Friday, March 22, 2013

Chasing Winter: A Review (Plus a chance to win a free download!)

Mr Postman V12

In recent times, it seems that the idea of paying for climbing video is obsolete. Outside of marquee franchises such as Big Up and the Reel Rock Tour, climbers have grown accustomed to keeping up with the latest new routes, problems and personalities via free video on the Internet. As the bigger companies have seized on the value of this media, increasingly sophisticated productions have emerged though not necessarily more compelling or more interesting. The position of an independent operator in this climate is a tricky one, yet some of the most innovative video is coming from this source. Whether it was Andrew Kornylak's A Fine Line Unclesombody's films about Font or Haroun Souriji with his Better Than Chocolate, or the makers of Chasing Winter, Paul Robinson and Alex Kahn, known as PRAK media, with The Schengen Files, I found these productions more personal, less commercial yet not amateurish in their conception or their look.

Chasing Winter is another excellent film in this category, focusing on the bouldering close to Cape Town as well as Rocklands. The film could have focused entirely on the gorgeous setting and unusual shapes, colors, and textures of Topside, a sandstone area close to the city. It seems the area is one with sensitive access issues so hopefully this film will not exacerbate them. I would have preferred a bit more background on the history of the area and more words from the locals on the scene and its history. This truly looks like one of the best urban bouldering areas around.

Things shift gear with the introduction of Ashima Shirashi, the 11 year-old girl wonder from NYC. Working the V14 crimps of Amandla is one thing, but crushing the near-horizontal V13 roof of Fragile Steps is another. Very impressive climbing but more interesting is the clean and straightforward style she brings to the ascent of this problem and the closing problem, Steady Plums Direct, also V13. Her interviews show a modest yet focused young girl with no hint of the incredible ticklist that she has made so far. It's kind of cool to see climbers that I see as young mentoring someone even younger on a trip like this.

Carlo Traversi gets some quality screen time on three really good looking problems, Paranormal Activity V14, a sloper traverse, Groundswell V13, a truly unique diagonalling crimp rail (Carlo's FA) and the problem I would love to do, Mirta V14, a brilliant crimpy roof. All of these are on immaculate bone-white sandstone that looks more like limestone. Carlo has power to waste and each of these problems bring that out.

Throughout the hour-long film, Paul remains the focus of things and the narrator. I think he does a great job with this, keeping things moving but letting the viewer absorb the gorgeous setting and remarkable problems. For some reason, I found his ascent of No Church in the Wild V13 the most interesting. A stark white panel of stone, spattered with grafitti, its five or so moves illustrate the essence of crimpy bouldering. There is nothing extraneous, just pure technique and power on an overhanging wall.

Now alpinists may scoff at the title and there is certainly no snow or ice in sight. But for bouldering, winter is more a set of conditions or state of mind. Crisp edges, sticky slopers, and low humidity are at the heart of it and as Paul says in the beginning of the film, this is what dedicated boulderers spend the year chasing. I think that anyone looking for a video to inspire them to find their own winter will not do better than this subtle and understated film.

You can find it on sale for a limited time at and as a bonus, win a free download by liking Mountains and Water on Facebook and messaging the answer to this question "Name the bay that can be seen from many of the topside areas? This bay is the link between the Atlantic and Indian Ocean." A winner will be drawn at random from the answers I receive. (If you don't do Facebook, you can also post the answer as a comment to this review, though it will not be published) Good luck!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Pro Climbers and Social Media

Just the other day, I read an interview with a well-known American climber and was going to post congratulations to his Facebook page when I found that I couldn't access it. Without my knowing anything about it, I had been blocked, which was curious since we hadn't had any contact, direct or indirect, in weeks, if not longer. Asking around, I found I was not not the only climbing writer to get this treatment and in fact a tweet from this climber informed the Twitterverse that "I love blocking jerkoffs on Facebook."

 Now it's neither here nor there to me if his FB page is inaccessible since I can keep track of this individual's exploits due to his numerous other self-promotional activities. And if I am considered a "jerkoff" with no further explanation (an email was sent but no answer so far) then that's pretty much it I guess. It wouldn't be the first time. But it raises an important issue for climbers who are hoping to leverage their presence on social media, an issue that has emerged with increasing urgency in other sports. The problem is how to keep the "dark side" under wraps when the urge strikes you to say what you really think. As they say about Vegas, what happens on the Internet stays on the Internet. This impulse to blurt out something silly is something that a well-known (and apparently former?) magazine editor has done in the past with this blog and indeed he recently speculated on Twitter about creating a video of himself chipping boulders with "a Peter Beal mask." Clever stuff as usual, but flattery like this will get you only so far in life.

 Anyway, in the new world of constant social media self-promotion, aspiring "athletes" need to be careful not to cross the line from being your own biggest fan to becoming too ardent a defender of your reputation and your tribe. The vibe is all about "psyche" and "stoke" and inclusiveness even as you name drop the places and personalities that give that extra shine to your aura. Keep the humblebrag quotient high and don't let your Instagram feed look too much like this. And remember to make nice with the little people as you rise to stardom. They're the ones you'll have to hang out with again on the way back down.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Trees Versus Bolts

Just saw this remarkable thread on Mountain Project about rap anchor bolts being chopped for a descent off a formation at Red Rocks.


 One individual commented " Commercial bolting in RR is a problem. Locals taking care of the situation is exactly what should have happened. We shouldn't be worrying about some trees that will never last as long as the rock, regardless if the rope threads the same. Slings last a long time in the desert compared to the most other wet parts of the country. The only people this could be an eye sore is to climbers which should be used to seeing slings on trees. To clean it up, feel free to cut it off and add your own."

 Setting aside the obvious problems in the individual comment above, I wonder how many climbers are still locked in the old-school mindset that "natural" rappel anchors on popular routes are somehow preferable to solid permanent camouflaged bolted ones. Having rapped off plenty of crappy old webbing back in the day, I want to say good riddance to that attitude. Better to avoid trampling vegetation and killing trees, even if some climbers disdain this kind of bolting as "convenience anchors." Maybe after the 20th or 30th ascent of the route, convenience overrides further impact on the cliff's ecosystem?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"Dirtbag" via Xtranormal

New Hampshire climbing legend and master film-maker Jim Surette sent me this link to add some perspective on the last big post

" I climb for myself and companies pay me to do it"

Only 35 views as of today? Let's change that.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The "Scandal" That Disappeared

This is intended to be a short and succinct post. I would like to offer my gratitude for the sound instincts of the climbing community in letting the Chipping Video "Scandal" swiftly disappear without a trace. Though the whole thing may still reverberate at a local level (at that undisclosed location), it is clear that in the end, for whatever reason, the story lacked legs and for the time being has vanished from sight. This is a good thing IMO.

Media in general, and video in particular can have a documentary role. But it seems better suited for celebrating achievement and documenting the many beautiful and good things about climbing. Its use in exposing malfeasance is something that I think we all feel a bit uncomfortable about (unless it involves stealing quickdraws at Smith Rock) and in the future I am sure anyone proposing such a tactic will think again before they follow through with it. It seems that in the end, the best way to settle this kind of dispute is still discussing it in person, away from the spotlight and not on the public channels of the Internet. Despite the growth of the sport, I hope this remains the case for a long long time into the future.

Monday, March 11, 2013

High Contrast: What Does the Simple Life Mean?

Cedar Wright just released a video about Alex Honnold (who's been in a lot of videos these days) and him climbing somewhere in Chile  but with the angle of meditating on the environmental crises caused by modern high-consumption lifestyles. After watching I was struck mostly by the contradictions raised by the piece, contradictions picked up by some of the comments at the Vimeo page.

Now accusations of hypocrisy or at least inconsistency are neither here nor there in the climbing world. Pots calling kettles black is all in a day's work. But it's clear that the message of the video is that somehow we need to change our way of life ( a message I wholeheartedly agree with) and reduce the consumption of valuable resources that sustain our planet. There are a number of context-free vignettes of street concerts in Chile and portraits of locals who, it seems to be implied, are living low-stress, less materialistic lifestyles than those of us, say in Boulder Colorado. Now this may be the case. Unfortunately we don't actually hear from them. Instead Alex narrates the virtues of the simple life prompted by his reading various environmentally themed books (Bill Mckibben comes up, for example). A few quotes from the film give a sense of this:

"With slightly different priorities, people could be content with less stuff"

"Climbing is an interesting vehicle in which to see this world and to explore the idea of simplicity and harmonious living"

And so on. Now my point in writing is not to take either Alex or Cedar to task for promoting what is a pretty important theme, that materialism and consumption are not worthy ends in themselves. It's more about what the film, and it's pretty short, leaves out. For example, it does nothing to explore the ways in which sponsors like Black Diamond and North Face promote consumption and whether they are installing solar panels and taking steps to offset impact. Alex and Cedar are not going to be able to live the simple life in Chile without a substantial number of climbers buying gear, gear that the people filmed in Chile (and I am guessing here) would not be able to afford. Suppose we all decided to live the simple life and go climbing in Chile? What would happen to the environment in that beautiful mountain valley?

It's riddled with contradictions like this and ignores the obvious truth that a lot of infrastructure supports the simple life, a life that, it should be pointed out, is not sustainable as it does not produce the basic goods required for life and is devoid of the real challenges of community and family. Climbing rocks and making film depends on a lot of other people doing the kind of real work that is conveniently ignored in "High Contrast." This work is ignored because it doesn't promote the lifestyle dream that is what BD, North Face, etc. are actually selling. Which leaves us with the biggest problem with these brand-oriented lifestyle videos. Nobody asks the hard questions in them since that will create the perception that it's getting "negative" or "too critical." It would be really nice if there was a proper film on the subject of the contradictions inherent in outdoor sports consumption. Let's see if Yvon Chouinard, recently grumping in Outside about polo shirts and Skymall, will sponsor it.

As Alex says near the end, "the thing is, it's all super-complicated...It's hard to know what the impacts of your actions are."

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Adam Ondra's Change:

A video has been making the rounds in the past few days that is really worth the time to watch. It features Adam Ondra and the route called Change in Flatanger Norway, a spectacular cave by the ocean and rated 5.15c. It's part of a bigger project by the excellent photographer Petr Pavlíček about the route and the journey, literally and mentally, that Adam took to get there.

 I really liked this short, not least because it seems to hint at a different direction for climbing films. Here's a comment from the director at the Vimeo page "The new movie Change will be not a pure climbing movie, more adventurous movie (traveling, exploring, hiking, canoeing etc etc), but with a lot of climbing, of course. Some may like it, some will not, time will show..." I welcome any indications that climbing video is breaking out of the tired formulaic models of the past.

 And if that video wasn't enough, scope out this piece from Desnivel about a project called Somos in Spain. 9a+ to 9a?

Speaking of reviews, look for a review of Paul Robinson and Alex Kahn's Chasing Winter in the next few days along with a trivia "competition" for a free download.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Bro-Media and Climbing

The other day I watched a video which is about a giant rope swing somewhere in the desert southwest (a "secret spot" dude!) and which culminates, if that's the right  word, with a young woman being pushed off the edge of the cliff after hesitating for  a while about jumping herself. Adventure Journal commented, a bit callously IMO, in a post called, "How to Lose Your Girlfriend in One Easy Push." In another response, from Expand Outdoors, the author  stated, regarding this kind of pressure, that NO means NO and I think the implied comparison to sexual assault is not out of line. I have seen this kind of pressure put on women by their partners before and it's ugly and stupid.

But setting aside the incredible callousness of the individual who pushed the woman off the edge, I was struck by the unbelievably stupid and callous nature of the whole production. The disregard for the environment was everywhere. No mention was made of whether this was public or private property, whether they had permission to place fixed anchors, whether they were going to clean up the site, whether they had trampled on desert ecosystems to get there, and so on. Throughout the video, repeated plugs for commercial interests involved popped up, narrated by an oblivious yet gregarious "host" who was hyping the whole production. Ignorance and fakery permeated the whole thing.

If the term doesn't already exist, let call it "bro-media" and be grateful that for the most part it doesn't exist in climbing. Though the internet seems ready-made for jackassery like the video described above, climbing has resisted the siren call of mass publicity (Bear Grylls are you ready for your close-up?) and avoided making silly videos like this. Way way back in the dawn of sport-climbing history in the US, we met the Rock Warriors but, bless their hearts, we never heard from them again.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Taking Risks: A Question

Just caught this on Facebook this morning and it's well worth a read. Climbers are always debating whether risk is worth it but I wonder if we really get down to the heart of the problem, which is why are we actually climbing?

There is a situation on Broad Peak right now where the first winter ascent of this 8000er has been marred by the likely demise of two members of the team. Read Simone Moro's take on it and ask whether his final claim makes sense:

 "Man wants to be where his thoughts drive him. On the moon, Mars, Venus, in the oceans, caves, abysses, deserts and mountains. This is what winter mountaineering is all about. The desire to be and go where man has not yet succeeded, and it is because of this that one day Nanga Parbat and K2 will also be attempted, and climbed, in winter."

At what point does this drive to "succeed" ultimately become self-defeating?