An Hour and a Half Left to Shit on Your Dreams

by J. Tobias Beard

Muscles, obsession, and growing old in the sport of bouldering

In 2006 I visited the Hound Ears Bouldering Competition outside of Boone, NC. In previous years I was a competitor, twice taking fourth place. I went back after having quit climbing to see what had changed. A version of this story was published online by Deadpoint Magazine.

ClimbingChalk fills the air, blowing like dry snow. To get to where the climbing is, you must walk across a forest floor that is an expanse of wet, dark brown dirt, yellow leaves, and bright orange pine needles. You must walk underneath the soaring, stalagmite trees and the rhododendron plants that form dark tunnels leading to hidden clearings. Here the ground is covered with thick foam pads and muscles tense and strain and people scream. White chalk glows against green moss and grey rock.

Earlier, around 8:00am, a decrepit school bus groans and shakes as it winds along the paved road. Back and forth and up, always up, up, up. It’s the last bus out of the campground, packed three to a seat, and on the floor, and standing. It’s filled with boys and girls, ages ranging from maybe 14 to 25, but its hard to tell because everybody is wearing the accepted uniform – big puffy down jackets and small beanies made of polar fleece or wool. Everybody is nervous, giddy. They laugh and kid each other on the outside, but inside they try to focus, stay calm. Hands are a constant focus for climbers, as they are the literal link between the athlete and his medium. In about an hour these kids will be grabbing cold sharp rock and hanging most of their body weight of off the skin, tendons, and bones of their hands. On the bus, they try very hard to keep their hands warm.

Ronnie Jenkins, rough black beard under a knit beanie and wearing a puffy down jacket, taps me on the shoulder and leans in close. “I remember one year the bus didn’t make it” he says. I turn back around and stare at the sticker above the windshield that reads “Follow Me To Hooters”. A few seconds later Ronnie taps my shoulder again.

“Hey Toby, is there a Veterinarian near here”

“I don’t know Ronnie, why?”

He holds up his muscular arms. “Because these Pythons are sick!”

The bus stops and the driver says in a soft southern accent, “All right folks, that’s as far as we go. Have fun and good luck!” We spill out of the bus and into a small clearing on top of a ridge at about 3,500 feet above sea level, wading through the dense, verdant forest towards the rough and ancient rocks that are forever about to tumble over.

This is the 13th annual Hound Ears bouldering competition, held just outside of the town of Boone in the western mountains of North Carolina. It is early morning on Oct 7th, 2006, and for the next 7 hours or so, approximately 350 people will try incredibly hard to climb to the top of small boulders, scramble back down, and then do it again. For this they will bleed, break, and cry, but for this they will sacrifice almost anything.

Weather is vitally important to Rock Climbers. It is probably the third most frequent topic of conversation behind where you are climbing and where you want to climb. The perfect climbing weather is cold and dry. The colder it is, the better the sense of friction or grip between your skin and the rock. And when I say cold, I mean cold. Many good climbers will tell you that 40 degrees and sunny is the perfect climbing day.

If it’s hot you sweat, and sweating, for obvious reasons, is less then desirable. Moisture is an enemy, and rain a nightmare. In southwestern climbing areas rain isn’t much of an obstacle, but on the east coast it can shut down a climbing area for weeks. Boone, North Carolina averages 53 inches of rain a year.

On the morning of the competition, it is not looking good. The clouds are black and foreboding. The ground is wet from last night’s rain. But it is cold, and one lesson that climbing on the east coast teaches you, is that what the weather is now tells you nothing about what the weather will be. “It’ll burn off,” the locals say, and they turn out to be right.

Hound Ears is a gated community and private club with golf, tennis, fine dining, 24 hour security and, according to the website, “the lifestyle that you have been looking for.” And this is true if you have anywhere from $300,000 to over $1,000,000 to spend on a house. But if you are a Rock Climber, then living in nearby Boone is as good, if not better. It is cheap to live there. Boone is surrounded by boulders and as such is a world-renowned destination for those who like to climb on them.

Bouldering is the rambunctious younger sibling of Rock Climbing – sort of like snowboarding is to skiing. The idea is that you climb small rocks, ranging in height from maybe 5ft to as high as 20, instead of cliffs, and so don’t need to use ropes. Instead, boulderers carry thick foam pads, usually about 3’ by 4’, that fold in half to be carried like a back pack, and unfold to catch a falling climber. A pad, climbing shoes and a bag of chalk to dry the hands, are the only essential gear.

Roped climbing, which can take place on cliffs 20 to many thousands of feet high, is by no means harder or more serious than bouldering, it’s just longer. Roped climbing emphasizes endurance – many moves in a row – whereas bouldering takes power – a few moves at the limit of one’s ability. Modern climbing is less about adventure and more about extreme athletic movement, less about getting there and more about getting there in as difficult and stylish a manner as possible. Bouldering is what Sisyphus does on the weekends.

Today the woods are filled with boulderers, most of them young. There are a lot of teams from indoor climbing gyms all over the east coast, who have arrived in vans with their logos painted on the side. The youth teams are energetic and they crowd together. I see one young kid handing out Fig Newtons to his teammates like steroids for the prepubescent. Surrounding the youth brigade are numerous tents, banners, and tables emblazoned with sponsor’s logos and offering stickers and demos of their equipment. In the middle of it all an ambulance sits and waits. There is a TV crew from NC public television, and at least three photographers.

As a media circus it pales in comparison to even the most mediocre skiing or skateboarding event, but it is significant to my eyes. The last time I was at Hound Ears was 2000, and in the 6 intervening years some things have changed. There are definitely more climbing companies hawking their wares. And although space limitations keep the crowd capped at a finite number, the make up of the crowd seems radically different. The pulsing youth energy, the teams of gym climbers, the presence of parents; none of this was there 6 years ago. Through the crowd I catch sight of my friend Michelle Smith. Michelle is, like me, in her thirties and began climbing 14 years ago. As I pass by she seems to guess what I’m thinking. “It’s different now,” she says.

The competition begins and I walk down to the main area. The TV crew is interviewing Jim Horton, the competition founder and organizer. Jim started the comp 13 years ago in order to raise money to save another climbing area from being closed to climbing. He lost that battle, but the Hound Ears Competition has thrived. Jim defines bouldering for the TV audience: “We find the hardest way up.”

“It’s a lifestyle,” he adds.

The day of the competition is the one day a year that the Hound Ears club allows non-members in to climb, but Boone locals have been sneaking in illegally for years. Jim has year round access. Climbing when the air is cold and the blood is not yet flowing hurts. Your hands feel numb and filled with needles at the same time. I hear a climber tell his friend, stripped down to a t-shirt, and struggling to do the moves on a particularly sharp climb, that, “pain is weakness leaving the body.”

“No it’s not,” his friend replies. Watching them I remember the pain of frigid hands. I also remember how good hot muscles feel in cold air.

Around the corner a longtime Boone local is attempting a climb called Parlez Vu Parkay. Grabbing one inch-wide edges, Biff Farrell swings his body into the air and throws his right heel above his head and onto a ledge. His heel catches the ledge and pulls down. Slowly his body moves up and he reaches high above his head for a tiny, three fingertip edge. After what seems like an eternity, he grabs it. With every move he grunts. You can hear him breathing loudly. He makes four more long hard moves and then is done. He comes down, winded. The crowd is impressed. It’s a hard climb for so early. “It’s gonna be a long day,” Biff says.

There are people everywhere, squeezing by each other through tiny stone corridors; packed, standing room only, into rooms created by boulders leaning together. At some point around 11:30 I hear from a judge that a girl has fallen and landed on her back on a sharp spine of rock. She couldn’t stop crying and was taken away on a stretcher. Rumors drift around all day that she has broken her back, but in the end she’s fine. In my climbing career I broke four bones climbing, knew at least three friends who also broke bones, and one friend who died while attempting a roped climb. Later in the day another girl breaks her leg. You better believe Hound Ears makes you sign a waiver.

Sasha DiGiulian is everywhere these days at climbing comps. She is 13, lives in Alexandria VA, and has been climbing for 5 years. Lately she’s been winning national competitions. In June 2005 she placed second in the all ages Open division at the Canadian Nationals. She is currently the US Champion in her age group, and for this achievement she received a commendation from the Virginia General Assembly. In August she placed 11th in her age group at the World Championships in Austria. At this year’s Hound Ears she will place third, not in her age group, but in the Open category against seasoned climbers twice as old as she is. Sasha is tiny, with blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, and braces. Her California girl looks have apparently attracted a fan group that another female climber refers to as the “Perv Patrol”.

Whenever I see her she is always followed by two other young female climbers, one wearing pink crocs that match the pink in her knit beanie. I sit down and watch these true Power Puff Girls climb for a while. Sasha is standing under a climb called “Camel Toe”. She keeps talking about it and every time she mentions the name her friends laugh. Sasha is confused and asks her friends what’s so funny. After a while one of them tells her that a Camel Toe is a “front wedgie for a girl.” “I thought it was a camel’s toe,” Sasha says, and then does the climb easily.

Wondering how long my Perv Patrol membership will last before I have to renew it, I turn to Sasha’s mother, Andrea, who is sitting next to me, and try to strike up a conversation. She’s wary at first, but gradually opens up and tells me about her daughter. In 2000, Sasha tagged along with her older brother and his friends to Sport Rock climbing gym in Alexandria. The seven year old took to the sport immediately, and now Sasha goes to the gym 3 or 4 times a week after school. None of her friends at school climb, but she has climbing friends from all over who she sees at competitions, and who she communicates with via the internet. At the gym she is usually the only girl, surrounded by 30-year-old guys, but her competition friends range in age from 12-17, and there are about 5 or 6 of them here today. “She loves it,” Andrea tells me. “The way she approaches it is with complete determination … personally I think it has done wonders for her at school because it’s so much concentration.”

Watching Sasha and the Power Puff Girls I am struck by how utterly different climbing is for them than it was for me. Climbing for them is about joining, about being a part of things. For me it was always the opposite. For me climbing was about freedom, and an escape from things like teams, and parents, and schools. Watching the Power Puff Girls, I can’t tell the difference between what they’re doing now and any other sport. They could be playing soccer, or field hockey, or lacrosse. They could be shopping.

This is not to say that they are not trying hard, or doing well, or that they don’t love the sport. They clearly do. But their effort and their love strikes me as a fetishization; of the gear, of the difficulty, of the winning. Their version of climbing is not at all rebellious or different or misunderstood. It is no longer a dirty sport washed clean in the sinks of lonely rest areas. I can’t understand how climbing can give you anything if it hasn’t first taken something away. “At her level,” Andrea tells me “You’ll run into a lot of kids who work as hard as she does. At competitions you’ll run into a lot of kids who are just as driven.”

What originally amazed me about climbing was that I came to it on my own, and did it on my own, for myself. Climbing was my first taste of independence and of adult responsibility. It’s a shame that climbing has gone the way of coaches and teams, because as far as I can tell, bouldering is the only sport other than skateboarding that does not need other people in order for it to work. In bouldering, every man is an island. And in today’s increasingly interconnected and shrinking world, to be able, at a young age, to learn to be alone, and to discover that your loneliness contains a hidden genius, is truly remarkable.

I decide not to try and talk to Sasha. This is partly because she has an air about her of a lofty princess lounging about on pillows that have never known a single pea. But it is also because I get the feeling that out of the corner of her eye, Sasha’s mom is watching me like a hawk.

I walk around a small squat boulder, scrambling down the rocks and through the mud. On the backside of the boulder there is a very young looking boy and his dad. The boy has long shaggy hair, braces, and a shy, goofy grin. He is wearing a yellow t-shirt and a fleece beanie. His father stands behind him, arms folded, looking awkwardly amused. The kid is trying a climb called The Mad Splatter. It is steep, with sharp but good holds and long reaches. I watch as he tries the problem a few times, grabbing the holds, launching into the air, and falling to the ground. He’s not really getting anywhere. I catch his father’s eye and he smiles. “I’m trying to find the attraction,” he says dryly, as we watch his son lurch upward, slap at a razor sharp edge, and fall. His name is Jordan Earle Sr, and his sons name is Jordan Jr. and they’re from Greenville South Carolina. I stop Jordan Jr. between attempts and ask him what the three rubber bracelets on his wrist say. He shows me: Livestrong, Climbstrong, and Cinco de Mayo.

Jordan Jr. is 11. He turns around and tries again. Jordan Jr. is stick thin and seems weightless. Each move on the rock is a kind of unfocused leap. A few feet to the left his climbing coach from the gym in Greenville is climbing with some other young team members. Last year Jordan attended competitions in Atlanta, Nashville, Miami, and the nationals in Oregon, where he won his division and made the US national team. As his father and I talk, Jordan keeps trying the climb, making progress, but not really looking like he’s going to do it. He doesn’t rest at all, just tries again and again. He’s too confident, too fast. For the first time I get a feeling for what “attention deficit disorder” must really look like. Another climber walks by and asks Jordan if he likes the climb. “No” Jordan says and keeps trying.

I don’t think too much of his coach, who has finger-in-light-socket style hair, and seems to have skipped the part of the lesson that covered resting. In an attempt to distract Jordan from his endless efforts I ask him how often he climbs. He smiles and gives me his full attention. He doesn’t seem at all fazed that I want to talk to him. “Usually Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday,” he replies, “that’s our climbing team days.” He tries the problem, falls and yells “Crap!” He gives his Dad a pained look, not because he doesn’t think he can do it, but because he can’t believe it’s taking so long. I ask Jordan Jr. how long he will keep climbing and he gives me a big grin. “Til my life is over!” he says.

“He takes things very seriously,” his father tells me. Jordan Sr. has blond hair and a lined face that seems to say I can’t believe it, but what can I do? “The intensity … it’s good, but there’s a point at which it has diminishing returns.” Jordan’s Dad went to The Citadel, so I figure he knows about intensity. “He’s persistent” he remarks, as his son seems to fall up the rock, failing and again yelling “crap!“ Dad smiles resignedly and keeps talking. “You know, you can almost try too hard. It’s like pushing the accelerator to the floor, and you just can’t go any faster.” Jr. flies, left arm outstretched, to the edge, grabbing it almost as an afterthought, flies to the next hold, moves past it, reaches the top of the boulder and clambers down. “Trying to back away” dad says “is the hardest thing for people who are so competitive.” Jr. grabs his stuff and goes.

In the latter half of the day, with time running out, Stephen Meinhold tries to reclaim his glory. It has grown cloudy, and Stephen sits on his pad near a lone boulder with a climb called Mr. Thick. Mr. Thick was once one of the hardest climbs at Hound Ears, and although still quite difficult, it has since been eclipsed. I haven’t seen Stephen since I left Boone many years ago. He is bigger than I remember, more grown up, with hair that approaches his shoulders and two small hollow circles of metal in each earlobe. He smiles when he sees me, and moves over so I can sit next to him. He introduces me to his friend Nique. I ask Stephen how his day is going. Not well is the answer. Although he has done it before, today he can’t do Mr. Thick. He has given up on this year’s Comp. Last year he finished second until a scoring error moved him to third. When I lived in Boone, I used to call him “Little Stevie” and drive him to competitions. I am pretty sure that he is stronger now than I ever was.

Stephen turns to me and asks if I’ve noticed how many more young kids there are now. He tells me that, at 22, he feels old. The young climbers, he says, are climbing so well. They train together, go to comps in large groups, and their parents drive them to the cliffs in RVs. Nique is also frustrated. Some climbers, he says, exist in a middle ground, a limbo between being the best and being not good enough. Climbers like Nique and Stephen are strong. They are stronger than probably 90% of the people who rock climb, yet they are not good enough to get paid to climb, not good enough to win comps regularly. To climb at their level, they feel they must dedicate themselves to the sport, sacrificing things like school or a high paying job. Yet all their effort is not enough, and now there are these new kids breathing down their necks.

Nique checks the time. “3:30. An hour and a half left to shit on my dreams.” Nique has moved to Boone from Ohio and is living in his brother’s house. He had a real job lined up in Maine, but he didn’t go there. Instead he came to Boone to climb. “[Climbing] is going from lifestyle to hobby” Nique says. “It’s definitely my lifestyle” Stephen replies. Stephen gets up and tries Mr. Thick again. The boulder is maybe 7 feet high, and overhanging gently. Stephen starts sitting down, feet pasted on slick, bad footholds. He lifts off the ground and pulls himself into the rock. At the exact moment that his momentum reaches its apex and gravity starts to pull him back, his left hand shoots out and up, towards a flat, vertical hold, like a one sided brick, and jerks to a stop as he grabs it. He moves his feet; arms spread wide, shoulder muscles huge and straining, his hands held open, pinching the wide, polished holds. This is how I understand climbing: a gross effort, a swim against the thick tide of Gravity. I do not understand the kind of nervous, jittery bird-flight of Jordon, the mad fluttering of wings whose true strength is not yet known. I watch Stephen reset his feet and surge forward again, catching himself once more on another insultingly sparse protrusion. There is nothing clumsy or slow about his movements; on the contrary, they are coordinated and perfect. It’s just that they betray their very physicality. He moves his feet once more, looks at a small edge up and left, about the size of a domino laid lengthwise. He pulls his body in again, and again his left hand curls towards his chest, and as his feet push up, his hand uncurls and moves towards the edge, fingers out and grasping. There is to his climbing a seriousness, a – no pun intended – gravity. He yells, fails to catch the edge, and falls to the ground.

Stephen sits back down next to me. “I’m 24,” Nique says. “I’m wondering how much longer I can do this.” Nique started climbing when he was 18. He got good fast, then plateaued, and now he has to train ridiculously hard just to reach a level that younger kids reach easily. “It’s definitely changing,” Stephen says. “I used to be the kid climber that was crushing it, but now…”

He gets up and tries again and succeeds. He sits back down and talks and jokes with Nique. Their humor is dry, sarcastic, and a little mean. It’s an attitude I remember well. The sky is dark, and the two of them seem sad and tired underneath it all.

At some point during the day I step out for a minute, taking a break from the blood, sweat and chalk dust. I move off of the trail and clamber up a small rock. Ducking down and pushing through a curtain of Rhododendron, I emerge on a small, rock ledge, about 2’ by 4’. In front of me, where the rock ends, there is nothing but air, and one can look down, down, down past the million dollar houses nestled among the burning confetti of fall leaves, across the blue paper mountains cut out and pasted over white cotton clouds, and into the valley that has fallen spectacularly at our feet.