Neal Mann

Jamie Emerson on exploring, developing and ethics

Neal Mann
Jamie Emerson on exploring, developing and ethics
 Jamie Emerson exploring the Bear Valley Wyoming Photo David Lloyd

Jamie Emerson exploring the Bear Valley Wyoming Photo David Lloyd

Jamie Emerson has a deep desire to explore and develop new problems and areas. The Colorado-based climber has spent the majority of his climbing career pushing the boundaries of bouldering in the American West. He has discovered, cleaned and climbed classic lines across the Rocky Mountains and beyond. Developing in remote areas like Emerson does certainly puts the adventure back into bouldering, but in breaking new ground you have to have a different kind of commitment to the sport.


You've been a prolific developer of boulder problems over your career. Which new problems stand out to you as highlights? Are there any that you felt really progressed your climbing?

Climbing and developing new problems is a total experience, which involves not only finding places where people haven't yet considered bouldering, often in rugged and remote areas with difficult approaches, but finding the best lines, cleaning and climbing them. Often what comes to mind are the places, the stark landscapes and the long days of bushwhacking into some obscure canyon or wild corner of the mountains. America has so much big and open land that it's fairly easy to get lost. Some of the places that stand out are Hatcher Pass in Alaska, the areas around Laramie and Lander, WY, Roy, NM and of course any number of regions here in my home of Colorado. 

Part of being a developer is that you find problems that other people end up doing first. So some of the problems that stand out in my mind are ones that I've never even climbed, let alone done the FA, but maybe that I found and shared, or that someone else found that I put significant effort into before handing them over to a more capable climber. There have been so many incredible memories over the years, it's hard to choose just a few. 

Never Cry Wolf V13 FA Daniel Woods 2012 Never Cry Wolf is one of the best boulder problems I've ever discovered. It is a perfect black wall about 15 ft tallm that leads to a an airy finish over a raging river, deep in the bottom of a canyon in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. I tried this line quite a few days over several years before taking Daniel there. It took him a few hours to link the moves and top it out. It was great to be there with him and Davin Bagdonas, watching the hardest problem in Wyoming (at the time) get established, particularly because it was in such a beautiful area. Daniel asked me to name the boulder, and it's named from the great book by Farley Mowatt.

Paint it Black V15 FA Daniel Woods For 10 years or so I had been exploring the woods of Rocky Mountain National Park, looking for large erratics in unobvious places. Finally I stumbled up a massive 30 ft roof hiding in the corner of a bend in the river, just a few hundred feet from the road every climber drives up to climb on the more popular problems in Chaos Canyon. I knew it would be very hard, so I immediately took Dave Graham there. He oddly wasn't interested, so I took Daniel. Even if I'm not strong enough to climb the projects, I enjoy sharing them with people that can and after a few weeks Daniel did the FA. 

The Hunter V12 The Hunter is my favorite FA and certainly one of the best problems I've climbed. It is a near perfect singular line of sweeping rails up a slightly overhanging wall. This dark forest zone was discovered by my good friend Davin Bagdonas, from Laramie, WY. It took us a while to figure out a sequence on the Mega Mega project. We would work for hours cleaning, building a landing, hauling pads up the massive 300m hill that guards the forest where the boulder sits. At the time, I knew that I had mounting responsibilities and I might not ever have so much free time or ability to climb such a first ascent. I spent many days there alone, in the often threatening forest with the elk and bears, struggling with the moves. It was for me a meditative time, in which all that is good in bouldering was distilled in a wonderful experience. On a blustery fall day where there more leaves on the ground than on the trees, I finally stood atop this massive beast. I named the problem after Davin, for his tireless motivation in finding and sharing these incredible places and boulders.

  Never Cry Wolf  V13 Wind River Range, Wyoming Photo Jamie Emerson

Never Cry Wolf V13 Wind River Range, Wyoming Photo Jamie Emerson

It seems like none of those problems were easy to come by. It takes work and effort to develop something new. What do you think makes you go through that process every time, not knowing whether something will even be possible? Most people would probably commit to the the easier path of the well trodden classics.

Climbing for me has often been a very personal journey of both challenge and adventure. I am attracted to climbing because it is difficult. In a sense, I enjoy failing, or perhaps I enjoy working hard to overcome the inevitable failure that comes with pushing myself to find new areas, boulders, or to invent new beta on an unclimbed line. When I was younger and more focused on repeating hard problems, I enjoyed it more in that realm. Developing boulders provides the imaginative climber with the opportunity to problem solve. And I think that if you're serious about trying to solve difficult problems you are going to fail much more than you are going to succeed. Ultimately this is what I look for and my hope is to overcome these challenges by applying logical and sound thinking in an effort to learn and grow as a climber. That process is hard to do if you're always taking the easy path of well trodden classics. Some of the most powerful and memorable experiences I've had in climbing happened because I took the unknown path of great adventure. This approach seems to give my climbing more depth and purpose.  

Some of the most powerful and memorable experiences I’ve had in climbing happened because I took the unknown path of great adventure.

It's interesting that you're driven by the adventure of exploration. That was really core to the history of climbing. Do you think the growth in the sport, its commercialization and accessibility over the past decade has impacted that aspect of the majority of people's experiences? 

Definitely. It seems like since climbing began as a pursuit, climbers were interested in pursuing adventure, physical challenges and inspiration in the face of extreme danger. Even if it wasn't life-threatening, adventure was at the heart of getting outside. Historically, the writings of John Muir, Pat Ament, Joe Simpson, John Sherman, Peter Boardman, etc. defined our sport as being firmly anchored in personal challenge and adventure. Now that many climbers begin in the gym, things have changed dramatically. Climbing has become much more commercial, and sometimes it seems like many younger climbers are only interested in getting attention. Or, at least, getting attention has become a huge part of the motivation to climb. Somehow, many of the "heroes" of our modern sport don't actually do anything significant, difficult or important in terms of climbing besides post photos of themselves hanging out on Instagram. Many of these climbers seem to be oblivious to the wonderful history of climbing, which I guess ultimately is their choice, but they also seem oblivious to the ethics that have so defined climbing through the years. This choice seems to have more damaging effects. When I began I had a number of important mentors who shared their interpretations of ethics. It took years for me to develop and understand my own personal ethics and it seems like none of this happens for those in the gym. And I think we're starting to see the effects of that at the boulders.

 The Giving Tree V10 Rock Shop, Wyoming

The Giving Tree V10 Rock Shop, Wyoming

What do you think needs to be done to bridge that ethics gap for those newer to the sport? Do you think the gyms who are capitalizing from the sport's growth need to take more responsibility in educating climbers?

Gyms and the competition scene have done all that they can to capitalize on the climbing, and one of the unintended consequences of this is the degradation of ethics in climbing. Let me be clear: Climbing in the gym and climbing outside are two very different activities, governed by different sets of ethics and rules, although we've seen a new lack of respect in both realms. First of all, it seems at many of the big corporate gyms we have here in America, politeness and respect have gone out the window. Gyms should at very least educate the general public on proper etiquette; for example, don't lay underneath the wall looking at your phone, pay attention to those climbing around you, climbers on the wall have the right of way, so to speak, etc. Ultimately it would benefit the gym, by leading to a better and safer experience for everyone. For the most part, here in America, gyms haven't done much to alleviate this. This disconnect seems to continue for many of these new climbers when they eventually go outside. Often this disconnect can come off as very disrespectful, even while these new climbers are unaware. In addition to generally educating people on bouldering etiquette in the gym, this education can easily extend to the kids and their coaches. You see a number of junior teams where it seems the emphasis isn't on respect for the ethics and the history, but on using the outdoors as platform for having a great Instagram and a lot of followers. Climbing has fascinating ethics and a rich history of the development of those ethics, and it would be nice if the coaches took some responsibility to pass that down to the younger kids. Clearly some do, but in general things seem to have degraded with the explosion in numbers of people participating. We as climbers can also take it upon ourselves to educate those who don't understand or haven't yet learned: Pick up trash at the boulders, use social media to make others aware of the rules and ethics that have been previously established, be vocal about what's acceptable and not acceptable, etc. Here in my home area of Colorado I boulder quite a bit in RMNP, and it's clearly stated in the ethics of the area published by the park service that people should leave their music at home, because it infringes on everyone else's right to enjoy the sounds of the Park. Yet almost every time I go bouldering there, someone feels the need to blast their dubstep. Sometimes it feels like a losing battle. It's also difficult when seemingly everything in our society places an emphasis on selfish behavior. It will be interesting to see the direction things move in the next few years.

With that explosion in the numbers of people taking part in the sport further development of new areas is important to limit the traffic to those more traditional spots. Where are you currently focusing your attention, development-wise?

It's incredible what is still out there to find. I guess my focus is on Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Montana, as usual. I feel so lucky to live in The American West, which is loaded with rock and beautiful scenery. It is such a big and wonderful country that I don't think it will be fully explored in my lifetime for bouldering potential. I tend to like out of the way places, places of particular beauty that climbers previously haven't considered as bouldering destinations. Somewhere in the mountains, perhaps with grizzly bears. My father passed along his love for nature, exploration and wild animals. It something that feels fundamental to who I am. For those willing to put in the work, some of the best bouldering areas in the country are still waiting to be found. I really enjoy hiking, exploring and traveling in remote areas off-trail. Sometimes I wonder if I actually enjoy hiking and looking more than climbing these days. I would love to spend some more time in Alaska. I just enjoy being outside with a the small group of people I'm close with, including my girlfriend, Amy. As I've gotten older, I don't always have the time I once had, but I get out when I can.

 The Grampians, Australia Photo Bearcam Media

The Grampians, Australia Photo Bearcam Media

What advice would you give to anyone at any level looking to expand their experiences of the sport?

Be humble, be curious and know that many people have been as passionate and interested in climbing as you have, oftentimes even more! Climbing is a wonderful thing and there is so much to learn if you take the time to listen to those who have more experience. I've been bouldering for over 25 years and I still feel like there is so much to learn, about training, movement, diet, finding new boulders, projecting, etc. Approach the rock with no expectations, enjoy what you're doing, don't be afraid to fail—and explore! Having a sense of adventure has really enriched my own personal experience with bouldering. Climbing is an exciting thing, one that can really give people a sense of purpose and great reason to get outside, travel and maintain fitness. Climbing also has a tendency to somehow allow people to become very self-absorbed. While we as climbers tend to celebrate people who are fully committed to the lifestyle at the expense of their own health or their loved ones, that's not a healthy relationship that is sustainable. For me, the key to having a healthy relationship with climbing and training is to find balance. And that means having a well defined sense of priorities, purpose and commitment. If that means climbing takes a backseat at any given point, then so be it. I think with that kind of a mindset, climbing can be the positive and sustainable force it always has the potential to be in ones life. 

Editor