Saturday, May 25, 2013

Late Spring in RMNP

Since the semester ended I have been trying to get up to speed for summer season in the Park. For most of the local bouldering cadre, Wild Basin is the place to be, and I am sure I will visit soon. However more often than not, I like to seek out solitude and especially like locations closer to treeline and the Continental Divide. Lots of snow came late to the Front Range so the high peaks are still deeply covered including of course the boulders in Lower and Upper Chaos. That said, some problems are totally melted out and despite a long slow and tiring approach I have been making real progress on Element of Surprise and the right exit version.
In the coming weeks, a number of problems should be coming into shape, or will need minimal digging. The Centaur boulder is melting out quickly and Tommy's is climbable right now. I would not be surprised if a number of boulders in Upper are ready with in a few weeks but I have not been up there yet to confirm. I have used snowshoes for my last two visits as the snow fields have been pretty soft and the trail has been very post-hole prone.

I have also put in a few visits to Elkland, trying Afrika Bambaataa, a classic V12 crimp problem with a very frustrating first move. It's just around the corner from Bridge of Ashes and a very short walk from the road. The main issue with this problem is that it's getting too warm to deal with the very small holds. By the way, during a recent session I cleaned a potential right exit that heads out to the arete which could add some difficulty.

On my most recent visit, I found a little gem of a problem that I am calling Two Claws (V8). It takes an overhung dihedral and then surfs out right to top out. Good landing, technical moves and a nice line, all close to the road.

All in all I am feeling motivated and ready to take down some longstanding projects after shedding the sloth of winter!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Midnight Lightning versus What Really Matters

Midnight Lightning without the "bolt"
The other day it was announced that a key measure of climate change had passed a significant threshold. We are now enjoying an average of 400 PPM of C02 in the atmosphere, a level not seen since since the Pliocene and the highest since records starting being kept in 1958. The implications of this rapid change are sobering, not least for anyone concerned about the environment and the natural world. However any reactions on this topic from the climbing community seemed a faint whisper compared to the outrage that greeted a blog post from James Lucas in which he confessed to having erased the famous lightning bolt inscribed in chalk beside Midnight Lightning in Yosemite.

 In comments to his blog, James was called just about every name in the book, invited to commit numerous depraved acts, and of course threatened with physical violence. I am guessing that the majority of these internet bravos would be unable to leave the ground on said problem, let alone make good on their promises of bodily assault. The Supertopo forum was, predictably, full of bluster and sentimental rhapsodizing, and some sensible comments too. Perhaps the best was complimenting James as the "king of trolls" though I think his gesture constituted much more than that.

 Coming from the visual arts, I was impressed by two things. First the investment so many had in this symbol, an investment more typical of religious or political imagery and marked with the same rhetoric. Second, and perhaps more remarkable, was the fact that this symbol bore all the hallmarks of an old work of art with years of alteration, restoration, previous erasures and fill-ins, so much so in fact, that it is arguable that no authentic "original" Midnight Lightning Bolt actually exists anymore. In other words it became more a ritual intertwined with memory and history, made even more evocative by the recent death of John Bachar. The bolt had a kind of votive aspect, reinforced by the quasi-sacred status that Yosemite Valley holds in American climbing.

 In the 1950s the young artist Robert Rauschenburg erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning, a more senior and recognized painter. De Kooning supplied a drawing that was selected specifically for the purpose and which took Rauschenburg quite a lot of work to erase. Simultaneously an act of rejection and homage, the erasure of De Kooning's drawing both enhanced and undermined the aura of the work of art as an object. Ironically the erased drawing is in a museum in San Francisco, only a few hours drive from the Columbia Boulder.

 Now whether James was aware of this precedent or not, I find it a compelling parallel, this staging of a symbolic conflict between generations, one enacted by Bachar's generation in examples such as the drawing of the bolt and the iconic "Nose-in-a-day" photo, itself an image intended to respond to previous team images of previous decades and then replicated and parodied over the years. I think many climbers have an ambivalent feeling about this kind of myth making and preservation. On the one hand, they see the myths and symbols adding context and meaning to their actions. On the other, they have to acknowledge that the truth behind the symbols and legends is more complicated and messy than the stories and pictures convey.


 The kinds of erasures that bother me more than chalk marks on a boulder are the ones that come before the chalk is ever applied. For example, a recent video I saw opened with climbers preparing for their ascents by shoveling off a carpet of dirt, leaves, and lichen (in other words, an entire ecosystem) at the top of a problem, vigorous scrubbing with a wire brush, and boulder trundling. I suspect the video has been deleted at least in part because its makers realized that it sent the wrong message to land managers, the general public, and not least, other climbers who might regard these methods as legitimate when opening problems on public lands.

 I am not claiming innocence in these matters. I have used wire brushes and modified landings myself, trying always to minimize my impact, but recognizing its presence. Any serious climber has modified the natural state of a climb at some point, killing things, however small, to create a route. My point is not to single out individuals for blame but instead to suggest that climber outrage towards the erasure of a few grams of chalk is misplaced when our environment is under constant siege from human activity, including climbing. Even the air we breathe is being altered in ways that may ultimately prove fatal to entire regions and the species they support. Can climbers muster more sympathy towards the natural environments they visit and work towards a better understanding of them instead of continuing on a path of alteration, consumption and degradation?

 The bolt on Midnight Lightning was a symbol, a ghost even, of something long since gone away. Personally I find the erased boulder more compelling, as it evokes the time before the problem was climbed, when it was just a vision. But also its erasure also marks an absence, a sobering reminder of the transience and ephemerality at the heart of climbing, how passing time will reduce even the gigantic Columbia boulder to sand. Nature will come back in its own time and grow over our attempts to make our mark, and thank heaven for that.

Last weekend I saw this up on Flagstaff Mountain. With the aid of a pine cone and the abundant snow that was rapidly melting in the warm spring sunshine, I erased it in a few minutes and went on with my day.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Chelsea Versus Brooklyn

Longer posts in the works. In the meantime, watch this:

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Unrest on Everest: Some Thoughts on Leisure and Capital

Over the past weekend the climbing world was afire with reports of a high-altitude confrontation between three elite Western mountaineers and a group of native Nepali climbers (I am no longer certain that "Sherpa" is appropriate usage) high on the Lhotse Face of Everest. There are literally dozens of accounts of the incident but the best are probably from UKClimbing and Planet Mountain. The apparent underlying cause of the incident, which involved verbal and physical assault as well as death threats, was a perceived encroachment on the terrain and tasks that the Nepali group was involved with as they were fixing ropes for the spring season on the regular route. I won't relate or try to reconcile the varying accounts of what happened, and I am sure that the final word has not been said (nor may ever be said) about what actually happened. Certainly the incident was serious enough to cause Ueli Steck to state publicly "My trust is gone. I could not go back to this mountain."

One of the issues that is lying just below the surface in many of these accounts is the uneasy relationship between the native economy, native labor, and Western capital. I am not sure how much it is a matter of public record the degree to which Nepal depends on a regular infusion of money via the single destination of Everest's summit. There is no question that Nepal is not a rich country by Western standards and that tourist and mountaineering traffic is a crucial economic benefit. Even for an American or European of means, Everest is a substantial investment of time and money, an investment that, by the way, sees no reciprocity from Nepalese citizens in terms of their ability to travel to America or Europe to climb. Nor is it clear to me exactly how the entire country of Nepal benefits from this kind of activity. I am not sure that the interested parties would be entirely enthusiastic about this question being explored more deeply. There is no question in my mind that the lack of clarity regarding even terminology for "Sherpas" and what they do and how they are paid reflects the problems with a relationship that has its roots in an oppressive colonial past, a past that reverberates into the present.

This brings me back to the deeper problem, one that the climbing world seems reluctant to face, that climbing is, at its heart, a pursuit of the economically privileged often in areas of the world where such privilege might be viewed with suspicion and hostility. I think climbers like to believe that somehow by expending time and capital (which in the West are pretty much the same thing) in a pursuit that is basically useless, that somehow it's innocent or at least innocuous. Climbing narratives return time and again to freedom and appeal to the notion that in the mountains you are somehow free of the structures of society. In the eyes of one author, "Everest is not for climbers" because of "the dues—not dollars—I believe one should pay in order to be granted access to earth’s most rarified places." To me, this sentiment illustrates perfectly the myopia in the climbing world, the failure to see that dues paid in the mountains, any mountains, (I can't help but think of them a bit as country clubs here) are intimately linked with dollars and their relatively easy availability. I agree with the thesis that Everest is now a site dominated by commercialism. But ultimately so is every other major climbing area, to some degree or another. I look at the price of climbing equipment, tickets for flights to far-off places, opportunity costs for not working and I ask, "Who can afford this?" The myth of "dirtbag" freedom and the realities of economics rudely collide in our culture, which bestows, with documented increasing regularity, its economic blessings on an ever-narrowing caste, a caste which defines itself in no small part by rituals of recreational consumption, whether on the slopes of Everest or elsewhere. The freedom of the hills requires fairly high start-up costs for most of us.

I don't expect too much analysis of the 2013 Everest season to dwell on these deeper issues. So much media energy is spent on creating images (verbal and pictorial) for consumption by sponsors and consumers alike that it is inevitable, indeed even essential, that the tensions highlighted by this tragic episode be papered over and the parties involved agree to an uneasy truce. The show must go on. But responsible writers on this episode, in my view, will have to return to this fundamental contradiction at the heart of the sport, that our pursuit of freedom and personal fulfillment will ultimately have a cost to someone or something, somewhere.