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Traveling, living, loving, exploring and trying to make some semblance of sense out of this crazy world.  


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The paradox of respect

(This post was edited for typos and for clarity of several points.)

Another season of introspection and reflection.

I posted recently on Joe Kinder's site, regarding use of the forest and the crags, and the hypocrisy inherent in most of the dogma espoused and rebukes offered by the climbing community, their advocates, and the publications that manipulate and inform them.

I left the forum with the three tenets of respecting the forest, respecting the stone, and respecting the authors of the routes that brought them there in the first place.  I'm sure the last two rang true, but in light of the fact that I was defending "gardening" two saplings out of a crack in Lake Tahoe, as well as the host of activities related to new route development which go on at every new crag, my admonition to respect the forest may well have been received with some amusement or confusion.

The point is simple- we now confuse "conservation" with "preservation", and we believe that a one hundred dollar membership and a bumper sticker erases all our environmental sins.  Respecting the forest is staying on the trail, keeping your dog on a leash to prevent it from chasing game or digging or crapping next to waterways, and understanding that the forest grows and dies in an endless cycle.  When climbers return to a remote crag after a long winter, and brush the debris from holds and ledges, they have just disrupted the cycle of soil distribution, seeding, and growth that is intrinsic in a forest setting.  When you burn natural gas propane cylinders in your camp stove, you are in all likelihood supporting fracking, even if indirectly.

So judging Joe for two saplings is literally missing the forest for the trees.

Climbers and most of the other avowed "green" outdoors enthusiasts are too often the people who scream about logging and then chant the mantra of "It's good for the forest" whenever the first plume rises from a forest fire that will burn homes, dislocate wildlife and open new ground to a host of invasive species.

They will march and make angry emails and phone calls to stop the construction of wind turbines on the off chance that one endangered bat might be killed in one hundred years of operation, when those same bats are being killed by the dozens as they fly into high-tension lines and pylons that carry power to the computers on which the emails are typed.

And they will create more impact with a tidal wave of Internet responses to two saplings being removed from some crack in Lake Tahoe than the actual event on which they are commenting.

The splinter in thy brother's eye is not so large as the beam in thine own...

And I am just as bad as the rest of the high-impact creatures with whom I share the planet. I don't live in a cave, weaving my own clothes from hemp and eating seasonally-harvested local foods.  I don't have a solar-powered yurt with geothermal heat, and I don't drive an electric or bio-deisel vehicle. I eat imported foods and buy imported goods and watch electronica for hours out of sheer boredom, when visiting friends who own those toys, who choose that lifestyle.

In other words, I don't preach about environmentalism without a voice in the back of my head telling me just how much of my own message is hypocrisy.

And I live a life accordingly spartan- no wide-screen cable TV, no massive stereo, just two chairs and a table, several boxes of books, a laptop, a camera, camping and climbing gear for two, clothing for just about any season and a truck to haul it in.  If you choose to have more, good on you- it is always a personal choice, and I respect your rights even if I disagree entirely with your choices, or make other choices for my own life.

I see the paradox of my disenchantment; that I keep putting up routes and building obvious trails leading to them and railing against the inevitable hordes of clueless strangers who come to take those things for granted.  I was raised in an age when those who came before spoke out and their opinions and judgments were respected.  I have pounded my head against this wall for as long as I have been climbing, because the burden of education was passed down to us from gnarly old curmudgeons up in the mountains of Britain, in the Himalaya, in the Rockies, and on the soaring walls of El Cap.  The pioneers never worried about popularity, or stepping on someone's toes, or some group of wankers on an Internet forum judging them for lines they would, in all likelihood, never see.  I'm no Bridewell, no John Long or Billy Westbay, nor am I one-tenth the climber that the icons who shaped my attitudes were on their worst day.

But I am eternally marching toward that unreachable goal.

And I am learning, if slowly.

Some days I rage, some days I laugh.

And some days, I type.

These lands are ours.  We need to be involved with them, to use them and try to preserve them without losing sight of our inevitable effect on them and connection to them.  We need to see the forest with a clear perspective, instead of through the rosy glasses of Leave No Trace and the pollyanna oblivion of our climbing advocates, who create new impact with every membership drive, and then spend the rest of year wringing their hands and begging for money to address impact and inform all the people who just don't understand.

We need to point out the inherent contradiction between a public lands bureaucracy that censures climbers for the negligible impact of stainless steel bolts while foreign companies devastate hundreds of square miles of sacred Native lands and historical landmarks.  and we need to understand that our government does nothing because American companies are doing exactly the same thing on every continent in the world.

In much the same way that climbers have done and will continue to do the same things- scraping, pruning, clearing loose rock and dirt- for as long as there is climbing, where ever it may be.

Respecting the forest isn't preserving it in a museum-like state- it is far too late for that, by a century or three.  It is understanding that we need wind turbines to stop destroying mountains covered with forests to get at the coal underneath of them.  It's understanding and accepting that if you are not a consumer, you are a resource, and that, in the end, we are all consumers, and the connections between our consumption and the true conservation of the forests and wild places is far more wide-reaching than we like to remember.

Climbers may whine and gripe, judge and spew about environmental sins, but they are not leaving the crags in protest to join gyms, forever renouncing the impact of outdoor climbing.

So saplings will be gardened out of cracks, tree limbs will be pruned back, trails will be laid off and wildlife will get disturbed and be displaced.  Ideas that are good for us all may kill a dozen endangered bats in a century.  Elk in Alaska may have to learn to live near oil rigs. I take responsibility for the resultant impact from every route I climb and share with the public, and for the impact my life has outside of climbing.

For me, respect for this world is defined as, whenever possible, using only what I need, from the best sources in terms of renewability and impact, not just the most convenient.  It is staying informed and alert and active about the issues, and informing others, even if they don't always want to be informed, even if it makes a lot of folks think of me as an asshole.  It is seeing how so many things inter-relate, and trying to stay consistent in my vision and my practices.

It's tough, I know- you just wanna go crank some routes, man.  You never signed up for this forest crag stewardship thing.  You pay your dues in the AF and the WWF and you even went to a conference in D.C. with the local AAC chapter.  You're not some fanatical climber, you just enjoy getting out and getting some exercise.  Just mastering that whole "How to shit in the woods" thing was enough... now you have to worry about all of this?

If you are an older climber, an experienced survivor, you just want to have some fun, not spend your days lecturing noobs, fixing trail and picking up trash.

Sorry... Life is mostly a series of revelations about responsibilities you never knew you had, without notice or explanation.

If climbing is going to survive and grow in the outside world, the dialogue and the dynamic has to change. Our definitions of acceptable and realistic impact, the way we address that impact and the fights we have over that impact have to change.

How climbers handle that change will determine the level of respect they are given by their government, by the old guard, and by the next generation. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Hard Bark

This is how it is.

I'm a curmudgeon; a grouchy bastard who seems to have little or nothing good to say about anything.  I’m tired and sore from about fifty years of fairly adventuresome and demanding life, thirty-something of which have been spent becoming the the best carpenter and craftsman I could, working my way up from jackhammer-lugging grunt and rake operator to a foreman, eventually a superintendent, and working as a concert and theatrical rigger.  During roughly the same period, I was doing everything I could to become the most versatile, well rounded, impact conscious, proactive rock climber I could possibly be.

So, for most of the past three decades, no matter how broke or exhausted or beat-up I was from days and sometimes weeks of brutal labor and long hours, I spent my free time looking for, finding, developing and (hopefully) sending new lines interspersed with sessions of repairing trail and picking up trash.

I’m further from the beginning of my climbing career than the end. And I am determined to make an impact on the future, beyond the lines I’ve left behind and the trails I’ve built. 

My climbing partner, Doctor Goodwack, would say that I'm wasting my time. He might be right. He'd say that you're all worthless and weak, and that the ones of you that aren't are either too comfortable, too old and beat down, or too young and stupid to waste time or rope on.

He's got a lot of hard bark on him. 

Hell, truth is, since I wrote this little piece the first time, I’ve grown an awful lot of hard bark myself.  Some days, I doubt climbing, and certainly the mountains and forests, the wild places in which the finest climbs live, will survive in any recognizable form.

But I still hope we’re wrong. I'm betting on it, in fact, that's why I'm sitting here typing on a laptop, tossing out messages in a bottle to a generation that mostly doesn’t know or give a damn who I might be, instead of crawling into my tent with the lovely brunette who calls me her husband.

Because I want you to know that I feel you out there; sitting on a bus, or a train, or in some airport lobby or library, at your desk or table or in your car, where ever, picking idly at your skinned knees or gobied hands while you read this, feeling the aches, or the Hunger, when there are no wounds, no aches.

Unimaginable as it may seem, I was one of you once, before all these miles and memories, these scars, all these years... all this hard bark.

I know that, even with this tide of pushing for high numbers and press attention, trying to milk bucks or swag or just a moment in the sun out of this fickle, pointless, incredible obsession, there are dreamers out there, dreamers who dream not with their eyes shut, in their beds, but with them open, in the deep woods, on the big stone, or some tiny, unknown little chunk of rock lost deep in the forest. I think about you, sometimes, while I’m hanging there on hooks, gingerly pulling up the drill while flakes fall away, or working through some demanding sequence between clips, or laying hundreds of feet of trail for hours, piling stone and moving dirt, cutting and placing logs, marking the way.

I believe in you, from all these many years down the road beyond my own folly, when the convenience of sheer numbers makes it easy to forget being young and proud, headstrong and reckless, hungry and open.

Even with all the blah, blah, blah that makes up most of the magazines, ezines and forum space these days, I can feel you there, just the other side of the page, dreaming of long, clean lines, of hard, steep moves, or of just clipping that next bolt, someday.

You hear the green song while everyone else is racing down the trail, hell-bent for leather to be first.

You know the peace of being last on the trail, and the serenity of that first moment, alone at a new belay, with a new climb behind you still ringing in your soul; a rope's length above your partner and the world and light-years from all the crap that clogs the gears and weighs you down.

And you're doing incredible things. You climb sooner, faster, stronger, and better than we ever did, and you genuinely seem to be trying to rediscover (or at least reinvent) community and true love for each other. You're pushing into the big hills and the hard numbers routinely, and that's one of the things that stir me to the keyboard. For all my hard bark, and despite the likelihood that few of you will give enough of a shit about what an old climber thinks about anything to give this a second‘s glance.

So enough preamble, I guess we're gonna dance or fight, one of the two, so we might as well get it on.

You're fallin' down on the job. You crank hard and you dress really cool but you're sloppy and careless and self-centered to a fault even in this narcissistic sport.

(And no, this is not that "When I was your age we walked ten miles to school through burning hail, uphill both ways, and when we got home they beat us and killed us," crap... this is me, talking to you. Thanks for your time... I won't keep you much longer, I swear...)

Facts is facts, and the fact is that we did (and still do) put up the new routes, keep what few animals we ever had about in close check, and manage to not only build but routinely maintain the trail system at several crags, for years. Decades, even...

All while holding down jobs requiring at least forty hours per week (in those days I averaged sixty-plus) and commuting at least an hour each way (in my case two and a half), and tending to all the sundry crap that life will try to tack on you in the years between your age and mine.

You buy crap guidebooks. Too many members of the climbing press have been printing minimal information and sending the masses hither and yon for years now, creating impact and land issues and cutting and pasting the same mealy-mouthed obligatory crap from rip-off to rip-off. Leave no trace... unless it's on a crag located on delicate access land that no one bothers to mention. Respect the earth, but not the climbers whose work they are stealing to make money we never see a dime of.

Ask the people at the crag who put up the lines. If they can't tell you, find someone who can.

Any guidebook that doesn't list first ascentionists is crap. 


You want a mini-guide, call it that... but don't leave out the history of the routes and crag to avoid admitting that you stole the info instead of meeting the people and finding out their stories.

It's your history... and you're letting it slip away. People like me (and even a few nice ones, as well) are out there putting up lines, building trails, carving out crags you'll never hear about. Because they've seen what happens.

At Franklin. At Hidden Rocks. At Muir Valley and Joe’s Boulders, Oak Creek Overlook, Paradise Forks, Jack's, the Supes.

The word goes out and people come, regardless of how many cars are there when they arrive, because they just gotta be on the scene. Gear left on projects gets stolen, and projects get worked with the red tags still dangling.

And those who came for something that they cannot name pack their gear and move on to the next lost corner, in search of something that exists in moments of fear and wonder, a song that speaks in silence and the sound of the river, a calligraphy of shadows and stone.

We're mostly working class citizens who spend hundreds of hours and thousands of hard-earned bucks (yes, thousands... priced a new rack, rope, battery drill, aid gear, and health insurance policy lately?) over the course of decades.

We put time and love, sweat and blood into the routes that climbing shop hard persons routinely talk crap on, downgrade, and misname. Which is like having one of your relatives repeatedly call you by the wrong name at a family picnic... after a while, that crap kinda gets on your nerves.

That is why I'm here, trying to keep a little of the beta stream unpolluted and complete, and potentially wasting an hour I’ll never get back to make a fool of myself, given my long and checkered past of internet feuds and hostilities, shouting at an invisible audience scattered miles and years away from me in time and space.

So what?  I’ve wasted more time on lines that didn’t go and partners that didn’t show.  To hell with it… let me toss out a few tips.

Get involved. Ask questions. Introduce yourself to climbers you don't know... who knows, you might meet someone who put up the routes that you love. Respect the locals, and their right to ask you not to climb on their land. Donate to bake sales and fundraisers and food pantries, because in most of the places where we climb, so many have so little while we enjoy so much.

Go to Park Service meetings and Access Fund Rendezvous, and do more while you are there than get autographs and beta to the latest super-secret, cutting edge destination.  Find out what they are fighting, where, how they are organizing, what is a real issue and what works in resolving those issues. They are your crags, and your responsibility.

Dig into and keep track of the stories you aren’t hearing or reading about in your advocates' news letters.  If your dollars support the big organizations, your voice needs to one of those to direct its course. If they won't listen, stop giving them your money, or demand new leaders and policies. 

We've left you a legacy... the same one the generation just before left to us. We haven’t done the best by you, by any means, and out government has done less for all of us, to an even greater degree. 

Of course, the last generation doesn’t collect a tax from every dime you earn, but your dear Uncle Sam does, without fail.  Now is your time to prove yourselves worthy, to claim your birthright.  Ask hard questions, and accept no easy answers from the people and agencies that run your public lands, the people who lease away your old growth forests and whose quest for insuring gigantic corporate profits have trumped their mission to preserve our unique ecology and irreplaceable history, as well as their responsibility to local communities and their economies. 

Find the many good souls out there in that incredible juggernaut of a system and do what you can to sidestep the bureaucracy and incompetence to make things happen. 

Before you get together over latte’s and congratulate each other for saving an acre of grid-bolted sport climbing or gruesomely overhanging boulders back here in the east, remember that multinational corporations in the Dripping Springs Mountains of Arizona have unblinkingly confirmed their plans for the eventual, inevitable destruction of Apache Leap, the bouldering heaven of Oak Flats and sport mecca of Queen Creek, the incredible spires and walls of Devil’s Canyon, and the long-term vitality and economy of nearby towns.

This land has been privately owned under the protections of the original Mining Act, while across the United States far less historically-significant landmarks have been taken from families to create public lands.

Isn’t it time for the government to reclaim it from foreign corporations with no goal of preservation in one of the most ecologically sensitive areas in America?

The destruction predicted is based on mining practices that would be illegal for an American corporation operating on American soil.  They are quite simply the most destructive way possible to mine the region.  The land swap and freeway development (meaning even further ecological mayhem and denied access), are both intended to mask the extent of the destruction, are supported by several state and Congressional representatives, all invoking the sacred cows of jobs and economic development (aka more taxes to play with during their careers.)

This is huge, folks.  Don’t just post this on Facebook or send a check.  Contact Congress, kick some doors at the Access Fund, scream at the Sierra Club and the American Alpine Club, then get out, picket, chain yourself to some equipment or a gate, get arrested, whatever it takes to drawn the public’s attention and get involved in the fight. 

They are our crags and our lands. Our heritage and legacy.

Our responsibility. 

It starts with the little things.

There is a tiny crag on private land at the edge of Franklin, West Virginia that is sliding away into eroded oblivion.

A place where Access Fund members have been climbing for over 20 years.  

But it wasn't Access Fund members who organized or paid for the first Franklin Trail Daze, it was a non-member, something that has been true for all but one of the trail work events we held there from 2007 through 2010.

And it isn't the Access Fund that maintains the trails right over the hill in Seneca Rocks.

There's a lot of talk about why the Access Fund members and administrators, the much-ballyhooed Jeep Discount Sales and Conservation Team and all those headline-happy affiliates can't do trail work on private land, despite having no problem climbing there or sending other people to do so by the carload.

But there is no whisper of an explanation why those heavily-funded paragons of impact control can't work on the trails that cross public lands.

Maybe they just don't know how to start.

Let me help you... I've done this sort of thing before.

It's simple;

If you move two stones on the trail and pick up two pieces of trash every time you go climbing, and if all your friends do too, you'll be amazed at what you can do in just a month. 

Don't just seek to empower climbers, but widen your focus; support and reach out to the people in the communities surrounding the climbing areas, as well.  Aren't they as worthy of your compassion and support as any war or drought or storm refugee in another land?

If you climb the less popular lines, you learn to find the beauty in every line, and enjoy the absence of crowds. As you go on, you'll learn that climbing is so much less about simply moving over stone, and so much more about finding that place inside of you, anywhere, anytime.

And then they really will be "your" crags, because you're not just visiting, anymore... you're making all of it a part of you, and becoming part of it all.

Christ, I'm tired, my shoulders are cramped and my neck feels broken from bending over this thing and there are probably a dozen things I forgot to mention... but the clock shows 11:27 and my internal alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. and if I don't want to sleep in the truck then I had better get into that tent I mentioned about an hour ago.

But I want to thank you for your time, and your love of the sport I also love so much.

Be strong, stand proud, question everything, try everything, give lots of hugs, take lots of pictures, keep a journal, pull hard and don't ever be afraid to fall down, in life or on the stone.

Only by learning to fall without fear can we reach the skies.