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