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Grasping at Draws: Inside Out

A climber's escape from the industry vacuum

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Conrad Frausto Jailhouse Rock California Climbing
Conrad Frausto climbs at Jailhouse Rock, California, where the author would be if he wasn’t deskbound. Photo: Andrew Burr

Back in 2006, a mere six months after I reached the legal drinking age, and two days into my internship at a climbing magazine during which I lived in my car, an editor dropped a stack of papers on my desk. “Hey, we need some feedback on this,” he said. “See what you think.” The byline was Tommy Caldwell. I suddenly felt anxious. I could have an impact on potentially Pulitzer-worthy work. I was keenly aware that what we were doing was important, that it had a purpose and an effect. I loved the feeling that what I was doing mattered.

Over the next eight years, I inched closer to influence: from intern, to contributor, to contributing editor, to full-fledged editor, and eventually editor-in-chief of Urban Climber, a magazine caught between worlds that had a small but loyal readership. I went to all the tradeshows. I knew all the people. People even knew me sometimes. Lynn Hill (Lynn Hill!) asked me for editorial advice at the gym.

For a time, I became a mini-arbiter of the climbing culture; my finger was on the pulse of the vertical zeitgeist. Most readers probably imagine climbing-magazine editors as these gonzo, embedded super-journalists, watching Margo on La Rambla and jotting notes with a nubby, hand-sharpened pencil from a fixed rope one route over. But the truth is, the constant deadlines turn us into desk jockeys: We sit on our asses, jealously reading trip-report emails from would-be contributors, making arbitrary declarations about newsworthiness, print-worthiness, and style based on the best evidence we have at the time. At Urban Climber, I gained 25 pounds by barely climbing and filtering the content of folks out there doing the real thing. Even still, I knew and could react, simply because it was my entire life. I watched all the videos. I read all the articles. I knew all the areas. I could provide move and gear beta for the South Face of Mt. Watkins after Honnold speed-
soloed it even though I’d never seen the damn thing. Meanwhile, with thousands of routes and boulder problems within a half-hour of my Boulder, Colorado, office, it was easy to be core—or at least fancy myself as such. I was a climber’s climber and a most plugged-in editor. I was core to the core.

These days, I’m married, living in the Bay Area, and working as a copywriter for a tech company, which has zero to do with climbing and the outdoor industry. Each day, I drive 75 minutes to and then from the office, only 30-some miles from my house, listening to my local NPR station. I illegally look at my phone when traffic is slow, praying for a text from Daniel Woods, Joe Kinder, or Alex Puccio announcing some epic ascent. I think about my pilfered Chris Sharma Golden Piton, a relic of glories once known. I’m never giving it back. San Francisco might be close to world-class climbing, but if you’re in the office all day, it scarcely matters. If I climb outside, it’s on a crowded Saturday or Sunday; otherwise, I’m stuck in the gym on crowded weekdays. Strangers fill the podiums at US Nationals. Euros with names I can’t pronounce climb 5.15s for breakfast at crags I’ve never heard of. I’m no longer privy to the new wave of climbers and climbing accomplishments. I’m not sure Lynn Hill would even recognize me anymore. Heck, I’m not sure the old me would recognize the new me either.

It feels like a super-screwy, reverse political map. I used to be part of the “coastal elite,” the Boulder tribe, the in-crowd, the Outdoor Retailer–going tastemakers and industry playas. Now I’m a red state, baby—strictly flyover country. I’m a regular-ass consumer, a hapless working soul who pays full price for Ondra Miuras and doesn’t even bother reading garbage like this column, or if I did, would probably vent on the Internet about how much it sucks, to pass the time at work.

This perspective swap has helped me realize who the industry influencers really are: It’s us, the “outsiders.”

Once a month, some hapless pro climber’s “cataclysmic” misstep rolls into my social media feed, causing an indignant, angry fire to burn in the comments section, usually from folks in the aforementioned in-crowd. Did you cut down a tree? Did you drive up a closed road? Did you do kissing pull-ups? Did you shoot Cecil the Lion? The ire of the in-crowd knows no bounds. One night, a bone-crushing heartthrob; the next morning, a bone-crushing pariah. My new perspective has shown me what it is to breathe fresh air outside the industry vacuum. It has shown me that these quarrels, however important they feel to the participants, barely resonate with the average consumer, the one who still wants to know how everyone is getting FrictionLabs chalk for free. Moreover, it is the average consumer who runs the show. I should know, because I have become one. Now that I’m paying for it, I buy only the gear I want and need, and I imagine you do, too. Our power to influence trends in the industry, I’m learning, comes in products chosen and dollars spent. Which is maybe one reason Urban Climber failed—I spent too much time trying to give readers a reflection of some guesstimated profit plan instead of more of what they wanted.

Now I’m free to spend my weekends sun-drenched and salty with my wife at Mickey’s Beach. On Saturdays and Sundays, I fall all over greasy Left Coast boulders. Now and again, a nude beachgoer will wander into view, placid, flaccid, and splashing in the frigid Pacific, out enjoying himself in the crisp air just as my wife and I are. The climbing sessions can be short, and that’s fine. We’ll toss my wife’s decade-old, still barely used climbing shoes in the crashpad with my worn-out gym trainers and bounce back to the city for ramen, curry, or whatever food scene is topping Yelp. Then, during my Monday-morning meetings, I can breathe easy knowing I enjoyed my weekend’s climbing, not because some editor put the route on a magazine cover or because a pro helped design my shoe, but because there are a million other people just like me, enjoying a day out under the sky, on the outside looking in. 

Andrew Tower traded in a core-climber life for a cushy desk job in San Francisco where he fills his time climbing in the gym and complaining about it.