Crusty Corner is a monthly column written by Climbing Editor Matt Samet, a climber of 30 years. When he’s not at the gym or the rocks trying to stave off the inevitable performance decline of middle age, you can find him in his basement playing Xbox.
There was a meme going around the Internet a few years back, a look at how others perceive people versus our reality. It was in collage form with thumbnail photos and callouts like: what my teachers think I do, what my friends think I do, what my parents think I do, what I actually do, etc. The meme focused on the different ways we define ourselves—rock climber, kayaker, emergency room doctor, graphic designer, and so on—and how those definitions interface with common misperceptions and our reality.
I don’t know if anyone did one for climbing-magazine editors, but they should have. (OK, actually, I went ahead and did it. So there: There’s at least one.) Ours is a much-maligned and little-understood profession, and the meme could have shed light on our métier. I write this not to solicit pity but to point out a certain reality. In an individualistic sport like climbing, one traditionally populated with outliers, iconoclasts, loners, misfits, and—let’s face it—more than a few wing nuts and egomaniacs, magazine editors, no matter what we do and how hard we try, are invariably going to piss someone off.
And invariably, we’re going to hear about it, usually via an email sent late on a weekend night when the complainant has a righteous buzz on or a gaggle of friends urging him on. Though now, with the Internet and blogs and social media, the criticism can come fast and furious at any time, from many different venues.
Yippee! How exciting!
As I’ve learned in my 15 years as a desk editor, the complaints touch on predictable themes: Why wasn’t my boy Davey Gravy Jr. III in Hot Flashes for onsight-beta-pointing his first 5.14 at Flipperhands Ridge [even though he never wrote to tell you about it and this angry letter is probably the first time you’ve heard his name in your life]? Too much SPORT coverage in your mag! Too much TRAD coverage! Too much MOUNTAINEERING! How come you gave that wire-gate carabiner 4.5 stars and not 5; it’s my favorite biner ever. Is this some sort of illuminati conspiracy—are you giant space lizards? Everyone knows the Triple-Reverse-Münter-Klemheist is the world’s safest knot for upside-down nighttime prusiking in the rain, so why wasn’t it in your Clinics—you’re going to get people killed! You never should have written that destination piece on Butt Trumpet Creek—it’s a secret locals’ area and now you’ve ruined it FOREVER with your corporate greed!!!
So much love, so much love.
But out of all the abuse hurled our way, the one lament that stands out is one that’s been bouncing around forever concerning the tone—or even just the act—of coverage of cutting-edge ascents: That we are out-of-touch desk jockeys who could never understand this singular feat that’s been performed at the bleeding edge of the sport, and are thus evincing irredeemable arrogance in even pretending to write about said feat and HOW DARE WE???!!!
Let me unpack this.
1. Out-of-touch desk jockeys
I’ve been in climbing editorial since 1996, when I first started writing for Climbing Magazine. During that time, even as staff members have come and gone, myself included, I’ve almost without exception found them to be passionate, active climbers who have a long history with the sport—we’re lifers. We love the sport and we care.
Despite what some might think, these aren’t high-paying jobs nor are they that secure: The size of a magazine’s staff is tied directly to how much money it brings in, which with small-circulation publications like Climbing (as opposed to, say, Sports Illustrated), relates almost directly to ad sales. In the 1990s, as the Web and economy were booming and non-endemic (outside-the-climbing-industry) advertisers were hungry for venues for print ads, Climbing sometimes ran a 150-page book. Today, we’re at 80 pages, and our creative staff of three editors and one art director is about half the size it was during the magazine’s heyday, when there was an editor in chief, managing editor, senior editor, gear/photo editor, associate editor, and two people doing layout. We do this because we love the sport and we love writing and editing, not for the money.
The nature of deadline work does mean that we have to be in the office a fair bit, especially during the final two weeks of deadline. So there’s your desk-jockeying. But the rest of the time, getting out climbing locally to test gear and traveling when possible are paramount. We don’t like to be at our desks any more than any other climbers do. Can three people possibly be “in touch” with all goings-on across the globe in climbing? Probably not. But 300 people—or a basement sweatshop full of monkeys with typewriters and telegraphs and telephones—couldn’t do so either: Our sport is simply that big. We do our best, but with so much going on and overflowing email inboxes, it’s not easy. And, despite perceptions, we do not make choices about what to print based solely on “what’s rad” or “sick” or “trending”; we also consider what makes for good storytelling and will be of greatest textual and/or visual interest to our readers. If a hard ascent happens to synch up with that, it’s a homerun; if not, it might not see print.
2. Who will never understand the cutting edge
This is the statement I have the most trouble with: That somehow those pushing the physical boundaries of the sport are privy to a rarified experience the rest of us will never have, much less understand, because what they’re doing is so far beyond the fumbling grasp of our fat, greasy fingers and plebian, little pea brains.
Whether you’re going solo, oxygen-free on an unclimbed couloir on an 8,000-meter giant, putting up a V23, headpointing 5.15 X, or simply redlining on your first Indian Creek 5.10, you are engaged in a learning, growth-oriented process that calls on all of your skills to succeed. It is the same experience for all of us: Our limit is our limit is our limit. This is why we climb: the level playing field, the chance to push ourselves no matter where our threshold is. Whether the consequences of failure are direr or not at the cutting edge is, to my mind, immaterial: We are all risking, every time we climb, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. And anyone who has ever pushed herself on the rock or ice or in the mountains can certainly understand what it feels like to be “out there,” whether “out there” is 5.9 or 5.14.
The other part of the equation—that some of these newsworthy ascents took so much time and training and beta refinement, etc. that only the truly elite will ever “get” it—is, well, an elitist argument. Is the guy who takes 300 burns and two years to send his first 5.13a somehow less worthy than the guy who puts the same amount of effort and time in on a 5.15c? Is the 5.13a guy somehow unable to relate to the 5.15c guy? I’d love to hear a strong philosophical argument that this is the case that doesn’t come off as elitist hogwash.
3. And are irredeemably arrogant to even write about it
As journalists, of course, we don’t have firsthand experience of everything, nor would this ever be possible (see point no. 1, above) nor do we pretend to. But we can use tools like interviews, research, guidebooks, websites, social media, etc. to pull together a story, which is how such things have always been done in journalism, whether it focuses on climbing or not. Do we always tell the story perfectly? Probably not. Is it always to the subject’s liking? Probably not. But if a story is factually sound, and we use our imagination as climbers and journalists to weave a narrative, this isn’t arrogance: It’s simply storytelling, and it’s our job. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that without people like us writing about the high-level ascents we’re not capable of and “could never understand,” many of these ascents would go unreported beyond a post or two on social media, or maybe the occasional blog.
Of course the best stories in climbing are often those told by the practitioners themselves. The most recent example to mind is Tommy Caldwell’s brave memoir, The Push, in which he relates his epic travails in Kyrgyzstan, with losing his finger, and with the end of his marriage to Beth Rodden. Others have written about these parts of Caldwell’s life before and done a great job, but his narrative is the most gripping because it comes from the source himself. But not all climbers with interesting tales to tell are going to be willing to put in the long hours Caldwell has spent perfecting his craft as a writer. And so, would it be “arrogant” then for others to step in to try to tell the story? I’d argue that if it’s done without undue editorializing, then the answer is no. I’m sure Caldwell would, too.
So the next time 2 a.m. rolls around on a weekend night, and you’ve been up a bit too long and had a few too many wine coolers, consider this essay. Consider that there may be more ways to view the story than your own. Consider that magazines are above all a human endeavor, subject to the same foibles, errors, and even occasional home runs as anything that our doomed, fumbling species touches.