Dave Graham: Looking Backward
One of America’s leading rock climbing visionary looks into his past to climb into the future.
This article appeared in ASCENT 2013 (Rock and Ice issue 210).
I will always have a harder grade to climb, and so will everyone else. For me, progression revolves around my ambitions and circumstances. As of today, February 9, progression means accomplishing an array of objectives. Some of these things have more priority, but they all need to happen.
A 3D computer diagram would help me here, but my objectives range from sending e-mails, to paying a speeding ticket, quitting tobacco, working on the business I started, writing this Ascent article, finishing my movie, making music. Pile on goals of sustaining a healthy relationship, starting a family and owning a home. In climbing, I want to send V16 and 5.15b, but that will require getting better at heel hooks, squeezing and pinching, dynos and jumping; gaining more experience with resistance climbing; returning to finger-strength test pieces; exploring what my style has evolved into; recognizing my changing strengths and weaknesses; getting less scared; eliminating hesitation; climbing more rhythmically …
Progression is an ever-evolving thought that is relative to its thinker. The art of improving as a climber is intimately connected to all I have set out to do with my life—it’s one piece of a massive puzzle. The pieces that are the climbing connect to all the other pieces and progression has as much to do with the past as it depends on the future.
When I contemplate my climbing and how to improve, I inevitably draw parallels between my childhood and my climbing career because I see now that progression is clearly relative to your individuality and ambitions, and all you are is based on what you were.
As a young boy growing up in Portland, Maine, I was always intrigued by my surroundings. Everything seemed inspiring to some degree, and what I now understand to be the concept of “motivation” was at the time just a strange psychological roller coaster of stimulus and disincentive that I lived day in day out. I talked a lot and babbled about everything that crossed my energetic mind. I am sure some people thought I was one of those hyperactive crazy kids, and I am positive many teachers hated me and would have preferred me to act like I was born with no brain in my skull—but I couldn’t help being myself. Nor did I care, or even begin to understand who I was, or what I was doing.
It’s hard for me to recollect my youngest years, but as soon as I start to dig deep, I get flashbacks of preschool. I think it was a Montessori school, but all I really remember are the blocks in the playroom. I loved the yellow rectangles, great for base structures and towers. And the blue ones? Don’t get me started. They ruled. I was obsessed with blocks and building. Some kid hit me with a yellow one once, and I bit him. The biting incident produced a famous note my dad has tucked away for safekeeping. This event provides proof of the chronicle of ironies I would experience in my youth:
Today, your son, David, BIT another child.
The note made my parents laugh as it was out of context. I was defending myself, after all, like a young wolf learning to survive on my own. My parents took immense pleasure in the distress of my teacher, and they confused me by supporting my actions.
This is where it all kind of started taking shape. I was weird, and so was my family.
I am still weird. And I am pretty sure so is my family.
Memories take form from the giant swirling galaxy of visuals that coruscate across my brain. Pancakes, Atari consoles, carpets, pets, snow, wood stoves, ponds, fish, art—every image seems to enlarge with concentration, like a dream sequence or some CGI shit. Enhancing on a frame here or there inspires thought. Focus always releases a wave of information, sort of like listening into the wind and finally detecting a song. My mind analyzes the information that is called a memory, and when I do it just right, a rapid-fire parallel to my present life comes in a flash. Like lightning, everything in the moment is illuminated.
It’s important to make sense out of things if you want to improve. If you have no clue who you are, it’s much harder to figure out what you actually want, and why. As a rock climber, this is an allusive anecdote of wisdom. When you want to get “better,” or climb “harder,” you must first figure out why you are doing it.
[Also Read Alex Megos: The Hatchling]
I lived next to a park, which had a very green pond filled with turtles and birds. No fish could survive in the murky water, but that meant nothing to me. I was captivated. Fish were found in the ocean, about 20 minutes away next to the city, also in lakes, seemingly 1,000 miles away and to the north. Rivers had things like sturgeon, and they were somewhere we went fishing. I couldn’t really place where rivers were. These fjord-like bodies of water just appeared after hours of driving, but it was the 1980s, and I was into fishing so it didn’t matter. This was the beginning of travel for me.
Legos filled a loft area above my parents’ room. I would create intricate masterpieces—Lego cityscapes, sans instruction manuals. The Lego room was like a time warp, somewhere I would enter and be lost, absorbed for hours. It was also a painful place to walk barefoot.
I attribute my ability to focus to my family: My mother was into gardening, sculpting, graphic design, and painting. My father was an entrepreneur who worked in photography, and loved fishing and hiking.
I played blissfully in the forest with my neighborhood friends. I started hockey when I was around four years old, and these experiences were my first taste of what I would later come to understand as sensation or action converted to passion.
I was never extremely talented at anything, but wow, I really got into it all! Like a good Mainer, I was obsessed with the idea of being in the NHL, and I was always thinking about fishing and what kind of incredible catches I could reel in to tell my friends or family about. People would laugh as I rambled on about whatever fish I’d caught, or hockey game I thought I’d ruled.
Now I do the same thing with rock climbing. The biggest difference is that people recognize I’m talented at climbing, and that still baffles me. Out of all the things I am passionate about—making music, communicating, traveling, skiing, there is only one thing people take seriously when I gab about it: rock climbing. This fact has instilled a sense of perspective for my entire life and made me a little more cynical about what it is to be “good” or “talented.” I put energy into so many things, yet I am only acknowledged for one of them.
This attention for climbing has given me an understanding of the contingency of talent, and of what it actually means to be good at something, or get better at doing something, or improve at something you love doing.
While other children would go to church, or do family-oriented activities, my parents were usually reading. In their free time, they chose to read an incurable number of books, most of which were suggested reading for me. The daunting task of reading all those books was one reason why I was ready to go outside and make things happen.
At large on bicycle or on foot, I was out working on tree forts and checking new locations. I figured out where all the homeless people lived and learned the network of trails, mostly around the cemetery, just because they existed. As I got older, my adventures led me farther afield and I began exploring what would later be my hood as a teenager: downtown Portland. Most of my friends did stuff without me and I had a lot of personal time on my hands and developed a knack for getting to know my surroundings.
As my liberties and responsibilities grew, I expanded my knowledge of everything that interested me. Any forest region near train tracks was cool. The islands that filled Casco Bay were cool, and when I traveled with my family, seeing all the new wildlife was a major priority. This interest in nature also involved an explosion in the quantity of questions I would ask my parents about the hood, severely disrupting their free time. Because they still really loved reading.
Then something new happened in my life. I met a friend who was into what I was into.
Myles Courtney lived on Peaks Island and was into running, mountain biking, drawing, and probably all kinds of other things that were over my head. He thought climbing was cool, and took me to a rock gym. Later I would meet Luke Parady, a friend of Myles’s, and a contender as a guitarist for the punk band I was in. I went into the climbing gym with those dudes, and that’s where it all started. I was in eighth grade.
I graduated from high school, drove out West and explored the Rocky Mountains, then flew to Europe to conquer legendary climbing testpieces, but I lacked clarity about what I was doing. The life I set out to live, the boulders and cliffs I wanted to go find, and the places I had read about and obsessed over my entire life became my hood. It wasn’t until my late 20s, however, after years of getting flak for exploring, geeking out on cities and languages—in short, full-on obsessing over my surroundings—that I realized that this extreme interest was potentially a greater talent than I had ever realized—that this ability to pay attention was the vehicle that took me where I am today—greater perhaps than my finger strength, something commonly interjected in any analysis of my climbing success.
I was awful at the saxophone. The noise annoyed the shit out of my parents. I was in the choir. I was a soprano, and I was brutally teased by the asshole kids in my elementary school, which by the way was a very funny place. The music class was scary. Lots of gifted children would compete to be the most gifted. I wanted to sing and play saxophone, but I gave up because I wasn’t “gifted.”
I graduated from elementary school and entered a public school closer to my house. There were desks at my new school. I understood that the “gifted” children were sent to private schools. The dead space behind the teachers’ eyes at my new school implied they also were not too stoked. So, freed from the reign of music teachers only interested in gifted singers, I started a punk band with some friends.
People hated our music. People thought we were stupid. But I think our punk band was pretty awesome. Later, I got into electronic music. My old sponsorship director from Petzl one day noted my interest in DJing, and since he did just that, he taught me some licks. I started mixing tunes, people humored me, nobody told me I was good. But I had been down this road before, and I knew this shit was really good!
Ten years later, I produce some music. Most of my friends still aren’t necessarily into what I make. But I just DJ’ed in Argentina at the RocTrip for 1,300 crazy South Americans and they absolutely loved it.
Never listen to anyone about your music. It’s art. The exact same thing goes for climbing. Trust your own vision.
I started fishing with my father, who introduced me to many things I love. As I entered adolescence, I began to face the fact that what interested me was not the actual act of fishing, but the praise it would bring at the end of the day. When I caught nothing, I felt like a loser. Sometimes, when I climb nothing, I get the same feeling.
People always say: What a senseless thing fishing is. People say the same thing about rock climbing. If you’re not eating the fish, well, what are you doing? Maiming fish? Real fishermen are never disappointed if they go out and catch nothing. It’s part of the game. Where is this attitude in modern rock climbing? No 8a points is like catching no fish. It would be great if climbers weren’t so into the big catch and could look at progression like fishermen look at fishing. It’s about mastering one’s craft. Better knots. Perfectly baiting a hook. Getting the bait cast down pat. Damn, that guy can really net a fish! There is something evolved and wise in fishing, which can cross over to climbing.
I used to come home from fishing by myself and wonder what I needed to report. Should I lie or exaggerate to make it sound like it went great, when in reality it sucked because I caught no fish? It only sucked to catch no fish because there were people to impress, or people who might have thought less of me if I caught no fish. But if you love to fish, you fish.
THE JEWISH DAY CAMP
I always thought I didn’t fit in. School made me feel that way, my family made me feel that way, and I made myself feel that way. For example, I wasn’t Jewish, yet I got sent to a Jewish Day Camp for seven years.
I wasn’t Jewish since my mom’s side of the family was Catholic, and despite my dad’s Judaic roots, my link to Judaism wasn’t brought up at home. I didn’t know Friday prayers, and I was never going to get a Bar Mitzvah. I loved the challah bread and the grape juice, so that was cool. I made the best of the situation.
I always got down on myself when I was young, and especially when it really mattered it did seem like I was a loser. For instance, while at summer camp I wanted to meet some girls. But I wasn’t Jewish.
Ever since those Jewish Day Camp summers, I’ve felt like a weirdo, or alternatively, that everyone else is a weirdo. So many things in my life make me feel that way. For instance, every year I go to the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show and spend time in the prAna booth. Talk about feeling like a duck in a pond full of swans. Or how about Movement Climbing + Fitness in Boulder? This training facility feels more like a nightclub. People look really damn good! Everyone is hanging out, composed, not sweaty, talking to some people—not all the people, but talking to a select, cool few. The climbers don’t have chalk all over them, and I swear everyone is putting that moisturizer from the bathroom on their hands because the whole gym smells like Pangea. But just because my idea of training, movement and fitness involves the beautiful Colorado outdoors (and a screening of all the Rocky films up to the fourth one), it doesn’t mean I should feel like I’m 13 years old at the Jewish Day Camp again. In life, you have to know that you’ve moved on or you may just start to think the inverse—that life is the Jewish Day Camp and that you are weird and not cool.
People in high school always said rock climbing was gay. It sure wasn’t hockey. And since hockey was all that counted, why push it? Italians don’t eat much Mexican food. Rock climbers shouldn’t be forced to gym climb. Let’s just say it takes a lot of realizations to be confident in doing what you love. What you choose to do is not always going to make sense to everyone else.
Everyone said I was awful at hockey. I was an awful stick handler, and I had a pretty weak wrist shot. I didn’t care. I thought I was good.
Since my parents told me I was “special,” I decided to go against all odds and my family started getting up at 4 a.m. for hockey practice. At age 26 I asked my parents if they were happy I quit. They said of course they were happy. It was ungodly getting up at 4 a.m. in the freezing cold.
An ice rink smells amazing, but it reminds me of a climbing gym. This familiar smell will remind you of an experience that you are about to live through again, for the millionth time.
When all the other kids started getting gigantic, and checking was introduced, not only did people think I sucked at everything except skating, now they made fun of my size and build. This turned into a real mind fuck as I entered climbing.
Back in the glory days of Spain, when I was rollin’ deep with my homies Chris Sharma and Dani Andrada, even though we were having a blast, the conversation would always circle back to them making fun of how small my biceps are. They also said I looked like a puppet when I fell off routes. I hated that shit! Obviously, it was a sensitive subject.
When I was 18, Jonathan Thesenga wrote the first feature article about me. It was titled “Why One of America’s Best Climbers Should be One of the Worst.”
While I was proud of myself for being in the magazine, the article baffled and upset me. But I didn’t understand things yet. I had lessons to learn.
I quit playing hockey because of my own lack of vision, and could have quit climbing if I’d never learned that I needed to believe in myself. These days Adam Ondra dominates technical climbing and he’s built like me. I should have summoned the courage to laugh with Chris and Dani instead of getting all butt hurt about it.
Maine College of Art
My dad made me take art classes. I think it was because my parents thought I was an artist. Shit. I was amazing with those Legos.
During the summer, on the weekends, in between sessions at the Jewish Day Camp, I would get driven to a class on drawing or some shit, which seemed boring. I hated the art classes. My art wasn’t that rad, and my teachers were unimpressed. I quit.
Then, all of a sudden, because I rock climbed, I was an athlete. Yes, I stay up late, I sleep in late, I explore instead of train, I party instead of chill, I go out instead of stay in, but I am active. Like humans used to be. Similar to some mountain beast prowling its territory, I bound from rock to rock, leap over chasms, and move at a crazy rate, like wind rustling through leaves at 15 m.p.h. I navigate my environment with confidence and stealth, and I feel like a critter. I pick up rocks when I sense danger, ready to confront any mountain lion or alien, or ancient spirits.
I search for problems and then prepare them. I give them landings. My mother taught me garden terracing, and it has been applied around the globe. I intrude and disrupt the dormant stones and bring them to life. I search for ones that feel more challenging, but they must be worthy, and have the right smell, sensation and shape. I like to do my thing far from society.
Some people call me an athlete. I like that, but it’s because I wish I was. Some people call me an artist, but I get sad because that’s not my normal title.
I learned at a young age that people will call you an artist for no reason whatsoever, and I learned more recently that people will refer to you as an athlete, even though you are not one. My parents said I was an artist, but then they said I was an athlete. Now I tell people I am an artist, not an athlete. Thanks Mom and Dad.
Everything sucks and everything is great. Wake up. Life’s rad. If you want to do something new—if you want to progress—you only have a limited amount of time and you are going to have to make a choice first. The past is gone. What do you want to start with?
Dave Graham has climbed some of the world’s hardest routes including Action Directe (5.14d) in 2001 and Realization (5.15a), in 2007. Recently he has been establishing cutting-edge boulder problems including several V15s.
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