There is no World Series or SuperBowl of climbing. Subsequently, one is right to wonder what it actually means to be a “professional” climber. There are no teams, no jerseys, no try-outs. The true playing fields are found outdoors, on real rock, and the opponents are nothing more than a set of horrible holds to be crushed, even mythologized.
Historically, climbers have established themselves through magazine news reports and the jackpot of being featured in large video productions. But as the double helix of technology and media have spiraled forward in fast, new directions, shooting videos and telling your story through today’s cutting-edge visual tools has never been easier or more accessible. In effect, the new media landscape has completely changed the role and responsibility of today’s professional rock climber.
Carlo Traversi is one of the strongest boulderers out there today.
This 25-year-old from Santa Rosa, California, is now based out of Boulder and, in recent years, has been traveling around the world with the goal of repeating some of the hardest boulders in the world. In his 11 years of climbing, he has risen to the top of the American bouldering scene with repeats of The Game (V15), Boulder Canyon, and The Story of Two Worlds (V15), Cresciano, Switzerland.
This year was a breakthrough year for Carlo, who established his hardest first ascent to date: The Kingdom (V15), Brione, Switzerland.
I’ve known Carlo for a handful of years, and he has always struck me as a shrewd observer of today’s climbing scene. Being around Carlo, I often have a hard time telling if he is really humble or really cocky. I attribute that weird conflicting energy to the fact he knows he’s a smart, really talented guy, but struggles a bit with how to handle that appropriately.
He’s one of the more powerful climbers I’ve ever seen pull onto the rock. He has really long and very pretty eye lashes. Unlike many gorilla-strong boulderers, who can get away with sprinting through a short swath of rock, compensating for their poor footwork or bad beta with their huge shoulders and freak-strong fingers, Carlo climbs with technique and reserve, on boulders and sport routes alike.
He’s climbed Girl Talk (5.14b), Rifle, and onsighted Ariana (5.12a), on the Diamond face of Long’s Peak, CO, of which he says, “the overall experience was one of the more difficult in my climbing life.”
In 2012, Carlo and his girlfriend Mary Mecklenberg arrived in Europe via a jaunt to South Africa; they visited Norway, France, Sweden and Germany before finally arriving in Magic Wood, Switzerland. Due to the amount of travel, they only brought with them one pad, which still amassed baggage fees in excess of $2,000.
Once in the triangle of amazing granite blocs that is located at the border of Switzerland and Italy, Traversi went on, what is called in bouldering, the proverbial “rampage,” dispatching V13, V14 and V15 boulders on a seemingly daily basis. During that trip he climbed New Base Line (V14), Practice of the Wild (V15) and established the first ascent of Heritage (V14).
Carlo returned in the spring of 2013 with his brother, Giovanni (himself a great boulderer), and finished up The Story of Two Worlds and the first ascent of The Kingdom, both V15.
This rampage is now featured in the new full-length climbing movie Heritage, which can be purchased ($10) on Vimeo on Demand. Carlo and his girlfriend Mary, operating under their production company Born Denali, shot and edited this feature-length film. I got around to watching Heritage this week, and thought it had more than my money’s worth of inspiring footage of sick boulders. In the film, Carlo is genuine and open with his thoughts and feelings during interviews, and doesn’t shy away from the occasional controversial, if purposeful opinion.
I contacted Carlo recently to discuss his new film, and talk about today’s worlds of professional climbing and filmmaking.
AB: In the past, production companies like Big Up Productions, et al. used to be the only outfits in town. They’d work with select athletes and tell select stories. Now, due to game-changing DSLR technology, that has dramatically changed and many climbers, particularly boulderers, are making movies about themselves. Have you worked with other production companies in the past, and why are you now choosing to make your own films?
Tell me about Born Denali, your production company.
In all reality Born Denali is just the name I’ve decided to put all my media production under. My girlfriend, Mary Mecklenburg, also works under this name and has been a vital member of the production team.
My middle name is Denali and I’ve always thought of it as one of the underlying reasons that I was drawn to climbing in the first place. In my early elementary years of school, curiosity about my middle name drew me to read mountaineering books while my teachers always gave me funny looks. Years later, when I was introduced to “sport” climbing it resonated heavily with me because of my history with those books. In a lot of ways I feel like because of my middle name, I was born into this lifestyle.
How many feature films have you made? Who was/were your mentor(s) as a filmmaker?
This was my fourth feature length film behind The Swiss Account, On The Circuit, and Chasing Winter. I’ve always looked up to the early work of Big Up Productions. They produced the original climbing porn that many of us continue to try and replicate today. However, I’ve never really had any “mentors,” per se. I took a lot of film studies classes in high school and I have always been drawn to high quality filmmaking and visual storytelling.
What is the worst gaff/mistake you’ve made as a filmmaker?
There isn’t one particular mistake that stands out. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been a ton of them. The usual ones like messing up frame rates, white balances, audio levels, etc. Overall, I think I make a lot of mistakes during the interview process. I hate interviews and most times I wish we had enough supporting storyline footage to go without them. But that hasn’t been the case yet.
Do you view see yourself more as a professional climber or are you now more of a professional filmmaker?
I’m still relatively young and I feel like I’m not yet in my prime, so climbing still comes first. That will probably change in the future, but for the time being I always put on the climbing shoes before I pick up the camera.
Is it necessary for today’s professional climber to be versed in motion storytelling? Why?
Not necessarily, but it helps. Not even in terms of producing your own films. Social media is a huge part of a professional climbers career these days. Instagram, Facebook, etc, are all platforms to tell our stories. If we can’t relay those stories in a captivating or interesting manner, then our accomplishments and experiences get lost in the perpetually flushing toilet of Internet shit.
How does Vimeo on Demand work?
It’s pretty simple. You upload your film, create a page for it including price, description, trailer etc. and then release it to the world. 90% of revenue goes to you and the other 10% goes to Vimeo. Compared to the iTunes price cut, which at best is around 70/30, Vimeo is the best way to share, promote, and sell your work; especially for small independent filmmakers.
Beyond Heritage being a video of you climbing a ridiculous number of hard problems, what would you say this film is about?
I really wanted to portray the ups and downs of a bouldering trip: the successes as well as the failures. In most modern bouldering films it seems the climbers just effortlessly float up the hardest problems in one perfect attempt. I wanted to give a sort of background to that final effort. In a small way, it’s also about recognizing and connecting with a significant chapter in the history of hard bouldering and making efforts to add to it.
OK … I’m going to ask this question and it’s going to sound like a criticism, but I honestly don’t mean like that. This film joins many others currently being made in that you are the director, producer AND star of the film. To me it really smacks as being the height of extreme self-absorption. You have your climbing, which is already a weird selfish pursuit; then on top of that you have to spend all day shooting footage of yourself doing this already self-absorbed activity; then on top of that, you have to spend all night reviewing the footage of yourself in edit. Watching yourself over and over.
Another observation: in all the interviews in the film, you sit on a couch and act as if someone, some journalist or something, is interviewing you—when it’s clear that it’s really just you in the room talking to a camera on a tripod.
Do you get what I’m getting at? Like, how weird is all of this?!? Have you ever paused to reflect on this fact, or had to check your own ego, or just wonder if any of this extreme self-absorption is even good for you?
I’m really happy that you asked this question as it is something that I have thought a lot about. The answer is somewhat complex.
For me, video production began as a means of survival in the climbing world. Before I was getting paid to climb, but still climbing a majority of the time, selling video was a decent way to fund travels and life in general. Over the years I would film my friends and myself on our various trips and produce short clips that would go to various climbing companies or websites. I also made it a point to bring a camera along on my solo outings just in case I needed proof of a particular ascent in the future. (Yes, climbing has come to that). Filming became a personal form of documentation for me. I could reflect on my past accomplishments and analyze my climbing from previous seasons: a sort of video journal.
As I started climbing more on my own, my hard drives filled with mainly footage of myself. I also felt bad filming other athletes and distributing the footage, but not getting compensated enough for the film work myself to pass along fair pay to the athlete. If I was the climber and producer, then nobody was getting used.
When I traveled to Switzerland last year with Mary, we had zero intention of making a film. I had no idea if I was even going to be able to climb anything notable. But as the trip progressed, I was finding success on the boulders and we were making sure to set up a camera for documentation purposes. As the trip came to a close, we realized that we had a ton of quality climbing footage. Why not share it with the world?
I agree the whole concept in retrospect seems very self absorbed, but that’s only looking at the end product. The decisions made along the way are very logical to me and genuine. I’m just happy to have a chance to share my experience with the boulders of Switzerland.
In the future, I hope to focus my filming efforts on more interesting subjects in the climbing world. Our lifestyle is so much bigger than any individual athlete.
I noticed in this video that you are often climbing alone. Was this by choice or was it a fact of re-creating ascents for the camera?
In most of the ascents in the film, at least one other person was around: either Mary or my brother, Giovanni. However, I do enjoy bouldering alone for the most part. It allows me to progress at my own pace and get lost in the focus of one particular project. When I was younger I used to draw motivation from purely external sources, but as the years have passed I tend to draw mainly from within. It’s more reliable that way.
Is Dai Koyamada’s sit start to The Story of Two Worlds really a letter grade harder than the regular start? What do you think of the whole controversy of where you place your hands on the start of some of these boulders?
It’s hard for me to comment on the grade when I haven’t done it from Dai’s start position, but from my experience with the boulder it doesn’t seem to add any difficulty. I feel like the start position that I used is the most obvious, lowest, and most difficult method of climbing the boulder. Not to take away anything from other ascents.
The controversy regarding the starts is pretty ridiculous and complex at the same time. Basically, bad information was spread about the original start position and when it came time to clarify the situation, more misinformation was given.
Switching gears … though I love bouldering, I’ve never actually been on a strict bouldering trip abroad—though I was just in the Grampians and bouldered a bit there. However, I’m interested in knowing some basic logistical travel beta for a bouldering trip. Do you fly with pads? Is there any special tips for traveling with crash pads that you can share? Do you need to rent a certain type of car? How much are the excess baggage fees?
Yes, I definitely fly with pads a lot. Join as many frequent flyer programs as possible and apply for credit cards through the major airlines. They usually have added benefits that include extra luggage free of charge. Your savings on extra bags should outweigh the yearly credit card fee.
Be prepared to argue a bit with the airline representatives at check in. I make it a point to show how light crash pads are compared to their presumed perception. Also, be sure to note that they are sports items. Some airlines have exceptions for those types of luggage.
And don’t fly Ryan Air. I paid $600 to get 2 pads from Paris to Sweden last year, one way. The boarding pass cost less than $100. Don’t travel with pads unless you plan ahead and know the rules.
As for cars, you can’t go wrong with a hatchback. Cheap, good gas mileage and the seats fold down to create a much bigger trunk. It’s also smart to bring a strap to secure pads to the roof.
For a three-month bouldering trip, how do you manage to stay fit and keep your skin in shape? What is the rest-day to climbing-day ratio that you followed on this most recent European trip?
At night I usually do sets of push-ups and pull-ups. I also make time for volume days, where I try to climb as many easier boulders as possible on a given day. The day before a forecasted period of bad weather or rest day is the best time for a volume day. As long as you don’t have a specific problem you are trying to finish.
How many times a day will you try a hard problem? Do you have any strategies for breaking down a problem and working it?
In sport climbing it’s relatively so easy, I think, to progress by a single grade simply by working technique and gaining muscle memory on a single project. But with bouldering, so much of it comes down to raw strength. I feel like I’ve been climbing the same V-grade for years. What kind of training should I–or anyone like me–do to go to the next level?
Campus training would be the fastest way to improve. Using a campus board or just spending some time working on campusing boulders below your limit in the gym. Also, just bouldering more. It’s easier to transition back into sport climbing after working on bouldering rather than the other way around.
Describe your perfect problem.
Steep with big moves between pinches and slopers. Lots of body tension. Finish with a tricky mantle.
Tell me what you love most about bouldering.
Bouldering is all about aesthetics for me. The process of searching for and finding those unique 5 star lines is one of the most rewarding experiences. And compared to lines on big walls and alpine peaks, aesthetic boulder problems are so much more elusive. Sometimes they require specific thought processes to unlock, much like deciphering a code. Makes sense why they are called “problems.”
What bugs you most about today’s bouldering scene?
Who is your ideal climbing/bouldering partner and why?
I like to climb with anyone who has a positive mentality. When or if things get difficult and/or epic, the last thing I want to deal with is somebody complaining about the situation. There is generally an upside to any situation and I like to surround myself with people who share the same outlook.
Name two climbers you respect the most and, in one sentence, why.
Fred Nicole and Tommy Caldwell. Genuine, hard working people who are truly passionate about what they do.
Where does the name, The Kingdom, come from? What specific move or sequence makes this problem so hard?
The Kingdom starts on the same holds as Vecchio Leone, which means Old Lion in Italian. Vecchio is one of the best boulder problems in the world. The Lion is considered King of the Animal Kingdom and so the name is sort of a tribute to the original line on the wall. The Old Lion is still champion of The Kingdom in terms of history and aesthetics. The hardest part of The Kingdom is linking, although each move on it’s own took me a lot of time to figure out. All the holds face the wrong direction and it’s as much a battle of balance and tension as finger strength and power.
Daniel Woods (and others) have speculated that no one has done a single move harder than V13 (i.e., that V14 and harder problems are all comprised of series of moves that get up to V13 in difficulty). Do you agree with this? If not, where is there a V14 move?
For the most part I agree. Although, with advances in dynamic technique over the last decade, I wouldn’t be surprised if a more difficult move than V13 is out there. It would be an extremely rare thing to come by. The perfect line between barely possible and impossible.
What’s next for you?
I just recently took off on a 3 month Road Trip with Mary with planned visits to Canada (Squamish), Washington (Leavenworth, Gold Bar, Index), and California (Bay Area, Yosemite, Bishop, So Cal). I will be teaching climbing lessons at local gyms along the way as well as competing in a few competitions. Most of our time will be spent in Yosemite where I would like to establish a new level of difficulty for Yosemite bouldering as well as repeat some of the tried and true classics. I will also be attempting to utilize some of my bouldering strengths in the world of big wall free climbing. Should be an exciting fall!
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