Back to the Future of Climbing

The music rippled through the fall air, crisp and bright as a Red Delicious apple. The thumping drums that were laced into the treble by the DJ evoked some kind of tempered Persian hedonism and, indeed, before the audience there stood two large white Arabesque tents. Beneath the bright canopies were erected imposing sand-colored walls, each one somehow having the blunt inertia of a giant Tiki head. The structures were a blocky composite of beige wood panels sutured together with bolts drilled into a steel skeleton. Curious plastic holds sparsely, almost randomly it might seem, populated the tumescent bulges of these twin 20-foot blocks. Yet these holds were arranged deliberately, taking on the inventive sequences earlier concocted by a team of highly trained route setters.

An emcee roared into the microphone about witnessing “the future of climbing” as Daniel Woods stepped up to easily flash another one of the qualifying problems. An audience of 300 people sat in folding chairs in the mid-day sun, and offered their most urbane round of applause—a golf clap, I mused—as if watching Woods reach the top of a comp problem was a trick that had become as routine as the rising sun. I stood with my back to the future of climbing and stared out at the sea of faces stapled with sunglasses, wondering how a group as uproarious as climbers could seem so docile in a moment such as this?

After all the men took their turns, pawing and slapping, and all the women took their turns, finessing and deciphering, a single tardy competitor who had missed his start time remained. It was the ineffable Dave Graham, the man who almost solely defined and consolidated 5.14 in the Northeast, whose lifetime ticklist of 5.14’s onsighted, flashed and destroyed can only be matched in total by his mostly ironic pet peeves, and who, as the emcee touted, was “one of the best climbers in the world.”


The falling sun by now had ruddied the wall in light, made beacons out of the chalk-white grips in this reflection. Despite being such a tremendous talent on real stone, Dave has never done well in competitions, and this particular day was no different. Each problem spit him off before it seemed he even had a fair chance at getting started.

Just before Dave had begun competing, we spoke in isolation; the conversation circuitously led to Dave taking exception to something he had heard the emcee say earlier over the loudspeaker about the future of climbing, the future of sport. Dave talks with the reckless abandon of a hurricane: sometimes what comes out is just detritus and spray, but often in the storm there appears these very imaginative observations about life that blow you away. In this instance, I was gearing up for our conversation to fall into the former category, but then Dave said, “You can’t be the future of climbing! No one can be the future. How can someone be the future? Look at what happened to my friend Chloe [Graftiaux, the Belgian comp climber who died in the Alps this summer]. You only have the present. You can only matter in the present moment.”

Dave was the last competitor remaining out there in the hot sun; he took the five-minute rest between problem 5 and 6, and the crowd sat silently while the emcee spoke unshakably in fantastic superlatives. Music whirled forward and the DJ hopped around the turntables like ants were biting his nuts. Dave’s hair was snarled like a mop of chalk and sweat in the stale afternoon humidity, and he wore the expression of someone who had just been assaulted. As one of the few journalists there with an all-access pass, I was allowed to walk up to Dave in this awkward moment, and so I did, taking a seat upon my haunches so as to make myself unthreatening in the frail presence of the vanquished.

“Your back is all red, dude,” I said in a low, almost inaudible voice.

“Oh, no!” Dave said. “I have Lobster Back?”

“Fraid so,” I said.

“I can’t climb with Lobster Back!” Dave exclaimed. “Everyone knows that! All my friends know that! I know that! Lobster Back, dude. Why? Why? WHY?”

Lobster Back, apparently, is a condition that has plagued Dave since he started climbing and, like the plastic button that pops when the turkey is finished roasting, its arrival is an unmistakable signal that ought be heeded lest there be something ruined.

In the face of this familiar, foreboding omen, Dave bravely stood again before the prying crowd and took the stage, which was actually two solid feet of blue foam padding. He surveyed problem 6 while the charismatic emcee planted a seed of hope in the audience that somewhere within this cherry-backed climber was the prowess needed to conquer the final artifice.

The first move involved a double dyno to a hold shaped like some horrible neck goiter, a gigantically inflated zit that swelled out of the wall and offered no clear clues as to the proper way to grab it. It appeared that the method Dave chose for trying to handle the goiter-hold was to whack it with the meat of his right forearm, and then let his skin scrape down its side, all culminating with his body’s wet slap upon the blue mat. For five minutes straight he endeavored to master the slick goiter, and though he did stick it once, he promptly greased off half a move later.

They say insanity is trying the same thing over and over without achieving any different results. Yet what I saw in Dave, whose right forearm had taken on the cannibalized semblance of shark chum, was not insane; rather a rare sense of self-deprecating humor shone through. He struck me as someone built and designed for adversity, capable of enduring any present moment. Perhaps that’s why he’s so successful in real rock climbing … even if he sucks at comps.