Joe Kinder has been in the climbing spotlight since he was a teen in the 1990s. Throughout that time the California-based New Englander has been prolific, repeating many of the best sport climbs in the world and frequently developing routes in the 5.14d range. Still inspired by finding the unclimbed, Joe has a track record of longevity at the top level that only a few can match.
You've operated at the top of the sport for nearly two decades. Which of your first ascents and repeats stand out to you personally as landmarks in your climbing?
Two decades. Wow. That kind of just happens I guess when you are passionate and living in the moment—both in the short term and apparently the long term too!
Some of my first ascents that stand out to me are Bone Tomahaw, 9a (5.14d); Weekend At Bernie's 8c (5.14b); Southern Smoke 8c+ (5.14c) and Maquina Muerte 8c+ or 9a (5.14d). These are all routes that are super high quality and pushed me in ways that will stick with me forever—whether they brought a controversy, a life-goal-challenge, or just a great fucking time. First ascents are very personal experiences and something I relish in as a climber. There is nothing more concrete in time or that has more longevity in rock climbing than putting a route up. You could win a comp, flash a hard route or send your project, but that's all short term. Adding a route is forever and there is something really special about that to me. It's really hard to pick a favorite as they are all precious to me and gave me major satisfaction. Whether I climbed it first or Chris Sharma did., I made it possible for people to experience and my name is attached to that. That's cool to me.
First ascents like that are no easy feat. What goes through your mind and deal with the potential impossibility as you go through the process? How do you keep motivation when something is near your limit?
Climbing on near-limit routes and staying sane isn't easy for me. It's sometimes a gamble and I question whether I am wasting my time or not. For sure I have bolted climbs I will never do. But it isn't always about sending either. Dave Graham taught me that at one point. He questioned my motives during a climbing trip in Spain and suggested I try things that aren't a sure-shot-send. I've been doing that a lot more than I used to and honestly I haven't been let down in terms of fun and enjoyment. I believe we need to try things that may be out of our realm of possibility and see what we can do or even potentially do with some training and work. That's where climbing at your limit is the best. When you find that one possible route and you can almost envision doing it, but barely. One year might be different and you will surely know when you do feel the window opens for possible redpoint. Climbing's always hard and I really enjoy the mode of being involved with a project, learning the ins and outs, the subtitles, the tricks, times of day/year, the sensation of the good links and the bits of personal progress. It's all very sensational and personal to everyone in their own right. Talking about this stuff right now gets my blood pumping!
Often many climbers can struggle with the mental strength to operate at their limit like that, where failure occurs more than success. Do you ever use any mental training techniques to deal with that situation? Have you got any specific mental routines you go through to keep focused?
Staying focused through the doubts and the failures is never easy. I haven't simply found one solution that works. Usually I find it best when there are few distractions and I'm with someone I trust like my girlfriend, a close friend or someone that will accept my emotions and allow me to react the way I need to. Doubt sucks and it's such a strain on the intentions of completing a goal, but it's also what can make those small breakthroughs so damn pleasing! Most of my mental training is in the form of positive thinking and using my experience to see through the challenge. Things like never giving up, beating my head against the wall and staying relentless have helped me in the past and I continue to stick with those principles. Simply staying devoted to the goal and stepping away only when all signs point to it.
When you're not projecting, how do you structure your training? Where have you seen the biggest payoffs and physical gains in your career?
When I'm not projecting at the cliff I'm usually at home here in the Bay Area, California. I dig it here because I am away from the cliff and boulders and I can separate myself and focus on another part of life. I get a lot of inspiration here from my (soon to be) wife Lindsey, the community, the climbing gyms, the fashion and culture and the city life. I dig it and it fuels a part of me that I've realized I need when I am at the cliff for too long. When I'm at home it's time to train and prepare for the next trip. That sort of routine has brought great stability for me. In my prior years climbing I traveled a lot and spent all of my time at the cliff. I think growing older and forming new values takes place even if you don't realize it. So having a home-base to train, revive, and recharge in is huge for me and I really depend on the control I have with it.
Most of my training has come from trial and error. I ask a lot of questions, talk with knowledgable people like Jonathan Siegrist, Eric Horst, Patxi Usobiaga and Steve Maisch. I've learned that the Patxi training was way too much for me, and I've tried twice. Patxi's philosophy is based around an insane amount of volume and breaking yourself down repeatedly. He's the only one (other than Ondra) that utilizes this philosophy. It broke me, over-trained me and I almost suffered injury from it.
I've realized I do better with more rest, so training four days a week has become the norm for me. This took a lot of time to figure out, meaning I had to basically go through years of eliminating the aspects of training that didn't work and understanding the exercises that did. You learn a lot about yourself during training phases and the more you do it the clearer things become. I always need stronger fingers so I focus a lot on that. My finger strength is pretty pathetic to be honest so that remains a go-to aspect to train. I've had a lot of success (and fun) with the Moonboard as it's hits my weaknesses. I primarily focus on max strength, fingers, and then strength endurance later with interval climbing. I really dig the climbing exercises. The biggest gains I've seen in the three years of training have been from the hangboard, Moonboard and a lot of time spent at the crag climbing on hard routes.
I think it gets a little skewed with people these days. I feel like the idea of just climbing and training in the gym isn't the answer to sending hard. I believe you need both the gym and the rock. Don't get me wrong; the gym does a great deal for the body and is a major part of of the game. Preparing yourself beforehand and priming your body will give you a foot in the door for sending hard. Training for training won't give you the same results. Having a goal will make training easier and gives you a better reason to put yourself through the hell of it all. The gym has its place, but time on the rock has its place as well. They are different animals and need to be taken into account to certain extremes depending on what the goal is and what you have to utilize for training. Climbing on rock is so complex with the terrain, strategy, skin, weather, the outside distractions, stigmas we create, and all the emotion involved. Those elements are all very challenging and can only be "trained" and understood with a hands on experience that results in practice and practice and understanding and more understanding. Trust me; you won't get this in the gym on a hangboard. Training for training is one thing. Then there is training for specific goals and actual hard sends that are a lot more thoughtful and specific. I'm still trying to figure it out, but this is the conclusion I have thus far.
When you are training for a specific goal like that, how do you develop a regime to peak and maximize that chance of success?
I've never learned how to time the training-goal peak. This is something I'd like to figure out, but like I've said before, I'm still figuring out what works for me and even timing. Competition climbers from the 90s seemed to have this science down to a format and used it over and over. What I see most of the time nowadays is kids, comp climbers and trainer-climbers pretty much climb inside so much that they are almost peaking 24/7?
I usually arrive to my goal with the baseline of training under me and this allows me to train on the route with a foot in the door. It's still very involved and a peak is gained, but usually comes from a chunk of time devoted to just the route. Skin, strategy, times to try and when to rest are all part of a hard reappoint and this is only experienced and learned from climbing on the goal-route.
Over your time at the top of the sport, do you think the social media has increased the pressure on climbers to be constantly pushing themselves?
I'd actually say that social media has allowed climbers to push themselves less! You can market yourself in any way and whether you are hitting it hard with your training/climbing or not you get to deliver a certain narrative. It gets difficult to not judge certain people by their social media presence in comparison to them in real life. Social media can be used in great ways, but also in cheesy, and untrue, ways. I have many mixed feelings about social media and pro climbers, but for the most part it has been pretty beneficial to me personally. I come from the day of magazine photos and VHS tapes and that sort of media was difficult to pull off, but it also had SO much weight and longevity. Everything now is so immediate and real-time. I dig it to be honest, but only when it isn't abused, faulty, or unrealistic.
Just to expand on that a little, what do you think the particular negative issues are for pro-climbing and social media—and do you think anything can be done to curb them?
Since social media is an even playing field it offers everyone the same opportunities. Primarily, pro athletes use it to market their own brand and the sponsors who support them. I honestly love it and enjoy how simple marketing has become for a guy like me. Magazines turned to blogs; blogs and Facebook have now turned to Instagram. But my generation was always based around the respect for the sport, passion for living the life and the commitment climbers had.
Social media can be pretty challenging for talented athletes if they aren't social-media savvy—or just not stoked to toot their own horn. For instance, Dani Andrada has been an incredible climber for decades. He's climbed the hardest routes, developed areas, won comps, developed product, etc. But his social media tactics are mediocre at best. The bummer of this story is he's reaching less people with his brand, passion and all of the other things that make Dani such an amazing climber. His sponsors pay him to be a marketing tool, but his interest isn't to use social media with a high frequency. The people who can really appreciate how great a climber Dani is are only able to do so by seeing him at the cliff and in person.
Then you have the contrary. Mediocre athletes with huge sponsors, a giant image and a large audience. I don't know if that's odd to everyone, but sometimes it just doesn't feel right to me. I frequently see the climbing community shake their heads in disappointment at high-profile athletes for their big sponsor rosters and big social media following, but poor climbing caliber.
It's a marketing game and a dog-eat-dog world so I guess if you want to be a pro athlete you gotta rise to the occasion, right? Social media ethics get a bit out of whack as well with people being ridiculed or attacked and bullied. But at the same time I don't think we have set ethics yet and I believe we're all still figuring it out. It's a form of marketing and pro athletes should take advantage of it. My personal ethic is that I'd like my social media to represent who I am in real life and I believe it does.
You were in the media spotlight from fairly young. What impact do you think that can have on the development of a young climber? What advice would you give to the next generation dealing with it in the digital and social media age?
My media highlighting from my younger years was fun and something I used to validate my obsessions to my friends and parents. It was totally healthy and I never took it too seriously. If I had a photo in a mag I would show my friends at school our my parents; they'd be so impressed and understand a little more what I was doing with all of my time. That felt good. I think I used it as a tool more than anything else. I used it as leverage for sponsorship and enjoyed that sort of business to get what I wanted and to live the way I dreamed.
For the younger kids today I'd suggest focusing on climbing first and never being too concerned with the business side of pro climbing or the media attention. The most potent rewards are the recognition from your friends when you send or do something great. Media in this era is so fast. It's here and then gone and when I see someone riding out a send from years ago it looks weak and pitiful. Climbing is always a cycle with ups and downs and lots of mid-range so never dwell on your levels for too long. They will change. You will change. You're not above anyone and no one is above you. Climbing is grounding in that there are always lessons and ways you are humbled and challenged. Media is not climbing and a completely different animal so separate those two and always go with climbing as the number one.