The Dawn Wall Rant Exposé, and Words From A Respectable Source
Around 9 o’clock PM, sunday night, I was gushing to my girlfriend about the Dawn Wall Project, and how cool Tommy and Kevin are. I was showing her the various footage, photos, and writeups, mostly focusing on Andrew Bisharat’s awesome awesome coverage here. She is not a “climber”, insofar as she does not generally follow or pay attention to all the “climbtalk” that many people who would call themselves climbers (myself included) do. From time to time she enjoys coming out climbing with me – but for her, (I think, not to put words in her mouth) I would say generally what she most enjoys in climbing is a day spent basking in sunshine against a warm rock, surrounded by beauty, and getting to find herself eventually reaching these incredible places that she would not have been able to find herself otherwise. She doesn’t have a certain penchant for single pitch cragging (with the exception of one route at Index, Tattoosh, which she calls the perfect pitch), she hates climbing in the gym, and she is generally bored with “climbtalk”. These are some of the things I love about her – and I often hope her levelheadedness with regards to climbing help keep me grounded.
In this case, she was rather enthusiastic about the Dawn Wall (possibly to get me to just shut up already, possibly because she saw how much I was psyched about it and wanted to share in my enthusiasm). But as I kept thinking about it, long after we stopped talking about it, I kept feeling like there was something I needed to hash out in my own feelings about the Dawn Wall. Yes, it is so awesome. But I almost wanted to apologize for subjecting Megan to what felt to me like one more iteration of the typical climbing drivel. You know, the kind of stuff many of us call “climbing porn”. The media coverage of this did not feel like an Alpinist article, or a dirtbag diary – two of (in my opinion) the highest standards for quality climbing media out there. It felt somehow more akin to a bouldering or sport climbing video – which is something so opposite from what I typically consider wall climbing to be. It was precisely because of the scale of this adventure – their many years working this project – that something about the way it was being shared made me feel conflicted. I don’t really care about or think about mindless sport climbing or bouldering media because I don’t really expect much from it. For something as big, grand, and significant as the Dawn Wall, though, I felt irked. And on that thought, around 11 PM my time, I got out of bed, walked away so my girlfriend could sleep, and started to write.
What came out (speaking of drivel) was almost exactly what many of you read; and almost exactly the opposite (at least in some parts) from what I intended to write. I finished up around midnight and, realizing the piece was a little inflammatory, sent it off to a couple west-coasters I hoped might have the chance to give me their thoughts (and if those specific west coasters are reading this – NO, I was not very clear about wanting their thoughts). Then I went back to bed.
I got up Monday morning, farted around facebook for a bit absolutely inundated with Dawn Wall posts, and checked my email. No edits (again, I didn’t actually ask for them). I gave my piece a quick once over (remember, this is about 8 hours after I wrote it, and before my morning shit or breakfast or anything like that), edited out a few little grammatical errors here and there, put it onto the post maker for my website, and clicked publish. I was curious what people would say about it (generally, my posts get 1-300 reads, and zero comments), but expected very little.
Of course, as many of you know from your own facebook feeds, the thing went climbing-world-viral. Right as it was starting to do so, an old friend suggested to me that I should take it down and clean it up, because he knew that what I was trying to say would be lost among absurd claims I didn’t really mean to make. I was about to take a look at the piece, but – too late – I had already posted to mountainproject hoping to generate a “meaningful debate” about what we could glean from the way the wall was getting climbed and covered about the state of climbing today. After reading a bunch of vitriol and vinegar, I thought it would be disingenuous – and a bit cowardly – to try to “undo” the post and rewrite it in a more conciliatory fashion. Let’s just see what happens, I thought.
But I was nervous about rubbing people I actually cared about the wrong way. On a whim, I sent an email to Kelly Cordes. I knew that he and the Caldwells were close friends, and I wanted to get his private opinion on the piece. My intention, after all, was not to be critical of Tommy and Kevin, but to be critical of our obsession with their route, and the way we cover it in the media. Kelly Cordes, by the way – in case anyone does not know – is a Patagonia Ambassador, the author of The Tower (currently the number one seller on Amazon.com for mountaineering), and just an incredibly nice guy. I don’t know him well, but some months ago, I sent him an email as an aspiring writer asking if he thought my work was worth a damn. He not only responded in great detail and length, but he did think my work was worth a damn, and encouraged me to continue with it. I hadn’t talked to him since that email exchange, but I thought perhaps this case warranted another email.
Over the next about 10-12 hours, of course, my email account, facebook feed, and website went berzerk. People were commenting on the piece via Fringe’s Folly, commenting on my mountainproject post, asking for my head in a handbasket, admonishing that I ought to climb the Captain before I saw fit to write about it (which I have, for the record), stating that everything I write on this website is whiney, etc. As often happens in the internet world, the shit settles at the top. I generally work a lot harder on the pieces I publish to Fringe’s Folly, and they generally get about 1/30th the number of hits this piece did. Go figure that my most successful article is in many ways my least successful, if your measures for success are site views, or clarity.
The truth is, writing for Fringe’s Folly is really challenging. I set out with FF in the first place to create a public forum to share all the stories that the general climbing media deems “unpublishable”. After writing in the climbing industry for 8 or so years (and reading for close to 15) and constantly getting frustrated by the kinds of pieces that get accepted and the kind that get turned down, I was seeking something different. I was also hoping, and believing, that there was a silent majority of climbers that also felt the same.
When I started FF I had the goal of putting out one piece a week. This has proved more overwhelming than I ever would have suspected. I have eternal respect for guys like Andrew Bisharat and Brendan Leonard who have been doing it for years with their own blogs (Evening Sends, and Semi-Rad). You just can’t imagine how challenging what they do is until you try to do it yourself. You envision all the stories yourself, you write them all yourself, you edit them all yourself. And for some indeterminate amount of time, you do it all pro bono, without ever expecting to actually make a dollar off your site. You do it because you love to write, and because you believe that somewhere, somehow, people will enjoy hearing your own unique, slightly unconventional take, on what climbing is all about.
A lot of the time, you measure your successes and failures in terms of site views. Maybe that’s wrong. But you know if you ever want to make money off of it, you need a lot of site views to sell to advertisers; and that if you could make some money off your blog, it would give you the ability to put more time and effort into it, and make it even better. A solid audience is not just a goal of blogging, but of magazines, podcasts, publishing – maybe all professional art. Even that Goldsworthy guy who makes these ephemeral installation art pieces out in nature takes pictures of them to share with the public.
Perhaps in this case I was motivated by hits a bit more than I should be. But I don’t think I was exactly intentionally antagonizing. What is closer to the truth is that I wanted to release something, and I wanted to do it soon. I had another piece queued up, but it was a rather personal one, and after my girlfriend suggested I give it another pass through, I decided to hold off on publishing it. I like to release my work on Monday so that people can click on the links all week before the weekend comes and they forget about it altogether. It was Monday, I had a piece, it was relevant to shit people were already talking about, so I pulled the trigger.
As I was sifting through the e-hate that was pouring in from the internet world (and a little e-love, too – thanks for those of you who tried to find the message I buried deep within that piece), I was starting to really wish I had edited the piece more thoroughly. Then, I got a message from Kelly Cordes – which I will relay here with his permission. It was so insightful, so honest, so useful to me as a writer – that in the end, I think the whole thing was completely and entirely worthwhile. Talking to a mutual friend last night, he told me he thought Kelly was one of the best editors in the climbing industry. That’s saying a lot, considering some of the excellent editors there are out there in the community (Katie Ives (Alpinist), Alison Osius (Rock and Ice), Matt Samet (previously with Climbing) to name a few). Part of what drew me to FF was not having to deal with editors in the first place (not because I think my work is that good – but because if your story doesn’t hit their target audience, they just can’t take it). Now, I find myself really wishing I had at least one good editor on hand any time I write anything. While this edit comes after the fact, I think Kelly’s words are certainly worth repeating – and I know I’ll remember them well.
i read the article. not the comments, though — the nytimes comments were bad enough for me. and people being what they are when commenting online, i fear the mayhem that might have resulted — no matter how hard you try to mention that you’re not denigrating tommy & kevin or their efforts, if you touch a nerve somewhere in people, or make them insecure, they’re bound to reply with caps lock and exclamation points…sigh. hopefully that didn’t happen with your article.
anyway, some rambling notes:
i’m sure you know that these same concerns have emerged with every step of change along the course of history. the horsemen begrudged the automobile, the scribes decried the printing press, the printers and hardbound readers were certain that the internet was ruining us. (they may be right with the latter, and i’ll write a pen scribed letter about it as soon as these damned kids get off-a my lawn.)
everything changes, is essentially what i’m saying. you know this, i just think it bears repeating. that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss and perhaps, in cases, act in order to check certain changes. in this case, however, i don’t think there’s much lacking in transparency, or anything that needs checking. my interpretation is that nobody is suggesting that this is a shipton & tilman style adventure, or anything other than what it is. which is next-level difficult rock climbing on a roadside bigwall. i mean, don’t we all know that tommy’s been working on this for like seven yrs, and it’s on what’s essentially a spectacular, massive crag on steroids? yet, indeed, one where big adventure and risk can be had. they can also be minimized. and all spaces in between. isn’t that climbing, dude? the only people who couldn’t know this haven’t been paying attention, i think. and yeah, of course there’s the risk that the mainstream media will fuck it up. (hell, the nytimes had a front page blurb where it said they were climbing without ropes.) aside from the risk of mainstreamers fucking up some details, i don’t get the feeling that anyone is going to present it for something it isn’t. i might be wrong. but if i am, i don’t think that greatly exacerbates the risk of losing climbing, losing adventure, or any of that.
the circus atmosphere is there for sure. tommy certainly acknowledged this, and, again, i don’t think there’s any absence of transparency with that element.
it is weird how we draw these little lines for ourselves — gotta stay on the wall, bottom to top consecutively, etc, at this point. yeah, why not just rap down and sleep in the valley each night? in fact, tommy & i joked about this recently when he was home in estes. to me, the answer is similar to what i might say to someone who tells me “hey, you know there’s a trail to the top that way” or “why don’t you just top rope that thing?” or “you already fell, why are you pulling the rope again?”
the answer, my man, is the same as the answer as to why you go to patagonia or to climb some silly spire in the cascades or do whatever you do there with those widgets instead of just going to the climbing gym: because it’s the game you want to play.
i strongly maintain that no damage is happening here, i don’t share the concern about the denigration of adventure through the dawn wall circuses (the media circus and the circus of trying to climb it under the rules of the game they choose to play).
finally (and then i have to get back to work) i wouldn’t discount the role of adventure on which these guys are embarking. i totally understand your points, as i’ve made them a lot in the past, too. and so much of what you wrote are things i’ve definitely wondered, talked about outloud (sometimes with tommy, actually), and sometimes written. but it’s important to remember that adventure exists how you define it. it sounds cliche, but it’s unquestionably true. nothing about things like the dawn wall stuff takes that away. it sucks if adventure, or anything, is misrepresented, and that’s worth speaking up about. i just don’t see it happening here, like any real mis-portrayal. i’m happy to see the dawn wall attention not only because of my friendship with tommy, and b/c the attention is warranted, but because it’s nice to see something other than mount fucking everest in the news.
back to where i was going — i’m prone to rambles with my ideas, as you might have guessed (perhaps we’re brothers, separated at birth, ha) — adventure comes in so many forms. i’ve talked lots with some friends about how i think hard technical climbing writing (sport, bouldering, trad, whatever) has fallen short when it comes to making us see the internal adventure of these pursuits. maybe it’s just harder to express — takes more literary skill than most of us climbers have — to take us on that journey of hard technical climbing. it’s easy to write about adventures in remote mountains. in fact, years ago i wrote a blog post about this shortcoming in climbing writing (predictably, it then had comments like “na-ah, you are!” — essentially proving my point). i don’t know why folks haven’t adequately communicated (imo) the internal adventure of these things. maybe b/c it’s damned hard to convey. so much precision, devotion, psychological struggles with freeing yourself to perform uninhibited, the nanometers of skin friction, shoe rubber, angles and forces and balance, held together or falling apart within the tiniest portions of one’s mind, on which everything often depends — all of those things are also forms of adventure, i would argue.
for instance, would you really argue that the genius physicist, or that the pianist striving for perfection, or the ballet dancer, does not undergo a form of adventure? i think those, too, are grand adventures, albeit of a different sort. if you don’t call that adventure, perhaps it’s just a terminology thing. or maybe you, like me, haven’t tried hard enough at something like this to fully gather a full appreciation of the various forms adventure can take?
the sheer difficulty is at another level, which requires the tactics, the skin salve, the nourishment of meals and so forth. there can be no question that physical/technical difficulty and lightweight traditional adventures exist at different end of the spectrum. of course we can’t put a marker at some point on that continuum and say this is adventure but that is not. as someone who’s never fixed ropes on a climb, and has been a staunch proponent of alpine-style climbing, i also know that all of the climbs i’ve done are, therefore, easy. easy in one regard, hard and massively adventuresome in other regards. ueli steck’s hardest alpine climb is “easy” compared to his hardest redpoint, when we’re talking technical difficulty. of course it is. it’s just like how any route you onsight is therefore, in one regard, easy. it doesn’t mean that onsighting is easy. nor does it mean that onsighting or redpointing aren’t adventures of a certain type. as well, they are very different adventures than going to the karakoram with plans scratched on the back of an envelope.
in short, after this long ramble, to tie back to the title of your post, i think maybe nobody is saying “it” because i’m not sure it exists. talking about the alleged confusion or denigration of the types of adventure you’re concerned with. nobody is saying they’re doing a shipton-tilman style adventure. but that isn’t to say it’s not an adventure.
i agree with a lot of the explorations you make in the post, and i love these sorts of “thought pieces,” but i disagree with a couple of things at the end. first: “I don’t believe climbing is a sport.” well, for me personally, i’d probably agree. or usually agree. but your statement, your opinion, isn’t a fact. for some, climbing is a sport. not sure what kevin and tommy consider it to be. perhaps they consider it more open — the adventure of the fitz traverse, boulder problems verging on free-solos, the sport of hard redpoints, all of it.
if it’s not a sport for you, that’s ok. but i’d suggest caution — just in terms of thinking, not in terms of any real damage (indeed this is a fun thought experiment) — in trying to define climbing for everyone, which your tone suggests. you can do it how you like to do it, though. just like me, just like tommy, just like kevin, just like anyone.
and, actually, i think you know this. because two sentences later you say it:
“Climbing is an adventure, a journey, and an expedition – both inwards and outwards. “
hope to catch up with you soon.
In the end, if you don’t have a second pair of eyes on what you write, it’s hard to know what your words say to someone else. I’m definitely sorry if anything I said about the Dawn Wall was offensive, and I maintain that it wasn’t my intention. But I don’t regret my little blunder. I’ve learned a lot from it – not just about the internet, vitriol, and virality – but also about writing, and my own flawed tendencies as a writer. To use a climbing analogy – people can tell you to wear a helmet all they want; but if you take a rock in the head from 60 feet up, that’s the best lesson you can get (if it doesn’t kill you). My Dawn Wall Massacre didn’t kill me – but it definitely taught me a lesson I won’t forget.
I certainly hope this piece gets read, shared, commented on as much as the original piece. Will it? I don’t think so. But that’s another rant altogether. Good luck Tommy and Kevin – keep pushing yourselves and all of us to achieve impossible goals through hard work and determination.