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.

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

Gear Review: Boulder Denim 2.0 Men’s Athletic Fit Jeans

I gave up on jeans in 2011.

No thanks to Boulder Denim, I’m reneging on that position.

Why? Simply, they are the most comfortable pair of climbing pants I own, and the best jeans I’ve ever had. They are lightweight, ultra-stretchy, and make my butt look good (probably). What’s not to like?

Boulder Denim jeans. Great for climbing and just hanging out.


Overview

The company, Boulder Denim (BD), has helped popularize the climbing-specific jeans trend. The basic blues have long been a staple of pebble wrestling, from old painter’s pants and Levi’s to Prana’s yoga-centric styles. However, these options weren’t designed for climbing, they were good enough options for the job. In dirtbag parlance that pretty much means climb on, because they are pants, and they cost me $5 at Savers.

Climb people did, not realizing what they were missing out on.

BD was started to change the palette from pants that were palatable to downright delightful. They launched on Kickstarter back in 2016 to wild success (raising over $90k), then had a second campaign of wilder success for their updated 2.0s, in 2018 (raising over $267,000).

People dig them. And I wanted in.

So I reached out and asked if I could test a pair of the 2.0s, and Taz and Brad were kind enough to oblige.

Anywho, I’ve been wearing them non-stop for over a month, making up for lost time since the last jeans to grace these thighs was over 8 years ago.

They’ve been worn on Rumney schist, Lynn Woods granite, Hammond Pond puddingstone, Smuggler’s Notch gritty schist, shitty schist, switch foot schisty and other such New England varietals. The climbing has consisted of a lot of bouldering, some sport, and a little trad.



Performance

My #UnecessarilyHighHeelHooks are NBD in these. They stretch in a variety of ways, from aggressive step-ups and twisty drop knees to split-like stemming IF I have them rolled up to below my knees.

I experience some restriction in movement when the legs are full-length (two rolls at the cuff, they sit just above the ankle). My knee gets caught in the fabric on big movements–which doesn’t prevent the action–though it does slightly encumber the motion. This is not experienced when they are rolled up (same two rolls, pushed to knee). They have much greater stretch horizontally and diagonally (i.e., pulling the pant leg apart width-wise) than vertically (i.e., trying to stretch them down the length of the leg).

Bouldering near Bolton, VT, with the pant legs rolled down.


It is unclear if they need to be broken in more because I’ve primarily worn them pushed up in the summer heat.

With that said, they are surprisingly elastic. If I pinch and pull, the jeans have the same give and bounce-back as my running tights, except these look better and don’t hug my junk. 

The seams are reinforced and solid so far, whereas I popped some stitching on my Outdoor Research Ferrosi pants when doing squats. I would squat in these.



Fit and Look

They are stylish in a relaxed, I just woke up and grabbed these, rumpled, off the floor kind of way. And they look good.

I received the 2.0 Men’s Athletic Fit in Newmoon Blue, the darker of the blueish options, and they go well with my wardrobe which mostly consists of tank tops at the moment. Because summer.

When I can get away with it, I wear these all day, from town to crag and back again.

The 2.0s come in two sizes: Slim and Athletic fit.

Slim on the left, Athletic on the right. Original photos taken from boulderdenim.com


The Athletic cut provides a slightly roomier leg circumference, but still maintains a thinner, tapered look common these days.

BD recommends sizing down one to two inches from your normal waist measurement. I got a 29″ (normally a 30″ or 31″) and they fit perfectly, resting at the top of my hip bones. The inseam comes standard at 32″.

The original Kickstarter video claims the fabric has “a 92% stretch retainment, compared to an industry average of just 60%.” I’m curious if the waist will bag out over time, as it is quite stretchy.

One minor complaint is about the hidden zippered pocket (which sits inside the front left pocket). The extra fabric doesn’t lay completely flat–given the additional material and bartack–which was noticeable in an, oh this is a little niggly here isn’t it? manner. The zipper also feels a bit stiff as it pressed on the crease where my thigh inserts at the pelvis (the area of the pectineus muscle and adductor brevis; look it up if you feel inclined). I feel a trifle like the Princess and the Pea with this fussing, but maybe it’s just flat pockets or bust for me.

The jeans out in the wild. Photo source: @smellybagofdirt


Durability

So far so good. Though this will take time to really tell.

One downside of the stretch is that the jeans sometimes snag on sharp rock, such as when knee barring. After a climb at Rumney where my thigh scraped against the schist, a thread was pulled out from my quad area. I snipped it off, no big deal.

The fabric is about as thick as found on Prana Brions, though more breathable and with a more attractive cut.



Uses

All climbing, though especially bouldering.

Bouldering because they can keep your legs from getting torn up. Way back when two months ago, my ankles, shins and knees were ivy draped in scrapes and scratches because I would wear shorts while climbing. The leg feature of the pants has helped bring the number of dings and dents down dramatically.

When the weather cools, these will make excellent travel pants because they don’t seem to carry stink (unlike my synthetic pants) and they have stain resistance. Sometimes I drink and sometimes I spill, but that’s been no my problem at all in these. 

Hardly a scratch to be found.


Features

The following is pulled from the Boulder Denim website:

  • Proprietary 360° EDS technology (extreme diagonal stretch)
  • Memory-Shape Denim
  • Trap Pocket (hidden zipper pocket)
  • No-Gap Waistband
  • Vegan-Approved
  • Stain/Water Resistant
  • Reinforced stitching
  • More durable
  • Ethically-made
  • Pre-Shrunk



Recommended?

Yes. They are a bit pricy (MSRP is $109), but if you are investing in a functional, multi-use pair of pants that you only have to wash every so often, it’s hard to go wrong here.

Note: If you’re an American Alpine Club member you get 15% off. Also, BD will give you a 5% off coupon for signing up for their email list.

To learn more about the company or to order your own pair, visit boulderdenim.com.

Ryan Wichelns on Becoming a Freelance Outdoor Writer

The sweat was mounting on Ryan Wichelns’ brow. His breath was labored, his hands tiring, his vision narrowed. Like his summit push to Mt. Brooks in Denali National Park in whiteout conditions, what lay ahead was unknown. 

He talks calmly about it now, but he probably gulped a few times before sending. It being an email to the editors of Backpacker Magazine containing his first ever story pitch. He says he dashed the submission off for fun, an inconsequential story idea that he didn’t expect much of. 

As happens with unexpected pursuits, that throwaway email changed the direction of his life.

I don’t buy his telling though. Ryan seems like the kind of meticulous person that would carefully analyze each word to make it sound just right; that plans week-long excursions to Alaska to undertake a “technical first that links five peaks in a remote part of Denali National Park.” He strikes me as a planner with an affinity for spreadsheets.

Either way, as with many of his climbs, he’d end up scaling this new trajectory with quick progression: He’s the editor of Eastern Mountain Sport’s goEast blog, has written for Outside Magazine, Backpacker, and Alpinist, and he’s fully supported himself through writing for over a year.

That’s not a normal course for a young freelancer. 

Ryan in his element. Photo source: ryanclimbs.com


It started with a trip to Arcadia… Rhode Island. 

“Arcadia is probably the only place you can backpack in the state,” he chuckles. Rhode Island being all of 37 miles wide by 48 miles long.

Backpacker bit. Ryan was now a writer.

“It taught me a valuable lesson, that you should focus on a niche. Certainly, not a lot of people were writing about obscure trips in RI.” His idea stood out and they took a chance on him.

One small trip, one small act, one big life-altering outcome.


Ryan is at the dawn of his writing career but is already one of the rare species to make a full-time living off it. 

As my editor at goEast, I was curious to learn more about his own path, and to see what advice I may be able to glean from someone a few years ahead of me on this journey. In our call he shared some tips for breaking into freelance writing.

Advice on How to Become a Freelance Writer

Find a niche: 

“This might be the most important thing,” Ryan declares. “There’s a lot of competition and it’s not easy to dive in if you’re pitching yourself as just another writer,” he says.

Anyone can be just another writer. What makes you stand out? What can you write about better than most others? What special angle can you provide? Find your expertise and make yourself valuable with it.

A niche can often be identified by thinking creatively. Start by considering what you already possess, such as local knowledge (which tends to be overlooked), a combination of distinct perspectives (maybe via your upbringing or education), or a particular interest you have.

“For me, it was somewhat accidental and somewhat forced. My niche was in the Northeast. Backpacker didn’t have a ton of people writing about that, but they needed the content,” Ryan offers.

Know the publication you’re pitching to:

You need to understand the publication in order to appeal to the editor.

How does the story you want to pitch fit into what they publish? What is the format or structure of their stories? Are there any gaps in their content? 
Familiarize yourself with their articles, try to understand the reader, and think like an editor.

Ryan at Pico de Orizaba. Photo credit: Lauren Danilek


Write about what interests you:

Ryan studied journalism in college and was the editor of the school paper, yet it wasn’t until he started writing for Backpacker that he saw a future in the pursuit: “The thing is, I never enjoyed writing all through high school… and while it was rewarding to work on an investigative piece [at university], I had more fun writing about the outdoors,” he shares.

Now when he considers potential articles, he evaluates whether it is interesting to him personally. If he’s excited by an idea, it will likely come through in the pitch and the piece.

Relationships matter:

“My first editor at Backpacker took a chance on me. I give her credit for a lot of my success,” Ryan says from the onset.

“After awhile she was giving me assignments, put me up for a job with the [Outdoor Retailer (OR)] Daily. She recommended me for all sorts of press trips.”

The relationship they developed, the trust, and Ryan’s ability to deliver led to an abundance of future opportunities. 

Network. Or, go where the people are:

In a digital world, face time (not the app) matters.

“Going to OR and working for the Daily was the best thing I did for my outdoor industry freelance career,” Ryan notes.

Outdoor Retailer is a beacon for the industry in the U.S., attracting gear companies, athletes, media, and others involved in the space. As a reporter for the daily paper that runs during the duration of the show, Ryan was able to meet editors and writers at other publications, gain leads for stories or pick up products to test, and receive invitations for press trips.

Pitching:

The bread and butter of getting in the door of a publication is the pitch, an “elevator style” presentation of a story idea with the hopes that it intrigues an editor.

The aim for a first story is just that, get a story. Any story. Ryan suggests pitching something more formulaic, such as a a round up or a short interview—in a magazine, look to the beginning sections (often known as the “Departments”) and shy away from pitching a feature.

From an editor’s perspective, it’s easier to take a chance on a new writer with something simple. It’s uncommon for editors to accept a big feature idea from a new writer without a demonstrated history.

“Once I see someone can do [a simpler piece], it becomes far easier to take the reigns off and let them do something more from their own judgement,” Ryan shares. After you have established a relationship with the editor, try pitching a slightly larger idea, then build from there. 

I’ve found Tim Neville’s, The Art of Travel Writing ebook from World Nomads, to be a wonderfully helpful beginner guide that features a detailed “how to pitch” section.

Ryan and pals on their Mt. Brooks expedition in Alaska. Photo source: ryanclimbs.com


A long and bumpy road:

Of course, a word of caution: This path takes time. 

From most accounts I’ve read, years of dedication are required before freelance writers are able to fully support themselves from writing alone. Often this path begins as a part-time thing, they have savings, or there is a very supportive spouse.

But if you can make it work, you can achieve creative flexibility, get paid to go on trips, and work from wherever you have internet access (at least intermittently). 


Ryan has earned his career, step by step, much like his increasingly technical climbs after years of training.

And where one person goes, another is likely to follow; seeing an example acts like a green light for others. If you are pursuing a freelance writing career, or thinking about it, good luck–and consider doing what Ryan did, just keep moving forward.


You can learn more about Ryan Wichelns and read his work at ryanclimbs.com.


Feature photo of Ryan on Mount Rainier, from his website.

Inside Look: What I Learned from a Mindset Consultation with a Sport Psychologist to the Pros

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.” -Marcel Proust*


The phone rang and went to voicemail. Our scheduled mindset consultation never got off the ground.

I wondered if something had come up, or she forgot. Maybe I’d gotten the date wrong. The thought flashed: Perhaps I’m just a low priority because of the nature of the call?

Dr. Christina “Chris” Heilman is a sports psychologist of the pros, having coached climbers such as Sam Elias, Joe Kinder, and Dan Mirsky. In nearly 20 years she’s worked with clients from olympic athletes to weekend warriors, and I was here for a free 20-minute consultation and angling to write a story, because… Well why not?

Chris had agreed to play along.

I dashed off an email and was surprised a few hours later with the reply, “I have us down for 11am MST…which is in 10-min. Are you available to chat?”

My grave mistake. Wyoming is two hours behind, my timezones had been twisted. The reaction I had says most of what you need to know. Maybe this call with a mindset coach would be helpful after all. 



At 11am (MST), Chris and I saddled up on a call for what I was hoping would be part Gonzo journalism and part let’s-learn-about-me session.

“Hello! Good morning!,” a delighted effluence shot through the muffs of the headset.

“How are you? You’re based in Boston? Have you always lived there? Tell me about this call, you found something about this interesting, what was it that was interesting to you?,” she opened with a flurry.

I bandied back with a peppering of, “Are you originally from Kentucky? Your accent sounds like… How’s the climbing out there? Let’s talk about me.”

The plan was to act like a prospective client, to report on the experience, and find out what I could selfishly glean about how to improve my mindset in order to become a world-class climber—all within 30 minutes.

This quickly bowed to an infinitely more interesting subject, Chris.

So it goes.




Photo source: mindset-coach.com


Chris: The Mindset Coach

In high school, Chris’ world fell apart. She would have to rebuild, but how? She wasn’t sure she had the tools.

Chris was a competitive athlete when an injury derailed her strong body revealing a mind intrinsically linked to her self-definition of being physically fit. Without athletics what was she? Who was she?

As she recovered, she wanted to go beyond a return to a previous state, she wanted to be stronger. Through the process she realized a desire to help others become stronger as well. She would pursue athletic training as a career.



At South Dakota State University she found history rhymes when the athletes she was helping to rehabilitate became unraveled by injury. “They didn’t have the coping mechanisms,” Chris notes with a sorrowful tone.

It wasn’t a fundamentally physical issue.

“Everyone works on the physical,” she says. This arena of well-being is the most tangible and offers immediate feedback, “but we really need to look at your wellness as a whole, the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.”

The athletes weren’t getting the support they needed in these other arenas.
She quickly learned that her gift wasn’t about physical recuperation, her talent lay in meeting the athletes where they were and helping them to return to the field of play mentally.

Chris would go on to receive a PhD in Sport and Exercise Psychology from the University of Utah then headed up to the Tetons with a husband, a gig in ski patrol, and the launch of a new psychology practice. Mindset was born.

Photo source: mindset-coach.com


What I Learned 

1) Our brain doesn’t care about winning or doing exciting things, it cares about keeping you safe.

I can be a worrywart, which is not exactly revelatory, but it has been topical and principal of late. A friend had pointed out that I was spending a lot of time and energy on, let’s say non-life threatening decisions, exasperated by a ring-around-the-rosie repetition. 

Chris pointed out that while fear and self-doubt are normal, we have to evaluate these responses against real world potential dangers. By considering the threats and pitfalls we can decide whether our responses is appropriately commensurate.

Worry is instinctual. If we don’t evaluate the worry we can be can be ruled by it.

2) Self-understanding is the real aim. Peak performance emanates from that.

Outside appearances don’t often tell the full story. Chris talked about how the initial problem that clients come with ends up being but a trojan horse.

“I want to be able to focus better while climbing” may unwrap performance anxiety which might stem from unnamed expectations from another. 

Identifying our fears, anxieties and challenges allows you to at least be aware of what you are experiencing, and possibly to work on them. Often we feel discomfort and fear when looking into “darker” recesses of ourselves, so having a trusted guide can help us even approach our deeper selves.

3) How do you get out of your own way?

The meat of the practice is self-awareness, which makes the potatoes the pathway towards improvement. Generally, the reaction towards change is inertia, or “I can’t do that,” which is a habituated train of thought. 

Chris encourages taking action immediately by pursuing the simplest, easiest, and most concrete step you can do today. The purpose is to build momentum and train your mind to develop self-efficacy.

You are working to move to and beyond your edge, which implicitly means you are expanding your range of what’s possible. That is growth.




In the end I found Chris’ bubbly personality, constant swearing, and straight-shooter truthfulness refreshing. Of course, you cannot distill years of rapport, mutual understanding, and learnings into 30 minutes with someone you’ve never met before, but the call was helpful nonetheless (thanks for playing along, Chris!).

You can learn more about Chris by visiting her website, Mindset-Coach, or you can listen to her two interviews with Neely Quinn on The Training Beta podcast (episode 1, episode 2). 

If you want to talk to the woman herself to see if she might be a good fit as your performance psychologist, you can schedule your own 20-minute consultation




 
*Paraphrased from: “The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.” – Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

7 Surprising Lessons from My First Climbing Trip “on Assignment”

The lens cap wouldn’t go back on. I was fumbling by the greyscale schist, turning ‘round the plastic piece like a steering wheel.

“Uhh, what the fuck,” I mumbled, confusedly, to myself. The circular pissant had started on the lens, I was sure of that, those two pinchy prongs, when squeezed, clearly released the cover from the concave portal. Then why won’t it go back in? I tried jamming it, clomp, clomp, clack, into the hole. 

Turns out the camera needed to be powered off in order for the lens to recede and the cap to fit in place. 

“Ah, just first day blunders, it’ll all be easy sailing from here!,” I reassured myself.


… 

I was recently commissioned to write about climbing at Rumney in New Hampshire, for—humbly—what is my first paid article, in real dollarspotentially… because the check hasn’t been cut yet. 

In order to complete the research and take photographs for the piece, I spent a few days on location. This article is about lessons learned, and mostly the mishaps, from my first climbing trip “on assignment.”



Rumney is the mecca of sport climbing in New England, a destination crag for rock scalers within a 5-hour drive radius. Québécoise? Sure thing. New Yorkers? No problem. Bostononians? Of course.

On good weather weekends the parking lots are stacked before the first Regular cup of Dunks and “crawlah” has been washed down by BPD.

Luckily, weekdays see lighter attendance, and less people to witness my flailing with the flagellating camera around my neck.


Lesson 1: Know How Your Equipment Works

No amount of editing was going to fix the blurred images.

Sitting at home the photo previewer showed one out of focus shot after another: A close up of rock here, faded climber in the background there; Censored cliff and a verdant tree wearing a liberal application of green blush; Oh this shot of my boot and dirt is crystal! 

Eventually I figured out the settings and how to target the focus. I also learned plenty of settings not to use!


Lesson 2: Get off the Ground

The most interesting shots were ones from non-traditional vantage points, like “soloing” a slab slate to grab some setting sun or tying in to a first bolt on an adjacent route in order to capture a climber up close.

The difficulty in framing climbing shots, aside from knowing how to use the camera, came down to not losing the climber in the frame. A fellow photographer I met there remarked on how easy it is for the climber to get lost, whether from the scale of the wall, the muted colors they are wearing, or from poor lighting. Getting closer and properly structuring the shot made a world of difference.


Lesson 3: Plan out the Shoot and Know What You Want to Capture

The next day my thighs felt leaden. I haven’t done much hiking lately, but in reality I scaled a few thousand feet of vertical over those days, often on steep inclines heading up and down to the different cliffs along Rattlesnake Mountain. Some areas are more than half an hour from the parking lot. 

Simply traveling to each locale took a few hours of the day, and time away from photographing.

At the wall, climbers can take a surprising amount of time “hanging out” on the cliff waiting for their next burn. While I took a few of these convalescent frames, they weren’t the epitome of an action shot. Add up travel time, stop and wheeze time, photographing (waiting around) and this became an all day excursion. 

I planned the types of shots I needed—action shots, lifestyle, and ambiance—and I knew generally the order with which I would go to each location. This helped keep me on target and set a route for the day.


Lesson 4: Pretend to Be Friendly and Nice so People Talk to You and Let You Take Photos of Them

Photos of big hunks of rock can be quite boring, lack scale, and generally leave one uninspired if you don’t showcase people demonstrating what’s possible (on them).

So, I had to try talking to people *groans* to see if I could photograph them while they did interesting things on these big hunks of rock. In the end this was less awkward than sitting there taking pictures and leaving without a word.


Lesson 5: Don’t Listen to Someone When They Say Not to Pay for Parking

This one is self-explanatory. Support the local park.


Lesson 6: Shooting Is One Half the Battle, Editing Makes a World of Difference

Do you need to amplify the purple longsleeve of the climber to make her pop out against the wall? Coming right up, alongside the bleaching backlighting! 

The editing process, thanks to a free online program, was instructive and useful. Turns out you can do quite a bit to manipulate a pic, from tinting people’s skin color to look like the Hulk to sandpapering away all the details to leave an image akin to squinting your eyes.

On the other hand, editing made too dark pictures turn out vibrantly, and things like cropping or manipulating contrast did wonders for highlighting the subject of the image. 


Lesson 7: Beats Working in a Coffee Shop, or Library, or at Home

The main challenge was wanting to climb more, which is really a difficulty I have most days.

It was only due to my herculean grit and vast reservoirs of restraint that I was able to complete the assignment relatively on time. And with that, my first paid piece and on assignment trip are officially in the books with maybe a check in the mail as my reward.

In the end, it was fun, and it was work, and I’d like to do more of it.


Photos by the author

Thoughts on Sport Climbing: Too Many These Days

“The most valuable thoughts which I entertain are anything but what I thought. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if I can only walk with sufficient carelessness I am sure to be filled.”

– Thoreau

“You’re gonna fall…”

Stop. Breathe.

“You’re 31, what are you going to…” 

Breathe. “She’s probably out enj…” 

Fuck. “Kids??… Plans?… Your leg is shaking.”

Breathe in. Out. Stop thinking. Forearms pumped, bad hold. Right leg is jack hammering away on a small ledge.

“God damn it. Why is the crack wet? You’re going to fall…”

I throw the cam in. The placement is good enough and I grab for the leash, desperately, feeling weak-willed.

“Fuck!,” I screech, pissed at myself. The roar ricochets off the cliff walls and surprises me with its pitch. The singular growl is the first audible thing I’ve heard other than my heavy breathing and what sounded like sharp clattering about, a smashing of kitchen pots and pans, in my head.  



This mental turn-around-whirling-this-way-and-that which creeps up on you and can overrun the thought train—is gnarly.

Some days I have my head on, fine tuned, ready to cope. This mostly looks like steady breathing and a present attentiveness. On other days it gets away from me and doubts from life seep into a domain they have no place being. 

Not here, not now.



I climb to create space, to have non-thought. Like a reset button, things become clearer after a good day out. 

Yet, lately I think about leading sport and am met by a gut curling, that twisting up of intestines like the lead in to a break up or the pre-fessing to of a lie; Some Poltergeist worm niggling about in your pit eating it’s way to coring you out (that movie freaked the hell out of me when I was a kid).

Bouldering: Purity in movement. Trad: Deeply satisfying. Sport: Something ain’t right.



It’s a bad association perhaps—like how I can’t do vodka—and I think it’s tied to the last time I did a lot of the sport in Turkey. The juju ain’t good.

There’s all these emotions wrapped up into the discipline that was our catalyst for the trip. Those days spent on a wall, our time buttressed by discomfort. It all seeped together like water coloring on too much wet; bleeding.

I guess what surprises me most is how visceral the aversion is, how much angst is there. 



As a comparison: With writing, for example, I may avoid the work, brimming with inertia as I am, like a hook in my stomach weighted to the bottom of the sea. But when I sit down the anxiety doesn’t amplify, it actually recedes; I’m hauling the anchor up. It feels good, it’s fun.

When sport climbing it seems the discomfort can only be managed. I find myself being pushed into the disquiet more often than not, with the consolation being a reprieve from anxiety more than satisfaction of movement or achievement. Where’s the flow? Where’s the fun? 



I know it’s not all memory-laden, there’s a fear of falling and the simple need for more experience; There are expectations.

Such as it is, something to explore. Something to give space to, something to let play out. 

And as Thoreau says, maybe I’m being all too careFULL about it.




Photo by friend of the author