In my mind, the trad climb was desperate and runout … but only in my mind. I mashed chalk into my palms and recalled a scene from one of my all-time favorite movies, Gladiator, when Maximus Decimis Meridius quietly sits on his haunches in the sandy waste and steals a handful of dirt, clutching the dry earth like a symbol of his own fate or destiny before letting the soil drain dauntlessly from his fist. Radical carnage ensued; dudes were gored and beheaded, their limbs deposed with the swift and imprecise brutality of a machete swiping through an olive branch. Awesome. These warriors were wrought out of an archetypal strength that hasn’t been seen on earth in a long time, definitely not since the invention of the internet, and the proof is in our puttering. Following my lame little chalky invocation to General Maximus were episodes of bona fide whimpering each time I climbed mere inches above my last piece. The litany of excuses I unleashed was as sky-darkening as the salvo of arrows discharged by the Roman Legion.
My climbing has never progressed in leaps or bounds. Stunted by bad genes and sarcastic determination, I find too much humor in trying too hard, and the effect is futile, the opposite of what’s intended. When I first started climbing, I often had this conversation with myself about my own fragile mortality during the march up to whatever climbs I intended to battle. Like a gladiator I felt my life was in my own hands, hung from the pieces of pro I was just learning to set in the conglomerate ramparts. These introverted conversations went on for too long, like wetting the bed till you’re 15. I gave solemn assent to “inherent risks” and “objective hazards,” then just phantoms and rumors that had come into a dynamic existence from a nightly diet of Freedom of the Hills.
I remember the infatuate period in which all this changed, beginning with this context-free remark spoken by my friend Bayard Russell. “It’s not as though I think I’m going to die when I go cragging!” he said.
To someone who had been accepting—however theatrically—the likelihood of his own tragic demise prior to each figure-8 tied, Bayard appeared audacious and incandescent. He’s a strong guy who comes from good mountaineering stock (alpenstock?), whereas I, apparently, come from chicken stock. I was a craven weed, more comfortable around demi-glazes than demigods of stone. But these were words I was ready to hear, and their effect was transformative. They pierced me like a sword and from that lesion percolated a sanguine apprehension that in all likelihood I wasn’t going to die cragging either. The sheer casualness of his remark was just the blessing I needed to let go of my overwrought incantations and just enjoy being impetuous and up on the walls.
One day Bayard and I were at the Reed’s Pinnacle area of the Valley. I had just lowered off Lunatic Fringe, a veritable path to the moon and one of the best 5.10s in the world. As I untied, my rock shoes slalomed in the muddy residuals of an inclement April, and I sat down upon a tree root that bulged out of the ground like a great black vein in the earth’s skin. We had reached a ceiling of pitches—each one meticulously completed with the cautious abandon of trad climbing—but instead of retiring to Camp 4 to wallow around with the other fatbellies, Bayard suggested we have a go at an ugly chimney nearby.
The chimney was a gradeless and bleak purgatory, as enticing as a sarcophagus and nearly as horizontal. Bayard removed his harness and tied the rope around his waist three times.
“Put me on hip belay,” he demanded.
I was confused. I plucked Bayard’s harness off the ground and, along with my ATC, held it up. Like a pushy Arab merchant, I expounded upon all the ways in which he both needed and wanted this gear. “Yes, yes, you like! I make you good deal!” But my innate ability to bargain fell on deaf ears.
“No, we’re doing this old school,” he said. Why not? I copied him in shedding my rig and tying the rope around my waist. Bayard grabbed some nuts and a few biners, and set off into the chimney, placing little pro and swiftly reaching a tree anchor 40 feet up. I followed, stemming across the miserable, unlit defile and joining my partner at the perch.
“Now what?” I asked, looking up at the impeccable granite tapestry, as featureless as a pane of glass. Our adventure seemed awfully short lived.
“Throw me back on hip belay,” Bayard said. “I’m going to traverse out on the face and see if we can rap off that chicken head.”
This was just getting stupidly dangerous and completely pointless … but what in climbing isn’t? However, the chicken head was shier than Bayard expected, only peeking out of the wall as far as half a tennis ball. Tying a slipknot around it was hopeless. Bayard traversed back to the tree, and we Freedom of the Hills rappelled down the maw with the ropes around our waists. On the ground, I felt awake. I remember this as one of the first tangible moments of “progress” in my climbing life. Perhaps it was just a meaningless irony that this mental expansion was culled from a moot old-school performance, though maybe not. Anyhow, things changed. I took more falls. I went for it more. I had come to terms with the gravity and seriousness of these vertical situations, while learning not to take them seriously. Everything opened.
“Making progress,” and its variants, is a giant, nebulous concept that we climbers both deeply need and vehemently oppose. And no time in our history have we felt greater pressure to make “progress,” while simultaneously acting to impede, doubt and sabotage all machinations conspiring toward that end.
Early this year Daniel Woods stepped into the theoretical by establishing the continent’s first V16, The Game, which, outside of the appeal for its insanely difficult moves, is a roadside overbite of rock, unaesthetic and ingrown into the recesses of Boulder Canyon rubble.
Not to be outdone, Paul Robinson put up his own V16, Lucid Dreaming, shortly after Woods’ groundbreaking ascent. Lucid Dreaming was a longstanding project in Bishop and contains a two-move crimper crux that Robinson, on his 8a.nu scorecard, says took him 12 days over two years to link: “This feels like another level up from Jade (V15) and Terremer (V15), and is a step up for me in my own climbing.”
Comments on the internet predictably parroted and parodied the deep and cynical thread long since running through our community that believes people can’t climb as hard as they say they can. It’s worse now than ever. American Idol is still the most popular show of all time, and we are nowhere near the end of this cultural moment when we’ll watch anything just so long as it feeds our newfound sense of entitlement to judge. As long as someone’s or something’s worth hangs in the balance of our almighty opinions, we’re there.
Robinson came under more scrutiny than Woods for his choice to grade Lucid Dreaming V16. His logic was dissected with a dull blade and examined like a math equation, an approach that makes sense if you believe climbing grades really are perfectly algebraic and neither discriminatory nor expressions of personal climbing artistry.
On his blog, Robinson wrote, “We need to progress the sport of bouldering and not get stuck in this V15 rut and never move forward.”
Some climbers, like Dave Graham, Nalle Hukkataival and Malcolm Smith, have urged for greater prudence in grading problems that clock in at the zenith of the V scale. After Smith sent one of his hardest problems to date, Monk Life (V14), he explained: “I can’t see any reason to give anything V15. That grade is unbelievable and I struggle to believe anyone around can climb it. We’ve got to be sensible about these things.”
When talking about something as fantastic as advancing the entire sport of climbing, the fact that next higher numbers also garner media attention and sponsorship dollars is the elephant in the room.
The movers and shakers of climbing play uncomfortable roles as leaders, attempting to give the rabble what it wants by delivering its feats through media reenactments, while we get to stand cynical, stultified and in judgment of the climb’s place and worth. Only we don’t seem to know exactly what our ideals should be or what progress should look like.
Progress, in general, is the idea that advancements in science, art, technology, quality of life and democracy will improve the human condition. In sports, progress is showing an expansion of what we know to be possible by the human body and will.
As in good writing, you have to show how the feat is great and in what ways; we can’t just be told that it is. Compelling media has become an inextricable part of progress. Still, I wonder: What is left to prove or show? We’ve stood on top of the highest mountains, climbed the hardest lines, done the biggest dynos, pulled on the smallest holds and soloed the most audacious cliffs. Things will certainly get incrementally harder, faster, bolder and bigger … but they’re not getting any newer. And this is the source of everyone’s frustration. Today’s athletes can pull harder moves on bigger rocks all they want—call it 5.15a or 5.16a, or V18 or V20—but nothing actually changes anymore about our perceptions of what’s possible. Maybe when someone free solos El Cap, we’ll be awestruck … but I doubt for very long, and more to the point, it wouldn’t actually affect anything.
Humans, especially Americans, are like sharks in that we have to move forward. Stillness, the status quo, is feared and loathed as a type of death. History has proven that progress, in general, has improved our lives and allowed us more freedom to cultivate our individual artistic sensibilities, but there are many examples where progress, almost accidentally, becomes a force for evil. We’re condemned to continuously screw with stuff, to refine it ad infinitum beyond its usefulness. We started out throwing rocks, and those rocks became spears, which became guns, which became bombs that annihilate masses with the single push of a button. There becomes a point when the intention gets lost, along with the values embodied by the original experience.
Certainly, there’s a parallel here to climbing, and you can see it in the online comments—specifically, in the ways they damn or approve. Like the reeking mob of the Coliseum, we put our thumbs either up or down—it’s all shit or sunshine online. These exercises have nothing to do with the climbing achievement; they’re opportunities for us to be as we think we ought to be.
In climbing, defining “progress” as an escalating number seems superficial in a sport where the experience feels exactly the same no matter what level you operate at. Everyone sucks at his or her own level, and redpointing a 5.10 can be just as fulfilling as redpointing a 5.14. The 19th Century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said that the best life we can expect is one in which we strive for ends that, once achieved, bring only fleeting satisfaction.
The great climbing philosopher Chris Sharma recast this idea at the end of the film King Lines, saying, “Climbing is this ever-evolving thing, and although it really is about the goal and succeeding and getting to the top, at the same time, it’s a never-ending cyle of finding something that you’re really motivated on, obsessing over it, and then once you get to the top, celebrating for a little while and then moving on to the next thing.”
As Bayard inadvertently taught me, the greatest progress we can hope to make is our own internal growth and expansion of what we believe is possible. Further, this is impossible unless you learn to enjoy the brutality of the struggle and not obsess over the end result. In other words, just relax and have fun.
For Andrew Bisharat, it’s two steps forward, one step back.