Why Do We Climb Indoors?

That’s a lot of climbing (and ice) gear for Kansas City!

I was waiting for the dentist and a headline on the cover of the October issue of Outside magazine caught my eye: “The Most Hated Men in Climbing.”

I don’t read Outside, mainly on principle. It’s headlines are made to make you pick it up and turn the pages, and I rarely feel edified for the content. When I finally found the article, which was under a completely different headline (damn it!), the most hated men turned out to be route setters at indoor gyms.

To a greater surprise, I kept reading. I’ve always climbed in gyms, but only recently embraced indoor climbing as a way for me to climb more regularly. Wait, no, accept it is a better word than embrace. I love mountains, not plastic. I get excited about snow and ice, sometimes big walls, but not warehouses separated from valleys and vistas. Still, I was getting into the article. What’s wrong with me?

Climbing Mystery

I just got back from a business trip to the greater Kansas City area in the American Midwest, which is one of those destinations that’s known for being flat. I met with a Kansas public official who has spent a lot of time in my home in the Washington, DC area and he said the biggest difference between there and Kansas was how we measure time: In Kansas they talk about miles driven, but in DC it’s about minutes spent in traffic jams. After covering 200-plus miles driving at mostly 70 mph in three days, I got it.

As with every trip, I try to squeeze in a little hiking or climbing, and these days all of the climbing is indoors. Still, I have found some interesting gyms. I liked the Great Western Power Company in Oakland, California. I was surprised that the greater Miami, Florida area had one well-kept gym let alone its two gyms. Kansas City has three. The greater Washington, DC area where I live has five. My hometown in Upstate New York only had one (albeit the Adirondacks and Gunks weren’t too far away either, so they probably weren’t needed).

I spent time in both the Kansas and Missouri side of Kansas City, but the Climbing Business Journal had an interesting story recently about how Kansas, which is one of America’s flattest states, has opened several indoor climbing gyms. This was a surprise to me; usually gyms open nearby traditional outdoor climbing destinations, so climbers can train regardless of the season or the weather. But the Midwest — America’s heartland — it seemed like a bit that there was something drawing people in that I didn’t understand.

Gritty and Underground

I stumbled upon a MooseJaw outfitter by happenstance after a meeting with the local Habitat for Humanity leaders, and saw a peg wall stocked high and wide with ‘biners, cams, slings and even a modest selection of ice tools. It turned out that the previous store manager was a native of Kansas City and he climbed ice. He recently took a promotion and moved to Chicago, but the gear was still prominently featured. It was then that I realized something about geography about Kansas City that I hadn’t thought about from living in Washington, DC — the Colorado Rockies weren’t really that far from Kansas City; less than nine hours away by car.

I didn’t have time to go to Colorado, so I asked about the local gyms. Ibex was the area’s full-service gym with long, high routes. The Cave, on the other hand, was a bit “gritty.” It’s what he said next that told me I had to check it out: “You have to take an elevator to get to it because it’s underground.”

So I found directions to the The Cave. and the instructions on the website said, “Take the elevator down and follow the signs.” The elevator entrance stood alone in a parking lot and the inside had two signs. The first you couldn’t miss: “No Climbing: Please Help Us Keep Our Elevator Clean and Safe.” The other was smaller and said something urging riders to enjoy the ride down 10 stories underground.

After walking through a labyrinth of hallways, I was signing my waiver. I asked the guy, a 20-something running the place solo, what these tunnels were built for. He promptly replied, “It was a mine.” I said really? “Yeah, I mean it must be. What else could it be for?”

The facility, called Dean’s Downtown Underground, was actually built by Lester Dean, Sr. in 1954 with the help of a lot of surplus government explosives. He purchased land that had an incomplete railway tunnel that was started in 1873, drained it and got to work.

The gym had a plastic cave, 14-foot bouldering walls, a climbing treadmill, and a slackline setup. They used the standard V-scale but also had their own “VB” scale for beginners; I think it only went to VB2 before going to V0. I wasn’t too impressed by the 14-foot walls, though they managed to compress a lot of routes in a small space.

The cave was the gem. Well padded. Overhanging. And deep; it felt like the cave at it’s farthest point went about 15 feet in, which meant the wall was a ceiling.

The best part about The Cave was the other climbers. They were focused, knowledgeable, and very funny. I was about 15-years older than most of them and they even made me feel welcome and comfortable. But, then again, that was how I felt almost everywhere in Kansas City.

We Need Hobbies

Just before going to Kansas City, I took family my family apple picking near Shenandoah. Near Front Royal we passed the a warehouse that’s been there forever that has been the local Crossfit gym. It had a new banner this season: “Need a Hobby?” Maybe that was what was wrong with me.

I’ve read that climbing gyms are very popular among 20-somethings because of the appeal of the socialization. But I have recognized, that it’s a sport that encourages participation over excellence, even though excellence is a natural goal. It’s also an action sport that requires more socialization and more interaction and trust than say mountain biking or paddle sports.

The other thing is the nature of adventure. Yes, you can’t have adventure without the unknown, and the walls in a gym seem pretty obvious. But the unknown is personal performance, and trudging past your own fear. For me, it’s more adventure than I ever got playing soccer or basketball.

We need hobbies, and if that hobby offers some adventure… well, maybe that’s what gets us climbing indoors these days.

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A Review of The Calling by Barry Blanchard


The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains by Barry Blanchard (2014) from Patagonia Books is a finalist for the prestigious Boardman Tasker Prize in Mountaineering Literature. As in it made the short, shortlist. Previous winners were Jules Lines’ Tears of the Dawn, Harriet Tuckey’s Everest, The First Ascent, and Bernadette McDonald’s Freedom ClimbersThe Calling is a worthy peer.

The Calling is Blanchard’s autobiography. He is an alpinist with a titanium will and a gentle touch. Although we have never met (though we have corresponded recently,) I would not have latched onto climbing the way I had without his influence.

I first learned about Barry when I was a newly minted ice climber in college. Steve House was one of my heroes and he wrote about how anyone in North America who wanted to train hard for big mountains needed to train in the Canadian Rockies. (House was actually referring to an article by Mark Twight, but I didn’t get that subtle detail at the time.) Training in the Rockies meant getting beta from or climbing with “Bubba,” a.k.a. Barry Blanchard.

I started collecting references to and anecdotes about Blanchard, mostly from articles involving House. This was before everything about climbing was on the Internet, and I on wasn’t social media yet (and I doubt Blanchard wasn’t either). I’ve since lost it, but I used to have a photo from a magazine of a grey-pony tailed Blanchard look at slides from behind a projector. I daydreamed about the line he might have been contemplating.

Through the snippets I managed to snag about Blanchard, I was never disappointed. He always had more more thing to up his own accomplishments. From his dirtbag climbs in the Alps, his youthful solo ice climbs in the Canadian Rockies, and his still legendary ascent of North Twin, he just kept going. Denali. Nanga Parbat. He climbed ice so thin it impressed his peers of his day. He lived.

Blanchard’s autobiography is told to tell a good story, and it’s doubtful that it needed any embellishment. There are also moments of jocular humor that you only get from a bunch of grown men hanging out. Then there were moments that would make you pause and those that made you sad, a little upset, and need a drink.

His book also explains his family background in colorful detail. How his mother was abused and how he was helpless to save her. He raged and was forced to rage inside, alone. He hurt, but he doesn’t seem to mourn anything in his tale; rather he seems to grieve but with a great deal of acceptance. And he hurt for those that hurt, including his sister and his brother, from being poor, and a lost.

Discovering climbing seems to have saved him and given him skills and self-purpose. Interestingly, he became determined to be a climber though he was growing up in the flattest part of Alberta that was absolutely peakless. He bused, walked, and hitch hiked to the mountains whenever he didn’t have to work or help his family.

It seems that through the tough times in Blanchard’s life, he learned to see the joy of good hard work and things that were precious. When the story reflected at a quiet time during a bivy on the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat, Blanchard was romantic:

We were four men in the prime of their lives who’d all pursued their love of alpine climbing as if it were an art form. We believed that we painted lines on these magnificent mountain walls. Shigri was beautiful, seductive, and virgin.

But the other thing that Blanchard does well, especially for a new reader diving into mountaineering literature for their first or second time, is showing how consuming climbing can be and how, if we choose, commitment to climbing — and alpinism in particular — can yield satisfaction of being. After he and his friends, adopted the ideas of Reinhold Messner in his book The Seventh Grade, they immediately applied it to their approach to a climb as a matter of almost religious faith:

We called it “pure alpine style” and our unwavering belief in it defined us as “alpinists.” Alpinism was the most important aspect to our lives, our fountainhead. We believed in it, and the mountain, unconditionally.

I got into climbing for a lot of reasons, but David Roberts book, and Steve House’s “introduction” of Barry Blanchard to me drove me deeper into curiosity about climbing, its culture and its history. When I started this blog and joined Twitter, I was surprised that Bubba was one of my earliest followers. Flattered might be a better description. But that’s the kind of guy he is; welcoming and self-confident.

All climbing stories can be told we went up, we arrived (or we didn’t arrive,) and we went down. Maybe something went wrong along the way. But if all climbs were as boring as that we wouldn’t read them. We wouldn’t even climb. It’s only through the writer’s perspective, and the events he/she chooses to share and when, that tell a story worth reading.

Blanchard is a hero to some of us, but he’s also a very likable guy. His book is as likable as he is. And his stories are better than I gathered in bits in pieces years ago. Blanchard lays sits himself next to the reader and asks, so what do you want to know and he didn’t hold anything back, and I felt like a better person for it.

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Why the Seven Summits Vision of Dick Bass Still Matters

Ascending Mount Elbrus (twiga 269)

In the early 1980s, Dick Bass (1930-2015) to set out with the resource-intensive goal of climbing the so-called Seven Summits, the highest peak on each of the seven continents:

  1. Denali (Mt. McKinley), North America
  2. Aconcagua, South America
  3. Mt. Elbrus, Europe
  4. Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa
  5. Vinson Massif, Antarctica
  6. Mount Kosciuszko, Australia
  7. Mt. Everest, Asia.

He completed his quest in April 1985. Bass died this week.

Twenty years of hindsight and revisionist history might dismiss what Bass did. We shouldn’t let it.

Bass’ accomplishment is up against choices of the peaks he climbed and even whether the challenge was hardcore enough. For the former, some argue whether the roof of Europe is really Mont Blanc by claiming that Elbrus is in Asia (though this isn’t the popular take). Even more argue whether Oceana’s highest point is really Puncak Jaya rather than Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko. In fact, Bass’ accomplishment is somewhat eroded by Pat Morrow of Canada, who was the first person to climb the Puncak Jaya version (a.k.a. Messner version) of the Seven Summits. And let’s face it. These mountains are high, but they’re not much to look at. In fact, the Second Summits — the second-highest peaks on each continent — are often more aesthetically pleasing and have proved to be the more interesting challenge for technically ambitious climbers.

Bass was also a man of means. He was nearly the stereotype of a Texas oilman, with a thick Texas drawl and money to fund his dreams. He got his education in the East Coast Ivy League School, Yale, and got his degree in geology. And his greatest motivation was always came from those that said it can’t or couldn’t be done. Setting out to climb the seven continents highest peak was one of those things; the furthest anyone had gotten was five in 1956. That year, William Hackett stopped due to lack of resources; he climbed Mont Blanc (then considered Europe’s roof), was turned around on Mount Vinson, and while he obtained a permit for Mount Everest he didn’t get the chance to follow-through and try for the top.

Dick Bass was the Duke of the Abruzzi of our age. Luigi Amedeo (the Duke of the Abruzzi of Italy, who lived from 1873-1933) traveled the world to climb the highest peaks, including Mount Saint Elias in Alaska (the first ascent) and a serious attempt on K2. His resources allowed him to hopscotch across the globe when global travel was an intense undertaking. Of course, Bass wasn’t royalty. He was American and was “new-money.” He wasn’t truly an explorer, though, rather he was an adventurer. His quest, like Luigi Amedeo’s (the Duke), was global. And both could easily have said it wasn’t worth it and retreated.

The Seven Summits are somewhat of a random collection of peaks, whichever list you adhere to, of varying elevations and challenges. Mount Kosciuszko is practically a hike, while climbing Denali or Everest requires great physical endurance and technical mountaineering skills. And to repeat the endeavor takes wealth, even if you went unguided, to reach the destinations and make the attempts.

Bass had a vision, set his goal, and followed through. His wealth constantly comes up — and may easily dismiss his worth. It was an essential piece to his success. He certainly was no dirtbag climber seeking a pure mountain experience. Rather, Bass was a great peak bagger. What you and I should remember is his vision and follow-through. No one else before him did what he did. No one said he had to do it. No one said he had to finish.

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Sources: 1) Personal recollections from past reading uncited; 2) “A Man and His Mountains,” Ski, January 1988.

How Not to Share Your Climb or How to Be a Legend

Avalanche Lake, Adirondack Mountains. The approach to that cliff requires a canoe. (Joseph Bylund)

The golden issue of Alpinist (number 50), has several solid pieces but one article has been in my head for the past several weeks. David Pickford writes about what are we seeking as climbers in “The Heart of Nature.” He looks back not too long ago to how climbing was before we needed video and tweets to share what we did. He subtly (and not so subtly) attacks millennial climbers for their narcissism, but not before offering a way out:

Out there in cyberspace, there are tens of thousands of two-minute video-blogs of teenagers climbing hard problems to a tech-house soundtrack. The thing is, most of the “stories” just aren’t that interesting. But the tale of the unknown girl or guy who quietly solos a remote line miles from a road, leaving only fleeting trails of chalk on stone or axe and crampon marks on ice — now that’s an interesting story. This plot has all the key elements for a great narrative: mystery, uncertainty, enigma, suspense. But then, of course, it probably won’t get told. And maybe it’s better that way. Does the telling of a story dilute how true it is? Does it change what it means?

For those of us who’ve had a Facebook or Twitter account for several years there was a time when it was novel and we shared everything we did, from waiting in line at the cafe, getting a phone call from a sibling, to complaining about utility bills. Now the pendulum is shifting and we’re being encouraged to share less and just live — in the moment — more.

However, the temptation remains: It’s easy to record, proclaim and post publicly. It’s even satisfying in some ways, but there is something to be said about when you’re self-promoting and when someone else notices. Call it modesty, but doing something because you want to do it is important. To do it with commitment and excellence says even more. This is especially true when no one is looking and you’re not promoting it yourself.

Is Climbing Public or Private?

There was no where for me to share my climbing experiences when I was growing up in the 90s. And it never occurred to me. I didn’t talk about my… er, whatever it was I was doing. I called it rock climbing practice to myself. I didn’t know enough to call it bouldering. But I didn’t even want to talk about it. It was mysterious. It was something I was exploring, and it wasn’t the boulder.

I was 12 years old when I accidentally discovered bouldering. I truly didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how to rock climb. I only saw Captain Kirk attempt to free climb El Capitan in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. And Kirk fell. There were bigger cliffs than those boulders in my area of the ‘Dacks (much bigger), but these were right here and they felt like mine.

What was going on in my head made was what was important. I held on to the smallest nubs and pinched what was best described as mere texture. As I grew bolder, I went higher. Thoughts of “how do I get down” came in a rush near panic-mode. But through the veil of fear you realize that there is a peace if only you have the courage to open it like a curtain.

How do you share that? And in some ways, why would you want to?

Other climbers write about this in various ways. Even Reinold Messner often says the experience of the climb made him understand himself, though he never said what it was he saw and understood. (Knowing a little about Messner, he liked how ballsy he looked to himself in that situation. And heck, he was!)

None of this can be projected through a Tweet or a video.

What Are You Seeking?

I think some of us climb to validate ourselves. Or maybe encourage our self-being. Climbing certainly clears any fog in our head about what’s important to us.

But I recently discovered the joy of climbing in a large group or even among a crowd. There was definitely never crowd in the Adirondacks, which was perfect for an introvert-inclined person like me. Climbing at the indoor gym can be just as social as it is physically challenging. But the output is different than the goal and the overall experience compared to climbing at an outdoor crag or a backcountry route. Sharing it over social media is a different level than sharing it with your immediate company, or just basking in the moment itself.

A local publication around the south, including the Washington, DC region, Blue Ridge Outdoors, recently had an article by Jess Daddio called “Turn it Off: How Social Media is Changing The Way We Play, Or is It?” Daddio talks about going on an epic whitewater kayaking trip and forgetting his GoPro. The fundamental question Daddio ponders, was, if you kayaked it (or climbed it), and no one was there to see it, did it matter and who did it matter to?

What you seek out of the experience should be our guide. Sharing on social media has it’s place, but I think too often it distracts or overwhelms our ability to get at something more, like character development. If you’re seeking lasting accomplishment and respect, social media may not be necessary. Rather, be true to your real purpose. Seek excellence. Test your character. The cumulative effort of working on one’s own experience will yield far better results. It might even make you a mountain man or woman some else wants to share with others.

A little bit of mystery develops the legend.

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Keeping the Mountain High Going

Reading Kelly Corde’s The Tower, and sometimes breaking to draw that spire.

I would like to live in a version of Chamonix. It would be a beautiful and green with the luxuries of society down in the valley, with a beautiful, high and jagged horizon underpinned by vast mountain slopes and teetering spires. I would work my own schedule, and hike, ski, or climb whenever the conditions and the mood suited me.

Or maybe I would just draw what I see.

Drawing has once again become an outlet for me. I don’t draw what I see but what I wished I could see beyond a magazine photo. It’s been very satisfying in some ways, mainly because it’s relaxing and I like working towards a tangible product.

Twenty years ago I used to draw a lot more. I drew what I saw and what I imagined. I stopped because I got increasingly interested in sports and I didn’t like my high school art teacher. I never stopped because I didn’t enjoy it; now I wished I never stopped. My skills aren’t what they were, or they are inadequate for drawing peaks and shadowing icefalls.

Learning how to retrain my eye and my pencils to sketch a well-known mountain has been more difficult and frustrating that I thought it would be. This isn’t nearly the same thing as drawing spaceships and asteroids or great tall ships in the heat of battle. It’s more about lighting and shading.

I spent a lot of time looking for inspiration from other climbing artists. It seems like every climber worth following (be it on social media or tracking through the general climbing news) calls himself/herself a mountain photographer. Maybe the title is valid, but it seems that there are far fewer Jeremy Collins carrying lead pencils, or Renan Ozturks packing oversized brown paper rolls, paints and markers. Then again, even Ozturk has been taking more photographs and making more films recently. Coincidentally, Collins just came out with a new book: Drawn: The Art of Ascent.

Now, even with only a few role model for comparison, I feel very behind in my drawing skills. Of course, it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it.

I recently started a Pinterest Board that shows ways to draw mountains and mountain landscapes. It’s all basic, which is where I am at, but hopefully the next board might involve more advanced technique or perhaps color.

Regardless, maybe this is what you need too. If you’re like me — anchored to someplace with fewer features than what you need to be stimulated — then maybe some art focused on the higher ground you seek is part of the answer.

I’ll update you on my doodles later. (Maybe I’ll even gather the courage to share some more.) And I’ll be back in a little bit with some more of my discoveries about mountaineering history and adventure too.

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Boldest Ascent in Alaska: No. 1

Denali (Faungg 2013)

2008 Giri Giri Linkup on Denali

After warm ups on the Bear Tooth and Mount Hunter’s Moonflower Buttress, Katsutaka Yokoyama, Yusuke Sato, and Fumi- taka Ichimura turned to Denali two properly finish a route and make a linkup of two very difficult routes.

These three Japanese alpinists were members of an unofficial group that called themselves the Giri-Giri Boys that traveled the world to attempt some of the biggest, most challenging mountaineering obstacles. On Denali, they set their sites on a linking up the Isis Face, which had only been climbed twice before, and the Slovak Direct and connecting the summit. Combined, they would ascend 16,000 vertical feet on very steep, tiring routes.

Over eight days, including one spent in a snow cave during a storm. They simul-climbed (climbing with a rope between them but no anchors) the whole Isis Face. They’re attitudes throughout their climbs, as on other ascents, were extremely positive. They recognize the danger of a route, but quickly shifted their focus to note how beautiful everything around them was.

The most dangerous aspect of the ascent, according to Yokoyama in Alpinist, was the descent after the Isis Face via the “Ramp” on Denali. It is a wide feature and maintaining direction can be reasonably difficult.

Through this linkup, this ascent made the first “complete first ascent” of the Isis Face. Jack Tackle and David Stutzman climbed the line in 1982 but did not continue to the summit, rather they stopped at the South Buttress and descended.

Unfortunately, the entry in the 2009 American Alpine Journal was minor compared to the significance of this accomplishment, but there is more information in Newswire from Alpinist magazine.

Arguably this linkup ascent had tangible impact; these same climbers visited Mount Logan in Canada two years later and made an even bolder ascent. This linkup also involved the great dangers of both of these well-known and challenging routes, and incorporated impeccable alpine style. For these reasons, it stands out above all other climbs as the boldest ascent in Alaskan mountaineering history.

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