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An Ode to the Spray Wall

The purpose-built climbing gym represents a zeitgeist of our age. At the heart of it is the humble spray wall.

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Novels, skate ramps, and spray walls do not have introductions—they have kickers. As this piece of climbing literature is written in the spray wall style, I also will forgo an introduction and drop right in. 

Point of Departure: An American Strip Mall

Suddenly it hit me. I don’t know what exactly prompted it. It might have been a twang from Khruangbin and Leon Bridges’ Texas Sun (2020) playing on a sound system. It could have been an afterglow from a world-class V2—exquisitely placed tick marks on jibs screwed to large sloper features to make them just a touch better. Or perhaps it was a gestalt of a social setting.

The staff member painting the wall orange above the handwashing sink. The silhouettes of two back-lit climbers approaching one another at the apex of the lead cave. The mother breastfeeding on the crashpad bench. The rambunctious toddler (who, only moments ago, cried heaving tears after falling off the bench) happily pushing and then chasing an exercise ball on the padded floor beneath the Moon, Tension, and Lattice boards. The watchful eye of her father, pushing a stroller, wearing red, white, and blue boardshorts and loose-fitting flip flops. The young woman—let us call her “Nadja”in the plush warmup tracksuit, hair covered by a hat and hoodie, sitting cross-legged beneath the spray wall. I think it was Shakespeare who famously wrote, in his pastoral comedy As You Like It (1599), “all the world is a spray wall”—or something like that.

All the world is a spray wall because it confronts us. The world stands before us as a concrete object distinct from ourselves, but the only way we can encounter it is through internal experience. The spray wall, in its noisiness and rawness, is a field upon which we have no choice but to impose some order through our decisions and actions—the games we play or choose not to play. Any illusion that this is not a game is stripped away upon encountering the apparent aimlessness of moving upon a spray wall. And what confronts us on the spray wall is ourselves; the spray wall is not some pure and romantic wilderness. We construct the spray wall from processed wood, metal, and plastic. For this reason, I see the spray wall as an example of the beautiful, tragic, hopeful, and imperfect civilization we have inherited from our ancestors.

Among us were young and old and somewhere in between, in various stages of ability and disability. First-timers in rental shoes. Olympians squeezing in a quick session before the next round of World Cups. A variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, identities, and political persuasions. Some religious, some not. Some wearing masks, some not. 

We were in an American strip mall just off the freeway. Gym climbing, in some shape or form, was happening all over the country—and in other countries across the planet—at that very moment.  

It was here, in this American strip mall, that I felt as close to nature as I have ever. Close to our nature. Social animals who are born, reproduce, and die. Organisms with highly evolved bodies and minds that are at once profoundly fragile and capable of extraordinary feats of strength, coordination, and grace. A group of us getting on together peaceably, engaged in a common recreational enterprise, often looking upward. I felt a sense of awe and wonder. It was, as John Gill would say in his understated style when describing what he called option-soloing, a “mildly religious” experience.

And it felt like here, in a purpose-built climbing gym, was where the action—a zeitgeist, the spirit of the age—was now.  

All the world is a spray wall because it confronts us. Photo: Getty Images

Purpose-Built Climbing Walls—a Zeitgeist

I really found climbing around age 11, when I walked into a first-generation climbing gym and looked in awe at a climber dancing like a painted spider across a horizontal lead arch, limbs angling and twisting across the inverted surface the way shapes move through a kaleidoscope. This personally pivotal moment was preceded by about five   years of seemingly random encounters that foreshadowed the climbing life to come: being mesmerized by a pair of Boreal Firés at an REI without having any idea what they were for; stumbling upon a copy of Doug Robinson’s Moving Over Stone (1984) and watching and rewatching it until the VHS film strained from overuse; aid climbing up trees with boards, nails, a swami belt, and 10 feet of rope.

But in that liminal and formative period before I really found climbing, perhaps the clearest glimpse of it I would get seemingly had nothing to do with climbing at all—it was experiences at the roller rink. Watching—and then emulating—great masses of people gliding across a hard surface with barely a sound. Feeling the space transform when the lights dimmed, the DJ cued up a Jodeci-style track, and the teenagers would take over the rink with highly stylized movements, legs popping & locking, seamlessly shifting from powering forward to crossing over backward. 

Roller rinks are special places; not just for me, but for communities who have built vibrant cultures in, through, and around them—particularly Black communities. The documentary United Skates (2018) paints a picture of the history, cultural significance, and centrality of the roller rink to entire ways of life—ones increasingly facing pressures of extinction that are macro-level big, thorny, and challenging.

Rinks in different parts of the country gave rise to distinctive skate styles. Chicago’s style is “JB Skating” because, as one of its practitioners, who goes by “Batman,” explains, “we skate to James Brown … If you’re from Chicago, you’re going to have to learn how to Low Shuffle, you’re going to have to learn how to Big Wheel, and you’re going to have to learn how to Gaga.” New York and New Jersey have the “Train” style; in Kentucky, the skaters practice the “Throw” style; in Baltimore/DC it’s “Snapping;” and so on. As Mick Ward reminds us, to the likes of Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard, style is everything

Roller rinks also have been incubators for nascent art forms that have had world-changing, cross-cultural impacts. As Vin Rock from Naughty by Nature describes, “Hip-Hop was born out of that skating world.” Journalist Maulid Allah explains that “in the mid- to late-80s Hip Hop and Rap artists had no place to perform. Their music wasn’t being played on the radio, the music wasn’t being played on MTV, the music was shunned, the artists were shunned. So the only place people could perform was in skating rinks.” The first DJ at the iconic Compton rink, Skateland, was Dr. Dre; the rink hosted Latifah’s first West Coast appearance before she was called Queen Latifah; and Ice Cube and Eazy E’s group CIA before they changed their name to NWA. Just think, were it not for Skateland, Dr. Dre might never have gone on to produce Snoop Dogg’s debut album Doggystyle (1994) or 2Pac’s chart-topping California Love (1995) which, for our purposes, we can refer to as Spraywallstyle and Spray Wall Love, respectively.

The spray wall, in its noisiness and rawness, is a field upon which we have no choice but to impose some order through our decisions and actions—the games we play or choose not to play. Photo: Getty Images

Climbing gyms are incubators too—not just for climbers who have completed famous and technically difficult climbs, but also for carriers of a climbing culture that, at its best, can make our world better. Were it not for The Rocknasium in Davis, California, Beth Rodden might not have created narrative-changing art with Meltdown (5.14c), at the time the hardest single pitch trad climb in the USA and the hardest established by a woman, and with her courageous writing about the “pregnancy stigma” among professional female athletes. As Dicki Korb recounts in Rotpunkt (2019), had Alex Megos not been this “little guy” who “one day … came into” the German gym where he started his indoor climbing life, Megos might not have become the resistance climbing legend who has established some of the world’s hardest climbs, including Céüse’s Bibliographie (5.15c). More importantly, were it not for Megos’ connections through climbing, he might not have been in the position to take in 15 Ukrainian refugees after Russia invaded in February 2022. And Alex Honnold, after having discovered Granite Arch in Rancho Cordova, California, as a “too smart, too nerdy” kid (as described in Joseph Hooper’s profile in Men’s Journal), was the brainchild behind a foundation which awards grants to community organizations “whose projects are innovative, equity-focused, and have the potential to shift the narrative on what’s possible for energy access worldwide,” including for the installation of solar panels on Memphis Rox in Tennessee.

But the message of United Skates is as sobering as it is inspiring. In many ways, the documentary is a celebration of a subculture that is endangered, and maybe even dying. In one scene, the film shows a map of the United States, with each point of light representing a rink. Not too long ago, roller rinks flooded the map like stars in Dark Sky country. In a time lapse, each time a point of light vanished, a roller rink closed. The sky goes from being filled with closely linked clusters of light, to a few constellations separated by darkness and the occasional island, to a dark world where you could only make out a couple of flickering lights if you really squinted. As one skater remarks, “if all of the rinks close, then we’re stuck. We’ve got to go back to skating outside, skating in the church, or in the gymnasium, like they used to do, before we had all the rinks. It’s old history. I think a lot of the spirit of the people is lost when rinks close. You’re not attached to a tradition that ties the generations together. You’re not having that connection that people had before you.”

These days, the climbing gym is my roller rink.

And while commercial climbing gyms have been around at least several decades, for a variety of reasons, we might just be in the golden age of the climbing gym in a way we have not been before. Put another way, the purpose-built climbing gym represents a zeitgeist of our age, both in terms of how gym climbing connects to human culture and society generally, as well as where it sits relative to other aspects of climbing culture.

In What is Zeitgeist? Examining Period Specific Cultural Patterns (2019), Monika Krause helps us think about the concept of zeitgeist—literally, the “spirit of the times”—as a “hypothesis for a pattern in meaningful practices that is specific to a particular historical time-period, links different realms of social life and social groups, and extends across geographical contexts.” When it comes to human culture and society at large, one concrete way to support my assertion is to consider the American strip mall in which my home climbing gym sits. Not too long ago, there was a Planet Fitness right next to it—they shared a boundary wall. But the Planet Fitness was nearly always empty, and the climbing gym was nearly always full. When Planet Fitness closed its doors, the climbing gym punched through the wall and took over the space. It ditched the rows of ellipticals and weird weight machines built for one-off exercises for two large freestanding boulders, a climbing-specific training area—including a brand new spray wall—and two large studios for classes.

Krause clarifies the contours of zeitgeist by distinguishing it from other concepts that can be used to describe culture, such as “fashion,” “style,” or “ideology.” In contrast to those other concepts, zeitgeist is focused more on “the feel of the time, the unspoken assumptions that relate to lifestyle, to practices, and to designed objects.” The “climbification” of the former Planet Fitness space represents more than just replacing one fitness regime for another. The “feel” of the space—its vibrant, village-like quality in the midst of a strip mall that would not otherwise feel that way—is fundamentally and qualitatively different, as we have seen in the vignette at our Point of Departure. 

In contrast to roller rinks, which unfortunately are in decline, climbing gyms have been on an ascendant trajectory, so to speak—a young universe producing dots of light across the country and the planet. It is at this point in our arc I think best to humbly and soberly reflect on just how it would feel if all or nearly all of our climbing gyms went out of business—as has happened to our country’s roller rinks—notwithstanding our best efforts to preserve them and the ecosystem they support. When I reflect on this, it would mean profoundly more to me than simply a loss of a convenient place to workout. I derive wellbeing from the role the climbing gym plays in terms of my sense of self, of community, and of the basic joys of being alive on this Earth. Climbing gyms serve a world-supporting function for me, and I suspect they perform this function for others too.

The “feel” of the space—its vibrant, village-like quality in the midst of a strip mall that would not otherwise feel that way—is fundamentally and qualitatively different.

About an hour into my gym climbing session—after some socializing, a nice warm up in the sun with a view of Mt. Olympus through the south window, and a traverse of Kid’s Canyon—I find myself walking around on the pads looking for some nice flowy moderates. There are little ones everywhere orbiting around one of their coaches. The coach and I start chatting about the future of climbing; what walls the kids he’s coaching might one day free; the moves and climbs that they might someday do and we can’t even imagine. The coach also mentions he’s just joined a recreational speed climbing club. Just then I feel something bump into my shin.

I look down and see a little girl crawling on the pads, pressing her head against my leg like a puppy. She looks up and smiles.

“Who are you?” She asks. 

“I am.” I respond, without hesitation. 

 She laughs. 

Who … are … you?” She asks again, somehow speaking in italics. 

I … am.” I reciprocate, equal parts serene, perplexed, and mystified.

I am reminded of Andre Breton’s “aimless wanderings.” Walks that led him to Nadja—a real person and the living embodiment of the surreal. While some of those walks may have led him through the forest of Fontainebleau, it was in the city of Paris they found their most refined expression. There is something about the density of the city that increases the energy and complexity. The city’s fixity does not make it stagnant—it somehow enhances the vibrancy of persons and objects moving in, through, and around it. And this leads to random encounters. These encounters cannot be reduced to chaotic noise. But neither can their order or meaning be neatly pinned down. There are signs of structure, but the structure is always abstract or by analogy and never complete. They are real and they are dreamlike.

As the city of Paris is to Nadja and to Breton, so is the climbing gym in the built environment to you and me. And the spray wall is the generative nucleus of the climbing gym, on which the climbing-verse rests.

Having made my way through some nice flowy moderates, including the world-class V2 on the southeast arête of one of the freestanding boulders where Planet Fitness once stood, I sat on the pads contemplating my next move. The new spray wall was at my back. Next to it, hanging from the ceiling, was one of its ancestors—an old 45-degree wall with chunky handmade wooden grips, just out of reach. It had been a training tool of one of the founders. Now, this elder spray wall wasn’t a climbing wall anymore, or at least a functional one. It had entered a new phase of its life as an art installation—an old skate deck hung on the wall.

I settled on a yellow V5 on massive pinches with tiny screw-on jibs for feet. I struck up a conversation with a mother (she looked to be in her 50s) and daughter (who looked to be in her 20s) climbing next to me. They had traveled to the U.S. from their home country for the World Cup events being held at Pioneer Park—there were two events being held over back-to-back weekends. Athletes, teams, friends, family, event organizers, media and others from countries all over the world made their way to the climbing gym to relax, train and practice during the “layover,” so to speak. The mother was new to climbing. Her daughter was a World Cup competitor.

The mother hops on a slabby lavender V2 with terrible, slippery footholds next to the problem I was trying. She pulls onto the start carefully, placing her foot gently but precisely on a blob to rock over the angle change. Her left arm quivers as she locks off, eyes laser focused on the next handhold—an awkwardly facing but incut undercling. As she begins to load the undercling, body quaking with concentration and effort, her right foot suddenly pops. The mother plops softly onto the pads with a smile and exasperated gesture. An inspiring bit of climbing—and thrilling to behold. 

The daughter decides to give one a go. She shakes her legs out and pulls onto the starting jug, left foot in a deep, sideways backstep on a jib directly beneath her. She toes out to the volume, then pushes off it to generate a metronome-like swing, back and forth, back and forth, until she gets her timing right. At the end of her third swing she hops onto the volume with her right foot and, in a single fluid movement that takes a matter of milliseconds, left hand on nothing, Heisman strong-arms the left-facing plate with her right arm and karate kicks the starting jug with her left foot for counterpressure. It blew my mind. 

Such cutting-edge movements—movements I’ve never seen done outside—exist side-by-side with world-class climbs her mother, a beginner, and me, an aging boulderer, can safely enjoy in an accessible way.

I join Francis Sanzaro in the view that climbing on purpose-built climbing features is a co-equal climbing discipline. While gym climbing may have been born out of outdoor climbing, it is not subordinate to it. In an interesting way, this is perfectly in keeping with climbing culture’s longstanding subversive tradition of “misinterpreting” training tools as worthy of being ends in themselves—rock climbing from mountaineering, bouldering from rock climbing, slacklining from Camp 4 rest days.

But, as stated above, my objective claim takes it a step further: Gym climbing represents a zeitgeist of the distinctive period of history we are collectively living in.

The mother decided to give the lavender slab another go. I looked up at the old woody hung on the wall—something built as a utilitarian training tool that had been turned into an intrinsically valuable aesthetic object—and wondered if I might misinterpret it even more by climbing on it!   

Hanging from the ceiling was an old 45-degree spray wall with chunky handmade wooden grips, just out of reach.

Gill’s Option Soloing and Spontaneous Improvisation

John Gill, known as the “father of modern bouldering,” coined “option-soloing” in his later years—a practice that he discovered wandering rhapsodically up large, featured faces in the Tetons and that likewise finds its “spiritual apotheosis” inside, on the humble spray wall.

Pat Ament tells the story of option-soloing in the classic John Gill: Master of Rock, first published in 1976. My 1998 edition has a picture of Gill on the cover in full bicep-   blaster mode, backstepped on a sandstone overhang, wearing blue and yellow shorts and a blue and yellow T-shirt. “In 1990, at age 53, Gill returned again to the Tetons and with a ‘playful attitude’ soloed a 700-foot new climb up the east side of the south face of Satisfaction Buttress … At the finish of the climb, he experienced a fulfillment that was ‘mildly religious.’ ¶ Gill gave the type of soloing he particularly enjoyed on higher rocks the name ‘menu climbing,’ then refined that to ‘option-soloing’—whereas many potential lines exist, with frequent easy scrambling alternatives, and many branch points to allow for spontaneous decisions.”

As Chris Jones explains after having learned this style of climbing game from Gill, “the idea is not simply to ascend, but to have the freedom to ascend in precisely the way that feels right in the moment. The selection of what is to be climbed is very important … There must be plenty of choices as to where to go, what features to ascend. One must be free to choose a more difficult way than the easiest, if that is what strikes in the fancy of the moment … [T]he EXPERIENCE is everything.” (Italics removed, caps original.) As described in Gill’s essay Bouldering, a Mystical Art Form (1979), the game of option-soloing is “focused intensely on pure internal experience,” on the “internal aspects” of bouldering and rock climbing where, on “rhapsodic days” and “[i]n the best spirit of play,” the climber removes herself “from undertakings that have purpose … [to] focus on one that has only meaning.”

Spray walls are perfectly suited to just this sort of improvisational climbing game.  

After my customary ground warmup, I began my gym climbing session as I did any other—at Kid’s Canyon. Kid’s Canyon is cradled between the rope climbing and bouldering zones in the gym. It was not built with a climber like me in mind (at least at this age, some 30 years into climbing life, childless). The more typical demographic consists of families with strollers and parenting gear—bags filled with toys, snacks, and grimy tablets pre-loaded with educational cartoons—and little ones running around, occasionally pawing at the walls or running up the low angle slab. None of the latest big dual-tex volumes here. Instead, awkward ABC and number holds, dinosaur heads and little fishy grips, or handlebars and bananas are standard fare.

And yet, Kid’s Canyon Traverse was as good a warmup traverse as I had done anywhere. So it has become part of my daily gym climbing routine. It has all the ingredients of a good spray wall, just in a more mild-mannered form. There are elements of randomness—holds sprayed about with nothing in mind. But the randomness is not absolute. Occasionally there are signs of semi-structure—constellations or veins of holds of the same color, or a similar design, or patterns emerging from clusters of holds to make words or depict objects—like the colors of a rainbow, the letters “MLK” running down the slab, or the shape of a man with eyebrows and monster teeth. This is all blended together—chaotic randomness speckled with bits of semi-structure—into a concentrated space, giving it density. Finally, the holds are not constantly set and reset like other parts of the gym—you set it and forget it. This is the quality of relative fixity. Thinking about it, the spray wall ingredients and recipe are not that different from the conditions needed for the “spontaneous” formation of stars, the emergence of life, or even the organization of text on a page.

In his early work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), I remember Wittgenstein begins with the basic proposition that “[t]he world is everything that is the case.” Put another way, the world is every possible configuration and move upon a spray wall.   

What confronts us on the spray wall is ourselves. Photo: Getty Images

One day, as I sat on the edge of Kid’s Canyon, I could not help but to notice a distinctive tattoo spiraling down the right leg of one of the dads hanging out, watching his child(ren). For one, his leg was right in front of my face—he was standing up and I sat diminutively on the edge of the pad, just an inch or so above the concrete floors on which he stood, kids chaotically swirling about behind me. What’s more, I had never noticed such a long, continuous string of calligraphic text as a tattoo before.

“Can you please tell me about your tattoo?” I asked curiously, observing the dad’s somewhat surprised reaction that I—a stranger in Kid’s Canyon—would come out of the gate with such a direct question.

The dad paused pensively and adjusted his black-rimmed glasses. Then he launched in with candor and authenticity, saying something like this:

“I am a therapist. I like to think about what I do as drawing a person to the edge and convincing them they will be safe if they jump. There is a poem often attributed to the French modernist Guillaume Apollinaire—I don’t know if you’re familiar with it—that had a big impact on me.” The poem tattooed in a spiral down the dad’s right leg read:

“Come to the edge,” he said.

“We can’t, we’re afraid!” they responded.

“Come to the edge,” he said.

“We can’t, we will fall!” they responded.

And so they came.

And he pushed them.

And they flew.

Like many climbers, I am at once afraid of and drawn to the edge. I’ve sought the edge through danger and risk—and they have left their mark on me in the form of glorious memories, lost friends, and physical and psychic wounds. I’ve explored the edge of climbing at one’s physical limit—and arrived at the age of diminishing returns. More recently, I’ve caught a glimpse of a new and at once strangely familiar edge. Danger and difficulty are absent from this edge. Its yoke is easy and its burden is light. But this edge is perhaps the most thrilling and physically engaging of all the edges I’ve hunted.  It is an immovable object, a constantly moving target.  It is climbing—and living—in the spray wall style. Improvisational climbing upon a spray wall draws the climber to—and coaxes the climber to express—the edge within like a continuously breaking wave. 

“What about yours?” The dad asked.

“What?” I replied, slowly coming out of it. 

“The tattoos on your legs. What do they mean?” He clarified.

“Oh, these?” I looked down at the red and blue rings I got inked around my lower legs at the end of a bouldering trip to Argentine Patagonia in 2002. 

“They’re tube socks.”

The pathway represented an iterative collaboration between the wall, its sea of holds, and my body and mind as manifestations of both my genetics and years of environmental influences (some good, some not).

I stood up, took a deep breath, and rubbed some chalk on my hands. I had been working on Kids Canyon Traverse ever since the reset a few months ago. The work, however, was not like working on set routes or outdoor climbs. Getting from Point A (the west edge of the canyon) to Point B (the east edge of the canyon) was no issue. The issue was that the obvious pathways did not flow with good style: the holds were too close together; the incuts were too sharp; there was no room for the body to turn or twist, coil or uncoil.

One thing I figured out earlier in the months-long process was to start like I was a speed climber. Left foot on in a track style position, right hand on a good jug, left hand barely grazing a sloping crimp, knowing that when the internal “on your mark” fired I would kick my right foot on and ride the slow swing of the momentum rightward. Micro beta was everything. The precise spot my right foot stepped on the ground and its turn out angle from the wall were key. When done right, the moment I stepped off the ground would create enough energy to smoothly propel me through the rest of the traverse, like a drop of water that finds its way into a canyon stream. 

Though it was my first climb of the day, it felt more natural to put my left hand on the sloping crimp rather than the obvious jugs. That way, when I pulled onto the wall, my left hand “knew” it was time to move into a crossing position. And when I tuned into what, in that next position, my body “wanted” to do, I felt like stepping up, then stepping down—that kept me on rounded, comfortable feet. Move like a vine on a trellis.

The process was gradual. It was not unlike a type of body work my massage therapist (also a climber) does on my shoulders. The massage therapist would place his hand against mine, then slowly use pressure to draw the shoulder up over head through its range of motion. When my shoulder reacted—such as with involuntary guarding, for example—he would “stay with it” and artfully coax it to move the way it “wanted,” albeit with limited resistance and some guardrails. When done right, it felt like my shoulder was “unwinding” itself. In a slightly different context—that of gratitude for the climb that spanks us and draws out our weaknesses—Matt Samet discusses how it “will teach you every lesson all at once, over and over, until you slow down, go internal, and unpack what’s really going wrong.” (Emphasis added.) It’s no wonder that this piece is all about climbing inside! That’s where the action is.

Having set out on Kids Canyon Traverse, exploratory move after exploratory move, day after day, week after week, month after month—a refinement here, a substitution there—a unique, perfectly tailored pathway eventually emerged. The pathway represented an iterative collaboration between the wall, its sea of holds, and my body and mind as manifestations of both my genetics and years of environmental influences (some good, some not). It would remain open until the next reset, at which time the process started over again.

There’s something to expert-level improvisation—in life, in music and dance, and yes, in climbing too. And it makes sense there are common threads that weave all these seemingly disparate things together. In their compellingly argued The spur of the moment: what jazz improvisation tells cognitive science (2019), Steve Torrance and Frank Schumann make their case for how “the experience of jazz sheds light on the role of improvisation generally—not just in music or art, but in our day to day activities …   Humans improvise when making love, when fighting, and when giving birth—and there are perhaps improvisatory elements even in being born or dying.” Jazz provides a “rich model domain” to explore improvisation generally, which “turns out to be a key phenomenon, ubiquitous in our lives.” In its worlds created in and through “laying down a path in walking,” the jazz domain also provides a basis for an “alternatively reconstituted science of mind” that goes beyond “in the head” notions of cognition; it is fundamentally “embodied.” (Emphasis original.) “Improvised musical performance is characterized by a tension between ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ thinking processes: in-the-moment composition often requires rapid, pre-conscious, intuitive processing, while players will also need to monitor and control performance using slower, conscious, deliberative or mindfully-engaged processing. Much of the skill of the improviser consists of knowing how to mediate between these two speeds of output.”

And there is much more to skilled improvisation than simply “doing whatever.” In jazz and in dance—two specialized fields where improvisation has been elevated to high art—a certain amount of structure is essential to the practice at its most refined. In An Agile Mind in an Agile Body (2019), Ivar Hangendoorn makes the case for improvisation techniques that “involve the exercise of one’s cognitive capacities.” (Emphasis original.) In response to the question “doesn’t this take the spontaneity out of improvisation?” Hangendoorn explains “improvisation is not as free and spontaneous as it may seem. Habits, mannerisms, and behavioral dispositions may lead one to unconsciously make the same choices repeatedly and lapse into stereotypical movements … [governed by] hidden laws and unconscious inclinations that guide our behavior and the aesthetic preferences and cultural biases that have become embedded in our mind. There is, however, no need to revert to the classical rules of composition to achieve … artistic freedom…” The rule could be as basic “jugs,” a simple rule following algorithm, or as abstract as “climb with Rhythm & Blues.” As Hangendoorn observes, “any odd rule will do … The key to developing an improvisation technique is to find some discernible regularity and to formulate the concept or rule that best describes it.” 

The spray wall is an example of the beautiful, tragic, hopeful, and imperfect civilization we have inherited from our ancestors. Photo: Getty Images

I’ll share a breakthrough experience I had with this type of improvisation in climbing. It was on the outskirts of El Chalten, Argentina—the small town that is the gateway to the Fitz Roy Massif—in 2002. I had spent the better part of a month bouldering on the world-class blocks just outside of town that sprawled out into the backcountry. Toward the beginning of the trip, our group had stumbled upon La Vaca Muerta, a massive freestanding boulder that took its name from the windchime-like mobile made of cow bones that hung on a tree near its base. The boulder had a flank about 20 meters wide and 8 meters high. A nice warm up traverse meandered along its base. The wall started slightly slabby to vertical in places, but quickly leaned back to about 15 to 20 degrees overhanging, nicely sprinkled with black streaks of various widths. A line of gradually shrinking—and increasingly less chalked—edges and chips took a direct line up the most striking part of the face.

We quickly learned that it was an undone project. The chalk ran out about three-quarters of the way up. The last couple meters looked blank and uncleaned and led to a grassy Swizzy-bloc topout. It climbed like an early-2000s “separator” comp boulder. The first couple moves were straightforward since your feet were on the lower-angle part of the wall. And then each move got gradually harder, with the holds getting smaller, further apart, and the feet disappearing. We quickly worked our way to the communal highpoint on the first day—a left foot highstep to grab a marginal left-hand gaston. The next blank looking section, however, coupled with the spine compressing falls onto our two pads from height, halted our progress. For the next few weeks, I would occasionally stop by La Vaca Muerta to give it another try. My beta was dialed up to the high-step gaston. But I just could not discern how to drop my left foot, hike my right foot up, and somehow find a way to move off the gaston into the black-streaked unknown.

The adventure photographer Corey Rich arrived for the last week of our trip to make some photographs of our excursions. Rich was short and stout—a spark plug of energy with thin, rectangular wire-rimmed glasses. On a whim, Rich would huck standing backflips on the soft dry grass of Campground Madsen. He boisterously blended in with our group when not behind the camera, telling us enchanting stories of the time he spent hoboing across the continental U.S.

Then, when out climbing, Rich keenly sensed when it was “game on.” Like Peter Parker disappearing from a busy scene when his “spidey sense tingled,” you would be casually talking with Rich one second, and the next he would be gone without a trace. The next thing you knew, Rich was on some tenuous perch, watching from above and yet withdrawn from the action. Rich would become both hyper-present—watching over the events with an all-seeing eye—and completely invisible all at once, the way great photographers do.

This happened on one of our first climbing days after Rich’s late-night arrival in El Chalten. We were back at La Vaca Muerta and had wrapped up the warmup. I never said, “Hey Corey, I think I’m going to try this project now.” I think I must have simply had a look on my face that Rich recognized. I had no awareness of him or what he was doing—I was focused on my ritual of shoeing and chalking up—but could sense him standing in a tree silently hovering just above the crux gaston.

Standing at the base, it’s not like I said to myself “I will go through the moves I know, and then at the gaston, that’s when I’ll improvise.” It was something else entirely. It felt like my body—not just the thoughts in my head—knew and understood that now was the time, and that it would simply do what needed to be done to complete the climb.   When I arrived at the crux gaston, feeling Rich’s magnetic pull upward, without any thought or planning—even in the micro-moment—my right hand simply stopped on a complete non-hold in the black stuff next to the gaston. Moving instinctively, my right-hand pause allowed my hips to shift in just the right way, and I soon found myself on the thick-grassed top of La Vaca Muerta. It was at once climactic and anti-climactic. I would get my tube sock tattoos a few days later, in the upstairs attic of a bar named “El Bar.”

I do not think I am alone in this experience. In a hauntingly beautiful description of his 2016 first ascent of the still unrepeated Burden of Dreams (9A) in Lappnor, Finland—told the same night as his ascent, with moist, glassy eyes—Nalle Hukkataival recounts what happened after he made it to his highpoint (emphasis added):

After that, I don’t really remember what happened. But, [I] just kept climbing. That’s when my brain just really shut off and basically just woke up on the lip … I’ve done the ending a million times, but I can’t make my right foot stick … So I improvised this campus beta for the ending just in case I couldn’t make the foot stick … Got to the end and that was when I was starting to understand what was happening. It’s never like a big spectacle like they make it out to be in movies … But that’s how it goes, that’s reality … You almost want it to be more special. And in the end, it’s almost sad at the same time. A lot of mixed emotions … You’ve put so much effort into it, so much energy into it, so much emotion into it, and what you get out of it is that it is just like [Nalle snaps his fingers]—on and off, over, like that, you wake up and you’re on top of the boulder and … you don’t even remember that it happened really.

More recently, in an interview given shortly after completing Shawn Raboutou’s Chironico, Switzerland testpiece Alphane (9A), Aidan Roberts discusses his “mindset coaching” work with Hazel Findlay in the context of how to approach complex moves. It involves a shift from “explicit” to the “implicit” systems—a move away from “mechanical and clunky” internal monologue. A transfer of all of the explicit “nuggets of information” contained in microbeta to an implicit system that frees the climber to “climb with a clear head and have faith that the body knows what it is going to do.”  

We were in an American strip mall just off the freeway. Gym climbing, in some shape or form, was happening all over the country—and in other countries across the planet—at that very moment.   Photo: Getty Images

Spray Wall Style

To close Nadja (1928), leading French surrealist Andre Breton emphatically declares “beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.” Which is to say, beauty will be upon a SPRAY WALL or will not be at all.

Our Nadja sits, looking down at her phone resting on the mats. The screen softly lights her face. She scrolls the screen gently with her fingers and smiles quietly to herself. Just then, a nudge. Something bumps her from behind. It’s the exercise ball and the toddler playfully pushing it. Nadja turns and makes joyful eye contact with the toddler. She pushes the ball down the mats toward the massive silkscreen print hung on the wall. The print is of Nalle Hukkataival way above the pads—and the surging riverside whitewater spray—on the headpoint crux rockover of Tim Kemple’s LCC masterpiece Blue Steel (V8). The toddler laughs and chases after the ball, saying “Go! Go! Go!” 

Time to go. Nadja stands up. She does some juggling to get warm. Then she shakes her legs out and begins a series of fast, forceful, and dynamic movements on the ground. Leg swings, jumps, lunges. Movements more reminiscent of a track and field sprinter than an older generation of sport climber. She looks around modestly, then pulls her hood down off her head and takes her hat off, revealing a thick, black headband, a high ponytail, and dangling earrings. She slips out of her tracksuit—she’s wearing shorts and a blue-yellow Ukraine climbing jersey. Then she pulls on some ultra-soft comp slippers and faces the spray wall—the perfect expressive vehicle for Gill’s practice, in the twilight of his climbing life, of option-soloing. 

Jugs.” Nadja whispers to herself, arms up to her elbows inside a massive, brightly colored chalkbucket. She fiddles with her Airpods—inner music only she could hear—and quickly wipes the bottom of each shoe on the inside shin of her opposite leg. Then she rubs her hands together, chalk swirling about, and approaches the base of the spray wall with a forward-leaning part-walk part-charge, not unlike the toddler chasing the ball. 

There was no pre-set route. Nadja lays a path in climbing. Nadja does not make one up in advance, select one from an app, or designate a friend with a pointer stick to tell her where to go. She does not stay on color-coded holds or track feet. There was no predetermined start or end point (as Dave Pickford reminds us, this is an infinite game). No stopwatch or move count tells her when to stop. 

Instead, just one rule—jugs—invisibly animates her body like an algorithm. But this is not an “internal monologue” type thought; she’s gone internal and transferred it to the implicit system. Her movements on the wall start small and basic. Hand-jug-foot-up, hand-jug-foot-up, establishing a rhythm  

She layers in swinging moves. When she grabs the next jug with her left hand, her feet cut and her entire body relaxes and swoops underneath her arm like a pendulum. At the deadpoint of the swing, with flowing, continuous movement, she catches herself with a left heel on a volume as her right foot instinctively flags underneath to land smoothly on a counterweight. That’s what her body wanted to do; it felt like a natural uncoiling. She repeats this series of movements a few times in either direction—hand-jug-cut-swoop-heel-flag-toe, hand-jug-cut-swoop-heel-flag-toe. All while maintaining a hypnotic, metronome-like rhythm.

She eyes a dual-tex bread loaf hold just beneath the top of the wall, next to the dihedral. It’s too sloping to match statically. She pogos to generate a skate off the volume, paddles past the bread loaf, and triple-clutches to the massive jug at the top of the spray wall. She latches the hold, all strong, engaged shoulder with a minimum of locked bicep. As she swings, her right foot finds itself pressing firmly on a large, comfy hold in the dihedral to dissipate the swing.  

Both hands are on the jug now. Something comes over her. An indescribable feeling. A desire to fly. She gathers energy at the top of the wall—deep, focused exhales. She does five fast pull ups with her arms—kips that send her torso above the top edge of the wall—and then shakes out her legs. Then, the crescendo: a speed drill. With explosive power and speed, she kips up again but now stomp dances her feet past all the footholds in the dihedral, causing her body to launch above the wall in a near zero gravity state. 


And again.


As if on a monkey bar set, Nadja gracefully slinks down the wall until her feet reach the kicker. With one hand still holding a jug at the wall’s base, she handplants the padded floor with her other and kicks her legs out all B-Girl crazy-legs style. She lets go, back landing softly on the pad in a puff of chalkdust. 

Nadja lets out a laugh. She crawls back to the edge of the pads, slides her comp slippers off, and returns to sitting cross-legged. She puts her hat back on and slides back into her plush hoodie. She swipes her phone open, looks back down at the lit screen, and smiles again to herself.

Then she starts to type. Although her English is pretty good, she’s feeling unusually homesick today (after all, Nadja is here, in exile) so decides to write in her native tongue. Her emoji-laden text message translates roughly to “the spray wall of heaven is within you”—or something like that.  

The climbing gym in a strip mall (upper left); a tattoo spiraling down the right leg (bottom left); an old skate deck (bottom right).

Also by Victor Copeland

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