Friday, September 21, 2012

You don't actually know why you climb, do you?


A Simple Question from EASTERN MOUNTAIN SPORTS on Vimeo.

Why do you climb? Simple question, but for me, there's no simple answer. I tried to figure it out, and probably failed. So when I saw this video making the rounds, I expected nothing but too-easy answers to what I think is a deceptively complicated question. And that's basically what I got.

Take, for example, the dude at 0:19: "'Cause I'm an addict." To me, that's not even an answer; it's a dodge. It basically screams for the obvious follow up: "OK, but why are you an addict?" which is just a rephrasing of the original question. It's almost like answering with "I climb because I climb."

And, OK, if I'm forced to be charitable, it's an equivalent answer to all the folks who give some variation on the "it's fun" response. Clearly that guy finds climbing fun or rewarding and that's why he climbs. But still, that's basically a given for anyone you would even bother to ask this question, so I'm back to my original frustration. I want to know, if you can articulate it, what the factors are that make climbing fun and rewarding to you.

Some folks in the video attempt to do that (0:35, 0:45, 0:54, 1:53, 2:17) and more might give interesting responses in a different format, since they're restricted to a tiny, fragmentary sound bite here. And I realize that the point of this video isn't to get to the psychological roots of why people enjoy climbing. It's just a cute short thing to promote the sport and an outdoor brand. That's fine. But I want more.

So, has anyone written, spoken, or filmed a serious attempt to answer the question in depth? What's the best answer you've ever heard? What's your best answer?

Friday, September 07, 2012

Is Trad Rad? Part 2: Recombeast

Pitch 3 of Recompense at Cathedral Ledge in NH
The payoff pitch of Recompense (5.9) at Cathedral Ledge. Not me leading, not me belaying, not me taking the photo. Image by Brian Post

I expected to be scared. When boulderers talk about getting some air under their feet, they usually mean climbing something 20 feet tall. Which, when every fall is a ground fall, is plenty of air. Definitely enough to spook me if the climbing is at all hard or insecure. My point is, I expected to be scared.

But I wasn't.

There I was, at a semi-hanging belay built with small wires and an old fixed pin some 250 feet up the North Conway classic Recompense, looking down at the valley floor more than 400 feet below. My new friend, Erik, was leading up the final corner (pictured above), about to pass out of sight. This is the kind of exposure that should have delivered a jolt of fear.

But it didn't.

Yes, there were moments when I definitely felt the height. Stepping left to move into the Beast Flake variation on the second pitch means downclimbing a move to gain the bottom of the massive flake. I eased my left foot out towards the obvious foothold, held enough tension to keep from swinging left, and matched my right hand into the flake. That spot is steeper and more exposed than anything on the first pitch, and yeah, I had to tell myself not to think about it too much. But I didn't start shaking. I didn't question my sanity. I just kept climbing.

There's another move, exiting the Beast Flake, where the holds are small and you have to stem across a small chimney to gain the final corner and reach the belay. I would have preferred to see the feet before committing to the move, but I calmly pulled onto the two almost-sloping edges, eased into the gap, and stepped across to the far wall. Sure, I didn't look down to the bottom of the chimney, but I can live with that.

I honestly have no idea why I was so calm, but I'm not about to complain. On my first trad outing in a decade, and my first ever trip up a cliff taller than 150 feet, I felt comfortable. Of course, I didn't lead any of the pitches, and I was with a partner fully capable of much harder climbing and used to shepherding inexperienced climbers around. In essence, I was toproping well below my limit, but again, I'm not going to complain.

Maybe this is unremarkable (definitely). And maybe I'm still nowhere near leading something like Recompense (definitely). And next time, I might freak out when I'm standing on a granite ramp perched hundreds of feet above level ground (likely?). But right now, I'm happy to declare step one of phase one of my true introduction to trad climbing a success. I'm even looking forward to the next one.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Is Trad Rad? or How I Plan to Stop Worrying and Love Climbing


What are the clippy things for again?

People like to make distinctions. We like to define things by describing what they are not. This is a nice, easy way for us to chop the world up into manageable pieces and avoid dealing with things on their own terms or merits. Climbers do this constantly and flagrantly, and no example is more overused (and boring and casuistic and tiresome and boring) than the bouldering-trad divide. You have heard this argument. I won't repeat it for you. It's too dumb.

I have decided that rather than try to explain to people why they're idiots when they pretend that bouldering is entirely stupid and only trad climbing is real climbing (or that trad climbing is for pedantic wankers who can't do hard moves or whatever particular line of bull they subscribe to), I'd pull a kind of climber's version of "be the change you want to see." This is neither a new idea, nor probably a very interesting one. But it's the idea I've got, so I'm going with it. Deal.

My plan: learn to trad climb after a decade of bouldering almost exclusively. My method: erratic. Or, more accurately: non-existent. I figure I'll follow folks up area classics and then start fiddling in gear on lead after a while. This appeals because there are no actual requirements of this plan and it's basically just me doing whatever I feel like.

So why am I doing this, you ask? (Or, rather pointedly don't ask, which in this case doesn't protect you from me answering.) In part because, as a climber, I'm not very well-rounded. I've bouldered a lot, sport climbed a bit, and trad climbed thrice. I'd like to stop feeling like I have to wait until October for the good bouldering conditions to have a good time climbing. I'd like to go to more places and do a bunch of different kind of routes instead of going back to the two places I know well and doing the same thing I did last time I was there.

And some day, I'd like to go out and climb Cathedral with my son. He's a year and a half old, so I have some time, but you know what they say about time.

So there you have it. I'm sure you'll all be waiting breathlessly for my progress reports. I'm equally sure I will likely disappoint you. That'll teach you to trust a boulderer.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

First move well, then move often

Start hold of Babies with Rabies V10
Not my hangboard setup.

It’s fun to pretend you know things. For example, it’s fun to talk about training for climbing as if I had an actual clue about it. And if you count having read a bunch of writing on the webynets about it, then I guess I do have a clue. Of course, you shouldn’t. Count it, that is.

Anyway, I just heard probably the most perfect maxim about training that has ever been uttered. It rings perfectly true to me. It captures the essence of my experience of becoming a better climber, and makes what I think is an ideal first principle on which to build a training plan. It is this: first move well, then move often. It comes at about the 7:30 mark of this interview with Dr. Don Reagan, courtesy of the guys at The Self Coached Climber:


In a way, it’s no different than the oft-repeated notion that improving technique is the quickest ticket to improvement in climbing, especially for those new to the sport. But it’s kind of the perfect expression of that idea, the idea that quality must come before quantity. That doing something the right way is better than doing it many times. To me, it also conveys the importance of good form for injury prevention (or reduction as the good Dr. prefers).

So now I have a nice little koan to add to my fictional wall of inspirational quotes in the training room I don’t have to inspire me in the workouts I’m not doing.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Further Failure

At least I'm not the only one failing:

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Why I Climb (Part 3): Failure as Success

I’ve been thinking about climbing lately. This is not unusual. I’ve been thinking a lot of conflicting and probably not very interesting things about climbing. This is also not unusual. Since you asked, I thought I’d tell you about some of my… um… thoughts.

My wife, son, and I spent the Thanksgiving interval at her parent’s house in Massachusetts. We usually do a kind of grand tour of New England, but this year we stayed put in Mass for the whole four days. This put me within easy striking distance of Farley Ledge, home to a significant portion of New England’s best hard boulder problems. The temptation was too much, and I spent a day at Farley relying on the kindness of strangers (thanks, boulderers from Boston!) to sample some of the excellent stone.

Long story short: I failed to climb anything notable. But instead of walking away disappointed, I left feeling more excited about climbing than when I arrived. For some reason, my failure felt more like success than succeeding often does.

I've been trying to understand this feeling and what it reveals about why I climb (and maybe why I boulder, specifically). I'm also interested in how it interacts with some of my other motivations.

First, I think it's important to note that this was a particular kind of failure, a failing forward, failing towards success. What I mean is that, while I spent most of the day falling of two hard problems, I wasn't getting completely shut down. I made progress, and left the problems feeling like I was within shouting distance of topping out both. Proximity to success is motivating. Not really such a mystery.

[It also certainly appeals to my vanity to quickly make progress on double-digit problems, and climbing in front of new people probably boosts that appeal a bit. I don't experience this as a conscious process ("wouldn't it be cool to totally impress these random dudes, self? Yes it would!"), but I suspect it's there just under the surface.]

Here's what's weird about how appealing this kind of failure is: I might actually like it better than topping out hard problems. It's a bit hard to investigate this feeling because I haven't gotten to the top of anything truly near my limit in quite a while, but my memory of the feeling that closely follows a send is that it's somewhat bittersweet. There's a small rush of pride, tempered by a tiny bit of sadness that the process is over, and the blankness of not knowing what's next.

Not that sending a project is a bad feeling - not at all. Just that it's a mixed feeling. Failing toward success on the other hand is pure possibility - bright, shining potential. It also puts my "training" (read: random occasional sessions at the gym) efforts into sharper focus, gives them a purpose: get strong enough to send those specific problems.

Hm. I'm kind of disappointed that I just spent all that time working up to "the thrill of the chase, man!" as my motivation for personal progression in climbing. Oh well. I guess I can live with that.

Oh, and apologies for not "dropping" and "edit" from my session. I failed to capture any media at all. LT11 I ain't.

Friday, November 11, 2011

I can goez bouldering (for a whole week), with video

OK, OK, OK! I’ll write about my climbing trip. You don’t have to twist my arm! Jeez.

Short version: my wife is amazing.

Slightly longer version: I skipped off to Horse Pens 40 and the Stone Fort for a week with a couple friends while my wife played an exhausting game called Single Parent.

Even longer: My mind is still reeling from the idea that you could live in a city where it’s legitimately possible to work a half day and get some climbing in at any one of several amazing climbing spots. Frankly, I think Chattanooga should share with the rest of us, but nooooo, it has to keep it all for itself! Jerk.

But, so. The trip was fantastic, despite the temps, my (lack of) fitness, and the limited time in one spot conspiring against projecting and hard sending. Actually, I’m pretty happy we chose not to really project anything because there are way too many great problems at both Horse Pens and Stone Fort that we didn’t try anyway, and projecting would have meant trying even fewer of them.

We spent three days at Horse Pens, climbing about two days spread over that time. We spent four and a half days at the Stone Fort, with one day a complete rainout. Highlights included a (near) team circuit of the Panty Shields boulder at HP40, team sends of Art of the Vogi and The Big Much at Stone Fort, and my complete punt on Cyclops at Stone Fort.

I think, in the final analysis, I enjoyed the climbing at Stone Fort more. Maybe it fit my style better, maybe I was prepared for the sandstone after a couple days at HP40, or maybe I like being close to golf courses. I certainly had much more success at Stone Fort, doing my three hardest problems of the trip there (Jerry’s Kids [V7], Celestial Mechanics [V7], and Spanky [V8]), and getting a surprise flash of the Wave (V6). I would go back to both places in a heartbeat, and hope this wasn’t my last visit to either.

If you enjoy self-indulgent videos slapped together using free software, I “dropped” and “edit” of the footage from when we remembered to set up the camera. In HD! You’re so welcome!