Andrew Philbin, who hails from the rainy little backwater of Seattle, WA, made news this past week as he arrived at Smith and promptly fell off every single route he attempted. Although he had redpointed these classic test-pieces, such as Churning in the Wake and Heinous Cling, in times of greater fitness and lower body fat percentage, he was initially unable to perform. Looking like a first-year climber on his weekly trip outside of the local gym, Andrew lobbed off repeatedly, making a mockery of the finesse and technical skill so integral to the beauty and appeal of rock climbing. Was his surprise success on Dreamin' merely a fluke? Only time would tell. One thing was for certain: after Day 1, it certainly looked like it was time for Andrew to put away the shoes and chalk bag, strap on the leather chaps and go horseback riding.

Not to be deterred, however, Day 2 saw a slight decrease in wretchedness as Andrew applied himself to easier folly in the Shipwreck Gully. Classics such as Liquid Jade and Tsunami actually yielded themselves to a peculiar mix of thrutching and sheer obstinacy. He even managed to scrape his way up the first pitch of Five Easy Pieces at the end of the day, although he looked like a jellyfish on his successful redpoint burn.

On Day 3, thankfully, Andrew was seen hiking rather than climbing.

Day 4 began a surprising turnaround for Andrew. After a somewhat shoddy ascent of Wartley's Revenge, replete with fumbling and shakiness, he fought his way up the full Heinous Cling; not quite pretty to watch, yet not as hideous as prior days. Next, Andrew chose a climb favoring poise and finesse rather than power endurance: Last Waltz. To the surprise of all, his footwork seemed to improve momentarily on his second attempt and he veritably danced his way up the relatively low-angle arete and clipped the chains. After this, he was observed tick-tacking up the long, classic Crossfire. It appears that near-vertical faces are Andrew's forte, as they require significantly less core strength. Also, when the chicken wings come out near the top, which they certainly did for Andrew, there is still some chance of success.

Day 5 made us eat our words, as Andrew proved that he is most assuredly on the cutting edge of rock climbing (pretending for a moment that the year is 1979). As locals looked on with no interest whatsoever, Andrew bumbled his way up both Churning in the Wake and Kings of Rap, two wonderful climbs on the Morning Glory Wall. The only day with no falls, this was also Andrew's only foray into the upper magnetosphere of the IXth grade on this trip.

All things considered, Smith Rocks is a beautiful and entertaining place to climb, regardless of one's actual ability. Perhaps with a little more fitness and a better attitude, Andrew will continue his slow and incremental improvement, eventually establishing himself inextricably as a mediocre has-been in the hallowed ranks of climbing history. Don't worry Andrew: there will always be beer!


Red Tower Forever

Both lack of ambition for escaping Seattle and the lax tempo of this balmy Sunday led me by and by to an old favorite stomping ground of mine:

(Photo from JWT of Mountainproject.com)

Splitter cracks, real granite (and other) rock chunks embedded in concrete slab and footholds more slippery than any Yosemite water groove, the Rock certainly has much to recommend it as an urban climbing destination. It certainly is a favorite of local Washington hardman alpinists looking to fatten up their calves and hone their technique for airy adventures in the Cascades.

Requiring particularly precise footwork and bizarrely tuned contact strength for its polished holds, the area both excites the passion and ignites the fury of the beginning rock climber. Add to this the singularly painful nature of the concrete-sided cracks and the novice clearly must develop prodigious amounts of strength, technique and pain tolerance before calling himself a true initiate of the unique style offered at the Rock.

I believe the main impetus for my disdain for any true climbing-specific training regimes stems from the brutal tutelage of this functional urban sculpture. Climbing in socks four or five days a week until I bought my first pair of Boreal Aces, I thrashed, grovelled and fell off the Rock with all the agility of an ogre. Luckily, the Teflon-like lack of friction allowed me to develop the contact strength to match, bypassing for the time being the need for any real technique gains aside from hand and finger jamming, which I gleaned from thrashing up the vile concrete grooves, damaging key nerves in my hands and likely exposing myself to all manner of infectious diseases from the blood spatters of other devotees to the Art of the Concrete Crack.

Strangely, the Rock remains a favorite destination of mine for any city-bound sunny day. The chance of catching a glimpse of one of Washington's unsung heroes adds an unmistakable aura of mystique to the climbing experience: one can almost always find an entertaining yarn being spun amongst the dusty gravel by a colorful character. Invited or not, the vector of a lively diatribe will most assuredly point in your direction at some point, sometimes reaching a vaguely threatening level of florid, bitter invective concerning the most refreshingly far-flung of subjects. Just as in Yosemite, however, when one tires of the similarly strange politics and customs of the Valley floor, one can soar to the heights to seek solace in the fresh air and new, inspiring views. If perching on one foot atop the Rock's "big" tower, 30 feet above the gravel and nary a foot wide, no longer excites, however, it's time to brown-bag a malted beverage back on terra firma and try to absorb some culture. Lord knows I did.


This Is The Way The World Ends: Not With A Bang But With A Dollar

Some were born to sweet delight.

I've been thinking an unhealthy amount about the 'burden of the priviledged', the mention of which calls to mind horrific visions of simpering, whiny fools dossing about in cafes and agonizing with studied 'ressentiment' about the perils of indolence and the untenable sophistry of the world pressing in on them.

The 'burden', of course, is the inexcusable failure to direct one's course in life with enough specific intent to create something of some personal worth, perceived or otherwise.

The vehicle for this failure is a foul, gruesome chimera of overfeeding, undervaluation, cowardice and suppressed creativity; the rationalizations for this failure are, of course, far more numerous and convoluted, a veritable web of ridiculous excuses and sleights of hand that offer no actual insight or solution, only perpetual obfuscation.

The crux can easily be precipitated down to two component parts: the desire to leave one's indelible mark in the physical and/or temporal canvases of this Earth (and derive some pleasure from them) and the need for sustenance (i.e., money, at least in our realm of experience). The perennial imbalance between the two is oft the cause of much consternation, inevitably resulting in the most intractable quagmires in which one wades the muck of self-denial and feelings of utter failure while simultaneously questioning the worth of one's outlying achievements.

Perhaps I'm simply messily venting my own spleen. But really, the simple answer is so elusive: how can satisfaction and personal worth be balanced with the necessary evil of monetary gain in a culture that is ultimately so commercialized as to be entirely impersonal and, to some extent, inhuman in the essence of its very nature? Just how long has this been going on?

There's something rotten to the core about us 'first-world' folk in our denial: the struggle behind human societies, the misery, the formless something that we all share, the similitude that persists from the antennas at the tops of skyscrapers to the messy piles of soiled rags and broken glass inside cardboard boxes under the freeway; our foundations share soil with the shattered bones of all those that toiled before us, the same soil that we pack down more and more densely with our circuitous wanderings.

Some were born to endless night.

But not us: not the privileged ones who have time to caper about and decide which piece they might be in this esoteric jigsaw. And amidst the plenitude of nourishment and material comforts we continue to rail bitter invective against the ones that fit in all too easily and painlessly, that fail to adequately question their own roles. After all, this is supposed to be hard, but the more time spent on the fringes the harder it becomes.

And catching the subliminal wave of the next television commercial, blissfully floating in that weightless ether of irresponsibility and programmed derision, we'll be damned by this patterning of ours before we figure out that we're being purposefully woven in, falling prey to doubt and cowardice and lack of resolve.

Stuck between the outstanding and the utterly destitute, the worthwhile and the absolutely pointless, I turn towards the cold wind and try to wash myself of this self-imposed penury.

Try as I might, however, my alchemy suffers the same fate as that of everyone else, for the simple truth is this: not a one of us has successfully, unmistakably turned shit into gold. All we can do is try, and the occasional fleck panned out of the slag makes it strangely and inexplicably worthwhile.