The Climber’s Progress, or, Insecure 20-something Masculinity and the Ideological Foundations of Trad Climbing

(Intro)

I’m not really a huge fan of most climbing literature. Royal Robbins’s attempts to turn his visionary ascents into high writing, John Long’s modified campfire-stories, Mark Twight’s dark fatalism– most climbing writers get stale quickly to me, even if they are incredible athletes. There are a few exceptions: John Sherman’s humorous and occasionally self-deprecating essays of climbing culture are the ancestors of today’s better climbing blogs. And even more so, my favorite climbing writers– David Roberts, John Krakauer, even Matt Samet– are those who let climbing serve as a constant background for their stories, rather than put it at center stage. They’re not climbing writers; they’re writers who climb.

 But still, climbing literature or not, my nearly half-a-lifetime on the rocks has found its way into everything from these blogs to my book (on a public radio interview last year I even tied Edmund Burke’s idea of “the sublime” into the climber’s idea of “type II fun). More than a few ideas have formed as I’ve applied some of my favorite historical themes (recreation, environmentalism, frontier mythologies, rigid ideologies) to my own evolution as a climber over the past seventeen years, and it seems like the more I gradually slink away from academia and the historical profession, the more integrated climbing becomes into my writing.

Anyway, here’s a little piece about when I was a clueless gumby.

 ***

I first touched the chossy, slippery limestone of northern Utah’s Logan Canyon at the age of nineteen in 1998, tying into a 5.8 toprope with a webbing harness, borrowed chalkbag, and my hightop Vasque hiking boots. It was a mixture of the new and the familiar. I was in decent shape, used to hiking up to 30 mile days, and even had some rudimentary climbing techniques under my belt honed from years of slot canyon scrambling in the Canyon Country. The first route I climbed was a sort of chimney feature, and the stems and mantles that I employed to get up it were familiar; it was fun to experiment with the moves on toprope, and without the consequences of a broken ankle and possibly a 20 mile evac.

I did not know at the time about the sport versus trad ethical debates that were just winding down in the late 1990s. I didn’t know about climbing gyms beyond the county fair, or the emerging phenomenon of first-generation gym rats like Sharma or Lindner who were moving quickly from plastic to 5.14 rock at the time. I did not know that at the time, Salt Lakers 90 minutes to the south were at the forefront of American sport climbing and bouldering. I did not know what the back story of a family friend’s comments were, when he would rant to my parents about how “those guys hanging off of bolts in China Wall Cave (probably Boone Speed on Super Tweak, 14b) didn’t know shit” about REAL climbing, and how he had climbed a route right near Super Tweak back in the 1970s.

You know nothing, young climber!
You know nothing, young climber!

Despite not knowing any of this, I was in some ways set to become a grumpy, elitist, ideologue member of the Tradiban from day one. I approached climbing from a perspective of outdoor adventure, not athletic or gymnastic improvement. I was a wilderness advocate, environmentalist, even very briefly an eco-saboteur, and obsessed over backpacking and isolated river trips. Occasionally, I’d encountered bolts on clifflines in the backcountry and been disgusted at the crass hubris of leaving chunks of metal in a natural landscape. This was no different than paved trails, or housing developments being carved into canyons for that matter.

Perhaps above all, although I certainly was just barely starting to be aware of it at the time, I measured the ultimate value of my outdoor experiences in terms of isolation and solitude. A socially awkward virgin who still lived with my parents, steeped in the misanthropic essays of Thoreau, Abbey, and self-described “solitudarian” Colin Fletcher, I went into the backcountry mostly alone or with one or two friends. My ultimate goal was to find stunning natural places where nobody else was– we would rather be on drab BLM land alone than on stunningly beautiful NPS land with others, and were quite willing to turn away from trailheads where even one other car was parked. I hated any mark of human presence on my backpacking trips, even kicking over cairns along many Southern Utah hiking routes (I’m pretty embarrassed even today to admit to this, and I stopped doing it after getting lost while hiking back to the car along a route where I had obliterated some cairns a few days earlier).

This had actually turned me off from climbing through high school. I disliked its reliance on partners, and even more the crowded, social aspect of those noisy roadside crags that I would drive past on my way to a backcountry trailhead. Most of all, I hated the cliques and scenes that so many types of outdoor recreation fostered. This aversion probably had its origins in my family’s smug, cynical tendency to dismiss anything that was popular or trendy, be it pop music, team sports, or mainstream TV shows. It was also most definitely shaped by my working for an “old-school” backcountry outfitter in the tiny, isolated town of Torrey, Utah. We took pride in being removed from the yuppie crowds of Moab. In going out of my way to avoid the cliquishness of outdoor rec, I embraced horses and cattle herding over mountain biking, oil leather over Gore-tex, Carhartt over Patagonia, duck-taped liter bottles over camelbacks, Cabellas over REI.

Despite all this, I found that climbing was easily the most addictive outdoor activity that I’d ever done. I could spend time outside, there was a quantitative and simple platform for measuring improvement, and (gasp), it might even help me meet girls! I bought the toprope basics– shoes, chalkbag, rope, harness– and even got a volunteer job at the Utah State University’s small bouldering gym.

Thrutching around steep Logan canyon limestone, while still maintaining my 90s grunge image.
Thrutching around steep Logan canyon limestone, while still maintaining my 90s grunge image.

But still, a lingering part of me felt guilty for indulging in this perceived new-school, cliquish activity. My non-climbing friends and family did not let me forget it; “Oh, you’re going to go hang off the side of the Fucoidal Quartzite crag again? Why do you enjoy climbing right next to the road? Why don’t we go hiking instead, away from people?” Fortunately, after about a year of easy toproping up Logan Canyon, I discovered a way to resolve my older solitudarianism with my newfound love for climbing. It was this thing called “trad.”

 ***

Disclaimer: for the purposes of this essay, and this point of time in my climbing evolution, I’m defining “traditional climbing” as “the placing of removable gear on a route,” rather than clipping bolts. This is neither the historical definition, nor my personal definition today, but what is important was that this was how I saw it around 1999, when I was a cocky, clueless 20 year old.

I didn’t know any trad climbers well (although they definitely existed in my hometown of Logan). In climbing magazines I would come across photos of Yaniro, Suzuki, or Hong, putting these expensive cams into cracks, and then almost unnaturally, mystically, moving themselves up granite or sandstone walls simply by twisting their hands, fingers, and toes into these same cracks. Having only climbed on slippery, breaking limestone, I could not comprehend how cams and crack technique would even work. They seemed as inaccessible to me as climbing 5.11.

Then, all this changed. For President’s Day of 2000, I had originally planned on doing a canoe trip down Labyrinth Canyon on the Green River. However, at the last minute the friend with whom I’d planned on boating changed his plans. There was a girl he was chasing who had invited him to come to some place called “Indian Creek” to climb as part of a larger group. He bailed on the canoe trip, but obligatorily offered to let me tag along– “yeah, I guess you can come. It’s probably going to be really lame though.”

I had no other choice, was angry that I’d been forced third-wheel style into a cliquish group (that included MORMONS! Ugh), but figured that, hey, at least I was going to get down to the Canyon Country that I loved.

It was only as we were driving south on I-15, my friend, myself, and the designated “trip leader” packed into the front of a compact 2wd pickup truck, that I found out what we were in for. I asked Trip Leader a few questions about the climbing we were going to do, and found out that, GASP, we were about to CRACK CLIMB, with TRAD GEAR! Having spent years hiking through Wingate Sandstone, I was instantly worried about climbing on soft rock like this. The only saving grace was when Trip Leader informed us that he would lead all the climbs, and we could toprope them (yes, we were that group). But still, crack climbing? I was scared.

The next morning, after waking up amidst the familiarity of a sunny desert winter morning, we hiked up to the unfamiliarity of Supercrack Buttress. There were only perhaps three other groups there (yes, I’m playing the Old Man, Back-in-the-Day card here), but I was already apprehensive about seeing crowds of people in the Canyon Country, my Canyon Country. When we got to the base of our first route (Keyhole Flakes), I noticed the white chalk caking the outside of the crack. I didn’t know what to think about this; my sense of aesthetics and leave-no-trace ethics was repulsed.

Recalling some SUWA (Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) pamphlets I’d read about Leave-no-Trace climbing, I asked Trip Leader, “Aren’t we supposed to be using red dirt-colored chalk?” He just laughed as he was racking up, “Nobody uses that stuff!”

Ok, then.

Despite my initial misgivings, I found that toproping these climbs– Keyhole Flakes, The Wave, Incredible Handcrack– was incredibly fun. I was strong, and had decent body awareness from the gym, and just layback sprinted up everything in lieu of actually using jamming technique. Eventually I even learned some rudimentary handjamming skills, and took to it pretty quickly. Later that day, we moved across the canyon to Battle of the Bulge buttress for some 5.11s, a grade that I’d never come close to climbing in Logan Canyon. I toproped the shit out of some corners, again mostly laybacking, all while thinking, “wow! This is awesome! I want to do more of this!” By the end of the day, after witnessing our Trip Leader take a bad headfirst whipper on Cave Route, and even badly toprope-thrutching up some 5.12s (Digital Readout and Swedin Ringle), I was hooked. My friend who had invited me was less psyched; the jams hurt, the girl he was chasing showed up to the crag with another guy, and he wound up just leaving us to go hiking by himself while I was quickly running from one toprope to the next. I think the last thing I heard him say was something about how “granite is so much better.”

My friend Scott, tenuously stemming up Cave Crack (5.10+/11-), probably because his Miuras were sized too tight.
My friend Scott, tenuously stemming up Cave Crack (5.10+/11-), probably because his Miuras were sized too tight.

For the last day of the trip, we stopped off in Moab on the way home. I bought a set of stoppers and the old, Xeroxed Indian Creek guidebook at Pagan Mountaineering. Although my friend wanted only to go home, Trip Leader informed me that there were some great first trad leads on Wall Street, so we stopped off and I led 30 Seconds Over Potash (5.8), and then Flakes of Wrath (5.9). It was awesome.

Upon returning to Logan, I was changed, and had figured out how to resolve my solitudarian backcountry enthusiasm with the newfound love of climbing– TRAD! I would sit through my Environmental Ethics philosophy course, where we would talk about the struggle and balance between preservation of natural landscapes versus enjoyment and exploitation of those same resources. I would sit through my US Western History course, where we would discuss Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis that American identity had been shaped by the rugged, individualistic meeting point of “civilization and savagery” on the Wild West Frontier. It was clear to me that trad climbing was both environmentally responsible, AND individualistically bold. I was quite clearly awesome.

Between classes, I would run into the gym for quick sessions, my chest puffing with a new elitist pride as I projected the perfect handcrack that crested the entire roof of the gym, while lowly sport climbers looked on in amazement that I had unlocked the secret of the handjam. Then I would go home and read climbing magazines about rad trad ascents around the world. I would especially dwell upon the intros to various guidebooks to Indian Creek and the Canyon Country. The words of grumpy old trad climbers like Eric Bjornstadt and Stewart Green all emphasized the sheer badassery of desert crack climbing. “5.10 here is HARD.” “You have to hang off of pure jams, there are no face holds at all!” “The rock is really soft, you might die!” Along the way, I started putting together a trad rack, and found one or two partners who were psyched on driving the six hours south to Indian Creek every weekend.

Laying back Coyne Crack, around 2001.  Back when it was still 5.12a.
Laying back Coyne Crack, around 2001. Back when it was still 5.12a.

All of this reinforced this idea: I was incredibly rad for trad climbing, the same way that I had been rad for solo backpacking or riding 30 miles through a thunderstorm while carrying a newborn calf that was shitting all over me. Because it was uncomfortable, kind of scary, and because most people that I knew did not do it. The toproping cliques, the USU outdoors club, they could all fuck off. I saw myself as a Turnerian rugged individualist for embracing the danger of trad climbing, and a Leopoldian deep ecologist for not clipping bolts.

I was also ideologically rigid and clueless, as much as my 21 year old contemporaries who were discovering Ayn Randian Objectivism about the same time.

Crack climbing also involves Rand Smears.
Crack climbing also involves Rand Smears.

The thing is, most cocky 20-something males who eventually figure out that Objectivism is shallow and unrealistic do not do so by nearly killing themselves. After a season of climbing RadTrad at Indian Creek, I was a dangerously confident gumby. As far as I knew, trad climbing ONLY involved placing removable gear on lead. I didn’t know anything about ground-up, onsight ethics, let alone rope management, anchor building, or multi-pitching. My friends and I, cluelessly strutting about Supercrack Buttress, jumped on every 5.10 crack we saw, falling– or more frequently hangdogging– our way up them before eventually redpointing them. We were sport climbing, but did not know or think it.

In the early 2000s, desert crack climbing still had a mystique about it; mutant gym rats from Boulder or Salt Lake City had not yet discovered how easy Ruby’s Café could be to them with just a few weekends of work on basic crack technique. Guidebooks and internet forums were full of the whole “Woo crack climbing is hard and dangerous!” mythology much more than they are today. We reveled in it.

I fell right into this mythology by thinking that because I could hangdog myself up a 5.10, G-rated handcrack, it meant I was a 5.10 trad leader. It took a runout, footwork intensive 10a seam in Little Cottonwood Canyon (Equipment Overhang Right), and a stopper that pulled right out when I yelled “take!” to show me otherwise, as I took a 35 foot whipper that nearly cratered me.

***

Looking back at this, it is both scary and humorous. There is not a much more dangerous demographic in this world than an early-20-something male. The objectivist business major, the marine recruit, the suicide bomber, the gang member, or the clueless trad-wannabe solitudarian, they are all seeking to secure their masculinity and establish themselves in a complex world through a paradox: asserting their individuality but also gaining acceptance, by way of pre-established ideological templates.

My climbing evolved further after that near-groundfall in Little Cottonwood showed me new revelations such as “trad climbing does not involve yelling TAKE on gear.” I moved to Dallas, Texas for graduate school, where I found that for one to be a climber in a big city that is hours from the nearest rock, one often has to strengthen their identity as a climber much more than if he lives in Utah. I devoted myself to training in a climbing gym for the first time, spending every weekend climbing steep limestone sport or bouldering in Austin, old school runout trad at Enchanted Rock, or even bolted multipitch in Mexico. Gradually, though I did not notice it at the time, I found that the distinctions between sport, trad, and bouldering did not have to be rigid, and that each discipline fed off of and benefited the other. I also eventually came to the realization that just because you place gear in cracks that is removable does not make you unusually bold or environmentally conscious.

Furthermore, as I matured and became more involved in the Texas climbing community, I gradually moved away from my solitudarian roots. One cannot find the same solitude in North-Central Texas that there is in Southern Utah; the only outdoor activity I could do was climbing, and it most definitely was NOT backcountry, wilderness, or isolated. I began enjoying the social aspects of climbing, of getting to know people in the gym and on the rock, building friendships around the sport, and even finding an awesome girlfriend who liked climbing too (seriously!).

When I started climbing, a regular apprenticeship– under the tutelage of a more experienced mentor, with mock leads, seconding up easy granite multipitches with passive pro and bomber rock– would probably have been better, and instilled a more thorough perspective of humility and history in me. The toprope-to-Indian Creek route was not the best way to go (even though I still reap the benefits of having learned crack technique early and intensely).

I am nonetheless glad that I came to climbing from the direction of outdoor adventure rather than the direction of the gym. I still enjoy ground-up, onsight traditional climbing, sport climbing, bouldering, and headpointing– all very distinct disciplines. Living in the tight-knit community of Fayetteville, West Virginia, I’ve fallen more in love with the social aspects of climbing than my 19-year old self ever could have comprehended. But I still enjoy the occasional relapse of solitudarianism, pulling into an empty parking lot, hiking out to an unpeopled crag, and dangling over a cliff, just a rope and myself.

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One thought on “The Climber’s Progress, or, Insecure 20-something Masculinity and the Ideological Foundations of Trad Climbing

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this retrospective look at your climbing evolution, but I kept expecting one more veiled reference to the family friend across the field. Good thoughts. How are you anyway? Call or send email. xoxomom

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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