on "real f**king paper," not just "diarrhea-explosioned,something that took a long time to write, like a Harry Potter novel. Wait. Harry Potter? 

So after a series of syntax-challenged and insulting generalizations along with plenty of hasty swipes at the illiterati who have the gumption to  present their thoughts to the world without first checking in with Carbondale, it turns out we just have to go climbing?  Sounds good to me but could we have saved some time and some hurt feelings by cutting straight to that thought instead?

In the end, I know I learned a lot from reading this piece and I hope you did too.Here's one thought that comes to mind right away. To all of you who think you have what it takes to present your thoughts, your adventures, your ideas, even your dreams, all without the aid of a professional editor to show you how it should be done, I say Godspeed and good luck. You can't do much worse than the essay I have discussed above.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Doping in Climbing: Some Thoughts after Lance Armstrong

The world of sports media is being deluged with stories about Lance Armstrong's battle with USADA, a battle that came to an ignominious close with his announcement that he would no longer contest the doping charges pursued by the Javert-like Travis Tygart. Whatever the actual facts of the case against Armstrong, it is a sad epilogue to what was once one of the greatest stories in sports. Rarely has there been such a fall from so spectacular a height of achievement.

This led me to think whether such an episode has occurred in the world of climbing. There have been scandals to be sure, whether the contested first ascent claim of Cerro Torre by Cesare Maestri or Rich Simpson's meteoric rise and fall as a pro rock climber. Tomo Cesen and a number of others have been accused of faking ascents of routes and peaks and have seen their claims rejected by the climbing community. Only in the relatively remote settings of high alpine mountaineering are such fraudulent assertions even remotely plausible. In the world of mainstream sports, which are witnessed, broadcast and recorded, such claims have no place. But in the world of climbing, it is still possible to claim an unrecorded ascent and depending on one's status within the community, have that ascent accepted. But I feel that changes are on the horizon, especially as more concerted efforts are made by large outdoor industry companies to market climbing on a broader basis. That is, the climbs themselves will be recorded but the story behind them will not be fully told.

In other words, what will happen in the world of sport and competition climbing if it actually becomes "professional," as many seem to want climbing to do, regarding the use of performance enhancing drugs? Looking at how doping seems to be evolving, I am more confident that there are ways in which climbers can adapt current technologies, especially to increase their capacity for training through faster recovery and it seems inevitable given the current fascination with speed records that endurance-focused doping such as EPO is on the horizon. Given the intensifying competition for attention and sponsorship, is it that fantastic to imagine that already climbers are experimenting with this and other means of gaining advantage?

The current fascination with climbing as an Olympic sport has mostly overlooked this likely turn. Climbing is unlikely to remain in a state of informal friendly competition if the stakes become even higher. How long will it be before a top-ranked climber is accused of doping, either officially or in the media, and what will be the fallout? How stringent are organizations such as the UIAA, ISCF or other national climbing governing bodies in researching possible ways in which doping could benefit climbers and creating tests to counter them? Are sponsors concerned about the ways in which their athletes are training and have made testing part of their athlete agreements? If they aren't now, which is mostly the case, I am sure that will not be the case for much longer.

I would like to see a serious survey that tries to ascertain what, if anything, is being used by top climbers to improve their performance and how many are trying to do so. Given the small numbers of climbers that call themselves "professional" I doubt such an initiative is likely in the short term but given the trend, such information is not only desirable but necessary. Looking at the fate of sports such as cycling with its almost endless run of bad publicity, climbing would do well to head off even the possibility of allowing a doping culture to emerge.

(UPDATE: Here is a good survey of what might be used in climbing

Another good survey is in the AAJ 2001 "Mountain Medicine: Performance-enhancing drugs and Climbing." I found it via Google Books

I will post other links as I find them)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"The Ethics of Development" or Is the FA dead?

Recently there was a post on B3 Bouldering titled The Ethics of Development which discussed the recent (re)discovery of a bouldering area near the summit of Mount Evans. Jon Glassberg and others have been climbing there and in a manner similar to what happened at, well just about every Colorado alpine bouldering area (re)discovered in the past 10 years, found some new problems, gave the place a new name, made some video, etc. and gave bored climbers in the Boulder area something "new" to discuss. A tweak on this iteration is that Jon Glassberg and Jordan Shipman are making a little film about this area and included a series of interviews with local climbers (myself included) about the issue of secret areas and whether they should be shared with a larger community.

Now in case my segment winds up on the cutting room floor, I would summarize my remarks as follows; that primarily "developers" should respect the natural (especially biological) community above everything else, that they should respect the rules in place on any public land, and that they should stay away from private land unless they can negotiate with a landowner for access. The rest of the petty drama, discussed at excruciating length in Jamie's post, was in my view mostly meaningless chatter. And recently another episode that happened recently underlines this even more.

Monique Forestier, an Australian climber was working on what looks like an excellent crack climb (she writes about it on her blog) when she was beaten to the first ascent by another climber Zac Vertrees, something she was upset enough to complain about on her blog. Apparently because she had invested time in cleaning the crack and there was even a piton at the base with a tag (!) to mark, well what, exactly? Apparently it's regarded in Australia as customary to tag a natural crack line because I have never heard of such a thing in the US or anywhere else. While it may be courteous to respect another climber's efforts on a route, especially if she found the line herself and bolted it, that doesn't appear to be the case here, and I am not sure that cleaning a crack is quite the same.

I am sure there is more back story to this and whether that will emerge in due course is neither here nor there. What is interesting to me is the possibility that really, we need to have a discussion about first ascents and whether they matter anymore. I am more and more convinced they do not. At the highest levels of the sport, it seems clear that it is actually a safer bet for publicity purposes to do a fast repeat of a known quantity than a drawn-out siege of a new problem or route since the former is seen as measurable and the latter could be anything. Then there is the problematic notion of the first ascent with the arrival of sport climbing where installing a route for sure took a lot of work and money but in the end did it really matter who redpointed it first?

I think it is abundantly obvious that for most rock formations out there, some way exists to climb them, especially if you install bolts. If it's a crack it is going to go free, if there are holds of any kind, they will be connected. We really have reached that point in climbing where, if an FA is going to mean anything, there will have to be rules attached to sort out who "deserves" to do it, rules such as ground-up free, no bolts, etc, that we jettisoned back in the late 1980s and for good reason.

Maybe it is time to abandon not just the rules but the entire idea of the first ascent as an obsolete holdover when climbing emerged from mountaineering's own imperialist origins. Instead can we focus on making climbing areas sustainable and respectful of the natural environment and surrounding ecosystem? That was a remarkably absent topic in the B3 post, making it seem as though all that mattered in "developing" an area was that all the names got spelled right. Climbing is not about possession anymore. We need to liberate ourselves from this notion and figure out new ways of giving credit where credit is due. The two recent debates I mentioned above indicate that time may be far off in the future.

Friday, August 17, 2012

What I've Been Up To This Summer

After taking my daughter in for her first day of kindergarten, I suddenly realized that summer is almost over and it has been a busy one for me. I had three weeks of it taken up with an NEH Summer Institute in Florence, Italy studying the relationship between art and science in the work of Leonardo da Vinci. It was very interesting stuff and I had a jampacked schedule of lectures, museum visits, and side trips including Venice, Siena and Milan.
Looking at a Leonardo landscape drawing from 1473 at the Gabinetto dei Desegni e Stampi at the Uffizi
My research is focusing on Leonardo's understanding of mountains and his articulation of that understanding through the visual arts and writing. There's a lot of work to do yet! I wasn't only in the library or the museums however and even took a couple of trips to the local gym. Unfortunately, the climbing was very slabby but there was a decent fingerboard and a campus board so despite the heat I kept a little bit in shape

+GAZ, the gym near Florence
In the end, I think the time off was actually helpful. The return back to climbing was initially brutal though I felt I adjusted quickly to the altitude and the hike to Lower Chaos. Since I have been back I have focused on a few problems, making progress despite high temperatures, humidity and of course the infamous road closures on the way to Bear Lake. My main nemesis is Nuthin' But Sunshine, a problem I am trying because it is classic, hard, and most important, it's in the shade in the morning. I feel on the very edge of being able to link moves and am so close on the crux move pictured below.

The infamous move off the pinch on NBS. Hoping it will go!
 I have also tried (on and off) Automator and Freaks of the Industry and feel like European will go when I have the right conditions. Naturally, the best conditions occur when I have to go back to teaching so it may be time to get tickets for South Africa next summer!

In the end, I am drawn to Lower time and again because of the unique environment and atmosphere, something I have been photographing for several years now. The changing weather and rapidly shifting light makes for very interesting and compelling photographs (at least to me) and I find myself trading back and forth between climbing and shooting photos when conditions warrant.
Mist and sunshine on the north face of Mount Otis
I hope to be writing more frequently going forward as there is plenty to discuss in the world of climbing right now. More soon!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Climbing and the Olympics: Bouldering is the Future

This week marks the happy coincidence of the 2012 Olympic Games in London and the Outdoor RetailerSummer  in Salt Lake City. Needless to say I am going to neither one but their chronological conjoining brought back in focus the expressed desire to "make climbing an Olympic sport." Now I have written on this topic before, but the question keeps reappearing so I will have one more go at it.

Will climbing become an Olympic sport? Well first which kind of climbing? Obviously outdoor climbing is out, as being unmeasurable and too obscure. Will it be onsight leading as in lead World Cups? I am guessing no as the drama and the telegenic aspects are really lacking. Lead climbing is a slow and laborious enterprise to watch with no clear way to understand what is going on in terms of scoring. How about speed climbing? Impossible. Nobody takes this category seriously and at some level, even synchronized swimming makes more sense. In my view the only category that has any chance will be bouldering, and that is only if there is a drift towards gymnastics. That is to say, there will be a pre-arranged set of skills that will be tested across a range of problems in both men's and women's divisions. The parallels with gymnastics are obvious and the visuals are similar, making for an easier introduction into the Olympic environment.

I also think this type of climbing being in the Olympics is least likely to affect the mainstream of climbing except possibly in a good way. The positive aspects of bouldering as an Olympic sport is it will finally force at least one group of climbers to think about training at a level that very few have had to before. I thought of this as I was watching Sean McColl's new video of his training regimen:

Now Sean McColl is a beast. He has climbed at a very high standard both in comps and outside, and in fact he is the best male comp climber from North America as far as I know. However, this video, which is well worth watching by the way, only hints at the work that will be needed to be a truly world class climber at a world-class level, in say 10 years, if climbing (or bouldering) actually entered the Olympics. I am not saying that Sean is a slacker by any means, but compared to the work required in other, more mature sports, climbing has a long way to go.

Andrew Bisharat, in his recent, and somewhat apropos, musings on the future of climbing points to Chris Sharma as a role model for climbers who will somehow be able to set a world standard by climbing only when they "feel psyched" (sic). He was thinking about the recent book Born to Run which studies the more "natural" running style of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico and its superiority to more structured modes of running as found in Europe or North America. He goes on to say that American success in distance running in the 79s and 80s was because "For these runners, with their feet clad in sneakers as primitive as their knowledge about training and diet, running wasn’t a grind. It was exalting." Bisharat's comparison with the contemporary running scene seemed to me naive and uninformed however. While it is true that American runners were very strong internationally in the 1970s and even into the 1980s, a more likely explanation for that success is some insane mileage put in by the likes of Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Steve Prefontaine, et. al. Only in the last 5 or so years are runners in the US beginning to try to train on that level again, having been endlessly schooled by runners from all sorts of places, not just Kenya or Ethiopia. Their secret? More likely than not, real financial support, structured disciplined routines and incredible amounts of hard work.

In other words, it's not all about inspiration or "primal joy" or feeling psyched. Those are crucial motivators but they are not enough to complete serious work in any discipline. Climbers, because they practice such an immature sport, have been able to leverage talent and style to a striking degree. However, if bouldering makes it into the Olympics and serious training routines evolve to maximize human strength potential, we will see truly incredible things, both inside and outside. Something will be lost of course, especially the sense of climbing as a truly useless, self-inspired game. But in my view, that state of mind will always be accessible outside the media and the arena. There is no doubt in my mind that the days of laidback "athletes" just doing what comes naturally are drawing to a close and a new era is underway.

Now whether this is a good thing in itself is a debatable question. Running Times ran an excellent editorial "The State of Running, 2012 - Have We Gone Off Course?" which asks some questions that are relevant to a discussion of climbing as well. They have to do with whether a sport is beneficial to the society, the culture and most importantly the individuals who practice it. But that is a topic for another day.

UPDATE: here are two recent posts on the topic

Saturday, July 28, 2012

On the Circuit and Welcome to the Hood: A Review

Two climbing films came out this spring, films that their makers kindly shared with me for review. PRAK Media, comprising Paul Robinson and Alex Kahn, have created Welcome to the Hood, a follow-up to their earlier (and favorably reviewed by me) The Schengen Files. Cameron Maier, a very talented photographer at Bear Cam Media, has been working, along with Paul Robinson and Carlo Traversi and others, on documenting a bunch of new problems that emerged over the winter of 2011-12 along the Front Range. Both films are available from the same distributor 27 Crags and both have a similar feel so it makes sense to review them together.

Welcome to the Hood surveys a range of European problems, beginning with a series of scenes with mostly Paul Robinson at Fontainebleau. This will look pretty familiar to viewers of The Schengen Files and little new ground is broken here. Indeed the forest is treated pretty much like any other place in the video, a backdrop to pulling hard moves, a place for the "boss life" or was it "bawse"? Doesn't matter really, does it?

Then Switzerland and there are some beautiful problems shown here, nicely filmed, but again with zero context for any of it, just climbers cranking in the woods accompanied by the usual soundtrack of hip-hop/dubstep/techno. Since few of these were first ascents and most were repeats, it is unfortunate that we are not told more about the problems, who did them and what they meant to the FA-ist. There is a history to bouldering in Europe that a viewer of WTTH would do well to learn if he or she did not know it already. Furthermore, the environments of these boulders deserve more attention then they receive here, acting as mere backdrops to names and grades.

But as the interview emphasizes, this is about the 'hood, hanging out with friends and bouldering not about real life. WTTH portrays a fantasy world of apparently unlimited leisure enjoyed by white adolescent males (there is not one female ascent in the entire video) who can travel at will wherever they please and climb whatever they want. The laidback atmosphere of this video seems to me at odds with the levels of effort and commitment that the sport of bouldering requires from most of us and for this reason I found it less than inspiring. The denizens of a real 'hood would probably deride the "gangsta" scene as fairly "whack".

On the Circuit also tries to apply a concept, with a bit more success. Unfortunately there is some lengthy and over-serious discussion (which begs for parody) of what "The Circuit" actually is. I think very few viewers are going to worry very much about whether or why there are even more V13 and V14 problems on the Front Range of Colorado. The only thing that really makes the video stand apart is the effervescent personality of Dave Graham who once again has spearheaded a revival of bouldering in the area. Whenever the camera focuses on him, things brighten up a lot. Anyone interested in the goings on at Wild Basin, the roadside areas in RMNP such as The Bridge Boulders or Sprague Lake will find plenty to interest them. They will also want to check out Cameron's short follow-up featuring Dave on a few new classics, including The Grey.

Here's a short interview with Cameron, who in my opinion has a great deal of potential as a filmmaker and a photographer.

1.  How and when did the idea for the Circuit as a film emerge?
I would say that the basic idea of the circuit and then for turning our exploits on the circuit into a film emerged after Dave and I returned from Hueco Tanks and looked for more new climbing to fit into the later Winter/early Spring time period.  The seed might have been planted in November, when we got started at Elkland, before going to Hueco until March.  So in March climbing at Elkland even began to get a little warm and therefore we were on the hunt for more boulders closer to DG's residence in Nederland.  
Enter Wild Basin, and Bear Lake Road of course.  Daniel was keen on Elkland, and Dave and Paul got psyched on Paint it Black, which was just a little bit south, and then Wild Basin even a little bit more south, which makes up the local zones we have here On the Circuit.  You can start at one boulder/area and take pretty much the same road to get to any of the other areas.  Even that idea right there is tangible and worthy enough, we thought, to base a film from.  I had been shooting Dave, documenting most of the climbs from Elkland, Bear Lake Road, and Wild Basin, and this became part of the story.  Paul and Carlo were in town and were out on the circuit a lot and they as well became part of the story.

2.  What message did you want the Circuit to convey? Do you have an overall vision for your photography and filming?
We wanted the film to convey the message that there is really a huge potential in the front range here, and the more you look and explore the more you realize that.  And what is even better is that we are finding more stuff that is even more accessible, less of an approach, and on the same "circuit."  That is talked about a good amount in the film.
My vision for my photography and videography right now is to tell an engaging story that is rich with personality, humor, and passion for climbing as a way to experience our world.  All-out devotion to what it takes to develop new boulders/areas and to leave a positive mark wherever the journey leads.  Of course shooting with Dave for the past year has let me capture a person that is so passionate about what they do for a living that it's become something that will last as long as climbing is a sport.  Telling Dave's story through still and moving images gives me everything I can ask for right now.  And of course it's great when the other guys get in the mix like we had here with this film.  Everybody adds their own flavor and that's what we hoped to capture by collaborating.

3.  What equipment did you use to make the film?
Paul, Carlo and I all shot this film with our Canon DSLRs; the t3i, 7D, and 5D were all used.  Tripods, sliders, reflectors and automobiles made up the vital accouterment besides the cameras.

4.  Was this a self-financed production? 
This was indeed a completely self financed production.

5.  What's your next project?
New releases coming up are going to be a video of DG putting up more Wild Basin first ascents and also The Warrior Path (DG in Hueco) as a feature film, featuring new never before seen boulders/footage!  Going to be a fun movie for sure, plenty of drama and action.  The next 'new' project will start in South Africa when I meet up with the crew down there in a couple weeks.  I'm fully engaged by my work nowadays and look forward to making more, and want to thank everybody who takes the time to check it out!

You can find out more about Cameron at his website

A final note about these films. I want to add that from a technical standpoint they are excellent. The problems are all world class and the climbers do a great job. However, I think, especially given how easy it is to create decent production values these days with DSLRs, that the wave of the future has got to be more along the lines of this:
or even this, produced by Prana and made by Chuck Fryberger:

While I think the snowboard/surf formula has marketability on its side, I would really like to see more video that goes against the grain and tells a compelling story that is not just a compilation of climbs held together by a soundtrack. I think it's possible but people have to step up and try to do it. If anyone has suggestions of noteworthy independent climbing film efforts I might not have heard of, please let me know!  

Friday, July 20, 2012

Good Crazy, Bad Crazy

People in Colorado and around the world are trying to cope with this morning's horror in a movie theater in Aurora where a lone gunman, armed with numerous weapons and wearing a gas mask and flak jacket, killed at least 12 and wounded 50 at a midnight showing of the new Batman film. I learned of the shooting just as I was heading out the door to go to Rocky Mountain National Park and do some bouldering in Lower Chaos Canyon. Instead of listening to music, I kept the car radio tuned to NPR the entire drive, as reception allowed, taking in the details, including the suspect's booby-trapped apartment and careful preparation, all too reminiscent of the Columbine High School killings of almost 15 years ago.

 I hadn't been up to the Park in almost a month, having spent the last three weeks in Florence, Italy immersed in a world that revolved around scholarship and art, libraries and museums. It felt good to hike up the familiar trail and breathe in the cool fir-scented air of the forest morning. The splendor of the canyon opened up to the west, gleaming gray and gold, and the bright blue sky was reflected in the still waters of Lake Haiyaha. It might seem even more pointless than ever, I suppose, to walk into this high alpine canyon to climb little rocks, or try at least to climb them, and then walk out a few hours later. Even the beauty of the setting or the physical benefits of hiking and climbing cannot entirely obscure the absurdity of the enterprise of bouldering, especially in the context of a world that has apparently gone insane.

 I wondered on the walk out, after getting thoroughly beaten up by my project, whether we all could stand to reflect more deeply on why things like climbing or art matter, whether we should as a culture stand up to defend what I would describe "good crazy" as opposed to its bad counterpart. Climbing to me, in its best moments is the epitome of good crazy, a peculiar quest to understand something deeper about the world we travel through. At its best it is an innocent pastime, neither seeking reward outside itself nor recognition beyond a small circle of similarly inclined individuals. Obsession, despair, and sorrow, all are aspects of this experience along with insight, joy, even exaltation. Good crazy embraces paradox, frustration, imperfection, and the concretely experienced truths of transience. Good crazy works itself out as it goes along, seeking the passive path whenever possible and eschewing destruction and injury. Good crazy blames itself when things go wrong and vows to do better next time.

Bad crazy, which the world is too full of these days, seeks none of these things.It believes in a deranged rationality, upholding abstract ideals whose enforcement only results in more suffering. Bad crazy believes in the desirability of unfettered physical power and the self-imposed right to decide guilt and mete out punishment. Whether through drone aircraft in Afghanistan, suicide bombings, or deranged shootings, as have been all too common around the world in recent years, violence is the hallmark of bad crazy. Bad crazy never apologizes. Bad crazy happens in windowless rooms and in front of computer screens where an ever-present enemy is represented and enlarged all out of proportion to reality. This attitude is represented best by the quote from the Vietnam War, "It became necessary to destroy the village to save it." Regardless of the veracity of the source of the quote, its persistence in the popular imagination speaks to a sense of the insanity at the heart of the contemporary imperial-capitalist enterprise.

One of the potential virtues of climbing is that it promotes a good kind of crazy, a kind that reinvents the world in a positive way, that promotes curiosity and believes in complexity and diversity. It may ultimately be the most meaningful meaningless pursuit that many of us will pursue. I think that the most interesting forms of human culture speak to this enterprise of understanding over interfering. When I stand in front of a wall, whether in a museum or in a boulder field, I begin to hear voices, voices that tell me to think again, reconsider, try another vantage point, and I in turn speak back. Out of this dialogue comes something new, something that persists across time, that in turn creates its own new ideas and phenomena.

 The world needs more good crazy, more good ideas, more new art, music, stories, even new rock climbs. We all need to nurture attitudes of responsible exploration and discovery that respect the reality and dignity of living things. The world doesn't need more violence, repression, and brutality. If climbing can be a force for good in the world, maybe this is the way; by promoting better ways of being crazy.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Off to Italia

I am leaving the mountains of Colorado for now to study the mountains of Leonardo da Vinci in Florence Italy. Interestingly enough, there is a bouldering comp in Florence the next weekend. Maybe I will post a report! Otherwise, I look forward to trying to get a session or two in at +GAZ and meeting some locals. Ciao for now.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Speed Trap: Let's Slow Down Instead

"We're lost, but we're making good time." attributed to Yogi Berra

While I was walking up to Chaos Canyon last Sunday at a fairly brisk pace, or at least as fast as three pads would allow me, a different kind of ascent was going on in Yosemite Valley. Alex Honnold and Hans Florine were trying to break the previous speed record for the Nose on El Cap. Which they did, very handily breaking the old record by about 13 minutes. Looking over the useful chronology provided by Planet Mountain, you can see that the record time for climbing the Nose went from about 3:24 in 2000 to 2:23 in 2012 so about it was lowered about an hour in 12 years More interestingly, if you jump to 2002 for a benchmark, you see that the record has been lowered about 25 minutes in 10 years. So by 2002 it is obvious that the kinks have been worked out and now it is down to details and not much else beyond really fast and very dangerous climbing.

OK so where is this going? I am asking because there was a fair amount of celebration of this achievement on the Internet and elsewhere as though some kind of breakthrough has happened. I wonder whether this kind of climbing is pointing to a dead end, that it might undermine both the natural setting of the sport and a more meaningful vision of its purpose. It also points to a reductio ad absurdum in terms of the act of climbing as opposed to an actual race, such as in running.

Let me begin with the last point first. While climbing a difficult route quickly has a certain appeal, there is little doubt that speed has never been an intrinsic quality at the heart of the sport. Solving problems, however long that might take, using the minimum of acceptable means, on the other hand has always been an intrinsic value in the sport. To contrast it with running, for example, racing on a track or a road is the simple pursuit of speed. You can run for fun or fitness but in a race, the goal is clear. Climbing is never initially about speed but about learning particular movements across rock. Speed is secondary, except as it helps to solve a specific problem such as sprinting through the crux of a sport route or getting off a dangerous section of a climb as in alpinism. At what point in the search for speed does climbing simply become running?

Speed ascents seem to mark the final stage of a route's life cycle, an admission that the problems are ironed out once and for all. The difference in contemporary climbing is that now speed ascents are considered to be meaningful problems and achievements in their own right. There certainly are problems to be solved. Logistics, division of pitches, pacing, etc., all play a role but at the heart of the action is something different. It is not just an ascent of the Nose that matters, it is a fast ascent of the Nose. That the Nose can be climbed, even in a day, is a given, just as we assume the Boston Marathon can be successfully run by a physically fit individual. But the route feels secondary to the climbing of it. This seems to me to be a serious problem.

Now let me get back to the first point as to why. First, it promotes a vision of the natural world as mostly a theater for human athletic achievement, asserting that ultimately great places are subordinate to human action and goals. This presses upon the environment fundamentally inimical goals and associated phenomena including film crews, support people, media attention and of course more aspirants and wider audiences all believing that the outdoors is something to be "conquered" in every more perfect displays of mastery.

This leads to the second issue of whether it offers a meaningful vision of climbing. Some might argue that climbing lacks meaning so the question doesn't matter, a nihilistic view I do not comprehend or share. Others might argue that meaning is individual to each climber, a position that has merit but also has problems. Are all possible meanings equal in substance? Can the climbing environment tolerate all the possible visions of meaning out there? Are some kinds of climbing practice ultimately destructive to fundamental aspects of the sport?

Now speed climbing is a complex topic because theoretically it does not damage the rock, as does chipping or other more clearly destructive practices. So does it do any harm? IDoes promoting a style of climbing and a type of competition that is reductive and appeals to the lowest common denominator, by doing something quicker or doing more of something in a given time add anything new or relevant? It is of course superb for media and marketing. There is the rivalry going back over at least a decade between Dean Potter and Hans Florine. There is the sheer danger of what is essentially a paired free-solo. And there is the superb position of the route. It's the "Race for the Nose!" Sender Films caught the action from 2011:

I wonder when the rules are going to be "officially" laid down. Although fixed lines are regarded as bad form, what is to prevent someone rigging the route with fixed gear for grabbing every four feet? At what point does climbing  the Nose become a more complicated version of jugging or rappelling the Nose? Is there is a point at which it really doesn't matter? A comparison with the world record in the marathon is apt. It's close to 2 hours but will that ever be broken? Only with some pretty stringent rules in place. Are they going to exist for climbing in the same way?

There is no doubt that speed climbing has a venerable history, both in the Valley and everywhere else that has big features and mostly moderate climbing. But I wonder about the statement  that "The only thing better than climbing is more climbing." How about the only thing better than climbing is better climbing, more aware climbing, more thoughtful climbing? Maybe even slower quieter climbing where the achievement is not measurable by a stopwatch and can't be captured on camera?

(An art-historical afternote: There is a famous anecdote about the 16th century painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari who in 1546 showed Michelangelo an extensive fresco in Rome that was painted by Vasari and his assistants in just 100 days. Michelangelo's only comment was "Si vede" or "It shows." Vasari knew of course that Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling took four years of solitary labor and thought to create something of true originality and power.)

Update! please read this excellent post on the same topic:

Friday, June 15, 2012

Yes Everest is Still Relevant

Rock and Ice did a good job back in May of riling the climbing public with Jeff Jackson's editorial "Mount Everest is Completely Irrelevant." It was definitely trending with 100+ comments and counting. And a lot of them were downright hostile. But now about a month after the hype of this season's 500 plus ascents, it is clear that Everest is more relevant than ever. My impression was that never before has Everest seen more attention both in climbing and mainstream media. It seemed as though hourly accounts were coming in from Outside Online, National Geographic, and the North Face while daily, new articles and editorials were weighing in on the situation on the mountain, enhanced by numerous photos of apparently endless lines of aspirants on their way to the summit.

Alan Arnette's excellent Everest blog kept readers up to date (check out his season recap) on all the drama and there was quite a bit of drama. One seasoned expedition leader Russel Brice pulled his entire team off the mountain. Italian Alpinist Simone Moro appeared to have cancelled his Everest plans, describing the  atmosphere on the normal route like this:

"In short, I felt like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I counted more than 200 people above and below me ascending up to the South Col. Unbelievable, it really was like being in an amusement park..."

 And this is exactly why Everest is so relevant. Like any classic amusement park, it has changed with the times. Not so much the mountain, though there was certainly discussion of how dry and dangerous the upper reaches of the Southeast Ridge and West Ridge had begun, probably because of global warming (my view, so disagree if you want). Everest has become the reflection of the new idea of climbing, that climbing is entirely what we make it and that this manufactured artifact is the only goal, since we long ago demolished the real thing, whatever that might have been.

By this I mean that it is significant to climb Everest precisely because of the degenerate state of what Everest has become, or what humans have made of it. The Base Camp scene, the trash, the lines of "climbers" and of course the frozen bodies of those who didn't make it back, all these and more are part of the curious and increasingly twisted image of the mountain. Everest the mountain has been transformed into Everest the abstract spectacle, morphing under the media's constant exposure in a continuous feedback loop. And given the extraordinary financial costs of an attempt (at least in the world of climbing) there is always the associated glamor of expending huge sums of money in a conspicuously wasteful and dangerous pursuit.

So Everest has become a green screen for a drama of Western-style consumption set in the Himalaya, fed by the constant drip, even occasional torrent, of media: video, interviews, and photos all building their own climate of fascination. As George Mallory, in an eerily prescient remark, considering the fate of his own body, doomed eventually to be part of the media cycle, "Because it's there." Isn't it time we started seriously asking what was/is actually there and what we are replacing it with? Everest appears more like a dying white elephant, steadily being killed off by an increasingly obsolete pursuit of exploration and adventure in a world less and less capable of sustaining it.

So yes Everest is relevant, if only because it perfectly reflects the hollowness of our understanding of what really matters about climbing and the world in general. It is an extreme case to be sure but its lessons are everywhere, if we can only turn our heads from the latest update from Outside or National Geographic. Here's hoping.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

An Interview with Alex Savage

An interview with Alex Savage

As usual I try to get a bit more behind-the-scenes with the climbing films I review. Alex sent along some responses to emailed questions about his film Western Gold.

How did Western Gold get started?
Western Gold was born out of the overwhelming, positive feedback I received from the community about my bouldering short Swanky Swizzy from a trip I took to Ticino, Switzerland. It went viral, reaching over 30,000 viewers all over the world. Its success convinced me to take my filmmaking to the next level in terms of production value and cinematography.  With that in mind I set off on a road trip to find the hidden gems of the west and share them with the greater climbing community.

How does your own climbing style and philosophy come into play in making this film?
When I'm climbing I'm inspired by the natural setting that I'm in, which is why Western Gold really attempts to provide the viewer with a full insight into the experience of bouldering - from the great people you meet to the gorgeous natural landscapes. On a purely climbing level, the film has an obvious bias towards highballs. I like big, tall, committing and aesthetic lines and seek them out wherever I'm climbing. These tend to be more dangerous, so they don't get climbed as often, so I thought it was important to feature them in the film.

What camera and video editor did you use?
I've been filming with the Panasonic GH2 and editing with Final Cut Pro.

What other equipment did you use?
My favorite tool for filmmaking is my slider from KesslerCrane.  It's super small and easy to carry and extremely versatile in the types of shots you can create with it.  I also have a 12 foot crane that I use when I need more depth than the slider can provide.
What was it like filming Green in the Face? (This was a problem Alex climbed and filmed alone)It was quite challenging.  I setup two cameras for each attempt.  I had one mounted in a tree and the other one I had to crawl under a rock and scramble up a boulder to reach- it was a pretty involved process.  When you're going to a lot of effort to capture a climb that is at your limit, and you're out there doing it - hiking out all of the gear, filming, climbing, even spotting yourself! - on your own, it takes a lot of motivation to not give up. I became a bit obsessed with that problem - but luckily, I sent it, and the section turned out great.

Were there any epic scenes that didn't make the final cut that you can tell us about?
There is an improbable and dangerous highball in Squamish, BC called The Broom that didn't make the cut, and many other great climbs from other areas that didn't make it because I wasn't happy with the lighting. When you are filming climbing you are at the mercy of the weather and the climbers' physical abilities that day. Often after hiking out and getting set up the lighting isn't ideal, it starts raining, or a climber is simply having an off day. I really wanted each shot in the film to be crystal clear, and each section to have good lighting for viewing consistency. This meant that some great climbs hit the cutting room floor unfortunately.  
In addition there is a whole section I filmed in Joe's Valley that didn't make it into the film which I will be releasing online soon.

The film has a very non-commercial vibe to it. Why did you take this approach?
The biggest reason is that I'm a terrible salesman and I hate the idea of pitching something to a company. I was fortunate enough to have some savings from my previous job that I could finance the whole project myself and create something from start to finish by myself. I setup each and every shot in the film and did all of the editing myself. The only outside help I contracted out was the design work for the DVD menu and DVD cover. I really wanted the project to be different from the mainstream climbing films and an authentic representation of my experience and interpretation of climbing.

What do you like and not like about climbing video currently?
Climbing films have come a long way since the early Dosage era. Overall, they are more visually interesting and emotionally compelling - they tell stories now. However, I think that there is more to climbing than crushing V15 in the most popular climbing destinations in the world. Main stream climbing films currently seem to focus only on these sorts of climbs and areas. Those climbs do have great importance, but many of those videos lack the full experience of climbing - being outside in nature, hanging out with your friends, really working on something at your limit and accomplishing personal goals. I hope that Western Gold provides an insight into the climbing experience, whether that be V5 or V13, and inspires others to get outside and seek out these beautiful lessor-known areas.

Which climbing filmmakers impress you the most and why?
Renan Ozturk has been creating some gorgeous short films for years now. I'm inspired by his unique artistic style. 

What's your next project?
I am back in Squamish for the season and am hoping to get into filming other outdoor adventure sports like mountain biking in addition to climbing.  I'm always looking for new areas to visit, climb, and film so I'm sure there will be more traveling ahead for me.

I strongly recommend buying this film and supporting independent climbing film-makers like Alex!