To begin, I’m choosing a place I’m not supposed to write about. It’s a homestead somewhere in the mountains of a Western desert, an anachronism that makes you lose all sense of the future and fuels heavy inebriation after hard days on the salty rock. Pour a tall glass of bourbon and saddle up next to a fire—the anxieties drain out your toes.
I’ve spent many nights in this anonymous earthen corner, which is to say that I’ve acquired a few memories. There’s nothing particularly special about this place except that lots of very good climbers from all over the world pass through. Over the years, these pros became friends and climbing partners, though I quietly struggled with the paranoid notion that our relationships were based on my position to advance their interests. We were climbers; everyone’s motives were selfish.
Any sense of kinship, like you are a part of something, generates feelings of meaning. On a recent trip to this house, I experienced a charged sense that this was a rare situation worth writing about. Any writer with a new idea in his head knows this pregnant moment. I began harvesting my memories and noted the emergent nuggets weren’t about feats achieved at the crags; they were the personal, intimate, sometimes unflattering details I’ve learned about the people with whom I’ve shared my bourbon. These weren’t juicy bits, per se, but more the backbones, the structures and true measures of the individuals, which aren’t and can’t be conveyed on blogs, 35mm or Vimeo. These were the negatives, not the Photoshop files.
It has been an obsession of mine, so far judged by my own standards as a continuing failure, to write about the modern climbing scene without falling into all the usual clichés about progress, or lies about 5.15b being a much bigger deal than 5.15a, or bitching about the various incarnations of elitism that appear in each discipline, or groaning about the contemptuous nostalgia that lingers in our community like stale, old farts. Well … what’s left to say? Writing anything about climbing worth a damn—especially my preferred perversions, sport and bouldering—sometimes feels like trying to squeeze water out of sand.
I will say this sport has never been bigger or more fragmented. Though there’s still a place called Camp 4, it’s no longer the “center of the universe,” and more to the point, there’s no modern equivalent of what Camp 4 once represented. In that sense, climbing is not as powerful as it once was because our energies are not as singularly focused.
It certainly isn’t true that nothing significant has happened since the Stonemasters—in their own hippie/pothead-meets-Machiavelli way—first hashed out the rules of our game, all culminating with the greatest vertical achievement of the last century, Lynn Hill freeing the Nose in a day. But the way these stories are told and rehashed, it sure can seem that way. People will believe what they want to believe, and these days nobody believes anything.
One friend said, “I don’t see the current people moving through the system in a way that incorporates a personal significance or metaphysical component like these ancients seemed to convey.”
In other words, climbing has lost its soul. Another cliché that I don’t believe, a koan that straight up bores me to even think about.
At one point, the lone edifice in the Western desert had felt to me like a major meridian through which today’s collective climbing energy flowed, and the people who inhabited it during the prime climbing seasons were outstanding specimens: young, motivated, passionate and talented. But their desperate, whorish sponsored lives must be drawn into the picture as well, lest it be like a Frida Kahlo without the unibrow.
Among other things, I wanted to talk about one girl, who was sponsored before she could even climb 5.12, which isn’t that surprising if you believe that a pretty face will get you just about anything, especially in the sausage party called climbing. To me, what was interesting was how this affected her relationship to climbing—and how tragic it was. You might think that being sponsored is liberating, but for a long time, it imprisoned her because she became scared to climb anything perceived to be “easy” for fear that she might be seen failing. She compensated by boasting about going bolt-to-bolt on hard 5.14s when secretly she hadn’t even redpointed the 5.11 warm-up. You’ve seen people like this, who only climb on the hardest route they can find, but never do it. One time, when her boyfriend tasked her with cleaning draws on a long and intimidating 5.9, she cried. This ubiquitous magazine-ad model was brought to her knees by the thought of possibly hanging on 5.9.
That’s an ugly scene, but it’s beautiful in its truthfulness. It even has a good ending, as not only have the girl’s talents and accomplishments soared, but more important she’s realized what it means to be a real climber: She’s willing to fail.
There are more stories like this, but I was asked not to write any of them, or about the house in the desert, or the itinerant people whom I associate with it. The reasons why were complex, and ultimately don’t matter. They depressed me. I didn’t want to believe that the only thing motivating today’s top crop is publicity, sponsorships and fame, but it’s hard to escape that reptilian reality. It offended whatever remaining part of me believed that there was something original happening in climbing right now (not just 30 years ago). Capturing the contemporary expressions of ingenuity and talent began to seem unlikely when the main practitioners were worried about image and money.
Instead of heading to the house in the desert, my girl, Jen, and I headed westward with the simple goal of creating our own memories and not living through those of others.
DRIVING ANYWHERE WEST of the Mississippi is a wild pleasure, with freedom and adventure at the core of the experience. It’s restorative, a furlough from your own neuroses. The best road trip I ever took was with my father, whose position at an architecture firm had recently been eliminated for the second time in my life, always coinciding with the darkest days of some rotten Bush family reign. Across Pennsylvania and all the way to Chicago, he clutched his uptight New York anxieties, fiddling with radio dials and compulsively sucking butterscotch candies in between cigarettes. In Nebraska, we steered off the interstate onto single-lane highways through the plains, which I find beautiful even as a climber. You spend more time in the car when you take such routes, and that’s not a bad thing. I still remember the sheer pleasure of watching the pacific emptiness of the open road slowly instill equanimity and stillness in my dad.
Spend enough time on Western roads, however, and you’ll find plenty of fitful, apprehensive moments, too. Jen and I sped into the San Rafael swell on Friday at dusk, but within 50 miles, our pace faltered as a sudden whiteout engulfed us. The van’s loose steering column jerked and wobbled as the bald tires spun in a stratum of heavy, wet snow at 7,000 feet. My eyes struggled to see through the manic white speckles for any reliable bearings at all. Reality was deceiving, and it felt like we were traveling at light speed. Jen slept peacefully while I remained anxiously at the helm, pushing onwards onto increasingly desolate roads toward Ibex, on the borderlands of Utah and Nevada, with an acidic sensation in my guts that tomorrow would be a wash.
Four years ago, I first visited Ibex, where a shoot for a climbing movie literally prevented me from climbing on the best boulder there, the Red Monster. A filmmaker was shooting a girl on Ju (V7) a problem she’d once done, but was currently uncomfortable topping out, especially with the camera rolling. In a spark of lameness and cunning, the girl’s posse parked their van right next to the boulder itself, and stacked pads on the van roof so she could suss the tall top-out without facing a 15-foot drop.
On this recent trip, after driving through the blizzard, we woke up on the side of the road by Ibex, and saw several other climber vans parked on the salt flats beside us. The winds were whipping, but the sky was blue and the sun was already burning patches in the snow. Ibex is an utterly isolated wasteland under the autonomy of climbers. You can drive and camp anywhere, and climb anything. A small collection of boulders resides in the shadow of a 450-foot cliff with roughly 70 multi-pitch trad and sport routes on the most unique sandstone matrix I’ve touched.
What does it say about climbing when you can drive to the back of beyond and randomly meet up with 10 other people you know? Every single van there contained familiar humans, including BJ and Emily Tilden, Ellen and Kolin Powick, and the climbing community’s lovable favorites: the recently married and ever-bickering Jonathan Thesenga and Brittany Griffith. It was amazing to find such an eclectic group of friends, but hardly surprising. Last summer, after 40 hours in transit, we walked up the shrub-choked promontory of Kalymnos that leads to the Grande Grotta and discovered we knew half of the people at the crag.
This time around, I got to sample the Red Monster, and even the ultra-classic Ju. First, I figured out how to avoid the left heel hook, a move I was then unable to perform due to a hamstring tear this winter in Hueco on Mojo—a lame problem I’d never try by choice, but on an East Mountain tour, you end up sacrificing free will and just climb whatever the rest of the group is psyched on. At the top of Ju, I spent what felt like five minutes stuck: fully manteled on a desperate right-hand crimper, with my left hand pawing around like a windshield wiper for something to grab and wishing there was a van beneath me with some pads stacked on the roof. By the time I’d established myself on the slab, the tendons in my wrist felt like they’d been drawn and quartered. Worth it? Definitely not and absolutely yes.
That evening, we all drove as far east as possible on the salt flats in order to maximize time spent in the sun on its sinking trajectory behind the mountains. The shadows grew as Jen and I made ravioli with a homemade pesto sauce, and drank a bottle of wine given to us by my best friend (a self-taught enologist now en route to med school) as payment for the sunny October day two harvest seasons ago, when we hand picked three tons of merlot. A collection of beer and wine bottles, as grim and empty as an Internet discourse, grew in the center of our circle.
From Ibex, Jen and I continued westward onto the final leg of the Grand Army of the Republic Highway, Route 6. This desolate stretch through Nevada takes you past lunar craters, nuclear-weapon testing sites and mountains of mostly unexplored limestone caves and cliff bands that will one day become mega destinations. For now, the crags of the future wait in dusty obscurity.
A rare sense of choice was in the air. Our agenda was only to climb as much as our skin and muscles allowed, and follow the road to whatever dry, sunny rocks it passed. With good music playing, a road trip is like climbing in that you feel unbound. I felt my eyes opening and emerging from their sunken hollow caused by writing endlessly through the bleak winter months, always staring down, in the gaudy light of a Macbook Pro, for another key to push. But my eyes’ natural position is Up, of course, looking at towering walls and searching for the next hold.
We reached Bishop and bathed in the Keough hot springs and read books in the sun and later walked around town and ate sushi and finally found a camping spot up in the Buttermilks, where we lay in the van’s bed and watched Progression on my computer. Winds shot off our neighboring mountains with incredible trajectories that seemed powerful enough to flip the van on its side in the middle of the cold night.
A chasm has developed between climbing as you naturally experience it and climbing as you experience it through the emergent forms of story-telling: blogs, Vimeo and YouTube videos; news reports, comment fields and forums. Such a weird, unnatural dichotomy between these two realities exists that it must be a cruel joke on humanity to even try to reconcile them.
Over the course of the whole trip, a “controversy” erupted about the First Round, First Minute project, with many people having many opinions about routes and concepts of which they had no working knowledge. I’ve since wondered if, had I not been on the road, I would’ve taken some strong position on the subject and forcefully interjected my grand two cents into the dialog. Due to my location—and the fact that I was once again living like a climber—I honestly couldn’t have cared less about the whole stupid thing. Though I will say now, having thought about it over a dark espresso and a poached egg on toast, that the poetry of what Sharma was saying was lost as people tried to wrap their heads around the finer ethical tautologies of red-tagging. Climbing is not about competition. It’s about individual freedom and creativity.
Jen and I started our rest day properly: with strong espresso, sausage, eggs, red peppers and 10 a.m. mimosas. We met up with a friend from Carbondale, Hayden Kennedy, who is now 19 years old and perhaps the best “unknown” climber in the country. Hayden is on the extended road trip, living life to the absolute fullest. The night before he departed from Carbondale, he came over to my house and showed me his new van, which now has a bed, a string of tacky red lights and pictures of Cerro Torre taped to the walls.
I’ve watched Hayden grow as a climber over the last five years, from when he innocently asked, “What’s ‘pumped’?” and could barely climb 5.12a, to last summer, when he sent the The Crew (5.14c) the day before he left for Yosemite to go run laps on El Cap about a hundred times a week. Hayden recently returned from his first trip to Patagonia, where he climbed Fitz Roy, first to just below the mushroom, which he and his partner spent seven hours pawing, and then a week later, when he rightfully “clipped the chains” by standing atop the crux snow cap. He rapped for 15 hours, stumbled into town at 6 a.m. and went straight to the bar like a good boy. More than anybody I’ve ever met, he’s perpetually stoked to climb, and the days I get to share belays with him are great, mostly because he constantly insists that I’m much better than I really am. “Oh, you’ll onsight that,” is a phrase he tells me regularly, and even though I never do, he never ceases to use it.
If climbing is about freedom, then one very good reason to be in your best shape, get absolutely as strong as possible and learn as many skills as you can is that doing so opens up the entire planet of rock and ice. Hayden can, and does, climb everything. On our tour of classics at the Buttermilks, he got up everything easily and quickly and always with overflowing happiness upon reaching the top. I was on a different trajectory, one that is just as vital as any lesson I’ve learned in climbing: practicing restraint. I tried as many problems as I could, but only a couple of times: to preserve my skin and avoid re-injuring my leg. I cherished the ones I could do, and planned to return to the ones I couldn’t.
At the Mandala boulder, there were a couple of guys working the iconic Sharma testpiece, but we were just down the face, working the less prestigious but equally funky Pope’s Prow, one of those problems that could be rated anything but is given V6. Funky, off-balance slapping frustrates most suitors and inevitably leads to dismay and laughter. That day, we were “blessed” to be out with “The Chosen One,” Ben Ditto, who quietly crushes rocks and mountains without any pretensions. He summitted Pope’s Prow first, humping up the slab in a hilarious full splay. We must’ve looked like we were having fun because the two dudes working the Mandala took a break from the V12, and joined us in getting an enjoyable V6 spanking.
My good friends Joe Kinder and Colette McInerny soon met up with Jen, Hayden, Ben and me. Joe seems to balance the dichotomy of climbing as a promotional/money/sponsored enterprise and climbing as a soulful ritual without any internal tripping. He’s a showman and presents himself loudly to the community, but in person, he’s really genuine, motivated and just psyched to be a climber.
When Ben topped out, like a circus ringleader, Joe dramatically exclaimed, “You’ve just experienced … The Greatest Feeling in the World!” We all laughed. It was funny because it was true.
These are the moments in climbing that remain most vivid to me because they seem honest and refreshing. I’ve realized that searching for ways to find climbing’s “soul” is as futile as trying to find the American Dream, and just as wrongheaded. It can’t be done.
The best moment of the trip took place at the Sads, on the last problem of the last day. We worked a weird slab called French Press, a generically rated V6. Our posse, albeit talented, got our asses handed to us on the devilish slab as we cantilevered backwards with arms whirling in cartoonish circles. Yet after a week of nursing my hamstring, I had finally found a problem that didn’t demand much from it. When I manteled onto the perfectly flat poolside edge top-out, I felt it. The greatest feeling in the world.
Andrew Bisharat’s hamstring may be 95 percent better, but he is aching for the next trip.