Transcription. What a shitty word. I prefer Torture-scription. Or Tran-seething. It’s a loathsome act and I hate it, hate it, hate it. Yet, sometimes a ClimbTalk show comes along that you just have to transcribe, for a number of different reasons. Even if it does take 15 hours of play, rewind, write, rewind, write, stop, gnash teeth and curse people who ramble, rewind, and finally write again.
Peter Beal of mountainsandwater.com and Jamie Emerson of B3bouldering.com are both very talented climbers. Peter established one of the first 5.14s in Clear Creek Canyon, while Jamie has been putting up boulder problems along the Rocky Mountain spine for years. Peter has authored a how-to bouldering book, Jamie a guide to the alpine bouldering in Rocky Mountain National Park and Mt. Evans.
All wonderful feats, but that’s not the reason I decided to transcribe this ClimbTalk interview from April 2012. Jamie, and most recently Peter, have both received a spate of feedback from their respective websites, which many people would label controversial or stirring the pot or rambling on about inconsequential nonsense. Everyone would agree, at the least, that they are writing and suggesting feedback because of their great passion for the sport and lifestyle of climbing.
But that’s not even the reason I’m posting this transcription. I’m posting it not even because I believe what they write carries some vital wisdom that the climbing-verse can’t live without! No, I do not agree with everything they write. Sometimes, I don’t agree with a lick of it.
I’m posting this because I appreciate their effort, their work to get a voice out there for what they believe in or what they don’t quite understand or simply what chafes their hides. They are purveyors of FREE MEDIA and, if nothing more, they provide an outlet to air grievances, have a meaningful discussion, or simply allow fuming or raging on the intertrons.
These guys suffer a lot of negativity (and a lot of positivity, but that’s not what I’m getting at), which is, in the end, fine. You better have some thick skin if you’re going to challenge assumptions or rock the boat or, in Peter’s case, argue that climbing is becoming doused in commodification. You better have thick skin if you’re a lowly blogger, the carp of the writing ocean. They both have thick skin.
But it’s FREE. What they write, it’s FREE to read. The pictures Jamie posts, the information about new areas in Wyoming and every other damn area I’m not privy to, is FREE. Peter’s beta videos for Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder are FREE. His website, with content many consider hostile to climbing (I do not agree), is FREE. In other words, you don’t have to read it if you don’t like it. You can scoff and click over to 8a.nu. And if you want to read it you are certainly FREE to comment in whichever way you see fit.
A final caveat about these guys who provide FREE climbing media and information and topics for discourse, something many should understand before bashing them personally (many do not bash them personally but rather bash them in defiance of their beliefs…which is fine…that’s fair game). They are both good guys. Peter is a family man, a dedicated father, and a really jovial fellow. Jamie lives, eats, breathes, and probably shits climbing. I don’t know about the shitting little boulders with chalked holds; it’s just a guess. And he’s a good guy, too.
That’s the reason I’m transcribing this interview. I appreciate what they write and the balls they have to put their names on the line – not like some pussy shit anonymous puke hiding behind a Cartman avatar and a meaningless anon label like “514Crusha” or “sickygnarGUY” – in the public forum. Love it or hate it, it’s FREE and you don’t have to read it. Or, if you disagree, rock and roll with that and seethe on their websites. But, please, although sometimes I wonder if I’m just some dunce typing bullshit in this cave somewhere beneath the bowels of Denver, I STILL believe we all belong to the same tribe. I think we should act like it.
And that’s about as controversial as I get. God, I’m a sissy. Enjoy the interview (if you don’t, please don’t come at me…I’m already weeping). Josh Wharton/Kelly Cordes interview and then Chris Kalous from The Enormocast podcast is on the way next!
Mike Brooks: It’s almost 9:00 [pm] here in Boulder, Colorado, and you are listening to ClimbTalk on Radio 1190. My name is Mike Brooks. Dave McAllister from pumpfactoryroad.com is the co-host, as usual. Dave, what’s happening?
Dave McAllister: Hey, Mike, how’s it going?
MB: Good. So, you’re just back from your vacation…again. Where’d you go, what can you tell us about it, what did you send?
DM: Well…I didn’t really send anything of import, but I was in Bishop for three weeks. Tenth trip there. I got my cast off my leg two days before I left. So, I was climbing on a little spindly, toothpick of a leg the whole time. But it was good. It’s tough coming back from that. As a matter of fact, I was just bouldering in Castlewood [Canyon] on Sunday and I haven’t climbed since because I tried to heel hook and blew my hamstring to smithereens, because I haven’t used it at all. I’m writing this year off to injury
MB: Okay. So, we have climbers Peter Beal and Jamie Emerson here in the Radio 1190 studio. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us on ClimbTalk.
Peter Beal: Hey, Mike.
Jamie Emerson: Thank you for having us.
DM: So, what have you guys been up to? Jamie, you’re in school now. Peter’s in school, too, in a different fashion [Peter is a college art history and humanities professor]. But, you are in classes.
JE: I’m just taking classes, studying mathematics right now. It’s really exciting. It’s awesome to have something that opposes my climbing in a very dramatic way. I really appreciate that. It makes climbing seem more interesting, because I throw myself into something really mentally challenging and then I switch…climbing’s still mentally challenging, but in a very different way. It’s something I haven’t experienced in a long time.
DM: Has anybody given you crap because people call you “The Sherriff” and you talk about grades all the time and that you’re only taking mathematics to crunch the numbers better? Or am I the first?
JE: You’re the first. [laughter]
DM: How’s school and climbing going? You finding the time?
JE: I do not climb as much as I used to. I find myself climbing in the gym a lot more, which has its ups and downs. I’ve met a lot more interesting people. Normally I’d be out there with two or three friends in Wyoming, like we’ve talked about before, developing boulders or doing something like that. Now I find myself in the gym talking to all kinds of people who I didn’t associate with before. Not because I didn’t like them but just because I was doing something different.
It’s nice to explore the gym as a “climbing area.” As a culture. That’s something that I’ve kind of embraced. That’s always been my mode of operation; whatever I’m doing I’m going to embrace it and go after it. So, I’ve been climbing in the gym and I’ve been sport climbing a lot. And I’m going to sport climb this summer.
JE: Dirty word, I know.
MB: You mentioned Lander earlier before we got into the studio. Are you going to be sport climbing there or bouldering?
JE: I’m going to be doing both. There’re some great sport routes in Lander and I’ve tried a few of them and I want to do all the ones I’ve tried. It’s important in my own climbing to experience as many different kinds of rock and as many different styles as possible. Lander is a really unique style and I like it. The town is awesome; it’s really pretty. I’m really excited to go there. I’m really excited to go to Utah and see some of the new things out there. I’m excited to go to Rifle, which I haven’t been to. The Monastery is incredible. That’s a place I am shocked that doesn’t get more attention. The routes are stunning; they’re beautiful.
MB: Can I change the subject so early in the game, here? We had ClimbTalk the Road Show at the Boulder Outlook Hotel about a week ago. We had Dave Graham and Chad Greedy [on] and one of the points that Dave made was talking about chipping. He said chipping is acceptable in Rifle but nowhere else on the Front Range. Anyone want to voice an opinion on that?
PB: He’s not really right about Rifle, although it depends on how you define “chipping.” But it’s definitely not acceptable anywhere else. I have to say, I haven’t seen or heard of a deliberately chipped route or boulder problem, that I know of, anywhere on the Front Range. It’s definitely not cool. There are debates as to what constitutes chipping, so that’s a separate topic.
DM: Yeah, that was the object of [Graham’s] topic, I think: What constitutes chipping, what is cleaning, and what is “manicuring”.
JE: This is interesting that we’re bringing this up because I had a discussion with some friends the other day and we were talking about how generally, if the rock was so poor that you would have to glue it or chip it – like they justify in Rifle – that boulderers wouldn’t climb on it. They would be like, “This is choss. We don’t want to climb on this.” But, for whatever reason, because there’s rock and because, “Oh, if I glue a hold on or I chip a hold here or there, we can climb this 80 foot section of rock,” and it becomes a sport climbing area and its fine and that becomes acceptable. I think it’s interesting how people do turn the other cheek. It’s okay, it’s accepted in Rifle, that people can chip routes. Dave has given me a hard time about not calling people out for chipping routes in Rifle.
MB: And how did you defend yourself on that concept of not calling people out for chipping?
JE: I’ve never even been to Rifle. I don’t know if it’s appropriate [laughter and everyone talking drowns out the end of his sentence].
PB: I have a little more experience in Rifle than Jamie does. The classic instance in Rifle is a long endurance route that sits in this .13d/.14a range called Living in Fear. That was probably the first and most notorious example in Rifle where pretty much every hold or every other hold…a substantial amount of the route was enhanced, basically. There were a lot of these little corner insets, sloping edges so that whoever it was – I can’t remember if it was Scott Frye, I know that he actually did the route – worked with the features.
Another notorious example is John Dunne, with his (I think) Bride of Frankenstein. That was pretty much wholly manufactured out of choss. It’s just a really steep cave. It’s one of those popular, sort of soft .13d’s; some people call it .13c. Those are probably the two most egregious ones that I can think of there.
A lot of the other stuff is either reinforced or pretty much let alone. A great example is Zulu. There’s a big jug you jump to that’s basically remodeled or reconstructed with a bunch of sika or epoxy or whatever. Rifle is such a choss pile in spots that it’s really hard to figure out sometimes what is “original” once you clean out all the loose rock and the spider webs and the stuff that’s in there.
JE: You know, my argument is that it would always be better if it wasn’t chipped or glued. We’ve talked about these fine lines about what constitutes cleaning, what constitutes acceptable practice on rock, but I will always stand by the argument that it’s better if it’s not. If you left it alone and didn’t climb it – didn’t chip it and didn’t glue it – I think that might be better.
PB: I would definitely concur. Of course, Rifle has a funny thing. For instance, in the Arsenal, having entire sections of the cliff fall down. So, again, it’s a very fluid and dynamic surface that people will glue… I remember this on The Seven P.M. Show, grabbing a block that was kind of quasi-glued around the perimeter of it. I’ve still never really gotten used to pulling on the thing because I just imagine it coming off in my lap. The stories just go on and on of random blocks falling off trade routes. It’s that kind of a place.
JE: People often use the argument, and conversely, that, “Well, if I glue a hold on, there’s an 80 foot roof to climb and everyone has fun on it.” But if you take that argument farther I think you come to, “Then why don’t we just bolt holds on, because it’s fun.” Why don’t we just bolt a slide on or something and you can slide down. That would be fun, too.
I think there needs to be some kind of ethic…that’s why we need to have some kind of rule or ethic about what constitutes proper cleaning and all that kind of stuff. I’ve never been to Rifle. I’d like to go and experience as much of it as I could. That’d be awesome. And then I’d have a more informed opinion.
MB: Who should decide and where should these ethics be kept?
JE: I think if you have a very sound argument, then it doesn’t matter who decides, because the argument would be hard to argue against. It’s not one person with a gigantic ego who says, “I was here first and this is the ethic that I determined.” The argument is so flawless that it supersedes everything and you can always defer to the argument.
PB: Except when you don’t. You read the piece by Bill Ramsey justifying chipping?
JE: I did.
PB: I think that his argument was kind of forced and weak but it did actually point out some pragmatic aspects of rock climbing, where alteration of the rock is tolerated for reasons like there might be a huge, loose block on it, which all of a sudden reveals a massive hold. Or, alternately, the block forms a massive hold that the first ascensionist doesn’t want, which was the case with Scarface at Smith Rocks. And the list goes on and on. So, there’re a lot of grey areas. I think, on the whole, Jamie’s absolutely right, that you are always better off leaving it alone. If you find yourself compelled, I guess, to make those kinds of alterations, you’re probably doing the wrong thing in the wrong place.
DM: Since we’re talking of chipping, we [Jamie] sat here in this studio and talked about that for forty minutes. It was really interesting…the 14th time. Let’s move past it and talk about something else that you wrote on your blog. You wrote about private property, bouldering and climbing on private property…
MB: What was your motivation for that piece, Jamie?
JE: My motivation was that we were driving to a new climbing area in the vicinity of the Ripper Traverse, which is really private property. We drove by it to look at it. It’s down in Pueblo, a John Gill classic problem. I think it was on the cover of Climbing Magazine, a photo of John Long. It was one of the first bouldering photos that was published and kind of became one of those iconic photos. It was iconic for me, looking at bouldering and thinking this is something I don’t understand, but it embodied some vision of climbing that I appreciated. The climb, in that sense, became important to me.
What if we went and did it? We drove by and didn’t climb it…but what if we went and did it and posted about it? There’s a video of Fred Nicole climbing on it, online. Is it okay? Is it okay if no one gets hurt? All the questions that we talked about – all the questions that I brought up in my post – what are the ramifications for climbers and the acts that come about and our perception to the public, how does that play out? If we just sneak on and do it, is it really that big of a deal or not? I don’t know.
I’m in a different position, too, I think, because people are looking for something to get me. They want to come at me. So, if I did something like that they’d jump all over me and, “You hypocrite!” But if I was no one, in terms of the public realm, then I could just sneak on and it’d be fine.
DM: Am I a simpleton when I say that this issue is so cut and dry that it’s just ridiculous? You just don’t trespass without talking to the landowner first. Can’t you just boil it down to that?
PB: It’s actually a much, much more compelling issue than just, say, the Ripper Traverse, way off down in Pueblo. There are a lot of major bouldering areas in the northeast that are on private property and the negotiations between land owners in places like that are really complicated, and these are central areas. It would be sort of like having Flagstaff or Horsetooth being owned essentially by a single place. In fact, I was working with the Access Fund on some discussions about the boulders in the west side of Eldorado Canyon, exactly where things fit, property lines there. So, it’s closer to home than you might think, but it’s not as cut and dry as you might think.
JE: Right. And I just argued we should have cut and dry rules about chipping. And I agree; there should be cut and dry rules about private property. But, if you look at a place like Horse Pens 40, it’s on private property. The guy allows it. There’s also the issue of, if you have private property and you ask… Let’s say you and I go down to try the Ripper Traverse and we ask the land owner and the land owner says, “Yeah, it’s fine.” And then I even write about it on the internet or go to the gym and say, “Hey, we went and did this cool traverse. It’s historic; we went there and asked the land owner.” Then it brings into the collective conscious that people are going and climbing on private property. Then someone’s like, “Well, I don’t want to bother with the land owner.”
DM: By the way, Peter, I fully understand the nuances of large areas. I’m kind of talking about more: you drive out to Sedalia, you see a group of boulders on a hillside a mile away from a house. That’s a little bit more of what I’m talking about.
[Jamie], you were almost justifying someone saying “I don’t want to bother with [the landowner].” Yeah, but…it’s just wrong. You have to bother with it. I think it’s so, so cut and dry when we’re talking about these little issues.
PB: I think you got to be on a scale there. One of the interesting things that other, more civilized countries than the United States, there’s what’s known as “the right to roam,” which is really popular in Scandinavia and in parts of the U.K., in fact most of the U.K., where you’re allowed essentially to traverse somebody’s land as long as you’re staying away from their – I forget what the specific numbers are – but away from their main place of habitation, you don’t put up any permanent structures, make any type of permanent alterations. I think you’re actually even allowed one night’s stay on that land. It’s a very different culture. We’re coming from the United States culture, where you have this right, essentially, to run people off with a shotgun and that kind of thing. I agree with you. Technically – legally, anyway – the private property thing is significant. And I say in my book you should always check around and make sure before you move in. Like you said, you see boulders and you see a house. There’s not necessarily a connection between that house but it’s probably good to do the right thing on that one.
The other thing that Jamie seemed to be pointing to, if you’re that property owner…and the classic example would be the Kingpin boulder in Poudre Canyon. So, let’s just say you did give permission to one group and then the next weekend another group shows up. And then another group shows up. And then they are partying and they’re making a big racket and it’s just turning into a big, fat pain.
JE: That is basically what happened. Kingpin, people asked to climb on that problem and the landowner said, “Yeah, it’s fine, I don’t mind.” Then a few people go and it’s fine. Then Chris Sharma shows up and then it becomes Kingpin that was put up by Chris Sharma and then everyone wants to go do it. All of sudden there are people driving up his driveway and it turns into a total mess. I don’t think it’s been clearly defined whether or not he even owns the boulder. The property line’s really close. But, it just turns into chaos. It might have been better had no one – it’s hard to say “better” – but it might have been less of an issue had no one asked.
DM: The waters are getting muddy now…
JE: Yes…[the flashing light of a studio telephone call makes us all lose our concentration]
DM: Pick ‘er up, man! [to Mike]
PB: Jamie’s done it now…
MB: Hello, Radio 1190. [Mike whispering ever so softly, which cracks the whole studio up]
DM: The svelte baritone of Mike Brooks…
JE: To continue on this Kingpin topic, it’s a good example because people did ask and it really opened the flood gates for more people to go and we know the result. The boulder got destroyed by the landowner and it ruined the whole thing. We can speculate as to what might have happened had no one said anything. It’s possible that nothing could have happened and people could still sneak over and climb on it and the boulder would still be there. I would prefer that the boulder would be there as opposed to being destroyed. I would prefer the boulder to be there but I don’t know that I would prefer that people were trespassing, so that’s a really, really sticky issue.
DM: I remember when the boulder did get closed down, Daniel Woods did sneak in and he sent it. But…then there was a blog post about it.
PB: That’s not cool.
JE: That changes things.
PB: Yeah, it really does.
JE: It makes what happens in one small moment, in one person’s life, public to everyone. That didn’t happen ten years ago, at all, ever.
DM: I’m gonna write a blog post about that…
JE: You should.
PB: Emergency blog post. [laughter]
JE: I see a big list of questions there. What else you got, McAllister?
DM: Alright, let’s get down to brass tacks with Peter.
DM: Recently, Peter has…engendered…some feedback across the climbing spectrum for, I’d say, three blog posts in a row; the fourth was called, “Is There Hope After All.” The first was “Sell, Sell, Sell: Is There an Alternative?” The second was, “Sell, Sell, Sell: A Response to the Responses.” The third was, “Ends and Means.” This can be found on mountainsandwater.com and I think it really behooves you to check it out, and Rock and Ice’s retorts, as well. So, “Sell, Sell, Sell: Is There an Alternative?”, I’m sure a lot of people listening have not read it. Those people in the caves who don’t know anything about the climbing world! Tell us both about the genesis of the blog post and the content.
PB: Well, I started off this year with a post that basically [talked about] the value of dissent. I think there is, in the climbing community – somewhat, I think it’s admirable in some ways – a kind of repetitive, positive, kind of “we’re all in this together, we’re all doing the same thing, we’re all supporting each other.” I’m just here to suggest that there are going to be some things on which we probably should have a serious discussion. It’s a little bit like what Jamie’s trying to do when he puts these things out there, like how do we treat boulder problems on private property or what’s the deal with women, for instance, not, in a sense, fully participating…
DM: We’re going to talk about that later.
PB: Yeah, exactly. That kind of thing. I’m trying to reach a little bit out beyond the immediate circle or issues of bouldering and think in bigger terms about the ways in which the sport affects people from a social and political and economic standpoint. News is no longer interesting, except for sort of being read in that frame of mind or viewed through that lens.
Basically, things started off in earnest with the “Sell, Sell, Sell” thing when I was reading way too many posts about people sending things in Spain and going on endless road trips and all this type of stuff. It’s clearly pitched for creating some kind of image that was going to be more attractive to sponsors, more than anything else. And so I said, “What’s up with this?” Actually, [my] most popular post was the one about the CitiBank ad, where people were falling over themselves in praise of it. I was like, “This is the most transparent effort to pitch climbing as something that had some kind of transcendent value,” that was being launched by one of the most notorious players in the recent bank failure.
Anyways, I started thinking a little bit about that and decided to write this because I was getting a little tired of climbing culture constantly being pitched in a commercial direction. There should be an alternative to that. What happened pretty quickly is that I got something like 50+ comments, which for me is pretty rare. And then Rock and Ice jumped all over it. In the end I never really saw anything that conclusively said, “No, no no…you’re wrong.” I heard a lot of stuff, like this has always been happening or it’s not as bad as you think or whatever. When I heard from actual editors in the industry, that was a different story. I can’t share those conversations, but let’s just say there’s definitely some concern about these kinds of issues. When I saw the Rock and Ice responses I replied to those and it went on and on and Duane Raleigh and I had a little bit of an exchange about this kind of thing – not in a caustic or critical way, but “Oh, this is interesting…” I know a fair number of these people anyway; I was actually pretty psyched about that and the response that it got. I got a fair amount of hate mail, too, but that comes with the territory. [laughter]
DM: You gotta have thick skin if you’re going to write this stuff.
PB: Exactly. The people who were like, “This is capitalism, we live in a capitalist country, and we’re here to sell,” I still didn’t find those arguments very convincing in the end. I never saw a conclusive, “Here’s what you got wrong.”
JE: Do you have a problem, Peter, with someone like Joe Kinder, who makes a living climbing and works hard?
DM: And producing content for sponsors.
JE: Right. Do you have a problem with that?
PB: I wouldn’t say I have a problem with it, but it seems to me there are going to be more and more people looking at Joe as, “That’s what I have to be to be a climber. I have to put myself out there. I have to have a very public persona and I have to put myself in the public eye and not take it away in order to make it as a climber.”
JE: And that stands in stark contrast to someone like John Bachar or John Gill who were out there…
PB: Well, John Bachar was actually one of the first to actually publicize himself in the public eye. John Gill, definitely.
JE: But they weren’t making a living…
PB: No, no, no. They weren’t able to, that’s for sure. John Bachar much more so. John Gill was a math professor, so he didn’t have to worry about it.
To a certain extent, that’s the rule of the game. That’s how the industry, in a sense, is pitching itself; you need that kind of public profile. I’m just not convinced that in the end that’s the right approach for everybody. When you have a bunch of up-and-coming climbers who want to get themselves in the public eye and everybody’s trying to do that…
This is my bottom line, sort of like the chipping thing, but more important in my view. It starts affecting the environment. It starts affecting the way that the bouldering or climbing areas are treated. It starts showing up in the attitudes that people have toward a climbing area as kind of an arena for display, for scoring points, for making impact as a kind of personality rather than respecting the environment that they’re operating in. I think that is something we should have a discussion about.
MB: You don’t think that’s inevitable?
PB: No, I don’t think it’s inevitable. I think it’s a deliberate choice. It’s a choice that you make when you say that climbing is commodified or commodifiable. In other words, you translate a rock, which is a unique – and to my mind – amazing product of heaven-knows-what infinitely complex forces, and you transform it into something, to take any number of problems in Hueco Tanks, with a vulgar name and a V grade attached to it. And people will go onto 8a.nu or a video… I mean, how many videos have you guys seen of all of the standard V11/V12/V13 problems at Hueco Tanks?
DM: How many have you seen, Mike?
PB: [to MB] Yeah, you probably don’t watch these things… [laughter and some random making fun of Mike, which to his great credit he shrugs off] You know, Hueco Tanks is not just like a basketball court. I think it’s starting to look a little bit more like that to the public.
JE: Do you think that this is a generational thing or do you think someone of an older generation would look at the way you did things and think, “Oh man, he’s putting bolts on the Primo Wall! It’s horrible. He’s degrading. He’s not respecting the environment,” and you’re just seeing the same thing happen again? Or, do you think this is something different?
PB: Well, I think there’s a quantitative difference in terms of these – we’ll just loosely call them – media productions. There’s a quantitative difference. It’s gotten to the point where it’s a qualitative difference. There’s just a critical mass of video after video after video.
Take the example of Primo Wall. Nobody paid the faintest bit of attention to the climbs that I did there until Joe Kinder came along and repeated Shine. Now we not only have the first ascent, we have the first famous ascent. And with the first famous ascent then people actually start climbing on the thing. To me that’s actually pretty significant. In other words, it takes a kind of media stamp of approval to make a route important. And then with that, just like you said with Kingpin, Chris Sharma does it and all of a sudden the vultures come down and pluck the last aura out of the route.
DM: I feel like that’s always been the way. Like, John Gill’s standards…The Thimble was not famous after…
PB: It was famous but nobody would get on it. And it didn’t have video.
DM: Yeah, of course.
PB: It’s very, very different.
MB: I got on The Thimble. I thought it was kinda easy…
[Silence…and then…”WHOA-KAY!” and rabble-rabble-rabble and laughter from everyone in the studio]
PB: I’ve heard that. But, the main thing is that The Thimble is not a very commodifiable experience compared to a problem, say, in Rocky Mountain National Park or Hueco Tanks where you can get a group of seven or eight people and eight or nine pads and all of a sudden you’ve got something going on. Whereas The Thimble…it’s going to take a lot more than the crowd to keep you going on that one, at some point.
I don’t think it’s the same-old, same-old. I think that anybody who says it is – like I said in Rock and Ice’s response – I think that’s being disingenuous.
DM: Duane Raleigh, the [Publisher/Editor-in-Chief] of Rock and Ice, kind of took a “Chicken Little” stance. “The sky is falling, the sky is falling.” The sport is crumbling apart at its roots. We’re losing our heart. It’s becoming commodified. And he disagreed with [that], of course.
PB: Right, exactly. I didn’t find his response convincing and the reason why is that there’s a great deal of interest on the part of climbing media…
People have accused me of somehow generating hits, like I like the controversy. And it’s true, I like arguing, but I don’t make a dime, basically, off that website. I don’t have any advertising that I get any money from. I tend not to take free gear from anybody or anything like that, especially at this point. It’s totally non-commercial. So, I didn’t find the response convincing. I could not hear a single, clear, like, “Everything’s okay.”
DM: He made one point, “Climbing doesn’t have a soul. People do.” I thought that was a nice line.
PB: It didn’t make any sense to me at all.
DM: To me it makes perfect sense.
PB: It’s like Jeff Jackson, and I thought that he worded it very beautifully; he talked about the transcendent experience of climbing. You know, you’re out there alone on the rock face. Okay, fine. We’ve all had that. But, to get there…there’s a lot going on. I just argue that we need to look under the hood of climbing. In other words, see what’s actually happening. To take an example of manufacturers trying to be responsible about that, Patagonia – really good – at least trying to get initiatives started in terms of looking at what they do and how they do it. I’d like to see more on the part of the other manufacturers.
JE: Do you feel like when you see this mass of videos and you’re assaulted by all these things…
PB: I’m watching them freely. No one’s holding a gun to my head.
JE: …do you think that negatively affects your experience?
PB: Honestly, no. I don’t really have a problem with that. I don’t feel, for instance, that it’s removing the mystery of these boulder problems. The thing that does negatively affect, not just mine but other climbers’ experiences, is a horde of people that are attracted to one particular problem because they saw it last week in a video. Sometimes, frankly, the problem isn’t really that good and it’ll be the boulder problem of the week on the Front Range or whatever.
JE: Right, we’ve seen that before.
PB: Totally. Like every month.
JE: Black Ice.
JE: Black Ice was really one of the first. I don’t know how much that was driven by the media, but it was driven by your [Mike] website, frontrangebouldering.com. [FRB, though now not a focus of Mike’s, was one of the original climbing websites that generated a ton of traffic in the new online climbing media of the early 2000s]
DM: Mike, you’re a peddler of smut. [To Peter] Do you think the American zeitgeist of celebrity worship/brand worship in the mainstream culture…we know all about it, the Kardashians are famous…
PB: I was tempted to say right there, “Who?” But go ahead…
DM: Yeah, right.
PB: I don’t want to be that much of an old fogy.
DM: The vibe I get from you is that younger climbers are going to be drawn to the most popular climbs, of course, that have gained notoriety on the interwebs – from a host of videos – and they want to become sponsored because it will get them a higher profile inside the sport. Do you think that’s a function of the higher American zeitgeist right now? Or, is it particular to climbing?
PB: I don’t think it’s particular to climbing. Climbing’s always been behind the curve for a long, long time with regard to other sports. So, in a sense, climbers are waking up to the marketability, even though I would argue on many levels that that marketability is limited by a bunch of factors. There is a degree to which a generation – we’ll say right now between about 15 and 25 – has latched onto that as a way of validating themselves. Fine, so be it. Honestly, I don’t care that much, especially in the gym. It’s only when it starts to affect the outdoor environment and the outdoor experience that it really starts turning into a problem, in my view.
DM: Hmm. That’s a good point to make because I didn’t get that point as much, and I read your blogs numerous times. I think that’s an important distinction to make, that you don’t have a problem with it so much as it’s happening, but rather when it’s affecting…
PB: To me that’s the bottom line. I don’t think that mode of climbing is going to yield much, ultimately, in the way of insights or any kind of real progress in the sport. There might be “harder” climbs or something like that. The real issue, to me, is when you start treating the outdoor environment and the surroundings as a kind of giant playroom, where what you write and what you do or however you act out in that playroom is the only thing that matters. That’s not, to me, the way that we should look at the outside world. We shouldn’t look at the environment that we live in in those kinds of terms.
DM: As a conduit to your higher profile.
PB: Right. Which, in a sense, is doomed to ephemerality anyway. I’ve lived in Boulder now – moved here in 1994 – close to two decades, and I’ve seen multiple phases of climbers come and go. I can speak from personal experience: very few climbers have any kind of profile of any kind – even if you’re world-class – for more than a few years. Dave Graham is exemplary in terms of sustaining that pace for so long. It’s very, very rare to see people go more than 2-3 years as a “professional.”
DM: Emerson, your time’s almost out. Can I switch gears? You guys, I’m sure, will both have plenty to say about this. [To JE] You recently broached a subject that you’ve talked about numerous times on your website. Women and developing, of routes or boulder problems, and how there’s a stark difference between the number of women and the number of men developing. Talk a little bit about your blog post.
MB: Why did you tackle that, Jamie?
JE: I think it’s interesting. I want to challenge the way that people think. I want people to question what they’re doing because I question what I’m doing and I think they can learn a lot from that. If I can offer questions… People have told me, “We read your post and we sat around the fire and talked about it for two hours.” For me, that’s the highest compliment, that somewhere else out there, there was discussion generated and people were thinking about what’s going on. That’s really important.
Peter alluded to this earlier where he said that climbing tends to be this super-supportive, we’re all friends, there’s no voice of dissent, there’s no voice of criticism…and it’s not that I’m coming from a negative standpoint – that I want to cut people down – but I just want to say, “Hey, let’s ask some questions about what we’re doing.” For me, climbing is not just, “I am hanging out in the woods and climbing on rocks.” It’s far, far more complex than that. It is my life and it is the way that I’ve chosen to live my life and it’s not a separate thing. It’s not [that] I live my life and there are social issues or environmental issues or gender issues going on and then I go climbing and those issues go away. They still exist when I go climbing and I see how they exist. I want to try to bring it up and say, “There’s more to it…”
Sometimes I feel like a girl does a hard route and we just pat her on the back. I’m very critical of men. A lot of times the girls get mad at me, “You just go after the girls!” I have been extremely critical of men. I think it’s okay that I’m critical of women, too. I don’t think I shouldn’t be critical because there’s some stigma that I should hold the door open and hold their hand. I’m willing to take the heat…I know people are going to say whatever. I want to say, let’s look at it as objectively as possible. I’m open to the idea of presenting a question.
DM: And your question is, in the blog post, why aren’t more women developing and what are the precursors to this lack of development?
JE: Right. Certainly, some women think that I’m attacking them and I’m assigning blame to them. That’s not the case, at all. I’m interested and I want to know why and I want to understand. There’s a pattern that I’ve noticed and I want to understand why. It could be as simple as there’re just not as many women who climb. When we see more women climbers we’ll see more development from them. Or maybe it’s just some genetic thing – I don’t know the answer.
It’s like grades. I don’t have the answer if it’s V10 or V9. It’s subjective and it’s really hard to pinpoint, but we can try to talk about it.
DM: You have the answer, Sherriff.
PB: He has AN answer.
DM: I’m not trying to be obsequious or deferential, at all, but if somebody gleans that you’re attacking women out of the most recent blog post, they’re seriously confused. All you’re doing is trying to mine an answer or start a discussion. But…I’m curious about what you believe causes those discordant numbers.
JE: There’re so many different factors that go into that. Sometimes I’m inclined to think that there’s a social expectation or something…I don’t know. I talked to a good friend of mine and she said, “I just don’t want to get dirty and it’s a lot of work and I don’t want to do it. I’d rather just do something else.” And that’s fine. A lot of guys think that, too.
DM: I know plenty of guys who think the same way.
JE: Oh, yeah. I wrote that. I think I said there’re thousands of men who do nothing in terms of developing. But, I do think there’s an expectation that Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra and Daniel Woods and Dave Graham are putting up new…people want to see what’s the new thing that Dave’s doing. What’s the new thing that Daniel’s doing? What’s the new V15? That expectation is not there for women. I think it’d be awesome if it was there. What if we heard about Alex Puccio going and doing a V13 first ascent? That would be amazing. I would be inspired by that. I think what I’m speaking to is I want to feel inspired. Not saying that you guys aren’t good climbers because you’re not doing it but there’s a way you could inspire me and I’d like to be inspired. So, it’d be cool if you did it. I think that it’d be interesting to see the differences.
DM: You ask a question, so I got to quote this: “Are men (because they are the majority in our sport) fostering this gap, by ‘oppressing’ women?”
JE: Quote/unquote, “oppressing women,” because that’s kind of the cliché, that in general men are saying, “I’m going to do it and you are not. I’m the developer. I’m going to take charge.” And then the women say, “Well, okay. Go ahead, take charge.” I was asking, do you guys think that’s what’s going on? Do I think that’s what’s going on?
MB: Honestly, Jamie… [laughter]
PB: Get the spotlight.
JE: I think that, yes. If you’re going to make a generalization, I think that there are a lot of men that are saying, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to take over.” And in general, women say, “Okay, fine. Be a man and do what you do.”
PB: Yeah, I would agree.
DM: Doesn’t development happen in the shadows a lot, though? Aren’t people developing in areas that not many people know about and you got this cadre of dudes and they’re there…
PB: That’s exactly it.
JE: Yeah, that’s part of it. I’m sorry…I don’t understand your question.
DM: I don’t feel like men are beating their chests, like, “Women! Go do the FFAs! I will take care of the FAs!” I definitely do not see that.
PB: It’s never going to be that explicit.
DM: Underlying currents?
PB: The way that the information gets passed around, the way that these kinds of things are handled, it’s usually going to be a small cadre of people that find a certain place or have a hunch about a certain place and they actually spend time looking for places like that. The deeper question that I think Jamie’s driving at…we don’t want to be essentialists, is there something basic about women that isn’t the case with men. Although, as a father of a five-year-old girl, I can see some differences emerging really quickly between girls and boys. But, there is a set of social practices.
Putting up a first ascent is not simply walking up to a boulder and saying, “Oh, I’m going to do that.” Especially on the Front Range, where if there’s a really choice boulder with really good semi-hard lines, there are probably two dozen people within five minutes’ drive that could do that in a few tries. Whereas, for women, there are hardly any women that would be able to do that within a few tries. Quality new lines like that are kind of a scarce commodity. If it got out, say a woman did find a boulder that was really, really good, she would have to keep it under very tight wraps or there would have to be a very strong “gentlemen’s agreement” to stay off it.
A classic example would be when Luke Parady was gunning for the No More Greener Grasses first ascent. He knew that the window was closing in on that one, and he’s a very strong climber. But would a woman, who’s just breaking into V12, and that was sitting there in one of the most spectacular alpine bouldering areas in Colorado, and she found it and she cleaned it, how many people would honor an agreement to stay off that thing for a year or two years?
JE: I think one of the interesting things is that climbers align towards peer groups. Women who climb V12 don’t climb with men who climb V12, generally. They climb with the men who climb V14 or V15. The strongest women climb with the strongest men.
Then you have this situation where if they all go out climbing together, then you have the V15 guys climbing with the V12 girls and the V15 guys are going to do the boulders, usually, before the V12 girls do.
So… I don’t have the answer, I really don’t know what I think. Which is uncommon because I usually know exactly what I think! I don’t know enough about gender, I don’t know enough about social issues; it’s so complex.
DM: This [conversation] would also greatly benefit from having a couple female climbers in this room right now.
JE: I wrote on my blog, I said, “Please, I want to hear what you have to say.” I talked to friends of mine, too. That maybe isn’t seen on the website. I go to the gym and [ask] girls who climb 5.14, “What do you think about this? Why are you going to Rifle trying to do a 5.14 and not trying to put up a 5.14?”
MB: And what do they say?
JE: They said, “I don’t want to get dirty.” I mean, that’s the answer that I hear.
DM: Those are your friends?
JE: That’s what I’ve heard, yes.
DM: Alright. Let’s take it back to “Sell, Sell, Sell.” “Climbing as a counter-culture is healthy and thriving.” [I said “thriving,” but this is Rock and Ice editor Jeff Jackson’s quote and he said “growing.”]
JE: It’s not a counter-culture for the vast majority of people. If you go to places – Red River Gorge – you’re going to find the average income, if you talk to the people who know the demographics at climbing magazines, the demographic is white, male, with an income typically running between $50,000 and $125,000. Somewhere in there.
MB: Can you believe that, Dave?
DM: Well, if that’s the culture, my bank account…I’m definitely counter-culture. [laughter]
PB: Right, but there are counter cultures within climbing, but the vast majority of practitioners are going to come from a white, middle to upper-middle-class background. You can see it in the cars parked at Rifle, to take the sport climbing example. Or the amount of gear that’s required to climb a big wall in Yosemite. The people going up Everest, when it costs 10, 20, 30 thousand dollars just to get your foot in the door, so to speak. Then you’ve got the gear and you’ve got to be able to take off a couple months without having to account for yourself. It’s clearly a sport, and always pretty much has been a sport, for white males from a certain background.
I mean, the fact that we’re having a discussion in 2012 about women is kind of ridiculous when you consider the inroads that women made in professional sports in roughly the same period, whether it’s tennis, golf, etc. I’m not saying they’re at a par, but there’s kind of an understood place for women in a way that I think climbing is still working its way around.
I also think that the counter-culture thing is less convincing in the way that so many places have been mapped out. Indian Creek used to be a place for desert rats, but now it’s maybe not so much. The Valley, clearly, has been massively changed. Now we have people on supertopo.com quarreling about the placement of campgrounds or whether there should be so many pull-outs on the road…whether there should be certain trails in El Cap meadows. Everything is spoken for. I just feel like the counter-culture vibe, for instance, that I grew up with but never really was part of because I was too young, [is] not really viable anymore. Basically, for the most part, it’s a much more mainstream activity and the activities of people outside of climbing tend to reflect that. That’s just my take on it.
JE: I went to Switzerland a few years ago and we stayed in an apartment and we had a really nice rental car and it was the antithesis of the dirtbag, living out of your truck…
PB: The Swiss won’t let you do it anyway.
JE: I loved it. It was awesome. That’s a much better climbing trip than wallowing in the dirt.
PB: Yeah, I would agree.
JE: It was amazing, going to Switzerland and having all the amenities.
MB: What’s your opinion on that, Dave, I’m curious.
DM: I was looking at you to voice an opinion on that!
PB: Where did you stay in Bishop?
DM: In the Pit, man. I definitely am a dirtbag.
PB: We were camped next to an RV that ran its generator 24/7, so we moved down to one of the other campgrounds.
DM: Yeah, I’ve stayed at the Buttermilks before, I mean, I’ve been there ten times. I’ve stayed everywhere you can stay, except for Mill Creek [meant to say Mill Pond]. I don’t feel like it’s counter-culture or I’m counter-culture at all, but I’m a dirtbag. 100 percent.
JE: I go to Switzerland and I want to climb as hard as I possibly can and I’m not going to climb hard if I’m sleeping in a tent.
DM: That is not true.
PB: No, it’s totally true.
JE: I’ve done both, so… I’ve lived on the road; I’ve slept in my truck. I could never say to myself that I sleep as well in a truck as I do…
DM: So hard climbing is contingent upon…
JE: A good night’s rest.
DM: Well, of course a good night’s rest! But having all the amenities is what you’re saying.
PB: I think it really helps.
DM: It helps. It’s not contingent upon that, though.
PB: The thing is, Bishop. So, you’re going there in, say, mid-winter, when the conditions are prime. The sun sets at 3:30, basically. It doesn’t rise again until close to 8, and the temperature in the Pit goes down to pretty darn close to zero. Good, strong wind and all of a sudden you’re like, “I’m outta here.”
DM: That’s what happens, I totally agree with you.
PB: So, you crawl out of the back of the truck or the tent or whatever, barely getting warm at 9:30, and you creak your way out of the camp and finally to the boulders, and all of a sudden it’s 2:30 and the sun’s setting again. Much better to roll out of the hotel. [laughter]
DM: I can’t possibly argue that the hotel’s going to be more comfortable. Of course it is.
JE: Don’t get me wrong, if I know that it’s not going to rain out I’ll always sleep under the stars. I love being outside. Sometimes I like that experience. But, if I’m going to be doing it for a month then I’m going to want a nice place to sleep because I think I’ll climb better.
DM: Alright… [laughter]
JE: I think that’s why people climb harder, generally, in their home areas, because they’re sleeping in their comfortable bed.
DM: Yeah, maybe. If your whole goal is to climb as hard as you can and that’s the entire goal of your trip, then I would agree that you should get a hotel. But if your goal is also to experience the lifestyle and meet the people in the campground…that’s my opinion. I’m not a world-class climber, so I can’t really talk about climbing hard.
PB: I was just going to say: so, you’re hanging out in the Pit with a bunch of people who do pallet fires all night long and they’re playing hacky sack and they’re doing the bongos and they’re talking blah.
DM: You’re describing my campsite…
PB: I’m just saying, been there, done that. That’s all I have to say.
DM: Yeah, the Pit at Spring Break is a pretty rough place to be. But, I choose the Pit because I like to observe the culture of the Pit. It’s fascinating.
PB: If you want real dirtbag climbing, try the pull-out by the Cedar Pocket on I-15, right down by the Virgin River Gorge. It’s sketchy, the camp hangout by the Gorilla Cliffs, where we heard from one of the locals that somebody was gut-shot by the local mafia.
DM: For the love of baby Jesus, you’re probably not going to get a very good night’s sleep…
PB: If you want some counter-culture, check that out.
DM: I just mean the culture. I just feel like observing people and meeting new people, even if they’re these terrible, 20-year-old freaks who are playing the bongos and wearing their neon sunglasses and tight jeans. That’s still really, really interesting and super-important to me.
JE: I’m way above that. [laughter and some ancillary bullshit talking] Mike, how do you feel about how the internet’s affected everything?
PB: Yeah, since you’re responsible for it! You were the first one up.
JE: You’ve been climbing longer than any of us.
DM: And you were responsible for one of the first websites, solely based on bouldering, in the nation.
MB: It’s a sticky wicket. I think one of you gentlemen made the point earlier, it’s all about us addressing the issues and, maybe being the hundredth monkey, making a difference. [silence] How’d I do, Dave?
DM: That can’t possibly be your thesis. [laughter] Mike’s cracking himself up over on his golden throne behind the microphone.
Peter, I definitely think that you called out climbing media a bit and climbing media came back and they were a bit snarky. I don’t feel like it was contentious, but I feel like there were some good jabs going on. You noted six different topics that you’d like to see covered, not necessarily controversial, but asking some questions that you deem important.
This is one of them, and it was number one on your list: “I would argue that as climbing seeks to “explore” new areas of the earth that the ethics of exploration be given a serious look and the question be asked whether the resultant impacts on the local social and natural environment are worth the ephemeral and at this point mostly imaginary rewards of discovery.” When I saw the “imaginary” I wanted to ask, why are the rewards of discovery imaginary?
PB: One of the issues – and I don’t mean to get too academic about this, but I kind of can’t help it – is the way in which climbing has been set up to reflect a bunch of values that historically go back to the 18th century. There’s a mode, essentially, of looking at the world or knowledge of the world that is progressive in the sense of accumulating data points about it. The summit of Mont Blanc is a data point and people would take the temperature up there, or barometric readings, and start naming and collecting a kind of history of these things which would then add up to more knowledge. That sort of blended with a romantic sensibility about discovering individual potential.
There are a lot of stories grafted onto the experience of climbing. That’s been pretty much effective, I think, for propelling climbing “forward.” Probably, the first real crack in the façade is going to show up – I’m not sure enough work has been done on this – on the Dawn Wall, Escapade, around 1970, where Warren Harding puts in a bunch of bolts in El Cap and Royal Robbins comes along and says, “I’m going to erase this route.” There were a lot of things happening right around 1970. That’s when Cerro Torre is being done up and a lot of the standard discourses about climbing start to contradict themselves and start to not make sense anymore.
Another thing, ironically, to start sabotaging it is bouldering, because bouldering comes from exactly the opposite angle and goes on the micro level and says there are all kinds of ways of looking at this stuff that aren’t bound by all the conventional apparatus. Fast forward to now and what you start thinking about is can you think of anything that can’t be climbed that matters? I mean, ice climbing, it’s done. We saw the thing that Will Gadd did at Helmcken Falls, like, overhanging ice blobs. So, ice climbing’s done. Mixed climbing is getting pretty close to being done – it will just be more of the same. Hard free climbing; it’s just more of the same. Bouldering…I hate to hold out something special for bouldering. I think bouldering still has all kinds of interesting potential for exploration, but not necessarily in an objective sense. Like, first ascents or all these kinds of things.
What I’m proposing is that as more and more people seek out the last preserves of unspoiled nature we should ask ourselves why are we doing that? What are the motivations? Is the damage that’s resultant – because a lot of these things cost a lot of money and they’re sponsored by companies [that] expect a return on their investment – is that commercial interest and the potential environmental damage worth what I would describe as imaginary reward of a first ascent? That’s where I’m coming from.
JE: I think there are benefits to commercializing things in some sense because you take an area like Horse Pens 40 that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t commercialized. That area exists because it’s been commercialized and I wouldn’t have climbed there had it not been. I’m fine paying money to go there and climb there and I think that’s great. That’s an example of something that’s been commercialized for the better, I think.
PB: Let me just interject. It’s been commercialized at a very low-level way. A proper American style of commercializing would have miniature golf and pony rides. Climbers might not want that but somebody could have bought that who did want that and said, “I could triple my income.” But, I agree. I’m not saying that commercialization and what Jamie describes is completely counter-productive, at all.
DM: I wonder if this would fit into what we’re talking about. I remember, we had [on the show] Cory Richards who was speaking to this a little bit, about how The North Face and the money that they offer allows athletes to do some pretty amazing things in some pretty amazing places. For him, specifically, it was the first American winter ascent of Gasherbrum II.
PB: Let’s just take that really quickly as an example. So, more and more ascents are contingent in that way, “It’s the first female, African American ascent of Everest” kind of thing. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but we keep on looking – just the same way as people switch from doing peaks to ridges to doing faces – for ways to slice and repackage the experience. I’m just arguing that it’s become a sort of simulacrum, a kind of appearance of something. I’m not entirely convinced that there’s anything necessarily real at the back of a first ascent.
JE: If you take a sport that’s been played for hundreds of years, or a game like chess…it’s the end. Chess has reached its end.
PB: Chess doesn’t have a history. Climbing’s tried to create a history for itself. What I’m saying is that history is kind of wrapping up unless there’s a very different mindset about how it’s practiced.
JE: Well, there are other sports like running; people have been running for thousands and thousands of years, competitively.
PB: Sure, and running has experienced some of the same issues in terms of world records. There’s a sense of infinite effort to gain infinitely small gains, in terms of running.
JE: So, you would prefer not to hear about those things?
PB: I’m just saying that they don’t matter as much as people might imagine them to, that’s all. Once you take the long view, you start seeing…
JE: What does matter?
PB: That’s a good question. What I’m arguing, again, is from the point of view [of] local ecologies, local economies, local social practices and things like that, where climbers have spent a lot of time kind of moving into places. Everest base camp is a classic place. There’s a great little piece on Outside, a little oral history of Everest base camp. It’s not clear to me that anything particularly positive has been brought about in the world through Everest base camp. I think a lot of people have been there. The gist of what I was getting from the oral history, it wasn’t so great.
DM: What would you say to people who would say, “That is important to me”? And frankly, I think everybody is sometimes sick of seeing the next great V-whatever ascent…
PB: Honestly, I like that. I’m just saying we should think about it differently. That’s all. Personally, I’m not saying, “We should all sit in the woods and gaze at our navels.” Although, that probably wouldn’t hurt, a little bit more of that.
JE: Can you post a video of that?
DM: A bunch of emo boulderers gazing at our shoes… Mike, do we gotta wrap this puppy up?
MB: And that was ClimbTalk here on Radio 1190!
DM: You can check out Peter Beal’s thoughts on what we discussed today on mountainsandwater.com. I think it really behooves you to check it out. He brings up some great discussions and topics that, if nothing else, get good conversation started in our community. So, we thank him for that. Jamie Emerson, he doesn’t have a blog, I’ve never heard of him before.
PB: Who let him in?
DM: I’m not sure. The guy came in with a tie and was like, “Can I talk?” Jamie, are you still setting at Movement [Climbing and Fitness], as well?
JE: I’m still setting at Movement.
DM: Okay. You can check out his routes at Movement here in Boulder and you can check out his thoughts, most recently about trespassing on private property and women developing in the climbing world, at B3bouldering.com.
You can check out Mike Brooks at ILoveTubeSocks.com. He’ll be blogging there about two times a day. My name is Dave McAllister, you’ve been listening to ClimbTalk.