John Burgman is a freelance writer who mainly reports on competition climbing for Climbing, Climbing Business Journal and Gym Climber. He is the author of three books, including the upcoming “High Drama” about the history of American competition climbing, coming out in March (2020). He is a former magazine editor, a Fulbright grant recipient, and a graduate of New York University’s MFA program. His work has appeared online and in print at Esquire, Trail Runner, Portland Review, Gym Climber, Boundary Waters Journal, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He is a frequent guest on the popular climbing podcast, Plastic Weekly.
In this episode we chat about John’s path towards becoming a full-time writer and what it was like to move to South Korea at the age of 29 when, seemingly, all his friends were moving back to the city, getting married, and having kids.
Climbing Outside the Lines is an interview series with people doing things a little differently, and who just happen to climb.
“This place is special,” Michael declared. I drove to Bolton, Vermont to see what he meant.
Driving West along the backroads of Route 25, and across the Connecticut River from New Hampshire to Vermont, a change is immediate:
Vermont smells different.
It’s all cow pies, farmland and pine trees, like it was bottled in a can then freshly cracked open. First sip supernova. Piquant.
Here the land is more maple syrup than metro. More timber-lined ridge than car parked mall. Instead of New Hampshire’s concentrated range, mountains rise and fall away like waves at low tide. Troughs are unfurled rugs of mauve fields barricaded by rounded peaks with a tarmac running through.
The car pulsed along, wind rushing through the open windows. Scott Hutchison’s tiding brogue drifted from the speakers, my lips and tongue moving in synchrony.
302: Past Berlin, Middlesex, Waterbury, continue by a flea market perpetually being set up, then take a sharp right to a steep drive.
There, a black barn.
“You must be the writer,” a hulking man with snow white hair and a braided beard declared.
“Something like that,” I said.
He stood up gingerly and extended his hand, “I’m Kirk. Welcome to paradise.”
Michael Hunter looks a lot like his father, and sounds like him too. All rumbling motor engine and belly laughs.
The Hunters are developing the 37+ acres of the Black Barn Farm into an outdoor hub. In what is likely to be the first bouldering hostel and campground in Vermont, you can sleep right next to the rocks. As it stands, his property has one of the densest concentration of erratics in the state.
When you visit you’re bound to meet friends, family, and people from the community. The place is always open, and it was designed that way.
Michael’s angle is “coming into resonance” with others, a practice he’s cultivated over 15 years as a mental health counselor. On his property, that means creating space for others to enjoy the land.
While I was there I chatted with Michael about his vision and what the hell “allemansrätten” means.
Aaron: What are you creating here?
Michael: We bought the place five and a half years ago, and we decided as a family that we wanted to share this beautiful spot. We’ve been improving the land, figuring out how to steward it the best.
We focused in on the natural resources: Bouldering, there’s steep terrain for backcountry skiing, disc golf, fly fishing—there’s brook trout all along the stream here. We want to create an outdoor recreation hub.
I also like craft beer, and we do beer shares; Sipping barrel aged stouts [things like that], we sit in the barn and talk about the different flavors. (Editors note: He laughs).
What about the boulders?
My friends, [Pete Cudney, Sam Simon, and others] the ones developing the boulders here, tell me that [outside of Smuggler’s Notch] the boulders in Vermont are few and far between.
You’ll have this big boulder, it’s awesome, but then have to walk two miles through the woods to another one, then a half-mile to another after that.
According to them, this is such a high concentration of good quality rock with amazing lines, all in a 300 square foot area.
That’s the wizard boulder (he points to the hunk of rock over my right shoulder), and the first climb that went up: “It’s complicated being a wizard [V5].”
There are other lines: Dharma Bum. Society of Solitude. Ghost in the Sky. All these are beer names from different breweries [in Vermont].
Why steward the land? To share it?
The previous owners [before the last] actually spread glass along the river on the property. They didn’t want people using the land. We thought that was ridiculous.
There’s a Scandinavian word, and actually it’s a law, called allemansrätten, that translates to “the right to roam.” Everyone has the right to walk through, fish, whatever. You can’t camp right behind someone’s house—you have to respect the land and the people on it—but basically this land is for everyone.
[At Black Barn Farm] we share everything. If you’re here and you’re hungry, you’re going to eat. People just kick money in the moonshine jar. I had a hiker that came for one night, stayed for a week. He helped around here, did a bunch of chores, pitched in a couple bucks.
How are you building this out?
In developing this, I’m in conversations with CRAG Vermont, to see how this fits in with their broader initiative of making climbing available to everybody.
The Catamount Trail, which is the cross country ski trail that goes from Jay Peak down to Harriman (300 miles from the border with Canada to Massachusetts), it goes right up here over the back of my property.
There’s a cabin up there called the Bryant Cabin that sells out in minutes each year. We’ve talked with them about building a spur down here and a yurt or a cabin [to offer another option].
We’re dong this slow, starting with primitive camping to get going. The next step is to make this into a small campground: Lean-tos, a couple of teepees, etc.
How did you make your way here?
I grew up in Connecticut and moved to Burlington for grad school. I had worked in residential care for younger kids, and got my Masters in Counseling at UVM. I’ve been a licensed mental health councilor and drug councilor for the past 15 years. So I was living here.
My mom passed away, six years ago. My dad was still living in Connecticut in a three story house. We wanted dad to stay with one of us; Sister lives in California, brother is in Texas. He went out to California for about a month and a half, loved it. He went to Texas for awhile, and Texas sucks (he laughs), so he didn’t want to go there.
Then he came up here. He was coming up here all the time anyways because it’s close.
We had dinner on a Sunday night, and he told us, “Okay, I’m going to sell the house in Connecticut and move in with you.”
On Monday, my friend sent me the listing for this place. It had just come on the market.
“It’s everything you’ve ever wanted,” he said.
Everyone that buys a house has a bucket list of like 30 things, and you maybe get two of them. We had that list and everything was there at this house.
On Monday, I drove past after work. The previous owners were out front moving stuff and packing. They invited me in. I stayed for two hours, told them about my mom, how I grew up jumping in rivers like this, just told them the whole story. By the end of that, they told me, “We want to sell this house to you and your family.”
Two months later, on the Summer Solstice, June 21st, 2013, we closed on the house. And it was ours.
I spent the first night here with my best friend, the one that showed me the listing. And we slept on a couch in the backyard because we didn’t have furniture or anything. (He laughs).
We walked to the upper meadow under a full moon, and the whole meadow was covered in daisies. Daises were my mom’s favorite flower. Growing up, my dad always used to give her daises on anniversaries and her birthdays. I get goose bumps thinking about it now.
The way it all worked out—the way my dad decided, the way that we found it, the way I talked to those people. This place has an energy about it that shit like that happens all the time.
You said the way you grew up—you would jump into rivers, and things like that—was that something you wanted for your own children?
Oh ya, absolutely. My dad used to take us up to the Zealand Campground, near Mt. Washington. That’s the Ammonoosuc River. Every summer we’d go up and stay there, and jump in those pools.
I grew up doing that and I wanted my kids to have that.
When the previous family walked me around, everything in my head was, “My kids are gonna grow up here. They are going to love it!”
The Black Barn Farm is hosting a bouldering competition as part of the first ever Vermont Climbing Festival on Saturday, Sept. 21.
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.”
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.”
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
The VW Passat barreled along the Pike, a last leg surge depressing the pedal. Tim McGivern, lanky, a quick-talker and antsy was careening back to his childhood home with his wife Syrah, and all their belongings in tow.
He wasn’t sure what to expect, it had been a few years since he left for California. But that was no more.
Tim had been counting down the miles since the Pacific, and adding up the road signs along the way: 90. 95 North. 128. 114 East. Then the familiar struck him: salt-tinged air wafted in through the open windows.
Some things don’t change much in your absence. Or they do imperceptibly like mountains; rocks might slough off but the general shape remains. Others turn course dramatically, like the development in up-and-coming North Shore towns near the Atlantic.
When Tim left, The Promised Land was one of the largest concentrations of boulders north of Boston. 500 problems, a gem, and his hometown crag. Now it was a bunch of townhouses. The subdivisions sprawled out like a swollen river after the spring thaw, submerging and washing away a once pristine boulder field. A permanent landscape alteration.
“I was incensed,” Tim says upon learning about The Promised Land.
“It bugged me. A lot of local crags around here, on the Eastern side of [Massachusetts], they didn’t receive much attention for clean up and care. I saw a void before I left, but didn’t do anything then,” he says.
When he returned, the need for climbing area stewardship in Southeast New England became clear.
“Advocacy doesn’t just happen.”
– Tim McGivern
Historically, the crags in the urban 95 loop around Boston were seen as a training ground for bigger objectives elsewhere. They were nice to haves and weren’t given the same oversight as better known places in Western Mass. and New Hampshire. Home spots like Quincy Quarries became tarnished and tagged with graffiti or remained underdeveloped like Lynn Woods.
Tim saw that if climbers weren’t paying attention the land that housed their beloved boulders and cliffs could get sold, fenced off, and even destroyed.
So he took a stand. He wasn’t going to let what happened to The Promised Land occur again.
The Southeast New England Climbers Coalition (SNECC) was started by Tim and Dave Twardowski in 2017 with the mission to “preserve climbing areas for present and future generations of climbers.”
The group has grown to include Shannon McFarland, Ryan Bouldin, Courtney Cutler, Pete Sancianco and Patrick Montague on the Board of Directors, along with an active membership.
They are working towards efforts from land protection (The Promised Land, Quincy Quarries), to access, (Bartholomew Pond), to awareness (Lynn Woods Boulder Bash, New Englands first outdoor bouldering competition), and a Regional Stewardship Plan in order to effect change on a larger scale.
“Advocacy doesn’t just happen,” Tim says. “The more I talk with climbers the more I realize they don’t understand this.”
With the rise in popularity of climbing and ever greater attendance at outdoor crags, stewardship is more important than ever.
The challenge comes down to one basic tenet: Climbing requires rock, which is often on private land and easy to lose.
Tim advocates that protection requires participation, in being custodians to the areas we frequent, and supporting efforts like SNECC who work at a municipal and regulatory level for long-term solutions. Without engagement climbers have no voice and beloved climbing areas can be inalterably changed, like at The Promised Land.
The drill whirls about in place, boring into the soft limestone. Fine grit clouds kick out at the edges of the hole, puff, puff, puff. The walls echo with the ricochet of millions of years of solidity grinding back into individual particulates. Water droplets sizzle on stone from sweat trickling down forearm and dripping off at the wrist.
The man at the helm is Josh Cook and he is bolting new sport lines. He’s an English teacher at an international school and he’s developing the first sport crag in Škaljari, Montenegro.
Josh never thought he’d end up in Montenegro as a mis-fit kid in Denver, CO.
When he told people he was thinking of going, the response was generally the same: “nobody knows where it is.” He continues, “That’s already cool. Anytime you hear of a country you don’t know anything about, then it’s very enticing. You know there’s something special there.” So off he went.
This type of adventurism is easy for him now—motorcycle trip across the Himalayas? Backpacking in the Andes? No problem—but things were different when he was young. It’s not that he was a misfit, it’s more like he felt mis-placed.
Josh grew up as one of the few white kids in school. Not that he had a problem with it, he just stood out. Then he got a scholarship and was one of the few lower-income students in a fancy private high school. Not that it was an issue, he just didn’t quite fit in. Then he wanted to be a climber. Not that it should have been too difficult, but there weren’t many of those around.
At last, climbing was a place where he felt he belonged. He started when he was 6 and was obsessed by 16. Every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday: Morrison bouldering area. You know the drill.
At 18 he took a year off to travel the country and climb. He started in Yosemite. To boulder. Mis-fit as he was.
If you’re wondering how an inner-city kid from Denver ends up in Montenegro, you have to start with Yosemite.
“I’m driving in and it’s just packed. There’s one way traffic, all these cars, rangers everywhere. I’m looking for Camp 4 and I can’t find Camp 4. At that point, it was briefly named Sunnyside Campground so I’m not seeing signs for Camp 4. I finally pull over then realize [I’m here and] you have to have to wait in a long line to get a campsite, and you have to share it with other people. I’m learning trial by fire, this whole rigamarole,” Josh recalls.
He continues, “I squeeze into Site 17 and there’s these scruffy, complete dirtbag-looking climbers. The youngest was maybe 5 years older, the oldest was probably 10 yeas older. I go, ‘oh, uh, I have to share this site with you guys.’ And they just stare at me.” The climbers were non-plussed but helped him unload nonetheless.
Josh stayed a month and they got to know each other. They became friends. Turns out they were die hard trad climbers from the Welsh tradition. As they would go off to climb big walls, away for days at a time, Josh would be there wrestling pebbles.
They couldn’t believe he was in Yosemite just for bouldering. Josh couldn’t believe they were climbing those walls. They opened his eyes to a larger world.
One day, one of the guys hung back.
“Neil goes, ‘I’m gonna take a rest day and boulder with you,’” Josh reflects. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘oh trad climber, he won’t know anything about bouldering, hopefully he can keep up with me.’”
Josh continues, “We’re at Curry Village, warming up on opposite sides of the boulder. He walks around to where I am, and I present what I’m working on. I was just flailing on this thing, it was like a V4 or something. When he got on it he flashed it. And not only that, he did it with such grace and ease that my jaw dropped.”
“I realized at that point my world of climbing had been all about the media and the value of recognition. [Basically,] you were a nobody if you weren’t in the magazines or at the competitions or whatever it was.”
Of course, Neil wasn’t in the magazines.
“No one knew who he was,” Josh laments. “But he was the best climber I ever met, ever seen climb.” Back home he was known as a Dark Horse. “The best climber you’ve never heard of,” he says.
That interaction changed everything for Josh. Neil and friends loved climbing for all that it was, and they climbed all that was available around the world. They didn’t seek notoriety, they simply did it for fun and self-improvement.
“I really came to respect that, doing everything to the best of your ability, climbing all the different styles and disciplines, and to do it humbly. Not trying to seek attention,” Josh shares, admiration ringing in his voice.
“That shifted how I thought about my goals: to become more about being the best that I can be, and to not let it be about ego… I want to know that I can dedicate myself to challenging tasks and become better at them through the learning process,” he sums up.
Josh applies much of his lessons learned in climbing to his teaching pedagogy.
He explains, “Teaching fits a lot of the same characteristics: constant problem solving and decision making, performance under pressure, mentorship, refining weaknesses, measuring growth and skill development (in the students and in myself), the list goes on.”
And he teaches because in his words, “I influence the lives of youth, hopefully for the better. I help make them critical thinkers, lovers of literature, and attentive writers. I give them opportunities to be good people and work with them through the process of creating their own paths.”
He encourages that the beauty is not in the big send, but the progression towards the goal: “I describe this process to my students as: attempt, failure, reflection, refinement, and attempt again (repeat… forever). The signs that we have done that well, that we are conscious and attentive to our experiences, are what we call improvement. That awareness of our experiences is also just good living, I think.”
Josh has bopped around, having taught in Peru, Bhutan, Japan, Montenegro, and soon, Colombia. Wherever he goes he welcome new people into climbing, develops a local area, and finds connection through the sport.
“As you live this itinerant lifestyle, intentionally drawing away from people, it [can] prohibit you from being a part of community,” Josh says.
He goes on, “I found recently, because I’m always living everywhere, my community is climbers that I meet. It helps me feel connected to something larger.”
Climbers tend to be roamers and travelers, perpetual motion in new lands. It sounds like he’s found where he fits in.
You can read some of Josh’s writing on his blog, On The Move.
The equipment that keeps us safe has an expiration date for its usefulness and eventually has to be retired. What to do with the gear?
You can’t recycle it, not in a traditional sense anyway. So we throw away these once indispensables. All that technical matter that let’s us enjoy the outdoors—dashed and trashed—an eye sore filling in the very nature we love.
Jennifer Wood comes from a long-line of climbers. But she wasn’t one of them. A break in the chain, until she met James Dickinson.
Jennifer and James weren’t entrepreneurs. But they knew how to be resourceful, to work with their hands, to fix things up. Then Jennifer found out she was pregnant. Idle hands and an artist’s creativity bred something reimagined.
The young couple didn’t have a lot of money. They begged and borrowed and cleverly sourced materials to renovate their home. Instead of contributing to the growing mounds of trash they found they could help reduce it.
A bump and a business
Dirtbags Climbing began out of a reluctance to throw away old climbing gear. They didn’t want to perpetuate the problem of single use, one-and-done products anymore.
“The outdoor industry, at the end of the day, is really a polluting industry because it uses lots of plastic based materials: polypropylene, nylon, all these fibers that go into equipment. You can’t melt down the fibers in climbing ropes. It’s extremely difficult to recycle them. They will remain on the planet forever,” James elaborates one of the contradictions of outdoor sports.
Jennifer and James encountered the challenge directly: They had old ropes lying around. Past trips were wound into the frayed threads and they were reluctant to toss them; they were mementos of places, people, trips.
They decided to turn the ropes into rugs: Cut out the core (new drying lines!), iron the sheathing flat, zigzag stitch it up and hey, that looks like fabric. Turned out other people liked the idea, and the designs.
A circular economy in Cumbria
The 1968 Singer sewing machine Model 239 whirls to life and taps away with drumbeat precision: thump-thump-thump-thump. Pastel cords are braided along a hanging rack like melted Crayola crayons, an oozing kaleidoscope down the wall. The large front window emanates the artistic spirit from within, and welcomes the petering day’s light towards the craft perched on the workbench.
Through and through, the Dirtbags workshop is the embodiment of the company’s mission: It is made entirely from recycled materials sourced from construction sites, as local as they can get it, and is solar powered. Everything made within is from materials otherwise sent to landfill.
“We don’t want to be just another brand,” James enumerates. “The fact that it’s made in the Lake District, our customers learn where the ‘raw’ materials come from, they know us. Each piece is unique. We’re not churning out 25 of the same bag.”
For Jennifer, a self-described introvert, she enjoys that the artistic expression of her inner world emerges through the materials and helps form a connection with the customer: “I like that it’s just tools in a shed, that our customers can call us up with a custom order and it’s us they talk to, that it’s very personal.”
Around the community, they have a symbiotic relationship with the local businesses. There are many outdoor companies that caters to the tourism in the Lake District. Year over year they generate waste with cast off material: old life jackets (waterproof material, buckles, straps!), rucksacks (fabric, zippers!), ropes (see above!), etc.
These businesses are happy to give Dirtbags their waste to turn into beautiful “new” goods, which goes back into the Lake District economy. Around and around.
A new reality
If we want to enjoy climbing sustainably, we need to alter our consumption patterns from an environmental to economic perspective.
“We are part of that generation where our parent’s feel privileged that they can constantly add to their wardrobes, buy new cars, [you name it]. We can’t keep up with that, and we don’t want to keep up with that,” Jennifer chuckles, though conveying a serious new reality. Partly circumstance, partly self-determination, and partly living a life they are proud of, Jennifer and James “get a great sense of satisfaction by doing everything ourselves.”
They continue, “It comes from not having a lot of money. It’s out of necessity. We have been lucky to learn a lot of skills; James’ dad was an engineer, built houses. You acquire craft skills, wood work, metal work. Makes you realize how resourceful you can be.”
Anyone can make a small change to their habits.
“Be mindful of the way you use products and materials,” Jennifer urges. “Don’t throw things away that you can use or that someone else can make use of. If things continue as is we’ll be living in a very polluted world.” Each small action adds up. Dirtbags Climbing is giving back to the sport they love, through the community they live in, in order to create a more sustainable environment. “We live in a beautiful area, and it’s frustrating when you find rubbish about. You realize this is a special place that you need to keep special,” James punctuates with a final note.
We all need to do our part to keep it special, for generations to come.
You can learn more about the work of Dirtbags Climbing (and/ or buy one of their products), explore their community partners, and get inspiration for how to recycle some of your own climbing gear on their website: dirtbagsclimbing.co.uk
I for one felt compelled to make my own bouldering brush after our call. What will your project be?
How might your life change if you only had 20 more years of sight?
The run came and went in a blur. Emilia Wint struggled to navigate the contrast between the packed dirt of the forest floor and the streams of light shooting between the canopy in the afternoon sun.
“Uhh, that was really hard to see, felt sketchy,” she pressed her friends at the bottom of the track, straddling her mountain bike. Hmm. Everything appeared fine to them, they assured.
That’s odd. It dawned upon her, “Maybe I’m seeing this differently.”
As a member of the US Freeskiing Team, the ability to differentiate between the snow, the sky and the terrain of the slope in flat light is vital for competition. On dark days the sky and snow are basically the same color and she was having a hard time seeing out there too.
Something wasn’t right. After day’s worth of tests at the hospital she found out why.
Our call crackled in and out, Emilia’s voice was a soft murmur under a barrage of conversation at nearby tables and passing cars. I overheard a pair talk about their astrology signs and the homework they didn’t feel like doing.
She plugged in her headset and the world of stereo sound faded out. Her voice honed in with 20/20 clarity. The wind, like lifting a sail, would rush in and fill my headset from time to time.
Emilia speaks in a calm, easy-going manner, and she laughs easily. She emphasizes key points and jokes by talking faster and raising the pitch in her voice; you’ve got to keep up.
She had just gotten back from 3.5 months Patagonia. We talked about the turning point in her life.
The Turning Point
“You have this thing, it’s Retinitis pigmentosa. There’s no cure, but you’re young. Talk with the genetic counselor and see me again in a year. Don’t look anything up on the internet,” Emilia relays her doctor’s prognosis.
She didn’t know what the diagnosis meant and her mind was focused on other things anyways. A few days later, she left on a six week trip to compete at the World Cup in New Zealand. She would be skiing on a twice reconstructed knee that wasn’t holding up as well as she had hoped after four years of rehabilitation.
The practices came and went. In the meantime, Emilia was receiving more information about the disease from her mother back home.
One paragraph shook her to her core: “’Presents in people with adolescent night blindness.’ Which I kinda had. ‘Depressed scores in ERG tests,’ (which is basically like an EKG tests for your heart, but for your eyes). And I had low scores in that. And then ‘most people with Retinitis pigmentosa go blind by the time they turn 40.’”
“I called my mom, and was like, ‘what the fuck? This is not WebMD. This is actually in my chart,’” she recalls of the frantic exchange.
Emilia would go on to place 8th at the competition and out of the finals. It was a run that a few years prior she probably would have medaled. The next day she couldn’t walk down the stairs.
“What would I have done if I had made finals?,” she asked herself. She needed to take a hard look at her next steps.
Emilia had always wanted to compete at the olympics, but she needed to decide if she was okay with the possibility of getting hurt. Again. It’s part of the game.
She did some mental math.
She was 20 at that point. Two years in a physical therapy room would be 10% of the time she had left to see. Was that worth it?
Emilia doesn’t have time to live the life she wants later. Not if she wants to see it all anyway.
After retiring, Emilia had to figure out who she was outside of skiing. She grew up as a professional and it was her entire identity. Now she was a wasn’t.
She went on a tear of adventures she had always wanted to try, but never had the availability for because of skiing: Wildfire fighting, completing a college degree in 2.5 years, a remote medicine fellowship in Ecuador, an attempt at climbing The Nose at Yosemite. Emilia would not slow down in her pursuit of living.
It’s a simple decision making process for her: “What are you going to remember in 20 years? I want to remember riding this epic trail in Moab, not doing laundry,” she says.
It took Emilia a year to move beyond the constant feeling of imminent mental breakdown, despite all that she was up to. Now that she’s in a positive headspace, she feels a sense of gratitude.
“The diagnosis has given me a push to live my life right now. Because whatever it is, I might not have this opportunity forever. And that frame of mind is a special thing,” she says on her blog.
On Committing to Living a Full Life
Emilia shared her perspective on how she’s choosing to live a full life post-diagnosis.
She recognizes that it can be scary and that she’s also coming from a place of privilege (with some financial security, little debt, and a van that offers cheap accommodation, etc.). She’s also burned herself out from time to time.
Still, her input offers guidance for pushing our own boundaries, and maybe doing more than you thought was possible.
“It’s so easy to not do it,” Emilia declares in our call.
She continues, “I met so many people in Patagonia who said, ‘I’ve wanted to come here for years. I just retired and finally got the chance.’ I don’t have 30 years to do this thing, I want to do it now.“
“Acting intentionally is really important. Picking up the phone when you know you should call your friend. Telling someone you love them. Things can change so drastically, it would be so sad to not pick up the phone, not to tell them you love them. Not to do that thing you really want to do.”
“Being intentional is making it happen, with the way you spend your time and your money.” she says.
Face the Fear
Emilia has traveled to Southeast Asia, South America and all over the U.S.
“You can do it, it’s not like I’m an elite travel person, it’s not an exclusive thing. You just have to book the ticket. I went to SE Asia and used my credit card miles there and back. The whole month cost me about a $1,000,” she shares.
“It can be horrifying,” she admits, “but you can push past that. Exist in the discomfort.”
“For weeks in Bangkok, I had this burden: I don’t speak any Thai. I was horrified about this one micro instance. I’m going to land there, then what am I going to do? I couldn’t think about the rest of the adventure because of this.”
“Then I got there and went to a taxi stand, showed them my phone, then got to the hostel. Yea, you will probably be ripped off a few times, but then you’ll learn,” she recalls of confronting her fear head on.
Take a Step
“It can feel horrible failing, but you can’t avoid failing. I’ve had to work towards being comfortable with it,” Emilia offers.
“Take baby steps. Everyone has ideas of something they want to do; put it in your calendar or tell someone about it. Put one thing into motion, and build off of that. Do one thing. Just start. Hold yourself accountable. Make a concrete step.”
For a long time Emilia didn’t feel these were things she could do, but her mindset has shifted as she’s begun pursuing her different interests. “You do belong here, you are the type of person that can or should do that thing,” she says, both to herself and others.
From her account they failed their objective: “we scared the shit out of ourselves for two months… we realized we were way over our head.”
She went on to talk about how she mentally re-framed the situation: “We could have walked out of there feeling like failures… but we recognized that, ‘oh wow, we would never have been able to do these 10 climbs otherwise.’ Now we can go back next year and build on that.” I admire her tenacity and light-heartedness in spite of.
In May of 2017, Juliane Fritz awoke with a start and a pounding headache. It was like the world was collapsing in on itself, the seismic pressure squeezing her skull from grey matter to diamond.
She’d had migraines all her life, but nothing like this. Her pain killers, the only therapy she’d ever tried, were useless. She couldn’t move, couldn’t think; all she could do was lay in bed to wait out the pain. The attacks came and went over the next three months.
When Juliane was a child the doctors couldn’t make heads or tails of her migraines. Nothing seemed to work and they had no answers. She had resigned herself to a life of pain. “I just felt that because it had been there all the time, it was a part of my life and there was nothing I could do. It was a feeling of ‘this belongs to me, I have to suffer,’” she explains.
Juliane’s engaging personality shines through the speaker, her steady speech and animated answers rise in a chittering wave that is often punctuated by a self-conscious chuckle. Her upbeat and level-headed persona makes it hard to fathom the dark period she had in her life.
As the months wore on each attack was a new worst. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore. “I needed to do something,” she says, a tone of defeat rings in her voice.
She decided to seek support from a place she had always been hesitant about.
Day 1: Walk into Berta Block Boulderhalle down the street. Intimidated. Start on the children’s wall. Fail.
Juliane was dedicated to her work. She’d always been good at radio production and took pride in the final product. She was conscientious, dedicated and a perfectionist. At times she would get carried away, feeling stressed and worn down. She never questioned why she worked so hard. Why would she?
Those three months were a wake up call, and out of desperation she started getting new forms of support from psychiatrists to physical therapists to osteopaths. She was uneasy about it, she recalls, “I always thought, psychiatrists, ‘oh I don’t need that, that’s stupid.’” There was a resistance and a harboring of pain, but something began to happen:
“Slowly I started to learn about me, about how my body works, how my mind works, that maybe the way I had been working for all these years I had been doing too much, working too hard. It was always, ‘I am in this world to make other feel good, but not me.’ And I really have to change the way I operate with myself.”
She started to see a connection between her mind and body, and then the osteopath suggested physical movement as a way to help with the headaches. “I have headaches almost all the time,” she says, and she wondered if bouldering would make any difference.
Day 2: Encouraged to try again, I go back. Try some new routes. Still on the kiddie wall. Fail.
The first day Juliane went bouldering she felt weak, nervous, and by her account, failed to get up the VBs on the children’s wall. Yet something about the movement, the way it made her feel, kept her attention. She decided to go back. And then again, and again, and again.
She stayed with it for years, but after her first session with a headache, it became a whole new ball game.
“I was so happy to find out that after [that session with a headache] I felt pretty good.” She then started to go after migraine attacks had subsided and discovered it offered a mental convalescence as well. “It helped me to own my own body again,” she notes, you can hear the empowered feeling in her voice.
These sessions became a period of freedom from outside concerns, a flow; they were fun, they were cathartic, and taught her about herself in unexpected ways.
“It made me love the sport even more,” Juliane says.
Down the rabbit hole she went. “I became a bouldering nerd” as she puts it. She began going every other day and consuming all things bouldering in between: Watching comps, reading whatever she could find, and even visiting the world cup in Munich.
Over the weeks the attacks lessened; from a few days in a row with no pain to long stretches of manageable headaches.
Through pain, Juliane had found something that called to her like the work she did in radio. And there was another interesting twist she discovered:
“I’ve been working in the media for years, at a radio station in Berlin. And I found out that sometimes I am free of pain when I interview people. [I thought,] ‘just combine the two things you really like, that make you feel really good, and do a podcast, interview people that have the same passion for bouldering and share it.’ That’s why I started the podcast.”
Day 3: Progress. Go back alone, and something special happened! I managed to send problems I couldn’t do the first two times. This is fun!
Bin weg bouldern
Juliane started her podcast, Bin weg bouldern in 2018 and is becoming known throughout Germany as the “bouldering podcast lady.”
For Juliane, bouldering has helped alter her perspective on work, life, and her relationship to herself. What started back in 2013 with three days of climbing — from flailing to her first send — has turned into a life possessed.
“You can learn so much about yourself, the mental aspect, your body,” she says. But most importantly, “You can just be free and have fun.”
Barn Door Hostel is the first climber’s hostel in Rumney, NH, the sports climbing mecca of the northeast. Only two miles from the crags and sitting on 9 acres of old farmland, this European-styled hostel offers 20 bunk beds, private rooms and camping for outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds. You can join them for their launch party on May 25.
On Finding a Home in a Hostel
At 9AM, David Cook walked in to an old victorian in downtown San Diego and burst into tears.
The sun was streaming through the windows in the foyer of the International Travelers House lighting up the pastel walls of Easter egg blue and neon orange. Portraits of Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison smiled from above the door frame leading to the kitchen. David stood in place, overcome. He was on his own for the first time, ready to start a new life in the “go west, young man” refrain. So far things weren’t proceeding as planned. He was haggard, alone, and broke.
“I walked in and James was there manning the desk, pancake splatter on his apron, rushing around cleaning, checking people in, etc. He saw me, dropped everything and gave me a great big bear hug,” David recalled. James was the owner of the recently opened hostel, the do it all man, and he saw someone in need.
“I was lost, ready to give up on this trip. I didn’t know where I’d go next.”
David had booked two nights to collect himself and figure out his plan. Those days would pass too quickly and he’d end up scrubbing toilets for a free night’s stay, and more time.
After about a week, David made a decision, “I want to be here permanently,” he told James. James replied, “that’s exactly what you should do!”
Weeks turned into months and eventually a year. By the end he was the manager of a new location, in charge of everything from how to bring guests across to Tijuana for beers to navigating the zoning regulations needed to install a new window in a commercial building.
The experience changed David. “It was very much, ‘you are always where you need to be.’ And it was the first time I felt that, it was magic.” He wanted to share this with others.
On Creating Barn Door Hostel
“I wanted to create a hostel that would feel like home.”
David started the Barn Door Hostel to introduce climbers and non-climbers to the welcoming environment of a hostel. The endeavor became a family affair that grew from serendipity, hard work, and friendship.
It all started in San Diego, of course. Helene and David met as starry eyed dreamers who spoke of running their own hostel someday, but weren’t sure of where or how.
Their dream kicked off extended travel as they went about looking for the right location only to end up empty handed. Eventually, the idea was put on hold as they settled into new jobs. David ended up at a rock climbing gym in Rhode Island working alongside his best friend, Dom Pascariello, the man who got David into the sport in the first place. The years wore on and David felt a sense of urgency growing.
“I realized the gym was similar to a hostel, how people could meet with no judgment and become friends. I missed being an orchestrator, someone who brought people together. Eventually, the idea of starting a hostel was less of a dream and more of a must do.”
As a proud northeast climber, Dom suggested Rumney. They went scouting. Around this time, David’s parents, Dianne and Bob, were looking to retire and move back to New Hampshire. The pieces came together in the form of a family business.
The Timing Is Right
Hostels have been a rite of passage for European travel for decades and they act as international meeting spots and social centers when backpacking through a new city. They aren’t as popular in the U.S., but that’s changing (thankfully).
Climbers who get around might be familiar with climber-specific options in places like Geyikbayiri, San Vito Lo Capo, and El Chorro, as they offer cheap accommodation close to crags and a way to meet partners. Other niche hostels are opening as well, catering to surfers and digital nomads.
The hostel used to be a chicken coop, a four-story tower of a coop, dating from the 1800s. As the times changed so has land usage, and four stories became two as it transitioned into an auto repair shop. Now it’s being repurposed for house and home.
3 private rooms, each fit for two people. Two private rooms have standard full size beds. The third private has a bunk for those that do not wish to share the same bed but want the privacy. One private bedroom has its own bathroom and closet.
Bunk rooms: One 6 person, one 8 person and one 10 person.
Camping (car, tent, hammock) on 9 acres.
Community bathrooms, kitchen, common area.
Enjoy the swimming hole in the front yard or hop into Stinson Brook after a long day of climbing. Access to the White Mountains right outside the front door.
2 miles from the main crag, with smaller climbing areas close by.