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!