Think Hard, Climb Hard: An Exceptional New Book on Bouldering

It’s depressing to me how few people these days take a step back from their goal-driven, frenetic lives to stop and think about what it is that they’re doing, or even why. I’m certainly guilty of it too.

This characteristic is especially offensive when it’s a climber who’s not doing the stopping and the thinking. Why? Because if you stop and think about it, climbing is fucking amazing. The interesting places we get to go. The fascinating characters we get to meet. The adventure, the risks, the rewards. Even just the simple ability to move up a vertical plane of rock with our hands and feet is just plain dope.

The privilege of being a climber involves a lot of living, if you ask me. And I think a necessary part of having those experiences ought to involve time to reflect in the aftermath. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a responsibility we owe to ourselves. It’s certainly one reason why I’ve always been drawn to writing.

Cover of bookBut today, you rarely see much literature and reflection coming out of anyone. That just changed.

Francis Sanzaro stopped what he was doing and took the time to reflect on bouldering and what it means to him and why he does it. The result is his impressive new book The Boulder: A Philosophy for Bouldering. In it, he presents some of the most thoughtful and interesting writing I’ve ever read about this sport.

The Boulder is a dynamic new addition to the body of climbing literature and philosophy. The foreword by none other than John Gill alone is worth the purchase alone. But the ensuing chapters on “Dirtbagging,” “Technology vs Technologies,” “Improvisation,” and “Mysticism and Athletics,” to name a few, take a sport in desperate need of an intelligent discourse that goes beyond the token V-spray, and absolutely provide just that.

I enjoyed The Boulder so much I tracked down to Francis to find out just who the hell he is and press him on some questions.

 

How long have you been bouldering? How did you discover bouldering? Do you do other types of climbing?

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Francis Sanzaro

When I was 12, my sandbagging one-arm friend Pete Davis (who is now at Paradox Sports) took a trip to Colorado and upon returning said he did this thing called climbing. So we found the nearest cliff unworthy of the name, downed a warm can of Coors Light that Pete stole from his dad, and it’s been a love affair ever since. That was 22 years ago. I was a gymnast at the time, so the sport made a lot of sense physically.

While I have written a book on bouldering, I am not just a boulderer, and, as many people remind me, this book is more than just about bouldering, but deals with what happens when the creative forces of the body meet those of stone.

As for filling out my resume, I’ve done the big walls in Colorado and Yosemite, have placed my fair share of rurps, and climb ice as well, though it’s been a while since I swung a pick given where I live.

I currently live in Baltimore, where I was born. I just moved back here from a 10-year stint in Colorado and about 7 years in NY, where I got my Ph.D. I received my B.A. at Colorado State, with a concentration in Arthur’s Rock and Poudre Canyon bouldering. With a super strong crew, we developed those two areas over a couple years. I’m getting old now, just turned 34—longer to warm up and old injuries beginning to haunt me.

 

You present this vision of bouldering as being a movement-based philosophy and a movement-based art form. But much of your treatment seems to be a “response to” something about bouldering today rather than it is simply a neutral exposition of the sport. In other words, I found your book to be a refutation of certain  values, mores and media that appear to be intrinsic to bouldering today. Would you agree? What are you responding to?

I would definitely agree with that. So, what am I responding to? I guess I would start out by saying that first and foremost, this book is a vision of what I think is happening inside movement, inside the boulderer’s body when flesh meets stone. It’s a new sport, historically speaking, and it is no coincidence. Bouldering is what it is because at this period of time, to boulder is to express something essential about our age, about what we value, and about how we understand the human body.

Sports are experiments. The structured play of cricket reflects the mores of 16th century England, and bouldering does the same for our time. I begin the book with the idea that bouldering has died, that as a sport it is no longer relevant. Sports come and go like fashions, though with a longer lifespan. So I had to imagine that the life we granted to boulders was extinguished, and from there, imagine why it is our time that has embraced this activity so much.

Bouldering has become a pseudo-corporatized global sport just in my lifetime, and that brings with it a lot of pros and cons. Pros—more money for athletes who want to climb full time; more clips and media for us to get our grubby little fingers on; more support for access issues. Cons—its identification with extreme sports; bouldering areas getting trashed; the seriousness of it all; attitudes….. Now, I have no essential problem with capitalism and the commercialization process, but I also think that to define what a sport is by how it is represented is to fall prey to the strategies of marketing.

For most people, bouldering is not about jet setting, sending V15s and goofing off on rest days. That is not why the sport exists—that is to confuse the image with the thing—and that does not define it. The sport—the thing—exists because of something more simple, something that draws the other 99% to the boulders on the weekend or into the gym late after work.

True, many may be striving to be that 1% (I mean, hell, I want to climb V16 as well), but it’s not enough to sustain the mass appeal of the sport. Bouldering provides a simply joy that suits us, and the type of “field” we practice on could not be more different than our father’s “fields” (the soccer and football field)…which is the point…our aesthetic is actually quite in line with other contemporary phenomenons, like parkour, breakdancing, skateboarding, and yes, even iPad touch technology.

 

Did you draw inspiration from other sports and their accompanying literature?

Aside from dance and a few others, the theoretical literature on sports is horrendous, and I mean really bad. Lots of reasons for this. But here’s one reason: this book was an attempt to put sport on a different “footing” than simply a sociological analysis, such as “football helps young men achieve normative masculinity standards,” which is what most sports writing is about.

I wanted to do something different. Tons of great stuff has been written on the art of dance, however, so the biggest hurdle for me was to rethink what the art of climbing or bouldering was.

How even to begin? In order to do that, I basically had to ask questions that were not being asked: What the bouldering body does? How it acts? What is its “field”? How it is not pure movement? What do boulderers expect from the boulder? What is its creative process? And so on. In that sense, it engaged the history of philosophical thinking on athletics.

Someone told me they may use the book for a philosophy of wilderness course at the college level. That’s awesome.

 

In your writing, you allow your mind to wander and it seems to take you down some interesting avenues and include surprising observations that may only be tangential to the chapter’s larger theme. My question is about your writing process: How did you go about determining the chapter topics, and to what degree did you outline your thoughts? Did you just sit down and start typing and see where you would go?

Style kills, as Bruce Lee once said, it makes you vulnerable. One thing I didn’t want to do was take this creative and dynamic thing called bouldering and place it into a box. I felt that to address the topic I had to adopt a method that stayed true to the sport, and by that I meant how we figure out a boulder problem—everything has to be on the table.

For instance, as you know, I use contemporary architectural concepts to explain complex concepts of “surface” in bouldering, and I use examples from high jumping to illustrate how method in sport revolutionizes movement. I use material from Bruce Lee, John Gill, Laban, Foster, and I compare the aesthetics of the “line” in skateboarding to the “line” in bouldering. I use whatever, really, to get my point across. Since modern bouldering is just as deeply embedded in these cultural phenomenons  as anything else, then we really can’t avoid using them to talk about bouldering. The forces that are driving bouldering are no longer related to the mountains.

Bouldering is experimental, and so should be a book about bouldering. As boulderers, we have to be able to improv on the spot, change speeds, negotiate serious exertion with subtle shiftings of weight, and have to take risks. My writing process on this text was to dwell on a topic for a long time, and then write it when it was ready. I think authors are often too quick to begin writing when they have an idea. Perhaps we can blame the digital age for a widespread epidemic of keystroke diarrhea. Often, I’d get an idea—say, bouldering’s relation to architecture—and let it sit in my brain for upwards of three months. Only after that time passed was I ready to say something I felt was worthy. So, yes, my thoughts were outlined in my mind, but not on paper, and for me, writing is always a process of discovery…as is climbing. The chapter topics came last once I found a way to group a cluster of thoughts.

 

This book really shined in your passages about movement. I think the overall notion that there’s an intelligence to movement, spiritually or emotionally, is really fascinating. However, one thing that I found problematic in your book is that, if it’s all about movement, then why is bouldering indoors different than bouldering outdoors? Can not “movement art,” as you call it, be practiced at the same highest level indoors just as it can outdoors?

brad pitt (2)Ahh yes, the indoor vs. outdoor question! The internet is going hate on me for this one, and I can see the trolls aligning as we speak … but well, here it is. Bouldering movement does not care whether you are inside or outside. You enter it just the same. If bouldering is by definition something you do only on natural rock, then pulling plastic is indeed a lesser form. But can you honestly tell a ballerina entranced in her routine in a cramped NY studio that she is dancing any less because she is inside and not in the trees, twirling about in the great rhythms of nature? Is running on a treadmill a lesser form of running? Absolutely not to both of these questions. An artist painting in their basement is the same type of artist as the one who has canvases on the walls of the MOMA—it’s the creative act that makes an artist, not the venue in which their work is exhibited. Same with athletics—it’s bouldering movement that makes a boulderer, and makes bouldering.

It can’t be denied that bouldering outdoors is most of the time more pleasurable, and more satisfying, but isn’t the outdoors just an ideal, or a preference? As in, ideally bouldering happens outside. Bouldering feels to me to be more beautiful outdoors, but that doesn’t mean that’s what defines it…not that it needs a definition, which it doesn’t. Perhaps at modern bouldering’s inception, say in the late 1990’s when it begins to take on the shape it has today,  bouldering was deeply embedded in a larger climbing culture. This was because in its infancy it was an outgrowth of rock climbing, itself an outgrowth of mountaineering, and so, the early guys were all mountain guys or sport climbers. In other words, the outdoor landscape and all the nature language of wilderness experience was with it at the beginning. For better or worse, gyms have basically reared generations of boulderers who don’t find the outdoor experience essential, who don’t know how to place a cam.

Of course, I personally lament this trend, but, on the other hand, it has freed up bouldering to explore other options, and it has granted the sport the artistic quality it has today. Once you remove ethical and aesthetic judgments, you simply get a body moving over a surface, and that, my friend, is climbing.

 

As much as I enjoy thinking about climbing and examining it philosophically, at the end of the day, when I go out bouldering the experience really just amounts to finding a problem at my limit, trying the moves until I’m thrashed, having fun with my friends as we figure out the moves—then, either doing the problem, or not. It’s not much more, or less, than that. I admit to being motivated by grades, and that motivation persists despite full awareness in the fictiveness of attaching numbers to rock. Am I not, to use a phrase you often employ, “thinking about bouldering responsibly”? Can you explain what it means to think about bouldering responsibly?

I’m in full accord with you here—for the most part bouldering is simply chalking up, ripping skin, talking shit, complaining and sending (or not). It’s about sending hard. But it is my conviction that bouldering can be something more, and being able to inhabit this “more” will help you enjoy movement better, be able to figure out problems quicker, and, in the end, you’ll be a more efficient climber for it. That’s one thing that loads of people have been telling me after reading the book–how it helped them climb harder. “Head over corset,” one reader quipped. That wasn’t my goal, but I understand it.

But to answer your question about why is a book necessary for such a simple activity, let me give two different answers.

First, this is a question about books. Do books change lives? Can books alter the way we perceive things? Do other sports have theoretical literature that their athletes utilize? Yes, yes and absolutely yes. Second, in many ways, this is a 2500 hundred year old question in Zen Buddhism, and one equally relevant today.

When a famous monk was asked what Zen is, the monk replied to the novice that the essence of Zen is to be found in chopping wood and carrying water. He was serious, but it sure pissed off the novice. Of course, we can all do that, but there is a difference between carrying water for the Zen monk and carrying water for the rest of us. For the monk, there is an entire world in this act, a world of mindfulness, bodily awareness and ecstatic simplicity. No distraction, no wandering mind, no bullshit vibrating phone in your pocket. There is a simple truth here about pure kinesthetic awareness that ought to be put into conversation with athletic concepts Westerners know well, such as the “zone.” So, bouldering is simply climbing rock, but it is only climbing rock in the same way that surfing is simply standing on a stiff plank and sliding down water. A very important distinction—I don’t want to simply say it is “religious,” as that’s a cop out, but rather that religions have often exploited something about the body and simply called it “religious.”  There’s something deeper going on between a body and an apparatus, something aside from just ticking big numbers, no?

Sometimes we are thrown into the state (Gill said he achieved a higher state of movement but a few times in his life), but most of the time we have to work to achieve it…it’s there, and within it lies a profound sense of joy. This book is dedicated to finding that place.

Jerry Moffatt once said, “he who has the most fun wins.” I couldn’t agree more, and my thoughts on the topic are always trying return to this simple fact. And for the record, I end the book with a thought on joy.

 

What do you think are the greatest antagonistic forces bouldering faces today? Do you think the sport is heading in the right direction? What will save it?

What I don’t want to do is to try and speak for the sport, but rather provide a vision. I guess I do try to remind readers of what bouldering could have become. While there are plenty of issues related to bouldering’s growth—access, trash, keeping on trails—my main energies are towards the boulderer, not necessarily towards the industry. And I do think you can separate the two. The “cult of difficulty” is always problematic, as if those doing a sport the hardest are doing it most correctly.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m going to be 65 years old one day and still think I can send V12. I’ll be going from my old-man walker to the campus board and I’ll be the first person in history to die from campus board related injuries. I want to climb as hard as possible for as long as possible, but joy must always come first. Motivations have to be pure. What I think is ironic, and what I think inhabits the book like a ghost, is the idea that when you alter your priorities and make the embodiment of movement primary and difficulty secondary, you actually climb harder. All this of course is in addition to the usual lot of strength training. Going for difficulty alone is reckless for a sport that rewards patience, grace, adaptation and thoughtful movement.

In my estimation, standardization is the strongest force today, and it’s inevitable for any growing industry—standardizing the grading system—the V scale vs. the French scale is awkward.  What counts for a proper start? Getting the media packages consistent, the aesthetic in line, the fashion, convincing its devotees what to desire, best training methods, best body types, what’s acceptable when cleaning a boulder, what skills are competitions going to test, what counts as “pushing” the sport, a consistent scale for athlete’s pay, and so on.

 

You never really addressed ratings head on; it always seemed to be more of a tangential discussion to a greater argument about art/sport. Was that conscious choice? Would you be willing to offer some thoughts on the V-scale?

You’re right about that. I felt that I wasn’t quite ready to speak about ratings, but I am getting close. I guess I could lay out a few strategies as to how I think it would best be approached. First, we should ask what purpose grades serve? The V-scale of difficulty is different than a yard stick, which can be used to objectively measure the height of something, for example. The V-scale cannot be objective because we are dealing with human exertion, which is really what athletic difficulty is about. Measuring buildings is one thing, measuring human effort across time, hold size, width between holds, etc, is another. The distance in the long jump is an abstract measurement of human potential, and it is completely contrived, but it is a yardstick. Without standardization, climbing has no such luxuries as to be able to rest against an unchanging system of measurement such as a clock or distance measurements. I wish I had the time to discuss gymnastics here, but I’ll stay on topic.

Grades serve to measure human exertion—i.e., difficulty—and that serves another purpose, of distinguishing ability. Grades serve to measure if we are getting better at our sport, and this goes for elite athletes and the beginner who just knee-scrapped their way up a  V2. To me, then, the issue is—do grades help distinguish a better climber from a less talented one? Simply put, in bouldering, the answer has to be No, but the thorny issue is that this cannot be judged on a boulder by boulder basis, but what one could call a cluster of problems. I think there are too many strong climbers out there for one to send a hard route and then have it go unrepeated for, say, 10 years, with constant effort by top climbers. No one these days has the monopoly on a hard problem…but, I think the climbing community knows this and has created creative ways of dealing with it.

As we are topping out on the grade scale, sponsorships and media  attention are going to people who can, in addition to climbing the hardest problem, do other hard problems quickly, or send different styles in different areas, or flash hard problems. Jimmy Webb has distinguished himself in the latter category of late. But what is being acknowledged here is not just the ability to climb a variety of things quicker, but the type of athletic movement our sport is finding essential…this is our niche in the movement arts. As to what that type of movement is, and how movement does have an intelligence that can be honed, is a huge part of the book, and rather than do an insufficient job of explaining it here, I think anyone interested should suck it up and buy a copy! John Gill wrote a killer preface as well, and Boone Speed has the cover shot…so it’s been a collaborative project.

 

Where can we buy your book? Do you have a website? Anything else you want to plug?

The cheapest way to get the book is directly from the publisher. It’s easy, and here’s the link: http://www.stonecountry.co.uk/page11.html

I don’t have a website, but probably need to work on that. I’ve been working on another book (it’s on pathology and sexuality), and I expect it to come out this year, so perhaps a website would be nice then. But no site yet. I can be reached at francissanzaro@hotmail.com.