On Wandering + Wayfinding

Jobs for the Traveling Climber: Freelance Front-End Web Developer

In this interview series we talk with people who spend their time traveling and climbing, while still holding down a steady income. From nurses to coders, writers to outdoor guides, we want to show that you don’t have to go full dirtbag to live the itinerant life. Because contributing to your 401k while seeing the world doesn’t sound so bad.

Name: Jack Lyons

Job: Front End Web Developer


1) What do you do?

I’m a front-end web developer. That means I write code for basically anything you see and interact with on a web page.

Working on the front-end is fun because it’s really easy to impact the look and feel of a page just by changing a few lines of code. It feels more artistic because you literally start with a blank canvas with every new page you build.

Currently I work as a freelancer and have a variety of clients located all around the world. Every day is filled with different challenges and I like being able to switch between client projects whenever I like.


2) How did you learn about web development?

Back in 2014/15 I was travelling in China, teaching English in Hangzhou, a city just west of Shanghai. I was pretty miserable with my current situation: Teaching English wasn’t as fun as I thought, mainly because the working conditions were brutal. I really wanted to make a change.

The only reason I was in China was so I could climb at the infamous crags of Yangshuo (hands down, some of the best climbing in the world). After a few months of teaching, I quickly realised that it wasn’t a sustainable way to work and travel and so I started researching other options.

That’s when I stumbled upon the whole “digital nomad” scene. I would read blogs and follow all the cool kids online who were “living the dream” with just a backpack and a laptop.

I got chatting  with a colleague at my English school who had a background in IT. Funnily enough, he had a big fat book Chinese/English book on HTML and CSS. He let me borrow it and I immediately devoured it. For the next 6-12 months I just totally immersed myself in learning to code because I knew it would allow me the chance to create the lifestyle I always wanted: To work and travel on my own terms and without burning a hole in my savings.

Climbing “The First Full Moon,” 7a in Bali, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of Jack Lyons.


3) What are some of the perks?

For starters, I get to create my own schedule. I can work early, late, from a cafe, at home, on the couch, at the library…

What’s more, I can pick who I want to work with and what I want to work on. I use a freelancing platform called Upwork that allows me to have a profile and be contacted by potential clients who need help. This means that the work literally comes to me and I don’t have to lift a finger to find new work. 

And lastly, I can save money even while traveling. This is huge for me, because I can take my remote career seriously and contribute to my pension, as well as personal savings and investments.

4) What are some of the challenges?

I know this sounds like a “first world problem,” but traveling in developing countries or rural areas means little to no wifi. While this makes for a relaxing getaway for most, this can be a seriously frustrating experience when I’ve got deadlines to meet.

Other than that, all general travel issues apply. Being flexible comes at a price.

5) What motivated you to pursue this path?

My dream has always been to be financially free and able to live and work wherever I want. Second to that, I love rock climbing and want to spend my days out at the crag rather than in the office.

I wanted a career where I could climb by day and work at night, or just take a day off whenever and make up my hours later.

To me, it only made sense that I’d need to find a job that would be online. Coding suited my personality well but I certainly could have gone down the path of a blogger / copywriter / online marketer and gotten the same results.

Jack and his wife in the famous bouldering area of Castle Hill, New Zealand. Photo courtesy of Jack Lyons.


6) How has your life changed since you started this?

Well, for starters, I no longer have to go to an office from 9 – 5 every day. I don’t really have a boss and I can charge whatever rate I feel is acceptable based on the project at hand.

I love the fact that I am able to see so much of the world and still have money left over. I thoroughly enjoy my work and need to pinch myself most days. I’ve lived in Europe, USA, Asia and travelled to over 30 countries. I’ve climbed in some of the most beautiful places in the world ( Greece, China, Austria, Germany, Croatia, Slovenia, USA, Thailand, New Zealand, Australia).

7) What does a “typical” week or month look like?

It depends where I am. Currently I’m based in Boulder, Colorado. It’s nice to have a home base because it gives you time to decompress from all the travel. It also allows you to get settled and lock in when you’ve got some serious deadlines or big projects to tackle. 

When traveling or on a climbing trip I try to scale back my work commitments because I know how demanding and exhausting it can be. For example, currently I am on a two week road trip with my wife in Alaska. I decided to take the entire time off, which is very rare for me to do, but it was absolutely necessary because I had  been working on some big projects over the last couple of months. I needed some time out to recharge.

Coding is really, really mentally taxing. It requires a lot of brainpower. It’s hard to stay focused when your work environment keeps on changing. So I prefer to plan out my work schedule depending on where we will be and when.

Climbing in Moon Hill, Yangshuo. Photo courtesy of Jack Lyons.

8) What do you wish you knew when first starting out?

The matter of fact is this: Coding is hard and takes so so so soooooo many hours of dedication, practice and patience. It’s not for everyone and it can be an incredibly frustrating profession.

I think one of the best ways to accelerate your web development journey would be to sign up for a coding bootcamp (bonus points for an exotic location somewhere in the world). This won’t make you a coding wizard but it will help lay a solid foundation, to meet like-minded peers, and to have dedicated help from a mentor. 

Having a mentor helps a lot but you have to realise that no one is going to hold your hand out in the “real world.” You’ve gotta have grit and figure things out for yourself.

Know that there will be roadblocks, bugs, meltdowns and disasters – it’s going to be how you react to them that makes the difference. Keep calm, and know that you will figure it out. Just learn to do whatever it takes to get unstuck – even if it means paying an expert for their time. You’ll learn from your mistakes and grow rapidly if you have the right mindset.

9) What is one lesson learned from your journey so far?

Patience is an important “skill” that can be developed throughout difficult situations under high stress, commonly known as “stress inoculation.”

I’ve had so many moments where I just wanted to smash my computer and curse my code for not working. But over the years I’ve learned to channel this into a more relaxed state where I can work through the problems in a calm and focused manner (sometimes).

10) Anything else you’d like to add?

Yeah! If you’re interested in becoming a digital dirtbag then check out my blog over at Medium: Adventure In My Veins.

There I interview other wanderlusting climbers who have built a lifestyle and a living around their digital skills. If you know anyone who you’d describe as a “digital dirtbag,” then please get in touch!

Thanks, Jack!

You can learn more about Jack, his work, and his travels:

Training Journal – 8/19/19 – 8/25/19

The big shift is re-focusing on training indoors and reducing time outside. I’ve been prioritizing writing and heading outdoors during the week simply takes too much time.

With that, my workouts center around 1) Endurance 2) Power Endurance 3) Strength + Power, and include specific climbing workouts, lifting exercises, and hangboarding. The cadence is two days of climbing, one day off.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been lazy and haven’t updated the Training Journal (oh well). But, I had started hangboarding a few weeks back and concurrently didn’t reduce the intensity of my other workouts. It severely negatively impacted my climbing (for example, I went to Rumney and was unable to do climbs I would normally be able to do; my strength was depleted). All of this to say, these are the reasons I’ve altered my approach.

So far so good.

Monday
Rest day.

Tuesday
Power Endurance: 4x4s (climb up, climb down, climb up, climb down)

7 sets, up to a peak set of a V4/V5 and a V2. Focus was on overhanging routes in the V2-V4 range. Arms got quite pumped by the end (they are supposed to).

Core:

  • Weighted sit-ups: 15(35), 15(35), 15(35), 15(35)
  • Hanging, raised legs, lateral: 4, 5, 5, 5


Wednesday
Strength + Power: Projecting. Mostly worked V4-V6 at Cambridge (known to grade harder). Focus on crimps, pinches. 13 problems total, multiple tries each. Did well sending up to V5. V6s require more work. Will push the grades more next time.

Lift:
1)

  • Lunges (dumbells): 10(30#, 60# total), 10(45), 5,(60)
  • Flies: 10(15), 10(25), 5(35)
  • Shoulder Press: 10(40), 5(50), 2(55)
  • T2B: 10, 10, 10

2)

  • Weighted dips: 12(45), 10(70), 10(70)
  • 1-Leg DL: 10(10), 5(20), 5(20)
  • Back extensions: 10(25), 10(25), 10(25)



Thursday
Rest day. Foam roller.

Friday
Endurance: 20 minutes of climbing (2:12 min. on, 2:12 min. rest) on a circuit. 9 reps. Had to work in with someone else so halfway through ended up doing 2:30 reps going around the circuit twice for 60 moves, and longer rests.

Hangboard pull-ups:

  • 4 finger deep edge (4FD): 1rep(10s), 2(10), 3(10)
  • Pointer-Middle-Ring deep (PMRD): 1(10), 2(10), 3(10)
  • Middle-Ring-Pinky deep (MRPD): 1(10), 2(10), 3(10)
  • 4F Lockoffs medium (up to chest, 90 degrees, 120 degrees): 1(5,5,5s), 2 (5,5,5), 3(5,5,5)
  • 4F Lockoffs small: 1(5,5,5s), 2 (5,5,5) 3(5,5,5)

Lift:
1)

  • Bench: 5(135#), 5(165), 5(185), 5(195)
  • Deadlift: 5(135), 5(165), 5(155), 3(215)
  • Toes-2-bar: 10, 10, 10, 10

2)

  • Weighted pull-ups: 5(45#), 3(70), 3(70)
  • Front and lateral shoulder raises: 5(15), 5(20), 5(20)
  • Weighted sit-ups: 10(35), 10(35), 10(35)


Saturday
9 mile hike, 3,800+ ft. of elevation: Mount Lafayette loop.

Sunday
Rest day. Foam rolling and stretching.



El Penon de Ifac – Parque Natural de Penyal D’Ifach


What I’m working towards: My objective is to climb the Diedra UBSA in Costa Blanca, Spain in November, an 8 pitch, 5.10a PG13 mostly sport route. This trip and objective is sponsored in part by the American Alpine Club + The North Face’s Live Your Dream grant.

I first came across the Penon d’Ifach, the massive limestone block that emerges from the Balearic Sea, while researching climbing in Spain last year. The striking outcropping has stayed on my mind since.

The grant is designed to help you “level up” your skills in a specific and measurable way. For context, I started climbing more seriously in 2018, and had only done about 30 lead climbs (in the 5.10 range) when I applied. I chose this route because it combines skills I’m keen to develop: Multi-pitch climbing, traditional climbing, anchor building, and endurance (suggested time is 6-9 hours). The goal date allows for six months to incrementally develop my technique and know-how.

So far this year, I’ve: Begun leading on trad, increased time on rock (as opposed to the gym) bouldering/ sport/ trad, practiced anchor building, did one multi-pitch (albeit a short one) and practiced belaying from top.

The longer-term dream is to do big alpine climbs in the Wind River Range.


Goals for August:

  • Days outside: 8
  • Sport leads: 10
  • Trad leads: 10
  • Multi-pitch: 1
  • Grade aim: 5.10+ sport, 5.7-5.8 trad, multi-pitch 5.7
  • Focus: Lead more trad routes, easy multi-pitch routes, bouldering
  • Stretch goal: Send V6 outside

Progress on July Goals as of 8/25:

  • Days outside: 3
  • Sport leads: 0
  • Trad leads: 4
  • Multi-pitch: 0

Goals for 2019:

  • Lead 5.11c/5.11d comfortably (sport)
  • Send a 5.12a (sport)
  • Lead 5.8-5.9 trad comfortably
  • Send a V7 outside
  • 100 days of climbing outside
  • Lead 300 routes on real rock

Progress on Year Goals as of 8/25:

  • Lead 5.10+ comfortably (sport)
  • Lead 5.6-5.7 trad comfortably
  • Send V4/V5 outside
  • ~34/100 days of climbing outside
  • ~46/300 lead climbs on real rock



El Penon de Ifac photo source: La Marina Plaza
Feature photo source: The author

Alex Macmillan (Traveling Rock Climbers) on Climbing and Coming into Your Own

Tucked into a nook in her uninsulated camper van, Alex MacMillan talks about learning to trust herself. Or she starts to. The call crackles and phases out.

She moves indoors to her aunt’s living room, forced to boot up an old laptop for the call. Such is the life of a nomadic climber hunkered down for the winter in Australia.

Alex is the creator of the Traveling Rock Climbers Facebook group, a place where traveling climbers can meet partners when visiting a new place and glean beta on an area. As Alex puts it, “It’s a kind community where people are stoked on climbing.”

Photo courtesy of Alex Macmillan


The group now boasts over 7,000 members, and for some, has become their primary resource for destination climbing information. For Alex, it was a way to scratch her own itch, and give back to the community that had taken care of her.

“Hello?” Her voice rings in clear this time.

Nested on the couch with the laptop propped in her lap, Alex shares about growing up without belief. A litany of things that challenged her: She didn’t believe she could live without pain; That sports weren’t for her; That she didn’t fit in, especially in her own body.


The diagnosis changed everything. 

A few years ago, Alex nearly had a seizure from the medication she was taking for mono. It was a red flag for the unusualness of the reaction.

“The medicine was making my disease worse [which was undiagnosed at the time]. I was bed ridden, couldn’t feel half my body. It took a couple of months to figure out what was going on,” Alex begins.

“It was really hard for me to identify my symptoms. They kept asking me if I got dizzy when I stood up, and I always said ‘no,’ because I always got dizzy when I stood up. I figured it wasn’t any worse. But that’s one of the main characteristics of POTS, and it was so normalized to me and my body that I didn’t think it was abnormal.”

Alex was diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), a form of dysautonomia that is estimated to impact between 1,000,000 and 3,000,000 Americans.

“It’s a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system,” she explains. “That’s the part which does everything automatically, like heart rate, circulation, temperature regulation, and eyes adjusting to light. All the things you don’t think about, don’t really work in my body.”

“It validated 21 years of discomfort.”

“If you told my family that I would be a rock climber when I was a kid, they would have told you, ‘bullshit. No way.'”



Before the diagnosis, Alex had begun to push back against the nameless affliction.

She grew up as a dramatist, not an athlete, and it was her attempt to build a stronger body. She started with running. A little here, a little more there. Her body would fatigue easily, but slowly and surely she was adapting. 

Then she discovered climbing.

“Kate was way different, a total badass,” says Alex of her high school classmate who showed her the ropes.

Photo courtesy of Alex Macmillan


“She would take me climbing and every time I got on she wouldn’t let me down until I hit the top. It forced me to gain a proficiency,” she chuckles.

The introduction, and the connection, showed Alex that she was capable of more.

Alex moved to Portland for college and would get away for trips to Smith Rock. She was finding confidence and believing she could handle larger adventures. Father and daughter had talked about walking the El Camino, and with a sounder body she decided to do it. 

“Why is the youngest person on the trail also the one whose body is falling apart the most?”



The forested base of the Pyrenees Mountains gave way to granite masses, but the details were shrouded under watery eyes. Alex was crying, she couldn’t believe she was really there. 

“It was something I’ve been wanting to do for years,” she recalls.

The journey took 35 days for the 18 year old who was afraid of the dark and dutifully stubborn.

“I was a massive purist about it. I walked every single step, even though the first ten days I limped every single step,” she says with a wry grin.

“People would look at me and go, ‘Why is the youngest person on the trail also the one whose body is falling apart the most?’”

Photos courtesy of Alex Macmillan


The trip helped her come to an important realization.

“The Camino was this crazy thing that taught me to wake up and get out of bed every day,” she shares. “No matter how crap I felt, I realized I didn’t have to feel good to exist as a human, that I just had to exist. And that was okay. That led to this road of being intentional in life.”

She gives a pause then blurts out, “I later found out that my family didn’t think I’d make it a week!,” she says, laughing.

The trip fortified her. She began thinking about the transformative nature of wandering with purpose, and of connection.

“Shit, this is my life now.”



An invitation to Australia set a new course. The Birthing Canal made her a dirtbag.

“I was really in New Zealand for a kayaking trip, then someone said I’d enjoy the Hangdog Camp,” a climber’s hostel, Alex begins.

“So I hitchhiked on the back of a hay bale truck. When I got there the gate said it was full. ‘Yea right,’ I’m thinking. I just hitchhiked for hours, I’m going in.”

From the beginning she could tell it was a special place, and within five minutes she was in a car and on the way to the crag. 

“I met some people who are some of my greatest friends today. I’ve traveled around multiple countries with a lot of them, seen them around the world,” she says.

That night she was given the welcome treatment.

“I went through an initiation, which is going through a boulder problem they call The Birthing Canal. You do it naked and it looks like people are being birthed. It’s a two meter long hole that you go down head first. Yea know, after that, it was kinda hard to leave!,” she bursts out laughing.

She emerged with a new perspective, and saw a meaningful way of life within the group there.

“People really thrive in routine: You wake up every morning, you eat your oats, you go out climbing, eat your PB&J, keep climbing, go home, cook over the fire, drink crappy wine out of old bean cans, and go to bed.” 

“You do that everyday and it’s awesome, the routine is beautiful.”

Photo courtesy of Alex Macmillan


She continues, “It gives people the work they need, something to work towards. They have their climbing, sustenance, sleep, all these basic tenets of human needs that a lot of time we don’t have in our 9-to-5 existence. And they feel that and go, ‘ah, this is the thing!’”

“We often lack community so deeply. In climbing, we’ve found this beautiful group of people.”

It showed Alex the power of community, and what it could mean to welcome others into it. 

“All I needed was Hangdog apparently, and then I was like, okay I’m a dirtbag!”

“I’m not a very good internet person”



Alex spent the next few years traveling and climbing. She discovered how challenging finding partners and gathering beta on a place can be.

“I was sick of every time I wanted to go somewhere, I had to search out and join a local group to find partners and info,” she vents.

“I used every search word I possibly could for an international climbing group because it just seems like it would be something that would exist. There just wasn’t one. Which is weird because it’s such an international community.”

The group has taken off.

Photos courtesy of Veronica Maffioletti (left) and James Herrera (right), members of the Traveling Rock Climbers


“There are 1,000s of people who use and value this thing. We have been really fortunate to have such a kind community, and an awesome admin and moderator team that totally pick up the slack because I’m not a very good internet person,” she says cheekily.

She’s proud of the group. “The best part is it’s an online community that you can connect with wherever you go. And it’s all about the people, they make it special.”

With a bit of a Greek mythology twist, she adds, “It feels a bit like my child that I birthed and now is independent.”


From unknowing to knowing; From walking to running to climbing; From self-doubt to self-confidence, self-discovery is a lifelong journey that we all share.

For Alex, she’s coming into her own through the communities she’s a part of and helps foster. She’s seen how it’s supported her, and hopes others can experience the same.

“You should try and do good,” Alex shares.

No matter where we are in life, we can put something positive out into the world, because you never know who it might touch or how it might help.

Luckily, climbing is a sport that connects, wherever we are.

My First Climbing Comp: The Substance Matches the Hype at adidas’ Ticket to Rockstars Brooklyn

Past a skate shop and bulky shirtless crossfitters, and opposite an axe throwing bar, sits a climbing gym in the old Daily News garage in Brooklyn.

Amateur climbers were gathered to compete in the adidas Ticket to Rockstars event. Many, like myself, were there for their first ever competition, while the crusher few were vying to win entrance to the Finals in Stuttgart, Germany, and the chance to compete against pros. 

For the intro price of $25, I signed up for some cheap thrills, swag, and this story. Considering the notoriety of World Cup comps and the upcoming Olympics, I wanted to see what the hell this was all about.

Would the experience live up to the hype?


It was 2pm on a hot and hazy Saturday, the sun is radiant and the blacktop is radiating heat. Children in green shirts are spilling out into the street chattering with the enthusiasm of a sugar high. Heavy baselines boom from the open doors of the stucco entrance that reads, “THE NEWS – BROOKLYN GARAGE BOULDERS.”

Inside, the chalky air rises in convection flumes and settles in back quarters and on black mats. Friendly faces check me in, while pint-sized competitors and families with cameras gather around for the award ceremony in the background. 

“The prize for the top female… well, uhh, girl,” the announcer pauses. “The top finisher in the girl’s Kids Jam category is Tessa Huang who flashed nearly every problem!” 

Cheers give way to pounding music, which pulses through the speakers thrashing my eardrums. I’m surprised you can’t see sound waves in the thick mist that hangs like humid air over a seaside beach. It’s like preparing for a night in a hostel with a loud snorer; “Gonna be a long one,” I think to myself.

“The Open Jam starts in 10 minutes,” the MC hollers over the sound system. 

I dash outside for free ice cream: Strawberry jam crumble in a cone. Ice cream before a competition, you say? I was prepared to do whatever it takes to win. Just kidding. Damn do I like ice cream.

Let the games begin. Photo by the author.


“Welcome to the first ever adidas Rockstars event here in New York City,” the MC declares without exclamation points. “We’re going to go over the rules then let you get to the fun.”

Logistics are confirmed, scoring clarified, and a count is given.

“3, 2, 1. Go!” 

Cheers amass and the mass disperses in the way a drop of soap slowly spreads across the top of a bowl of water.

Despite the sludgy speed, the stoke is high and volume higher.

A woman behind me starts on problem #6, a slightly more than vertical jug-haul on green holds. She makes a few moves, tentatively, trying various body positions, and falls.

Lines queue up quickly around low grades and where others already are. It was a peak into human psychology: People were attracted to the manageable and the masses.


I walk through the central corridor under the Brooklyn Bridge facsimile to the back left corner where there is a nook with easy problems. A booming speaker and the only meaningful fan in the place complement the space. 

Climbers cruise a slightly overhanging moderate comprised of downward facing pinches on sloping feet, pink holds. The feeling I always get in a new gym washes over me: “I wonder if I’m gonna eat shit on these?” As if all of a sudden I’ll forget how to climb and any technical ability beyond flopping will escape me.

After watching a train of people repeating the same refrain, I jump on and flash the problem in similar effect. “Okay, this is manageable,” I assure myself. 

The Cave. Photo by the author.


Turning away from the nook unveils the cave. It is comprised of an upward slanting roof covered in hard problems and a flowy jug-haul on an arete. The movements look fun so I wait in line for the yellow moderate.

There are big cheers for top outs and proud parents phone-filming their daughter. She starts strong but the transition out from under the roof proves difficult for her feet. She tries—fights once, twice, three times to kick her legs up—but falls in the end and returns to the line for round 2. 


Scoring is straight forwardish. Three levels of difficulty: Blue (easy), Red (moderate), Black (hard). Each problem equates to a total number of points between 100-400, with harder sets worth more. Points are divided by the total number of people who complete the problem. For example, if 2 people finish a black worth 400, they each get 200 points. If 100 people do the same blue worth 100 points, each person gets 1 point. Most points gets a trip to Stuttgart. There are 40 problems total. 

Thus proved one of the challenges of the event: 40 problems for 280 participants (or so the rumor went) meant a lot of waiting around.

“I didn’t know it was going to be this crowded,” demurred Victor He, who was supposed to be in the office until 4:30pm that day. He came down at the behest of his significant other, bicycling from Midtown.

“But I’m glad I came,” he says. “It’s a good environment to practice finding happiness in, which I’m being intentional about.”


I move towards the entrance to a cupcake shaped peninsula and try a harder piece, white holds.

The problem starts on crimps and is off-balance, with only the right leg on a sticky sloper. Then it goes into a falling lunge to a right hand pinch on a half moon while simultaneously latching on to a slippery football sized dihedral with the left. The next sequence was a left heel hook match to the left hand then a left hand reach up to an open palm crimp on the corner of a dihedral. Hold body tension and slowly bring your legs under, then right foot up and into the crescent, maintaining balance and grip on slippery hands the whole way. 

I didn’t get this one. “Interesting,” I thought to myself.

The problems were lavished with what Laurent Laporte, the head route setter of adidas Rockstars, described as “funny.” 

“What do you mean?,” I probe.

“We want people to smile while climbing,” he explains. “There are different styles, we try to incorporate some surprises, like no hands or unexpected movements.” 

We look around and see plenty of smiles.


“Americans love lining up,” an Aussie mused to me before boarding the bus in Boston. Her observation played out accurately as the respect for queues was strong at the comp. On the plus side, it gave you ample rest. 

A tricky bastard. Photo by the author.


After tiring of waiting for the white moderate, I proceeded to the back, returning near the fan and a problem that begins with a jump start, black holds.

Stepping up lands you on a peanut-sized undercling that you catch with your thumbs, holding tension on a right-footed pedestal and left-footed friction on a sloping dihedral. Steady yourself to officially start. The next moves were a traverse left on tricky slopers for feet to a downward angled dihedral you needed to match hands on. Leaning left and holding with your right hand,  jump around the corner to a deep-pocketed sloper that required keeping your right hand on for compression while cutting feet. 

“Fun setting today,” remarked Courtney Billig, who regularly climbs in New Jersey. “A lot of dynamic moves, which is not something I tend to try.” 


About 2 hours in a few crushers arrived and make quick work of the cave problems. This includes Ray Hansen (who won the comp) and Téo Genecand (who took third).

The green set in the cave was a strongman contest. The problem starts low on overhung pinches and moved to a dead point two-finger pocket. This was followed by a shallow jug then a series of Tarzan-like swings through 3 two-finger pockets that required rotating one’s body 180 degrees. Climbers hung and swung their whole weight on two fingers at a time. This led to a toe-hook out from under the roof, then a hand match, finishing up with technical face climbing on small crimps. The problem was #38 (out of 40), making it one of the most challenging of the lot. 

I tried working a pink in the mid-30s, what others called, “maybe a V9.” Not knowing the grades and in the light of competition, it was fun to jump on random problems that caught the eye.

“It’s a cool opportunity to see what comps are like,” noted Josh Greenwood, a coach at Brooklyn Boulders who was participating in the event. “What’s nice is it encourages people to try something new, different problems they might not normally do.”

Riley MacLeod, an editor at Kotaku, agreed. “I’ve only been climbing three months,” he starts. “But the woman who taught the intro class said ‘you should do it!,’ so I signed up. I almost turned around on the way here.” He continues, “I tend to wuss out near the top, but today, it only counts if you get to the top, so I’m going for it and completing the climb! This has definitely inspired me to push a little more.”

I came. I saw. I faltered. Photo by the author.


Nearing the end and with ears ringing like a steel drum, I call it a day.

My cheeks are sore and I realize I’ve been smiling the whole time. Seeing the participants enthusiastically try problems and cheer each other on lit me up, and is a reminder of how special the climbing community can be. 

Never turning down a free beer, I cash in my drink ticket for an ale and kick back to watch competitors attempt their last climbs. There’s back slapping and hand clapping, high fiving and laughing, all in the name of camaraderie and fun.

“I like to compete with myself,” says Victor, “not other people.” “Which means you can celebrate everyone else instead of rooting against them,” I add. “Right,” he says.

I can see what the hype is all about now.

Mikhail Martin of Brothers of Climbing (BOC) on Leading by Example and Community Building

Pieter Cooper strode into a downtown Brooklyn gym and saw something through the chalky haze that made him stop in his tracks.

He was alone, but emboldened. With locked eyes he walked across the room. 

“Oh you do this too?” he offered. David Glace reciprocated.

“It was like Black Guy No. 1, Black Guy No. 2. That was the joke,” Pieter says. But where were the other climbers of color?

“We should form a group to bring more awareness that we are out there doing it,” they mused.

Martin and BOC members. Photo source: BOC



Mikhail Martin is the fourth musketeer of the team behind Brothers of Climbing (BOC), along with Andrew Belletty. He comes across like the mastermind of the jig, a willing leader with a programmer’s articulation for simple clarity and a Caribbean easy-goingness. 

Our call opens and it sounds like Mikhail had a long day. He’s not grumpy, but weary. It was Friday at 6PM after all. His straight-shooting questioning softens with a bit of banter and the jokester bubbles in with a chuckle that unveils his characteristic upbeat vibrato.

If you attend a BOC meetup you’re likely to hear Mikhail belt out Bieber, but he doesn’t sing today. Instead we chatted about what it’s like to build a community, and how the role has evolved over the years.


In the REI mini-mentary on BOC, Cooper, who eventually wound up as the Manager at Brooklyn Boulders, relays a story that catalyzed why they needed to form BOC:

“I’ve had black kids say, ‘nah, we don’t do this, we don’t do [climbing].’ That made me go, man, this kid is saying that, what else does this kid think he can’t do just because he’s black or he has not seen a black person do [you name it]?” 

“This goes back to not being exposed to the outdoors. The problem is we’re telling ourselves that we can’t do it, and on the other end, there’s no one telling us that we can do it. So it’s a problem on both sides of the coin, and we have to attack it from both sides,” Martin says in an interview with Off the Strength.

The quartet wanted to show that, yes, people of color do climb. The hope was to encourage others to give the sport a try. 

Mikhail, Pieter, Andrew, and David decided to start simply, informally at first, just a group climbing in the gym. The impetus was to “have a good time, and to try to be as welcoming and personable as possible,” relays Martin. 

Word spread, more people came and the community of Brothers of Climbing developed. 


On Community Building:

Establish a culture of inclusivity

“We were hooked on the sport, and we wondered why more people of color weren’t. We found it came down to the expense of climbing at a gym, the established climbing culture, and a lack of outreach. We couldn’t really do much about the costs,” Martin says. “But we could make a difference with the culture and outreach,” he notes in an Outside Magazine article.

BOC wanted to be as welcoming as possible for first-timers. Many members of the group are newer to the sport, and at their yearly bouldering festival (which they co-organize with Brown Girls Climb), most attendees are climbing outside for the first time. The initial impression could be the difference between one-and-done and on-going interest.

At the meetups, the more experienced climbers help out the newbies and the organizers make sure to establish a fun, relaxed environment. Martin credits having a diversity of interests among the group as a way to connect with members, “not all discussions are about climbing, we talk about new music, movies, etc.,” he says. Even something as simple as playing their own music at the gym sets a different note. 

Karaoke time. Photo source: BOC



Localize the group to local needs

There are now meetups in Chicago, Philly, DC and Oakland. Each locale has its own feel, but the common denominator is that everyone is happy to find community and come together.

“You really have to read your community. What do they need?,” urges Martin. 

In NYC, goofy and outgoing is the MO, including spontaneous karaoke sessions. In other communities, a different style of leadership may be needed. Every city has a unique history, varied experiences, and specific needs. The final “product” has to factor in the particulars of the local scene.


Listen to the community

The group has evolved over the years as the founders themselves have matured. 

“We started when I was 23, now I’m 29. As you get older, you start to realize other issues, other things become more important,” says Martin. In order to be role models for the future, the founders incorporate the concerns of the members into the direction of the group and their personal actions.

For one, communication and mutual understanding is key: Ask if someone is comfortable with you spotting them; Ask what someone’s preferred gender pronoun is. If someone doesn’t feel welcome, the founders want to talk with them to figure out how to fix it.

Since BOC started back in 2013, climbing has changed, the political landscape has evolved, and bigger concerns around equality in employment and representation have taken on a larger focus for the group.


More About Brothers of Climbing

The conversation expanded into a foray on fair compensation, the bigger picture for BOC, and Martin’s goals for the year. Another late night in the books talking about something he cares about. 

“BOC’s mission is to increase involvement of minorities in the outdoors. Right now we’re starting with climbing,” says Martin. Seems like they’re on the right track to do a lot more.


If you’re interested in learning about Brothers of Climbing you can visit their website. If you want to join an upcoming meetup, check out their Facebook group for a list of events. Color the Crag, their yearly bouldering festival in Alabama (how’s that for audacious?), will be held from October 17-20 this year.


Feature photo credit: The Joy Trip Project

Climbing and the Art of Living

He threw his body to a pinch and latched on with demonstrable purpose: This is mine. I choose this.

Simple.

It was the most controlled power I’ve seen on a rock wall. Each movement maximized. It was composed, explosive, one touch and go, like how Barry Sanders used to detonate out of cuts, halt, reverse direction, spin and sliver up field with the force of a rocket. It tossed me through a loop. 

I forgot what aggressive climbing looked like, that it could be subsumed into your stylistic pattern. I’ve been modeling myself towards the restrained, emphasizing body position and feet placements, to conserve energy, to focus on form. Often when you see power in action it is jerky and ugly (in the lesser skilled) or it’s a thunderous holy-shit-I-could-never-do-that (Sharma or Ondra). Instead, this was Muhammad Ali butterfly and breakneck in one. And it seemed attainable.


We Choose How We Climb like We Choose How We Live

As I was watching, his climbing style reminded me that people have their own modes and fashion for living as well. Each person has a rhythm, reach, strengths and weaknesses, risk tolerance, and aspirations. Just like we get to choose how we climb we can choose how to live.

Deciding how to live is our greatest responsibility, Camus and the Existentialists argue. They believe the world has no inherent purpose, that it is random chance that we are here at all (stemming in part from Nietzche’s, “God is dead” observation). Yet here we are, and it is from this empty space that we begin. “Existence precedes essence,” as Satre says. 

(Ironically, you get to choose whether you believe these premises or not, which still makes it the most important decision. You decide which foundational belief systems to abide by).

This framework is a blessing and curse. We have the ultimate freedom, but choice and responsibility are one and the same. They are yours alone.

Photo by Igor Oliyarnik on Unsplash


This past Week I Didn’t Know What I Was Living for

It was difficult to sit down and do the work I needed to do. I felt drained of creative energy; tired, lethargic, uninterested. The homunculus was screaming avoidance. The internal compass was out of whack.

What was I working towards? Why was I doing this?

I pushed on, and felt worse. 

For one, I wanted to see if it was just a dip that I should soldier through (inertia can masquerade in many forms, or, the importance of doing the work). There were deliverables and deadlines, after all. But something was off.

I still haven’t quite figured it out. Partly, I lost sight of the big picture, felt stuck, stodgy, twisted. I was disconnected from myself. It was draining, and I had gotten to a point that Hemingway referred to as an emptying of the well, and I wasn’t letting the springs refill it. 

In this condition I find it challenging to make simple decisions about things like, do I want to climb today? 

The negotiation goes: I don’t really want to, but I should (it’s good for you). Where to go then? Framingham is feeling stale. I’ve wanted to try the Boston location. But then I have to drive in and that’s a long commute. What about Waltham? Is there a hang board there?…

I had stopped listening to myself, that deep down part. 


I Wanted More Money and a Title and the Ability to Work from Home…

We were by the pool and the conversation turned to a new job.

Someone was describing the two positions they were offered: one at a different company with a better commute but more responsibility and a smaller pay bump; The other at their current company, but with a new title, more money for less responsibility, and the flexibility to work from home. They expressed it in a way that it seemed like an obvious choice.

Still, they talked of it with unease, like it was between the lesser of two evils. They explained how they had stressed about the selection, “talked with a lot of people” and gave it considerable thought. They ultimately went with the obvious option. It didn’t seem like they were relieved with the decision. 

Perhaps, for them, it’s too early to tell if things will improve because many of the changes won’t occur for a few months. Circumstantially it’s much as it has been. And maybe their temperament is to be dour, pessimistic, with a topping of the droll.

I don’t really know the person so I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but I was surprised by their lack of enthusiasm or relief, or any emotional reaction other than “meh.”

I wondered, why did they seek a change at all? If there was a pressing desire to switch it up, are these factors fulfilled in the new role? What were the deal breakers? What compromises did they make? 

More so, what are they working towards and how does this new role bring them closer towards that? (More money for what? New title for what? Work from home, why?). 

I didn’t ask any of this, of course. The decision had already been made, and they seemed reluctant to disclose what they already had.


The Values We Live By

We make decisions everyday, often according to values we are unaware of, out of habit, or because of impulse. 

Many are unimportant. Some are an existential imperative.

For the important decisions, the key questions center around considerations like: What is important to you? What are you willing to struggle for? How do you want your days to look?

You can take stock of what is important to you, today, by looking at your actions. We all have idealized visions of ourselves, of what we’d like to be, but it is what we actually do that defines us. 

Photo by Kameron Kincade on Unsplash


On my end:

I do value climbing because I go 4-5x per week. I do it because it’s fun, and in the long-term I know being physically healthy now will pay off when I’m older. 

I do not value many relationships as evident by how I don’t make the effort to keep in touch with a lot of people. I do this because of a built up self-defense mechanism and also because the effort required for maintenance is not often equally shared, which I find incredibly fucking annoying.

I do value exploration and the opportunity to learn about the world because I am pursuing writing as a career. I do this because it will let me work from anywhere and one of my favorite aspects of the vocation is the ability to interview people.

I do not value money hence I manage it poorly and don’t have much of it. This is assuredly a thing I need to take more seriously with the long-term in mind.

I do value curiosity, nature, unrestricted movement, personal expression, introspection and self-understanding, being an attentive listener, thoughtfulness, alternative point of views, independence of mind.

I do not value being liked by everyone, the latest trends, watching Netflix/ HBO/ Amazon, following a standard script, a lot of material goods.

I feel I should value and take action towards more community oriented activities, prioritizing family, making a normal salary, living in a place for a longer period of time, among others.

Such as it is.


Living Is a Choice

There are as many ways to live it as there are people on the planet.

This isn’t about being right or wrong, good or bad, or other misguided dichotomies, it’s about knowing yourself and taking responsibility for how you choose to live.

The alternative is merely existing without vitality; it’s subsisting; it’s not pursuing what interests you; it’s kowtowing to other’s expectations and living outside yourself; it’s marching inevitably towards physical death. And of course, you can metaphorically die much sooner than that.

In the end, this matters to me because I value independence and freedom of choice (sometimes to a fault). You may value other things and will prioritize your life accordingly. I’m not here to judge, but I do encourage you to be considerate about how you live, because it’s the only life you have.


With that, what do you value?
Share in the comments below or message me. I’m curious to hear.


Feature photo by Dylan Siebelink on Unsplash

Training Journal – Really Just Gym Bouldering: 7/22/19 – 7/28/19

Wow. I didn’t sport climb at all this month. I spent one day trad climbing, and several days outside bouldering.

The past two weeks I’ve gone back to gym climbing because it’s just much more convenient. I need to figure out a balance between going outside and training indoors.

Monday
Gym bouldering at Worcester. Hangboard session with slopers, 2-pad crimps, 1.5 pad crimps, 3-fingers, etc.

Tuesday
Rest day (felt sick).

Wednesday
Rest day (felt sick).

Thursday
Rest day (felt sick).

Friday
Gym bouldering at Waltham. Emphasized climbing more aggressively (with bigger throws, less pauses to consider moves). This was a direct result of watching and talking with a strong climber (former comp climber, 16+ years experience).

I noticed that he was both aggressive and smoothish (not the most beautiful style, but controlled and dynamic). I’ve noticed that by going too controlled, I can waste momentum and tire out. Part of this is to figure out when to power through and when to rest.

Campus board: 1-4, 1-5, and seeing if I could touch rung 6 (1-6). A few hangboard sets.

Got a free beer! (For flashing the V5 boulder problem of the day).

Saturday
Gym bouldering at Boston. Focused on skipping holds, dynamic moves.

Sunday
Gym bouldering. Arms and fingers felt weak, so this was a lower volume, easier day.



El Penon de Ifac – Parque Natural de Penyal D’Ifach


What I’m working towards: My objective is to climb the Diedra UBSA in Costa Blanca, Spain in November, an 8 pitch, 5.10a PG13 mostly sport route. This trip and objective is sponsored in part by the American Alpine Club + The North Face’s Live Your Dream grant.

I first came across the Penon d’Ifach, the massive limestone block that emerges from the Balearic Sea, while researching climbing in Spain last year. The striking outcropping has stayed on my mind since.

The grant is designed to help you “level up” your skills in a specific and measurable way. For context, I started climbing more seriously in 2018, and had only done about 30 lead climbs (in the 5.10 range) when I applied. I chose this route because it combines skills I’m keen to develop: Multi-pitch climbing, traditional climbing, anchor building, and endurance (suggested time is 6-9 hours). The goal date allows for six months to incrementally develop my technique and know-how.

So far this year, I’ve: Begun leading on trad, increased time on rock (as opposed to the gym) bouldering/ sport/ trad, practiced anchor building, did one multi-pitch (albeit a short one) and practiced belaying from top.

The longer-term dream is to do big alpine climbs in the Wind River Range.


Goals for July:

  • Days outside: 15
  • Sport leads: 30
  • Trad leads: 10
  • Multi-pitch: 1
  • Grade aim: 5.10+/5.11- sport, 5.6-5.8+ trad, multi-pitch 5.8-5.9 range
  • Focus: Lead more routes, push grades (project a few 5.12s), easy multi-pitch routes, bouldering
  • Stretch goal: Send V6 outside

Progress on July Goals as of 7/28:

  • Days outside: 8
  • Sport leads: 0
  • Trad leads: 3
  • Multi-pitch: 1

Goals for 2019:

  • Lead 5.11c/5.11d comfortably (sport)
  • Send a 5.12a (sport)
  • Lead 5.8-5.9 trad comfortably
  • Send a V7 outside
  • 100 days of climbing outside
  • Lead 300 routes on real rock

Progress on Year Goals as of 7/28:

  • Lead 5.10+ comfortably (sport)
  • Lead 5.6-5.7 trad comfortably
  • Send V4/V5 outside
  • ~31/100 days of climbing outside
  • ~42/300 lead climbs on real rock



El Penon de Ifac photo source: La Marina Plaza
Feature photo source: centralrockgym.com