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! :)

Monday, October 1, 2012

Local Heroes: The Stoney Point Documentary

Not too long ago I received a request to view a film called "Stoney Point: Portrait of an American Crag" and finally made some time to sit down and see it, making a tiny dent in the heap of new climbing media that I have to check out. This one is almost by default unlike most work out there, as it focuses attention on a climbing area that in terms of visitation, is one of the most popular in the country, yet virtually unknown outside Los Angeles.  When most films/videos (and I wonder what the difference is) try to put something new out there, or at least try to present the old as new, the Stoney Point film supports the quaint notion of tradition as worth celebrating for its own sake.

Stoney Point is an example of that much-maligned yet essential climbing area, the urban crag. Although with the arrival of climbing gyms, these kinds of cliffs and boulders are not as central to the climbing experience as they were decades ago, they remain a vital part of the scene across the country, whether at Rat Rock in NYC, Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, or Indian Rock in Berkeley. They can usually boast a few famous alums, several sandbag "classics" and one or two epic stories. Often the rock is a little off center as well, being either an unusual type or of uneven quality or both. Problems are usually dialed down to the last millimeter by old school climbers and every possible variation explored to its logical (yet often absurd) conclusion. Beginners can be found bumbling along and (barely) staying out of trouble navigating the problems and the ruthless gamesmanship of the regulars. The best climbers will never stay here long since the problems are rarely cutting edge yet you might catch a glimpse of legends of long ago, as I have done on a few occasions at Flagstaff Mountain, once-brilliant climbers revisiting memories of the past.

Stoney Point is just such a place with its less-than-optimal sandstone and relatively moderate level of climbing. Nobody would make a pilgrimage here, yet as the film makes clear, there is a certain sense of devotion among regulars, climbers who make the best of necessity and find themselves inexorably drawn into the area's orbit, absorbing its peculiar genius loci and finding themselves initiating others into its lore.

The film itself is neither spectacular nor awe-inspiring in the conventional sense., though nice camera work and thoughtful interviews are found throughout. Vintage photos and footage from way back in the day give the historical context so central to the spot. Royal Robbins recalls the way in which sessions at Stoney allowed him to develop the skills and rock sense that would take him up some of the biggest steepest walls in the world. Sadly several alumni of more recent times are now dead, including Michael Reardon, John Bachar and the enigmatic John Yablonski, all of whom left their mark on the place. It's the contemporary characters that give the film its distinctly local flavor.

I think there will be more films of this kind as the voices and faces that have defined the past five decades are aging and disappearing. They provide a much-needed corrective to the ceaseless appetite for the sensational and the action-oriented videos that dominate the visual culture of contemporary climbing. You can download this important film at