Wednesday, January 7, 2009
Gymnastics and Climbing
Article by Kerwin Klein from John Gill's site
"In the early 1980s, as Jean Bonner and I were riding up the fire road to Black Mountain, the fuel line on her ’66 VW van ruptured, splashing high-octane across the overheated engine. The van stalled as the fan belt melted in the flame. I leapt out, opened the side door, and made an emergency decision: I reached into the back for my brand new, laminated, maple gymnastics rings and carried them off to safety. Then, I went back and doused the fire. I wasn’t much of a gymnast, but I had my priorities straight.
"At age 19 I had found a home in mountain climbing after years of other sports—motocross, football, a bit of recreational gymnastics. Mountain climbing led me to the local boulders, at Larrabee Beach State Park, and bouldering brought me back to gymnastics. There were no climbing gyms, so during the wet winters of the Pacific Northwest, gymnastics offered a way to stay in shape. Beside, I had read an obscure book, Master of Rock, about a guy named John Gill who had mixed gymnastics with climbing. I specialized in the rings, although I also climbed rope, initially as a complement to climbing. Soon after moving to Southern California in 1981, I bought my rings and began coaching men and women’s gymnastics at the YMCA in San Jacinto. Later, I moved on to the Riverside Y where I coached the Men’s Team for another five years or so. I never really competed, and my ring work could be charitably described as mediocre, but I could do giants and kips, had a creditable front lever and cross pullout, and a half-assed inverted cross. My best trick was my V-sit that I could lower down into a ¾ cross and then pull out. I loved ringwork almost as much as the mountains, but I was especially intrigued by the idea of blending gymnastics and climbing.
Although I did a lot of roped climbing, I came to prefer hard bouldering and long, easy solos to messing with gear. In those days there were few bouldering specialists on the West Coast, although many of the top climbers, notably John Long and John Bachar, took bouldering very seriously. I was deeply impressed by Bachar, but Long was more nearly a model, as famous for his beefcake coverspreads for Climbing magazine as for his bouldering. Neither I nor anyone else was going to replicate Largo’s corn-fed physique on a diet of rock climbing. I had a terrific time trying to keep muscle on—rings, weights, and protein shakes would add muscle, then hours of hiking and climbing would burn it off. So I’d train more, get into good shape, and then snap a tendon and go back to hiking for two or three months and come back skinny again. I spent more time rehabbing than climbing for many of those years—and coaching didn’t help, with my inflamed rotator cuffs sometimes the only thing standing between an out-of-control gymnast and a hard landing. Climbers today may find it hard to believe, but I was constantly working to add weight.
In the 1980s the bodybuilding aesthetic went mainstream—the waxed pecs of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced Sean Connery’s hairy but considerably less robust chest as markers of ideal manhood. And since I had grown up in Southern Illinois, where the ability to eat, drink, and get big enough to toss hogs were standard measures of masculinity, I had special body issues. At one point, I think it was the summer of 1990, when I was at my beefiest, at least as a climber, I went back home to Southern Illinois for a visit. I weighed about 190, without much body fat. My relatives were horrified—they thought I was emaciated, and they fretted over my health. They stuffed me with pie and pork chops, and by the time I hit the road west, I was over two hundred pounds (they still thought I was too skinny). Needless to say, the next week was not one of my more triumphal bouldering tours. But as in Gill’s case, part of my love for training grew out of cultural notions about what constituted the ideal male body as much as interest in improving my climbing.
Not surprisingly, I developed a taste for the few routes that rewarded all those hours on the rings, and on Southern California granite, in the 1980s, that meant mantles with an occasional juggy roof or crack thrown in. By 1984 I had built up a circuit of B2 mantles at Black Mountain and Joshua Tree, but the next five years were devoted to work, school and a seemingly endless cycle of injuries. Gymnastics and bouldering didn’t really come together for me until I spent a year in Arizona. Once there, I realized that my bouldering had stagnated badly.
In 1989 I landed in Tucson for a year of graduate school and quickly smacked into Bob Murray’s legacy. Murray had left a slew of inconceivably hard routes in the surrounding desert. I spent several months bouldering with some of his old partners, John Gault and George Smith, usually watching as they hung, upside down and barefoot, on underfed holds that looked more suited to slab climbing. They told me terrifying Murray stories: dropping thirty pounds to maximize his crimp strength; slicing a snickers into tiny bites to place on the exit holds of one of his projects as a motivator; his bouldering partner, Frank Abell, damaging his heart with climbing-related dieting. I have no idea how many of the stories were true, but the routes were fascinating—sit-down traverses across low, roofy chunks of rhyolite, in bare feet because the underslung footholds were too small to accept period climbing shoes. John and George also had a visually distinct style that apparently descended from Murray: they never hooked their heels; they avoided matching hands in favor of crosses; and their traverse sequences frequently placed the weak hand on the worst hold of the route. Although I had bouldered eliminates before, and Gill and others had practiced them for decades, I had never seen elimination done so systematically. Each and every rhyolite ripple had been stroked into some sequence—we could spend hours on a crummy little butt nugget less than forty square feet without ever repeating a route. Before the rise of climbing gyms, that sort of focus was unusual.
I never truly developed a taste for power crimping, but I did start working a lot more on my finger strength, and after I returned to Southern California, began integrating gymnastics and bouldering more seriously. I kept up some of my rings skills and thought more analytically about ways to translate those motions to the rock.
I could think of at least three models for mixing gymnastics and boulders. The most developed was that of Gill himself, which I knew largely through print, images, and stories from mutual friends. Master of Rock presented a gymnastic ideal in black-and-white stills. I spent hours studying all those carefully selected photos of a Gill, his face blank, outfitted in sports shirts and kletterschuhe, his body artfully arranged in straight, clean lines. John Bachar’s polished soloing and bouldering routines offered a second model. I didn’t know John well, but I wasn’t the only newbie who had been schooled in his mix of smoothness and theatricality. Finally, I had the Tucson lessons on elimination. And of course, one could always try to apply gymnastics rules to bouldering.
Gymnasts were expected to mix easy, intermediate, and difficult parts (in those days, A, B, and C moves) into an aesthetically pleasing routine that also demonstrated risk, originality, and virtuosity. But standards of beautiful movement changed with time and taste. For instance, most of the older gymnasts I knew had been coaching to do handstands with their backs slightly arched, for ease of balance. But my training had emphasized a purely vertical line. On the rings, too, things had changed. By the 1980s, the rings performer never bent his elbows, which meant than an entire genre of older moves, some of them quite difficult, had disappeared from the canon. In bouldering, the situation was even more elastic. Gill had suggested that a genuinely gymnastic boulder should overhang and probably involve dynamic movement, but beyond those injunctions, things seemed wide open.
I could see two different ways to approach the very idea of gymnastic or power bouldering, or rather two different basic ways of making a problem difficult purely by virtue of its demands on muscular strength. One way was to make a route difficult by arranging it so as to minimize the size and quantity of muscle that could be employed. The best example would be a radical overhang climbed with only one arm on a bad hold. Such a route basically reduced most of the body to dead weight and placed all the stress upon a small cluster of muscles—to make the route harder, one would select increasingly bad hand holds, reducing even further the number of muscles that could help with the work. There was a clear law of diminishing returns in such an approach. Campusing and dynamic pulling through overhangs, while minimizing reliance upon the feet, had been one of the hallmarks of many of Gill’s most classic performance routes. But it was becoming clear that weight, rather than upper-body strength, would prove the limiting factor for such routes. Campusing would tend toward the production of the skinniest possible climbers.
A second way of designing a powerful problem was to go in something like the opposite direction and arrange it so that it demanded the maximum utilization of the largest, core muscle groups. But such routes were rare. A few types of bridging routes, and certain types of mantles and gastons, made those demands on the big muscle groups, but these were not especially popular or even available. And by the early nineties, the cutting edge in bouldering had gone in the other direction. Cracks and mantles were completely out of fashion. The new classic problems looked much like the woodies then springing up in garages and basements: overhung faces with easy top-outs, minimal feet and increasingly tiny crimps for campusing. I did a lot of those routes, but I never fell in love with them. They just hurt too much.
Instead, I changed the ways that I looked for routes. Where before I had looked for attractive lines and then worked out the moves I needed to climb them, I now visualized moves that I wanted to do and then looked for rocks that would allow me to perform them. I didn’t particularly care if they had a summit or a clear beginning and end. The ideal was a route that approximated the basic requirements of a gymnastics routine. I wanted a route short enough to be performed in something like a single, continuous flow of motion without stopping to chalk, rest, or analyze the coming moves; that demanded a great deal of core power; and that also required or facilitated at least a display of flexibility and delicate footwork. Usually, these routes featured what the current jargon calls “shoulder moves” or “body tension” moves. A few were independent lines with summits. A few were well-known routes. Bachar’s Caveman at Joshua Tree was an example, especially if done backwards (left to right), the old-school way (until the very tiny exit foothold, which had made it more than just a strength display, crumbled underfoot in the mid-nineties and left it a pure thugfest). But the harder routes were contrivances. Many had no real summit and bore little resemblance even to a conventional eliminate. Needless to say, by this point, I was bouldering alone quite a bit.
My best, and not coincidentally, healthiest seasons came in the early nineties at Malibu Creek, Black Mountain, Joshua Tree, and Priest’s Draw. I was in my early thirties, too old for competitive gymnastics, and working sixty plus hours a week in grad school, but I had retired from coaching and my rotator cuffs appreciated the rest. After visiting Priest’s Draw with John Gault in 1989, I returned several times, including a month-long trip in the fall of 1993. Priest’s Draw was an ideal spot—nice fat-radius pockets, slopey pinches, and bear-hugs out limestone roofs. Many of the roofs were too low for campusing or swinging, but I found them delightful because their position made for many happy hours in a front or side lever position. In those days, almost no one bouldered seriously at the Draw (Robert – had been killed a short time before), and in addition to my usual contrivances I also got to develop a lot of independent lines like Carnivore and Kleinian Spindle. And back in California, Scott Erler and I spent a lot of time at Black Mountain scoping out and developing new areas like the Cube, the NRAs, and the Visor that offered traditional lines along with eliminates.
My favorite Black Mountain route, True NRA, was aggressively contrived. The regular NRA was a short 130-degree problem whose easiest resolution involved a dyno from a sloper and a pinch to an incut summit. The more difficult way to do it was static, with a twist-lock to the summit. One could also do it as a sit down, with a quick dyno through a set of slopers. True NRA followed the same line of holds, but was very different. It was a static, no-swing, no-dynamic routine that began sitting down and then moved upward through two very difficult gastons to the twistlock exit. It was a weird route, and not the sort of thing that anyone was likely to hear of much less care about repeating. I mention it here because it pointed up the changing fashions of even gymnastic approaches to bouldering. Where thirty years earlier, Gill had deliberately minimized foot placement and seen dynamic movement as the essence of a gymnastic approach, True NRA went the other direction: eliminating swinging and dynamics in order to create a more “gymnastic” sequence.
I don’t want to make this scrawny footnote to American bouldering history sound beefier than it was. One of the reasons I thought so much about these issues was that I had plenty of downtime recuperating from injuries. Part of becoming a great athlete is having the combination of good habits, good genes, and good luck to avoid serious recurring injuries. That didn’t happen to me. And most of the American boulderers of the 1970s and 1980s, the generation between John Gill and Chris Sharma, were basically placeholders, consolidating and popularizing the things Gill had done in the fifties and sixties. Many of these folks were marvelously talented, but arguably, only Jim Holloway and Bob Murray substantially changed the sport or elevated difficulty levels in a serious way, and neither of them had anything like Gill’s profile or impact on the larger climbing universe. Bouldering in the U.S. in the 1990s changed partly under the impact of visitors from England and Europe—the dramatic success of Jerry Moffatt convinced many sport climbers that bouldering had instrumental value for roped climbing--but mostly because of climbing gyms. The new artificial walls provided sport-specific training that was far more efficient than rings or doorjamb pull-ups and far less likely to pack on all those great slabs of delt and pec that had provided a campy Muscle and Fitness flavor to Largo’s photo sessions.
I still have my rings but seldom touch them. The long easy solos are still part of my routine, but the hard bouldering has faded away. A couple decades of rocks and rings have left me with much more scar tissue and many fewer muscles than I once had. Years of jumping off boulders have hammered my back. These days, “drugs” mean Celebrex, a shoulder move involves reaching for a beer, and body tension is what I get at work. And I’m still waiting for the twenty-first century integration of gymnastics and boulders"