Sunday, February 2, 2014

Book review- The Boulder: A Philosophy for Bouldering

With a little extra reading time on my hands before the start of my Spring class, I recently picked up a copy of The Boulder: A Philosophy for Bouldering, written by Baltimore native Francis Sanzaro.

Attempting to examine bouldering through a philosophical lens, Sanzaro acknowledges both the deep personal meaning that many of us find in the pursuit, and its utter meaninglessness to larger society.  He views bouldering as a product of our time and culture, an idea that really spoke to my years of anthropological study.

Sanzaro also sees bouldering as a search for the limits of human capability, stepping away from the common discussion of what constitutes "real" climbing, and judging movement for itself regardless of location or other supposed standards of climbing purity.  He foresees a greater future reliance on full-body dexterity, moving on the rock in ways not yet envisioned.  I particularly enjoyed Sanzaro's focus on the teachings of Bruce Lee, whose writings had a huge impact on me as a wrestler and martial artist.  For those unfamiliar with Lee's work, he advocated a rejection of any concept of style, incorporating techniques that are useful to us and discarding everything else.  By not forcing ourselves into pre-existing frameworks, we leave ourselves open to see situations as they develop rather than anticipating set patterns and responding inappropriately.  I'm not sure how I never thought to apply Lee's philosophy to climbing, but I'm glad Sanzaro gave me the push.

Sanzaro fighting through Tunnel Vision at Rocktown.  Photo: Matt Bosley
One other piece that struck me was Sanzaro's parallel between climbing and the idea of site-specific design found in architecture.  He encourages us to listen to the site-specific nature of the rock, something that many climbers are unfortunately not inclined to do, becoming over-reliant on tick marks rather than really taking the time to learn the subtleties of the rock.  I've always thought of tick marks like flashlights on a dark night, illuminating a small area but blinding us to everything else around it, including the holds that might better suit our needs.  Maybe it's just our need for instant gratification, or maybe it's a fear of failure.  If the latter, Sanzaro reminds us that failure isn't really failure, but rather an index of understanding.  Falling is learning.

For a bit of extra fun, I had a chance to catch up with Sanzaro, who has now relocated to our area after a long absence.

RC:  Tell me a bit about yourself, and how you started climbing.

FS:  I begun climbing on the choss piles of Loch Raven, which is where Baltimore gets its drinking water. It's sharp as hell, covered with poison ivy and there's no one it was perfect. I went to Colorado State in Fort Collins, CO, for my undergraduate. We did loads of development out there, especially Arthur's Rock and the Poudre Canyon...traveled the world a bit after that. Went back and got my Ph.D. in philosophy of religion, then I landed in Baltimore. Currently, I work as a writer and will probably continue to teach college.

RC:  What brought you back to Baltimore?

FS:  I mainly came back for work. The East coast is just the best place to be for a writer. The bouldering sure isn't as good as Colorado--I guess that goes without saying--but we have some nice little pockets of quality stuff. Having grown up here, I still climb with the guys that I did when I was 17, such as Cory Smith and Matt Bosley.

RC:  As a climber, has bouldering always been your preferred discipline?

FS:  Definitely. Bouldering has always suited my body type. It's probably the same reason I gravitated to gymnastics early on, which I did before climbing. Bouldering is a beautiful sport, is it not? I mean it's as hard as you want, and rewards strange skills--patience, reckless amounts of strength, humility, passion, balance, observation, and let me add in strength again.

                                Deep Puddle Dynamics in RMNP.         Photo: Ben Scott
But that isn't to say I haven't pushed myself in other venues. When you live out West climbing can be a very seasonal affair. For instance, in the summer we'd hit the alpine walls in the Park, and/or drive to Yosemite and do the big stuff there. In the winter it's ice climbing, in the spring it's getting lucky on front range or taking your chances in the mountains. You of course boulder all through the year, but really ramp up in the Fall, and, now that the high country boulders are developed, summer too. I think this schedule keeps you less injured. 

RC:  Obviously the focus of the book is on bouldering, but do you think there's something in it for other types of climbers as well?

FS:  That's a great question. Lots of people have expressed to me how it helped them climb better. That definitely wasn't my goal in writing it, but what I think it does is lay out a certain way of understanding the bodily practice of bouldering, since it is best to think of it as a practice of movement. Once you begin to understand how to better conceptualize this space of movement, the better you are equipped to master it. You will enjoy it more, and there is a lot climbers can learn from martial arts and track and field theory, for example. I tried to bring a lot of material together in the book, even film and architecture. It has a lot of influences, to say the least.

RC:  In the ongoing debate about whether climbing plastic truly counts as climbing, you make the case that bouldering should be judged by movement rather than location or medium.  Having come back to an area with few bolts and a handful of hard faces with almost non-existent gear placement, does your movement-first philosophy also apply to top roping?

FS:  Absolutely. One thing that is for sure is that no type of climbing is more "pure" than the other. Any argument as to the superiority of one over the other really doesn't hold water, and I begin the book with the notion that one of things which has hindered sophisticated thought on the matter is precisely the idea that boulderers are the masters of pure movement. Dancers claim the same title, and so do some gymnasts. But we have a different apparatus and utilize a different set of skills. We can prefer this or that, but the more important question to ask is why bouldering exists now. Why was it born when it was? Why do we value the way boulderers move? What are the rules we have applied to our apparatus? Those are some questions that go beyond the "purity" debate, and or lambasting top roping because of the impurity of the rope. 

RC:  When people see a crash pad on your back and ask what it is, what do you tell them?
FS:  Ha! Having bouldered in Estes Park for over decade when it was first being developed--Lake Haiyaha and Emerald Lake--we were quite a sight, a bunch of guys and girls heading up into the forest to do this thing called bouldering. So, naturally, we said we were traveling porn stars. This served a lot of purposes--no more follow up questions, and no more chatter. We were on a mission to send. Nowadays, in RMNP about 1 in 10 tourists know what bouldering is. 

                                  RMNP classic Tommy's Arete.     Photo: David Buzzelli
RC:  Favorite climb that you never finished?
FS:  That's a great question. I've got a secret boulder that I want to go back to. It is in the Old Forge area of the western Adirondacks. I found this beautiful erratic while jeeping in the mountains a few years ago. It was a scouting mission mainly. It was summer and buggy as well. I almost didn't bring my chalk bag that day, but of course I knew better. I found this line on the steep side of this giant boulder and it blew me away. I had to try it. It was pretty hard and on slopers, a proud line on a giant chunk of stone, and you are almost climbing on huecos at times. Well, I never sent. It was way too hot to climbing anything that day. But I still remember like it was yesterday the starting holds of that thing and the first few moves. I can be working at the office in Baltimore and all of a sudden I'm climbing this thing in my head. The script just starts running, without my permission. Bouldering and fantasy are funny that way. I wrote a bit about the connection there in the book. What's interesting is that your fingertips have nearly as much sensitivity as, well, other places on your body used for reproduction. So there's a very interesting connection between memory and fantasy here. But to come back to the boulder I never sent, I feel like Walter in Breaking Bad who has these special coordinates in his head that nobody else knows about.

RC:  Any upcoming trips?
FS:  One of my friends in upstate NY is writing a guide to the area, and well, I'd like to go up and send the problem I was just speaking about. The Adirondacks are huge. And I mean really big. For instance, the Dacks, as it is called, is 24 times bigger (in terms of square acres) than Rocky Mountain National Park. There are entire areas hidden in the woods 30 or 40 miles from the nearest road. What is developed, and there is a lot, is basically right off the roads. I'm also pretty psyched to do some of the lesser known problems in Maryland.

Thanks again to Francis Sanzaro for a fun read, and welcome back!

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