Climbing has been a recent, wholly welcome development in my life, with one helluva learning curve. Said learning curve steepened when I moved to Colorado last year and realized I knew nothing. (Hooray!)
Within 24-hours of arriving, my boss, Hilary Harris, had introduced me to more professional climbers than I could shake a chalk brush at. Most of them were new to me, and I was grateful to have Hilary making introductions, so I didn’t ask something asinine like “so, how long have you been climbing?” (Flashback to the time I called Cedar Wright “Caesar.”)
Hilary wasn’t present when I met Roger Briggs, so I had no idea that he was a pioneer of free climbing in Eldorado Canyon and Longs Peak, that he’s climbed The Diamond over 100 times, or that his climbing career has spanned over 50 years. Roger caught my attention because I witnessed him standing up for someone that no one else was standing up for, and I thought, “that is a solid human being.” As a former journalist, I felt the need to know his story.
So, I approached Roger and asked if I could feature him on EVO LOU’s blog, without any real idea of what we’d talk about. (Disclaimer: Not a recommended approach for professionalism.)
After we scheduled a date to talk, I Googled him. In 0.47 seconds, I was privy to his epic climbing history and the fact that he founded the Boulder Climbing Community (BCC). Despite feeling slightly daunted, we met on a crisp morning for coffee at Alfalfa’s in Boulder. I can only liken it to a Tuesdays With Morrie type encounter. Here is what we discussed:
You’ve been climbing for 54 years, what has the practice taught you?
Climbing has been a great metaphor for life and a great teacher. In some sense, the definition of climbing is ‘the pursuit of difficulty.’ Climbing means not being afraid to confront what’s difficult and I think that differs from mainstream America. I think most Americans avoid things that require a lot of effort.
I heard a spiritual teacher a year or two ago talking about spiritual practices—he described a certain practice as ‘radical self-responsibility,’ and I thought, ‘that’s exactly what climbing is when you go out on lead, especially with gear. There’s no blaming, no whining—I mean you can blame and whine, but that doesn’t do you any good.’
Before this interview started, you mentioned that you climb with one of your sons. What lessons have you imparted on him as a climber?
One of the things I tried to teach Justin was, ‘pay attention to the signs—don’t ignore or push through them. You’ll know if it’s right to do that big run-out, or if you should back off.’ I think that’s the most important thing I’ve tried to relay: when to turn back; how to quit; how to give up; all the wrong things that you’re never supposed to do, but also how to know when things are right. I like to call that ‘watching the meters.’ How is your body feeling? How’s your internal state?
There’s so much conventional wisdom around ‘never quit, never give up, always push forward no matter what.’ Forging ahead no matter what isn’t the right thing for me; but then again, I never climbed Meru!
Raising children really reveals what we value and who we are. What do you teach them and what do you model for them? It’s clear to me that I don’t value just pulling hard in climbing; it’s the nuances of your being as a climber, and how we climb, not just what we climb.
How to be in right relationship with Nature is more important than sending the project.
Your spirituality is calming and contagious. It extends to all areas of your life, I assume?
I’ve always been very interested in spiritually. I’ve never been interested in organized religions, but I’ve had a lot of influences. I think, fundamentally, spirituality is everything. It’s a spiritual, or energetic, world, not so much a physical world. Nature and climbing have always been sacred to me, and I think that’s what motivates me a lot for stewardship work.
Your primary stewardship efforts are through the BCC, which you founded in 2010. How did that come to fruition?
There was no grand design for the BCC. I just looked around and saw that there wasn’t a great relationship between climbers and the land managers, so I just followed what seemed obvious; there was a need.
Early on, we developed positive relationships with all the land managers around Boulder – the Forest Service, the City and County of Boulder, Eldorado State Park, Jefferson County, and CDOT. Our message was stewardship – we just wanted to take care of our climbing areas – and since land managers are also stewards of the land, it was a welcome message.
They also saw that climbers had huge energy and we could raise money in our community. Our early programs included distributing human waste bags for free, helping the Forest Service monitor the Golden Eagles in Boulder Canyon, and replacing aging bolts.
After about 3 years, we realized that the biggest impact climbers have on the environment is our feet on the ground as we approach and descend from climbs.
It was clear that a massive amount of trail work was needed to make the many deteriorating approach trails durable and sustainable. So we started the Front Range Climbing Stewards (FRCS), a full-time trail crew with high-end skills in stone working. Recruiting JB Haab to lead the crew was a huge part of the success that followed. We had no idea how we would raise over $100,000 a year to pay the crew, but amazingly the money showed up and we have now finished our fourth season.
The work that the FRCS has now done over the last four years is just blowing people away – the Royal Arch Trail rebuild, the 3rd Flatiron descent, the Dark Side Boulders, the Wall of the Nineties, the Plotinus Wall, to name a few. I just did the arithmetic on our first four seasons and we have leveraged about $700,000 for trail work. I never would have dreamed this could happen.
Holy crow. If you had to attribute all the success to one thing, what would it be?
I think if you try to do something that’s needed in the world, rather than trying to convince people to buy into something that’s not really needed, you’ll have success.
What does your future with the BCC look like?
There is real danger if an organization is successful, and the founder remains too prominent. I’ve heard it called the “Founders Syndrome”. If a founder doesn’t know when and how to get out of the way, or if everything depends on them, he or she can ruin the organization, so I’ve been trying more and more to step back.
During our first year the whole organization was pretty much just me and I did everything. But the right people were attracted and we slowly built a Board and staff. Now there are more and more incredibly talented younger people showing up and the organization has real momentum. At some point I’ll become completely irrelevant and just be another community supporter. I do hope to move on to other projects that create value in the world.
Incredible. Congratulations on everything in the BCC/FRCS growth. Should we talk about your first ascents and climbing “resume?”
I could list my achievements and first ascents, but that seems a bit superficial compared to the spiritual practice of climbing. I feel like the most important thing is to be in the right relationship with the rock—being there for the right reasons, and maintaining your respect and reverence; not getting too wrapped up in your own egotistical reasons for sending your project, or how good it’s going to look on your resume. But in actuality, most climbers are not rock stars and just do it for the love of the experience.
It’s so important to go with a deep respect and humbleness. You’re not in control; you just kind of surrender. I think when I’ve climbed the best I really have been in a surrendered place, not thinking a lot, just present. To me, that’s what on-sighting is about.
I like that…to effectively on-sight you must be present. Tell me more.
When you’re on-sighting well, it’s just transparent what you need to do. Your body is speaking to you; you’re not processing cognitively. On-sighting is really practice in mindfulness. Sometimes when you watch people climb who are struggling, you can just see their thinking, monkey-mind getting in the way. They’re thinking about everything except ‘up.’ Mostly, the problem is thinking itself.
When we can calm the thinking and let our body take over, it becomes a whole new experience. Every time we do that it becomes natural and easier. I think this is one of the aspects of climbing that is so unique and valuable – the experience of entering a flow state.
I aspire to spend more time in that state. Do you worry about climbing becoming mainstream?
I think it’s safe to say that climbing has become mainstream.
I got to experience the last days of the wilderness around Boulder. I grew up behind Chautauqua Park and there was nobody around in the fifties and sixties—truly nobody. Boulder had railroad tracks running along a dirt road called Water Street, which is now Canyon Boulevard. But I’ve never been one to cling to that past – now everyone wants to be in Boulder and I can’t blame them.
Climbing is exploding in popularity and the whole Front Range is growing explosively, and this is why stewardship is so important. We’ll survive and even thrive if we can become the caretakers, rather than just the users.
While we’re on the topic of explosiveness, what are your thoughts about climbing gyms?
Well, I go to climbing gyms and enjoy them, I know all of the local owners and managers and they are all BCC supporters. When I was 20 years old, I probably wouldn’t have said, “I’d like to see indoor climbing gyms develop,” but it’s happened and I always look forward, not back.
I have great hope that the gyms will be an effective forum for educating new climbers and building the culture of stewardship. All of the gym owners I know are really good people who care about what happens when their customers go outdoors. The BCC will be continuing to partner with the gyms to help develop gym-to-crag programs and other things that support stewardship.
Your path seems very clear.
I feel very happy with what a life of climbing has given me. I don’t think I’ll ever climb 5.12 again, or do another first ascent—now, climbing stewardship is the most important thing for me.
Thank you so much.