Saturday, April 28, 2012

Why Can't We Disagree Better? Thinking about Ashima's Ascent of Crown of Aragorn

A comment on the previous post reminded my of my promise to write on why climbers have a difficult time arguing about things that matter. Notice I said arguing, not agreeing. There are many things related to the sport where agreement is not really feasible, where argument is in fact urgently needed. Yet when controversy emerges, it is remarkable how quickly things degenerate into ad hominem attacks, misleading analogies, and assertions unbacked by evidence. The comment took me to task about calling my blog journalism when in his view journalism was something else. I have dealt with this kind of comment before, though at least that one was not anonymous. It struck me as peculiar that someone describing himself as a writer would critique my writing as an "insult to real journalists everywhere" while not identifying himself fully and giving some good counter-examples that would illustrate his point. So I said so and probably heaped it on too much. I won't say my response was totally unjustified but on reflection I could have been gentler.

So why did I go off on this one when I should have known better? Was there something particularly irritating about this comment? I realized that what I find most troubling about comments like that one is not that they disagree with me or even that they call into question my identity as a writer or even insult me personally. What is most troubling is the lack of consistency and coherence, the absence of serious engagement with the actual issues or facts at hand. Is it just the Internet or is it a deeper cultural phenomenon? I don't know but in the world of climbing it can have important side-effects.

Adam Roy, climbing blogger for Outside Online, wrote recently about Ashima Shiraishi, in a post entitled "The Strongest Woman in Climbing is 10 Years Old." Now it's a little subtle, but note the URL for the post reads "" (Maybe this should be its own domain: "") (See comment below from Adam Roy for his response which makes sense in retrospect) Anyway, Roy appeared to be taking issue with the suggestion by Jens Larssen at (and others) that in some way the Hueco Tanks V13 Crown of Aragorn was not V13 for her owing to her size and that we may need to reconsider grades in the light of this and other ascents by very young climbers. Roy writes,"The idea that if a girl does a hard climb, it must be because she has some natural advantage—not because she's good, or trained hard—is more than a little chauvinistic." He continues, "But even if it's true, it just doesn't apply here. The climbs Shiraishi has done aren't hard for adults, or hard for men. They're just hard."

So let's take this apart. Apparently the suggestion that a certain type of climb might be better suited to someone with small fingers is chauvinistic. I didn't see anywhere that Jens or anyone else suggested that Ashima is not a good climber or that she does not train hard. It's obvious that she is a great climber and clearly works hard. What I saw is actually a very reasonable proposition that we may need to rethink what constitutes difficulty as a new population encounters an older climbing culture. But in the following passage, things get a bit incoherent which is what I am most concerned about because this is actually important. Roy writes "Even if it's true, it just doesn't apply here."  Why? Because Ashima's climbs are "just hard." Full stop.

At this point we should consider the possibility that there is no such thing as a climb that is "just hard." All climbs are hard or less hard relative to the person trying them, based on a wide range of factors. The grade of a climb is never eternally fixed and in fact there are numerous routes and boulder problems that have grades reflecting this, especially regarding body size, what the French refer to as "morpho." Given that Crown of Aragorn has maybe four moves into a hard V8, any advantages or disadvantages related to hold size or beta are going to be magnified considerably. To state that, "At 10 years old, she climbed a problem that's turned away adult professional climbers. No amount of rationalization or arguing can change that" is on the face of it correct but it doesn't explain why those "adult professional climbers" were turned away, which is the interesting part. Was it that these "professional climbers" were not good enough climbers? Or is there something else?

Which brings me back to that URL. "haterskeephating.html" Why would it be "hating" to ask about how a young climber would be able to ascend a problem with such a reputation and a relatively high grade so quickly and with relatively little experience in the grades just below? Obviously Ashima is a remarkable talent. But can it seriously be said that a small light 10-year old girl and a six-foot adult male are doing the same thing, even on the same problem? Nobody would say that  women's and men's gymnastics are the same thing, for example. A serious consideration of this ascent has to ask these questions as they go right to the heart of the system that climbing has used up to now for evaluating the significance of achievements. In other words do grades really signify anything and if they do, what exactly do they or can they measure?

Again there is no such thing as a climbs that is "just hard" and even if routes are seen as hard, difficulty exists within a wide range of contexts, each of which needs to be recognized and considered. I will not be lauded for doing V13 by chipping some holds and using a ladder to get past the crux. Someone unschooled in the practice of the sport might be impressed but not a real practitioner of bouldering. So what is it that a grade seeks to measure? What is its reward in terms of public recognition and praise? These more important questions linger and are unanswered by the Outside post and other discussions on the topic

Bringing this post back to its main focus, the issue of arguing constructively, can climbers cultivate an environment of argument and discussion on these central issues without being derided as haters or chauvinists? I would like to think that they can but only if writers across the spectrum can agree that we ought to dig deeper beneath the surface of events and actions. Again Ashima's ascents in Hueco are amazing and point to greater things to come. But they also highlight weaknesses and inconsistencies in our ideas of difficulty and grading in rock climbing, something which may be one of her more important contributions to the sport, even at the tender age of 10.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Is there hope after all?

I have been following with interest some recent pieces about "the industry" that appear to point to a problem that the sport of climbing faces in broadening its appeal, a problem that is in my view a good thing but which to many appears as an obstacle to be overcome en route to a commercial utopia of highly paid "professional" climbers and who knows what other riches for us all. The first is a post by Justin Roth, Petzl Communications Manger and blogger at The Stone Mind, about Adidas and its attempts to "cozy up with climbers." Judging by the lack of comments, besides my own, this piece did not excite a lot of reaction, probably because most climbers are not interested in press releases, but also because (and this is just my impression) climbers don't particularly care about Adidas, or at least in this country. Since I was holed up in a motel in Westborough, Massachusetts, acting as support crew for my wife who was running the Adidas-sponsored Boston Marathon, I actually went to the Adidas website to see what they had to offer.

Well if Adidas actually wants to market to climbers in this country, it seems like they ought to mention it on the website's homepage somewhere or frankly anywhere. A search on the American site showed only "We are having trouble locating a match for your search: climbing". Obviously I needed to go global. Now I got something. I was asked if I was "all in" which is a surprising choice for a catchphrase, as it raises images of poker players or very tired people. OK I decided I was all in so I looked around some more. There was a wobbly video about speed climbing in the Dolomites with a lot of handhugging and some pretty cool helicopter photography but overall it was pretty mundane stuff for one of the top global brands overall and among the very top in sports. The bouldering video is a bit better. And there is the nice video of Sasha DiGiulian. But overall, and again we are speaking of a top global brand here, the feel of the website was disorganized and a bit clunky with awkward Euro-english throughout. A sample quote from "girls on the rocks":

"They want to overcome creative problems in the gym, whether in bouldering or lead. The bolted routes have long since ceased to emulate the rock faces nature has to offer and now constitute a world of their own. Because the risk of falls and injuries on well-secured and safety-tested artificial walls is much lower, very young girls can have fun trying things out at their leisure and quickly stretch their limits"

Not exactly the prose style that will pull in the coveted youth demographic in this country. In the end, I am not sure that Adidas is offering anything of value to the climbing market that isn't being done better by already established brands both internationally and here in the US. The feel of the clothing and shoes that they offer seems out of place in the natural settings  in the videos. There is something metaphorically "off" about the stripes that I cannot quite explain, something too linear about them in the more fuzzy or granular outdoor world. And I should add, I use Adidas products, especially for running. I just don't see what the marketeers call the "value proposition." Climbing in the US especially is just not seen as an athletic pursuit so the image that Adidas has of focused athletics will have an uphill battle (so to speak) in finding customers here. So over all, I think that Adidas has not done a great job of positioning themselves in this market. Their acquisition of Five Ten does not in my view imply automatic success in climbing either. Again I use Five Ten shoes and have for a long time, but the thought of Adidas somehow taking over the climbing world through this acquisition looks very remote given what I have seen so far.

(Edit: For a sense of where Adidas wanted the US initiative to go as of March 2011, please read this interview. The accompanying clothing graphic certainly gives pause for thought. This video from OR Summer Market 2010 also gives good context, reminding viewers that Adidas has tried this before. Rolf Reinschmidt Adidas VP takes considerable trouble to emphasize commitment, authenticity, etc., in the context of a seven-year plan.)

The other big name company to sign a climber, Fila, has virtually no presence that I am aware of in the climbing scene and I expect that initiative to evaporate as suddenly as it appeared. I would not be surprised to see Adidas come to a similar conclusion unless they can figure out what they really want to do. From my standpoint, that of a clueless blogger, they need to understand better the relationship that climbers have with their gear and why it is very different from other sports. As far as I can tell, it isn't very clear that that they have this understanding.

In a somewhat similar vein, I read the lament titled "It’s not ability the industry lacks. It’s vision."  Here Jordan Shipman, from the media producers Louder Than Eleven, wrote a response of sorts regarding their coverage of the SCS Nationals here in Boulder a couple of weeks ago. Shipman was commenting on the lack of a live feed from the comp and explaining that USA Climbing had not budgeted for it. Developing the theme of the piece, he went on to argue how "companies have demonstrated little to no interest in supporting these professional-scale events. The desire to invest in the future of our sport is marginal at best." Instead he proposed that companies want "a direct return in increased sales" and hence avoid the indirect option of sponsoring media-friendly events and coverage thereof.

Now I think Jordan and Jon are great, and they work really hard at making free videos that don't suck (except for the segment with shooting guns to the Blue Danube Waltz from the roof of a Honda Element in Poudre Canyon--that sucked) but I am afraid that the problem is neither ability nor vision when it comes to marketing climbing. It is simply about money and how it works. I would argue that climbers are deeply mistaken regarding the broader reach of what they think is appealing about the sport, even in a supposedly accessible form like competition climbing. I have written a little about this before but I think it bears repeating. Nobody besides climbers wants to watch climbing media. That's all. No exceptions, no qualifications. There is simply no way that a large segment of the American viewing public will ever be persuaded to give up even a few minutes of time to follow a climbing competition. Frankly very few actual climbers can be bothered. Comments on this topic at the or at LT11 indicate as much. What some climbers may think is a successful audience of several thousand is barely a drop in the bucket as far as big media producers or sponsors are concerned. In other words the big-time ain't going to happen, and I will eat this blog post if it does in the USA. It doesn't mean that people won't try to make it happen and present a distorted and less-than-genuine view of the climbing world in the process, but in the end it won't work out as far as the financials are concerned.

Climbing has long been on the margin of mainstream culture and I don't think that will change much despite the efforts of many to assert that it is now time for the sport to hit the big-time. The stories and the characters are not there, the values don't translate well outside the circle of climbers, and the money is not there to create visuals that can truly be called professional, at least as big media would define the term. Those calling for the professionalization and expansion of the sport are not recognizing the limitations that the sport itself imposes on its practitioners and viewers. I don't believe that climbing is immune to commodification and the inroads of capitalist exploitation and I do think those narratives can do lasting harm to the climbing culture and more importantly the environment in which climbing takes place. But the example of Adidas' own marketing, as I describe above, clearly shows that (fortunately) the marketing and PR types have not figured out the key to extracting untold riches from climbing by pitching it to the masses. This is too bad if you want to make a fortune (or even a living) from making movies or becoming a "pro" climber but good news if you believe in a vision of climbing outside the market.

In my next post, I want to talk about why this vision is important and why a closer critique of climbing's assumptions and practices is so difficult.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ends and Means

It's always a bit satisfying to have moved the needle a bit in any discussion. Rock and Ice has been roused a little from its dogmatic slumbers to respond to my blog in not one but two E-blasts in roughly two weeks, the most recent one entitled "The End is Near. Repent!" And even more satisfying is that Duane Raleigh, editor-in-chief, is the author, reflecting a steady climb up the masthead in my discussants. Plus as a bonus, comments have been activated, something rarely seen in these pieces. So things are simmering a bit more actively than before. Great.

Even better though is that there is plenty to debate in Raleigh's essay. So let's take a look inside. I should add it's also good to discuss thing with someone who has actually been around a while and has experience and perspective. Raleigh wants to emphasize therefore that this sort of thing has been said before, so he cites the example of Yvon Chouinard's polemic "Coonyard Mouths Off" first published in Ascent in 1972 and very quickly anthologized in Games Climbers Play, describing it as "Chouinard ...celebrating how pure climbing used to be, but lamenting how the “way of life” had become so popular that it had been corrupted into a simple “recreational pastime.” Raleigh then goes on to compare such arguments to prophets claiming the world will end on such-and-such a date and that such dates are always pushed back and nothing ever happens and never will to justify the alarmist rhetoric. So it's going to be alright.

I'm kind of nodding my head and then, OMG, this: "Because we have giant telescopes all over the world that track meteorites, and if any come within a million miles of Earth we will launch a nuclear attack and blow them all to gravel. And because climbing doesn’t have a soul, people do." OK I will accept the second premise about souls, though I have my doubts about some public figures out there. Let's check that again. Giant telescopes? Nuclear attacks on meteorites? Seriously? Just guessing here, but imminent doom from meteorites is not the most pressing issue here on planet Terra. In fact most of the pressing issues have to do with factors linked either with capitalism or militarism, eminently human-caused factors.

OK, getting back to it. Raleigh admits that there are more climbers than 40 years. I think we can all admit that. Then another baffling analogy pokes its nose in the tent. "...Simply having larger numbers won’t tear the heart out of climbing any more than having more Christians or more Muslims is going to corrupt either group’s religious beliefs." Even a cursory reading of world religious history reveals that precisely this issue has been at the core of many important debates and arguments about purpose and meaning within a faith. The issue is never just how many believers but what kind of believers they are or what they will actually practice. And to make the analogy with climbing a bit closer, how many Christians can we fit in a given physical church? Because like it or not, climbing is not all in the mind or soul; it is a practice that happens in a finite physical world, that draws upon resources that are fragile and not easily restored. We can't keep building new cathedrals or Cathedral Ledges ad infinitum. So yes, more climbers have an impact and not just on the "experience" but on living things, ecosystems, and a natural order that we haven't much of a clue about and may well not be around by the time we figure this simple truth out.

Wrapping up and pressing the history point further, Raleigh argues, "The concept that sponsored climbers or sponsored climbs have sold out could have merit, but I have never seen any proof, and most if not all true steps forward have been taken by sponsored climbers." The first example of a "true step forward" cited, unhappily enough, is the first ascent of Everest "a trip partly sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society and Rolex." I am going to go out on a limb here and say that the Everest ascent was not a true step forward but more of a dead-end, say, compared to Fritz Wiessner's near-miss on K2 in 1939, an expedition that did not have Rolex on board. In fact I would argue that virtually every real step forward in climbing has already been made by amateurs and that today's professionals are fated forever to follow in their footsteps. John Gill is a classic example but the list is much longer than that. All the important big walls of the late 50s, 60s and 70s in Yosemite were done by amateurs. Hard free climbing? Ray Jardine, et al. were all basically self-funded. Everest by fair means is pretty cool but I think most climbers look for inspiration, including Messner himself, to the early days of alpinism and figures such as Paul Preuss, Willo Welzenbach, and Hermann Buhl.

Now I want to finish up, 'cause I don't get paid to write this stuff, let's get back to Yvon Chouinard and a bit of logic. Either he was just wrong (unlikely), he was right and things are better now (very unlikely) or he was right and things have only gotten worse (likely). When he wrote "Coonyard," he was making a point that I want to develop in another essay, that climbers are simply not climbing the same things anymore. At a distance everything looks kind of the same and yes the climbers who are "dirtbagging out of vans and bathing in a river and finger-brushing their teeth are still doing that." But something real has changed and been lost and any serious student of the past eras of climbing should acknowledge this. The danger is not from a spectacular assault from without (meteorites!)but a steady hollowing out from within, an emptiness papered over by groupthink, marketing and media spectacles. A serious critique of the present direction is not an "easy, empty cliche" as one writer puts it but a recognition of the real impacts of ideas appetites, and emotions on the social and natural environment. Mindless cheerleading ("psyched!") and an emphasis on "extreme fun" changes or diminishes none of these impacts in the least. We may get the chance to mature enough as a species to recognize it. Or we may not.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Sell, Sell, Sell: A Response to the Responses

After watching a week of reactions to my previous post on marketing in climbing, a post which received a record number of comments and a decent number of views, I then saw a reaction to the post from Jeff Jackson over at Rock and Ice. Now believe it or not, I do not have it in for R&I, even though an editor over there seems to have it in for me ( "sanctimonious conquistador" is the latest epithet). So be it.

However, Jeff was not the only editor to get back to me, though he chose to do so in public. The others did so in private communications, communications which indicated that the issue I raised was legitimate. Looking over the majority of comments both at my blog and over at the Climbing Narc, I found the same overall view, that there is certainly room for more real diversity of opinion. As an aside I find it extraordinary that a writer such as myself receives the attention I do from the "pros". Despite Jeff Jackson's obligatory disclaimer that "Beal might read Rock and Ice as rarely as I read his blog" I cannot think of too many other outside writers, especially of blogs, who have garnered the attention from Rock and Ice (or other outlets) that I have. So somebody is reading me over there, even it might only be a lowly intern who has to deliver the executive summary to the head honcho. I have no idea. I may not get the nod from Outside but boy I do get the reactions from the editors. (For the record I am a subscriber to R&I and have a sizable pile of recent back issues of all kinds of media to review.)

So what did I mean by writing what I did? Well it wasn't for the fame or money. Derisive comments on the Interwebs hardly count as fame and as for money, well there isn't any of that. No I wrote because I care about the sport of climbing and what I believe it stands for or at least could stand for. So what does that mean?

Jackson mentioned, after slowly getting around to aspects on which we seemed to agree, that "Climbing as counter-culture is healthy and growing." I would like to believe that this is the case but I want to argue for a stronger version of "counter-culture" than I think most climbers are willing to accept. That is to say that faux-libertarianism or resistance against "The Man" in the form of road-trips and dressing funny is not enough anymore.It has nothing to do with trad or sport, or chopping bolts or not. It has to do with how we lead our lives, not how we lead routes.

As I have mentioned before, I am struck by the apologists for capitalism who fail to see the extraordinary degree to which the sport of climbing depends on a fundamentally communitarian notion of society and the rich resources of a natural and social commons. For the most part, outside of a gym, and I would argue that even private gyms form part of the climbing commons, we as climbers depend on the largesse of nature and the generosity of the community, not just the community of climbers, but a larger community that tolerates or encourages risk-taking, encounters with nature, the value of leisure and so on. It is time for a deeper recognition of this connectedness. Climbing is getting too big to maintain the fiction of the marginal outcast, the mythology of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. And even more importantly the outside pressures of social change, economic and political oppression and dislocation, and environmental degradation are unavoidable, affecting the habitats of climbing in ways that climbers have for the most part chosen to ignore.

So what are some specific issues I would like to see seriously discussed in the climbing press or online, issues that in my view actually serve to provoke real discussion. They are not necessarily rehashes of the Cerro Torre controversy, or accounts of epic "expeditions" or profiles of "controversial" figures in the sport. What they are instead are fundamental critiques of the ways in which climbing affects the world. In my view any one of these would constitute a fairly substantial departure from the norm.

1. I would argue that as climbing seeks to "explore" new areas of the earth, for example, that the ethics of exploration be given a serious look and the question be seriously asked whether the resultant impacts on the local social and natural environment are worth the ephemeral and at this point mostly imaginary rewards of discovery. This obsolete ideology has for too long been at the heart of the sport, primarily because of its utility as marker of status and by implication, marketing. Let's imagine climbing without it.

2. I would love to see an exploration of what opportunities the actual makers of climbing gear and other forms of leisure equipment have to actually experience climbing, hiking, skiing etc. and what they think of their work. Constant depictions of and narratives about what Veblen describes as "conspicuous leisure" mask the role of human labor in supporting the climbing enterprise.

3. I would like to see a better exploration of how communities react to the intrusion of climbers into local ecosystems and economies and the degree to which natural spaces are "colonized" by outside visitors such as climbers. Climbing is not a neutral presence in either nature or society and there is no point in pretending otherwise.

4. I would like to see a fuller account of the ways in which the economics and editorial directions of publishing are or are not affected by advertisers and other industry influences. I think more transparency on this point is something many climbers have expressed concern.

5. I would like to see some discussion of the virtual absence of minority populations in the sport of climbing and what that implies for the sport in the present and going into the future.

6. I would like a deeper discussion of the ethics of climbing in politically repressive countries and regions of the world and on a related note a consideration the ethics of outsourcing climbing manufacturing to these kinds of places.

Like all climbers, I want to believe in the state that Jackson so eloquently describes at the end of his column. He writes "High above the ground in challenging terrain the various sheaths drop away—conditioning, culture, all the trappings and masks—and you are stripped naked as a newborn. This will always be the signal experience of ascent, and it is inviolable." But the truth is a lot more complicated than the rhetoric. The myth of the freedom and purity of climbing takes a lot of machinery, real and ideological, to sustain itself and I would suggest this experience is much less inviolable than we would like to believe. At any rate a more serious conversation of that possibility is in order, in my view.