Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Trouble with Hubble: Be a Climbing Locavore

The climbing manufacturer Mammut has been releasing a series of short videos about classic hard routes from the beginning of sport climbing. Most recently Hubble, in the Peak District in England and freed by Ben Moon in 1990, came in for this treatment with a short segment featuring Sean McColl, the super-strong Canadian climber. McColl came in for some heckling because he wore a kneepad in order to kneebar his way through the undercling crux. I had a theory that McColl was set up by some Sheffield locals in the pub the night before. These locals saw that since McColl was new to the Peak climbing scene, he could be persuaded that,"of course we're all kneebarring this (iconic power) route these days." This might explain a certain sense of detachment that can be seen on the part of Ben Moon when McColl discusses the beta he's using. Regardless, the film concludes with McColl walking away empty-handed as all contenders have done since Steve McClure.

Here's the Mammut video:

Here's Steve McClure on it with no kneebars along with footage of Ben Moon on it.

Ire was expressed at ukbouldering.com http://ukbouldering.com/board/index.php?topic=24273.0 where this kind of situation was seen as a national emergency, which in a way it is, primarily because what the route represented and still represents for British climbing. In an era where "pros" seem to spend most of their time on 40 meter monster pitches in sunny Spain (whatever happened to France?) or on quickly forgotten film projects in some previously unheard of remote tropical/desert/arctic locale, Hubble is a semi-obscure relic of an era when top climbers in Sheffield had issues affording bus fare to far-flung destinations such as Cheedale. During my time in England, only a few years before Hubble, affording the 2 or 3 pound round trip fare to the limestone areas in the Peak was a real issue, one that apparently also hampered the efforts of the second ascensionist Malcolm Smith.

 Thanks in part to the overtaking of media production by commercial interests, climbers get the impression that the best chance of recognition and sponsorship comes from tackling projects that look good, that are so-called "king-lines." A certain degree of scorn is visited upon local testpieces that lack the perceived quality of routes or problems in celebrated (and often more softly graded) areas. For sponsor-fed media, grades, which are hard to settle on and even harder to portray on video, are secondary to photogenic qualities which can be reproduced for branding possibilities across multiple social media platforms. The reality of these king-lines often enough turns out to be more complicated in retrospect. Does anyone remember Ambrosia or Luminance in the Buttermilks?

 Relatively scruffy short roadside testpieces such as Hubble are overlooked today. Indeed it is easy to write off failure on such routes as the inevitable effects of their "uninspiring" nature. Even Adam Ondra felt it necessary to apologize for both his Hubble-like 5.15c  route Vasil Vasil and the 2011 V16 (and still unrepeated) boulder problem Terranova. Sadly both will probably go unrepeated unless someone puts up a bounty of some sort. There is no question that  Hubble clearly needs to be upgraded.

  In my view this situation has got to change and should be actively discouraged by all means possible. Are we reaching a point where many elite climbers actively avoid investing effort in creating and repeating local testpieces,  instead pursuing photogenic sponsored projects in distant attractive and "exotic" locales? My view is that the future is in local testpieces which among other things offer more sustainable climbing practices and much lower carbon footprints. Here in Colorado, I feel especially blessed with the plethora of local roadside projects across the difficulty spectrum. Lacking the mysteriously copious financial resources of my underemployed peers, I will have to make a virtue of necessity and remain a climbing locavore. I hope that others follow in the footsteps of climbers like Dave Graham and Daniel Woods, who, in addition to various globe-trotting adventures, have found so many good accessible problems here on the Front Range. Who will produce the next Hubble?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Clif Hanger: Raising the Bar on Sponsorship?

The latest mini-whirlwind to strike the micro-world of climbing was the announcement, first made by Rock and Ice, then confirmed by the company, that Clif Bar was no longer sponsoring five climbers (and no I won't call them "athletes" or "ambassadors"), the most prominent of whom, Alex Honnold, is primarily known for hair-raising solo exploits. Vituperation was swift from the Internets, including a remarkable variety of unflattering flavor comparisons and vows to never eat Clif Bar products again, because you know, there's a picture of a climber on the wrapper and now Clif Bar hates climbing. Or something. Clif Bar will surely rue the several thousand dollars it loses from all the slackliners out there who will take a hard stand against this injustice

Clif Bar's take on this was relatively sane. As a company with over 500 mil in sales, they realized the potential for liability lawsuits and bad publicity linked with promotional material featuring soloing, especially.  The statement noted:
 "We concluded that these forms of the sport are pushing boundaries and taking the element of risk to a place where we as a company are no longer willing to go. We understand that some climbers feel these forms of climbing are pushing the sport to new frontiers. But we no longer feel good about benefitting from the amount of risk certain athletes are taking in areas of the sport where there is no margin for error; where there is no safety net."

 The rest of the world, outside of climbing, tends to be horrified by the thought of climbers plummeting to their deaths from a high height, and finds statements such as "at least he/she died doing what he loved" small consolation to those left behind. The company's association with the Yosemite "outlaw" epic "Valley Uprising" (in the spirit of which, can someone send me a bootleg copy so I can review it? Just kidding, kind of....) must have clarified some thinking up in the executive suite as well since illegal BASE jumping and drug consumption, among other diversions, feature prominently.

The climbers let go were relatively nonplussed because, well, you have to be when every OR can bring the hatchet down on your measly stipend. This stuff happens, like, a lot. Apparently Clif Bar had second thoughts with a couple of them but Cedar Wright rebuffed the offer of renewed affiliation, being quoted in the New York Times as saying, "It’s like your girlfriend who breaks up with you and wants to get back together. But she’s not really that loyal.” I wonder though, if one had a girlfriend worth half a billion and is paying you to go climbing, whether there are more than a few self-professed "dirtbags" who could overcome their scruples to come back, for a little longer anyway. But I digress.

So what's the upshot of all this? Mostly the sorry spectacle of a climbing scene once again seriously overestimating its marketing clout, let alone its purchasing power, and even more laughable, endorsing the notion that somehow a company has a responsibility to support climbers and activities that are "pushing the boundaries of the sport" or whatever it is that sponsored climbers are supposed to do. I'm sure we can all think of prominently publicized and sponsored climbers who are not all that. If I name a few everybody will hate me so discuss amongst yourselves.

Perhaps most laughable of all is the utter absence of actual dollar figures, that perennial conversational staple of sports with real compensation. If an NFL player is let go because of criminal activity, we know what's at stake. A lot of green. But in climbing, what are we talking about? What a lousy semi-pro golfer makes at a master's tournament? Is this like academia, where it is said, "the fighting is so fierce because the stakes are so low"? Will we never know what so-called pro climbers actually earn, what  kind of income they are supposed to be risking their necks for? Apparently that topic is reserved for the lower orders in the climbing hive such as the Sherpas on Everest who actually work and really risk their necks and are dying en masse in recent years.

None of the media covering the story bothered to ask and nobody has offered to tell. That all fits nicely into the self-deceptive narratives of climbing and its threadbare concepts of individual freedom and independence. How gauche to discuss money and corporate policy and while we're at it, damn the man for not paying me to climb rocks! Whatever. Dear pro-wannabes, my advice is, if Clif Bar comes knocking, answer the door quickly and reply nicely, even enthusiastically, "YES." And wear a helmet while you're at it. Plenty of room for sponsor stickers there.

(Full disclosure: I have eaten many Clif Bars including the frequent free samples left at local gyms, and not having such sensitive taste buds as others in the climbing community, have found them delicious)

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Change: A Review of the new film from Petr Pavlicek

For various reasons I have been uninterested in writing recently, in part at least because I have been spending every spare moment either bouldering or playing guitar. And besides that what is there to write about? Climbing is in deep stasis right now and shaving a few seconds off an El Cap speed record or creating a Kickstarter video for your latest media project is not going to change anything very much. We are all in self-promotion mode these days, everyone a brand ambassador for something or another, even if it's only ourselves.

The state of climbing media feels more closely brand-driven than ever as companies have embraced the need to "tell their story" to viewers who are busy telling their own stories via social media in the hopes that a brand will be interested in picking it up to make them a brand ambassador/athlete so they can tell their stories with a cool #hashtag attached. This has made for a remarkably homogenous series of productions featuring agreeable photogenic people getting to the top of things with the assistance of slider shots, focus pulls and plenty of time lapse. At some point I just began to swear off watching anything involving climbing, at least until I saw this:

I Heart Estes from scientia on Vimeo.

Then I got a FB message from the maker of 2012's sprawling and uneven Wizard's Apprentice and saw a glimpse of light on the horizon that promised to cut through the torpor. His long postponed film about Adam Ondra's 9b+ first ascent in Norway from 2012 was finally ready. Two hours in length and described on the author's website as unconventional, Change, named after the climb it chronicles, seemed like a film that I needed to see.

It opens up with a disclaimer of sorts, namely that the filmmaker was tired of making films, that he wanted to get away from the crowds and media frenzy that seems to constantly surround Adam Ondra in the competition scene and the currently hot crags in Spain. Only when Ondra himself enters the narration in earnest do we find Pavlicek willing once more to document his next big project, far from the scene of Llieda or Oliana. Instead it's found in the colossal cave known by climbers as Flatanger, north of Trondheim in Norway.

Indeed one of the most remarkable things about this film is the deep involvement of Adam in its making. He personally narrates roughly 2/3 or more of it and does a fantastic job with a sincere and straightforward style that stands in marked contrast to his trademark screams on the actual routes. While the film focuses almost entirely on him, there is not a trace of ego or boasting in his voice or delivery.

The narrative arc of the film follows Adam from his decision to bail on going to university in 2012 and instead find a personal challenge on a route of his own, having by this time climbed almost every other high-end sport climb in the rest of Europe. Petr wants to take him north to Norway to what is in a sense the last frontier in European climbing and so it begins. Over the next few months we visit a number of crags and boulders in Sweden and Norway, ultimately focusing on Flatanger and the struggle to link up the monster pitch that will be called Change. We know that Adam will succeed; what we find out is how he changes along the way.

Especially refreshing is the normality with which he climbs routes and boulders, most of them at a stratospheric level of difficulty. With just a few friends and a very small camera crew (i.e. Petr and his friend Barbara), Ondra appears to be simply going climbing, not as part of an entourage. The sense of solitude and remoteness is enhanced by the lack of crowds and a scene. A short sequence of a bouldering comp underscores the point of how contrived and even aggravating such events can be. It's with a real sense of relief that we get back to the sublime glaciated landscapes of northern Norway

For those viewers used to a more aggressively plotted and edited mode of film making, the leisurely pace of Change may prove an obstacle. Petr and Adam have more than just a story of a climb to tell. This film is about retreat and renewal in the heart of a remote environment that one hopes will never attract the media circus which plagues more accessible locales. As the days and attempts on the project mount up, the film shifts its focus subtly but inevitably towards this environment and its extraordinary personality and presence, shaped by primal forces of ice and fire. It's a powerful and brooding granite landscape where every climb and feature is geometrically sculpted to some degree and then shaped by water and time.

In the end, this sense of place is what won me over the most. Change is a film that inspires the viewer to find meaning in place, not merely to chase a big number but to realize one's potential deep in a natural world that is full of so many more possibilities than we can even imagine. It certainly spoke to my own interests as a climber, writer, and artist in a way that most media out there does not. Change is far and away the best climbing film I have seen in a very long time.

Movie website with lots of extras including photos and video

Download link:

A look into the process of making the film

Adam Ondra - Change - Backstage movie from BERNARTWOOD on Vimeo.

Here are some stills I picked from the film.

Adam Ondra on an 8B+/8C in Metre

The massive cave at Flatanger

Adam on his 9a+ Thor's Hammer

Adam on the infamous low crux on Change 9b+

Mist over the mountains of Norway

One of dozens of remarkable scenic shots

The extraordinary glaciated coast of Norway

Mountains and water!