This column was originally published on gymclimber.com
We all love Van Gogh because he cut off his ear. It’s part of his charm, that he was so dysfunctional and emotionally distraught, so desperate, so utterly unstable, which is weird, because if one of your friends cut off their ear, you’d be like, “Dude, WTF is wrong with you?” You wouldn’t be like, “that’s cool man, part of your tortured artist thing, huh? … rad.”
Van Gogh’s art is all the more intriguing because we know he was crazy. There is a mania in Van Gogh’s brushstrokes and compositions, both of which revolutionized art. In his thick paint we see impatience, in his short strokes uninhibited experimentation, in his compositions a complete disregard for the conventions of the day. In Van Gogh’s art we see him.
Now, to the point.
Because World Cup problems are themselves works of art, two things stand to reason: (i) we can learn a lot about route setters by analyzing their art–the problem they set; (ii) we would get better, more creative routes, if we screened our route setters not on the basis of emotional stability, but for the traits of emotional dysfunctionality. Thankfully, I was in Salt Lake City May 21-22 for the Bouldering World Cup, and here are my takeaways.
Stuck in an Elevator
The third boulder in men’s finals was obviously set by someone who has been locked in an elevator for an uncomfortable amount of time. They got thirsty. They suffered. They still suffer. They wondered if they were going to make it out alive. This problem is called Stuck in an Elevator.
The problem required the athletes to shuffle from right to left across horrible slopey volumes, one of them with no friction–umm, false hope much??— but every train needs to be stopped. The climbers had to kill their momentum by a dynamic double-gaston on dual-texes, i.e., “opening the elevator doors.”
My guess is that this setter still has nightmares from being stuck that one time in their childhood, and so, as they work through the trauma, they have fantasies of a heroic escape. They imagine pulling the doors open and earning their freedom. As we all know from our own therapy, it’s cathartic to work through our fantasies. My guess is that if you had a camera on the setters when climbers tried the problem during finals, there was an unusual amount of panic in one of them. You could spot them with a hoody pulled low over their eyes. They might be hallucinating and calling out for help.
Women’s #1 was set by a power climber who recently transitioned into a slab climber, because I didn’t know it was possible to be both on your feet and not on your feet. We can call this problem Big Red.
The move into the undercling was a cruel work of art, a testament to passive aggressiveness, like that boss who says “it’s going to take 20 minutes, tops,” but we all know it’s a half day’s work.
“Hey, I’m just a slab. Stand on your feet,” the problem whispered. Not so.
The slab was so powerful that 50% of the competitors used no feet whatsoever on the final few crimps. Brooke Raboutou slab campused. Yes, some may have not seen the sad little foot jib hidden under the undercling, which, should it be the case, supports again the passive aggressiveness theory—“I’m fully here for you, 100%,” said the foot jib. But once you stop paying attention to the jib for a second, it disappears, like your ex-girlfriend…in the dead of night, and you are sobbing into your pillow. The jib scoffs—“just a slab here.”
Men’s 3 (not a finals’ route) was devised by a setter who drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon and, after a twelver, sits on the couch and gets teary eyed to Bruce Springsteen. This person thinks life is hard, that it’s a grind, that it’s a two steps up, one step down, type of ordeal. This person is existentially defeated. Their rent is two months’ past due.
The problem in question is called Blue Collar, named so by having to expend max effort on awkward slopers, just off the ground, without any real discernable beta, nor feet. Just pulling your feet off the ground was hard. There was no clear way out, or up, and so they forced the climbers to wrestle through five feet of horizontal heinous, left to right, just to exit at chest height. “Life is a struggle,” says Blue Collar.
This setter had a rough childhood and worked in the factory at age 10, laying brick, for his/her dad, the latter who didn’t say much and hit the couch every night at 8:15 and didn’t get up. Alex Megos got spanked on the initial five feet of Blue Collar and he looked more gassed after the first couple of moves than he did after move 98 on his recent 5.15d, Bibliography, in France. And I’m not kidding. And then, true to the Blue Collar narrative, more hard work remains after you get through the grind. “Life is hard if you work hard,” says Blue Collar.
Covid was rough and routesetters don’t get paid much. This means they can’t afford hangboards, or fancy gym memberships, which forced them onto door jams during the lockdown. This means most setters spent a year training on door jams.
Imagine that—a year in full isolation, pizza boxes piling up, unwashed sheets, and you and your dog, named Barky, and a door jam. Well, that pent-up aggression finally spilled out with women’s final #4–on a problem called The Loner–which involved a toss to a one-handed edge–the door jam hold. It was an all out Kierkegaardian leap, finicky but straightforward. It got the best of Brooke Raboutou. Natalia Grossman won gold because she managed it. You either had the strength or you didn’t. The Loner is so named for the door jam training, but also because it left you all alone. If you watched the setters while finals was going, you’d see a guilty face on one of them, mainly because this setter knew what they have done, and, since they had a Dostoevsky-type of year, to examine their consciousness and such, they should have known better…and are keenly aware of the latter.
We could keep going on with these problems … don’t even get me started on the closet wide-crack-aspirant setter of men’s 2 … but I fear I’m getting too close to sensitive emotions. I have too much respect for these artists to drag their personal lives onto the public stage.
As for takeaways, and I’m speaking to competitors here, you have to get weird to battle the weirdness. That’s the lesson.
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