Because I have two young kids at home, no money, and an abhorrence of crowded cliffs, I spend most of my climbing time close to my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, seeking out obscure choss on which to bolt or repeat routes. Or I get up early and climb before the crowds show up, or go out late. In any case, the net result is that it’s usually only me and a friend or two at the rock.
Not surprisingly, then, I’d forgotten how climbers interact and form free-floating mini-societies at busy crags, complete with cliques, hierarchies, and social norms and mores. Until this summer—and also thanks to COVID-19 driving us all underground—it had been almost a year since I’d been at a busy cliff. I’d lost touch with the scene.
That all changed with a five-day road trip to Ten Sleep, Wyoming, in August. For some reason I had it in my head that Ten Sleep was still a sleepy backwater, picturing, perhaps, what I’d first heard about it when it really got rolling in the early Aughts. Well, that was wrong—with 1,000-odd routes on steep, shady, pocketed limestone, Ten Sleep has become a major summer hang, and it was rare that my friend Will and I walked up to a wall and didn’t see dozens of climbers, especially at the stacked, more popular zones like Crag 6, French Cattle Ranch, Superratic Pillar, etc.
And so, I had to recalibrate—to get used to hopping on a desirable route without a proper warm-up because it was, for the moment, unoccupied. Or throwing my rope bag down in a queue and awaiting my turn. Or just packing up and going to another wall because the one we were at had turned into a noisy, chaotic, irredeemable shitshow.
But there was another phenomenon Will and I observed in Ten Sleep as well: that of the “Crag Boss.” Each cliff seemed to have its own Crag Boss, either a local or traveling climber who knew the cliff well, had all the beta, and was to varying degrees in charge of the climbing action—part walking, talking guidebook, part traffic cop, and part referee. Crag Bosses, of course, have been around forever—think of the Warden of Jailhouse Rock, California, or the Mayor of ____________ [insert local crag here]. They are ubiquitous. They are the men and women who know the crag better than anyone, who are the keepers of the oral history, and who might even chip in to put up routes or maintain the hardware. But again, because I’ve almost literally been hiding under obscure rocks, I’d forgotten about their existence.
Though there are as many different types of Crag Bosses as there are types of climbers, they seem to break down into five main archetypes:
1. Benevolent Crag Boss
This Crag Boss genuinely wants to see you succeed, and will give you helpful beta that plays to your strengths based on watching you climb, and even air-traffic-control you and your rope bag into a desirable spot in the lineup for the popular climbs. This is the best type of Crag Boss. You want to become friends with this Crag Boss.
2. Malevolent Crag Boss
Unless you’re a member of the in-crowd, this Crag Boss won’t give you the time of day. Or he’ll give you bad beta (or deliberately withhold good beta) and do his best to rock-block you from getting on your desired climb, urging his bros and bro-ettes to hop on in front of you or just straight-up not pulling his rope or letting you climb on his draws. This Crag Boss is a real dick.
3. Rest-Day Crag Boss
This Crag Boss is just chillin’ on a rest day, but he’s nonetheless plopped himself down in the middle of the action and is talking about each and every route at the cliff in order to establish that he’s done them all. This Crag Boss may or may not be sitting in a lawn chair or lying in a hammock. He’d definitely love to spray you down with beta—just ask!
4. Redpoint Crag Boss
This Crag Boss can’t help but be a Crag Boss, even up on lead. As he tries to sort the beta out on a climb, or even during a redpoint effort, he will talk in a big voice about the climb he’s on, situating it difficulty-wise within all the other routes at the cliff, to, again, establish that he’s done them all.
5. Downgrader Crag Boss
Any Crag Boss can also be a Downgrader Crag Boss—you just use loud, vocal downgrading as a tool to let everyone at the cliff know that you’ve done all the routes.
Crag Bosses may also have Mini-Crag-Bosses running sub for them if the crag is too large to control all at once, as well as acolytes who hover with cultic adoration, seeking to soak up some of that Crag Boss charisma and greatness. And while it’s amazing to have this much power over the menagerie of climbers at your local cliff, the role also comes with great responsibility—heavy is the head that wears the crown.
To determine whether you’re Crag Boss material, as well as what type of Crag Boss you’d most likely be, I’ve come up with the following eight-step questionnaire. As you go through, answer truthfully—remember, the Great Crag Boss in the Sky is watching. (Read on to the end of the story to see how you rank.)
1) You see a climber heading up on Kneebar-o-Rama without first pulling on a kneepad for the crux left scum. Do you:
a. Do nothing—this is none of your business.
b. Walk over and loan them your own pad for the key knee-scum?
c. Walk over and gently suggest they may want a pad for their left leg?
d. Kick back in your hammock to watch the sports action, all while secretly hoping they’ll fail and will then need to come to you, hands outstretched in supplication, for beta?
e. Mutter something about “idiot non-locals” and then stand directly under the route scrutinizing them while they climb, without saying a word?
2) A dogfight breaks out under you, engulfing your belayer while you’re on lead doing your second warmup of the day—a medium-spicy one. Do you:
a. Do nothing—no need to ruffle any feathers.
b. Downclimb to the last draw and clip in direct, so your belayer can extricate herself from the situation?
c. Continue climbing, unperturbed, because you’re such a bawse that even if your belayer, moving away from the dogs, starts to pull you off you’ll be able to overpower her?
d. Yell down, “Hey, dogs, knock it off! The Crag Boss has spoken.”
e. Silently hurl a quickdraw down at one of the dog’s heads to knock it unconscious, thereby ending the fight, before you continue to the chains. Lower back to the ground. Make zero eye contact. Apologize to nobody.
3) A couple of obvious newbies show up at the crag, guidebook in hand, and head over to a runout 5.12 when it’s clear from their banter that they were looking for the four-star, well-protected 5.10. Do you:
a. Do nothing—they’ll probably figure it out.
b. Offer to hang their draws on the correct climb, because it’s part of your warm-up circuit?
c. Talk to them before they start up, and point them toward the correct route instead?
d. Lean on back in your lawn chair, crack open a Monster energy, and wait to see what happens?
e. Start moving rocks away from the cliff base while the newbies start to climb, saying to your crew, “Gumby alert, guys—150 pounds of dumbass coming in hot in, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6…”
4) A massive thunderstorm is rolling in, and climbers are still up on the rock, oblivious to their peril. (You, however, have weathered big storms here before, and you know it can get ugly quick.) Do you:
a. Do nothing—it’s every climber for themselves, and we can all make our own informed decisions.
b. Holler up at everyone that they might want to lower off before the lightning comes in, for their own safety, and that you’ll be happy to help retrieve any bail draws or bail biners once the storm passes?
c. Quietly gather your things and head into a stealthy shelter cave you know about off to the side, urging anyone who asks to follow you?
d. Silently slink off to said cave before the storm arrives, making sure no one sees you, as you don’t want to share your sanctuary with the bumbling, unwashed masses?
e. Tell anyone who asks that the safest place to be is a “shelter hut” up on top of the cliff and that they should for sure take their draws and metal stick clips up there with them?
5) Because you’ve climbed so much at your local area, the only climb you have left to do is a massive link-up that diagonals across the cliff, crossing all the busy five-star classics. Do you:
a. Never try the linkup—it’s too much bother.
b. Get to the crag super early or super late to try your project, in order not to inconvenience other climbers?
c. Go for your linkup when the cliff is busy, but ask permission and/or announce your intentions first so that you and the other climbers can plan accordingly?
d. Throw your ropebag down below the starting climb, say nothing to anybody, then just start crossing the wall, making other climbers have to clip in and wait until you pass and/or having your rope run right across theirs?
e. Start doing your linkup, but actively unclip the other climbers from the draws you need, grumbling, “Climbing through, dipshit,” when you pass?
6) Another alpha climber shows up at your crag and proceeds to onsight, flash, or quickly fire all the routes. Do you:
a. Do nothing—this has nothing to do with you.
b. Give them spot-on beta when they ask, and then tell them “Nice job!” in a sincere, welcoming tone after each successful tick?
c. Give a quick nod in their direction and a “Well done” at the end of the day, as their sending frenzy comes to a close?
d. Completely ignore their presence and command your sub-people to do the same?
e. Every time they lower off a route, say loudly to anyone within earshot, “Everyone knows that climb is super soft. What was that, like, the hundredth onsight?”
7) A climber is lowering off your project, having given it a burn on your quickdraws. However, as they dogged through and now on the way down, they aren’t brushing the holds nor do they seem to own a toothbrush. Do you:
a. Do nothing—no need to make anyone feel embarrassed or unwelcome.
b. Holler up, “Hey, do you mind brushing on your way down? Here, I’ll send you up my toothbrush.”
c. Walk over to their belayer and ask them to send up a brush to the climber, then retreat back to your hammock?
d. Wait till the climber is off the route, stomp over like a silverback gorilla, and then dog through going bolt to bolt, furiously scrubbing the grips like an OCD madman and sighing theatrically?
e. Wait till the climber comes down, approach them from behind, pull out a giant clump of their hair, and then use it to make a “human toothbrush” with a twig and climbing tape?
8) A new Crag Boss appears on the scene, sending your routes left and right, downrating, talking trash, and making it known that he’s challenging your position. Do you:
a. Do nothing—you’re no boss, you never will be, and you know it.
b. Graciously step aside, because every Crag Boss has an expiration date?
c. Hold onto your position as long as possible, by chipping morpho, specific-to-your-body type direct starts and finishes to the climbs that only you can send?
d. When your challenger goes up on the rock, stealthily cut most of the supports on his hammock, so that next time he lies in it he lands on his ass, to ridicule and embarrassment?
e. Beat your challenger to death with a Mussy hook in front of everyone at the cliff to make an example—NOBODY CHALLENGES THE CRAG BOSS!!!
- For every time you answered A, give yourself 0 points.
- For every time you answered B, give yourself 1 point.
- For every time you answered C, give yourself 2 points.
- For every time you answered D, give yourself 3 points.
- For every time you answered E, give yourself 4 points.
0–8: You are not a Crag Boss. In fact, you are a weak, meek, spineless little mouse. Hit the road, jack—the Crag Boss has spoken!
8–16: You are a Benevolent Crag Boss, who does a great job of looking out for the welfare of the crag and other climbers.
16–24: You are a somewhat Malevolent Crag Boss, and it’s likely you have Downgrader Crag Boss tendencies.
24–32: You are the baddest of the bad, the meanest of the mean, the worst of the worst—pure, unmitigated, demonic evil. The Malevolent Crag Boss. Congrats! Time to set up a Facebook athlete page and send out sponsorship queries.