"You walk without a sense of purpose," a Berkeley bar manager once told James "Peaches" Lucas before firing him. A dedicated climber who spent 15 years living out of caves, tents, and then a Saturn station wagon to pursue the sport, Lucas stumbles through life but marches to the boulders, crags, and walls. Peaches Preaches is his column.
"Aren’t you supposed to be a professional climber?!” I yelled at Cedar Wright, who dangled on the rope at the crux of Electric Chair, an overhanging 5.12 sport climb at Jailhouse Rock in the Sierra Foothills. It was 2010, and Cedar had left his packages of beloved gummy bears and his attempts at El Cap’s Golden Gate (VI 5.13a) back in rainy Yosemite, trading the poor weather for a few days of steep sport climbing outside Sonora. Wearing socks to fill out his oversized rock shoes, the Jailhouse equivalent of wearing a harness full of hexes into the Yosemite Village store, Cedar struggled on the steep terrain. “Those sponsor socks should be for hiking!” I heckled. “And you’re definitely not doing that.”
A longtime Yosemite climber with numerous first ascents, speed records, and near-death experiences to his name, Cedar had earned the nickname Magoo, after the near-sighted cartoon character Mr. Magoo, who would get himself into dangerous situations and then somehow bumble through, miraculously emerging unscathed. Cedar’s seeming haplessness made many Yosemite climbers question his success: Valley climbers, myself included, often joked that Cedar had “Magooed” his way onto The North Face team, going from a mediocre 5.11 climber to a mediocre fully sponsored 5.11 climber. The Valley scene has long been known for its vicious slander, so, we felt, we were merely upholding tradition.
While I know it stung him a little, Cedar took the slandering as good natured, dishing it back in turn. When I hassled him, he responded by Photoshopping my head onto an overweight orangutan’s body, showing me as a fat man-ape, poking fun at my weakness for baking (and of course eating) pie. In his 2010 Yosemite in a Day video, which he showed at the Yosemite Facelift, he asked a few Valley locals who the best climber in the Valley was. “James Lucas,” they unequivocally responded. He then showed my quivering leg and me falling off a low-angle V0 slab. Then he cut to my old friend Lucho, who said, “James Lucas. Terrible climber.” OK, so Cedar and I weren’t exactly lifting each other up, edging the line between friendly ribbing and outright cruelty, but at least it was a two-way street. And at least to us at the time, it seemed part and parcel of how climbing partners/frenemies have always treated each other—a good-natured heckling born of our sometimes competitive natures. After all, in a sport with no direct competition, at least not on the rocks, that energy needs to get expressed somewhere. Right?
In fact, the climbing world has long embraced cutting humor, supporting this type of behavior for better and for worse. As another example, in the Yosemite Lodge cafeteria, climbers would often gather to have breakfast, exchange beta, and spray. “I climb up to 5.12 on El Capitan,” an infamous Bulgarian climber said in the café one morning. “Yeah, you climb up to it, then aid through it,” I retorted. In 2007, I wrote a popular Supertopo article, “Notes From a Yosemite Hardman,” that made light of the serious climbers, the leather pants “all-stars,” from material that I’d gathered from those coffee klatches. When Cedar established the difficult Gravity Ceiling, on Higher Cathedral Rock, one of his first 5.13s, Rob Miller redpointed the route, from the ground, placing all the gear and calling it “athletic 12c.” The barb caused a couple of climbers to spray orange juice from their mouths, while Cedar just stared at his half-eaten burrito, wishing he’d never asked Rob how hard he thought the crux pitch was. The slandering, though cruel, did serve a function. Being the butt of a joke taught humility to some climbers, myself included; I learned to laugh at myself, to not take myself or my climbing too seriously.
Now the shit-talking is ubiquitous, not just limited to your local slander-lords or entrenched crag or wall rats, but with global reach thanks to the World Wide Web. There are comedic Instagram accounts like the popular Rawk_tawk, which has 28.2 thousand followers, the hashtag #lolchufferz, and smaller accounts like Johnnie.lassiter and the former jetskijoyrider, which are followed by high-profile athletes. These accounts poke light at situations in the climbing world, from people wearing climbing shoes in the gym bathrooms to Rawk Tawk’s recent meme highlighting sexual assault in the climbing community by showing Alex Puccio power-spotting Keenan Takahashi’s butt with the phrase “When all you asked for was a power spot and now you’re part of the me too movement.” The joke received 2.5k likes, a slightly above average number for the meme account, and nearly 100 comments, of which 5 percent or so pointed at the sexism in the post. While we can gather anecdotal information about whether a joke lands online via posts and interactions, it’s a far cry from standing in front of an audience—a group of actual people—telling a joke, and hearing the actual crickets.
Humorist Mary Hirsch said, “Humor is a rubber sword—it allows you to make a point without drawing blood.” However, opinions about the consequences of jokes vary. Some argue that offensive jokes have no effect on the audience other than eliciting a laugh: Jokes are “just jokes,” and criticizing them promotes censorship and threatens freedom of speech. Others feel that jokes are not consequence free—that they can reinforce prejudices and existing stereotypes, and perpetuate imbalanced power structures. Recently, Joe Kinder lost his job as a professional climber for posting a photo on a private Instagram account that made fun of Sasha DiGiulian, who then outed him on her own feed. With the immediate feedback of the Web and heightened consciousness of all of our actions in the #metoo era, we are now seeing new real-world effects of slander in our community. Issues that once would have been solved offline—or perhaps not at all—can now be addressed directly, with bullying or heckling behavior called out in a public forum.
“You fucked it up. There’s no way you can do this now!” Cedar heckled me in Camp 4 in the early 2000s as I struggled through The Rebirthing (V3), a head-first dive into a difficult chimney followed by a fist-crack stemming exit. It was early in our friendship, and the tone was just being set—we were just two insecure, young Valley dudes trying to one-up each other as we climbed the Yosemite totem pole. “Just give up, Peaches!” Cedar said, using my Valley nickname. The negative talk crept into my head, and I let myself ooze out of the crack. It would have been easy to blame Cedar for badgering me out of the crack, but if the problem had truly been easy for me, he could have said anything and I would have climbed it anyway. But because I already felt tired and was climbing near my limit that day, I lent credence to his jests, letting them come true. While I didn’t have a choice in what Cedar said, I did have a choice in how I reacted: I could let the negative talk permeate my thoughts, and give up; or I could get angry, using my passion to fire up a send.
As I grew as a climber, doing slideshows and public speaking, I also began performing at open-mics, doing stand-up bits in Comedy Clubs in the Bay Area, Vancouver, and Salt Lake City. Occasionally, there would be hecklers, often drunk audience members who thought they were comedians themselves. Opinions in the comedy scene vary on how to handle hecklers. Some comedians ignore them. Others call them out, using their stage time to address one person, instead of the entire audience. And sometimes, comedians use the heckler as a foil to make their routines funnier, like in The Muppet Show when Fozzie Bear and Bruce Forsyth make fun of Statler and Waldorf. More often, in my observations, the heckler was punished. At a Wise-Guys Open Mic in Salt Lake, one heckler was brought on stage and given the mic; he immediately bombed, getting harassed by the comedians in the audience. As a general rule, the audience—working hand in hand with the comedian on stage—became a huge part of pushing out hecklers, as they themselves had paid money to come to hear comedy, not to listen to some drunk jerk spouting BS from the audience. Still, in my observation, this type of public shaming often seemed vindictive and overly malicious. While effective in the moment, in the long term it did little to change the hecklers’ behavior—the heckler had his behavior enforced with attention, albeit negative. Further, it supported the idea that the best way to deal with behavior is to shame people into doing what’s right.
And so now back to 2010 at Jailhouse with Cedar: “You know, James, you’re not doing yourself any favors,” he said when he lowered off Electric Chair. I’d hassled Cedar about his accomplishments for years. As a dirtbag, living in my car, scrounging for work, and spending every penny I had to climb, I found myself—if I was being honest—jealous about Cedar’s job as a professional athlete. Like him, I could certainly climb 5.11. I could even hike Electric Chair—after all I’d put nearly a hundred days into climbing at Jailhouse and far more than that into Yosemite. I just lacked, or hadn’t created, the opportunities that Cedar had “Magooed” his way into. “Slandering other people only makes you look petty,” Cedar continued, explaining how the negative talk wouldn’t help me become a better climber nor help me become a professional climber. It was a waste of energy. By throwing mud, I may have been hitting my mark sometimes, but I was also getting my hands dirty. Cedar, clearly, had matured, while I was still stuck in an infantile Valley mindset.
My jokes about Cedar’s climbing ability didn’t stop that day, but they did slow as I thought more on the subject. Cedar and I tied in together more. We climbed on The Gravity Ceiling together and I found it was very athletic for 12c. Later, we made the second ascent of Mount Broderick’s Unemployment Line (5.12) together. I slowly accepted that, contrary to all the slander, Cedar was a solid and bold climber. He could climb 5.12-anything, a far cry from most climbers. And occasionally, Cedar would have moments of brilliance, “Magooing” his way up exceptionally difficult climbs through tenacity and his years of experience. I also realized that Cedar’s sponsorship came less from his abilities as a climber and more from his abilities to be an ambassador for good behavior. Cedar had used the heckling at Jailhouse as an opportunity, turning a onetime hater into a lifetime Cedar supporter.
Later, in 2016, I found the tables turned, and now I was the butt of a joke. “I thought you had to be good to be sponsored,” the skinny teenager said to me when he saw my brand-new sponsor-provided rock shoes. I had just taken a glorious three-inch fall deadpointing to a large pinch on the system wall at Movement Climbing and Fitness in Boulder. After two months of climbing at the VRG, moving to Boulder, and starting a new job, I’d taken a break from hard climbing. My body had gone from fab to flab—I looked more like that orangutan Cedar had Photoshopped my head onto than I cared to admit. The kid’s comment bit. But I also realized that he was offering a learning opportunity, following in Cedar’s example.
When I met the same kid later in Joe’s Valley, I went out of my way to support him, filming him on a difficult boulder problem, and we started to talk about what it meant to be a sponsored climber—that it was about more then just being “good.” He came around a little, joining me on a no-hands problem I’d made up, having fun climbing and decreasing his heckling. While it wasn’t a complete change, I felt like we’d made progress. Perhaps that’s the best way to deal with offensive humor or heckling. To address the heckler, try to get at the root cause of their behavior, and then change their mind for the better. It’s a slow process, but it allows everyone to leave the situation smarter than when they started.