Thursday , Early Afternoon
Vail, Colorado’s very own 104.7 The Mile is the worst radio station on the planet. A tour: Jason Mraz, Counting Crows, Barenaked Ladies, and John Mayer, these all folded and spilled and puked one atop the other in the space of the winding Highway 24 leading out of Vail, through the lovely hamlet of Minturn, over Battle Mountain Pass and finally to Homestake Creek next to Red Cliff, home to the Teva Mountain Games’ annual Bud Light Lime Steep Creek Championship presented by Thule. This is a kayak race.
Kyler, a photographer and friend from way back, writhes in his seat. He frowns and squirms and glances with evil intentions as I drum the steering wheel.
“Kyler,” I say, “we’re here to cover the Teva Mountain Games. We have to get in touch with the Vail culture.” I ease the volume to a robust 14 as the Barenaked Ladies do…whatever it is they do.
We pull off the road into a wide gravel expanse – a high country parking lot – which should be packed with dust-blanketed Tacomas and Explorers and Four Runners. Men with kayaks over their shoulders and folks sitting on tail gates and women in flip flops, where are they? Other than a lonesome beige Astrovan, it’s just my Ford Focus hatchback, idling and bumping with the Ladies. Across a tiny asphalt road shouldering the river sit a few port-a-potties and three creeking kayaks, neon green in a way that only kayaks and hipster sunglasses achieve. Just sitting there, abandoned.
“Alright,” I sigh.
“I can’t believe it’s already over.”
“Fuck it, dude,” I say, backing up and doing my best Walter Sobchek, “let’s go bouldering.”
We park the car, load up my giant Misty Mountain crash pad, and head up the 200 yard trail for the fantastic granite bouldering of Red Cliff. It is 3:30 in the afternoon and we’ve already missed one of the most highly anticipated events of the Teva Mountain Games (TMG). What a splendid start.
The TMG have officially kicked off with the first Steep Creek kayaker’s put-in to the dribbling Homestake Creek, which the TMG website had hopefully hyped as “a paddling gem.” Granted a decent winter snowfall and rapid run-off, Homestake indeed terrifies (me) and siren calls (nutso kayakers). Nasty pool drops, meandering squeaks between bulging river-hidden boulders, and hull trundling slides all make Homestake a creek to fret over in the wee hours, wringing hands and pouring over online trip reports. But now, it’s really a shame. The creek…even I had little fear, which is saying something after basically quitting paddling after jamming both thumbs, pulling my skirt, and helplessly cartwheeling behind my bobbing friends in an innocuous face-to-face with a big old rock on the meager Class III Shoshone run of the Colorado River in 2005. Homestake runs Class V, normally.
Alas, Colorado river basins are in for a tough year. Over 90% of the state is currently suffering through various levels of drought. The expected runoff through July projects below 50%. By May 1st, snowpack sat at an astonishingly low 19% of average. As of writing, precisely nine wild fires rage across the state. What does this all mean? It means that Colorado kayakers are kind of screwed for the season.
Seeing as we’d already nabbed our press passes in Vail Village, there is nothing left to do after bouldering but head to EagleVail, where Kyler had secured lodging with one of his friends, Dylan. It takes a long time to get there. You see, Vail, EagleVail, Avon, all these little towns harbor torturously circuitous roads, spinning and circling like river eddies repeated. I exit each convexity exactly one beat too early, causing an ironic sub-circling just to get back to the annular nightmare and repeat the process all over again.
Dylan lives in one of those mountain duplexey subdivisions shouldering a golf course, the kind where no one is ever a home owner but more of a home sitter, just kind of waiting for the rich people to remember what they’ve forgotten and come scurrying back. I’ve never met Dylan before, so I am surprised to see that this talented skier, mountain biker and raft guide stands barely a skoshe over 5’5”. Tanned and well-muscled and with floppy hay-brown hair betraying his SoCal upbringing, he actually cuts an impressive figure, even though, you know, he’s so short and all.
I walk in carrying a 12-pack of PBR, hoping to assuage Dylan and his roommates for the intrusion of our long couch-surfing weekend. Kyler holds a bottle of Jack Daniels and a six pack of Coke. I don’t know how many alpine skis lean next to the doorway. A lot. An expensive-looking road bike lounges against the kitchen island. The place fairly reeks of sweat and mountain ambition. One fellow splayed out on a white leather couch watching playoff basketball, his legs gargantuan in girth and tanned a deep baseball glove leather. Dylan’s other roomie, a tall bookish fellow in tee shirt and shorts, nods at our arrival, scrubbing the blonde roughage atop his head.
“I hope you guys like PBR,” I say with gusto, raising the twelver over my head like a hero returning home, anticipating great sighs of appreciation or maybe a huddle of EagleVail-ites swarming upon my gift.
“I don’t drink,” says Mark, the basketball watcher with sewer pipes for legs. He does not make eye contact. He speaks, what’s the word: dehortatively.
“Well,” I say, lowering the PBR to chin height and smiling at the blonde fellow on the opposite couch, “I bet you like PBR.”
“Ah, I shouldn’t drink,” says Ryan, kind of wiggling his hand in front of his face. “I got the Time Trials on Saturday.” It is Thursday. Thursday. What is he, a pro? A Mormon bicyclist? And what the hell are these “Time Trials”?
I lower the box and peek at Kyler. “I hear it keeps well in the can,” I say, with much wit. Jesus Christ, is this the mountains or a church group meeting in Littleton?
While Dylan gets drunk on something I never spot him drinking, Mark and Ryan sneak off to bed early. Like, 8:30 early. I end up, befuddled and ill-equipped for physical trial, losing both a thumb and arm wrestling match to the diminutive Dylan, who slurs, “I may be small…but I’m strong,” before wobbling off to his bedroom. Rubbing my sore shoulder, Kyler and I unfurl our sleeping bags upon our respective couches and do that thing you do on the first night in a stranger’s house. Namely, not really sleep much at all.
Friday, Very Early Morning
Dylan, like something miraculous, tinkers jovially and with total faculty through his house as Kyler and I assemble ourselves at the kitchen table, coffees dark and pungent. We open our TMG guides, splaying maps, scrutinizing timetables.
So, we’ve missed the Steep Creek and Opening Ceremonies & Bud Light Mountains of Music: Keller Williams. That much we know and are very, very comfortable with. The 61 remaining events – highlighted light orange, blue, varying shades of green, stretched and intermingled upon a timescale and coded with exact locations in Vail Village – this leaves us sputtering and wheezing. More Bud Light Mountains of Music, Eukanuba DockDogs Extreme Vertical Competition, Volvo 10k Spring Runoff presented by Garmin, Teva Slopestyle After Party with DJ Juggy, SUPSQUATCH Dual presented by C4 Waterman. Yes, a veritable feast of mountain ephemera, sponsored by what-have-you at such and such a time, enough to sprain my forehead into a palsied ticking that leaves one eye cocked open and the other squinting. What the fuck is a SUPSQUATCH, anyway?
We are early to our first event of the morning, the IFSC Bouldering World Cup (Female Qualifier). I probably should not hide my pretensions on visiting the TMG. Kyler and I are climbers. We are quite fond of the low art, bouldering. As far as I can tell, the only International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) World Cup event slated for American soil has poked it’s head into Vail this year, and we aren’t about to miss it.
The Bouldering World Cup is a big deal across the pond. The Cup circuit meanders through the old world – Edinburgh, Vienna, Moscow…Vail – before concluding in some startlingly gorgeous European locale where World Cup champions are crowned based on a befuddling system of wins, points, and yadda yadda. Thousands of spectators show up to both outdoor and indoor bouldering walls constructed for these events, holds placed with bolt and T-nut by a cadre of crack international route setters who create “problems” both challenging to the world’s best climbers and exciting for the heavy forearmed and slope-backed audience.
The United States, all we’ve got is the TMG World Cup. From what I can glean, it’s kind of a three part deal. Part One: A chance for ‘Merica to dip its toes into the turgid waters of international climbing competition, something which for years has caused nary a ripple. Although the TMG hosts a fine event and the crowds continue to grow, World Cups in America historically do not even remotely compare to the spectacles on European or Asian soil. Part Two: An opportunity for foreign climbers to spend a week or two touring the Rocky Mountain spine, ticking off American bouldering classics and new-school test-pieces in Rocky Mountain National Park, Mt. Evans, and any of those other summer-time hidden areas none of us weaklings know about right now. On their sponsors’ dimes, mind you. Part Three: An occasion for the International Olympic Committee to spy how international climbing competitions play in North America. As of February 12, climbing has been formally recognized by the IOC, allowing it possible entry for the 2020 Olympic Games. Every World Cup event from here on out, in that paradigm, is a test run.
A brilliant morning sun, the sort that kind of washes everything out like an overexposed photo, sneers above. The IFSC Bouldering World Cup (Female Qualifiers) provides no shade. The event, formerly held just uphill from the Golden Peak Base Lodge, kind of TMG Ground Zero, has been moved a half mile down the road to the periphery Golden Peak East venue. It’s held in a great asphalt parking lot. No stadium seating, no tree dotted hill to recline leisurely upon and sip from one’s Red Bull or Monster or Mountain Dew Code Red or whatever the hell people think outdoor athletes drink while watching their brethren perform. No. The World Cup is held in a parking lot. The bouldering wall, tucked over a thick layer of mats and beneath a great plastic awning, necessitates spectators to stand, shifting uncomfortably from aching foot to aching foot, between yellow parking lines.
But that’s where the grumbling ends. Kyler and I show up as Timmy O’Niell, professional climber and kayaker and humanitarian and comedian and any number of other magnificent monikers, stands beneath his little tent to the left of the wall with a microphone to his mouth. Timmy provides play-by-play to a whole bunch of climbing events, a seriously talented performer behind the mic and on the rock/in the water. The sun still casting its gruesome rays upon the wall, Timmy informs us that the event will not begin until the great mountain orb rises a couple ticks higher. Friction, the big deal in rock climbing. Sun means hot holds. Hot holds mean reduced friction. The sun as enemy and all that.
So, I have a moment to pull my press pass and notebook from my messenger bag, hang them in front of a bored TMG employee, and sneak behind the orange metal fence that separates coaches/competitors/judges/media from normal pedestrian-style folk. Kyler declines and lethargically pulls one of many cameras from his bag, kind of resting it on his hip and yawning.
The sun eventually rises, a shadow curtain dropping on the wall, and Timmy begins introducing athletes as they sprint from isolation and onto the mats below one of five different problems. Now, I could bore the ever-loving soul out of you by rattling off the rules and regulations of World Cup bouldering events, but I have neither the precise faculty nor the patience. The IFSC rule book, Version 1.2, authored by Tim Hatch around February of this year, stands around 83 pages online. Suffice it to say, “flashing” a “problem” is rewarded with the highest score, completing the problem in the least number of falls is awarded a lowered amount of points, while high point on the problem grants a competitor yet a certain lower score. Not completing a problem in a World Cup event, the talent stacked and heaped upon itself as it always is, leads to almost certain defeat.
The women, clothed mostly in tank tops and capris and a few short shorts stitched up in patriotic colors (or at least with little flags) and dotted with sponsor patches from The North Face and La Sportiva and Mammut and on and on, charge through Qualifiers. Last year’s Vail champ and (as of writing) the most dominant competition climber on the planet, Austrian Anna Stohr, kicks off the round. The “American Alex’s” – Alex Puccio and Alex Johnson – soon follow to wild cheering. And Shauna Coxsey from Great Britain, Melanie Sandoz of France, others from Japan, Hungary, Korea, women from 19 countries cycle through their five minutes on each problem.
Stohr and Puccio, to me the most intriguing match-up in the opening salvo, climb on the same five minute stint, dispatching problems in their own fashions. Puccio, a visually stunning climber, powers from one giant blue blob hold to the next: dynos, gastons, toe hooks and great sweat-inducing slopers. She climbs like an 18 wheeler outfitted with a V12 Ferrari engine. Stohr, a seasoned veteran on the WC circuit, climbs more like a Euclidian methodologist. Buzzer honking, she turns from her chair facing the crowd and stands below the problem, i.e., Problem Number Four. Miming movement from the mats, her arms float through the air, hands adjusting ever so slightly, body swaying, she charts the line, analyzing her theoretic method of ascent. It’s a sort of shuffle through the mental cum physical library, parsing out unnecessary movement proven funky or energy sapping while linking that high step just so with that meat-hook sloper slap but maybe that drop knee with that cross through. I feel like I’m watching a philosopher building a constructive framework for hypothetical physical dynamics. Only, this philosopher could probably choke me out in a bar fight.
Puccio, meanwhile, flashes Problem Number Two and drops from the final hold – a slight wave to the hooting crowd – while Stohr fondles the first hold and pulls her feet onto the wall. Problem Number Four spits Stohr after a botched cross through sequence, but she sends it next go, well before the buzzer sounds.
If you really try to pay attention at a World Cup Qualifier, well, the mania and action and sounds threaten to render one’s brain spasmodic and blinky. Dubstep electronica GRRing and BRRing and DONK-DONK-DONKing never ceases, just goes and goes, thrumming like some malevolent hummingbird’s black heart. You think, Is that American climbing legend Dave Graham? And then you think, Jesus Christ, that’s Melissa le Neve from France, who happens to be quite pretty and not Dave Graham-like in the face or body, but no one can deny that her hair looks very much Dave Graham-like. You think, What is everyone cheering at, and then you see Alex Johnson’s lean frame hanging from the finishing hold on Problem Number Five and then everyone is cheering for someone else and a guy who looks like Napolean Dynamite leans over your shoulder and says, “Ha-haaah, man. Hah!” A coach flails his wrought-iron arms, nearly clipping your chin, screaming “Kadja!” (Come on!) because he is Korean and Jain Kim is having difficulties with the funky double-dyno-to-undercling on Problem Number Three and then Timmy O’Niell is pointing out a kid in the crowd who’s been dancing the robot for the last half hour and then a woman named Jill whom you vaguely remember from somewhere or other screams your name and says she just adores the bathroom you tiled for her last year, her snot covered toddler blurbling in her arms.
At exactly 11:43 am, young women from around the globe still circulating across the mat, I lurch from behind the media barrier and wobble off across the blazing asphalt, looking for Kyler. I can take no more. It’s just Qualifiers. I need to go look at dogs jumping into water, or something.
Kyler and I arrive at TMG Ground Zero (Golden Peak) to find the DockDogs Big Air (Wave 2) competition just getting started. All dog-centric events are held here on a nice grassy expanse below the now green and Sound of Music looking ski slopes above. Basically, the DockDogs traveling show (The World’s Premier Canine Aquatics Competition) erects a big rectangular pool stretching precisely 36 feet – a big ruler-like measurement runs the length of the pool allowing judges and crowd exact calibration – with a dock cum runway attached to one far end. From this metal gangway owners or DockDogs representatives entice their canine athletes to long jump into the pool (Big Air), retrieve little rubber duck thingies (Speed Retrieve), and launch from the dock at heights not yet exceeding the world record of 8’3” in a sort of high jump (Extreme Vertical).
My god, DockDogs is the happiest place in the world. Spectators situate themselves in varying reposes of sloth upon the hillside overlooking the pool, many with border collies and yellow labs and golden retrievers and weimaraners bounding around and over their outstretched legs. No shih tzus in sight, stupid lacey bows holding bangs over foreheads. This is a place for mountain, athletic, uber-dogs. No purse dogs, at all.
And everyone – every single person on the hillside – has a goofy, almost drugged smile. As I find an open patch of grass next to a dog named Kirby D, a caramel colored log of fluff with golden eyes who promptly shakes out his soaked coat all over me, I myself start smiling. I mean, really, like, showing my teeth and wrinkling my eyes smiling. I even guffaw and pat Kirby on the flank.
“Bazoonga!” the hulking linebacker of an MC bellows over the PA as a dog launches some 12 feet through the air and into the pool. Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” booms over the PA, tangling with the MC’s excited introductions and up-keeping of canine statistics. Mr. Bigley, who looks like a Jack Russell, follows his handler onto the dock and bounces up and down and round and round as a retriever toy lashes about him, the handler whipping the little fellow into a proper frenzy. Just when none of us can take the enticement any longer, the handler heaves the toy into the pool. Mr. Bigley explodes forward little legs churning. The crowd, obviously rooting for any dog named with the “Mr.” honorific, tenses. Mr. Bigley founders at the edge of the dock, however, skidding to a stop just before the water, his snout arching over the pool, and barks wildly at the floating toy spinning its little circles in the water. Eventually, after much applause and MC-booming and handler cajoling, Mr. Bigley kind of yard-sales a meager 6’. Although himself not disappointed and probably unimaginably ecstatic, Mr. Bigley’s owner must sense that their performance at the DockDogs Big Air Competition has come to a rather embarrassing conclusion.
The sun, now pulsating its altitude enhanced UV rays through paper-thin cirrus and directly into my skull, seems improbably cartoonish here at DockDogs. Really, everyone – everything and I’m even talking about the sun – is just so intoxicated by this feast of leaping dogs and their hopping and encouraging and loving handlers. “Boom!” and “Wham!” goes the MC as a ridiculously cute parade of dogs leap from their metal dock, negotiating the air with varying distressed or wildly exultant or flailing degrees of success. The crowd goes nuts. Everyone, everything is nuts on this hill over the pool.
Eventually, clapping open handed like a kindergartener, I stand and check my TMG schedule. Although I kind of want to quit my job and join the DockDogs traveling circus, the Gibbon Games Slackline Comp (Qualifier Rd 1) has begun over in Gear Town/Solaris, wherever that is. Sadly, but still really happily, smiling Kyler and I maneuver our way through prostrate humans and their zig-zagging hounds, off to see what I can only imagine as a human transposition of the DockDogs event, except without the water.
Friday, Very Early Afternoon
One comes to expect certain things from one’s outdoor festival, if one has survived enough of them. The onrushing clickity-clack of free-wheeled bike tires growing louder in your posterior means one must prepare for a great two footed leap sideways. Everyone will have obscene, sculpted, entirely bronzed calves. At night these very same marble-calved folk pull Patagonia R2s or Marmot puffies over their heads. They have to take off their ball caps to do this, under which hides the most fantastic sun-bleached mountain scruff always situated in the perfectly odd-angled touslement. Occasionally, an elderly man in a leather fedora – wearing a shark tooth necklace – will remark just how amazing this or that is, don’t you think? You will see freeride bikers in tight jeans, road bikers with shaved legs, world class climbers who look like models, fly fisherman wearing oddly rainbow-reflecting polarized sunglasses. There are mother’s pushing strollers who last week finished their 14th Ironman competition, fathers hoisting their (Patagonia clad) toddlers who could tie a fly blindfolded in a wind tunnel, and teenagers who are so much stronger in their respective sports than you will ever be at anything in your whole long life. You also know that you will kind of hate those teenagers, in a Well-I-Could-Probably-Kick-That-15-Year-Old’s-Ass-If-Nothing-Else kind of way. But still, you probably couldn’t. You will find yourself party to conversations about whether such and such a climb is 5.14d or 5.15a and whether such and such should be finally downgraded to 5.14b/c (although you will never, ever climb this hard), how the introduction of nonnative salmonids has negatively impacted the cutthroat species in the San Luis Valley, preferred open tread designs and knob lengths and profile shapes of mountain bike tires, and definitely the latest climbing/biking/paddling porn to rip asunder pre-determined expectations as to the human form’s ever-befuddling ability to crest the next highest ridge in futuristic athletic performance. And finally, in some tree speckled mini-park on the festival grounds, you expect to see some jean-short wearing dipshits, having tied a length of 1” tubular webbing between two stout pines, walking back and forth above the ground, arms dallying hither and thither for balance, a faint wafting of pot kind of circumnavigating the whole scene.
And so, I do not expect what greets me at the Gibbon Games Slackline Comp (Qualifier Rd 1). Pardon this, but it leaves me slack jawed.
Let’s get this out of the way. Slacklining, as a “sport”, has charted a meteoric trajectory over the last couple of years. Dean Potter, a professional climber and BASE jumper, has pushed the sport to new lengths by rigging a slackline between two canyon cliffs and walking the expanse without any means of safety but for his own mystical powers of concentration. And just this last winter, “Sketchy” Andy Lewis, who looks like some apocalyptic version of Will Ferrill that could break all your ribs in one invisibly fast roundhouse to the mid-section, walked a slackline during Madonna’s Super Bowl halftime show, prompting a visit with Conan O’Brien. Parents country wide felt the cumulative tug on their elbows, little Bobby or Sally hopping up and down and cooing, “Oh, I want one of those!”
In the end, I expect a meager crowd around this slackline “competition.” I do not expect hundreds of people huddled shoulder to shoulder, standing up and down staircases, leaning over rails on the surrounding shopping center’s walkway, others reclining mere feet away from the line. Kyler disappears into the maw, hunting out whatever photographers hunt for. I slide through serpentine gaps in the cheering crowd, gently elbowing prepubescents and separating girlfriends from boyfriends, but just for a moment while I get through. I have a press pass, after all.
Finally, finding exactly four square feet of open real estate, I get my first real look at the event. The 2” slackline stands taut and rigged approximately 50 feet long, over 30 thick safety mats three feet below. Atop this tiny filament, The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” pumping from all directions, a South American with ginger dreads sprouting from backwards ball cap, wearing cut-off jeans and knee high socks, bounces and contorts. The MC, hidden somewhere in the brightly clothed crowd, analyzes the fellow’s ambulations with the sort of play-by-play I imagine cobbled together over precisely two 40s of Mickey’s and one Spanish cigarette the night before. Soul Food, Buddha Butt Bounce, Butt to Revert, Crook, Scoot Back, Drop Knee, Chest to Back Bounce, Elbow Lever, Heel Clicker, Toe Tap, Spiral, Spread Air, 540 Free Fall, Frontside 360, Sticky 180, and on and on.
Now, I learned to slackline in 2001, while on a bouldering trip to Bishop, California. I sucked, like, really bad. Back then, memory serves, you kind of wobbled and frowned your way across the line, arms churning wildly. The most bad-ass maneuvers ever displayed a sort of sit-on-the-line-to-standing position, reversing one’s direction and walking back and forth, or perhaps the odd bunny hop above the webbing. Very cutting edge kinds of maneuvers.
Apparently, I am a dinosaur. These guys are actually doing back flips and landing them! They bounce from chest to back (Chest to Back Bounce), balance sideways on the outside of both feet (Soul Food), and use the line’s inertia to rocket them into the air while spinning 360 degrees before landing again (Frontside 360), wobble-free. Such are their aerial dynamics that I begin chewing my lip, worried for the spectators crowded so close to the line. A slackliner out of control – perhaps doing a back flip and terribly misjudging his landing – could easily end up in the lap of some bird-boned middle schooler, calling to action the few ambulances you occasionally spy in the wings at every outdoor festival.
An elderly gentleman standing nearby, his golf shirt tucked into a belted pair of pleated khaki shorts, nudges his trim wife, a visor shading her eyes from the implacable sun, just as the MC says, “A little butt to chest there.”
“That’s something!” he says. “They’re like little monkeys!”
“I…uh”, his wife says.
Khaki Shorts is right, even if I feel some deep, confused umbrage at any elderly person struggling to understand the hedonistic refinements of an activity such as slacklining in their senectitude. But, he’s spot on – this is something. These slackliners aren’t what I’d remembered. Their assertory, protean manipulation of physical flux brings to mind Mary Lou Retton and Bart Connor. I mean, they were Olympians.
Although hypnotic, the Gibbon Games has three more rounds to cycle through over the weekend and I’ve already sloughed off every paddling and biking event. And the IFSC Bouldering World Cup (Men’s Qualifier) begins in an hour. While a teenager orbits above what looks like fluorescent dental floss I climb the stairs and weasel my way through the howling crowd, through the outdoor industry’s Gear Town, and towards the Bud Light Lime Kayak Freestyle presented by First Ascent (Qualifier).
Oh, it’s so sad. That’s all I can think.
I’m standing on the International Bridge, somewhere between the flying slackliners and the flying dogs, looking down at the Bud Light Lime Kayak Freestyle presented by First Ascent (Qualifier). The flow – if I may be so bold – runs so meager that TMG officials have had to erect huge slats of plywood into the Vail Whitewater Park, thus diverting the trickle into a small runnel wherein playboaters may fashion their aerial kayaking maneuvers in these less than frothy environs. I am even told that all stand up paddling (SUP) events have been cancelled because a fall off their ginormous surf boards may cause a serious head injury on the rocks usually hidden well-below the spume churning rapids. SUP cancelled for danger! Lo, the paltry water, for the sea janitors now banned (SUP folk really do look like “sea janitors,” standing atop their bloated boards and paddling away like high school janitors sweeping a narrow hallway).
I am stricken from my daydream by a short twenty-something woman in what looks like a flak jacket and military style helmet who squeegees me with river water as she bends over and shuffles through a mesh duffel. Her father, maybe, stands beside her, looking worried.
“Seriously,” he says, “how’s your head?”
“It hurts really bad,” she shouts, standing up to face him and spraying me again.
“Did you hit it both times?”
“Yes. Yes!” And again, she bends over and flays me with mountain runoff.
She looks okay, though, helmet and all. The kayakers below cycle through the event, each waiting to perform in shore-line eddies, eager to charge into the “wave” after the previous paddler loses control and is spit out.
The MC yaks the whole time. Currently he’s launching into apologetic platitudes while, I can only imagine, gazing dourly at the trickle below.
“We are dealing with water that may or may not show up,” he says. He explains that this water is free flowing – no dam release – and events like these are always a gamble. The boats – Ronald McDonald red and yellow Jacksons, electric blue Daggers, mash-up swirly color Pyranhas – they just bob below in their eddies while a playboater in the hole performs, oh, say: Superclean Cartwheels, Space Godzillas, McNastys, , or maybe the Tricky Whu. I have no god damned idea what’s happening down there in the plywood reinforced hole, but I’m depressed about the water and wet from the woman water soldier and all I want to do is get out of here.
On the way to the next event Kyler and I pass one of a million trillion bike taxis, this three wheel cab manned by a hipster looking dude wearing a tweed Gatsby hat, white button down shirt rolled to the elbows and adorned with skinny black tie, and gray Arc’teryx shorts.
“You guys want a ride in the Chariot of Destiny?” he asks, thin arms splayed wide.
Although we decline, maybe we shouldn’t have, because we miss the Teva Slopestyle presented by Chipotle (Qualifier).
Friday, 2:49 On The Button
Kyler and I, inside the orange fence, mill about the IFSC Bouldering World Cup (Male Qualifier). Young MC’s late 80s hit, “Bust a Move,” bounces and bops from the PA as a crowd slowly gathers in the parking lot. Out in the pedestrian masses, roving Rocky peaks below the bill of my Patagonia ball cap (yes, me too), I see one, a half dozen, a dozen people I’ve climbed with. Hell, the girl from Hungary in the morning’s Women Qualifier, we had worked a particularly lovely boulder problem with her only three months ago in California!
The climbing world is very small. Climbing in geographical paradigm presents finite loci of operation, from choss piles of crumbling sandy or greasy glassy basalt(see North Table Mountain in Golden, CO, just down the road) to world class alpine swirly sticky granite (see Rocky Mountain National Park outside of Estes Park, CO, just down the road). You get the bug as a climber, you eventually end up traveling the country and then before you can sand the callouses from your totally gross hands you’re booked for Deep Water Soloing in Vietnam, traditional climbing in the Italian Dolomites, or dodging baboons for the next great boulder problem in South Africa. It’s just part of the disease, expanding one’s library of Areas Visited and Classics Ticked, each day your climbing odyssey through the great rocky strata of Planet Earth growing finite, more finite, most finite, until maybe, someday, all that’s left is the Chossy Shit and Bouldering In Antarctica. But that, you could never fit it all into a lifetime. And besides, you could always just go to the climbing gym.
Anyway, because of climbing’s demarcations, you end up seeing the same people in different places. Lady X wintering in Hueco Tanks, TX, two tents down, and didn’t you see her throwing herself at that long right hand move on Sunshine and Lollipops last spring in Squamish, BC? Fellow Y sorting his sport climbing gear on the beach in Tonsai, Thailand, two huts down from yours, and didn’t you just see him a couple years ago queued up for Amarillo Sunset at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky? Yeah, yeah, you chatted about your trips and how tough this and that is today because IT’S SO HOT and REALLY BAD TEMPS and GOOD LUCK BECAUSE THAT RIG IS GONNA BE IMPOSSIBLE TODAY!
There’s Will, the intern that just last week walked, camera earnestly in hand, into the Rock and Ice offices. I met him in CA. There’s John – who has finally grown into what I had thought of as a substantially over-girthed head – whom I met in Evergreen, CO. There’s Cookie, who I knew as a little punk and then grew into a competing fury of crimping power and now no longer climbs but apparently enjoys watching other people climb. I met him in Denver, CO. There’s Chris, I met him in Morrison, CO, and Nina, saw her this spring in Endovalley, and there’s Kim Lee who just left me a text that he’s in the area climbing this weekend. I met him in Korea. I once saw a friend I’d met climbing in CA walking to a bouldering field in the hinterlands of India. I sold a crash pad to a guy in CO whom I later befriended at Insubong Peak right outside of Seoul. You see? It’s, like, almost incestual.
I’ve even met Kilian Fischhuber – Austrian phenom, last year’s TMG World Cup champion, long-time boyfriend of Anna Stohr, ranked numero uno en el mundo, and really an awful nice guy – who now mounts the mats, buzzer calling he and crowd into great focus and concentration, and the Men’s Qualifier thus begins.
Like his girlfriend Anna (they are both incredibly, Cover Girl/GQ attractive, which should make everyone hate their magnifi-mating, but they’re just so affable and pleasant that hating seems a projection of self-loathing or psycho-libel or something), Kilian ruminates from the mats over more agonizing Dubstep, and when I look down to my feet horrifyingly tapping out the Amazonian beat, I miss Kilian’s flash of the problem and see him back in his seat, sliding off his climbing shoes and kind of dreamily smiling at the crowd, arm draped over the chair next to him.
It kind of goes on like this until Kilian has coolly dispatched the final hold of Problem Number Five, Timmy O’Neill back at the mic and trying to describe the ease with which he sussed each of the five problems. Canadian Sean McColl, an elfish looking fellow, crushes. Others crush. All kinds of crushing.
American Daniel Woods, author of some of the world’s hardest first ascents, great American hope for a podium slot, does not crush. Although his mere entrance onto the mats riles the crowd into a regular old tissy, he looks confused on Problem Number One, instantly aggravated. A selection from my notebook:
Kilian on Men’s 3, Sean on Men’s 2, Dan Woods, M1. DW looks EXACTLY like he does @ The Spot [Gym]. Khaki climbing pants + oversize white tee shirt. This time has a flag on it. Dan false start. Falls 3xs. Throws up his arms in confusion. Falls for 4th time. Kilian sends, crowd getting pumped. “Come on, Daniel!” Daniel Woods does NOT send. Big blows out mouth. Slightly creased brows.
You get the picture.
Friday, Late Afternoon
After finishing a problem in the allotted five minutes, the athlete (from Japan, Australia, Germany, perhaps the Netherlands) must sit in a chair with their back to the climbing wall, facing the audience. Viewing the next problem is strictly verboten, per IFSC regulations. So, there they sit. Looking at us, in some strange zoological irony. They often bite their lips while kind of staring off into the middle distance, shaking their legs, shaking their hands, shaking their heads. They dip hands into magnesium carbonate and blow on their fingers. Some laugh and chat with the judges, but only the ones who have already smiled and pumped their fist at the crowd, hanging up there – controlled – from a final hold. Some have dusts of white on their noses, making them appear to be exceptionally fit and motivated coke fiends.
I wonder what they make of us. Do they wonder why we’re here, watching them, while a thousand climbing areas call our names just down the road? It is strange, isn’t it, for a huge gathering of “core” athletes to skip a weekend at the crag/single track/playhole to watch a bunch of other “core” athletes doing what they kind of want to be doing?
I have a hypothesis about this. Outdoor athletes perform their activities not in a stadium or gymnasium or on a field or pitch. Generally speaking, they are alone – in the wilderness – or with a couple partners, a tight cluster of concentration and desire binding them in simulacrum to ascend the route, navigate the Class V rapid, or snag a small-stream trout with a Soft Hackle Beadhead. It’s called “single track” in mountain biking for a reason. A big wall climber might spend six days ascending a 2,000 foot route in Yosemite, only his gap toothed partner holding a poop tube to stare at during the waning light of each day. I mean, it’s exactly what they want. They are just where they’re meant to be roughly 361 days a year.
For many “core” athletes, however, the TMG provides a four day reprieve from the lonely pursuit of perfection, a sort of fellowship with their Patagonia-clad brethren, an escape into the ether with the greatest athletes the sport can provide, from all over the globe (even if you’ve already met them like two years ago at the base of that one gnarly route in Kalymnos, Greece). You want to see the possibilities, the exigencies of world-class performance? They’re on display at the TMG. You want to chat with that guy/gal you’ve been reading about in all the glossies, buy him/her a beer at the after-party, rub shoulders with the dude who just dropped a monster waterfall in a snub-nosed kayak? Stay out late at the TMG.
The men cycle through, an endless procession of lean musculature, the five-minute buzzer breaking Dubstep like a pulse over a pulse. I fight my way through photographers and squeeze by Alex Puccio and say “hi” to Cookie and see a French guy with frosted hair like uncooked spaghetti jutting from his head crawling up the wall and I wonder if the safety pins holding on the athletes’ number cards have ever mini-gored their backs during a fall and this makes me incredibly nervous for some reason and then I’m out, damn near sprinting from the IFSC Bouldering World Cup (Men’s Qualifier) because I don’t need any more fellowship and indeed I only need a Chipotle burrito and I know, terribly and fucking sadly, that I must still visit the slackliners over at Gear Town and the bikers over at Golden Peak and I think maybe you should forget about everything I just said.
Friday, Very Early Evening
The slacklining is still going on. I watch it for indeterminate minutes.
Before I know why I’ve leapt into the air – shoulders hunched and face twisted savagely as if I’m leaping through a flaming airborne hula hoop – a nefarious KABOOM echoes through Vail Village and up the slopes.
“Jesus!” I say, landing, if I might, with perfect style.
“Tire blowout,” says Kyler, arms casually resting on the camera case slung across his belly.
“You know,” an MC tells everyone for a radius of a mile or slightly less, “when we hear that sound back in New Jersey we duck. But in a nice mountain town like Vail you can be pretty sure that’s a blown tire.”
I’ve blown a tire before. You know what, I’ve blown lots of tires, a velocipedic failure after which my person is generally transported above, in front of, and directly below my handlebars. It has not once sounded like that fucking Claymore explosion. I reckon the boys over here at the Teva Slopestyle presented by Chipotle (Finals) are playing with serious gaseous contents.
To describe the big-air course erected/excavated especially for the Slopestyle event, I ask you to picture your local skate park. Now expand about an acre and cover entirely with dirt and dust. Basically, that’s it. I’ve never seen anything like it before (I am a locomotive biker, which means I get here and there by bike – here/there definitely not 27 feet above loose and clotted dirt). So, the guys, mostly from Canada and the States and a couple out-of-continenters, charge this course on tweaked and shrunken mountain bikes (they look like a BMX bike and a mountain bike had very low-tech sex). They jump and kick and flip and go completely nuts on the course for less than 30 seconds. Judges score each rider on style, difficulty, big air, creativity, and other things bike people find appealing and exciting.
This is the last event of the day and the place is packed. The waning sunlight washes Vail Village, the mountains, clouds, the crowds, the dirt for chrissakes, in a wonder of soft golden halo, kind of reminiscent of close up soap opera portraiture. Although we have climbers and dog folk and the odd fly fisherman and paddlers milling about, a formidable percentage of the crowd exhibits a slightly more disheveled look. I am speaking charitably.
Freeride bikers, by my initial estimation, dress just like hipsters that keep at the whole hipster thing even without a SoCal trust fund. Transpose the branding and you’ve got the gist. Tight jeans, check. Assorted headware (brand: Volcom), check. Skate or bike shoes, check. Disheveled fantastic hair, check.
This, on an aside, reminds me how funny it is that many if not most rebellious and life-risking outdoor types – climbers and paddlers and bikers and not fly fisherman – huck aside conventional ball sport Americana in pursuit of their outdoor lifestyle or passion or raison d’etre or bla bla bla, but always end up wearing a uniform anyway. I mean, me too. How else would the lay person guess who exactly is behind the legendary achievements and stupefying exploits of the rebellious and life-risking outdoor type? It’s only when we’re all dressed in Patagonia and Volcom and The North Face that things become confusing, the waters muddied, all of us kind of suspiciously eyeing one another and wondering where exactly did these poseur rebellious and life-risking outdoor types come from?
And how did I know it, but speaking of the uniform, there he is: the Chariot of Destiny guy, standing on his pedals in the midst of this great outdoor swarm, holding court with his people, kind of lazily smiling and oscillating his head ever so slowly. How perfectly fitting, I think, as I adjust my Patagonia ball cap against the sun ever so slightly.
Kyler and I join the freeriders and media inside the fence, on the dirt now, amidst the “spines” and “berms” and ginormous, scrotum-shriveling “ramped jumps.” My god, media everywhere, photographers so nose deep in their cameras and cycling through photos-so-far it’s a wonder they get anything done, ever. I cross the dirt field to the Second or Third Jump, stepping over and around bikes chucked to the dust like shiny skeletons, helmets lanced onto handlebars.
I seem to interrupt some sort of photographerly tussle here at the Second or Third Jump. They’re like ants in a giant dirt ant farm, these camera people, roving here and there, clicking and filming and skeetering off to the finish and then under the launch ramp and then on one knee staring into their great humanity recorders. These two guys, they’ve both spotted an angle or whatever and now the concomitant jockeying for who gets to squat where.
A skinny, older gent in all black stands over a huge British (I deduce this from his British accent) fellow with blazing ginger hair, prostrate on his belly and elbows below the Second or Third Jump. The standing gent mentions that he’d had his eye on this particular enclave for some time. What about that?
“You can lay on top of me,” deadpans the horizontal ginger. A tense moment of silence, Brit Ginger v. Gent All In Black.
“I guess it’s all yours,” replies Gent All In Black, slinging his matching black Canon and puffing little dust clouds as he seeks alternative angles, perspectives, fields of depth. The Brit Ginger follows his retreat for a moment and then sticks his freckled nose back in his viewfinder.
From my stance kind of in front of/almost beneath the Second or Third Jump the MC introduces another freerider who is suddenly off, the gathered and still gathering throngs roaring. I catch sight of him pistoning his legs like mad and wonder why anyone would choose blue jeans when a more ductile fabric would obviously allow a more friction-free pistoning experience and then he’s ten feet in the air and knocking his front tire off a huge wooden kick wall. He lands so perfectly I’m not sure how to quantify his expertise and then the bike is jerking from side to side as the pistoning thing happens again and he hits the Second or Third Jump – Brit Ginger and me right there – with what I gather as suicidal speed and he’s over the lip and man o’ man he’s in the air and it’s looking a little caddywompus and oh shit oh shit oh shit!
I think he’s dead. I’d be dead. Apparently, through forces obscured by my biking ignorance, he’d landed the Second or Third Jump slightly off course. In any case, he’d gone ass over teakettle into an explosion of dust; right shoulder, neck, face, and cranium digging in like a trenching tool. He sluiced along for what seemed an age, finally coming to rest all lumpy and definitely dead looking. A rush of bikers scramble past me, but they get nowhere near our man before he stands, smiles, plucks his helmet off, and grabs his obviously sturdy bike and poof, he’s gone into the crowd of freeriders and photographers, back slaps and “Jesus!” and all that.
Let me caveat what I’m about to say: I don’t want to see anyone seriously injured. But, after the excitement of the first freerider I’ve ever seen perform in competition take a monumental face plant from 20 or so feet, I fixate on pedal driven disaster. That first digger has filled the whole place with this visceral electricity, shocking crowd/photographer/your lone narrator to strict attention. The crowd roars louder, the tires seem to boil-tear the dirt, the free-wheel clickity-clack like an automatic weapon barks, the sun glints through airborne spokes like a laser light show. Everything gets more intense.
Nothing, from what I’ve seen so far, compares with the energy and vibrancy and basic all-around bad-assness of Teva Slopestyle presented by Chipotle (Finals). The teeth-gritting speed, the whump of mounting a ramp at such speeds, the airborne freerider and his bike looming an elongated and warped shadow upon the dirt way, way below, and then the blast of tires landing and the pistoning again and the honey-colored sun glinting off helmet and seat stems and spokes like a strobe light until he’s up again and doing a back flip up there in the way blue and then he’s gone, down another ramp and pedaling away from you towards the frenzied TMGers and god damn it really is just about the most exciting thing ever.
Saturday, Early Morning
Ostensibly, one might consider Saturday the apex of any four day weekend mountain festival. This is correct. Saturday is Family Day. By the time we arrive in Vail Village mid-morning Mom and Dad and Kid(s) swarm the streets and little walkways linking Golden Peak and Gear Town and finally and most especially Adventure Village.
Of all the TMG things to cynically point at and say “I hate that,” of those few, Adventure Village stands out as my brow-wrinkling, migraine-punching, agony-inducing polestar. Located at TMG Ground Zero – cunningly tucked right below DockDogs – Adventure Village stands as either looming testament to the wonder of youth and innocence or testament to tubal ligation and vasectomy.
Per Teva Mountain Games Official Summer Program: “Outdoor lifestyle fun for the whole family! You and your family can get a taste for a few of the adventure sports featured at the Teva Mountain Games. Kids can learn to kayak ‘sit-on-top’ style in a giant water tank, climb on a portable climbing wall or cheer on the pups as they jump to victory in the DockDogs competitions. The best part? All activities in the Adventure Village are free and fun for the entire family.”
Alternatively, per journalistic liberalities: “All family-less attendees should take great pains to seek surrogate paths around Adventure Village at all costs to one’s hectic and time-sensitive schedule thoughtfully scrabbled together every morning before entering the TMG maw.”
Every mountain festival provides a place for kids to congregate and get tangled in your legs and cause you to trip over them or otherwise leap out of the path of a somersaulting four-year-old and into the onrushing charge of something like the Chariot of Destiny, a dire situation indeed. This morning, passing through Adventure Village on our way to IFSC Bouldering World Cup (Semi-Finals), Kyler and I dodge a mother (inferred) out of control on twin pogo sticks that look like independent stilts on springs (are you fucking kidding me?), a tiny pig-tailed creature chasing after a dog in a red bandana, and an out of control adolescent ejected from a balance board.
You see, I’m not worried for my own physical well-being in a place such as Adventure Village, but rather the outcome of a careening, buck toothed nursling tripping head first into my upward trajectoring knee as I power-walk through the spinning madness of aforementioned youth and innocence. My worst nightmare is holding Buck Tooth in my arms, a great crimson gash spewing forth the very life-sustaining effluvium the youngster needs to grow up healthy and strong and someday develop his own fear and loathing of places like the AV. And then the swooping parents and the elbow to my shoulder and I’m on the ground pleading forgiveness and offering righteous platitudes and then the finger pointing and the “Why don’t you watch where the heck you’re going, you bald jerk” and I’m up and speed walking away and here come the deep, cavernous screams and Buck Tooth is bawling and over my shoulder I hear, “That bald man can’t hurt you anymore.” So, you see, I circumnavigate AV whenever humanly possible.
We safely arrive at the World Cup vestibule under which Semi-Finals has already begun. Four US athletes, two Kiwis on the wall. Crowd density has grown for the Semis and I can barely squeeze behind the orange fence.
Things are happening quickly now, the cattle drive of climbers racing from one problem to the next, a neat little five minute window opening, closing, onto the next problem. The Semi-Final problems, all new and blue blobby or blue symmetrical again, definitely prove more a challenge for the early round gang. A lot more falling and tilt-headed puzzling or inability to parse together one move at all and quitting early, the chalk bag kind of just defeated and swinging at thigh length as the thwarted climber puts a good face forward and takes a seat and stares at us staring at them. Still, the pace grown manic since Qualifiers, the boulderers obviously sense the time to step it up has officially arrived. Timmy, still under his little tent, tells us. It’s time to step it up.
As a spectator, you’re not quite sure what to do with yourself. Timmy asks us to step it up, that our cheers burn like jet fuel the very soul of the competitive climber and so we step it up and shout priceless chestnuts like “Come on, Netherlands!” and “Allez Allez Allez!” and “Sick, Daniel!” and “Pinch the shit out of it!” As a good patriotic Colorado boy, I’m keen to follow each American on the wall, to cheer at the right times and moan at other correct times when things do not go so right. When the Americans are either resting between rounds or stuck in isolation and the comp savvy internationals are looking very strong and confident on the wall, I note my waning attention. I find this unacceptable in journalistic terms.
Also, this is climbing, a sport (or lifestyle, bro) not so far removed from the hippy, I-must-be-a-societal-castoff-because-I-quit-my-job-to-scale-rocky-faces-and-so-feel-free-to-call-me-counterculture, dirty folks down there in the desert, American-type origins. It ain’t competitive, brah. I climb for myself, dude. Okay. What I was heading to is that most climbers register an evolved quadrant of the brain commanding them to barf entirely obvious or unnecessary climberly shibboleths in the general direction of anyone planting hand/foot upon stone/plastic and thus scheming upward ascent. Yes, it’s cheesy, but (most) climbers really want to see one another succeed. Although painfully overused, sometimes contrived, and always devoid of actual usable counsel, I find climbers’ hooting and hollering endearing, a real offshoot of some soulful monkey-descendent desire to see their brethren ascend up, up, up.
And so, with the Americans locked into their highly oxygenated and pitch black isolation chambers (or whatever an IFSC Bouldering World Cup (Semi-Finals) isolation area looks like), it’s time to muster up a dark horse to whom I may provide my own special advisements and heartfelt exhortations.
Let me tell you why I chose Jain Kim as my sleeper, my own private also-ran to maybe, possibly find the podium, a slim chance indeed. First of all, Jain is Korean and I lived in Korea for a couple years. You can’t deny this practically makes me Korean myself. While touring the Korean climbing scene I’d heard of this Jain girl, a tiny automaton Swarzenegger-as-rock-climbing-Terminator type of freak, crushing in the gym and on the competition circuit. I’d also heard she was exceptionally tiny, which seems especially important when considering very successful climbers (do people still have the misperception that Koreans are short? I’m here to tell you that I did, that for once in my life I imagined my 5’9” frame towering over the folk of this Lilliputian nation, my great balding dome unseen from so far below. This did not come to pass. Koreans are as tall as anyone else. One cannot escape one’s puggy karma, I guess maybe unless one teaches kindergartners or elementary school kids. I taught kindergartners and elementary school kids in Korea).
This fragile tether the only thing connecting the two of us, I began rigorously cheering for and taking notations of Jain Kim’s performance.
Jain Kim, my special dark horse, will probably not make the Finals. This is how I know. On Women’s Problem Number One, Jain falls about 2/3 of the way up. Her foot pops on her next try. She does not send before the buzzer peals. Problem Number Two, she flashes, does not fall, waves politely to the crowd who really is cheering quite strongly for her success. She delicately slides these dainty slippery things over her climbing shoes, walks back to the spectator-facing chairs, and performs – right in front of me at this point – a stretching maneuver, hands intertwined and arms slithering and circling quite violently around her bun of black hair and it makes my shoulder so absolutely pulsate with stabbing pains that I cringe looking at her. Timmy is talking about climbing in the Olympics and then the buzzer and then Jain has her shoe-covers off and she floats (really, she seems not to jog but rather float) to Problem Number Three. But she’s got bad beta, she can’t get far, she’s flummoxed, her small frame stretched to it’s very limit, until all of a sudden she’s listening to her interior snake charmer and she’s actually climbing higher by employing the most insanely backwards beta and then the buzzer sounds and she falls, her tongue out at the audience as if to say, “I tried, I tried, and thank you for cheering for me, you really stepped it up.”
By the time Jain faces Problem Number Four the Americans have returned, Daniel Woods the primary focus. And so, although I must follow my dark horse, it is back to the manic viewing, the tennis court head swivel the only way to see more than 50% but way less than 80% of the action. Jain, I see, has her tongue all the way out of her mouth, facing the crowd. That can’t be good. Back to Daniel. He is slapping his thighs, his jaw pulsing with those teeth clenched cables that signify universal things about one’s immediate temperament. Jain. She’s up, oh no, she’s back down, and that’s that. That tongue, now a signifier, remerges and she raises her fair arms and waves to us, showing appreciation, saying, “I tried pretty hard and I get that some of you were watching.” Shit. Back to Daniel. He roars through Problem Number One, but time’s almost gone, tennis court head swivel to Daniel (one more hold), Clock (a couple more seconds), Daniel (controlling the final hold), Clock (0:00) and the crowd is absolutely berserk although it remains unclear if he’s beaten the buzzer.
The front-runners, some American, have finally escaped isolation. DeLorean gray cirrus suffocate the morning heat and by the time the American Alex’s begin crushing problems the first raindrops sizzle upon the black asphalt. Winds tear down Golden Peak and spectators elbow into their packs for soft-shell and windproof or maybe eVent layers. I imagine the climbers must be stoked for the wind, the swampiness of the morning replaced by crisp, well-brushed blue blobs.
Saturday, Early Afternoon
I don’t want to be here anymore. I keep thinking that to myself, no matter what event, at some point. I don’t want to watch this anymore.
I have a two pronged theorem for always, eventually feeling this way.
Prong One: The TMG, at 1:20 in the afternoon, provides approximately six different events, from the Teva Freeride Dual presented by Chipotle (Qualifier) to the launching of the Eddie Bauer Mud Run presented by Maui Jim, and all kinds of stuff in between. I want to see it all. I am a climber. Enter existential psycho-athletic conundrum.
Prong Two: There’s something mildly off putting about canned outdoor events. Slackliners pinwheeling like Bath Salt addicts in front of the Alpine Bank, Vail Fine Art Gallery, and Forre & Co.? You must agree, something is wildly amiss. A huge bouldering competition held in a parking lot shouldered by a soccer field and the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens? No, no, no. Within a hundred mile radius of this blazing parking lot one could happily climb – in any discipline – for the rest of one’s life without repeating a single route, problem, or peak. Kayakers dourly holding court in deflated eddies below great slats of creek soaked plywood? Oh, for shame. Generally speaking, about an hour is enough to satiate any hard-core mountain athlete before some deeply upsetting realization begins clawing its dirtied fingernails into your soul. One must eject, walk on, find the next event, before the whole thing sours on the vine. Check out the dogs. The dogs are always good.
A compendiary note on the 2 Fly X-Stream presented by Maui Jim (Semi-Qualifier/Rd 2). I must admit that I accidentally stumble upon the fly fishing event, located at the International Bridge (kayakers all gone right now), having wandered visionless while hiccupping after a wicked tasty jalapeno burger.
A woman of middlish age, Mary Ann or Sandy (I am confused), stands atop the bridge, swaying her tiny fluorescent green fly back and forth, mesmerizing, charming. Her head, pony tail pulling face taut and most of that face hidden beneath great polarized sunglasses, cranes from her body and over the railing like an excavator shovel, mouth tight lipped and glowing white from pressure. Below her, in the creek and on either rocky shore, lay hula hoops and wooden cut-outs, surrounded by lazing judges. Five targets in all. I deduce this is some sort of timed, precision event.
Mary Ann or Sandy snaps the fly, which the MC says he specially designed just for this event (customized leader, yarn for fly, protect the audience). “You can clap,” he admonishes us, “she can hear ya! Git’ ‘er goin!”
Mary Ann or Sandy is a wizard, a fly fishing necromancer communing with the corporeal world in geometric and physic-laden languages I cannot hope to fathom. She goes 4/4, her neon yarn thingy slapping back and forth through the sky before a silken inertia sends it sailing into a pink hula hoop, a blue wooden cut out. It sits there for a moment like a glowing, radiated dead thing. And then, snap, its swaying above her pony tail again. She’s on fire.
My hiccups cease. Mary Ann or Sandy falls apart in the end, her fly errant and belligerent but still enthralling to watch slicing the growing bruises of the sky. My head kind of entranced, I wobble away from the International Bridge, the gathered folk politely applauding Mary Ann or Sandy’s magical performance. I am befuddled and feel somehow tricked to have enjoyed such a thing. That is all I have to say about fly fishing at the Teva Mountain Games.
Saturday, Early Evening
We have a saying here in Colorado: If you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes. Coloradans adore this aphorism. Everyone likes to say it, especially when an obvious non-native (the temerity of some people) squawks about an afternoon drizzle or a bit of shoulder-season and dandruffy snow. “You don’t like the weather?” they’ll ask, eyebrows tented. “Just wait fifteen minutes.” And then they’ll finish making your latte or tuning your skis or, like, re-caulking your bathtub.
And so the incredible heat and that gargantuan alpine sun, it’s gone. It’s really coming down just minutes before the IFSC Bouldering World Cup (Finals) begins, the crowd growing by the raindrop. They know that in 15 minutes the weather will change, because they don’t like what is right now happening and Coloradans are cup-half full kinds of Americans.
Because I haven’t seen the very beginning or very end of any competition, let alone the IFSC Bouldering World Cup, I sneak a peak at the standings taped near the isolation area well before the event (isolation holds neither darkened chambers nor oxygen tanks, just a small wooden warm up wall and some chairs). There, like I couldn’t have guessed, sits Kilian in the Number One spot. Canadians, French, Japanese, Germans. No Americans. The American Alex’s are faring much better over in the women’s bracket, Puccio coming into Finals Numero Uno and Johnson right behind her at Number Three. The strongest female comp climber in the world, Anna Stohr, sits between the Alex’s.
A mechanical camera crane jib boom looms over the crowd like some terrible robotic probe, drifting over heads and kind of bobbing and weaving the way that camera crane jib booms are wont to do. GoPro helmet cams have been fastened to the top of each problem, 1-5. Cookie is here with his camera. Kyler out there somewhere. Will representing R&I. Hundreds and hundreds of others, all recording. Still, I am the only one with a notebook and pen, which isn’t working out so well in the downfall.
The rain is breaking off, however. It’s been about 15 minutes. A beat before 5pm the 12 Finalists are invited onto the mats, waving big hand over head/bend at elbow waves and so festooned with sponsorship patches that they look very much like incredibly hale and trim NASCAR drivers. Timmy informs us that the athletes will be given two minutes to consider Final’s problems, as a group of men and women. Once again, the climberly teamwork, the mutual desire for bouldering success, the apparent lack of overt hating.
The comp begins. The rain has ceased. I can’t possibly be expected to keep play-by-play notes on all the churning action, the crowd growing up hillsides and throughout the wet asphalt parking lot and the Napolean Dynamite guy somewhere out there going “Hah!” But I do. Seven pages of notes.
I will not bore you with another transcription. I’ll say this: watching world class athletes exhaust every last broken molecule of will and tendon upon that wall has the crowd so stoked I think the whole parking lot might just spontaneously combust. Only two things split the cranking Dubstep and those are a) the face squeezed and open mouthed Viking cries each boulderer cranks to the sky when latching that final blue blob hold and b) the spectator’s ear crunching explosions of psyche. I am dumbfounded and find the whole seen hard to describe other than to say do not – ever – miss an opportunity to see a canned outdoor festival featuring an IFSC Bouldering World Cup. Seriously. Ever.
I will let you – for now – guess who won.
Kyler and I wander exhausted through the wafting miasma of beer, pot, and cigarette smoke at what TMG calls Checkpoint Charlie, home of tonight’s Free Concert: Bud Light Mountains of Music, The Expendables. Checkpoint Charlie also houses the Teva House (I escaped indoctrination), the Chipotle Mobile Kitchen (lines always too long), and the Vail Mountain Coffee Caffeination Station (my personal favorite). Tonight, like always, a stage rests at the thermometer-like ball end of the street. Checkpoint Charlie is rocking. A gaggle of grungy dudes in dreadlocks and nasty duds writhe on stage, melding some sort of rock/reggae thing right there in public. Also, the drummer is the singer, and I think no one should ever trust a drummer who sings the bulk of a band’s songs. Totalitarian, that’s what that is, the rest of the band mere puppets parsed together in the drummer’s grand scheme of, in this case, a really forgettable – although not outright shitty – rock/reggae sort of thing.
The crowd bumps up front like some great athletic pulse held restricted too long. It’s a throng here at Checkpoint Charlie, bikers dancing next to fly fisherman and slackliners drinking from kayakers’ water bongs (that isn’t really happening, but can you imagine if it were?). Brotherly and sisterly and mountain athlete love and that whole deal.
Kyler and I, still soaked from the rain and exhausted from 13 hours on our feet. No, this is not the place for us. All I want is Dylan’s slippery white couch to fall onto, writhe into for some odd number of minutes, and finally pass out upon, dead weight.
Sunday, Early Morning
We are standing at the Covered Bridge where the Road Bike Time Trials presented by Thule are well under way. Mark is somewhere, probably seriously appraising his elephantine thighs in a bathroom mirror and gritting his teeth to stubs that he has to race in the Beginner Category. I haven’t seen him at all this morning.
Ryan, clothed in one of those bikerly jerseys – his featuring Bucky Badger (University of Wisconsin mascot) apparently mid-stride on his way to somewhere very important – and matching spandex “shorts,” is very nervous. I’m standing right next to him, kind of scootching out of his way as he fidgets with this and that. This is Ryan’s first competitive bike race, his first Time Trials. He’s been biking for two months.
“Nervous?” I ask.
“Nah. Just going for a cruise.” He smiles unnaturally large, too many teeth. It is the smile of a man preparing himself for something that may just prove to be very painful or sinister or perhaps a wicked amalgamation of both. It is also completely earnest and endearing.
I mention something about all the bikes, all the high tech equipment glistening in the early morning sun (not a cloud in the sky today), the clicking of tires, helmet’s being fastened, bike shoes clacking on the cement.
“Notice my aluminum frame,” says Ryan, Vanna White-ing his arm across his newish Trek bike. “My somewhat light tires, next to carbon (points), carbon (points again), carbon (Vanna White thing again). Whatever,” he growls, slapping his chicken-thigh white thighs, “It’s all right here!”
The guys are called to a long queue of bikers, most of whom are competing in the 55+ bracket. Mark and Ryan stand together, an exposition in diametrically opposed years/months/days/minutes spent training and sweating and preparing for a moment such as this. I occasionally must avert my eyes from all the latexy looking spandex. Wind-shear, I know, but please.
Each Time Trial athlete launches from a trapezoid shaped wooden ramp, right there in the middle of the street. A huge, World’s Strongest Man looking behemoth with bulbous gut and thick, tubular arms holds each rider’s seat as they mount their bikes and clip into their pedals. The MC ceaselessly repeats rules and regulations: no drafting, special passing rules, stay right of cones, remember for God’s sake stay right of the cones. Then the buzzer, TMG Strongman’s push and release and down the ramp each rider pedals and for how many minutes more they do this exact same thing, the pistoning thing again, I do not know and do not wish to imagine.
Ryan, finally on the trapezoid and Strongman struggling to right Ryan-on-Trek as he weaves and tilts dangerously sideways like he’s mounting a spooked horse and then the buzzer and we cheer and Ryan is pedaling away, all concentration and not looking at any of us. Mark mounts the trapezoid a couple minutes later and the MC shouts, “Whoa, this guy’s ready!” Something about his Cyclo-cross tires has stirred great admiration in the MC. I don’t know what a Cyclo-cross tire is, although Dylan tells me Mark’s been riding on them for a year, regardless of which competition he’s entered. He’s thrust down the ramp with the buzzer and the MC’s gaze follows him. He’s been greatly moved by Mark’s Cyclo-cross tires.
Two riders later a kid – maybe a freshman in high school – plops up onto the trapezoid in a cotton t-shirt, those shiny kind of basketball shorts, and sneakers, braking his mountain bike and relinquishing his seat to the great catcher’s mitts that are TMG Strongman’s hands. I wouldn’t trade my Uni-Ball for his bike. No toe clips. Rusty derailleur. No bar ends. This is what the TMG is all about, the MC tells us as the buzzer releases the freshman mountain biker for his run at the Road Bike Time Trial presented by Thule. I think, God speed, brave young man. And then I think, I wonder if he’ll catch Ryan.
Dylan has called me a “pussy” for the second time in five minutes. He has asked what I have to lose. He has also called me a pussy again.
I’m holding my head in my hands at TMG Ground Zero, on the steps encircling Golden Peak Lodge, where climbers of all ages and abilities may enter, seek out the appropriate counter, and enter the Eddie Bauer Citizen Bouldering Competition (Wave 1 and 2) for a nominal fee. This experience, the TMG, has worked it’s dark devilry on me. All this action, all these elite athletes performing their passions for us normal folk, it has sparked a desire to do what I can’t exactly put my finger on. Compete? Maybe. I haven’t entered a climbing competition since 2003 and not felt a single urge to before this exact moment, but it’s not quite that. Be a part of the community? I think that’s more like it. It’s not enough to be in the crowd anymore, after all this rubbernecking. It’s time to join my brethren in vigorous outdoor recreation, to jump into the gullet of this great canned outdoor festival.
I am athlete number 2143. I have a little square paper thingy to safety pin to the back of my tee shirt to prove it. I pin it just so, very neurotically, exactly in the center, safety pins pointed out and strategically placed so that if they do unfurl and lance me in the back (my great, unsubstantiated fear), they should penetrate a nice skein of skin and fat I’ve been cultivating since my late 20s.
A couple hours ago I’d shared a bit of a Seinfeld moment with the helpful young lady who logged me into the event in the Golden Peak Lodge. You see, citizens may enter the competition per ability level. Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, Open. I’m here to tell you that I am no Beginner. Intermediate only when hung-over. Advanced means you can climb at least V7. Open is V8 and above. Brain scrambling quandary. Understand, I am not in shape (my great and oft-quoted mantra). Climbers who have jobs kind of float in and out of fitness as time permits, and time has permitted exactly bupkis over the last two months. So, perhaps Advanced. However, I’d just climbed a V8 up at Red Cliff on Thursday night. But, it took me about an hour and a half. The competition lasts two hours. Jesus Christ.
After consulting another TMG staff member who rather curtly told me he would gladly hand over his 75 page IFSC regulations packet and then promptly shuffled away, I decided to enter Advanced. Looking over my shoulder, strangely cocky but in the most unwarranted way, I said to Dylan, “Well, if I’m crushing I can always just write ‘Open’ on my score sheet.”
Sunday, Exactly 2pm
The TMG has brought me to this, sitting here where Anna Stohr and Daniel Woods and tiny Jain Kim sat only yesterday, competing to be the best in the world. The crowd, as one would imagine, is much smaller. I am older than some of the parents watching their children compete against me (with me? It’s all jumbled now). No one is cheering me. Kyler, post-race-Ryan, and Dylan lean over the fencing separating land-bound citizens from climbing citizens and they have just the most smug little grins.
I have velcroed my Five Tens and chalked up my hands and chatted with Kody from Buffalo, NY and Chris from Denver, CO and another guy from Atlanta, GA. This is their first competition, to a man, and they are jangled with nerves. Kody says he is going to warm up on Problem Number 32, the hardest problem on the wall. I advise him against this. Chris admonishes me and says he’s following suit. Atlanta just wants to have fun. Atlanta is lying. I, the second oldest dork in the competition, seriously want to avoid embarrassment, above all else. I will not warm up on Problem Number 32. My cockiness, I lost it somewhere between pinning 2143 to my shirt and standing up after pinning 2143 to my shirt.
That, about the cockiness, is not entirely true. For a while there, before these butterflies began an ornate tap dance just behind my sternum, I felt pretty confident I was going to crush. A number of variables meshed to construct this serious and erroneous miscalculation. Empirically speaking: I felt strong climbing at Red Cliff just a few days ago, sending this and that with relative ease, although I hadn’t been climbing much lately. But, in climbing, one good day rarely guarantees another. Theoretically speaking: I suppose the World Cup competitors have lulled me into some hypnotic catalepsy of warped self-awareness. For two days, through rounds and rounds and rounds, I had watched the iron-forearmed masses scan, mount, ascend, wave atop, and then drop from some of the most difficult artificial bouldering problems set on the planet at just that exact moment. They’d made climbing look so easy. To extrapolate, this must be easy for me, too. I mean, it’s just a bunch of citizens. And finally, parsimoniously speaking: I really wanted – very secretly – to podium.
Sunday, Late Afternoon
I shall now relay some lessons learned up there on the Eddie Bauer Citizen Bouldering Competition (Wave 2) wall. Those problems, the blue blobby ones, they are really fucking hard. I discursively found that warming up on Problem Number 32 causes great consternation and abject loss of hope and locutions such as “I just came here for the hell of it” and “I mean, it’s just a comp – who cares?” as well as “Fuck!” and “This is bullshit!” and “I wasn’t going to hand in a scorecard anyway!” I found the pressure heaped upon myself (by myself and – I will unambiguously certify this – not a soul else) caused me to climb with a self-conscious tick, a kind of pyscho-blinder narrowing my ability level to a pin-hole. My Citizen pressure, more than anything else, had me stiff-leggedly sort of stilting my way from problem to problem, sighing deeply when others succeeded because Jesus, I get it, you’re so good, and catapulting myself from Problem Number 19 to 27 to 24 to 26 to 17 and on and on without a single god damned rest or much desired cigarette.
No need to really get into it any more, other than to say once you compete you really gain some nugget of understanding about how it must be for elite athletes, in front of us rubberneckers, to prove value to their sponsors, appeal to their fans, and fulfill some deeply personal and churning desire for perfection. What I’m saying is that, dilated by the natural splendor of Vail and the magnification of both event (World Cup) and competition (Kilian and Anna), I would literally be stricken unable to perform from all the shitting-in-my pants I’d be doing. That’s big pressure. And they, Kilian and Anna, the bikers, slackliners and paddlers – and even old Mr. Bigsley and the rest of the doggies – made it all look so effortless, even in defeat or submission or thudding, crunching crash. Mark, too, he of the watermelon thighs, he won both events he’d entered. Easily.
But not Ryan. Ryan got second-to-last place. Can you possibly guess who he defeated? That’s right. The frosh on the K-Mart special without toe clips.
And not me, either. I miss my podium, even amongst the lowly Advanced pedestrians against whom I so self-consciously sparred. Yup, I get Fourth. Which is more haunting than last.
Alas, as I unpin number 2143 from my tee shirt (entirely unmolested by sharp objects despite my jillion billion falls) I know I’ve come to a fine ending to my TMG experience, as all those mountain folk already steering Tacomas and Outbacks and Four Runners back to wherever, to Denver and Empire and Pueblo and Meeker, must also be ruminating upon. You know what we’re all thinking?
I am so stoked to wait – alone in the wilderness with a bag of chalk or with a couple friends buzzing down single track or maybe with dad knee deep and casting on the Miracle Mile or even snatching the poop tube from my gap toothed buddy — exactly 361 days before I even consider doing this again.