Chris Schulte has spent his climbing career searching for perfect lines in idillic locations. The American has put up countless first ascents across his native country, including many in remote locations across the West and repeated some of the world's most sort after problems such as The Big Island V15 in Fontainebleau. He continues to develop new problems, whilst highlighting the importance of minimizing the sport's potential impact on the environment.
You've been a prolific developer of new problems and areas throughout your climbing career. Which problems and places stick out as being particularly special to you?
For me, there are so many places that have occupied a special spot in time, so to speak. I've found great value in some of the most random, tiny, mixed-quality 'local's areas' (mostly my own), and of course have been incredibly moved by the mega-areas on the bits of the world circuit that I've gone to see. The areas that come to mind when I think of, say, my formative years as a climber are the Buttermilks, Fontainebleau, RMNP, the Creek, and my 'climbing hometown' of Durango, CO. Of course Hueco and Joe's and many more made up a part of my experience, but the ones that stand out for me as best for positive growth and inspiration are ones that carry on inspiring me—but, interests and focii change, and so maybe RMNP isn't where it used to be on the scale. These days, my top three are (in no particular order): Indian Creek, Fontainebleau and the Ticino region of Switzerland. That's my balanced dose of desert, forest and mountains. I pick places for the feel and the scenery, and lines for the looks, and these spots check all the boxes for me.
You've travelled extensively; when you look at your career which problems stand out as defining moments of progress in your climbing?
Milestones keep on coming if we keep on moving. They're something to look for as we go on climbing, though not necessarily the milestones of difficulty or danger or disciplinary milestones that we often think about when we discuss what a milestone is. I’m finding different sorts of 'markers on the path' these days, which is really cool. Seeing new ways of enjoying climbing adds to the depth and texture with which I can gauge and, well, enjoy climbing. But to the point, and maybe the material answer, a few problems stand out far from the others.
Karma was, without a doubt, the most formative and influential boulder problem I’ve encountered. The photo of Fred Nicole making the FA whilst spotted by Jackie Godoffe effectively made me a dedicated boulderer. It was my first Life List project, and to this day I list it at the top of great clips I’ve been lucky enough or dedicated enough or whatever enough to complete. I kinda thought I was done when I topped that one out: I wasn’t sure what to do with myself for weeks after doing it. I’d never done anything like that before. Despite what I’ve walked and found and cleaned and climbed since, it’s still an incredibly meaningful problem for me. I can’t hardly walk by it nowadays and not do it, provided conditions are good enough. That itself is a great feeling, as it was once this inconceivable dream for me, and now I can climb it when I like. Climbing is weird like that! And wonderful.
Another one that comes to mind is damn near clichéd at this point: Airwolf up at Indian Creek was just immaculate. It was like a gift from the gods, like I’d been good, or through enough shit, or needed a sign that life was still good, and still held some magic, some possibility. Sounds heavy I guess, but heavy times do come and go. Luck comes and goes. The moment of walking around the corner and seeing that it was narrow enough to span was an interesting sensation. Choice was no longer an element in the decision to climb the thing, it just had to be done. That was a new feeling. More basically, talk about wow! It’s just awesome. The hood ornament of desert bouldering. A perfect compression line that goes tall and steep and finishes on jugs with a flat landing and an elevated position with a fabulous view in an established and historic climbing area. It’s just great. I feel lucky for having found and climbed that one.
There have been a good array of lines that I could find different reasons for calling ‘em milestones, I suppose. Partage in Fontainebleau was just excellent, and took me time to complete, took patience with the weather and the season, mostly. It seemed like it was always wet! Conquistadors in Chironico was a great line and my hardest flash; I’d come close to flashing the grade a number of times and that was the one that let it happen. Flamignon in Hueco took so much miserable determination, as Hueco can be a huge pain in the ass to have a project that takes time, and I find the conditions and restrictions to be difficult to manage. The Right in Boulder Canyon was one of my longest running projects, and one of the prettiest FA’s I’ve done on granite. The Eagle and The Hawk maybe the hardest. Yeah. Lots of things can be milestones. Now, I’m looking for different kinds of milestones, rather than trying to up my numbers on milestones I’ve already passed. I want to form a more complete, and evolving view or experience of climbing.
It's interesting how your approach to climbing has changed over time. What do you see as those new milestones? What kind of experience are you looking for from the sport?
It’s hard to predict, as it seems like what I’m looking for is changing as well. It sneaks up on me. I‘ve become more open, more like I was when I started. More ready to find something new and different, and feeling luckier when it comes to finding the FAs I want. Like a fisherman! I still love FAs, I love bouldering—but I’m looking more towards the mountains, to longer routes, to vacation climbing, to people, partners, and fun stuff instead of sharpening my own sword all season. I’m looking for whatever’s coming my way I guess. Maybe I just feel a little more equipped to deal with it, do it, enjoy it, than I used to, since I’m not overburdened with a fanatic focus. Not right now, anyhow!
As climbing becomes more popular and more people begin to explore those areas, do you think more needs to be done to educate those who climb indoors on the potential damage to the environment?
Ah well yes, absolutely. We've experienced not only a huge growth in the number of climbers over the last few years, but also a bit of a 'mentorship' gap thats been going on for perhaps the last 30 years. For a long time, climbing was a rather exclusive club; it was something you figured out, caught up to, paid your dues, so to speak, in order to catch up to what was going on and that was required. Lots of folks in the past grew up camping and hiking, so being in and operating in the outdoors wasn't a big step for them. Climbing was something you did outside, an extension of the basic skills you probably already had. Nowadays, so many folks are coming to climbing via the city gyms, which means there are a lot of people who grew up in an area that had nothing to do with the outdoors but has a natural progression in the timeline that ultimately deposits one, guidebook in hand, into what are often some pretty sensitive areas. Outdoor education is going to continue to be an important part of what it means to be a climber, and as the sport grows, it becomes more important for those who know the way to help impart what they've learned to the new folks. We can't really just clique up and let the noobs fumble. You have a lot of responsibility as a climber these days!
Do you think that is something that those city gyms, who stand to make substantial profit from the boom in the sport, need to have a deeper involvement in? What do you think needs to be done to ensure many of these areas are open and in a natural state for generations to come?
Short answer: Yes. For a couple of years, the Access Fund was partnered with Black Diamond for the ROCK Project, a series of educational workshops and discussion panels with local advocacy groups and area gyms in places with high population density and growing climbing communities. The series was dedicated to helping provide some framework for new climbers making the transition from gym to crag, and was quite successful in establishing a checklist of sorts, with the added beneficial side effect of community building in many areas. For me, one of the coolest moments of the ROCK Project Tour was on the Brooklyn stop. We bussed a group of climbers up to the Shawangunks; 90% of those folks had never climbed outside before. A few hours of chalk scrubbing and picking up some micro trash led into a few more hours of bouldering and routes. It blew minds. When we pulled back into the city at 11:30 pm, folks clustered up curbside, phone screens glowing in circles, lighting up orbits in the city night. Swapping numbers, talking ride shares, all saying “we gotta get out there again”. Their first experience outside, cleaning up, taking time, learning to place pads, police the spot, spot each other, appreciate a line and a place. It was great stuff, and in the middle of the big city.
Anyhow, a number of gyms have taken on the responsibility of educating the user for the eventuality of the outside experience. It’s a funny topic all the same, as when I started climbing, you took yourself outside and went for it. You were lucky if you got to attach yourself to some old guy who literally “showed you the ropes”. It seemed like the majority of climbers from 20+ years ago already had some outdoor experience. Today, you can come from the gym, having never camped or hiked in your life. Super, whatever, but there are certainly a few items worth bearing in mind when it comes to remembering where you are. It ain’t the gym. I would like to see gyms take up the mantle of community-builder in the future, not just sit happy as an outlet for an end-user.
As far as preserving and protecting natural areas for the future—well, thats a really big picture that we oughta look at from both ends, from picking up little bits of tape to educating yourself and getting the hell out and voting. Now we’re getting serious. It’s serious business: Serious, and, business. Act and vote with your politics and your dollars. This goes for everybody, climbers inside and out, gym owners, shop owners. Participate!
You spend a lot of time on rock, when it comes to your training how do you structure it?
Ah, I don’t train, really. I’ve always just climbed! I’ve always thought that motivation to do something particular was what drove me to try hard, and I’ve always been project-specific, so nao, not a lot of training, not as folks think of nowadays. Everyone seems to be sharing their regimes and posting board sessions and tips twice a week!
When it comes to those specific projects how do you approach them? What methods do you use to break them down?
I reckon I’ve found several ways of looking at a project over the years. Climbing is an ever-evolving thing, if you stick with it it becomes a real way of life rather than a pursuit. When I was younger than I am now, I often looked at projects in a way that meant it needed to be climbed, whatever it was. It didn't need to be pretty or good or an FA, it was much more like I just knew I needed to the experience, to develop my palette, so to speak. Lots and widespread, that was my goal. Of course, I even climbed ice and little mountains back then, and even a couple offwidths. Just a couple, mind you.
There was a period where I was attracted to FAs of any kind, any style, as long as it was new. I still am, but I’m a little more selective and less motivated to do something just because it’s not been done.
After more time, I got really picky, stylistically. I knew what I was good at, and wanted to pursue only that, and so for a long time I was just wrapped around compression boulders all the time. I still am, but I have a bit of a different and less...stringent perspective? Now I appreciate the setting of an area and the style of it’s climbing more than what hard things it has to offer. I appreciate quieter places that may not see people again any time soon. I like places that may not be particularly relevant with 'what’s going on' in bouldering at the moment.
Nevertheless, I still love to visit some places, Fontainebleau especially, to sort of 'check back in', and see how I’m climbing relevant to the random FAs I’ve been doing. Font helps to keep it real!
But really, it seems like I’ve missed your question entirely.
In brief, projects have to draw me. I pick them because I absolutely must do them. That enables me to stick with them, which is key, as I don't often do things all that quickly! So yeah. Work them until the stars align. Single minded determination. Mad devotion akin to fanaticism.