Keenan Takahashi is having a moment. After committing to climbing full time, the California-based American has repeated some of the hardest lines in the world, including The Nest V15, and has developed many high and hard problems such as Terminus V12 in Bishop. Working with his friend Kevin Takashi Smith he’s captured many of these ascents on film, putting out some of the most engaging bouldering sections of recent years.
What are the first ascents and repeats that stand out to you as landmark moments of progression in your climbing career so far?
That's a tough question to begin with, but I think most of the more meaningful ascents I've done have mostly been in the last few years. For the most part, it's probably because they took me so many years, and I'd been so engrossed trying classics that I wasn't ready to take the next step and start exploring and developing.
When I first started climbing in summer of 2008, the line I wanted to do the most was the Mandala in Bishop, so when I finally did it in early 2015, having tried every year making small progress, it felt strange and surreal. It was my first time on it that season since popping my A2 horrendously on it a year prior, and was a double dose of redemption and victory, and something that I never even could have fathomed when I first saw the video of Sharma doing it. I also did Evilution Direct that year, ground up, which always stood out to me since my first trip to Bishop as the king line of the Buttermilks. The following year, I managed one of my most memorable moments with the first ascent of Terminus, a huge prow at the apex of the Buttermilks that my friend David showed me a year before and I'd started trying. It took me a lot of time to build the fitness and mentality to even believe it was remotely safe, and it still might be the most beautiful and stunning boulder I've ever seen. Just a couple days later I finished up Spectre after many years of efforts; it was also one of those lifetime long-shot goals that I never really thought I'd do. Bishop will forever hold a special place in my heart.
In fall of 2014, just before those seasons in the desert, I'd started volunteering (and later working) in Yosemite, which is where I really got hooked on cleaning and trying new things. The potential for amazing highballs in Yosemite is overwhelming, and I'd just come back from my first trip to Rocklands feeling stronger and more motivated than ever. I was running around Happy Isles trying tons of new stuff with one of my best friends (and climbing ranger) Eric Bissell and every day we had so much energy. It felt like we'd stumbled into some promised land full of all these gorgeous huge boulders and we just wanted to see if they were possible. I've spent so much time there the last few years, it kind of feels more like a period of my life rather than a specific moment, but if I have to choose one, it would be Zephyr.
At the end of that year of volunteering, I met and started climbing with Randy Puro, who I've looked up to for ages; his vision and dedication for new boulders is on the highest level. In December of 2014 we tried an absurd highball down Highway 140 with Carlo Traversi, a gentle overhang led to a perfect blunt arête at around 20 feet, with another 10 feet of slab. I was super intimidated, but Randy was rightfully psyched and was sure it would go. I couldn't see any holds and the bottom was hard, so I kind of wrote it off but it was such an amazing line it stayed in the back of my head. When I was in Bishop and did Evilution, it flipped a switch and kind of felt like the mental stepping stone I needed. When I returned just after the new year, a huge storm had blown down a couple of massive trees adjacent to the boulder and we built a better landing out of the broken branches. Randy told me that he had found a way through the angle change via a series of hidden crimps to the left, and when I checked it on a rope I was amazed at how perfect it went. That feeling sort of went out the window as soon as I climbed right, back to the arête, as the edges disappeared and all that was left was a weird undercling wrap and some bad smears. I tried that section four times, and only did it clean once, the crux being a high left foot step off a terrible smear way off the deck. When I rapped down to the ground, I knew the top was climbable, but it felt far from safe; normally I like to make sure I can link sections three or four times in a row without falling. Neither of us had linked to the halfway point through the overhang, which revolves around a tricky left heel-toe cam and long reaches. Some friends came to support us and we suddenly had a lot of pads.
We kept trying as the light began to wane, and the wind began to pick up, heading in towards the Valley from the west. My heel kept slipping at the crux until my friend Vitaly noted that I was placing it about a half inch lower than Randy; as soon as I switched the position, it stayed and I climbed past the heel crux, into a part I'd rehearsed well on the rope. You drop the left hand down to an undercling to take the heel out, toe in hard and jump left to a sloper, catching a subtle right toe hook on the way up to minimize the swing. As I climbed out and left through the crimps, I noticed a few things: I might not be able to get through the bottom again, and that everything felt tacky and I was hyper-aware; the wind was strong. Just before reaching the arête again, there is a point where you are taking most of the weight on the feet. I breathed super deeply a few times, chalked up, and set off. As I reached the right hand undercling before the stand, I tensed up to set the bad smear and squeezed with everything I had. My left foot went to the edge, on autopilot, and I reached my left hand high, high, higher still until grabbing the slopey jug. I matched it and stalled. I hadn't been thinking about getting to this point and hadn't really rehearsed the last couple of moves. Everything was dead silent save for the wind. After what felt like a lifetime, I heard a faraway-sounding voice carried on the breeze, Randy saying, "come on, dude, finish it!". The gears in my mind started shifting again and I scrambled to the top and let out a huge scream of terror and joy. I named it Zephyr after the god of wind; it gave us the landing and helped my confidence to continue upwards. It was a wild day, one in which I'd not really planned on giving any real efforts but rather just to have a scope and feel things out. Sometimes, or perhaps especially, when things feel right, you have to just go with it.
Looking back on it now, the story of Hokusai's Wave, in Roy, New Mexico is remarkably similar. I will spare the details for now, but that was certainly a huge step for me. My time in the desert with Eric and some other close friends in spring of 2015 and 2016 exploring has to be a huge part of my progress in development as a whole, going out on faith, sheer belief that what we'd find would be worth it.
Most recently, the most important step for me was projecting and finally doing The Nest in January. My progression obsession is fairly simple; I want to improve so that I can climb whatever I find inspiring. The Nest has to be one of the best boulders in the entire world. The line, the moves, the rock quality; everything comes together with it. I had to really step up my training and to climb something so hard was a dream I was never sure I'd be able to accomplish. Now it feels like a door has been opened and leaves me yearning for more!
It seems like you have broken through a number of barriers over the past few years. When it comes to training in particular how did you step it up to be able to reach that level?
It's hard to pinpoint one exact thing; there are so many factors with climbing and so many areas to improve upon. One of the reasons I love it so much is that I don't think I'll ever reach a point where I'll be satisfied and feel like there wasn't some aspect to get better at. I've always taken the long-lens approach, not feeling super rushed with doing any projects outdoors; they're not going anywhere. I think that has helped me never really get burnt out, not over-train (or really train at all until this past year), so that I can keep coming back to things motivated. I would be lying if I said I don't want to do things during a trip or in some time frame, but the majority of climbs I don't worry too much over.
If I just go into the last few years it could be a bit misleading, so I want to provide a bit of context from when I first started climbing. I was still in high school with minimum work, and I was climbing five or six days a week, for many hours each session. I had been skating for the last eight years, and there's no real aspect of "rest days", or even half-days. I'd just go skate most of the day after school or all day on weekends. When I started climbing, I didn't think it was any different, and so I was climbing a ton, and improving fairly quickly. I think within the first year, I realized that all I really wanted to do was climb (this was a bit of an identity crisis after only wanting to skate for the past eight years). Fifteen months into it, I left for college, didn't have access to a car or very good outdoor climbing, and was pretty burnt out on school. After one quarter, (I went to UC Santa Cruz which is in quarters rather than semesters; three per year), I wanted to drop out. My parents (very wisely) convinced me to take a leave of absence instead. This way I could go back to UCSC any time in the next two years, without having to reapply; it's essentially the same as deferring. I moved back to Davis and started taking community college classes, specifically only ones offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I would have four days off in a row. I was back to climbing five days a week, lots of it outdoors, and feeling motivated and psyched again.
Another fifteen months of this went by and I got sick of being in my hometown so I went back to UCSC. By this point, I was no longer burnt out on school and a bunch of friends from Davis who also climbed had since gone there as well, so we had a little crew that was psyched to session. Still, college doesn't really lend itself to obsessing over climbing (or at least it didn't for myself, trying to feel comfortable and meet people in a new place and still not getting to climb outside much) so I kind of stagnated until I finished school in spring of 2014. Right before leaving for UCSC the first time, my friend Teddy and I had made a pact to go to Rocklands when we graduated, so we'd bought tickets for that summer. I hadn't been on a long (this was seven weeks) climbing trip before, and Rocklands had always been at the top of my list, so I was curious to see how it would go. Still, I didn't train (I just don't have the focus for it, I get incredibly bored and won't do it unless someone else instigates it. Besides, most of my friends that trained got injured that trip, so I felt even less inclined to do any after) but I was climbing in Yosemite a lot before going and felt pretty fit. I ended up having a breakthrough there, climbing my hardest by a long shot and doing much better than I'd hoped. It gave credence to the idea that if I was given the opportunity to climb a lot, I would keep improving.
I ended up getting the volunteer position in Yosemite just after returning, and was back to climbing five days a week outdoors. I guess since that first trip to Rocklands, I've been climbing four or five days a week, and I'll always recommend more climbing as the first step to improvement. Personally, if I climb two days a week, I'll regress; I need three to maintain, and four to improve. Five is also great but more than that is usually a bit much and increases the risk of injury. I think there's likely a small bit of variation on this person-to-person, but I realize it's hard for the majority of people to have that much free time. If you do some supplemental training (hard, short core workouts are what I've added as my core is always my biggest weakness) a couple of days a week, I think there's still the ability to improve climbing two days a week. Still, I feel pretty confident that climbing less than that won't really allow for improvement in the long run.
One of the biggest reasons that I advocate for time climbing rather than training is because climbing is three dimensional and infinitely varied. Even after all these years, I am still doing new types of moves and learning new things to focus on. I guess most of the time I'm at the gym, I'm "training", because the majority of my time is making up limit moves on a steep, dense wall, and falling a lot. Falling is a huge part of it—if you're not falling the majority of the time while training, then it's probably not hard enough for you. The other reason I mostly climb is to help improve my proprioception. I see loads of people in the gym cranking one-arms (I've never done one—I blame it on my long arms but it's really because I'm weak), but move inefficiently on the wall. Most hard moves outdoors involve your whole body by optimizing both how and when to engage certain muscles. The more time you spend climbing, the more parts of your body you are able to focus on at once. This is something to always work on. A couple of years ago, I had a bit of an epiphany; contrary to the previous statement of being insatiable in terms of progress, I think if I could get to the point where I could feel every single muscle and be able to control each one exactly to how it should be for each given movement and position, I would be satisfied. In my mind, that would be true mastery, but I don't think it's really possible, hence the forever endeavor. I want to emphasize that I think for improvement in the long run, making sure you are climbing a lot is the most important factor rather than actual "training".
All that aside, this last year I have begun some unstructured training to work on weaknesses or for specific projects. Before going to Red Rocks to try The Nest, I started running because the approach is an hour long and almost three miles. I wanted to be able to get to the boulder and feel basically fresh. Having a general base of fitness is great, but I'm not really a runner and have only been doing it periodically now. As I previously mentioned, my biggest weakness is my core, and so I've started doing some core training to supplement just climbing. This varies a bit, but most recently I've been doing TRX workouts as they're powerful and active (i.e. not a static position, where I get bored) but the misery is limited to a few minutes. This makes it easier to tell myself I can do it, and it's something pretty much anyone can do (you really only need five to fifteen minutes of free time a day and you can get utterly wrecked!). I don't have the TRX brand itself; I just put my legs in the straps that come with rings—this is a much cheaper and equally effective way if you don't already have access to a TRX. I was also doing some ring workouts to help strengthen pushing muscles, but have taken a bit of a break as my shoulder has been bugging me a bit. I noticed it made me climb differently; I was using my chest to push between holds rather than pull—quite a strange sensation but helps you stay really tight to the wall!
The last few things are non-climbing but have been incredibly helpful. Since I graduated from UCSC, I started eating much better and drinking a lot less. I've noticed I have a threshold weight where crimping feels good or hurts and this makes it simple to keep it in the good range. I had a pretty bad diet for most of my life, and changing my eating habits in a way that I can actually maintain has taken me years to get to. One of the easier ways to be healthier is to drink more water; most of the time you think you're hungry you're actually just thirsty. The next time you feel hungry, try drinking half a liter or so and wait ten minutes. If you're still hungry, then eat, but if not, drink more water! I generally drink five or six liters a day. I also started making sure to sleep a lot, at least seven or eight hours. This helps my mental state more than anything; if I don't sleep enough then I get frustrated by little things that don't really matter. It also helps reduce your cortisol levels, so when you feel hungry, it's because you are, rather than just tired. Last, I started focusing on breath timing while climbing. This has helped a ton—figuring out when to breathe and when to hold the breath. Generally, if you are trying a move when you need to hold tension, you should hold your breath. If you're moving quickly but to a good hold and you can afford to lose tension, then you can breathe out. This takes a fair bit of practice, but focusing on breathing also helps you calm your nerves while climbing and lets you divert your thought towards something other so that negative or doubtful thoughts can't enter. I realize the last one is climbing related, but in a way, all of this is, so I might as well come back to one that's effective while climbing!
When you are bringing all that together on a hard problem such as The Nest, how do you approach the projecting process?
The way I projected The Nest was actually new for me. Normally, even with a big project that I feel is feasible on a given trip, I still climb on lots of things and maybe go to the project once out of every three or four climbing days. That way, I feel like I'm not throwing all of my eggs into one basket (or in this case nest—sorry, had to do it), and feel psyched and motivated on most climbing days—it takes a bit of the pressure off from each individual session on the project. This time around I had three weeks, and I knew it was going to be really hard in the first place, let alone the timeframe (I like having a month minimum for big projects if possible). I opted to session almost every climbing day on it, aside from one early on to try (and fortunately do) The Shining Path (another one I'd wanted to do for years, one of the best in the US in my opinion).
The Nest is a bit of a power endurance problem; the bottom isn't all too hard but it's eight similar-style shoulder moves to get to the crux, which is a distilled couple of really powerful shoulder moves. Similar to my plans of running and feeling fresh upon arrival, I wanted to be able to climb to the crux and feel as if I'd just pulled on. I figured I'd want to get the muscle memory and fitness by just climbing on it. One of the things that makes it such an amazing hard boulder is that you can work it into oblivion; the holds are really friendly edges, and the tiered landing over a bush (where it got its name) lets you try the crux section as much as you want despite it being ten or so feet up. If that bush weren't there it honestly might still be a project, but that's a different story.
I'd tried it twice the previous year and had figured out the crux on my second day. I was trying Jimmy Webb's method, which revolves around isolating a miserable wide pinch and matching right above it. The first session I couldn't move with the pinch; the second day was ruggedly cold and the pinch felt leagues better. I did the move in isolation and climbed to the top to get it wired. Psyched out of my mind, I came back down without resting and immediately tried to do the move in isolation again and felt a crack in my left middle finger as I tried to match. I'd strained something, probably the A2, and was done climbing on it that trip. I was super mad at myself as I knew I hadn't warmed up properly, but now I knew I could do the moves and the dream grew.
Last year, it was warmer than the day I hurt myself on it, and the first session the pinch felt impossible. I decided to try Paul's method, which involves a huge bump (the crux) off the left hand to snatch the right hand Jimmy goes to, and then crossing under before rolling out to the good edge out left. I was super psyched when I finally did the bump that day, but the next couple of moves were a bit harder than with Jimmy's way. Nalle did it the same way as Paul, and both of them had fallen after doing the big bump from the bottom. Essentially, you split the difficulty between three moves instead of two, so it's overall a bit less power. I'd found a slightly different way to grab the right hand after the bump, and it seemed a little less likely to dry-fire, so I was hoping that I'd do it the first time I stuck the bump from the start.
I started sieging it, going up there for four or five hour sessions, and working on tons of micro-beta and making links for fitness. I was fortunate to be sessioning with Ethan Pringle a bunch and we shared a bunch of beta, which helped a ton. We got rained out the first day, and snowed out the fourth or fifth, but through those days I had a fairly similar routine. I'd warm up (well, so I wouldn't make the same mistake and hurt a finger again), and then start working the crux. Once I did the crux a few times in a row, I'd start giving efforts from the bottom. At first, I was barely linking to the start of the crux, but by the third or fourth day I was falling from the bump every try. Not really close to sticking it, I was coming out from the wall way too much, but at that move every time. After the fifth session, I fell at that move six or seven times in a row. I was finally arriving at the crux feeling fresh, but was not feeling much closer than the previous session, and started to get discouraged. I was wondering if the new method of just trying one climb really helped build the fitness or if I was losing power in other areas by not using them. Nalle had shown up a week or so into the trip, and I asked him what he thought and he was really positive, saying that the shoulder strength was super specific and to just keep trying, that it wasn't going to make me weaker only climbing on it.
The following session, I went up with a learning mindset, no pressure to send, but just to try and figure out what was different from starting in the stand. My girlfriend Parker had just flown in and I felt much more relaxed and psyched to get to go up there with her. I focused on the transition and how I took the holds and my position between starting from the bottom and just pulling on. I realized I was using a slightly different grip position for the right hand when coming from the bottom, and started making sure to take it like that from the bottom. It took a bit of extra effort to re-adjust, but suddenly I was actually grabbing the crux hold from the bottom rather than slapping. On my seventh or so try from the start, I stuck the move, but didn't have it perfect. You can't readjust, so I tensioned everything I had, and rolled under to the right hand. Just before switching feet to go to the last hold, my hands dry-fired simultaneously. I was super bummed, but now I felt really confident that I could do it. I didn't have enough energy to stick the crux any more that session, but I told myself now I had a real fighting chance; this had been the last step before doing it.
I took a rest day and my mind was preoccupied with it; I couldn't focus on anything else. I woke up in the middle of the night for a few hours and couldn't sleep because I was only thinking about it. I felt crazed, I was so engrossed with every minor detail, and trying to optimize every tiny thing. I wanted to sleep so bad, but I didn't fall back asleep until 6 or 7 a.m. When I don't sleep well or enough, I generally have a hard time dealing with things not going well. When I woke back up, I had a headache, which only worried me more. Parker and I went up around noon. I was so jittery and on the fence, I almost decided to bail. Instead of a healthy outlook on just working it, I was pressuring myself to do it that day. She said I might have a stress headache, which I'd never had, so I dismissed it, but looking back I think she was likely correct.
The warm up felt hard, and conditions were strange and I kept sliding off the crux hold while working it in isolation. Everything felt terrible, I still had a headache, I felt like I was regressing, and I was wondering why I was up there. I finally did the crux in isolation and started trying from the bottom. I wasn't even close. I was far back from the wall on the crux, and I was climbing the bottom badly every go. I was really frustrated, and really starting to lose it mentally. Normally, I feel pretty stable, and I make a concerted effort to not throw wobblers; I always get a bit uncomfortable when someone else does, and I don't want to make anyone else feel weird. After six goes from the bottom, I gave up on doing it that day and talked with Parker for a long time, about why I was here (initially, why I shouldn't be here), and how I was so psyched on the line, and how limit it felt, but that I wasn't sure I could do it that trip and maybe I should stop trying. I decided to just focus on even smaller details to hopefully learn something (as I hadn't yet at all that day) and stopped trying from the bottom. My biggest realization came when I realized that I had started to feel so comfortable coming from the bottom that I'd started to breathe through the crux. This disengages your core just enough to lose tension while grabbing the crux. You've already been climbing for half a minute, and suddenly you have to hold your breath for five or six seconds. It feels like you're drowning, but in this case, you have the option to breathe, so you do.
Unless you don't. I decided to try from the bottom and force myself to not breathe. The first couple of tries with this new microbeta suddenly found me much closer to sticking the move. The pads had shifted slightly while I'd been honing in the crux and I had an unfortunate pad dab and had to restart. I decided to do something I'd never done and simulated the whole climb lying down on the ground, tensing and breathing exactly as I now knew I had to, accepting the extreme discomfort of holding my breath. I lay down for a while at the base; darkness had descended and there was a moon lighting up clouds with a purple tinge. The wind had started to blow as the sun set and now it was nearly howling. Something in my mind clicked. I have no way to describe it other than a feeling of utter peace in doing exactly what I wanted, in the place I wanted to be, with my favorite person. It was a moment of pure serenity, one that I've never had before and can only hope to have again. I felt from a deeper place within me, previously untapped, that I would do it the next try. I know that sounds absurd, but everything felt lined up so well; it was beyond dreamlike.
I pulled on, and focused on climbing each move exactly as I'd rehearsed on the ground. I had a minor hiccup in the bottom where I had to replace my left foot, but other than that I executed each move well. I got set up for the crux, dying for oxygen, and used that desire to tension myself even more. I stuck the crux perfectly, as well as I ever had, and rolled under. This time I felt tacky, and stuck the good edge. This was the moment I'd wanted for ages. I was in shock but took some deep breaths and death-gripped my way through the easy section to the top, screaming as I never have before. Parker and the moon above were the only witnesses and I couldn't be happier. That was definitely one of the best moments I've had in my life, let alone climbing. Knowing now how amazing that felt only makes me want to have more of those moments, despite realizing how rare that might be.
We went back to town and my friend Kevin had finished his number one project, so we celebrated with all you can eat sushi. It doesn't get much better!
How do you deal with the mental pressure of operating at your limit like that? What do you do to deal with the doubts that can occur over that period of time?
Like I mentioned earlier, this was the first time I went into a project deciding to (almost) exclusively climb on The Nest, so it was a learning experience for sure. My normal way of dealing with big projects is to tell myself there's not a huge crunch to do it at any given time, just that I want to do it sometime. That way, I try to keep any pressure off of doing it a specific day.
Obviously, that can't work every time, and there are huge ups and downs that go along with dealing with the frustration of putting so much energy and focus into a single thing. A huge part of it is that I'm pretty picky about what projects I pick. If I'm going to invest a large amount of time into a climb, then it has to be something I'm really psyched on. I have to choose lines that inspire me for their beauty and quality - that way the desire is pure and the motivation sticks around through the hard moments when things aren't going as well as I'd like. Sometimes I've tried boulders that are going to be limit for me but that never really sparked that fire, and I've found that I just can't dig deep enough to keep trying 100%. I have to really want it, despite also trying to detach myself from an outcome. In a lot of ways, that can be frustrating too, if I'm there with some friends who are psyched and I just can't find the motivation. I don't want to sound snobby about it, but there's only so much time we have to climb in our lives and I want to focus on the things that motivate and inspire me to work harder and push myself further.
For every line that I've gotten psyched on, it's easy for me to try really hard, and I find so much satisfaction in giving forth all that I can. I feel good about any day climbing if I know I tried my hardest, regardless of the outcome. As long as I try my best, and feel like I climbed as well as I could on a given day, I don't think there's any reason to be mad or disappointed with an outcome in which I don't send. I'm pretty hard on myself, so when there's nothing else I could have done, it's not fair to be mad. The session before I did The Nest, I fell after sticking the crux bump, but not due to messing anything up, I just dry-fired. I was bummed, as I'd hoped to do it that go, but I didn't freak out or throw a wobbler; I climbed well up to that point and there was nothing I could have done better on that try that would have increased my chance of doing it.
Mentally, the hardest part was definitely over the next two days, where I was sleeping badly and couldn't focus on anything else. I was more stressed than I've maybe ever been climbing, and it was intense. My mentality for big projects has to be one based on learning and process rather than a specific outcome - my session was going terribly until I switched to just trying to learn more subtleties and I started to enjoy trying again. If it stops being enjoyable, I have to search within to find where my desire is coming from. If it's coming from the wrong place, it's going to be hard to line everything up perfectly. As long as I'm truly inspired by a climb, I'm willing to sacrifice a lot, over a long period of time; inspiration is definitely fuel for effort.
You've captured a lot of those hard ascents on film with Kevin Takashi Smith. How do you approach that filming process and do you find it adds to the pressure of sending or adds motivation?
I've been friends with KTS since we met at the climbing gym in Santa Cruz during school—he was a setter there and had graduated right around when I started going, I think somewhere around six or so years at this point (starting to sound like a long time!). We kind of decided to "go for it" around the same time, him as a photographer/videographer, and myself as a climber two or three years ago. We'd been on a few trips together in the states and so it morphed pretty slowly. As we traveled more and have struggled in similar ways, trying to make ends meet in unconventional ways and the like, there's a lot of understanding between us. We're both just striving to be the best we can be, stay true to who we are and at the same time bring that passion and motivation to light.
Because we've spent so much time together, we know each other well and are really comfortable, so I never feel added pressure to send or do anything I wouldn't do normally. Personally, I feel like an ideal videographer isn't adding or detracting from some "need to send"; they're not necessarily the fly on the wall, but if I don't feel that drive from a pure place then there's something wrong. As I've worked with more photographers in the past couple of years, there's definitely a spectrum—those with more experience tend to be more removed and just let you do your thing. KTS has always been really good with that, and I think it add visible authenticity to his work.
The state of climbing media has changed a lot since I first started; us and a few other good friends have been trying to think of a new perspective on how to bring really rad media to a growing audience, especially as gym climbing explodes. I'm really intrigued about where things will be 10, 20, 30 years down the line. The transition to primarily social media is going into uncharted terrain and I hope we can share how cool outdoor climbing is, and how important outdoor areas are to us all. It seems like it could go a lot of directions and I want to make sure it stays true to climbing's roots, psyched and motivated but humble. That might sound like an old man grumbling about the good old days, but social media seems inherently self-aggrandizing; I think (hope) that might be because it's so new that we haven't seen any other models. I realize this is hypocritical as I post things about stuff I'm doing, but I have mixed feelings about it. I think it would be awesome if we can shift towards something bigger than just ourselves. I would love to hear others’ thoughts are about this though, I can't think of many consolidated climbing forums; seriously, if you feel strongly about this please let me know!
What impact do you think social and multimedia has on climbers’ individual brands? Do you think there is a pressure on world class climbers to constantly remain relevant through those mediums?
It seems to me that media as a whole has shifted away from long-form/large-format scenes towards short, small, and very, very regular things on social media. Perhaps our attention spans have shortened, or maybe there's just a desire for newness that TV or a framed photo no longer feels fresh. Regardless, I think there is definitely pressure to stay relevant, mostly via social media. Whether that's being featured by companies or self-promotion, things on IG now blow up way larger, albeit shorter, than, say, a video on a website a few years ago. With the (relatively) new algorithms that now bump popular posts to the top of the newsfeed, posts that aren't popular are not given equal weight.
You can pick your side, but social media has essentially created individual branding where it didn't really exist before. I'm sure that some people love how that has changed, but I personally wish there was no "need" for self-promotion for sponsored athletes. I put "need" in quotes, because that seems to be the current status quo, but I think that there are other potentially better models.
If people gave consistently high-quality media to the companies they work with, there shouldn't be much need (at least from a company's standpoint) to post on their own feed. The filter is one of the main differences - companies have a certain standard of quality and professionalism that needs to be upheld. If some media doesn't meet that, it won't get posted even if the athlete might want it. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, but it is definitely something that changes how often things get posted. Self-branding can be a bit more intimate, which can be a good thing. People can post a story of random little things that they notice throughout the day, etc. and that gives some insight into how they view the world. It can easily sway too far in one direction though; if all they're doing is updates of such and such every five minutes, it makes me wonder how much they're engaging with what's around. Besides, when's the last time you were inspired by somebody's omelette?
The pressure is two-sided; from the companies, and from the climber. I doubt there's really ever going to be a way around that, but I hope it doesn't shift how people act or what they focus on. I think if you stop pushing yourself, stop caring about improving as a climber (or whatever your passion is), and suddenly just focus on posting things for the sake of posting, people will see through that pretty quickly. Companies will see through that as well. If you're climbing for yourself and following your own motivation, you won't burn out. The need to stay relevant for a company is real, and reasonable if you're a professional climber, but the need to climb, explore, and try hard is infinitely stronger.
Despite the growth in the sport, money has yet to truly flood in to support professional athletes. Many professional climbers have developed businesses such as gyms or training equipment to support their lifestyle. How are you approaching your career as a professional climber?
I hope that aspect will change soon. Climbing, and especially bouldering, seems to be exploding in popularity and I would love to see athletes able to really follow their passions without having to worry too much financially. In many other professional sports in the U.S. such as basketball and football, because players make enough money to live comfortably, they are really able to focus and concentrate their effort towards being the best they can be. They have personal trainers, sports doctors, coaches, and managers. Imagine if climbers had access to resources like that? [Recall the vid of Adam Ondra on Silence, his trainer helps him immensely.] That's obviously the most extreme end of the spectrum—I'm not saying that climbers need to be paid millions, but being able to climb full time is definitely a must.
There's a paradox to reach new levels in climbing; there's no chance for a weekend warrior to out-climb someone like Adam, who can climb and train when he wants (and needs) to. At the same time, you can't get paid to climb unless you're climbing at a high level (and of course a good ambassador), but how can you get to a high level without doing it all the time? If you start early, you could be fortunate enough to make it when you’re a teenager, but I didn’t start climbing until I was nearly 17. I saved up for a few years before taking all of last year off to try and see if I could continue to improve. It was both exciting and daunting to feel that, if given the chance, I could potentially pursue climbing fully. That leap of faith paid off, and I'm super grateful that some companies now believe in me enough to support me making a living from climbing. It's not yet enough to start saving anything, but I hope I'll be there one day. My biggest goals in climbing have always been to push myself and follow the psych to try and find where my limits lie, and I hope to be able to travel more freely in the coming years to focus on development.
I'm certainly not a businessman and honestly have a hard time focusing on most things outside of climbing. I've always been an obsessive person, and climbing has provided a way for me to channel that stoke in a positive way. Other outlets like opening gyms or developing training equipment makes a ton of sense to gain some financial stability, but my heart wouldn't be in it, and I don't know if I'd be able to stay motivated with it. I think the most I can contribute is to share my love of climbing with others and spread the psych. Ideally, I hope that some of my climbing, especially exploring and first ascents, can help inspire others to push themselves. I’ve always looked up to people developing and trying projects; it’s the aspect of climbing I’m the most psyched on and the moments that remain most vivid. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to climb as much as possible—there’s no way I would have been nearly as stoked without having those role models sharing their passion and joy. I think there is great value in making sure there are people who can share their passion and motivation and bring what they have to the table, I have certainly benefited and learned a lot from it.
On the other hand, I've been doing a bit of one-on-one coaching this year for the first time, and found I really enjoy it. It's so awesome to see someone's eyes light up because they've just learned something new, or broken through a mental barrier. To get to share that excitement is special and feels great to give back to the community that has given me so much. Inevitably, I relearn a ton of things that have become second nature, and it’s refreshing and humbling to remember that we all started at the same point. Coaching also has the benefit of longevity; it’s something I could see myself doing a lot more of down the road and wouldn’t be hindered by age.
As the sport continues to grow what do you think those that profit from it need to do to limit the potential damage to the environment?
Great question, and one that seems especially relevant given the new climate report. As I mentioned before, I'm not a businessman, so I don't have much insight into how companies operate on the inside. That said, I think there's a level of responsibility that companies should try to uphold so that they limit their environmental impact twofold; first, by using sustainably sourced materials for their gear/clothing and paying fair wages to their employees/workers. Second, I think an equally important side is to help inform and rally the public towards environmental causes. In the U.S. especially, businesses have a huge following and voice in being able to shape people's actions.
I realize companies don't want to lose potential customers by showing political support in one direction or another, but if we're talking about the outdoor industry specifically, they should acknowledge that the vast majority of their customers have a stake in whether or not they have access to public lands. Even if they prefer to remain nonpartisan, at the very least promoting voting and public involvement rather than disengagement is crucial and could be game-changer for tight races. It feels as though we're reaching a turning point and I really think the best way forward is to have the largest possible percent of citizens voice their opinion. I'll end on that note—please, please VOTE in the upcoming midterm elections, or whatever elections you have where you are! Your opinion is just as valid as anyone else's, and deserves to be heard.