Has Reel Rock Changed, or Have I? … Or, a Round About Way of Saying Goodbye.

I recently attended this year’s Reel Rock with my girlfriend, and a couple friends. I’ve always loved Reel Rock in the past, but I’ve been steadily becoming less and less interested in the high athletics of our sport, and the talented individuals in the spotlight. So, going into it, I had a sinking suspicion that I might not get out of the films what I once did.

Sure enough, as the evening wore on, I found myself often stealing glances at my girlfriend. Not just because she is beautiful, which she is, but because I wanted to see if she was having the same reaction I was. She was. We just couldn’t care. How, we wondered, could this be worth our time?

It was a surreal experience for me. I felt that, for the first time, I was able to see the sport of climbing—with all its myopic solipsism—through a non-climber’s eyes. Through, for example, my parents eyes, as they might have seen my single-minded focus on the pursuit of the vertical over the past 10+ years since I graduated college. All my dad ever tried to instill in me was to put others before myself. I suddenly perceived that climbing was, in general, painfully antithetical to that end. It was a sobering experience.

As Adam Ondra lay writhing on the floor, speed climbers dashed up plastic walls, Bedouins and climbers found common ground in Jordan, and a trip to Antarctica perhaps exceeded my carbon footprint (and certainly my salary) for an entire year, I just found myself yawning.

Not angry, not eager to grind axes or pick bones. Just tired. Over it. On to the next thing.

Indeed, my point here is not to talk shit about Reel Rock, or any of the films therein. Whoever you are, dear reader, know this: it is infinitely easier to criticize, than to create. Trust me, I’ve been on both sides. My heart, encouragement, and applause goes out to all the films, athletes, filmmakers, and Reel Rock team. In fact, I am friends with two of the athletes featured in this year’s tour, and I think only the world of them.


So what am I doing here, beating my gums for the umpteenth time on this blog?

Well, I suppose I’m saying goodbye.

In the past few years, my interests have changed and broadened. Any of you who have payed attention to Fringe’s Folly have likely seen that. I’ve tried more and more to use my voice to call attention to pressing ecological and social problems in our world. To use my privilege, in some way, to help those less privileged than me. I’m not saying I’m good at it yet, or that I’m making a difference. I’m just saying, this is where my interest tends to lie. This is how I want to be spending my time.

My girlfriend works for a conservation organization on the Colorado plateau. It’s a pleasure each day to listen to her when she comes home from the office, lit up about ways we can combat climate change, protect the ecology of the incredible canyon and rim ecosystems, and foster respect and equality for traditionally disenfranchised (often Native American) communities. I find her and her efforts inspirational. Something like Ondra, more and more, I perceive as simply a curious oddity. Worthy of my distraction, not my life’s focus.

I used to envy professional climbers, climbing writers, photographers, and the like who seemed to lead an endlessly entertaining semi-nomadic life, wandering ceaselessly from one high to the next, climbing all over the world without respite or a single dull moment.

Now, I envy my partner. I want to be more like her. The world is so wondrous, and I have been given so much. I am less and less interested in taking more for myself. I’ve got it good. I have plenty. I find it more compelling to figure out ways to spread the good fortune out to those with less.


Climbing is a remarkable sport. I continue to climb for personal reasons. For starters, the mental control required by onsighting complicated trad (or even sport) routes is a sort of meditation for me. It really does bring me a feeling of peace. Additionally, I experience a large serotonin dump any time my hands so much as touch stone. There’s something ineffable about the radiant warmth at the base of a south-facing wall on a cold autumn day. I hope I climb til I die. I’ve never found an activity that hold my attention as much, and feels quite as rewarding a day or two later.

But that doesn’t mean I want it to be the focus of my life, or my life’s work.

When I started this blog, my goal was simple. Do better than the “mainstream” climbing media. Write one post per week. Make it meaningful. I tried my hand at that for a few years, and I’m glad I did. But to be honest, I don’t know if you can do better than the mainstream… at least, not for very long.

After years of thinking about this, I believe the number of compelling climbing stories and meaningful permutations on climbing minutiae is fairly limited. “S/he worked really hard and finally sent” has been told a million times. So has “S/he almost died, but then didn’t.” So has, sadly, “S/he did.” Even Adam Ondra is just the new Chris Sharma, who was the new Wolfgang Gullich, who was the new Bonatti, etc etc. “We came we saw we conquered,” and “it’s not about conquering the mountain, but yourself” are just two sides of the same coin, and that coin has been flipped for every meaningful (i.e., publicized) climb since the “golden age” (another concept seemingly regurgitated every couple decades or so), and probably further back than that.

And, of course, all of these criticisms are old hat, too. Not a word I said there is new!

In short, I have my doubts about whether climbing is as important as we’ve all made it out to be. The number of stories to be told about it are limited, as are the number of critiques of those stories. I used to think the climbing media could do better. Could and should tell more substantial stories more often. But if you pay attention for long enough, most of those substantial stories end up blending together. It’s hard to encourage people to invest a lot of time, energy, attention and emotion, into a story that they’ve basically already heard before. This accounts, I believe, for the reason the climbing media has gone in the oversaturated, photo-heavy, <5 minute youtube film, ad-laden direction it has. Again, no criticism here to anyone in that field. It just isn’t the field I want to make my bread and butter. I am happy and honored to occasionally be given the opportunity to add my own ramblings to the noise. And I mean that without irony. I really am.

Of course, a large part of my reason for moving away from Fringe’s Folly is my disenchantment with the level of discourse that occurs online. The digital world is the mental equivalent of a fast food restaurant. You don’t go there looking for foie gras and filet mignon. You go there for junk food: a quick endorphin fix which can be summed up by 5 or so of Facebook’s convenient emojis. Placing deep, thoughtful, longwinded, complicated content in the digital realm is like placing a two by four in a grocery store. You may get the attention of a few passerbys, but most people are there for other things. There’s nothing wrong with cat, parkour, and bouldering videos, per se. I spend plenty of time on facebook vegging out at the McDonalds buffet of our lives. That’s just not the kind of fodder I want to spend my time creating. I want to create exquisite delectations to delight, surprise, and challenge the mind. A blog (I believe) is simply not the right place to put such things.


The nail in the coffin is that I am busier than ever with work. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have a few steady clients who believe in me, and give me enough opportunities to make a living full time as a writer. Some of my work has to do with climbing, some does not. I’m happy to have a mix. I’ve also recently struck a little bit of success with fiction writing, which is a medium I find far more inspiring than blogging. Any spare time I have for writing, I’d like to invest there.

And whatever time I have left over… well, I’d rather spend with my girlfriend and my dog. Or alone, with rocks. Or with a friend or two. Or a book. I spend too much time in front of screens as it is.

So, with that, I bid Fringe’s Folly, and all of you adieu.

I don’t expect many of you will care. But what I want to say with my final post is that I do. I care that so many of you have read and interacted with the things I (and other contributors) have written here.

I care that you’ve given me your time and attention again and again. That means the world to me.

And for that, I am eternally grateful.

All the best,
Chris

 

 

7 comments

  • Hi Chris, I will miss your blog, but I also find myself reading or absorbing climbing media less and less. It’s been over 5 years since I’ve had a Climbing / Rock & Ice or Alpintist magazine, not been to a real rock or Banf film fest in like 10 years. I used to also adore/ envy the pro climbers. I would go to climbing festivals and want to meet and bask in the rock star celebrities glow. I am a climbing lifer, will always love climbing the stupid rocks, but just do my own thing. Best wishes for your future writing. I mostly read the New Yorker, but love reading about natural sciences- geology mostly.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Geoff.

      You know, funny thing. I used to LOVE the New Yorker Fiction podcast, but then I started to get sick of that, too. The stories just felt too stuffy, too monochrome, too fancy, in a way. I wonder if part of the problem is just the idea of specialization… Like, whether it’s stupid rocks, or stupid high-falluting fiction, anything is good in small doses, but in large, becomes odious.

      Who knows?

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  • So long and thanks for all the fish!

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  • Chris – I’m going to miss stumbling into your thoughtful essays. Your words here give a clear voice to something I’ve been grappling with for some time.

    For years, climbing (and more broadly, adventure sports) provided a means to define myself, experience beauty and self-actualization, ground myself in an otherwise hyperconnected world, and forge deep connections with other like-minded people. At some point in time, it was no longer enough. I couldn’t care less about all of this Dawn Wall business, or the latest 5.15e whatever. Why? I’m not sure ‘enough’ is the right word, but it’s a start. I sought to understand.. and at first, I was unable to pursue my inquiry without looking through a lens limited by the identity I’d forged for myself through climbing and flying.

    What’s changed to cause this? Is it the increasing commercialization of these pursuits? Over-crowding of my favorite places? Have we hit critical mass? Too many Sprinter vans. Too many photos of my favorite splitters on Instagram. Too hard to find an uncrowded place to camp. Maybe I just haven’t been pushing myself hard enough. I’m not progressing – Will I feel better if I finally make that trip to Patagonia? Does each new generation of adventurers experience this as they mature?

    Taking a step back, it’s clear that the popularization of climbing isn’t a bad thing. Careful management will be required, but it’s so important that as many people as possible learn to experience a deep connection with nature. To care about (and for) the environment.. to make choices that lead to sustainable living.. to vote accordingly.

    All that’s really become clear to me is that it’s important to seek (or find) purpose and pursue growth with intention and rigor. It buoys my spirit to see you and others I’ve crossed paths with along the way are asking big and often similar questions.. seeking ways to have a positive impact, large or small, on a rapidly changing world.

    I’m looking forward to that next book!

    -C

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    • Hey Chris, thanks for your comment. There are a lot of good and thought-provoking questions in there –ones I ask myself all the time, too. It’s sort of a losing battle, isn’t it, that we always want to be on the vanguard, out in front, discovering what the crowds have not yet. I suppose that would be a sustainable model if we all just kept our damn mouths shut, but we don’t. And as an industry, we don’t just mention it quietly in a bar to our friends, we scream the newest hot spot from the top of the mountain, megaphone in hand.

      Hope our paths cross again soon. I know some quiet places we can go and not spray about it to anyone.

      Cheers,
      Chris

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  • My wife and I have had the same conversation about recent “Climbing Films” and I agree with most of what you have written in this blog. You wrote,

    “In short, I have my doubts about whether climbing is as important as we’ve all made it out to be. The number of stories to be told about it are limited, as are the number of critiques of those stories. I used to think the climbing media could do better. Could and should tell more substantial stories more often. But if you pay attention for long enough, most of those substantial stories end up blending together. It’s hard to encourage people to invest a lot of time, energy, attention and emotion, into a story that they’ve basically already heard before.”

    I think you could say this about any written or visual story. How many stories have we read/watched about Westerns, Horror, War, Law Enforcement, Medicine, Lawyers, Love, Slapstick Comedy, etc…Every aspect of the human condition past, present and future has by recycled over and over and we are still watching and reading them. I agree the formula used to tell climbing stories has gotten stale and as viewers were are more demanding. But I think there is room to grow and captivate us the way the first Moving Over Stone (which is now almost painful to watch) did in 1988!

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