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! :)


Dave Flanagan said...

I don't see how any climber could describe what Ashima and Ondra are doing at the moment as non-interesting. With are either witnessing the start of massive changes in climbing with the arrival of a new generation of wall bred climbers or two of the most natural climbers ever just have happened to pop up at the same time. Either way I think it's fascinating and it seems to me your disgust with the 'scene' has blinded you to that.

How can you complain about the publicity machine and "...the latest sponsored video of 20-something climbers on permanent vacation" and two posts down (on your blog that you use to publisice the book you sell about climing) review and endorse a bouldering film?

Anonymous said...

Wow, maybe you should spend even more time learning the guitar and less time writing this blog.

Will you be the first person to "pull back a bit more" and let the cliff recover? Somehow I doubt it...

Peter Beal said...

Dave, thanks for the comment. A long time ago (1995-1996) a wall-bred climber named Chris Sharma came along and blew the climbing world away with fast repeats of 5.14s that previous stars had struggled on. And then he did 5.15. And then there was Katie Brown and then there was Tori Allen who basically did in their day (about the same time as Sharma) what Ashima did this week. So yeah, it's been done before. And while higher numbers (and hopefully they will hold if Ondra comes through) seem fascinating, I fail to see how they constitute "massive changes in climbing." Ondra, whom I have interviewed in this blog, is a significant climber and a potentially innovative one but there are many strong climbers out there right now.

Your perception of my disgust with the "scene" is your own. I am an active climber and I follow the news/scene closely. I may not find it interesting but I feel I have valid reasons for that.

The film ABYSS was interesting to me for several reasons. One, friends of mine made it, two, it explored an interesting issue, three, I was interviewed for it, along with many others, and four, FWIW, the sponsorship angle was not particularly prominent. And, um my blog hardly "publicises" my book. But I digress.

Anonymous, as you probably suspect, silly seemingly clever comments like yours are the only reason I continue writing this blog. Dig deeper into your tiny bag of tricks next time. I think we both know you can do better.

Narinda said...

As a new climber I know that I've benefitted from the the increased capital and commercialization of climbing-- I may never have had access to the activity otherwise. But I also know that we can't treat the world as a playground for us, because that's connected to the other ways we abuse the land (extracting fossil fuels, dumping, monoculture).

I appreciate the thoughtfulness that you put into these posts, and I think the question you propose about whether climbing is becoming increasingly "extractive" is something to seriously think about. I like climbing because it allows me to interact with the land, but at times I'm not sure where the line between interacting and consuming is. It's a blurry one, certainly.

I don't think sustainability depends on us necessarily pulling back from outdoors activities, but from learning to interact with nature in less impactful ways.

Dave Flanagan said...

Fair point Peter, it's probably more accurate to say that Ashima and Adam are the second wave of young, indoor inspired climbers. Though I think Ashima is a whole new level. There is a big difference between 11 and 14.

Granted the recent ascents don't represent a change in direction they do represent a massive change in magnitude. Also this might signal the start of climbing's shift to becoming dominated by teenagers in the same way gymnastics is. Now this mightn't prove to be the case but it's a possibility and a fascinating one.

Why do you follow the scene closely if you don't find it interesting?

Anonymous said...

"I think we both know you can do better."

Hmmm...I was thinking exactly the same thing about you!

Peter Beal said...

Narinda, I think the climbing community is going to have to figure out the real impacts of the sport on the environment before any meaningful action will be taken. There are a lot of common sense steps to take in the meantime which many already do and I'm glad you see the need for this.

Dave the reason I follow the scene is that I really love climbing, good and bad. But I do not waive my right to point out problems with climbing merely by paying attention or participating.

I am not even sure that there is a real magnitude change here. 14c was onsighted a while ago now (5 years?) so it's hardly surprising that people are finally getting to a 14d flash, especially at an area like the RRG which is all about endurance. The dominance by teenagers is likely, as you say but this has been increasingly the case going forward, especially as more families find it worthwhile (and feasible)to sponsor their kids to the tune of many thousands of dollars for coaching, comp fees, travel, etc.

Anon, nice comeback! Succinct and punchy, though a bit obvious and it presumes I am not working on improving myself anyway. Which I am, I swear! :)

Kieran said...

Reading through this post I'm surprised by a visceral bitterness and arrogance. Disappointing Peter, if this is the 'change' you intend to instigate I don't think I will be visiting your blog again.

Peter Beal said...

I write only for myself and I get roughly 3 to 1 comments in favor as opposed to against my perspective. Either way you are welcome to stop reading. Or you could come up with a better critique.

BTW thanks for using the word visceral as that is accurate. I take that as a compliment since I actually feel what I write about. I have found that many readers mistake the truth for arrogance and criticism for bitterness.

Micah Bryan Humphrey said...

I have been reading your blog now for…hmmm…4 years? I still find it appalling that people who leave comments seem to have only read parts of your post. The negative comments only focus on the convenient parts to give their one handed approach a leg to stand on (albeit a shaky one). When I read this post, and watched the entire video of Brady’s speech, sure I sensed frustration. But that’s what the post is about. Not just frustration with the publicity machine, but frustration with the impact that ‘machine’ has had on our natural world. Only one of these comments deals with the real thesis of your post, while the others seem to harbor some ill-conceived notion that you just want to bash on the pro’s and their current achievements. I don’t get that from your writing at all, and maybe it’s because I don’t perseverate on it. I too am frustrated with the monotony of climbing media, I too am wondering what exactly is different from these achievements now than 12 years ago, and I too crave for something original and thought provoking (although I have been seeing it crop up here and there). While I derive some pleasure from following climbing media and am extremely impressed with Ondra and Ashima’s achievements; I also realize that the glamour and prestige of these achievements that is enhanced so expediently by the juggernaut of increasingly industrialized climbing companies only serves as a distraction. A distraction from what Brady and writers like yourself are trying to get people to turn their heads to see. It’s all too easy to get swept away by the climbing carnival; a veritable menagerie of brightly colored heavily logoed tank tops and quick cut bouldering shorts where everyone is truly just a puppet on a stage enacting some weirdly obscure self-fulfilling prophecy. “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.” Was I the only one to read this part? And here I will answer my own question. I suppose an explanation for the comments above, or even a lack of comments on a subject as poignant and eloquently stated as this one, could look something like this: it is easier to focus on the superficial, the blatant albeit colorful propaganda, and perceived notions of permanent bliss that are freely marketed by climbing companies as of late. It is much harder to turn down those ‘good times’ or ‘permanent vacations’ where resources are infinite and impact is non-existent. Self-reflection takes concentration, understanding, and a modicum of intelligence and open-mindedness. In this day and age where reality has become in a sense hyper-digitized and virtual it is much easier to leave a snarky comment and move on to the ‘feel-good’ flashing lights of some media-based climbing website than to think of climbing as having limits and impacts on a fragile yet dynamic environment that we are ALL a part of. And yet I too am a hypocrite. Here I have deflated my wind bag talking about everything but the topic at hand, so I apologize. But I do want to thank you Peter. Thanks for being an advocate for a deeper sense of climbing, ethics, the environment, art, philosophy, and life.

Peter Beal said...

Best comment ever. I might repost it as my next blog entry! :)

dave said...

Nice post and some great thoughts about growth and the direction climbing is headed. Seems few want to go out on their own any more, they all want to follow each other around and make ascents 1-9 of a route or problem the world has heard of.

Now excuse me, I need to go buy a magentized locking carabiner.

PS--might not hurt to get out of Boulder once in a while, preferably out of CO.