Thursday, June 25, 2015

What can I do to make a difference?

This question comes up a lot when talking to people about our project. People are incredibly supportive of the work and then ask "What can I do to help a cause?"  The answer, although obvious, often surprises people. 

Tiffany Hensley taking the last moments of the day into her hands
Credit: Gaz Leah

It's that simple. Begin making a change, begin telling your friends about your change, why you do it and what it means. Inspire others to follow suite. Look at the resources your have available and decide how you want to make your difference in your life. 
Time, equipment, skills, advice, networking and money are all a way in which you can contribute towards a cause. Whether you want to spend you time focused on curing cancer (Climbers Against Cancer) or preventing the recruitment of child soldiers (Escalando Fronteras), there are already causes out there working hard to make the world a better place and every addition to their cause strengthens their message.
You needn't chain yourself to a fence, or hitch a ride above the green peace boat to make a change. Wearing a simple T-shirt with a cause that matters to you or even bringing up a discussion with your friends is all it takes. If you want to do more, AWESOME, take it as far as you want. 
A couple of months back I was in El Potrero Chico and a gentleman from New York, Chalu Kim gave me 2 pairs of his old climbing shoes and an old rope as a donation to Escalando Fronteras. This may seem like a nice gesture on the surface, but this is a MASSIVE help. That alone will help enable more children to rock climb and allow us to continue our work without the worry of finding or funding more equipment.
So here is my challenge to all the people out there that say there is nothing they can do to make a change. I challenge you to try. Just begin. You will be find that by doing something good you will not only inspire others to follow suite, creating a better world for us all,
You needn't look far for inspiring and incredible opportunities. Take Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell's recent accomplishment of climbing the Dawn Wall. They spent 7 years working together on one mind blowing goal. Many people thought they would never complete it, that it was a pipe dream, but look who's laughing now? If they had listened to nay-sayers, If they had taken the easy path and simply not tried, they would not be receiving phone calls from the president and would not be written forever into the history books. So here it is, 3 easy steps, from me, to you:
Step 1. 
Google something you think should be changed / done better / you would like to do
Step 2. 
Find out what they need to continue their work
(you can email them / call them)
Step 3. 
Take the information you have and act upon that.
Thats it! 
That is all you have to do. Believe in yourself and what you are capable of and in doing so you will

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Developing an ego

Around 4 years ago, I became immersed in the world of climbing development. I’m not completely certain of when I first decided I was going to become a climbing developer, but I’ve always found myself staring up at a wall or boulder and thinking, has anyone tried to climb this?

Since I began climbing, I've been constantly inspired by the hard work and effort invested by the pioneers of our sport. Developers at the forefront of the the sport climbing movement such as Gary Gibson, who’s impressive list of first ascents resonate throughout almost every guidebook in the UK is one of my all time heroes. Worldly Adventurer Fred Becky, who’s impressive resumé of bold first ascents in the high mountains of north america is another.

Though these are two of the better known climbing developers, there are thousands of people across the globe who are contributing towards our growing sport. Many of these people are on the cutting edge of climbing progress and are stereotypically forward thinkers, conscientious of their impact and predominantly developing with good intentions.

These people also have a tendency to be our community ambassadors, the people that everyone knows at the gym and the “go to” person when seeking climbing advice. You’ll regularly find them at the community meetings and clean up events, selflessly giving their time in the hope that the area they love can continue to improve. This is the beauty of the climbing community, the side that is caring and united through our love for rock fondling. The same one which I am proud to be a part of and talk about to my friends when I’m outside of the climbing bubble.

I wish this was the only side of the community, but the truth is, it’s not…

A bag of bolts for a big wall!
Credit: Matthew Parent
There is another side to the climbing development community, a dark side if you will. This is the side that few are accustomed to seeing let alone understanding. Here, speculation is rife, insults are thrown, passive aggressive threats sent and turf wars laid out. This is the side you rarely hear about, but it is there and unfortunately, it’s quite a problem. 

One of the most infamous cases of this behavior is the “Wings of Steel” incident in which climbers went as far as to sabotage the developers ropes, risking their lives for the sake of a rumor and ultimately, a piece of rock. 

To the climbers involved in this immoral unfolding of events, they now look back with shame on their actions, and understandably so. Is it really worth harming someones life over something so irrelevant in the bigger picture? 

To me, this is one of the single most embarrassing and shameful stories that i’ve encountered in our sport and it is loaded with lessons to be learnt on all sides. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident and I myself have personally experienced threats, warnings and hate mail from other developers who stake claim to an area and attempt become the self appointed gate keepers to a piece of rock, deciding which people can climb or not. 

This malicious behavior has unfortunately kept me awake on many a night, frustrated and deep in thought of why certain people would go out of their way to be so hateful to another person for reasons I can only deduce is from either a damaged ego or selfishness. 

Putting up a new line in Chihuahua
Credit: Matthew Parent
It was on one of these nights, after hearing that a fellow developer was writing a hate article about me, I came to the realization that there are two kinds of climbing developers out there: 

The Lovers who develop for the love of the sport and the fun.


The Haters who develop for their ego and for a claim.

The Lovers
The Lovers develop climbing for the pure and simple pleasure of contributing to the climbing community. These are the people who bolt the 5.6 routes at the crag that everyone learns to climb on, the same people that clean up the trash regardless who dropped it simply because they love the area. They are the people who share their day belaying friends and strangers alike because they enjoy sharing their passion with others.

In my mind, these are climbings true ambassadors, the corner stone of the local climbing community and those who control the most influence within their community.

The Haters 
The haters on the other hand, develop for their ego, to state a claim that it was them who achieved a goal first.The haters think they are superior to others because they often climb harder than the average climber, claim areas as their own (even when its public land) and have an elitist attitude towards their community members(obviously forgetting that they too once struggled up a 5.7).

They try to intimidate others away from "their" area and often create rumors and lies to protect their damaged ego’s from what they see as competition. These are the people who are damaging the community spirit that so many of us are proud to be a part of. I’m sure if you take a moment to think, you’ll know a person like this…

I am personally a lover, I get a huge joy out of putting up routes or boulders of any grade so that I can share them with others and I believe that most developers are the same, but the longer i’m active as a developer, and the more places I travel, the more haters I come across.

This disappointing realization leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth and a reluctancy to continue developing. However, what keeps me going when developing politics are in turmoil is the reminder that the majority of our community are incredibly positive people, psyched to have new rock to wrestle and thankful for each and every contributor.

I hope that by bringing a spotlight to this issue and not allowing it to remain hidden in the shadows any long; climbers, developers and community members alike can asess their true motivation for developing and become lovers instead of haters. 

Besides, if you develop for the love, you get enjoy your hard work vicariously time and time again, each time someone clips the bolts.

Deciding which line to choose?
Credit: Matthew Parent

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Life for Adventure

Finishing up a new route I equipped on Independencia, Parque La Huasteca.
Name Undecided,  5.12d, 13 pitches, 350m,.
Credit: Matthew Parent

Adventure, It’s a word that sparks excitement and imagination. The thought of adventure often delivers a cocktail of emotions including fear, giddiness and bliss in a single shot. Sweetened only by our natural human curiosity, these feelings are what spurred climbers to the summit of Everest and man to the moon. But what an defines adventure? 

For some, the word bestows vivid thoughts of scaling snow capped peaks or venturing into the deepest, most unexplored parts of the world in search of the unknown, much like the stories you hear as a child about Sir Ernest Shackleton and his polar exploits. For others, an adventure can be as simple as short road trip or buying exotic groceries without the knowledge on how to prepare them. Quite simply put, its a step or a leap, into the unknown. 

One of my fondest memories is of an impromptu adventure to Mexico after hearing rumors that there was a canyon abundant with virgin rock. Hitting the road with a fellow climber and friend, we playfully switched up driving and DJ duties on our 2 day journey south from Colorado. As we transitioned from the familiar language and landscapes of the USA into the exciting unknowns of Mexico, we quickly realized that this was not going to be like any of our previous escapades. Sporadic police and military check points lined the highway to Monterrey and bathroom breaks became restricted to roadside “pop-n-squats”.

We ran a gauntlet of the traffic through the city of Monterrey, arriving victorious on the other side where we made a bee line for Parque La Huasteca, our final destination. Crossing through the thick barred gates into the the park, we were greeted by its signature view of the towering Pico Independencia. We were speechless! The build up of fear, apprehension and nervousness that we had struggled with on our way down seemed to simply dissipate and we relished in the breathtaking views that surrounded us. 

When the asphalt ended, we continued along the gravel road as it meandered over rivers and bridges, driving deep into the parks winding canyons which the native Huichol people believe lead to the centre of the universe. All around us, blade like formations of limestone shot thousands of feet into the air and and giant succulent plants as large as a car littered the mountain sides.

La Bestia Cave, Parque La Huasteca, Mexico
Credit: Gaz Leah
After hours of exploring, the day gave way to night and we retreated from the canyon back to the glowing aurora of the city lights. At the hostel that evening, we discussed the dream like idea of returning to Monterrey in the near future to contribute and nurture the growing community of climbers that called Huasteca home. During the 20 hour drive back to the states, I reminisced on our time in Mexico. The rock, the food and the culture had all become imprinted on my mind and I began to ponder if a future adventure would indeed be possible.

As it turned out, I returned later that year for a six month endeavor titled “Project Wall-E” to develop new routes, write a guidebook and help kids in marginalized areas of the city. An experience which has re-shaped my perception of the world. 

Climbing in Virgincita, a cave at the entrance to Parque La Huasteca.
Credit: Matthew Parent

Understandably, not every adventure has such profound effects on people, but they do build character and help us push our perceived barrier between what is possible and impossible. My personal belief is that the desire that urged me to travel to Mexico and to step outside of my comfort zone is built into all of us. Like the explorers of past times, who dared to cross oceans and continents not knowing what they would find, that same hunger for adventure that existed then is alive in all of us today. 

So whether your making a meal or sailing an ocean, don’t allow yourself to be limited by your fears and live life to its fullest by seizing the adventure that is awaiting you in every day! 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Escaping the city: A tribute to the weekend warrior

First coined by military reserve members, the phrase “Weekend Warrior” is used to describe those who spend their weekends chasing after their personal passion and  sharpening their skills once the work week is over. In climbing, It’s definition is attributed to those who travel great distances, often forfeiting sleep and guzzling copious amounts of coffee in order to get their fix of rock fondling.

Born from these adventures are stories of daring and difficult ascents, close calls and camp fire debauchery, later re-told and immortalised during the mid week plastic session. Delivered with a healthy dose of exaggeration, you can often overhear of how someones two-foot “Take!” transformed into a terrifying whipper once back at the gym.

Living in New York, I’ve heard countless tales from climbers who would drive from the city on a Friday night, making the 8 hour pilgrimage to the New River Gorge in West Virginia and returning in the early hours of Monday morning. To non-climbers, this marathon of driving seems borderline insane, but to the seasoned warrior, this is all part of the progression process.

Hearing these tales begs the question, why do we do it? Why travel so far, suffer sleep depravation, sometimes putting our lives at risk and all for a handful of hours in the outdoors.

It’s a testament to our growing community. That we are a hardy bunch that strive for progression in both ourselves and our sport, passionate to the point of eccentricity and with no understanding of how far is too far.

So this is my tribute to all the climbers out there who dedicate their time and efforts to making our community what it is. A bustling mix of lateral thinkers and visionaries who’s uncompromising desire to climb rocks has created a movement that is changing the world in its own small way.

Thank you for being a climber!

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Responsible Climbing Gym: Access, Experience and Social responsibilities

The term "community" is used a lot in the climbing world. Gyms talk about their community much like it's a tribe, something that they are proud of, that their patrons have loyalty and alliance to, which for the most part, this is true.

You can go to almost any crag in the US and find people toting their gym "Belay Certified" card on their harness. To many climbers, they consider these people the stereotypical "noobs", those who have yet to realise the unwritten social rule that wearing your gym card is a sign of inexperience, and often someone worth steering clear of (especially if you don't want to watch an accident unfold). To others it's a rubber-banded flag of affiliation, one that encourages social interaction and is worn with pride.

Whatever your perspective may be, stereotypes exist for a reason. Those of us who have saved our fair share of people from almost certain injury, or worse, due to their lack of instruction, know that the majority are completely unaware of the danger they're putting themselves AND their partners in. Confronting unsafe practice can be incredibly uncomfortable for both parties, as no-one wants to be a "busy body", and less so to be informed their climbing is reckless. The handful of times that this has been myself, cautiously sharing experience gained from working as a guide, I often look for a belay tag and question; where on earth did they learn to climb?

Admittedly, this is not a completely fair way to pass judgement. After all, everyone makes mistakes when learning and it's often sheer luck that they do not sustain an injury in the process. But in the same way that climbers attach their gym's logo to their harness, I attach their inexperience and behaviour in the outdoors to their gym.

Having moved to the US some years ago from the UK, I'm very aware of the differences in the climbing industry, behaviour and culture between the two countries. In the US, for example, there is no universal standard for instructing climbing skills and practices. The executive decision falls to the gym owner / operator to enforce what is safe practice. Having visited a large number of gyms across the US and witnessed all manner of belay techniques (some of which make me shiver at the thought of being on the sharp end), it's clear that education standards in the American climbing industry are not keeping up with the boom in climbing gyms, which is likely a contributor to the growing number of  climbing related injuries throughout the US both indoors and out.

This is obviously an over-simplified version of reality which has many factors to it that people can argue for and against. What I'm truly getting at is this: Where does the line begin and end for climbing gyms responsibility to educate its members in both safe practices and stewardship? 

To understand the scope of this question and to shed some light on where the future of climbing is heading, it helps to take a look back at the history of modern climbing and see where it came from. 

Rock climbing, for all intents and purpose, is a relatively new sport that has gone through a number of radical changes since it became a recognised sport at the end of the 19th century. Originally reserved for the bold and the brave, it has advanced from hip belays to auto locking devices, static hemp ropes tied around the waist to dynamic chemical coated ropes that attach to a harness and skills originally passed from leader to second over years of climbing are now often compressed into a two hour class at an indoor climbing gym.

With its obvious inherent dangers, advancements in the sport have for the most part been concentrated in the direction of improved safety and performance through technology due to the limitations of old equipment. But with modern equipment now often surpassing its required functionality, could it be that one of the biggest dangers our sport faces is not that our equipment is insufficient, but that we lose access to our outdoor spaces?

With new climbers now being educated through gyms instead of mentors on a rapid crash course involving some version of the "punch-brake-slide" belay technique, the soft skills such as ethics are often left out as an unnecessary "extra" rather than part of the fundamentals. This in turn is contributing to the growing problem of land access as more and more uneducated climbers continue to unknowingly abuse their privilege to climb in the outdoors. 

Though we are lucky to have incredible companies such as The Access Fund to help educate climbers in what is acceptable conduct in the outdoors, their battle is made increasingly difficult as many gyms are not pro-active in passing on this information. Gyms may argue that they display posters provided by The Access Fund on how to be responsible climber. However, is this effort great enough when others witness a gyms members stuffing trash into cracks, blasting music at the crag or covering a rock in enough tick marks that it resembles a MOMA art installation?

I believe that, as Bob Dylan so eloquently put it, “The times are a changin” and that climbing gyms should do more to preserve the future of our sport through actively educating members in outdoor conduct. This doesn’t need to be anything drastic. It could be done in all manner of simple ways such as: Adding an additional section to their classes that focuses on the subject,  Handing out postcards at the gym, Having an outdoor awareness month and Gym presentations on the matter. If a gym did want to be radical in its approach they could go as far as to work in a membership to The Access Fund with every membership to the gym, thus enabling them to have a direct outreach to these climbers as they join our community. I don’t claim to know the perfect solution to solve this problem, but know that taking some action is better than not. 

I’ve been told by a handful of gym owners that “no one becomes a climber to make money, it’s for the love”. If they truly believe this, then we can hope that they can understand the crucial role they play in nurturing our industry, ensuring future generations can enjoy our climbing areas, the same way we are able to now.