John Sherman

John Sherman

John Sherman is the Godfather of American bouldering. Without his broad shoulders to stand on, Daniel Woods would be toproping 5.7 right now.

Stone Master

February 2010

I just wanted to get in a few topropes to test my recently operated-on knees and it was snowy outside. So I made the mistake of going to the new Hole Fuuds Climbing Gym in the Center of the Climbing Universe. The young guy at the desk was scrubbed squeaky clean, hair cut just 2 mm beyond military standard, and freshly shaved that morning (that is if he had ever shaved yet). He was dressed in the corporate gym uniform and looked more like a busboy than a climber -- I can’t believe management didn’t make him wear a bow tie or at least some flair. In his robot monologue, he was explaining The Rules to me -- how my friend who was a member of the gym couldn’t bring me in on her monthly free visitor pass because I had been to the gym before, albeit for just an hour and on my own dime. “But,” he gladly added, “you can get a punch card -- ten visits for only 150 dollars.” Wow, hold me back -- let’s see a day pass costs 16 bucks, so after a mere punch card-and-a-half I would earn one free session. I’m surprised I didn’t wet myself. 
How has climbing got to this point? I mean, how the f*<% is anyone going to come out of that environment to become a real climber? The place was so sterile, so regimented, so predictable and ever so boring. The thought that someone might tear a flapper in the place is absurd. Not climbing to the shopping mall soundtrack it wouldn’t happen. How can you focus on pulling down when you know the giggles from the other side of the gym are directed at you for wearing last year’s Prana?
Let me go back to the origins of climbing gyms. Climbing folklore generally attributes the first made-for-climbing indoor wall to the one built in the 1960s at Leeds University in Britain. The wall is a brick lined hallway, with some bricks inset, others protruding and a few chipped edges. Very primitive by today’s standards -- the holds couldn’t move and due to a lack of height you can only do a few moves up before you are forced to climb down or start traversing. I visited it in the mid-80s and remember it looking dark and dank, homely and a bit sad. Then I started climbing and I remember thinking of the legions of climbing legends that pulled on the same edges, on the same problems as I pulled on that day. How those climbers spent hundreds of hours milking the dreary wall for variations and contrivances, pushing themselves into ever crazier positions, making the corridor stink with sweat and passion. If you decided to spend your time on that wall, there was no question you were a climber and you were dedicated. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t bother. The same could be said of The Macky Pit where I spent countless hours between classes when I attended CU Boulder. The Pit was an outdoor venue with the ambiance of a dungeon. It was sunken below ground level, perpetually in the shade, and due to poor drainage frequently boggy. Macky Auditorium dates back to 1909 and The Pit certainly wasn’t designed to be climbed in -- it was just natural flagstone masonry containing a slew of flat-cut finger edges and enough height and length to the wall to provide both risk and a workout. For sure you’d leave pumped, but maybe also bloody or muddy. Because of that you felt a kinship with the other climbers you met there -- the sort of kinship I don’t feel with the birthday party participants at the Hole Fuuds Gym. Risk and suffering are and always should be elemental to the climbing experience. Climbing movement should be the vehicle to negotiate the path through the risk and suffering, not the effort to move every penny from the customers’ pockets and into the till.
Well better get this posted so I can afford that punch card.

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