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.


AlanL said...

> Climbers from the US are still mostly irrelevant in the international scene, with only a few exceptions.

As a non-American, I wonder if you aren't putting your countrymen down a little there.

I don't follow the bouldering scene that much, but I have the general impression that the like of Dave Graham, Paul Robinson, Daniel Woods and Jimmy Webb are rather major presences. Ashima? Alex Puccio? Chris Sharma is still one of only two people to have climbed 9b+. Sasha? Steve House?

I'd say that's probably about as many internationally prominent top climbers as I could name off the top of my head for most countries, even if most of them are boulderers.

France absolutely dominated the sport climbing and competition scene in the years you're talking about. Name a significant French climber now.

Peter Beal said...

I still stand by that. I know the entire crew you mentioned. Of them, Daniel Woods is by far the most important internationally. By the new world standard, Megos, Ondra, etc., we are way behind. There are many unknown males in Europe with comparable records to the rest. On the comp side males don't even show up. On the female side, the numbers tell the same story. Only a tiny few stand out. You can still get noticed as a woman for doing 14a despite the fact that Mia Axon did 14a in the VRG in 1996, the 4th woman overall.

There are very good French climbers out there doing 5.15 and V15 such as Enzo Oddo. However it is much harder to stand out in the European scene these days.

Anonymous said...

Megos and Ondra aside who else are you comparing these guys to? Jimmy Webb has flashed more V13 boulders than anyone in the world. Dave Graham has done enough international development of hard bouldering to warrant a Nobel Prize. Chris Sharma is Chris Sharma. Mirko is 13 years old and climbs V14 and 5.14. Ashima is the leader of the young gun club. Daniel spends the majority of his time climbing outside and still manages to win bouldering world cups against Europeans training exclusively for the comp circuit. Angie Payne is one of only a very small group of women to climb V13. I could go on but it seems uncessary.

Peter Beal said...

I wish you would go on as I think you will run out of names pretty quickly, especially anyone who has figured prominently on the international scene besides the climbers you have mentioned. I think if you do an 8a search on ascents of 8B+ or 8c+/9a or harder, the numbers will point toward Europeans in a 7 or 8 to 1 ratio at least. In competition, there is no question as to who is achieving more. No American male has come close to Jim Karn's international comp record.

Jeff Struck said...

I don't know, Peter. I'm not convinced that "almost without exception the climbers from that era have disappeared from the common knowledge and history of the sport." Ron Kauk, Lynn Hill, Robyn Erbesfield (& Didier), Bobbi Bensman, John Sherman, John Bacher, Alan Watts, Christian Griffith, Wolfgang Gullich, Ben Moon, Jerry Moffatt, Francois Legrand, etc. It seems to me that these climbers and many more left a very prominent and indelible imprint on the sport, and folks I know are very much aware of them. In my mind, this is when the sport came of age.

AlanL said...

On Udo Neumann's list of 9a and above sport ascents I count around 60 Europeans and 14 Americans. Not as wildly disproportionate as you think, given that Europe has roughly double the population of North America. And most of the names were familiar to me, so I doubt the existence of this Euro-army of near-Megos-standard unknown crushers.

Sure Udo's list is probably not comprehensive and Euro-biased, but ditto for on both counts.

(No British male has come close to Simon Nadin's international comp record, but it's not something L personally lose any sleep over)

Peter Beal said...

I would suggest that you look at the number of ascents of 9a routes by European versus Americans, not indivuduals who have done one. I think it will be much more lopsided towards Europeans since their top climbers have typically done more than one or two as is more likely the case here in the states.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if this is another extension of Gen X as the me generation. Climbing became "safe," and now the generation that pioneered the gym is asking why they don't receive the same respect as the generation who pioneered Yosemite, AK, and Alpine Style?

Anyways, if you answer please keep it short. I'm a Millenial and will only skim it.

Peter Beal said...

Anon Millenial,
Though your generation is used to having everything handed to you, I will have to pass on replying :)

Chris Weidner said...

Thanks Peter. Excellent article!

Chris said...

Coincidentally, I was looking through a box of old Climbing mags from the '90s the other day. There is a lot of history there and just as post states some great stories, from the crazy diets (bran flakes with apple juice anyone?) to the bolt wars.

I think what's needed is a compelling writer to frame early US sport climbing history in a modern context. As an analogy, few people had heard of Jim Holloway before John Sherman wrote about him. Some great writing and a bunch of Epperson, Thornburg, etc. photos would do a lot to capture this unique and somewhat hermetic era.

Peter, from the perspective of long-form writing, perhaps this is your calling?

Anonymous said...

WOW ! hmm were to begin, you can’t paint that era with a wide brush. It was not that black and white. Without the influx of the large numbers of new climbers in the 80s and90s who had $$ to spend on the two magazines and the rest of the gear, the American climbing scene, indoor gyms and competitive events would not have been possible. The ability to gain recognition during those days often depended on who you knew and if they liked you not what you knew or climbed.
1st of all I and a hoard of other lonely climbers had to get a life!
There was no paid to climb lifestyle. Those of us that could, climbed for life and did. It kept us sane and off drugs. Some began to teach/guide and were staunchly attacked, run off and excommunicated from the rest of us dirt bags. A call went up to earn a living from, climbing regulation; the slash that led to thousands of cuts to the freedom that had drawn many of us to the vertical world in the first place. I and many others played hard and fast, trespassing wherever we saw ice or rock never leaving any flags of ego. To get good photos was expensive and took away from the light and fast approach that was the safest way to climb.(pre digital photography)
The majority of the climbers who climbed at the highest levels in the 80s & 90s were assholes to the younger or unknown climbers. Many of the people that I refer to would not share a rope and often put the up and coming climbers in real danger Sandbagging etc. Some of these illiterate bastards did still unspeakable acts of mischief, and others would have, (beyond chopping bolts) if they had had any imagination, and not been half-wits. They formed a new old boy network, closed ranks and tried to charge for admission. If you had a really big set of balls and a knack for social suicide you could earn a climbing life style, but not a living with a good future.
Skinner, Hill, Piana and a few others started to change that and the economics started to change. Gyms, sponsorship and accredited (pay to play) climbing only took hold as we old goats started to, have had enough, got lives with a future, and /or got the chop.
You who have posited here need to realize that many great climbers SHUNNED THE LIMELIGHT and ducked the regulations so as to get paid to drag paying climbers around the world. Many are still out there, some ignore or cannot afford the withering depression caused by the Internet and others do not have any extra time or scratch ($$) to waste trying to out the old stories.
I fully understand the need of the blog to edit, sensor or wholly dismiss this rant. I am ever in debt to those who shared the knowledge and their wisdom happily. Fritz Wiessner, Hans Kraus, Wally, Krist and Tor Raubenheimer and others who showed me the ropes, let me climb out of the child abuse that was the cheese wiz and Tang 70’s so that I could waste a good education on the pursuit of climbing.