Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Vertical Mind Author to Speak at Freestone

By Ken Turley

A few months ago Dane brought a new book to my attention: Vertical Mind, by Don McGrath and Jeff Elison. The book is subtitled "Psychological Approaches for Optimal Rock Climbing" and after checking out the web site, I quickly ordered a copy from Sharp End Books. I've since been working my way through the chapters. The book is fairly thin, and written in an easy conversational tone. But the topics are weighty, inviting analysis of, and reflection on one's own mental challenges as applied to climbing performance.

In the meantime, Dane continued his correspondence with one of the authors, Jeff Elison, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology and teaches at Adams State University in Colorado. Turns out Elison is a long time friend with Dan Ritter, the Bitterroot National Forest district ranger we've been working with on the issues at Mill Creek. One thing led to another, and before we knew it, Elison agreed to alter his summer road trip plans and visit Missoula both to sample our climbing and give a talk at Freestone.

The talk is scheduled as part of Freestone's monthly social and will be held Saturday, June 28th at 7:30pm. It promises to be full of useful information for improving the mental game of climbing, which, along with physical training and technique, lies at the foundation of performance.

In advance of his visit, I contacted Jeff to ask him a few questions about his background and to gain some insight into the book. As you'll see, he is thoughtful, articulate, and dedicated to both climbing and his field of study. After reading his responses, I have no doubt his talk at Freestone will be engaging and packed with useful information. Plus, he likes beer...


Your bio in the book shows you attended college in Colorado, where you also now live and teach. Did rock climbing bring you to Colorado as it has so many climbers, or did you grow up there? How did you get started in climbing?

Mountains, great weather, and climbing all brought me to Colorado – eventually. I was born in Pennsylvania and grew up there. I’m the youngest of three boys and our family was really into camping, hunting, and fishing. My oldest brother graduated from Colorado State University in 1972, when I was 12. We made it a family trip and I first tried rock climbing (Horsetooth Reservoir topropes) and backpacking. I didn’t have anyone to climb with in PA, but I started backpacking at 14. When I was 17, I started working at a pretty serious backpacking, climbing, boating, etc. store and soon started climbing with other employees and a friend from school. My first trip was to a fairly chossy area in PA (Ralph Stover State Park – “hard” shale). The next weekend I went to the Gunks and I was hooked. After high school graduation, I made my first trip (2 months) to Colorado (Boulder) and Yosemite. Similar road trips got longer over the next two summers. In 1980, I took fall semester off from college, so that I could climb in Boulder all summer and then climb in Yosemite in the fall. We managed the Leaning Tower, Half Dome, and El Cap as relatively inexperienced climbers, especially with regard to aid climbing. It was an amazing experience. At any rate, I graduated in 1983, moved to Portland to work for Intel, climbed at Smith Rock a bunch, and finally jumped at the chance to move to Fort Collins, Colorado to work for Hewlett Packard. So, I got my undergrad in PA, but did my Masters, Ph.D., and postdoc in Colorado.

My first position as a professor was in Southern Utah, which was fantastic for climbing and mountain biking. I spent 51 weeks, “ a suspended sentence,” doing research at Purdue. Living in Indiana was awful, but I had a great fall season at the Red River Gorge. I was relieved to escape Indiana for Southern Colorado.

Your emphasis in psychology deals with performance-inhibiting emotions, namely "self-conscious emotions," that many climbers wrestle with. Did climbing's mental challenges shape your research, or was it a conscious decision that came later to formally apply your studies to climbing?

Jeff Elison
First ascent near Brian Head, Utah
Jeff Elison Collection
Great question and the answer is both. I was really into Psychology and Philosophy as an undergrad, but didn’t know what I’d do with a degree and was intimidated by the thought of a Ph.D. program. I read a few things that influenced me because I saw applications to climbing – stuff on meditation and The Relaxation Response. But, you can tell from the previous answer that I went the way of computers. As a pseudo-hippy (late ‘70s, right) I never imagined that route ‘cause I associated computers with business (“evil capitalism”), but I lucked into a course that showed me the science side – operating systems and networking design. At HP, I built up lots of yearly vacation and they let me take time unpaid, so some years I was climbing 10 weeks. I competed a bit in the ‘90s and started redpointing, both of which made me think about the psychology involved. One experience with self-conscious emotions really sticks out in my mind. I was friends with one of the best female competitors in the country at the time. At a certain national comp I made it to semi-finals and was psyched – ‘cause I was pretty mediocre at comps. In contrast, she was used to placing 1st or 2nd in virtually every comp. She came in 3rd or 4th and was incredibly bummed. She started ripping on herself: she “sucked,” maybe she “should quit.” I couldn’t believe it; I would have been overjoyed.

Later I stumbled across a book that presented an evolutionary theory of emotions and I was blown away. “Oh, so that’s why we have these things… this is what they do for us…” A related book focused specifically on self-conscious emotions (shame, embarrassment, humiliation) and how we “cope” with them. It made so much sense. That’s what my friend had been doing after the comp. That’s what all of us do every day, maybe in very minor ways. Chapters 7 and 8 of Vertical Mind are by far the most challenging for readers. To get the most out of them, you have to be brutally honest with yourself. Ask yourself this: Has someone else’s performance on a route – or even their mere presence – ever affected your decision to get on it versus wait? Ever fear you won’t do as well as someone else? Self-conscious emotions and social comparison are so often invisible, precisely because we try to hide them – we are trying to hide things about ourselves. Like I said, challenging questions. Who are you? What motivates you? How are you influenced by other people? How do you measure yourself against them? No one can answer those questions fully or honestly while skimming. You have to sit with those questions and you will still come up short. Full answers probably take years. But there is so much to gain by facing the issues we raise in our book – gains in performance, but especially enjoyment.

Once you start studying psychology, you see it all around you. Climbing was one realm where I saw it, but I was just plain hooked. Just like I had been when I started climbing. When I started teaching in grad school, I used all these cool examples from climbing – videos of Ben Moon and Jerry Moffat on 14c’s and hard boulder problems. Eventually, that grew into a 2-day, 1-credit summer class: Psychology of Extreme Sports. And that leads right into your next question…

How did your partnership form with the book's coauthor, Don McGrath? How was the book idea born?

Don and I ran in the same circle of climbers, mostly from Fort Collins. We met, climbed together a few times, and then ended up climbing together at Rifle one weekend in fall of 2012. Campfire talk, fueled by margaritas, led to us comparing notes about mental training, our own experiences, and how I used climbing as examples in my classes, especially the Extreme Sports class. We both agreed that mental training is incredibly important, yet few climbers spend much time on it, probably because they don’t know how. He had already started the book under a different name, but weren’t too far along. So, after thinking about it for a few days he emailed me and asked if I’d be interested in coauthoring. I jumped at the chance to combine two of my favorite things. Writing Vertical Mind was SOOOO much more fun than writing manuscripts for peer-reviewed psych journals. The style is so much more relaxed, I got to throw a few bad jokes in there, and the application is so much more direct. We thought it would help people, and that again leads right into your next question…

What are your goals for the book? What do you hope readers will get out of it?

I should probably start with the subtitle. We chose “optimal” very carefully because we wanted to address more than just improved personal performance. We also wanted to help people enjoy climbing more. If you are terrified of falling, then it affects your performance, but it also detracts from your enjoyment. Around the campfire, Don and I also discussed the fact that we, and many older climbers, were having more fun than when we were younger. So, we wanted to address that too. Finally, “optimal experience” is one way researchers describe the “flow” state, something we cover in Chapter 10. Of course, I also wanted to share how interesting the psychology behind performance and enjoyment really are. It seemed like there was a gap in the literature. Some of what has been written on mental training is a little too new-age for me. When I was most competitive, I was really influenced by Goddard and Neumann’s Performance Rock Climbing, mostly because it explained the WHY, the science behind what they were saying. I learn best that way. Don and I wanted to do the same for the mental / psychological side of climbing. So, ultimately I hope everyone who reads it optimizes their climbing experience. That’s too much to ask, so hopefully they improve it – whether that means improving performance or just having more fun at the crags. That’s my goal for my talk in Missoula (and I heard something about beer).

You're currently on a multi-week summer climbing road trip. Missoula is off the beaten path for climbing destinations. We're excited to have you visit us. What led you up this way?

That’s right, 9 or 10 weeks. The Missoula stretch is due to a friend of a friend type thing. I’ve kept in touch with one of my co-workers from that climbing shop I mentioned, Dan Ritter. When Vertical Mind went to press, I sent a blast-o-gram email to all of my friends and Dan was on that list. Apparently he has been working with all of you on some new crag development, from the National Forest Service perspective. He forwarded the email to Dane Scott. Dane contacted me and was very persuasive! Sent me pictures of Mill Creek and mentioned the idea of doing a talk. I was really interested, but it didn’t seem to fit into the schedule. He persisted. Michael, Walt, and you jumped in with more interest, persuasion, route info, and possible dates. We were headed from Ten Sleep to Lander to Boise and I realized that I could swap Lander for Missoula. Let’s face it, there’s no good climbing in Lander… totally kidding, love it. But I have climbed there a lot over the last 20+ years and I’ve never climbed in Missoula, just a backpacking trip with Dan in the ‘90s. My favorite thing in climbing these days is to explore new areas and try to onsight the best routes of whatever grade. It’s so great to be at a new area where you can warm-up on a classic 5.8 that you’ve never seen and work your way through a bunch of harder routes – none of which you’ve done before. Seems like Missoula has some great climbing and definitely welcoming folks. And I get to see Dan again. So, I’m sure I’m more “psyched” than all of you!

(Hmmmm... not one to miss a good segue opportunity) Climbers are never "excited" or "delighted" by climbing. We're psyched! We throw that word down like PBRs around a campfire. You're both a climber and a psychologist, so who better to ask: In terms of the formal origins of that word, are we really... you know... "psyched?"

“Dude! That gnarly mono-to-Gaston sequence was rad. Thought I was going to whip at the tenth clip. Once I threw the phat double kneebar and depumped, I cruised to the anchors. Psyched!” All that to illustrate that our language is impoverished when it comes to capturing climbing experiences. They are so intense and so varied and so… great. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve claimed that climbing is THE perfect sport (for me) because it combines the mental with the physical – all in awe-inspiring settings. I address a similar question / issue in Chapter 3 of Vertical Mind: how do we explain our love of climbing to non-climbers? Saying “it’s fun” doesn’t even begin to cut it. You have joy of movement, using your body well, amazing holds and moves, mental problem solving, overcoming fear of falling, overcoming fear of failure (think that 20th redpoint burn), the joy of easy routes, those elusive flow experiences, and a sense of accomplishment pervades it all. Psyche just means mind, but I think “psyched” has become our subculture’s shorthand for all of those complex experiences – it’s body and mind, both energized.

This is my 38th year of climbing and I’m having as much fun as ever. Last week at Spearfish I was practically laughing with amazement at the holds and moves on our 5.9+++ (Spearfish ratings) warmup. I’m writing this from a camp chair in Ten Sleep while I wait for the rest of the gang to wake up and get moving. For today, I have a list of routes that we looked at two days ago. I’m excited about every one of them, even the easiest warmup. I almost didn’t want to take a rest day yesterday. I completely identify with the Mickey Munoz quote we used from the awesome big-wave surfing documentary, Riding Giants: “I haven’t missed a swell in 55 years … I’m still as excited about surfing as I’ve ever been. I mean I literally run to the water with my board, hooting and laughing and giggling.”

In summary, I’d say throwing down “psyched” like PBRs comes down to three facets: the complexity of climbing experiences, their intensity, and the limits of language. Nevertheless, I’m happy to say I’m totally “psyched!

As are we in anticipation of Jeff's visit to Missoula!

Many thanks to Jeff for taking time from his road trip to answer these questions. I hope everyone puts Saturday, June 28th, 7:30pm on their calendar and heads down to Freestone. See you there!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Ravalli Republic Anti Climbing Letter

Submitted by Ken

For several years during the process of exploring and developing the North Rim at Mill Creek, we have witnessed anonymous acts against our approach trail and the climbing area. At first these seemed like simple mischief, but as most of you know, during the last two years the vandalism has escalated to a disturbing level.

For the past year and a-half, our primary suspect has been a Bitterroot resident named Van Keele. Keele's name has come up in context with complaints issued to the Forest Service, and an individual matching his description has been encountered several times by climbers, including at least one time while placing branches over the ridge trail. We still have no direct proof that Keele is behind the trail and climbing area sabotage, but a letter to the editor from Keele that appeared in the Ravalli Republic this past Wednesday, June 11, certainly supports our suspicions.

As with most "viewpoint" pieces, Keele's letter is primarily subjective opinion. But it's implications, questioning the legality of bolting and incidental access trails on forest service land, are filled with false claims.

To set the record straight: The bolting and route development we've done at Mill is a legal activity on public land. This is not heresay. It is confirmed both by our own meetings and ongoing correspondence with the Bitterroot National Forest, as well as national legal precedence supported and documented by the Access Fund.(See for example United States v. Craig (Coronado National Forest))

Incidental user trails, which is what the Mill approach trail is, are also legal. The BNF has confirmed this specifically for the Mill creek climbers' trail. One also need only consider the numerous such trails at climbing areas across the country, areas far more sensitive and prominent: Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Yosemite National Park, and Joshua Tree National Park where Keele, in his letter, alleges to have climbed, to name a few.

As the creator and publisher of this blog, I've intentionally set a tone that is fairly neutral and factual. I started this blog as a way to distribute information about the climbing we'd discovered and were creating at the North Rim. I did this not to shine a light on those of us developing the routes, but to contribute to our local climbing community --to spread the word, to share the climbing, to be inclusive to all.  We may have opened the climbs, but the crag has since grown well beyond those early days. It's taken on a life of its own as climbers from around the region, and increasingly beyond, have their own experiences on the routes, creating their own memories and relationships with the crag.

I've been outraged and disturbed by the acts of vandalism and intimidation committed against us at Mill by, if not Keele, those who share his views. At times it's weighed heavily and I question if it's worth it. But then I'll overhear someone excitedly describe doing their first ever lead on the Tick Farm, or another who projected the hell out of one of the steep routes and finally sent, or I'll just hang out on the terrace beneath Big Science on a sunny spring Saturday and listen to the chatter and laughter of other climbers, people who are drawn for as many different reasons as there are climbers to the sport that has been a constant in my own life for over thirty years. Those are the times that remind me that standing up to the Van Keele's of the world is damn well worth it.

A quick Google of Keele's name reveals he is a chronic writer of letters-to-the-editor. But Keele is also affiliated with an organization named Friends of the Bitterroot, and that organization has sued the Forest Service in the past over public land policy. It's ironic, of course, that Keele --an obvious, if mis-directed environmentalist-- is attacking climbers, a category of outdoor enthusiasts that is famously pro-environmental and pro-conservation. But as a friend of mine in Bozeman pointed out after reading Keele's letter, his is a classic example of the "close-the-door-behind-you" attitude. In his own words, "My wife and I moved to the Bitterroot because of its vast and beautiful public lands." Now Keele wants the door shut. He will allow access to public lands only if the use conforms to his set of rules.

The hypocrisy in Keele's attack is nearly laughable. It's not climbers, but likely Keele, or those who share his anti-climber view, who have repeatedly disturbed and destroyed hillside habitat and vegetation to construct obstacles like this on the approach trail:

And it is likely Keele, or those who share his view, who have literally dug up the area beneath the Tick Farm, escalating the erosion that climbers worked to mitigate with primitive stone barriers:

Van Keele speaks of being "respectful" in his letter, but it is Keele, and no other, who has gone on record to say, if he has his way, you and I will be denied our right to enjoy our public lands in the acceptable and responsible manner we choose.

A response to Keele's letter is being written and will be submitted to the Ravalli Republic. The Western Montana Climbers Coalition continues to work with the Bitterroot National Forest to secure our right to climb at Mill.

For now, what can you do?
  1. Complete the climbing survey here:   --This will help in the work being done with the Forest Service to establish an official trail to the crag making it a federal offense to vandalize it.
  2. Join the Access Fund  --You've read that before on this blog, but the Access Fund has given us invaluable support and guidance for the past year as we've worked with the Forest Service on the escalating issues at Mill. The Access Fund will continue to help us going forward, including if lawsuits ever enter the picture.
  3. Support the Western Montana Climbers Coalition --The coalition is just getting started, but keep an eye out for events and membership drives in the months ahead. As climbers, we are generally independent, and all this organization stuff often grates against the fundamental reasons we got into climbing in the first place. But this is one time a show of strength in numbers will count for a lot. Please consider taking the time to head down to Freestone when there's an event, attend public meetings when they come up, or add your voice when possible, such as to the comments on letters like Keele's (as several have already done).
  4. Go Climbing  --Hell yeah! That's what all this fuss is about, right? 
We're lucky to live in Montana. Ultimately, there remains an underlying culture here that grants freedom to everyone to pursue their own passion on public land. There's plenty of room out there for us all, despite Van Keele's argument to the contrary.