Sunday, February 16, 2014

Notes from A GenX Climber

I am not necessarily a fan of defining generational eras, not least because it always seems to boil down to what cool bands you listened to in your 20s. And whining about your fate in the clutches of a less-than-providential historical trajectory seems so, well, negative in the age of social media's Upworthy-esque positivity and uplift. Given the contemporary emphasis on personal brand-building and the "community," it's hard to imagine that there was once a time when many top climbers apparently had an attitude problem best summarized by the 1991 profile of American star Jim Karn titled " The Positive Aspects of Negative Thinking."

I think this stereotype of so-called Generation X has persisted into the present era with remarkable durability. The lycra tights, the wobblers, the dieting, the finicky obsession with technical mastery are all seen as hallmarks of a best forgotten age. Almost without exception the climbers from that era have disappeared from the common knowledge and history of the sport. I think this ought to be changed.

The period of 1985 to 1995 was plagued by dysfunction on a lot of levels but I think its bad reputation is wildly overstated. Among other things this period marked the last time that Americans male or female were serious contenders on the world competition stage. It was also one of the most creative periods in American climbing as the focus shifted from the well-known areas of the 60s and 70s such as Yosemite and Eldorado Canyon to radically different locales such as Smith Rock, American Fork, and Rifle. That era is almost 30 years old yet I don't sense a lot of enthusiasm for remembering it. No photocopied articles or extended reminiscences on Supertopo or coffee-table books  sold through Patagonia books. At least so far.

I think it is increasingly an article of belief that modern sport climbing and bouldering suddenly emerged fully formed in the person of Chris Sharma, a genial and phenomenally talented wunderkind who appeared to refute the intensity and obsessive approach of earlier leaders in the sport. Well maybe. But what is forgotten is the degree to which the leaders of new trends in climbing in the 80s were quite literally attacked by the old guard. Comments by the likes of John Bachar or Henry Barber that hard sport climbing was the equivalent of golf or that the likes of Fred Nicole were merely number-chasing Euros were matched by the destructive and hypocritical bolting wars (of which I was part of). In other words, there was next to no genuine support or positive recognition from the older guard that the world of climbing was changing. Karn lived in Europe in a cheap tent on terrible food while competing in the World Cup. Meaningful sponsorship was unheard of. Too many top-level climbers from the mid-80s to the mid-90s were considered the bastard stepchildren of the sport. We even had the famous "You Suck!" article by Dave Pegg in 1996. There was a reason we sucked and it wasn't just about anorexia and bad attitudes. Who really wanted us to get as good as the Europeans? Answer: not too many people, especially of the previous generation.

This changed with the arrival of the cute and youthful stars who emerged in the mid 1990s such as Sharma, Tommy Caldwell, Beth Rodden and Tori Allen. Often with substantial parental support or at least approval, they swiftly eclipsed their predecessors, breezing past the obstacles once posed by the old guard of the past. Climbing became a youth sport, not the pursuit of grumpy old men obsessed with ethical purity. Suddenly nobody cared about bolting on rappel. "Number-chasing" was seen as a media-savvy move for climber and manufacturer. Selling-out became a mark of authenticity and commitment to the sport, not a cause for ostracism.

For climbers who came of age in the GenX era, there is a certain satisfaction in seeing the old verities and personalities that dismissed their dreams now fading from view, or at least issued restraining orders, as in the case of Ken Nichols. Sport and gym climbing, and of course competitions are now the standard, not the exception. Bouldering is not just "for practice" anymore. Climbers from the US are still mostly irrelevant in the international scene, with only a few exceptions. And oddly, outside a very very elite crew, the standards set by the climbers of 20 years ago have proven quite hard to get past.

The standard take on Generation X is that they were the most neglected children in American history, overshadowed by the sheer numbers and cultural momentum of the Baby Boomer and superceded by the successive generations,Generation Y and the Millenials. I think this has been echoed in the climbing world to a large extent and those of us who emerged as young adults in the later 1980s are more or less resigned to it. Perhaps, however, a few more people will begin to look around and recognize the degree to which the shape of the sport of climbing is defined by the ideas and ultimately the attitudes of a now obscure group of climbers.