Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sell, Sell, Sell: Is There an Alternative?

Is it time to just stop writing? The primary reason for asking this is that in the there appears to be no widely read outlet or sizable audience for the kinds of things that I think need saying. Online climbing media for example, has now settled into a few very narrow categories. There are "athlete" blogs, consisting mostly of mundane accounts of the "lifestyle," monotonous reports from the locale du jour that simultaneously bore and aggravate the reader with sponsor-friendly platitudes and forced optimism and enthusiasm. There are endlessly repetitive "news" accounts of ascents of marginal significance that can only be explained by a marketing imperative, also delivered with an ample helping of feel-good bromides, sentiments lifted from self-help pop psychology and faux humility. A seemingly infinite stream of wanna-be "viral" videos is now produced, each essentially a carbon copy of the last, time-lapsed views of whatever, depth-of-fielded, exhaustively processed through the magic of editing software, replete with trivial thoughts gleaned from interviews with the climbers being filmed, again always pitched with the sponsors in mind, be they present or future. Ever crisper, more highly defined, and artfully manipulated images of nothing parade past the viewer's glazed eyes.

 The marketing culture has so thoroughly colonized the sport that there is literally no terrain, real or cultural, that is not to some degree spoken for by a logo covered "athlete" promoting a product line of some sort. And can we blame the brands for moving in this direction? It seems to be what climbers want. The idea that climbing was a significant pursuit that created and carried real personal meaning and was not merely an opportunity for punchy visuals and superficial chatter seems to be on life support. The climbing environment is reaching a tipping point in terms of how much more commodification it can stand before a total vitiation of the core of the sport is achieved.

Am I the only one who sees things this way? To read the offerings in magazines and online is to recognize that there are no prominent outside voices, pun intended, who are willing to rock the boat in any meaningful sense, to call into question the numerous dubious assumptions built into the marketing-focused image of the sport that is achieving dominance today. Climbers don't seem interested in debating anything of importance, especially not the pros, whose meager sustenance exists at the pleasure of an industry who sees their value in terms of promoting a favorable image of a company or product. Those on the outside seem to desire nothing more than entrance to that exclusive circle, ensuring their cooperation with and perpetuation of the marketing model.

Understand that I am not saying that companies should not exist or that they should not advertise their goods. Climbing as we know it would not exist without them. Nor should magazines do nothing but seek controversy and debate. Eye candy and climbing inspiration is important. But the degree to which this promotional paradigm has infiltrated the sport on a micro-granular level is breathtaking. Everyone seems to want to become or represent a brand, as though this, not mastery of the sport or real personal growth, was the goal of climbing. Editorial comment in terms of tackling serious topics related to climbing seems to be muted at best. Self-censorship in this climate seems inevitable, meaning that some truly compelling and vitally important stories are not being told and differing perspectives are ignored owing to the discomfort they may cause.

Can anything be done about this situation? I would like to call on readers to suggest story ideas that they think are being ignored that are potentially important to the community as a whole. I have some of my own that I will be developing in coming months, ideas that some will find uncomfortable to discuss, but I would really like input from the broader community on this topic. It's time for climbers to take the lead in this respect and head out into truly unknown and committing terrain.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Trip Up To Chaos Canyon

The forecast for yesterday was another warm one for the Front Range. A trip up to Boulder Canyon the previous morning had been interesting but somehow had failed to really inspire. I knew I needed something really different to at least begin to shake off the torpor of months of winter confinement. I had a suspicion that given the long string of warm days and cool nights and a lack of recent snow that there might be a possibility of finding something climbable in Chaos Canyon up in RMNP. So on a last-minute whim, I packed the car and headed up. The drive over from Lyons showed a real lack of snow cover and it was obvious heading over the crest into Estes that serious snow accumulation was only above about 10,000 feet. Fortunately the construction work on lower Bear Lake Road was not an issue and I was at the parking lot quickly. (Read this for the full update on the road situation)

I was expecting full winter trail conditions and was not disappointed. The snow depth is between two and four feet pretty much everywhere but fortunately was well packed on the trail. I found that having Yak Trax and a pair of trekking poles was indispensable throughout the approach. The section up to Emerald was pretty straightforward but above that was a bit more involved. If you head up the first switchback to Lake Haiyaha, note that there is a specific wind-formed ridge of snow that cuts off the usual trail, making for 75 degree frontpointing traversing moves. Better to go west a bit on the lake and head straight up through the trees. The remainder was easy enough except of course for the super-exposed slabs near the end. Take care here. Without crampons or other similar footgear like Micro Spikes or Yak Trax, they could be very dangerous, especially going down. Definitely a bit alpine up there.
The view east from the Skyscraper Boulder

The top of the Skyscraper Boulder
I was also expecting Lower Chaos to be filled in and was not disappointed here either. The two warm-up boulders were almost completely covered as was the Bush Pilot boulder and European Human Being. The Gobot area is also totally submerged. The tip of the Centaur Boulder was exposed but not worth digging out yet. However the top of the Skyscraper boulder was exposed enough to make a perfect warm-up on the last crux section. Even with 15-20 feet of snow, this felt like a fairly exposed problem. Whether I will ever have the moxie to do the whole thing is an open question. However it felt great to top out and look out across the glistening ice that covered Lake Haiyaha.

Topping out Skyscraper with a really fat landing
Looking west across Lake Haiyaha and into Upper Chaos
The Skyscraper boulder was not really the reason I thought the hike might be worth it. A couple of season's observations had me thinking that a project of mine, Element of Surprise, might be climbable early in the season. This south-facing boulder soaks up sun making it an unlikely proposition for the summer months. It also faces a bit west making it less likely to accumulate the snow that blows down from the upper canyon. A few minutes hike from the Skyscraper Boulder validated this theory.
Working on Element of Surprise V12

Sheltered from a stiff breeze coming from the west and basking in full sun, the boulder was totally climbable and I worked out all the moves again, wishing I had brought another pad, owing to a relatively complex landing. Most Chaos regulars tend to shy away from this problem, probably because it is very thin and super sharp, as well as very technical. I will be back on it however as soon as I can, since late winter/spring conditions are best for this crimping testpiece.

So the verdict? Lower is pretty much closed out. Tommy's Arete could be dug out and made climbable pretty quickly but it would be pretty cold. Virtually everything else will have to wait a long while. Upper Chaos holds its own secrets but I hope to be up there to investigate soon. My guess is that for most, it is not worth heading up to Chaos for the next month or two. The snow pack is substantial and March and April typically see a lot of additional snow.

But for me it was a great opportunity to get out of town a bit, get thrashed on a proper approach hike, and breathe the thin clear air of RMNP among a solitude broken only by the wind and the gentle whisper of a raven's wings flapping overhead. It's good to be be back up there again.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

An Interview with Adam Ondra

 I have interviewed a substantial number of important figures in contemporary climbing in my writing career. Their insights into the game that we all find so compelling and which they have redefined the limits of are invaluable to climbers of all abilities. For my part I have always tried to avoid the softball questions about routes, grades or projects that are the typical fodder of climbing magazines and websites. I have always wanted to go a little deeper into their mental and psychological worlds instead.

One of the most compelling climbers today in this regard is Adam Ondra. While clearly an athlete of the highest caliber, he has also clearly tapped into mental and psychological resources that have enabled an incredibly concentrated series of ascents in the 5.14c and up range in the past few years as well as notable success in the much more specialized game of bouldering. I have written about Adam in the past but never met him or contacted him before.

A few months ago I got the crazy idea that I would email Adam Ondra and ask if he would be interested in answering a few questions about climbing, not focusing on the names and grades or numbers of tries but instead on his individual ideas about the sport and especially on the mental game which every serious climber recognizes is the key to progression. Thanks to an introduction from a contact in the Czech scene, Adam agreed to help out.

I want to add that Adam, in doing this interview, showed why he is truly a professional, even at a very young age. These questions were answered in the middle of a trip to Spain, when most “pro” climbers would not even bother answering an email from the author of an obscure climbing blog. Not only did Adam did answer the email, but his answers (composed in his non-native English and only lightly edited by me)  are of the highest quality and give invaluable insight to anyone wondering what it means to climb at the very highest level.

To climbers worldwide the name Adam Ondra needs little introduction. Having redpointed 5.14d (9a) by age 13 and rapidly repeating as well as FAing a wide array of European sportclimbing testpieces in all styles, Adam then tried bouldering and just as quickly found himself flashing V13 (8B) and redpointing V15 (8C), even possibly V16 late last year with his ascents of Gioia and his own problem Terranova in the Czech Republic. There are the serious 5.14 multipitch routes in Switzerland and Madagascar. And there are the numerous 5.14b and c onsights as well being World Cup champion in 2009. Even a summary review of his most significant climbs would take up more space than this interview. His scorecard at 8a.nu tells the whole story.

Yet to an outside observer, the most remarkable thing is the degree to which this relentless pace of successes on brutally difficult climbs appears to be offset by a personality that is low key, unassuming and free of the attitude that too often accompanies high-level climbers. Watching him climb in the numerous videos out there, I have been long impressed by his pragmatic, decisive and ruthlessly effective climbing style, free of any self-conscious or self-aware displays of strength or ability. He simply gets the job done.

In light of his record and the obvious implication that he is only getting started, in my view, he is simply the best all-around rock climber on the planet. It is therefore with great pleasure that I invite you to read this interview to learn more about Ondra’s views on the sport of climbing.

You started climbing at a very high standard (8b onsight by age 12, 9a RP by 13) when you were quite young. It seems clear to me that physical training alone could not have pushed you so far so fast. Can you remember how you felt about climbing then and what you understood about the sport at that time so that you felt able to achieve these ascents?

I have always taken climbing really seriously. Climbing hard and obtaining my goals has always been very important. It was very difficult to admit failure and I did get frustrated. But at same time, it has always been a perfect and beautiful game to play. I couldn't wait to get myself on the rock. At that time, I climbed and trained to be strong, but at the same I would not dare doing something I did not really enjoy. The attitude towards climbing was the same back then as it is right now. It was a big part of my life. It is a challenge, but there are many other things closely connected to climbing itself, which I would call a beauty of climbing. And I simply love it all. Just now, I focus a tiny bit more on challenge, trying to do as much as possible in order to succeed even though I might lack of something from the beauty. But fun is still an essential part.

The confidence of climbing came from the routes I did before. I still wanted to improve, so I was confident that there should be a chance of doing 9a because I had done a couple of 8c+ prior to this. Before that, I decided to try 8c+ because of having done a couple 8c's prior to that. And so on... It was simple, mere motivation to progress.

Another stunning early ascent was Silbergeier, a route notorious not just for difficulty but also seriousness, with long spaces between bolts and an exposed alpine situation. What made you feel ready to undertake this serious route at 14 years old? How did you approach it mentally?

Multipitch routes were an unknown terrain for me, but I had a couple of reasons why I trusted myself. I had climbed much harder single pitches than 8b+. (up to 9a). I had some experience with sandstone climbing back in Czech Republic, where the extreme routes are bolted in the same way, with some decent run-outs. I have never had significant problems with exposure. Despite having no experience, my belayer was well experienced and had done the route himself (Ondra Benes).
It was just another step for me; I was eager to do new things and did it, even though it was  mentally harder than expected. The pressure on the multipitches is intense; you have to stay concentrated for a long time, one mistake, even a stupid slip, costs you a lot of power and skin.

Having watched you in numerous videos, especially onsighting, it seems you are able to make very quick decisions on how to move and how hard to pull, even in very complex situations. Do you specifically train yourself to deal with this high-pressure decision process or does it seem to come naturally?

This is something that is impossible to achieve by specific short-term training. It is because I have climbed so many routes onsight in my life, have seen numerous problems to deal with and have found out what usually works in different situations. The key is efficiency. In most cases, you are more likely  to end up with the onsight ascent in the bag if you do something quickly with complicated sequence than getting stuck in finding the “right” way and wasting enormous amount of power.

Even if you realize this and start trying to practice it, it is very difficult to get it right. You can't just keep climbing and keep saying yourself – fast decisions, fast decisions, don't get stuck. It’s important to analyze terrain above just as much as you need, not less, not more. But at the same time, it has to be completely natural. Since the analysis and decision of terrain above is driven by instinct and experience, it has nothing to do with intelligence. You can't acquire this ability from anything else than climbing.

How have you been able to so quickly master the long and complex sequences required for high-end routes (9a+ and higher)? Do you simply memorize them? Do you write things down?
I draw and write down the sequences only if I am leaving the place without the ascent and I know I am going to return. I have very good short-term memory and repeating all the moves after being lowered down works fine for me. But suprisingly, even this is something you can work on. The more you climb, the more experience you have, the easier you can memorize the sequences.

Do you look at video of yourself to improve aspects of climbing? If so what do you look for and how do you try to use video to improve?
It is good to watch videos in order find out where I could be more efficient. To find a sections where I was too slow. Or it helps me to find certain things (examples below), which can be found even without video, but watching it might help you to find them and realize them.

Is the route more demanding for one hand than the other? Are there more clips from one hand than the other (often aretes, traverses)? Try to find a way to get the other hand more involved.
Tiny things might make the difference that might make you stay on the rock instead of falling off. Even useless clipping, even though from the jug, might make you feel a bit more tired in the crucial moves.

If you keep falling off one single move, try to think of some way to get there with the hand, which you are making the crucial move from, a little more fresh. For example: a little shake out a couple of moves below, even though it makes the other hand completely pumped, might help to break through the next move because the hand essential for the crucial move is fresher.

What are your views about improving in climbing? Should climbers focus on moving better and if so, what recommendations do you have for climbers for working on this aspect of their climbing?
What is so nice about climbing is that you don't have to be necessarily the strongest to climb the best. You can always find tons of climbers who are physically able to climb really hard, but don't climb efficiently. Recommendations are difficult since efficiency means something different for every climber, depending on your body type. It might be useful to film your climbing and your friend, both of you climbing at about same level and then compare it. Look at the differences, try to copy your friend's style and find out if it works. But it doesn't have to work necessarily, even if your friend is climbing at the top of his own efficiency because of different body constitution.

In sport climbing, one of the most common mistakes is that someone climbs too slow and tries to shake out even in the places where it's counterproductive. An opposite problem is when someone is trying to climb fast, but wastes so much power as he is pulling the holds twice more than necessary. While climbing fast, it is very crucial to stay relaxed at the same time. Don't be like a machine, flow the route in a rhythm.
Recommendations in bouldering are even more difficult; everyone has their own strengths and prefers different tactics and holds.
And one more thing for both sport climbers and boulderers. Flexibility helps more than one would think. It is not so hard to improve it, 5 minutes a day is enough.

It seems like you did a lot more bouldering in the past two years than before. Why did you begin to emphasize bouldering and train more specifically for it?
I did it because I love variety in climbing. One obvious reason why to love bouldering is because of its purity. I reckoned that it might have helped in sport climbing too, but it wasn't the main reason. Last autumn I was only bouldering and the main reason was that I had never really focused on that for longer period of time. I wanted to find out how hard I could boulder when completely focused on it. And to do something else after a lot of tiring endurance training for the World Championship in lead.

How did you train for bouldering at the 8c and up level? Was your preparation different from before?
I did a lot more of campusing in the morning to increase my pure power which I definitely lack, even trying to campus some of the problems in bouldering gym. The rest was just bouldering in the gym, usually 2 hours of intensive bouldering,  for one or two weeks also trying to make a bit of endurance as one needs a certain amount of endurance for bouldering too. The preparation for sportclimbing is similar, morning session on campus board is included as well, but in the afternoon I dedicate to climbing circuits or climbing long boulder problems in intervals.

What does bouldering do for your climbing overall?
I am stronger and that is why I can do moves on the routes easier. I realized that it is important to try different beta, because bouldering taught me that even the most impossible-looking beta might be the easiest solution to the problem.

An American writer recently commented on your vocal style of climbing. Do you feel this way of climbing is personally helpful and if so why?
Yeah, I shriek when I am climbing on my absolute limit, but never shriek in the warm up or when trying the moves. No matter how terrible it might sound, it helps me personally to obey the classic rule – making a move when the air goes out of the lungs.

Do you see any important changes ahead in the sport of climbing, either indoors (as in competition) or outside? Changes could involve equipment, techniques, new places that are discovered and become popular or any other aspect of the sport that you think will be altered in years to come.
For sure the trend of climbing in super modern indoor gyms will continue to grow, but at the same time this will mean increasing number of climbers visiting outdoor crags. Another question is whether climbing becomes an Olympic sport in 2020 (not high chances though), which would bring more media interest. More people climbing will lead to polished rocks, but I would not think it is that bad, since, at the same time, this will lead to further development in the countries which are still full of potential. Hardcore sport-climbers will be younger and younger. I am not the only wonderkid, there are many more to come, as can already be seen. It is a natural process. The earlier one starts climbing, the better body adapts to it and more experience one has. 

One of the better videos on the Web featuring Adam Ondra