Success can mean many things in climbing. For some newbie toproping 5.7 on his first day ever rock climbing, simply reaching the anchor is an achievement.
“Yeah, I did it!” Newbie invariably yells, as he slaps the anchor like it’s a bell on a Japanese game show. Never mind that Newbie fell 40 times because his footwork was so bad that he may as well have been wearing rollerblades. He reached the top of the climb—physically—and in his mind is successful.
Mountaineers have always defined success as reaching the summit. That makes sense because reaching summits is a great metaphor for success. (Wait, which came first?)
Then “alpinists”—the preferred term for mountaineers who are egotistical prigs—came along and pooh-poohed the importance of the summit. Judging success based on the “arbitrary point” that happens to be the top of the mountain, we’re told, is too jejune. In alpinism, success is all about the experience, and if the experience happens to mean climbing a face to a point on a ridge thousands of feet below the mountaintop, so be it. Call it a new route and pat yourself on the back.
But often the alpine experience results in total failure to climb up anything at all. That’s when definitions get all wishy-washy, and success is transmuted for a third time to simply mean not dying. Go to the mountains, don’t get up shit, but also don’t die, and you can call it good. One day the alpine Brotherhood will spank you with a wooden paddle and you’ll be in the club.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is sport climbing and bouldering, where definitions of success aren’t quite so amenable. Modern bouldering has devolved from an activity that involved simply walking around a wild place with a pair of shoes and a chalk bag and trying whatever looked cool into a rather draconian sport.
Now it seems I can’t go bouldering without knowing what holds are “on,” or getting called out for “dabbing” when my ass scrapes the ground on the first move of the sit-start that I’m only trying because the comment fields of 8a.nu scorecards say it gets me one extra V point and is “easy for the grade.”
Bouldering is no longer about the freedom to do and climb what you want. Success for today’s modish boulderers mandates that they use the exact same holds, and do the exact same sequence, as the people before them. Anything else is a different problem with a lower grade.
In sport climbing, success is slightly simpler: you start at the bottom of a route and if you can climb to the anchors and clip the rope without falling or hanging on gear, you win. Unlike alpinism, there are no degrees of success that are based on conditions. You can’t claim a real redpoint if weather moves in and you decide not to climb the second half of a route, even if it is only an easy slog to the chains. In sport climbing, success is cut and dried.
Or is it?
One of my good friends is a guy everyone knows as Metro Mark. And that’s the thing: just about everyone seems to know Mark. No real surprise there. Not only has Mark been a staple on the Circuit for the last 10 years, but he is one of the weirder, and that is to say more unique and memorable, characters in the climbing world.
I’ve known Metro Mark for nearly as long as I’ve been a climber, and from what I can tell, he completely lacks the Success Gene that pumps ego and ambition hormones into the brains of most redpoint/summit-oriented climbers. The number of routes Metro has almost redpointed is staggering. His talent and strength as a free climber exceeds his ticklist by fathoms. Instead of redpoints, Metro has accrued a large ticklist of “metro-points.” These are routes he works truly hard at doing, but upon completing just enough of the climb to feel satisfied, he loses interest and foregoes that last crucial step (clipping the chains) in order to move on to something else.
Metro’s approach to climbing is a paradox of hippie determination. In many ways, he makes a mockery of the whole thing, and for this reason some climbers—those programmed with the Success Gene—find Metro’s existence effectively repellent. His very presence in the climbing community raises a rather simple question that many people will find hard to answer.
Does clipping the chains matter?
The first thing you notice about Metro is that there’s nothing all that “metro” about him. Unlike a real metrosexual, Metro doesn’t wear man-make-up or keep Bluetooth man-jewelry in his ear. He has a “nicer” fleece that he wears out to restaurants, and he prefers Chacos to Brooks Brothers. His harness droops from his waist like a low-drop belt and holster, and the leg loops dangle loosely just above his knees. Sure, sometimes his climbing shorts hang so low that it looks like they’re about to fall below the pubic bone (no, no underwear), and he sometimes walks around crags in between burns wearing a big down jacket unzipped and with nothing underneath save for two perky nipples poking out, but I wouldn’t call that metrosexual, per se. More like Tarzan-sexual.
I met Mark years ago during my first pilgrimage to Climbing Mecca, Yosemite. This was toward the end of my trip, and I was thrashed, trashed and sick of rationing one packet of oatmeal every morning for breakfast in Camp 4. I splurged by going to the Lodge café and getting enough pancakes and bacon to make a lumberjack upchuck. I sat down at a table alone to enjoy my delicious hot meal, and upon looking up from my first bite of food, found a random hippie with long hair tied back in a ponytail sitting with me.
“Don’t look over there,” he said.
“Where?” I said, looking.
“OK, they’re gone.” He scurried over to a table of freshly abandoned café trays, shoveled some syrup-logged food on a plate, and brought it back to my table.
“I’m Mark,” he said. “People call me Metro. Do you think it’s still safe to use my Grigri? I dropped it off the second pitch of Zodiac. I mean, it looks fine.”
I’d be in the middle of a sentence, and Mark would just get up and go after another piece of forsaken bacon he’d spied from across the room. He was—and often is—adrift in his own world of anxiety. I quickly realized how difficult it is to have a “normal” conversation with him.
No matter where I climbed over the course of the next seven years—Yosemite, the VRG, the Red, El Potrero, Rifle, Joe’s Valley, the Gunks, and so on—Metro Mark was always there. I couldn’t take a climbing trip without bumping into him. It was a weird coincidence at first; then I just assumed it would happen in the same way not bringing a jacket causes it to rain.
One of the best reasons to sign up for this resonant thing called the Climbing Lifestyle is to play a role in an expansive cast of unconventional characters. Climbers are fringe people by nature, and at the periphery of our little circle you find the fringe of the fringe—true weirdness. Metro Mark seemed to have been on the road, climbing, for as long as people have been road tripping. He embodied everything I did and did not want from climbing. He had the freedom to climb anywhere and everywhere, but it was also an existence that didn’t seem to provide him any of the answers or balance that I sought.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think being weird is one of the best attributes to find in another person.
“Genuine weirdness is a rare quality,” wrote the artist Ralph Steadman. “To be truly weird demands character and a wanton disregard for the social mores of the day.”
While our society is built on the idea that individual expression and development is fostered, in fact the opposite is true. Everything about modern life is driving us to be more similar, less individual. We are pushed by forces too tremendous to understand into roles, categories and ideologies, and in the process, whatever is individual and weird about ourselves gets crushed.
Climbing has always existed in my mind as a haven from the traditional molds, but even in this sport that we’d like to think is fringe, the same patterns and forces emerge. Climbers assume roles and character traits associated with the disciplines they practice.
Still, I must admit that true weirdness is extremely unsettling to be around. Nine years later, though, Metro’s quirky Metro mannerisms are something I have come to appreciate. There are so many good Metro stories, it’s hard to know where to start.
One time, Metro told a circle of climbers not to worry about not seeing him at the crag next weekend; his landlord, Jared Ogden, had landed him a gig as an “underwear model.” This was ironic, of course, since we didn’t think Metro wore underwear. Also, no one I know has ever seen photos from the shoot, so it’s difficult to say what Metro got up to that one day in his underwear in front of a camera lens.
Metro drives more miles to go climbing than anyone I know. He can do a six-month road trip in four days and climb everywhere along the way. He doesn’t see why a crag that’s 22 hours away isn’t a good weekend destination. Last year, during a seven-day break from college, he put 15,000 miles on his Toyota Tundra by visiting Colorado Springs, Hueco, the Enchanted Tower, Las Vegas, St. George, and Rifle.
Another time, Metro went over to my friend Dan’s house. That day, Metro had “over-Pilatecized,” or done too many Pilates exercises, and his stomach felt upset. Dan said Metro could lie down in his bed, so Mark did. Then Dan got a call on his cell phone from Metro—who, keep in mind, was in the same house, upstairs—and he wanted to know if Dan wouldn’t mind bringing him a little dinner to eat in bed.
He has come close to sending some impressive trad climbs, including the Six Star Crack (5.13b) in Indian Creek and the Shadow Pitch (5.13b) in Squamish. He has blown the anchor clips on his first 5.13b, 5.13c and 5.13d, and hasn’t gone back to finish those routes.
An average day for Mark at Rifle involves one-hanging the infamously pumpy Living in Fear (5.13d) between three and six times in a row, and then trying at least five other routes in the 5.13d to 5.14b range—and one hanging them too.
Metro has even done Free Rider, the 5.12d free climb on El Cap … with one hang. That’s not to say that Metro is without any “legit” accomplishments. In the last six months, he has done a few 5.13a’s, and two V11’s and four V10’s. He has officially redpointed at least one 5.13c, Path, at Rifle, but that was after a group intervention of friends got together and begged him to please just clip the chains on one hard route.
Metro also likes creating his own special challenges. He’s more interested in trying to link two different routes together, or add a bouldering traverse into the start of a sport route. He proudly recalls adding a “sit-start” to the 20-foot 5.12c Handy Boy, as well as the entirely pointless 10-foot ground-level traverse into the start of the 20-foot route Ruckus (5.12b), both at Rifle. I wouldn’t be surprsed if a sit-start to Free Rider is next.
Silly, yes. But, why not? Dani Andrada did precisely the same thing in the Ali Baba cave to produce one of the world’s hardest routes. At least the precedent was there.
One of Metro’s most endearing qualities is that he always sees the best in people and situations. When Metro fails to redpoint, he is never bummed out by it. Even after falling on Living in Fear at the exact same spot for the hundredth time, he’ll say something like, “Well, that was closer!”
What’s interesting is how that ebullient optimism and congratulatory approach to what is technically failure affects others. The very things that most sport climbers find to be so agonizing—eternal one hanging and never being able to break through and succeed with a redpoint—are the things that give Metro some degree of satisfaction. And in this self-satisfaction, Metro acts as a mirror that reflects a few things that the hyper-driven sport climber doesn’t like about himself, namely that he has let succeeding on a stupid route take on exaggerated proportions.
I often wonder if the reason Metro has metro-pointed so many routes and redpointed so few is that he allows himself to be happy and content with his half-successes and one hangs. And if so, is that a good thing ... or not?
At the end of the day, however, clipping the chains does matter. Reaching summits does matter. The final point, as arbitrary and unimportant as it may truly be, gives meaning to the act in the first place. I know all of this, yet I can’t help but appreciate Metro for inadvertently showing everyone that what we do as climbers is inherently a little dumb and totally unimportant. At the end of the day, as climbing becomes more orthodox and climbers become more homogeneous, I’m thankful to see that true weirdness can still thrive.