I gazed out like a king upon the sun-blessed streets of the beautiful north Italian town of Arco, a sub-alpine paradise of crag-rimmed architecture, cobbled streets, beautiful women, amazing ice cream and the strongest rock climbers on Earth. All round me were fit and tanned people, strolling, chatting, relaxing. I sized up individuals of all nations, saw the odd face I recognized, and smiled. I absentmindedly scratched my crotch and entertained bigoted thoughts about people from other countries. I am Irish, and I live in England. It doesn't get much worse than that, nor can anything be further from the high-class paradise that all these people were so free to enjoy. I consider myself to be quite near the bottom of the heap, pale-skinned, raised on over-processed food and TV repeats, and with a defensively negative world view. As such, I believe it is my right, no, my duty, to find things to laugh about in my superiors.
The Italians, with their friendliness. The Americans, with their generosity and naivety. The Eastern Europeans with their gravity. The Germans, with their thick ankles. People with those outdoor trousers with different-colored knee patches and fit people in Lycra. Those people with white legs, swollen red faces, bad posture and hats from a previous decade. Oops! That was my reflection in the full-length mirror behind the bar.
The Arco Rockmaster is one of Europe's top competitions, a strange offshoot of our sport that bears little or no resemblance to the thing that you do, and in which you have little interest, where identically-clad youths scurry up an overhanging sheet of plywood pulling on brightly colored blobs of resin. It takes place every September in the north of Italy. The organizers of the event also pay for representatives of various magazines to appear on a jury whose mission is to decide upon the year's best sport climber and best competition climber, who will then be awarded an orb of glass. As jurors, we get fed and watered and treated like human beings for a few days, but firstly, the judging process had to be survived, and my involvement gives me an insight into all such jury votes, whether for an Oscar, a Piolet d'Or, who becomes Pope or whether we hang OJ. The underlying subtext is that who wins is fairly arbitrary, but the sooner we get this over with, the sooner we're out of here. As such, there is a strategy. Mingle beforehand to see if any of the judges actually care who wins. Of the dozen or so there, you can expect one or two to have an opinion. Find out what that opinion is and adopt it. Re-mingle and canvass for that candidate, getting everyone on side before the event, and presto!
We gathered in the jury room along with the organizers and some mayor-style character, and started to voice our opinions. It's important not to blow your cover in front of the organizers because you want to get invited back next year, so put some passion into your speech. Append it with phrases such as: This year the choice was harder than ever. Perhaps do some hand gestures, knit your forehead, then utter the name of a climber who, were he or she sitting beside you, you might not even recognize.
Still, some people couldn't help themselves from raising their hands with important points. I looked around at the other voters, journalists from the world's media, and hoped they were all in on the plan. There was Tony from South Africa whom I knew for a fact understood less about competition climbing than me. He had confided to me earlier that he was hoping to get a thing going with a local barmaid. There was Piotr, the Pole from Gory magazine. He cared a little but I also knew he had a terrific appetite, and the sooner he got to dinner the better. There was Florian from Climax magazine in Austria. Last year he had brought his mag along for everyone. It was printed in 3D and I remember the strange sight of half the jury wearing blue and red plastic specs. The blurred images left lots of members nauseous that day and Florian had been told to be on his best behavior this year. Then there was Jens from 8a.nu, the world's biggest climbing website, and first for news. It's packed with charts and rankings, and looking at it had much the same affect on me as the 3D magazine. The screen was entirely covered in vertigo-inducing numbers, so much so that the first time I saw it I thought it was a piece of machine code. It looks like the sort of website that has never had a woman's touch. Like last year, Jens had already calculated who the winners would be and he sat there, self-satisfied, twirling the ends of his mustache. Then there was Igor.
Here's a rule to live by. Never fuck with anyone called Igor. Igor Koller was a dark-horse editor and I was frightened of him. He came from one of those ex-Iron Curtain countries. I can't remember which, but one look and I could see the incredible depth of his toughness. He looked like he could happily spend two weeks freezing his nuts off on a Himalayan north face. Apparently he had done a lot in the Dolomites in the 1970s. Back then it was a real struggle to get out of Bumfuckski, but he managed the odd week away. When he did, he had to make it count. One time he arranged to hook up with a young German hotshot for a week in the Dolomites and over that week he did three major new routes including the world-famous Fish, an outstanding bold and technical climb, one of the hardest of its type in the world. After the week he went back home, primed for harder things, while the German was so spent he never climbed again.
To pass time in the jury I imagined insulting Igor and his country, and winced at the thought of how he would kill me. I imagined being on a north face with him:
Igor, did you pack the candy, because I can't find any in my bag?
Igor, you're hurting me!
I know for a fact that he is a very nice person, but such is my penchant for fantasy that I cringed every time he glanced my way.
All went well with the jury. We voted Chris Sharma and somebody else the winners and we went off for dinner and then to the comp.
I sat inside the press enclosure with my double-scoop ice cream and watched the wall for a while. People were still climbing up it, so I read my book for a while. Reaching the end of a chapter I looked up and observed the crowd. There they all were, looking, clapping, ooh-ing. Being good citizens. It was strange to see people looking at climbers climb as if it was a real sport and they were fans.
This legitimacy created a sense of celebrity around the climbers. Lots of names were there, and quite a few faces. The stars of the sport. This led me into a weird state of inverted deference toward them, and it surprised me to find myself ever so slightly starstruck.
But what would I say if I accidentally bumped into one? I might know what shoe company they are sponsored by or what position they came in, but it's hardly the basis to strike up a conversation. I mean, I can hardly step in front of lovely, bite-sized Maja Vidmar as she strolls from isolation, look her in the eye and say, I really liked the way you shook out on the yellow crimp. With that opening line you can't expect to find yourself, two hours later, in a local cafe, waxing on about what percentage of recovery she estimated she got. No chance. Eyes forward.
I once lived in a flat and got to know my downstairs neighbor. Peter was a fellow Irish and a tightrope walker in a circus, but in his time had been, among other things, a fashion make-up artist, a bus conductor and a professional figure skater. I asked him about figure skating, imagining him throwing a sequin-and-flesh-colored-stocking-clad beauty into the air to classic pop tunes.
No, that's not figure skating, that's Dancing on Ice.
He explained that in figure skating, the skater comes onto the ice and skates a figure eight. He then skates a figure eight once more following the same track, then skates off. The judges come out and analyze how much the second track deviated from the first, and the least deviant skater wins.
I gave it up in the end, Peter explained. I was always too deviant.
Figure skating struck me as the dumbest sport I had ever heard of, until I came across speed climbing.
I wandered through the competition arena with a burger and joined a crowd lingering in front of a tall vertical wall. Two identical lines of holds ran up the wall, each one looking like a large splat from a Spaceman Spiff mertilizer gun. A friend who knew something about competitions explained: The vertical hop scotch of bright jugs, shaped like oversized treats for your pet hippo, was a standard route, designed two years ago by a team of lab rats in Spain. Since then, every official speed-climbing competition takes place on this identical route, those holds in that orientation at that distance apart and in that order. This is the only route that speed climbers do. Strange, and about to get stranger.
At the base was a rigid-looking suspect in a red Russian team top staring at the climb. He looked pretty wired, with a blond combed-back Barnett, like some flickknife teddy boy from downtown Vladivostok. I watched him while his eyes ran up and down the blotches and his body started to twitch. His hands did doggy-paddle jerks while his hips and heels convulsed like someone with terminal spasms. I thought, either this guy has had Joy Division's Greatest Hits injected into his cortex or he's about to have a fit. Remembering schoolyard first aid I had started to look for something to stop him swallowing his tongue when my friend told me it was OK, he was a speed climber. Soon he was joined by a second contestant.
An official hooked a toprope up to the backs of their full-body harnesses. This was a special toprope, the last six feet being covered in rigid tubing. I reasoned that at some point in the sport's history a climber advanced up the wall faster than a belayer could take in slack and the spare coils flopped around the climber's neck like a kernmantel constrictor. When the climber fell off the route, speed climbing was left with its very own Toni Kurtz.
The DJ spun a techno tune and lyrics boomed across the stadium: My love for you is like a truck Berserker!
A stopwatch jockey revved up the monkeys:
Ready, get set, go!
Twitch and his rival scrabbled up the wall at a terrible speed, feet pedaling, arms whirling, grabbing and gobbling upwards at an unbelievable rate. It was an ugly sight, horrible to watch, searing to the eyes of a climber such as I, suffused with the poetic beauty of The Move and all the timeless love that it has inspired. It gave me the same feeling as watching a nasty and uneven outbreak of street violence, someone should stop that!
At the top, predictably, a big bright buzzer was pressed and the speedsters slouched onto the ropes. The rear attachment point left them suspended, tilting slightly forward, arms hung down, and they descended like knackered horses being lowered into the glue-pit.
It's the next big thing, my colleague informed me. If climbing gets to the Olympics, that's where the advertising is. The punter understands speed.
Oh, mother of God! Is it true? Will the world at large come to see these galloping glue ponies as the pinnacle of achievement in climbing? Will the exasperating trials of politely explaining So, what's the highest you've ever climbed? be replaced with a finger poked in the chest and the demand, So, how quick are you, buddy?
In an effort to justify my existence from a journalistic point of view, I decided I would interview the best climber in the world. Adam Ondra is only 16 years old and eats 9a (5.14d) for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This might well be all he eats, for he is tall and skinny, with gangling limbs and knucklejoint knees. With his shy loping walk, he reminds me of an hour-old foal. Chris Sharma once told me that he understands what all the top climbers in the world do, and how they do it, apart from Adam. Adam was on a different level, he assured me.
Good luck, a Spanish journalist wished me. I have tried to interview Adam now three times but he is very shy. Very shy.
I suspected this was true. Earlier Adam had been at the prize ceremony, having come third to the Austrian David Lama and the Spaniard Ramonet Julian. Adam stood on the third-place box while an amazing looking blond beauty gave him a huge bunch of flowers. He stood awkwardly, obviously not really knowing what to do. I recognized this look from my own teenage experiences, and I imagined the horror of standing there, glands pumping swampy hormones like cannons firing grapeshot, with everyone looking. Next David came out, looking cool and surly, and confident and they shook hands. Ramonet then came out (Ramonet, little Ramonet who, standing on the winner's block was still a little shorter than Adam on his third-place block), and he and David gave each other one of those cool handshakes, with different parts to it and biceps and backslaps. He turned to Adam and they exchanged one of those handshakes that you imagine English explorers gave each other at the South Pole in 1907.
I found him, and he agreed to an interview. We sat down on a bench. I set up my Dictaphone and launched off into my specially prepared questions.
What's your favorite color? Do you prefer cats? Tits or ass?
These weren't the questions I really asked, although maybe I should have. Instead I asked about 9a's and redpointing and grades. He answered politely, but quite soon a voice inside my head started to point out that this was probably the hundredth time some tedious man more than twice his age was asking him the same tedious questions. It started to dawn on me what a bore I was, and I wondered whether I had nothing better to do than ask little boys about what subjects they do at school. Pretty soon, to save both of us from further humiliation, I found myself thanking Adam effusively for a tremendous interview and scurrying off to a cafe to drown my embarrassment in some melted cheese.
After all the competitions were over and the prizes awarded and the tears shed there is always a party in the main square on Sunday night. I must admit I'm not sure who did well in the climbing but for me this is where the points are really won and lost, and you certainly don't win any points by not showing up. From this perspective, Adam Ondra, Patxi Usobiaga, Ramonet, Maja Vidmar and Angela Eiter were disqualified from the start.
The piazza is beautiful: perfectly cobbled streets, an ancient church, fine painted buildings all about. Above these you could see the cragged mountaintops that ring the village and give the town so much character. On top of the highest and most spectacular of these peaks, looming right above the town, the ancient castle was lit up in the warm darkness.
The evening was alive with happy chattering and the whine of Piaggios. I approached the bar after having had a nice dinner to find most of the competitors in an advanced state of drunkenness. I suspected that many of these youths trained hard for the Arco event, and tonight was the night they let off steam.
Kilian Fischhuber had obviously found and drank a bottle of Mix, fallen down behind the sofa, then came back up again a monster. Actually, I say a monster, but I really mean just a slightly louder version of himself. And seeing as how Kilian normally seems to be a straight forward, open and extremely polite person, what I really, really mean is he was being polite at a higher volume. He was there with his girlfriend Anna Stohr, top female boulderer. She, too, is straightforward, open and polite. I found myself talking to them and I wondered if they made the perfect couple. They were both so nice and friendly. But what if the years go by and one of them discovers tha
he or she has a dark side, a side they have never explored or expressed, harboring horrors that would chill the blood, demons that would tear away their sense of the world and what is right and normal, thrusting them into a world of blackness. I kept these thoughts to myself, and asked them about the scoring system in the bouldering final.
The highlight of the evening revolved around my favorite competitor, Tom The Machine Mrazek. Tom, a burly Czech, had an old-school gnarl about him. He looks like he works out in an abattoir and chews bones for crag snacks. At the comp he always puts in a good performance and you can see how hard he is trying. The crowd loves him. As the evening wore on he joined the other competitors on the small dance floor while the DJ spoon-fed drunken youths a heady mix of 1980s power-rock and handbag cheese. They loved it, none more than Tom, looking drunk and happy in large measures, a little cheeky smile on his face that made me feel warm inside. A few of the youths had already stripped themselves to the waist and were dancing badly. A song, I can't remember which, came on and Tom threw his fists in the air in pleasure. Then, in drunken joy, he took off his competition vest, and threw it with abandon in a far corner of the room.
David Bowie sung that he's never done good things, he's never done bad things. Some actions are like this, neither good nor bad. However, Bowie also says he has never done anything out of the blue, oh-wow. But right there and then I decided that if The Machine didn't want his vest then I was going to have it as a souvenir. I scurried over to the far corner like a rat and snatched it. I took it outside and showed my friends. I was so proud. I put it on over the top of my flowery shirt to see how it felt. It was a bit tight but I liked the look, so kept it on.
So attired, the night wore on, and at one point I went in search of my South African friend Tony to show him my souvenir. Tony was standing with a downbeat Austrian and they were discussing something they had just seen.
Did you see that? The Machine just went nuts. He was leaving and he went to look for his shirt and it was gone. Then he went to look for his passport and wallet and they were gone, too. He went crazy, started shouting, I'll kill somebody! I will kill them!' and about how he has to walk home topless. On his way out of the bar he punched the cigarette machine and knocked it over and disappeared.
His wallet, his passport and his shirt, all stolen, said the Austrian.
Oh, no, his shirt wasn't stolen, I took it, I explained in a good mood, tugging at the white vest in demonstration.
The Austrian looked at me in horror and Tony started to laugh.
It's a memento, I explained. I'm a Machine fan.
The Austrian insisted that I had done a very bad thing and that I should give him the shirt right away as he was camped beside Tom, but he came on a bit heavy so I said I would find the Machine and give it to him myself. Tony, finding the whole thing quite amusing, advised me I might not want to bump into Tom right now, and we had a great laugh at what would have happened to me if Tom, instead of seeing the cigarette machine, had seen me wearing his shirt.
In the end I felt bad about the whole incident and gave the Austrian the shirt along with 50 euros dressed up as a sort of sponsorship/compensation type gesture for Tom for losing his wallet. In reality this was a bribe given in the hope that if Tom ever finds out who took the shirt and tracks me down in a dimly lit central European alleyway on a wet winter night and gets all Special Forces on my ass, then perhaps the generosity will convince him, at least, to allow me a painless death.
Niall Grimes is a Senior Contributing Editor for Rock and Ice.