community --> awesomeI'm always on the road, meeting amazing characters and legendary climbers - I wanted to have the space and opportunity to sit down and ask a few questions with some of these people. This Five Questions page is just that: five questions about whatever comes to mind with some of the raddest people in the community. Look here for a new interview every few months.
status: father, developer, rock climber
I first climbed with Ben Scott in August of 2008. We shared an otherwise empty campsite with a few friends in what was once a relatively 'unknown' Ten Sleep, Wy. After countless stories from my good friend Andy Mann, I learned that Ben had a rich and long history in the Colorado climbing scene. A motivated, supportive and also very laid back climber, Ben showed his prowess the next days at the crag. Over the years his name would become synonymous with the Fort Collins climbing zones, and specifically Poudre Canyon. Ben remains somehow quite under the radar despite being an outstanding climber as well as one of the more experienced first ascentionists in the state. His attitude is very inclusive, curious and mellow; his contributions to climbing are many. You've probably heard his name before but now you can learn a thing or two about him - as did I. This is one of my personal favorites in the 'Five Questions' collection, I hope you enjoy it too!
Why, when, how did you start your journey with climbing?
Back in Ohio, when I was 14 or so, my family took the classic road trip out west in a huge RV. We saw all the national parks and ended up in Jackson at the Tetons. My Dad had some mountaineering experience growing up in the Cascades so he signed us up for a 3 day intro to rock climbing class with Exum Guides. I will never forget the old grey haired guide showing us basic climbing techniques in a pair of unlaced boreal flyers. We did two days of instruction then climbed Baxters Pinnacle the 3rd day. I was even able to free the 5.9 section while my Dad had to pull through. Years later we realized our guide had been the legendary Chuck Pratt and I relish the idea that he showed me how to climb when I was a total noob.
Dad and I were pretty psyched after that trip to Jackson. He bought us harnesses, a rope and an ATC that we took Top-Roping to a local sandstone cliff called Whipps Ledges near Hinckley, OH. I have no idea what we were doing but we were relatively safe and it was a fun time with the old man.
The next summer I took a 30-day mountaineering course with Outward Bound. This quickly became a life changing experience for me. Not just for the outdoor adventure and mountaineering experience, but for being turned on to a community of people who live their lives for the mountains. I had never met anyone like my guides, they were climbers just back from Yosemite and were planning on going back once we completed our course.
Working to live instead of the other way around was such a foreign concept for me. The idea that you could live a humble life out of your truck and never stop traveling and adventuring was a paradigm shift in my thinking for the rest of my life. I attended an all boys private high school in East Cleveland where most of the kids were being groomed for the Ivy League universities. Material worth and social standing were a big deal to most of my classmates, but it always seemed strange to me. After the OB trip I knew this was not the life I wanted and I needed to get back to the West as soon as I could.
I began spending more and more time at Whipps Ledges until one day I met Jason Tarry. He was two years older than me and had a wealth of climbing knowledge and stoke. We became friends immediately and started religiously climbing every possible route and boulder problem at the small sandstone cliff. Jason took me on my first road trips to the New River Gorge and North Carolina as well. It was another defining time in my life and Jason opened my eyes to a passion and lifestyle that would consume the rest of my life.
12 hours after I graduated from High School I got in my truck and left on a long summer road trip with Jason that concluded with my first semester at CSU in Fort Collins.
When I think about Fort Collins climbing your name comes up immediately. How long have you been a part of the scene there and how has it changed over the years?
I moved to Fort Collins in 1998 for a very brief stint at CSU where I pretty much majored in rock climbing and failed everything else. The scene has always been low-key in Fort Collins mostly due to it being overshadowed by the Boulder/Denver climbing areas. For me I was initially linked up with old-dawgs like Pat Goodman, Brad Jackson, Herm Feissner, Francis Sanzarro and Rick Vitaka. These guys were all into bouldering and finding new blocs to climb on in the Fort Collins area. Pat and Francis probably mentored me the most and really showed me what it meant to be fit for climbing, have positive ethics and a strong devotion to everything climbing.
Back then the Fort Collins scene felt so new and exciting. Pat and Francis had put up some fantastic lines at Arthurs Rock and we began searching the enormous potential the Upper Poudre had to offer. I will never forget the first times we walked through areas like the 420’s, the Bog, or Gandalf before a single problem had ever been developed.
Around 2008 I began to find my psych for hard roped climbing again mostly because Brian Capps gave me his old Hilti, so I had a tool to explore the cliffs above the boulders I had been climbing on for years. This was the time I really began to know the key players in the roped side of Fort Collins climbing. It was the hard work of Ken Gibson, Steve McCorkel, Paul Heyliger, Derek Peavey and Bryan Beavers that showed me the potential the lower canyon had to offer. Crags like Upper Echelon, Twilight, and Wild Wall are all amazing cliffs that can stand against anything in the Boulder/Denver area.
In general, the Fort Collins scene is a really friendly and supportive cast of characters. Working with the NCCC (www.nococlimbing.org) and authoring guidebooks has been a great tool for bringing the little community together and I hope we continue to get more tight knit in the future.
Everyone knows about the Boulder area crags and of course Clear Creek, why is the Poudre generally so off the radar you think?
The Poudre stays off the radar because the Front Range has such a massive quantity of established rock climbs, as you know all to well. Its pretty hard to convince anyone in the Boulder/Denver area to drive 1.5hrs minimum to reach Fort Collins areas when they have hundred’s of excellent area’s within a 30min drive of their house.
But to be honest, Fort Collins folks like it this way and hope it stays low-key as long as possible. Most people move here to have the cool Boulder style vibe but with about half the people. Thats all changing fast and Fort Collins feels busier and busier every year, not just in town but at the cliffs and climbing gyms as well.
What’s the future of the Poudre and where would you like to see it go over the next generation of Fort Collins climbers? Is there still potential?
Oh man, it feels like a bit of a Poudre Renaissance right now. There are several people actively developing besides myself and I think Poudre Falls has opened some people’s eyes to the potential of the Upper Canyon. This area has captured my attention since Pat and I discovered the 420 boulders at Bliss State Wildlife area in 1999. Since then I have spent countless hours searching, scrubbing lichen, establishing trails and bolting new lines….and I’m still there. At least once a weekend I find myself doing the long, hour plus drive, to this wide open valley filled with boulders and cliffs of quality granite. Jason and I have been trying to keep track of the quantity of new routes we establish on an annual basis. The past 4 years we’ve averaged around 50 new routes a year. This year I think we are well past 60 already if that gives you an idea.
I’m hoping in the future people in Fort Collins will be interested in climbing roped routes in the higher grades. Theres a long history of hard bouldering in the area, but hardly any difficult roped climbing after the achievements of Mark Wilford. As it stands now, I personally know just about every climber in the area that climbs 5.12 or harder. Compared to Boulder and Denver, people just aren’t as interested in climbing hard on a rope around Fort Collins. I think this stems from the lack of a quality training facility in the area. Miramont has made a decent update recently but I really think it will be the introduction of a modern climbing facility like the planned Ascent Studios (http://ascentstudio.com/) to really give people the fitness and motivation to tackle harder roped climbs in the area.
How has family life affected your stoke and your climbing?
Deciding to have our son Sam was a really big deal for me and my wife. I fought adamantly for a long time that having kids meant death to our climbing lives and would change our relationship forever. But in the end, to risk loosing my awesome wife was not worth avoiding fatherhood. Sam is 3-years old now and things have gotten a lot easier compared to infant life. Sam and I go climbing just about every friday, he likes hanging out at the crag and even gets his shoes and harness on to rope-swing or climb around a bit. So yeah, fatherhood was not the death to my climbing I always thought it was. In reality it has forced me to be a better, more calculated climber, and I find myself trying much harder on every attempt because time is a limited resource now. My family and I spent most of the summer playing, camping and climbing at Poudre Falls….can’t really ask for anything more.
Thanks for the interview Jonathan!
If anyone wants to contact me about anything you can find me on Mountain Project.
sponsors: La Sportiva, Blurr, Metolius
status: real-job rock crusher, Canadian heartthrob, bad ass
I don't remember exactly when I first met Mike Doyle. I do, however, remember him sending me some kind, congratulatory words way back in 2009 shortly after I repeated his stunning route, 'Lucifer', at the Red River Gorge. Over the last five years as I've 'wintered' in Las Vegas I've spent a lot more time around Doyle. It didn't take long to realize that Mike is not really one for BS. He speaks his mind and even before a round of beers is no stranger to sharing his thoughts, always grounded in personal experience or with evidence to support. In a world where opinions, preferences or suggestions are so often sugar-coated, I've always found this characteristic of Mike's very refreshing. He is passionate about his career in software development and works harder and longer hours than anyone else I know who climbing 14c and flashing 13d. Mike has strongly influenced my experience and opinions about grades, as he simply and humbly 'keeps it real' even in the face of all the modern grade-chasing. His climbing resume is without question one of the best from any Canadian, ever. He is an encouraging, happy, hard-working friend with whom anyone would be stoked to share a rope. He just did the hardest route of his life at 37, after 22 years of climbing.
Okay so, the basics... When, why, how did you start climbing?
I started climbing through an outdoor program in my high school in the fall of 1990. It was actually a mountaineering program where we did lots of glacier travel, bagged some peaks and suffered in the snow but a few weekends a year we would go rock climbing. A friend of mine was initially way more into rock climbing than I was and bought his own ropes and gear. Then he needed belayers and I started climbing a lot more around '93. I did my first competition in the summer of 1994, bought a gym pass and have climbed as much as possible both indoors and out since then.
Along with your successes as a climber, you have also done a lot of work in the realm of Route Setting and Coaching. How do you think that these pursuits have influenced your climbing?
I think both of those activities have influenced my climbing for sure. As a coach I spent a lot of time researching different training paradigms and of course I would experiment on myself to see how effective they were. During the late 90s I read every possible book on the subject of training. Routesetting was a great way to get involved with the community and I traveled quite a bit in university to set for comps all over Canada and the Western United States. My network of friends, peers and role models wouldn't be what it is without coaching and routesetting. Of course, the pressure of trying to hold off Sean McColl for a few years made me raise my game. Then he turned 13 and was unbeatable haha.
You’ve coached some pretty damn impressive rock stars, notably Will Stanhope and Sean McColl. How were these experiences overall? Do you still coach, or are you interested in doing more of that in the future?
I look back at my years coaching at The Edge Climbing Center and as a coach of the Canadian National Team with great fondness. Some of my closest friends today were fellow coaches or climbers who came up through the ranks. I don't coach anymore and unfortunately I got really burned out. I was working full time, trying to train myself and trying to coach 6-9 hours per week. In addition all of my personal vacation time was used to travel and coach. It just got to be too much and I couldn't dedicate the energy that was required to be a successful coach, so I stepped away. I loved coaching but I don't think I'll be doing it again in the future. It takes a lot of dedication to create the type of relationships that are necessary to be a great coach. I still try to stay up to date on training and competitions so I could be a guest coach or do short seminars but I don't think I'll ever be a team coach again.
You’re pretty well known in the community as one who is not afraid to share their views on grading (read: sandbagger), which I have always appreciated although at times it has broken my heart. Do you feel that modern grades are inflated? How do you think we should set a standard for grading and lastly, are grades even important?
What?? I'm a sandbagger?? Haha. Sorry for breaking your heart but to be fair I've upgraded a few of your routes as well.
Oh man... I could go on and on about this and I have. Yes, I think modern grades are inflated, to an extent. I think people are eager to get to the next level without stepping back and truly reflecting on what that requires. The difference in grades as you approach your limit should be enormous. A 5.14 climber might not know the difference between 5.10a and 5.10b but the difference between 5.14b and 5.14c should be huge (if you top out at 5.14c). That being said I have evolved in my understanding of grades as well. I used to feel that in order for someone to call a route 5.14a it needed at least a section on the route that was v10. Now I feel that it needs a section of route where the climber has to put in V10 effort, perhaps because they are tired. I can only express how something feels to me and as long as someone can defend their opinion (by comparing it to different routes) then I have no problem with people taking a 'softer' grade but don't take the softer grade just because the book says so or because you don't want to offend the FA. If you find better beta, kneebars etc.. downgrade and move on.
There is no such thing as a standard for grading but I always liked what I heard about French crags in the late 80s (I think). There, they would have a group of locals, say 5-6, and they all had to agree that a route got the 8a grade before it could be called 8a. If even one of them said "No, it's 7c" then that was it; 7c. That's why 8a is so revered and hard to attain at those older crags. Nowadays people don't want to say "No, it's only 7c" (or whatever). I think we should just give it a range then wait for 4-5 ascents before refining it to a letter - especially at the transition grades 12a, 13a, 14a etc...
I'd love to say grades don't matter but they do and they are not going anywhere.
Necessary Evil… Well done dude! A true test piece and USA rite of passage in my opinion. What did your redpoint process teach you, and how do you see your climbing moving forward after this send?
Thanks! I agree and I believe the route holds a place in the history of American sport climbing but I definitely understand why it isn't on the radar for the strong climbers of today. There are just many more 'fun' routes out there and bouldering is more popular during the winter months. NE is amazing and I love that movement but with the conditions, highway and atmosphere at the VRG I understand why people aren't drawn to it.
I think what I learned the most was how much the support of the climbing community means to me. It was great having people ask me how I was doing and wishing me luck. I truly think I pushed myself harder both mentally and physically than I ever have and right now I'm not sure I want to repeat that but I couldn't, and wouldn't, have done it without everyone's support.
I want to ride the motivation, psyche and fitness I have right now but I'm already dreading next winter. I might have to, ugh, go bouldering more... with more surfing as well :).
website: Vagabonds de la Verticale
sponsors: Patagonia, La Sportiva, Petzl, Totem
status: rock climbing legend, sport climbing pioneer, innovator
I first met Arnuad 2 years ago during my first trip to Ceuse. I'd heard his name before but I knew very little about his outstanding and diverse career as a climber. He is very unassuming. If you didn't recognize him you could climb alongside the wiry framed legend of a man for weeks and never know about his world cup gold medals, pioneering big wall first ascents and numerous routes up to 14c and v12, even recently as he approaches 44. What is special about Arnaud is more than his climbing resume however. He exudes a kind of masterful wisdom to match his deeply french accent and mild demeanor that is captivating. I had the opportunity to hang out and converse with Arnaud throughout my process on Biographie - and carefully listened to every suggestion and insight that he was kind enough to offer. It was by all means a privilege to interview him here - hopefully you can get a sense of his inspiring character through these questions below. Enjoy.
You’ve traveled Europe and also the world extensively for climbing and for establishing first ascents, where have you been that you feel still has the most potential?
I am in love with Taghia in Marocco. The place, the people, the huge limestone potential. For trad stuff the Venezuelan Tepuis are incredible. Personnaly I realy like the Corsican granite with shapes you don't find anywhere else.
And for cragging it seems that Turkey is the future Spain !
You live in a beautiful little home at the base of Céüse. What is it like to have perhaps the worlds best crag in your back yard? Do you get bored of climbing there, or does this place still hold new challenges for you?
There is always some great possibilities for new routes in Ceüse. And it's exciting to find a line that is not too easy or too hard. I love the process of equipping, dreaming, doubting, working hard and maybe find the best line you ever saw, I am lucky to think this possibility exists just close to my home. Otherwise Verdon is less than 2,5 hours from Ceüse, and this is a 10 lives potential place !
In your opinion, how has climbing changed in the last two decades — both for the better and also perhaps for the worse? Are you excited about the direction of climbing these days?
When I start to try Biographie 20 years ago I was competing at the same time and I was very alone in this project, it seeems that the young strong climbers are more open to the whole panel climbing has to offer. Also it's nice to see that drilling holes or putting bolts close to cracks or natural placements is something very rare now. It seems that climbing is joining its adventurous roots again, and that's nice.
Many Americans know of you as the ‘crazy french man’ who climbed the 70 meter 8b sport route on gear! What are a couple recent ascents that are the most memorable for you?
Since this I climbed various things where I had to push myself : I can say I enjoyed struggling on a run out multipitch in Turkey, "Red, Moon and Star" that I onsight with Stéphanie, 10 sustained pitches between 7a and 7c+ with a 8a crux on the last pitch. I also liked the process to climb two 8c/8c + in Ceüse, actually getting old I really have to push myself to try hard, routes at your limit ask a lot to your body!
Last year I was for the first time in the Grampians, and was very happy to send "Snake on a train", a beautiful 8b+ and to onsight "Serpentine" placing gear : some memorable ascents are not always the hardest you do, it's matter of the process, the place, the people. And sometimes you did not succeed but you can be proud of yourself, for example last winter in La Pedriza in Spain I was close to onsight a 8b slab which I failed but I am proud of the effort and concentration I put. It's something we all have to work on about climbing : to find happiness elsewhere than expecting to send a route. Success is so ephemeral !
Otherwise this spring I really enjoy to open a new route in Corsica with Jeff Arnoldi, ground up with a minimum of bolts and interesting gear placements, probably 8a max on steep orange dreamy granite (more info to be found here). Doing a new route is for me the most enjoyable thing in climbing : you don't have references as grades or schedule and it's so good. You just have to do your best using your whole experience.
And a few silly questions: Wine or Beer or Water? Cheese or Goat Cheese? Are you watching the World Cup — if so what’s your favorite team? (aside from France)..
Goat cheese for sure, the Ceüse one is really good! I don't drink too much alcohol - even if in France we are world champ in this domain- my 3 liters a year is a shame for our 80 liters of wine average consumption !
status: entrepreneur, nutrition therapist, rock diva
I've been friends with Neely for long enough that I actually can't place the first time we ever met. Over the years we've climbed together, partied together, walked dogs together and now even lived together. I've gone to Neely for council on countless occasions. She is a not only a strong climber but a strong woman. Not afraid to speak her mind, even at the expense of being refreshingly brash, she commands - and righteously gets - respect from peers. Neely is an uplifting character and plays a role as a healer very well. Her expertise and years of experience in the Nutrition field have landed her a sweet lifestyle - now totally mobile - with her husband and also great friend of mine, Seth Lytton. Now she is endeavoring into the creation of a new online resource for climbers, all the while remaining a fit and inspiring climber, nutrition therapist and kind friend to many. I am really stoked to share this interview because it seems I'm not the only one that goes to Neely with all kinds of questions - basically all of her friends do too. So here's a few Q's that you may have even pondered yourself... enjoy!
You, your lovely doggie Zala and your husband Seth Lytton have been on the road now for 8 months. What were some of your favorite and least favorite moments? Is life on the road really as awesome as we all thought it would be?
Has it been 8 months?! Whoa. It's flying by, and that's why we're not ready to stop doing it. Honestly, we just had a conversation about our big plan yesterday - what we're going to be doing in the next few years - and there's not one part of me that wants to stop living on the road. Now, living in the van is a totally different story. We had a little moment in December at the Red where I temporarily went insane living in such small quarters and being around each other 24 hours a day. That's when we started living in apartments in Chattanooga and now Vegas. I don't think we'll stop living in apartments until maybe Rifle season (if I have my way, at least).
Favorite moments? My favorite place FOR SURE is the Red. I freaking love the climbing there, and I was pretty psyched on what I accomplished in the time we were there. I did a couple climbs that were hard for me, but also my head got a lot stronger, and I figured out that climbing in the cold isn't so terrible after all. Major lessons learned for a climber. Other favorite moments include beating you at pool in our living room and walking through the most beautiful forest I've ever seen on Vancouver Island with Seth. Living on the road is amazing because when you get bored or cold or un-psyched you can just leave and go somewhere more awesome. It's the ultimate freedom.
You’re launching a powerful new online training resource for climbers of every ability level - called TrainingBeta.com - what was your aim for this site and what motivated you to work (your ass off) on it?
Yeah, Seth and I have definitely been working hard on this for about a year now. I know you'd rather see us climbing every hour of every day right now (with you), but this site has become really important to me, so I'm trying to make it as awesome as I can. I don't know - we just saw a hole in the climbing training scene, so we're trying to fill it. If you want to figure out how to train and get stronger, there are trainers and coaches available at some gyms or online, but they're too expensive for a lot of people. Then there are books and online articles on how to train, but when I try reading them and putting together an actual plan for myself, I get really lost. I just wanted someone to give me a book that said, "Here, do this. This is what you do on Monday, this is what you do on Wednesday, and so on, and this is how long it's gonna take." I didn't see that clearly written out anywhere.
So I partnered with some trainers (so far Kris Peters of Team of 2 and Kris "Odub" Hampton of PowerClimbingCompany.com) to create easy-to-follow training programs that you can download from the site so you can start training right away without any confusion. The first one is published, and it's Kris Peters' 6-Week Power Endurance Training Program.
It's not just the training programs, though. I wanted to know how other climbers climb so hard. I mean, I climb with you and Paige (Claassen) and some other really strong people, so I know what you do in a given session, but I wanted to really delve into strong climbers' heads and find out how they train, what they eat, how they stay motivated, how they overcome fears, and so on. So part of the site is the podcast where I interview climbers and trainers about just that (the first episode with Carlo Traversi is out now). And there's also the blog, where notable climbers, like Paige, Angie Payne, Emily Harrington, Jamie Emerson, and others, have written articles about all that stuff. I'm pretty psyched with how the site is going so far, and I've learned a lot myself from all their insights.
In many people’s eyes you are quite the role model… 13c climber, self employed, mobile and even happily married. Do you think you’ve found an ultimate balance in your personal / professional / climbing life? How do you stay on top of all this stuff and what general advice would offer someone who wants a life like yours?
Wow, when you write it out listing all those things like that, it does sound like a pretty awesome life ;) And a lot of days I think to myself, "I'm so grateful for this - this is what I've always wanted." But no, I do not think I've found an ultimate balance with all those aspects of my life, as you've witnessed living with me. I work really long hours sometimes, meaning I don't leave my computer from like 10am to 1am, and sometimes I get really wrapped up in all of my work projects. So wrapped up in it that I'd rather be doing that than spending time with people or being outside climbing or training, which is really why we're living on the road in the first place.
I don't know if I'll ever find a balance with it, to be honest. I want to do a lot of things with my life, and professional success is incredibly important to me. But climbing will always be huge to me. I get an enormous amount of satisfaction from being outside climbing and reaching climbing goals, so even though it's kinda crazy living on the road sometimes trying to balance all of this, it's totally worth it.
Oh, and what advice would I offer someone who wants a life like mine? If you really want to work remotely, you can definitely make it happen. When I decided once and for all that I never wanted to go into an office during regular business hours again, I sat my ass on my couch for 7 weeks straight, researching online how I could make a living remotely. I emailed random people to talk about potential business relationships in my field (nutrition), I considered starting my own meal planning service online, and then I got really lucky and partnered up with an existing meal plan service in the Paleo diet world (via one of my random emails to the owner of paleoplan.com) and life's been way more awesome ever since. So in other words, just try to figure out online how your passions and interests can create income, and go from there. Or just ask your boss if you can stop coming into the office and work remotely ;)
Honestly, how much do you think a sound diet can improve a persons climbing? Not weight loss specifically, but how can what you eat make you send better? or can it?
Well, the short answer is yes, I definitely think a sound diet can help people send harder. If you're eating crappy foods that aren't nourishing your body, you might feel tired, have stomach aches, have headaches/migraines, feel bloated (not just in your stomach but all over your body from water retention), or have joint pain. Those are just some of the major complaints I hear from people all the time, all of which can really inhibit your climbing. Basically, I think eating the right amount of food; eating the proper ratio of fat, carbs, and protein; and figuring out any food sensitivities you have are paramount to overall health, and you can't climb your hardest if you're not healthy, right?
Let’s talk about your goals. Where and what would you like to be climbing at the end of this year? How about professional goals - do you have big plans for TrainingBeta and or PaleoPlan or are you still developing the vision?
I'd like to climb 5.13c again this year, maybe in the Red or Vegas (or France?). If I really stretch my imagination, I'd love to climb 5.13d this year - Tombraider in Rifle to be exact :) Mostly I just want to stay healthy and sane enough to keep climbing a lot.
I do have big plans for TrainingBeta this year. I want to continue doing the podcast with awesome guests every week, and I want to publish a bunch more training programs from different trainers all over the world. And with PaleoPlan, I'd like to continue learning at the rapid pace I've been keeping, and helping the company grow as much as possible. It's exciting seeing so many more people jumping on board with Paleo, not just because they want to lose weight, but because they want to feel healthier overall. I like being a part of that.
Sponsors: Outdoor Research, Scarpa
Status: Home owner, author, editor, developer, dog lover.
I really can't imagine anyone not getting along well with Mike, or Mikey as many of us call him or for the core group there's of course the alias Milky - because he's silky smooth. When he's not holding down the fort at Dead Point Magazine, he's probably racking miles on his Sprinter van somewhere across the Rocky Mountains with his adorable and yet shockingly deadly puppy, Lilah in tow. I could talk about his lengthy achievements as a route developer or his impressive tick list at the New River Gorge and across the nation, but I think what makes Mikey really stand out to me is that he's just a very cool person. The kind of guy that you can relate to and easily share a conversation with. His passion for climbing, history and new routing is palpable, and despite how bad the weather is or how awful his project might be going, he will remain smiling and stoked and probably still be cracking jokes. He is a force for humility at the crag and often brings a refreshingly light attitude even in the company of straight faced honemasters. You will see some of his humor come out in this interview, one of my favorite yet.
Let's get right into it. How can it be that the New River Gorge is so sick, and yet so empty?
This is one of life’s greatest mysteries. It’s something I ponder every day when I top out a route and look out along five miles of empty cliff at Endless Wall. And you know I’m not exaggerating! When you were here, there were perfect October days with sunny skies and 50 degree temps and the parking lots were literally empty except for us. On that same day, there were probably 700 cars at Muir Valley, Red River Gorge.
I think the Red is probably the #1 reason there is so little traffic at the New, and it makes sense. The Red is undoubtedly one of the best climbing areas in the world; but the NRG is just as good so you’d think the split of climbers would be more 60/40 instead of 95/5. Proximity to urban areas is probably another reason. The closest cities are about 3 hours away so it takes some pretty devoted climbers to make the drive every weekend. I think the old-school nature of the climbing plays a role too. It’s techy and sometimes a little scary. The New is not a good beginner area with most of the good routes starting at 5.10 and the highest concentration of quality in the 5.12 and 5.13 realm.
I could talk about this all day, but the final point that has to be clarified is that the New isn’t quite as empty as your first impression may lead you to believe. It can get totally packed in the summertime with 50 cars at Summersville Lake or Bubba city. We sold 5000 guidebooks in 3 years, so the climbers are here. They seem to just come in the summer and largely disappear when the conditions finally get good. I climb here October through May so I never see the crowds. Why that happens is another mind-boggling mystery to ponder…
You call West Virginia home, but you make your way out west and all across the country often. What crags or areas do you find to be the most exciting, with the best scene? What's the next raddest thing in your opinion?
Next raddest is Smith Rock without a doubt. I love Smith so much and it kills me that it’s a 5-day drive to get there. They definitely have a lock down on the best local scene. I can show up any year and see the same old friends and faces warming up on Magic Light and running laps on Darkness; and Bend is such a cool town. Ten Sleep and the nearby Crazy Woman crags have been my summer home for the past three years. I love Bighorn Dolomite and there is still so much to be developed. Putting up routes at Crazy Woman has been a really special time for me. I doubt it will ever become a popular area, definitely not compared to Ten Sleep, but I truly believe that it’s one of America’s best summer spots. We put up about 50 quality routes in a gorgeous setting that can require a down jacket in August. For the US, that’s really unique.
I’m also really excited about the work you did at the Fins. It’s a small area but those are some of the best face climbs in America. I would love to get back out there to try some of the harder routes you put up.
I agree that the day to day internet spray gets really old and I often find myself yawning as I type up another article about someone sending a V14. I really just don’t care anymore! The only thing I’m still excited about is the act of climbing, actually getting out there and doing it.
But I have to constantly remind myself who our audience is. Many of them haven’t been following climbing for twenty years like we have. I remember being a young climber and rewatching a VHS tape of “Masters of Stone” until it was so grainy I couldn’t see it anymore; but it didn’t matter because I had it memorized. I’d soak in every word of a climbing magazine trying to decipher the cryptic vernacular that I didn’t yet understand. I was so stoked on everything about climbing. It still had that magical allure that fades a bit as you get older and achieve some of the things that once seemed impossible. It’s important for me to remember what that was like and speak to that large portion of our audience. If I’d had DPM back then I would have read every word and watched every video. Of course, Al Gore hadn’t even invented the internet yet so…
That said, to answer your question, I think only two climbers really stand out currently as a step above everyone else: Adam Ondra and Ashima Shiraishi. It seems like an obvious cop out answer but they’re the future of difficult climbing right now and their achievements are certainly impressive. But I’ve watched the top end of difficulty creep up for so long that even that is just expected. I get most excited to see new areas get developed like when I saw those first pictures of the Fins in Idaho. I was blown away that a wall like that existed in the US and I didn’t know about it!
Most inspiring to me, and the best part of my job, is being able to travel, climb, and work with the athletes that we report on at DPM. I got to go to the Red to film Ashima and snap some photos of Tommy Caldwell at Wild Iris, for example. A year after I saw those pics of the Fins on the internet, I was there, climbing those routes and taking photos of your latest 5.14. Not only is that beneficial to me as a climber, but also to our readers. I love having the ability to be “on the scene.”
I think it's impossible to stay totally motivated on climbing all the time unless you can travel full time. I did that for a long time but at some point, you have to live somewhere and I can't think of a better place than the NRG. I've really built a life for myself here and just feel like this region is in my blood.
For years I had this hardcore drive to climb new routes every day. I'd leave the house and it would only feel like a good day if I ticked off two routes that I hadn't done before. And there was always another project to stay psyched about. Even with 3000 routes in the region, that starts to get difficult after a while and I've had to just shift my view of what climbing means to me and become more comfortable with a slower approach.
There are long periods of time where I'll just go climbing for the sake of it, repeating classics, or showing someone around like when you were here. That's really fun for me now, to show others how amazing this place is and watch them slowly fall in love with the rock and the area.
There are other times, usually in the depths of winter, when all I do is hike and rappel by myself, looking for new routes. 98% of the time, I end up coming home having rapped a blank wall or found some chossy, ledge-ridden, one-move wonder. I enjoy those days just as much though. I just love being outside and exploring and seeing something special like the other day when some Peregrines put on the most spectacular display I'd ever seen. I didn't climb shit that day but it was amazing.
Then, without fail, just when I think the entire region is tapped and I can't find anything, I stumble across a route so mind-bogglingly amazing that it completely captures me until I send it and that might take months. Right now, that's happened in the Cirque and I've really started seeing that wall with a new eye that I didn't have a few years ago. It reminded me that even if I've looked at something once, it's always worth a 2nd and 3rd look because your vision changes with time and age. Things that may have looked impossible in the past can look different now.
Before I know it, my 8 month stay at home is over and I'm driving West again to look for more routes in Wyoming. It's a long-term pattern that I've fallen into and I really enjoy every part of it. It's not as fast-paced as it used to be when I was able to enjoy a new onsight attempt every day at the crag, but I like this too. I'm sure this pattern that I'm currently enjoying will probably change in the future, but that's just life. The one constant, though, is being out on those perfect days where your skin just sticks to the texture of Nuttall Sandstone. If I make it to 80, I'll be happy just hobbling up to Bridge Buttress and grabbing a head-high crimper. The rock here is just incredible.
Man, I’m 35. I ran out of Octobers five years ago. Fortunately, due to global warming, November is the new October and I’ve got plenty of those left. Australia is really it! I'd love to climb everywhere, every route if I could, but that's just not possible. I really want to climb Punks in the Gym and take a good stab at Groove Train. Anything beyond that is a bonus. It'd be great to travel more in Europe too but truthfully, I really enjoy being in the States. I love the comfort of living in the van and having a bit of stability. Elissa likes that too. It's hard for us to spend months living out of a suitcase, and there's still so much climbing I'd like to do here! Rumney, Lion's Head, Mill Creek, Monastery, Smith...
For the ten thousand climbers that have been to the Red countless weekends and still never followed through with a trip to the New, let's hear the top 5 reasons why we shouldn't turn off I-64 towards Slade... The fact that you guys won the B-Ball tournament is a given...
First off, people should do what they want. The Red and the New are both world-class crags but for whatever reason more people go to the Red. If that's what they like, they should keep climbing there. Not everyone is going to see things the same way I do. I love the Red; it's amazing and for someone that hasn't been to either area, I'd probably recommend the Red first. It's easier to adapt to and have fun immediately, but for what it's worth:
1. Cooler hang: Fayetteville is a tiny town but there's a lot more going on than in Slade. We've got a couple really good restaurants and the coolest gear shop in the East. The new AAC campground has really rounded out the experience. Rest days are WAY better. There's world-class whitewater, mountain bike trails, hiking, fishing, coffee shops, a library, and a movie theater 20 minutes away. Just being in Fayetteville is a bit of vacation on its own.
2. The view: Sorry Red, but you're ugly. Don't get me wrong, there's some pretty spots, but most of the time you're just surrounded by pine trees and oil derricks. There's a busted old jeep at the base of the Lode and Euro's take dumps behind it. For real. The New, however, is gorgeous. The view from the top of a route at Endless Wall is jaw-dropping. It's 1000 feet down to the river and you can see for miles up and downstream. At Summersville Lake you're pretty much climbing above pristine blue water. Every crag is unique and beautiful.
3. Diversity of climbing: The New might be the most diverse climbing area in the country. There are splitter cracks, traditionally-protected face climbs, corners, arêtes, horizontal ceilings, slabs, and everything else. The only thing it doesn't have is height. Everything is single pitch.
4. Rock: Nuttall sandstone is the best rock on the planet...I think. I'll know for sure when I get back from Australia. It's bullet hard and creates all types of holds from pockets to jugs. Also, there are tons of crimps. I really like crimpers.
5. Lack of crowds: The place is dead empty from November to May. A sunny day in the Cirque in December would include climbing in T-shirts, low humidity, sticky 'send conditions,' and zero people. It's just crazy. Where else can you climb on one of the best walls in the world and be the only party there?