The Newfoundland Method

Disclaimers, contraindications, and warnings: the following is an argument, a loose collection of attempts at reasoning, an expression of my thoughts and, yes, opinions, about mixed climbing. The following is in no way, shape or manner intended to be unequivocal, inflammatory, dogmatic or closed-ended, nor is this intended as a model, archetype or rulebook. The following is not intended to be relevant to anyone but my friends that have asked what we’re doing out there in Newfoundland and what’s going on in my wee mixed climbing mind. These are just my thoughts about mixed climbing and my attempt at explaining our methods for those who might be interested. To construe otherwise is a gross misappropriation of my intentions, and, as we like to say in the North country, “That’s your problem.” This is not a statement of what other people should or should not do. I feel strongly that each individual should do or not do whatever he or she desires, as long as it does not hurt intentionally anyone else. The following are just my opinions and thoughts and explanations of why we have adopted our particular and somewhat unusual style of mixed climbing. Several people have wondered what we’re doing, and this is written for their benefit. Please, if you’re not interested in the aforementioned, you most certainly have my blessing. Just press two fingers to the mousepad, and slide upward (downward for PC users), and, please, have a pleasant day.

I have been ice climbing for 27 years. And over the past nineteen years, I have established dozens of traditional mixed climbs (i.e., mixed climbs completed from the ground up, without the use of bolts) and I also have established more than a few sport mixed climbs (that is, bolted mixed climbs which may or may not be established on rappel). These are not significant accomplishments, and merely are cited to provide a reference of my experience in the ice and mixed climbing games.

Mixed climbing is aid (just follow me here, please). Perhaps it would be described more accurately as sport-aid or free-aid. The use of metal hooks to scale a rock is aid climbing, yet the athleticism required to hang on to the hooks employs elements of free climbing.

Aid climbing bolt ladders is not compelling (warning: this is an opinion). Sure, one can remove every other bolt so one must execute dynamic Vertical Limit style jumps between the bolts. And, yes, one may French-free these bolts, grasping the quick-draws. Even, one may grasp metal hooks with handles on them in between the bolts. But, it’s still French-freeing a bolt ladder, one could argue. This can be fun and exciting for a time. But I have found that it gets old after a while, and this is not my idea of a compelling end-sport (again, an opinion).

Most recently established sport mixed climbs are largely manufactured, with drilled holds. When Cesare Maestri bolted the living bejesus out of Cerro Torre, and when Warren Harding bat-hooked his way up El Cap, these men were heralded for their audacity. Nowadays, such tactics are frowned upon, to say the least. Why is it that sport mixed and sport dry-tooling climbers in the present day feel exempt from what is the basest common sense of the rest of the climbing world (rhetorical)?

When ice and mixed climbers first delved headlong into the development of the sport-mixed game, generally, they were linking compelling features of ice. Often, these climbs involved rock which was not conducive to protection with anything other than with bolts. The ice was wild, compelling. These routes made sense. The rock was climbed in its natural state, the holds were not drilled. Today, “mixed” climbs (often with scant ice) and dry-tooling routes (completely bereft of ice) are largely manufactured. In fact, the French go so far as to physically remove holds, to “make the routes hard.” Moreover, the French have taken to removing the secondary points on their crampons (because rakes are restful and thus make the climbs too easy). The need to artificially make the routes harder, the gradual progression of reducing gear: no leashes, no spurs, no rakes, is clearly leading toward one thing—you wanna make it hard? Lose the hooks and go rock climbing. They are called ice tools for a reason.

Basically, the use of ice tools should make sense, I think. When mixed climbing, generally there needs to be compelling ice. However, in Scotland, for instance, the traditional mixed climbing is world-renowned even though it typically involves mainly rime covered rock with little ice. But it makes sense—the Scots only climb when the conditions are winter-like, when climbing the rock with bare hands would be ridiculous or impossible. Essentially, it’s training for the mountains (perhaps), but, above all, using ice tools makes sense.

The traditional mixed climbs my friends and I have established in Newfoundland have not been completed in light-and-fast alpine-style. Due to our inadequacies of ability and courage, we have established these routes in siege-style: we fix ropes to our high point each day, and ascend the lines when we return and set to work again. We on-sight what we can, but the difficult mixed pitches are first aid climbed and then “free-climbed” with the gear in place. We have found that the difficulty of the climbing on these pitches coupled with the use of only removable protection has demanded this approach in order for us to complete these pitches safely. As with sport mixed climbing, the type of style employed on these routes create a relatively safe environment in which to push our standards. In this case, it’s the environment in which to learn the limitations of removable protection in addition to the skills of hard dry-tooling and hard ice climbing, which are gathered in a manner which is more relevant to the mountains than within the framework of sport climbing. But, most of all, speaking of the enterprises themselves and not simply of the utility of the skills garnered as benefits for other purposes, climbing these routes with only removable protection and without manufacturing holds makes for an exciting, engaging and ultimately, a massively satisfying experience. This is the core motive for me: it’s experiential. And the experience of the Newfoundland method is far richer, to me and my partners, than it would be if we were guaranteeing our success and safety with bolts.

Caveat: Sport-mixed climbing is fun! There is no doubt (in my mind). Sport-mixed climbing is excellent training (I think); it’s a fine way to get strong on one’s tools safely; it’s a fine way to learn how ice tools respond on rock, their limitations, etc. in a controlled environment. Sport-mixed climbing is also a great way to learn how to climb icicles in a relatively safe environment. I love sport-mixed climbing, personally. Again, I simply am expressing my thoughts and predilections about mixed climbing after having played this game for a quarter century, in our current time, and trying to share where my thoughts have arrived, at this point, at this time, and why I feel compelled to focus my mixed climbing efforts along more traditional lines, at present, when possible, and when it makes sense. This is not an indictment of sport-mixed climbing or a celebration of any other type of climbing.

Highlights of the Past Seven Months in Seven Photos

The crux pitch of Deprivation, North Buttress of Mount Hunter, Alaska.

The crux pitch of Deprivation, North Buttress of Mount Hunter, Alaska.

I made the second ascent of "Question Your Progression" (5.13d) in August.

I made the second ascent of “Question Your Progression” (5.13d).

I climbed "The Bishop Crack" (5.12b) in September.

I climbed “The Bishop Crack” (5.12b).

Kurt Ross and I climbed "Andromeda Strain" (Grade V, M6, AI4) at the end of September.

Kurt Ross and I climbed “Andromeda Strain” (Grade V, M6, AI4).

I climbed Optimator (5.13-) in September.

I climbed Optimator (5.13-).

I climbed "Hidden Gem" (5.13) in October.

I climbed “Hidden Gem” (5.13).

Whit Magro and I put up a new alpine mixed route in the southern Wind River Range at the beginning of November.

Whit Magro and I put up a new alpine mixed route in the southern Wind River Range.

Sharpening Petzl Picks

More than a few of my friends have asked about my method of sharpening picks, so here is an attempt at describing it with words and photos.

Mixed climbing is very gear intensive.  During more than twenty years of mixed climbing, I have come to learn that the difference between sending a sketchy traditional mixed pitch on-sight and pitching off into ignominy often boils down to whether or not my picks and crampons are sharp. I have developed a  sharpening obsessive-compulsiveness with my tools and crampons. Literally, I use a new pair of picks and a new pair of crampons every time I embark on an important (to me) climb. It really is that important; it really does make that much difference. But, for training days or less-demanding routes, I still will sharpen my old picks and crampons to very tight tolerances. With crampons, I maintain the factory points when sharpening them. With picks, I modify them slightly. The following is a nuts-and-bolts account of my sharpening method of Petzl  picks. I’m sure there are better methods, and I have borrowed all of these tricks from others over the years, but this is how I do it, for those out there that would like to know.

The tools: a flat file (I like big ones, 1 and 1/8" wide) and a round file (diameter 3/8")

The tools: a flat file (I like big ones, 1 and 1/8″ wide) and a round file (diameter 3/8″)

First of all, files are one-way tools. Files are designed to be pushed  forward against metal with long even strokes. Don’t pull them backward against metal! Pulling backward against metal dulls the file.

Sharpen the top edge on both sides, following the factory curve.

Sharpen the top edge on both sides, following the factory curve.

First, I sharpen the top edge following the factory curve. Basically, remove the paint and you’ll be good. The edge should be quite sharp which aids in pick removal from the ice. Also, I take the angle out of the top of the front of the pick, making it rounded. This seems to aid in penetration of ice as well as pick removal from ice. Both of these are done with the flat file.

Make the front point less acute, I like the angle of the  front point to be obtuse.

Make the front point less acute, I like the angle of the front point to be obtuse.

The factory point is on the left. Note the subtle difference in the depth of the bevel of the point on the right. I weigh 175 lbs. with all of my gear, if the point is too acute, the tip deforms when climbing on hard rock. It doesn’t need to be pointy to be sharp. Using the flat file carefully shave the tip of the point slightly on both sides.

Carefully remove a good portion of the first tooth with the flat file, this will make finishing the job with the round file easier. Be extremely careful not to touch the tip of the pick with the file!

Carefully remove a good portion of the first tooth with the flat file, this will make finishing the job with the round file easier. Be extremely careful not to touch the tip of the pick with the file!

Next, carefully file away the first tooth of the pick with the flat file, making a notch. Make certain you don’t ding the tip of the pick and don’t make the notch too deep! This step allows for use of the round file, in the next step, on the notch that is made. The notch is essentially the root of the first tooth, this notch allows for perfect alignment with the round file in the next step.

Use the round file to remove the first tooth, making the bird-beak.

Use the round file to remove the first tooth, making the bird-beak.

Use the round file to complete the removal of the first tooth by filing directly on the notch at the root of the first tooth. Basically, when the root of the first tooth is removed, continue to file just until all remnants of the bevel at the bottom of the pick are gone. Over-filing is unnecessary waste of precious steel. The reason the first tooth of the pick should be removed is that it often levers the front point of the pick off a thin dry-tool hook. Removing the first tooth provides clearance for the front point of the pick to remain hooked on a tenuous hold in a wider array of pick orientations (i.e., it’s less likely to pop off when you’re changing body positions). This is really only important when dry-tooling on thin routes, but there are no adverse effects of the modified picks’ performances on ice, so I always file my picks this way, even when alpine climbing.

Use the flat file to remove the paint along the sides of the pick.

Use the flat file to remove the paint along the sides of the pick.

Using the flat file, remove the paint from the sides of the pick at the front. This seems to aid in pick penetration in ice as well as pick removal from ice. It’s a subtle difference, but the naked Charlet steel is slicker than the paint.



The Absolute Paradox in Climbing

… Paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, although in one way or another the collision must become its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think. This passion of thought is fundamentally present everywhere in thought …  – Soren A. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments


Serac avalanche pulverizes The McNeill-Nott Memorial Route on the South Face of Foraker, AK minutes after Maxim Turgeon and I had finished descending it. Sue Nott and Karen McNeill were standing in the bergschrund below the Infinite Spur specks in the lower left of the frame about to begin their ill-fated 2006 attempt at the Spur.

“What’s motivating those guys?” My friend Kim Csizmazia asked rhetorically. My friend Jim Ewing and I were staying with our friends Kim and Will Gadd, Canmore’s prolific hard people and gracious hostelers of visiting climbers, shortly after a young Ueli Steck and partner stayed with them and climbed a first ascent of an audacious ice route below an overhanging and extremely active serac, a route reminiscent of Mark Twight and Randy Rackliff’s Reality Bath. Kim and I were discussing their new route. Like so many utterances I have heard in my life, this one has remained in my mind, echoing often.

The more of my life I devote to climbing the more compelled I am to try to rationalize, explain and justify it. There are perhaps as many motivations to climb as there are climbers. Climbing is a thrill, an expression of prowess, a celebration of nature, a business venture, a philanthropic device, a personal journey, a mourning, angst, maniacal, subliminal, a reason not to mow the lawn. Climbing is fun. Climbing can be like going for a hike, a nice way to get some exercise, breathe fresh air and enjoy the scenery. Climbing can be like boxing, day after disciplined day of training in a gym, sparring with single-minded devotion to becoming the meanest one can become, dieting to fighting weight, finally entering the ring to fight. Climbing can be like a business venture requiring meticulous sound planning, careful attention to detail, indefatigable determination, and confident execution to beat the competition for a lucrative end. Climbing exists in a wide array of manifestations that are explainable to the rational world of the status quo.

However, climbing also exists in this world as an irrational pursuit and also as one that is contrary to the human survival instinct. Climbing with significant objective hazard, significant risk, is illogical. To risk one’s life for the sake of a mountain, a cliff, a giant boulder, with nothing tangible to be gained and everything to be lost certainly would seem unnatural to Darwin as well as negligent according to the prudent person of tort law. Typically, climbing, especially climbing with significant hazard, is perplexing and inexplicable to most people, often even to the aficionados themselves.

While it may be worth considering that climbing could be an incongruous expression of our innate carnal hunter instincts that have been repressed through the processes of hyper civilization. Perhaps we manufacture situations subconsciously which will allow us to experience the fight or flight responses for which our brains are programmed. But let us consider that climbing is outside of and contrary to the evolutionary nature of our survival instincts. Consider that voluntarily engaging in dangerous climbs is in violation of our instincts to survive, engaging in dangerous climbing makes one less likely to survive, it is counter-instinctual and opposed to our nature as mammals, animals.

Likewise, dangerous climbing is not rational. Discounting the external pressures professional climbers and the like may experience, to risk one’s life for an endeavor as intangible as a climb cannot be justified to our prudent society. It is considered mad adrenaline-junkie ale. It is deemed irresponsible and selfish to risk one’s life for something with no value to oneself or anyone else. No war will be won, there will be no great leap for humankind. A dangerous climb will be made, the benefits of which seem to defy rational and scientific qualification or quantification.

In these ways, climbing is unnatural and irrational. Yet, for me personally and many others, climbing is extremely useful. Climbing provides experiences that provide moments of clarity outside of my normal state of consciousness. The most indelible glimpses for me have been those which should have been horrific yet somehow became inspiringly sublime, moments when the catastrophic potential of the passion could be seen: when sifting through snow with my axe as a blind man with his cane in absolute whiteout on the West Ridge of Mt. Hunter suddenly cutting the crest of a cornice as a spontaneous hole in the clouds below allow a sudden fleeting bird’s-eye view of base camp 4,000’ below, when walking away from the South Face of Mt. Foraker hearing the horrific cacophony of a serac avalanche and turning to watch the route we had just climbed and rappelled be completely pulverized with enormous chunks of ice. Inexplicably, these moments of being naked and minuscule before nature make me more adept in the rational world, more able to contend with the rational stresses of daily life, more able to be a good father and a productive member of society. It is paradoxical.

Climbing is at least in some manner irrational. As such, attempts to rationalize it are paradoxical – that which is truly irrational cannot be rationalized, cannot be explained. Climbing is, perhaps in part, the embodiment of something beyond our natural evolution and something outside of our rational capacities to explain. I feel compelled to try to explain it and I also recognize that it is likely a futile, yet entertaining, attempt.

Infinite Absolute Negativity of Ratings

…Irony [is] the infinite absolute negativity. It is negativity, because it only negates; it is infinite, because it does not negate this or that phenomenon; it is absolute, because that by virtue of which it negates is a higher something that still is not. The irony established nothing, because that which is to be established lies behind it…. Irony is a qualification of subjectivity. In irony, the subject is negatively free, since the actuality that is supposed to give the subject content is not there. He is free from the constraint in which the given actuality holds the subject, but he is negatively free and as such is suspended, because there is nothing that holds him. But this very freedom, this suspension, gives the ironist a certain enthusiasm, because he becomes intoxicated, so to speak, in the infinity of possibilities…. The Concept of Irony Soren A. Kierkegaard

To Kierkegaard, irony was the infinite absolute negative: it is not what it seems and yet neither is it a positive rendering of what it is not.  Irony is entirely subjective, the conclusions one draws from it are inherently one’s own, they are subjective. Plato’s Socrates taught us that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to absolutely accurately define what something is; yet, it is quite easy to define what something is not. There is no objective positivity. There is but one absolute: negativity, and it is subjective.

As humans, we spend a tremendous amount of time and energy attempting to create illusions of order in an inherently chaotic world. Every person, situation, object, idea, moment, experience is unique; yet, we persist in categorizing and enumerating, classifying in all aspects of our lives. Of course, such ordinating is extremely useful in our society in countless ways: time, money, number of Brownie points, etc., help us construct methods in the inherent disorder of life. However, in certain scenarios, quantification seems limiting, a distraction from the essence, the substance of the very object of attempted objectification, inhibiting of our ability to see the forest for the trees, if you will. Flattening out the complexities in life is useful and also often destructive of the sublime themes that inspire us, move us, reward us.

Of course, these ideas make me think of climbing, as my mind often seems ill-equipped to do otherwise. Ratings in climbing are useful. It is helpful to have a sense of how difficult a climb is in order to ascertain whether or not one would be well-suited to climb it. Yet, there seems to be a clear difference between climbing for the line and climbing for the rating, climbing for the aesthetic beauty and climbing for letters and numbers. It is ironic that something as unique as a climb would be quantified by a rating.

We categorize climbs according to ratings and in so doing ignore the innumerable variabilities — each climb is unique. Such homogeny is inherent to any class system. But, the issue I would like to address is not this, we accept the inadequacies of ratings in deference of their utility, it is the inordinate focus ratings often receive by us that seem to be a distraction from the essence of climbing. Rating climbs is a useful (yet ultimately futile) manner of objectifying the subjective. Yet, the essence of climbing is defied by ratings in that the experience of each climb is a complex mosaic of terrain, action and emotion while a rating is black and white, inert, flat.

Rather than being intended to serve their function as an attempt at an objective rendering of a climb’s difficulty, ratings are often used as tools of exaggeration, understatement, or dominance. Their intended meaning and use can be quite different from their actual meaning and use. This is to say, ratings can become expressions outside of an attempted objective statement of a climb’s difficulty and move into murky undercurrents of the ego. In this way, there is further irony of ratings. They are often not what they seem.

Every climber is egoistical, to a certain degree. I would submit that even the most revered iconoclastic “dharma climber” such as the late great Mugs Stump did not climb out of altruism (regardless, altruism itself is a product of the ego). We climb because we have ego, not in the negative connotation; but, rather, we have ego in that we have an individual desire to express ourselves, challenge ourselves, enjoy ourselves, through climbing, in whatever manner that involves. Even those with a Henry David Thoreau bend would be communing with nature as an individual with an ego, a will, a personal desire to do so.

I think things get problematic with climbing ratings when we identify with the ratings on an egotistical level. Of course, no one wants to rate a climb something only to have other climbers come and down-rate it; we try to rate accurately and some of us are better at it than others. We each often have different perceptions of difficulty. It is difficult to attempt to be objective with a rating after one has established a climb and has a strong personal attachment to it. It is difficult not to infer a direct relationship between the personal value of an important climb and its rating — harder seems better, more challenging seems like a richer experience — and this is often expressed with ratings.

It is helpful for me to try (often unsuccessfully) to avoid identifying too much with a climb’s rating. This is difficult. We all want to be strong, we all want to be respected by our peers, we all want to push our own standards and the standards of the sport that we love. But, open-mindedness about the accuracy of a climb’s rating and avoiding the pitfalls of excessive emphasis on ratings seems to be the best course for me, when possible. It is not useful and is a distraction from the experiential essence of the sport to do otherwise.

We each climb for a variety of different reasons. Letters and numbers are pretty low on the list of prime motivators for most of us. Yet, it is easy to fall into the ratings dance. Perhaps if we focus on the quality of the climbing and corresponding challenge and not assign value to a climb according to its rating it would be easier to dissociate ourselves from the idea that hard ratings equal high value and the idea that if it were hard for me it must have a hard rating and not lose sight of the essential meaning of the climb — the quality of the challenge and not the numerical stature of it. Of course, most of us want a continued challenge, as we gain experience we naturally are drawn to more difficult climbs to find the same level of engagement that we once found on easier climbs. Limits of climbing difficulty increase year after year; climbers get better year after year. Long gone are the days when 5.9 was the ceiling of the Yosemite Decimal System as 5.10 was considered a mathematical impossibility. The ratings scales are open-ended. We can down-rate systematically all of the routes, we can sandbag or inflate; regardless, the ratings are just letters and numbers, arbitrary hierarchical scales of something that defies quantification.

Acrimonious bickering about ratings, common in mixed climbing, seems like a disgrace to me, an ironic and pusillanimous loss of the spirit of our unique sport. Most devout climbers I know, those that climb for the love of the sport, don’t spend too much time obsessing over ratings; rather, they recognize the amusing irony of ratings and are out climbing, experiencing another route, letting babblers and arm chair climbers adamantly worry about the letters and the numbers as if they really mean something in complete earnestness.

In climbing, most of us are always trying to push harder. Most of us want to experience increased difficulty and the according experiences of newness — new terrain, new obstacles to overcome and to relive that sense of overcoming what we thought was impossible. As the once perceived to be impossible is rendered possible we must find new apparent impossibilities to disprove, this is expressed in ratings; yet, the ratings themselves are anything but the experiences themselves. As such, climbing ratings are not essential to the sport of climbing, they are letters and numbers which serve a purpose; yet, ratings deserve to be relegated and not a cause of distraction from the essential meaning of climbing — the experience.

French Dry-Tooling Style (DTS)

Last winter I was in Europe and learned of the French Dry-Tooling Style (DTS) while climbing in the sport mixed cave in Eptigen, Switzerland, home of the famed Robert Jasper sport mixed test piece Ironman (M14). My friend Gaetan Raymond of France explained to me that using figure 4s and figure 9s (known in France as Yaniros) while mixed climbing had come to be regarded as uncouth, as poor style. Gaetan explained that figure 4s made mixed climbing too mundane, too easy. Sport mixed climbing with my friend Jeff Mercier, also of France, around Ouray and in Vail this winter, I had a further education of the ideals of DTS. Jeff explained that he did not care if it made it harder, rather he enjoyed the variety and the aesthetic quality of sport mixed climbing without Yaniros. Regardless of the reasons, the French definitely believe that sport mixed climbing is more interesting, more challenging and more elegant without the use of figure 4s.

It had never occurred to me that figure 4s might be regarded as poor style. When I started sport mixed climbing, I had been an avid traditional mixed climber for more than ten years. As such, figure 4s were completely alien to me, these gymnastic moves high above suspect gear were never considered. Figure 4s render a climber very susceptible to an upside down fall, which is fine when you are clipping bolts on the underside of a roof, but in the mountains or on a dicey traditional mixed climb with obstacles below, it is suicidal.

I find it unlikely that anyone reading this blog does no know what a figure 4 is, but just in case, a figure 4 (opposite side leg over opposite side arm) and a figure 9 (same side leg over same side arm), respectively, are depicted below:

_DSC0935Photos by Caroline Treadway_DSC0729

The first hard sport mixed climbing is did (by hard I mean M11 and harder) was in the Cathedral Cave in North Conway, NH. I climbed an early spurless ascent of The Work of the Devil and made the first ascent of The Mixed Mercy. Although others were using figure 4s on these climbs, I did not. I did not use figure 4s because I was not fit in this specific way, it seemed harder to me to use figure 4s, so I just kept my feet on the roof, above my head, and front levered my way to the top. I eschewed figure 4s because I had never developed the specific fitness necessary to utilize figure 4s effectively, not because they seemed too easy or unaesthetic.

Now I have started to become more fit with respect to figure 4s. I can begin to understand why they could be regarded as monotonous by the French, to a certain degree. But, as Hari Berger once said, figure 4s and figure 9s are exciting moves for people who are unfamiliar with mixed climbing to witness; but, they are not for show, often they are the best way to accomplish a move. By placing one’s leg over the tool, a climber is able to perch high on the tool and still ensure that downward pressure is applied to the tool making it much less likely to pop off of the hold. Figure 4s allow for larger moves and also can make suspect holds more reliable by maintaining constant pressure on and a constant angle of the tool on the hold.

I have a fondness for DTS because that is how I started to sport mixed climb, without figure 4s. It requires a foundation of traditional mixed climbing: knowing the tool, how to use it, how it will respond. Also, it requires sport climbing abilities: body position, primarily; DTS is more complex than simply a mad sequence of figure 4s and 9s as we see in the Ice Climbing World Cup, which, of course, is in and of itself a phenomenal display of athleticism; but, it is more of a deviation from traditional climbing. As such, it seems to me that DTS is a more effective manner to utilize the sport mixed game as training for traditional and alpine  climbing, where the use of figure 4s seems unlikely and somewhat absurd. However, of course, if one is sport mixed climbing as training for the competitions, the specific fitness and technique of figure 4s is utterly requisite.

The one aspect of DTS that seems rather silly and not particularly aesthetically pleasing is the rag doll hang. The way participants of the DTS rest while climbing the giant roofs that essentially define post-postmodern sport mixed climbing is to hang limp from one tool with one arm to shake the other arm and alternately shoulder-up to hang limp from the other arm. To me, aesthetically this is unappealing. It seems more beautiful to see climbers flowing in and out of figure 4s and 9s and shaking from a heel hook or even from a Yaniro than to rest ones core ad nauseam from a rag doll hang. Besides, the violent shaking of the tool as a climber shoulders up to alternate shaking hands often has adverse affects on the tool’s security on the hold and often sends the climber whipping. I can understand why figure 4s are eschewed according to DTS; but, I also return in my mind to Hari Berger’s words regarding figure 4s: often it’s the best way to do a move.

Some have likened figure 4s to spurs. I disagree. Spurs were equipment. The upside down front points on the heels made sport mixed climbing so easy as to become banal because of the equipment. Figure 4s are more akin to knee bars in sport climbing. Some people eschew knee bars, and that is their right. However, this is essentially a choice to forego a certain type of move, and is not about equipment.

When one boils it all down, dry-tooling is free aid. Yes, that is an oxymoron. But, ice tools are called ice tools for a reason. We started dry-tooling to get to ice and the sport of mixed climbing has evolved in a multitude of ways, and that is cool, I think. But, as with aid climbing, sport climbing, traditional climbing, bouldering, ice climbing, and alpine climbing: want to make it harder? Make the routes thinner, steeper, longer and more runout and they will be harder.

Regardless, I think DTS is cool.

Next up: Ratings and infinite absolute negativity.


Ouray Competition 2014; No Regrets

Ouray Competition Route 2014. Photo Ryan W. Vachon

Ouray Competition Route 2014. Photo Ryan W. Vachon

“Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too; laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret it either way; laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both. Believe a [person], you will regret it; believe [a person] not, you will also regret it; believe a [person] or believe [a person] not, you will regret it either way; believing a [person] or not believing [a person], you will regret it both ways. Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you’ll regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentle[people], is the essence of all philosophy.” Soren A. Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Life is filled with opportunities for regret. Regardless of what we do or do not, we can always find ways to retrospectively revise what we should or should not have done. Such a human process is useful inasmuch as it instructs us how to proceed in the future given a similar situation, yet it is also utterly futile – the past is gone, the future will never arrive, the only time is now and this will remain forever true.

Opening oneself up to the world is hazardous. Regardless of what one writes or fails to write there will be misinterpretations and misconstructions. Such is life. We all bring our own subjective context to each individual situation and receive the world according to our own respective virtues and vices. We are all ourselves imperfect interacting and being perceived through the imperfect lenses of our peers. Such is life. We are all trying to do the best we can with what we have in all manners of life.

Closing oneself off from the world is not the answer. I have tried it and it is not pretty. It is despair. It is the sickness unto death, as Kierkegaard proved. We all must open ourselves up to the cruel and harsh realities of the world in order to have the opportunities to enjoy the kind and gentle aspects of life as well. There is no pure evil and there is no pure good in this world, everyone and everything has parts of both. Aristotle’s Ethics taught us that the culmination of all virtues is magnanimity while the culmination of all vices is pusillanimity. No one is entirely either; no one is perfectly good or evil, we are all trying to do the best we can with what we have.

It seems useful to me to regard ourselves as egotistical self-interested animals, as we are, trying to survive. Yet, concurrently, we have the human consciousness of the greater good, Jung’s Id. It seems to me that one of the great challenges of life is to manage and assimilate the two often conflicting aspects of the two. There is no perfect answer.

The Ouray Competition this year was hilarious. Vince Anderson set a route whereby, in order to send, one was required to reach the top hold and then jump outward from the top of the wall to strike a pinata that was suspended from a pole and take a sizable subsequent whipper, there was no top clip. Typically, when one reaches the top of a mixed climbing competition route, one must clip the top draw, place both tools in the top hold, and then be lowered in a very civilized manner. This was not so in the Ouray Competition of 2014. To strike a pinata and take a giant whipper equaled a send this year. Who conjures up something like that? Vince Anderson. Genius!

Jeff Mercier of France, Mauro Dorigatti of Italy and myself sent the route. Jeff did so seventeen seconds faster than me and Mauro did it nine-tenths of a second faster than me. All competitors each had a twelve minute time limit to complete the route or fall off trying, and all three of us that completed the route used more than eleven minutes in our respective sends. Stephanie Maureau of France was first for the women and was fourth overall, reaching the third hanging log at the end of the crux section of the route, beating all of the other men. Though I did not win the competition, in part, I consider it a victory, as I was the only competitor to actually impale the pinata and knock it down from its airy perch.

Many of my friends have expressed regret that I did not win. I admit, after the three of us raised the pinata together theatrically on the podium and I looked down at the trophy bearing inscriptions of the names of all past winners: Ines Papert, Will Gadd, Evgeny Kryvosheytsev, Hari Berger (RIP), Raphael Slawinsky, Josh Wharton, Jeff Mercier, etc. I felt a trace of regret. I am in my prime; I did not win. I have competed in Ouray for eight consecutive years; I have been on the podium four of them, never in first place.

When I explained to my best friend, Chris Thomas, that if I were omnipotent I would have chosen a result exactly as the one that occurred, he said I was paradoxical. I will not dispute that. Yet, to have trained collectively with Jeff, Mauro and Steph for the week leading up to the comp (even the morning of the comp Jeff, Mauro and I warmed up together in the Poseur’s Lounge up Camp Bird Mine Road) sharing our love for the sport, simply having a good time with inspiring friends – for the top four places overall to be: Jeff, Mauro, me and Steph, seemed perfect to me, especially because I was the top American at Ouray for the first time (as I was in Bozeman) and I alone got the pinata. Besides, if my name were among my heros on the trophy I would have to retire from the competition; I do not want to retire from the competition. Ouray is a blast every year, even when I fall off the first hold in the competition, as I have before. I could regret so many of my friends had not done as well as they should, many were unlucky or just had a bad day; but, that is the lottery. I am sure next year will be different, my friends that did poorly this year with send next year, as it almost always is; and, yet, it is fun just the same regardless.

This will certainly be misconstrued as yet another egotistical blog post. And, I do not regret it.

Next up: French DryTooling Style (DTS) and surely another misleading blog title.

Human vs. Nature

“If a precious jewel, which all desired, lay out on a frozen lake, where the ice was perilously thin, where death threatened one who went out too far while the ice near the shore was safe, in a passionate age the crowds would cheer the courage of the man who went out on the ice; they would fear for him and with him in his resolute action; they would sorrow over him if he went under; they would consider him divine if he returned with the jewel. In this passionless, reflective age, things would be different. People would think themselves very intelligent in figuring out the foolishness and worthlessness of going out on the ice, indeed, that it would be incomprehensible and laughable; and thereby they would transform passionate daring into a display of skill . . . . The people would go and watch from safety and the connoisseurs with their discerning tastes would carefully judge the skilled skater, who would go almost to the edge (that is, as far as the ice was safe, and would not go beyond this point) and then swing back. The most skilled skaters would go out the furthest and venture most dangerously, in order to make the crowds gasp and say: “Gods! He is insane, he will kill himself!” But you will see that his skill is so perfected that he will at the right moment swing around while the ice is still safe and his life is not endangered. . . .” Soren A. Kierkegaard, The Present Age, 1846

While I share Kierkegaard’s cynicism, to a certain degree, at heart I am an optimist. For instance, while I understand the brilliance of Kierkegaard’s dialectic proof for his refusal to marry, as doing so would be a destruction of the concept of love, I also find it rather sadly austere; I bet old Soren would have lived longer if he had been a little less rigid with his principles. Regardless, it is easy to apply Kierkegaard’s writings to our own present age, the archetypal nature of his writing is what made him one of the greatest thinkers since Socrates, in my opinion. However, what I would like to address is the difference between Kierkegaard’s would be skaters: the skater in the age of passion and the skater in the age of reason, as they correspond with the two divergent types of climbing: the type of climbing that involves tremendous risk and the type of climbing that does not involve much risk, without regard to the inherently judgmental nature of passion vs. reason.

To be clear, this argument is not a personal or objective value judgment of either of the divergent types of climbing. I love and participate in all types of climbing. To paraphrase and adapt an anecdote of Kierkegaard’s adapted from Austrian poet Habel: a Trad climber and a Sport climber are having an argument as to which type of climbing is superior, after a long-winded and drawn out discussion during which both try to convert the other to their manner of climbing, suddenly, at once, they both succeed.. Presumably, they would both bear the same power of persuasion after the initial conversion; so, there is an ensuing absurd scene of the two climbers converting each other respectively back and forth, back and forth. The moral being that neither has changed their inner disposition but merely their suit.

Over the years, climbing has diverged essentially, in basic terms, between sport climbing and traditional climbing, cragging and alpine climbing, bolts and gear, ropes and solo; whichever terms one prefers will suffice, the idea is that the spectrum of climbing seems spread between the extremes of a challenge of climbing with great inherent risk (e.g., Alex Honnold) and a challenge of climbing focused on pure physical difficulty (e.g., Chris Sharma).

The point is that risky climbing, whether it be difficult soloing or disaster style alpine climbing or head-pointing or highball bouldering, seems to be evolving toward greater physical difficulty with a corresponding greater level of risk of death and bodily injury, whereas less risky climbing seems to be evolving purely toward greater athletic difficulty with the objective hazards mitigated to the utmost degree possible.

Conceptually, I would argue that the difference between the two types of climbing involves nature. Less risky climbing seems to be more of a humanist endeavor in that we are essentially controlling nature by limiting risk while ascending increasingly exposed and difficult terrain, whereas the more risky types of climbing are more naturally oriented in that should we fall while traversing our precipitous playgrounds we will meet our natural consequence. Furthermore, less risky climbing generally leaves more of a human mark on the environment with fixed anchors and the like, whereas, generally speaking, the more risky type of climbing generally leaves less of a human mark on the natural environment.

Again, I do not believe one form of climbing is better or worse than the other, per se, there is simply a fundamental difference between these two types of climbing. As an example as to how this descrepancy is relevant to my little climbing world, I was drawn to a hanging icicle on Mt. Evans this fall, beside Silhouette. The line appeared as though it would need at least one bolt in order to be climbed safely. I wanted to climb the thing pretty badly; but, after a rather lengthy internal debate, I concluded that it just did not seem appropriate to me. Somehow, to me, it seemed like it would be a disgrace to the gorgeous pristine alpine wall to have a bolt up there, even though likely no one would ever know or care. It just seemed to me like it would be better to wait for better conditions or better climbers to come and climb it leaving nothing but scratches on the rock and divots in the ice. While I have placed many bolts in my time, it seems the older I get the more I value trying to keep bolts where they seem appropriate and leave the areas where bolts seem out of place bolt free. I think these values of mine are in part somewhat abstract aesthetic ones as much as they are simply a respect for our natural playgrounds – some of our playgrounds should be left natural just as some should be made less risky with bolts, in my opinion. And, of course, it is up to each of us to choose which is which, in the end.

Next up: ice climbing is not sexy and nor is it easy, contrary to popular belief, and why up and coming mixed climbers need to go ice climbing more, in my opinion, if they wish to use the sport mixed game as training.


Fall 2013: Traditional Mixed; Sport Mixed; Competition Mixed, Part II

My sixteen year older daughter is obsessed with ballet. I have a photograph of her from her first dance class at age three in a blue leotard with a pink tutu. In the photo her gaze is cast directly at the camera and her face wears the inimitable smile of unadulterated rapture. She has not wavered in her utter devotion to dance since. She is obsessed, dances five days a week, goes to summer intensive programs; she wants to be a professional ballet dancer. She is at the top of her class, was inducted into the National Honor Society as a Junior, is the president of the student council, and has never gotten a grade worse than an A. Ever. Of course, I caution her that being a ballet dancer is not the most lucrative career and she should consider medicine, in which she is also interested, and consider dancing as a recreation. But, of course, I do and will continue to leave it up to her. Far be it from me to quell her passion.

My younger daughter, age 14, is the actor. She was in her first Shakespeare performance, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at age 5. As an aside, the name of that play has always bothered me, should it not be A Midsummer’s Night Dream? At age 10 she was cast as King Claudius and virtually flawlessly rendered 700 lines of Elizabethan English in an only slightly abridged performance of Hamlet. She has played Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. She has played Trinculo in The Tempest: “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” She has played Elena in Chekov’s hilarious Uncle Vanya. She is passionate about the theater. She always wanted to be a Broadway star. Somehow, to my relief as a pragmatic father, she has decided she wants to be a prosecuting attorney now; but, she still loves theater.

Of course, all of this relates to climbing. My first memory is of climbing the outside of the field stone chimney of our farmhouse in Vermont. My route to climbing was somewhat circuitous, by way of skiing (and hockey when there was no snow); but, I knew the urge to climb as a toddler. I feel as though I have always been a climber just as I have seen clearly, especially in my older daughter, how my daughters have always been a dancer, an actor.

People come with certain unshakeable predilections, it seems, which is well beyond the scope of this blog and my wee climbing mind. Yet, the development of one’s passion in the world as we know it often brings an interesting metamorphosis. The reason we dance, act, climb often precedes a consciousness of it. Yet, as we spend more time engaged in the passion in the world it changes. It is rendered in externally constructed forums, the passion becomes edified in what we do with it.

I believe I would climb if I were bound to a code of silence. The more salty members of our climbing clan would argue that true climbers do not talk about climbing, they simply climb. Yet, most of us are not this way. We tell stories to our friends about our climbs, we give presentations to audiences about our climbs, we write long-winded blogs about our climbs, we write articles in climbing magazines about our climbs, we have photographs taken of ourselves on our climbs. Why?

We enjoy sharing our knowledge, experiences and passion with friends and family, or strangers. We are gratified by the esteem of our peers. We use publicity of climbing as a tool for generating funds and awareness for philanthropic causes. We enjoy the self-aggrandizement that comes with public recognition. We use our public expressions to promote merchandise for equipment and clothing manufactures that sponsor us, that create the livelihood of some of us. Furthermore, it seems the publicizing of climbing is theatrical in form, as much as it has turned climbing into a spectator sport. Climbing has become a type of performance art in some ways. The attributes of style (often somewhat disturbingly mischaracterized as ethics) lend themselves to this notion of climbing as art. The aesthetic aspects of climbing, which are quite prominent in our renderings of it, seem more like artistic values than athletic values. But, regardless, there are problems considering climbing as either a spectator sport or as a performance art.

Unlike music, dance and theater, climbing performances, competitions notwithstanding, are often perceived through the lens of the media. We do not watch great climbers climb, we read descriptions about their ascents, see photographs of their ascents; more frequently than before, we see video clips of their ascents; yet, we are not there, we are not participating as an audience would at a theater or a sports arena. There is a distance that is created between the performance and the audience. With music, the musicians that create the most pleasing music are lauded by the audience, the least pleasing are reviled. With theater and dance, the most outstanding performances are perceived directly by the audiences, as are the worst. Regardless of the form, art may be directly experienced by the audience and received according to the audiences own perceptions.

The same is true with spectator sports. Sports are easily quantifiable. There are rules, there are scores. The best team wins. Some types of sports rely on judges to determine whose form is the best by a panel of experts. Still, the judges decide based upon their direct perception of the performance of the athlete.

In climbing we must rely also on the renderings of the climbs by the climbers themselves. Then, after the further metamorphosis through the climbing magazines, the audience is left, at best, a single step apart from the actual performance, often two or three steps removed. Thus, climbing as theater and as a spectator sport assumes a less tangible aspect. Climbers perceive routes differently individually, a sick test-piece for one may be casual for another. Climbers render their experiences differently, some tend to understate while others overstate. The climbing media also has various styles within itself of reporting the climbs due to a variety of causes and for a variety of reasons, which adds to the intangibility of the renderings of the performances in the end.

The climbs are unique. Each climb is different. In sports, the fields are all basically identical, the goals the same dimensions, the hoops the same height, the ring the same size. In climbing, only those that have covered the ground know in what arena they fought. The competitions seem the most akin to both artistic performances as well as matches to me in a number of ways. The climbers become moving sculptures up the wall, as my friend Jim Lawyer’s wife, artist Lucie Wellner, describes her perception of climbing, the route setter the would be sculptor. As well, the competition route creates a mode through which climbing can become best delineated as a spectator sport. In both cases, the audience is present, the best artistic rendering and the best athletic performance may be directly perceived by the audience.

In these ways, climbing in nature seems somewhat perplexing as a performance art and as a spectator sport, yet in some ways it has become both. Regardless, the ability for climbing as art or sport to enrich lives by giving pleasure to audiences seems like a good thing to me. However, it seems it will remain true that to completely actualize climbing one must experience it, one must do it, therein lies the passion. A dancer is pleased watching a dance performance but a dancer loves to dance. An actor is pleased watching a play but an actor loves to act. A climber . . . loves to climb. Therein lies the passion, the happiness.

In the end, perhaps the most captivating aspect of climbing is that it is not a sport, it is not art, it is simply climbing. It is unique. Climbing is experiential; renderings of it, whether seeming to be art or sport, are not why a climber loves to climb. A climber climbs for the experience itself.