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Free Solo Movie

I just saw the Free Solo movie in a theater this weekend. It’s an excellent documentary style movie about what is probably the hardest, most dangerous human achievement ever recorded on film.

I can’t think of a single dangerous activity and or extreme sport that compares to what he did. Extreme base jumping in a squirrel suit comes close, but even that has some safety margin built in. You can fly away from the cliff and pop your chute early. And you are falling through the air, so peak physical strength is not a requirement.

In any other extreme athletic activity you can name, there is always room for a couple small errors. They won’t immediately kill you. What Alex did has zero room for errors. Oh sure, there were easier sections, but on the crux moves, like that boulder problem, he either nailed it or he died. Bouldering is normally done on boulders, literally 15 feet high, max. And there are piles of landing pads underneath you, with friends to help catch a fall. Alex calling that move a boulder move is strictly for Hollywood effect.

I hesitated to even buy the ticket because I knew I was contributing in a small way toward encouraging him to do more free soloing. As they say in the movie, all the best free soloists have died, with maybe a few exceptions. That guy he was talking to named Peter Croft has been soloing for decades and is still alive. Back in the eighties I used to see Peter every few weeks free soloing routes that I couldn’t even climb with a rope. He was a really nice guy, and would talk with average climbers like me and my wife if we had a question about a route.

We also used to see John Bachar at Joshua Tree every year at Xmas. He would be free soloing hard routes like left ski track. He looked so solid I would have felt safe on his back. As they said in the movie, John is dead now, he fell on a route in his late forties, ropeless.

Alex knows all this stuff. He knows all about our tribe of climbers. Some might consider him one of our leaders, though I’m sure he would scoff at the idea.

While I have tremendous respect for his skill and dedication to achieving his goal. I am troubled by the low value he places on living. We all have our ups and downs. But in general, I really like being alive. I hope to live to a ripe old age. Life is endlessly fascinating to me. I feel like my best years may still be ahead of me. This is in regards to my painting, which is just coming into it’s own in my mid sixties.

But regardless of your hobbies, or lack thereof, life always has something interesting coming around the corner. You might not even know what and or who it is…but it will be worth waiting for.

Alex does not seem to see life that way. He is, in the movie at least, so focused on his goal that he is willing to make that ultra dangerous  boulder move, or die trying. And to me, that means (normal) life is just not that fun for Alex. I could walk away from climbing tomorrow and still enjoy my life.

I have my hobbies, my amazing kids and my lovely wife…all of whom are climbers. But we also have other interests. Life is not focused solely on climbing. I love climbing, it’s the best sport in the world! But I’m intimately aware that it could kill me at any time. One small lapse in judgement and I could die. And I climb doing it the “safe” way, with ropes. But there is still plenty of danger. We try to minimize the danger as much as possible. But at a certain point, you have to just say: “These rap anchors held the last party as they rapped down, why would they fail on me?”

Some of the above words may sound like I’m passing judgement on Alex. I don’t mean to do that. We each get one chance at life. I’d like mine to be long, gosh, I keep hoping I’ll have time to finally get it right. Alex is different. He has goals, and he achieves them…so far. I have no right to tell him, or all the other free soloists and base jumpers how to live their life.

I do however feel sad for them. Life is a grand adventure. It stays good for a long time, it’s still good for me, and I’m twice Alex’s age. To be his age and already be willing to give it all up for a silly rock climb that you want to do without a safety rope. It just strikes me as sad.

Addendum:

On a side note, I should mention that I have done some free soloing. Back in my twenties Paul and I used to free solo some short sixes, and even a short 5.9. I was young, bold and dumb back then. I’m not proud of it, but it did happen. Even today, there are approaches to rock climbs that come close to free soloing. It would take too long to get the rope out so we simply “scramble”, knowing we are unlikely to slip. We call it dangerous hiking, or “approach pitches”. But most of the time a fall would not kill us. We’d break some bones…and spend some time in the hospital…so we tread very carefully.

I like to think that the kind of climbing I’ve done for 40 years can be compared to driving a car in bad weather at 60 miles an hour on a two lane road. One twitch of the steering wheel and someone could die. So we try to stay very focused on safe driving…and hope the other guy is doing the same. 37,400 people die in the US every year driving cars.

When climbing with ropes, we normally have layers of safety. If we slip, the rope will catch us. If we bang our head, we have a helmet on. If some of our gear rips out, we have more gear to back it up. If we think the climb has become too hard, or it starts to rain or gets dark, we build an anchor and rappel down. We are never faced with an all or nothing situation: Do this move cleanly or die right now. I value life too highly to get in that situation. I hope Alex gives up free soloing and lives a long happy life. He should have plenty of money now after this movie takes off.


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Preparing for a show

Two weeks ago I needed 6 new frames for a one day show. Because I couldn’t afford to buy them I reasoned this was a good time to learn to make frames from scratch. Usually I go to Michael’s and buy pre-made frames. I paint in standard sizes  of 9 x 12, 12 x 16 and 16 x 20 precisely because those are easy to find pre-made for under $50 each. However, if I could figure out how to make frames from raw wood, I could get the cost down to five dollars a frame.

Dewalt table saw
Dewalt table saw

I bought 1 x 2 pine from Lowes and drove over to my son’s house to borrow his table saw. To put a picture in a frame, the frame has to have a slot in the bottom. It’s called a rabbet, and allows the frame to overhang the picture, covering up the edge of the painting. You basically have to take a notch out of the bottom inside corner, and it needs to be about 3/8″ inch deep.  This required two long cuts on each board, that met in the middle exactly.

cutting the rabbet

With the rabbets cut I took the  boards to my house where I have my son’s other saw, a miter chop saw. I cut the 45 degree angles then glued and nailed them together. At the time I didn’t have corner clamps and chose to use a very old system of hammered wedges  to pinch the corners together for gluing. Trouble was, hammering in the nails would knock loose the wood wedges. And if not that, then the wedges wouldn’t hold the corners true. The trueness problem

Clamping with wooden wedges
Clamping with wooden wedges

was related to me not cutting the wedges square. I cut them with a hand jig saw, which wasn’t accurate. I did 6 frames with those wedges, but they  needed a lot of work afterward. I had to sand off alignment issues of up to 1/16″ on the corners, plus  a lot of wood putty work to fill gaps.

After assembling I had to stain them in 3 coats. And this was all while teaching during the week. I calculated afterward that I worked 8 days straight, up to 16 hours a day. At the end of that period I was so frustrated with the wooden wedges I drove up to Rockler woodworking in Tukwila and bought two professional framing clamps.

finished frame and a pro corner clamp

The show was Saturday from 2 to 6 pm. It was billed as a wine tasting event. They sold out at 270 tickets and it was packed from 2 to 4ish. I mean the room was literally jam packed to the point that people were waiting in line out on the sidewalk. They had 10 artists in 10 different businesses. The tickets allowed people to walk from location to location and get wine samples by presenting tickets which they received in a roll from the event organizer.

My 6 paintings were hung in a financial planners office. Both he and the wine dispenser guy were doing an awesome job of ‘working the crowd’.  Those guys were pro’s.  In contrast, I seemed to be most comfortable leaning against the wall, like a shy wallflower at the prom. It’s odd because I love teaching, and enjoy  helping my students. I did talk to some very nice people who complemented my paintings, and we had brief conversations about painting. But nothing sold. I talked to another very talented artist from across the street, and she confirmed the same experience.

As the crowd of tipsy wine tasters streamed by I kept thinking about the high alpine meadows or quiet vistas where I had created the paintings. I’m at peace in those places. But in a busy crowd of strangers in the city, where everyone is drinking wine and having fun…it’s hard to explain. If I’d had the money I would have bought a ticket and sampled some of the local wines on display, maybe loosened up a little. The wine guy who was next to me  runs a one man wine making shop in Lakewood. I asked him how he got the ‘gift of gab’ and he commented that it is a learned skill. Perhaps some day I’ll figure it out, but, that’s all water under the bridge.

I was thinking about starting another painting today, but yesterday I saw smoke coming out of the hood of our 1991 Corolla. I was afraid the poor old thing was going to catch fire and blow up. On popping the hood I saw a huge crack in the radiator. This will be the second time I’ve had to replace the radiator in that car. It’s about a 5 hour job for a back yard mechanic. Guess I’ll paint another day…

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Easter Overhang and painting leather

C, V and I climbed Easter Overhang Saturday. When I did it 7 years ago with Fletch I led it almost clean and loved it. Fast forward to last weekend and I was a different man. I could barely follow it. I fell out low down on the 5.8 layback, I just couldn’t figure out the move. My feet weren’t sticking in my new Scarpa shoes. Then I ran out of power at the roof move and fell out backwards, landing upside down over 300 feet of exposure. At that point I started grabbing gear and clipping my daisy into the cams to rest. I asked V if I could leave the backpack I was towing to make myself lighter. I was out of gas, and seemed to have forgotten how to climb. I was sort of watching myself flail and thinking: “Dude, you are better than this…snap out of it!”

Finally I got thru the move into the upper chimney. I got stuck there for a while until I realized you have to move out where it’s wider to get some kneebar action. Other than the obvious reason: I’m in my mid sixties now…here are my excuses for climbing so badly.

  • I can’t afford the gym anymore, so I’ve got weak forearms
  • I was climbing in some brand new Scarpa’s, which I’d just finished rebuilding. They felt like wooden shoes and need to be broke in
  • I’ve been focusing on slab climbing due to rain on Castle the last few weekends…I barely got up Classic Crack recently.
  • I’ve been painting more than climbing all summer.
  • I’ve been dieting hard this week, trying to stay below 170 which creeped up on me.
  • I might have got real old, real fast?

Lisa bought me a turban squash. It’s looking pretty good. My main problem with stilllifes is composition. This may be the first time I’ve nailed a good set up. Painting leather is super fun. Brown has always been a problem for me. It’s like green…I just can’t paint it pretty. But this one might be a break through.