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Archived Interview
Chris Baker
interview by: Mike Hickey, early July, 2004

Chris Baker Chris Baker Chris Baker Chris Baker Chris Baker


FRB: Has anybody ever mistaken you for Chris Sharma?

Chris: Umm . . . I don't think so. That would be a huge stretch.

FRB: Age?

Chris: Actual or relative? I have been alive and breathing for 34 years, but in most other aspects I am about 12 years old, like most climbers.

FRB: Weight?

Chris: Good question. I imagine I am 130-140 pounds.

FRB: Height?

Chris: 69 inches.

FRB: Is your dog really a coyote?

Chris: Who knows what DNA she has floating around in her body. She's a Rez Dog from Tuba City. Forty pounds of fury.

FRB: Years Bouldering on the Front Range?

Chris: This is my 4th year.

FRB: Favorite V grade?

Chris: This is a baited question. . . one I can climb. You won't get a narrative on the silliness that V grades devolved into, yet!

FRB: Bouldering style?

Chris: I just like easy stuff. Honestly, I like bad holds and body tension. Hell, I learned to climb at Hueco. Oh, and I am terrible at dynos.

FRB: If you were a boulder problem how would you climb?

Chris: If I were a boulder problem I would not climb, I would be climbed.

FRB: Favorite Front Range bouldering area?

Chris: I have not found it yet.

FRB: Favorite Front Range boulder problem?

Chris: I do not really have a favorite, or at least nothing I am at liberty to divulge.

FRB: Okay then punk. Best boulder problem
          in California or Texas?

Chris: I really cannot single it down to one. I know that's a cop out, but it is true. Lets see I'll try to list some great problems that other people have heard of (in other words I wont include obscure stuff that most people will never see): Blue Suede Shoes (Yosemite), Bacher Cracker (Yosemite), The Pugilist (Yosemite), Dragonfly (the sit start is good too) (Hueco), Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death (the sit start is good too!) (Hueco), Revenge of the Choirboys (Hueco), Glass Roof (Hueco) Hunger Artist (Hueco), Mr. Serious (Hueco), Warm Up Roof (Hueco) Ghetto Simulator (Hueco) Dean's Trip (Hueco). If you ask me tomorrow, I bet the list will be different. There is just so much good stuff out there and it is not only in Texas and California, (or Colorado for that matter). And yet, some problems are great not so much for the climbing but for the experience or setting. That opens up a whole new can of worms.

FRB: What is the largest most freakish tick mark you have
          ever found and how many tick marks do you think you
          have brushed off over the years?

Chris: Probably one you placed after I made some smart-ass comment about tick marks. Actually I have seen innumerable gratuitous ticks, but one if the biggest was on Nachoman at Hueco. There was a relatively famous climber, who shall remain nameless, trying the problem. He was getting frustrated because it was "only V9" and asked his buddy to scurry to the top of the boulder and tick it. Well, the top is the last place you need a tick on that thing, but with "famous climber" coaching him he painted (with chalk) a white stripe that must have been 18 inches long and three inches wide. "Famous Climber" never got close to the top.

I have brushed tons of ticks and chalk off problems. I usually don't worry about the inconspicuous ones.

FRB: Is it really true that climbers used to tick mark your tires
          in Hueco.

Chris: I think that happened once or twice.

What is your obsession with me and tick marks? It is not like I am some Gestapo-type guy stomping through bouldering areas removing tick marks and ranting about their uselessness (which they usually are).

FRB: What is your opinion on Secret Areas?

Chris: There really are no truly secret areas, but there are tons of, shall we say, non-promoted areas. I have no problem with them, as long a people do not get territorial. The whole locals only scene is stupid. I have climbed at and developed lots of "secret" areas throughout the Southwest. And by the way, no one is required to tell everyone else where they are climbing. Just go outside and wander around a bit, develop your "nose" for rock. You will certainly find good stuff.

I am usually not a proponent of publishing guides. They are just not necessary for most bouldering areas and tend to cause more problems than they address (no pun intended). All you need are directions to the boulders. If you cannot find your test piece, that's your problem. If you are desperate and cannot tell if something is hard enough for you, go ask a friendly local. They will be able to steer you the right way, even if you do get sandbagged along the way.

FRB: How about the best start to a boulder problem?

Chris: Sitting, of course.

FRB: Best Bar?

Chris: The closest one with good beer or good single malt whiskey.

FRB: Favorite Porn Star?

Chris: Mike Hickey.

FRB: Years bouldering?

Chris: I actually got into climbing and bouldering rather slowly. The first time I climbed was when I was 14, or so. My brother had just returned from one of the 30 day Colorado Outward Bound Courses. He bought a rope and a little gear and we went top-roping and did some short trad climbs (though it was really soloing since almost all our gear fell out before we got to the top), but pretty soon we had climbed the little area near our house out (at least for our limited abilities). That ended my first foray into climbing. I do remember, however, asking my brother about a place a little over an hour from our house where I remembered going to family picnics as a youngster. I swore I recalled a landscape cluttered with climbable rock. His reply was that everything out there was too small (though he denies ever saying this). He was my big brother and I believed him. The area was Hueco Tanks (This was the eighties before it was on the climbing radar).

The next time I got into climbing was through some friends whose little brother had just retuned from Outward Bound and was climbing a lot out at Hueco Tanks. We were racing bicycles at the time and looking for something to do in the off-season. I went out to Hueco with them and enjoyed hurling myself at the routes, but really enjoyed bouldering around while everyone else was fussing with gear. Still, climbing was not my primary focus, it was just an off season (and occasional rest day) activity. Slowly though, I got more and more into climbing to the point that cycling took a bit of a backseat (ironically I was living four hours from the nearest rock at the time). In 91 or 92, (I think) I decided to focus on cycling or climbing. Climbing won out. So I would say I have been climbing, as opposed to dabbling in climbing, for about 13 years.

And lately I have been riding my bike more than I have been climbing. Am I coming full circle? Nah, It is just that the cycling in Colorado is world class, so it would be a sin not to partake.

FRB: El Paso is a tough place. Any crazy donkey stories
           from Juarez?

Chris: None I remember. I actually wore out my interest in the seedy nightlife of Juarez when I was in high school. It is, however, an interesting thing to do if you are down there. Just don't be a dumb ass and get yourself into trouble.

FRB: What was it like climbing in Hueco
          without a crash pad?

Chris: I pretty much always had a crash pad. When I started climbing the locals had these things they called sketch pads. They were basically a foldable piece of foam with carpet glued to it. The story goes, as it was told to me, that there was a guy, strong climber, nicknamed Sketchy Tom who would put the fear of God in his spotters as he quaked and quivered his way up problems. In jest, someone decided to make him a pad. They threw it at the base of the problem and the sketch pad was born. Pretty soon all those guys were making pads for their own use.

When the first generation Kinnaloa pads came out, I got one and put my homemade pad away for good.

FRB: So Chris... what do you think of bouldering along
          the Front Range as compared to Hueco?

Chris: For the sheer quality and quantity of climbing there is no comparison. Hueco is world class. Even if you just limited yourself to North Mountain; you would still be sampling the best climbing in the nation, and that is widely considered the least interesting climbing at Hueco. This makes a comparison of the two areas very difficult.

That being said, the Front Range has its benefits in the abstract. There is such a storied past to the climbing and bouldering here that gives the experience a sense of history. With the wide elevational variation of areas, it is pretty easy to find climbable rock any day of the year, unless it is snowing (of course you could always go to Morrison). The Front Range has a large vibrant resident climbing community, which Hueco never really has.

I guess I would say the climbing at Hueco is much better, but the climbing experience on the Front Range has a certain character that makes it quite special.

FRB: What was it like in Hueco during the early days
         of development?

Chris: Well, I don't feel I was there in the early days, but I was there through the end of the halcyon days. My experiences were certainly different than those of John Sherman, Fred Nacovic, Dave Head, Mike Head, and others who were the true pioneers out at Hueco Tanks (Well I guess Royal Robbins predated them).

I was fortunate to climb at Hueco extensively before the closures and restrictions. It was a perfect place. I am most inspired by new lines and we never had a shortage of lines to imagine, decipher, and more often than not, eventually find our way up. Days began with a quick warm-up and then we would disappear into the bowels of the park always looking for the next line. The day would end eight or nine hours later as we emerged from the park with stories of all the cool stuff we saw. This did not just include problems and projects. It included pictographs, aboriginal sites, flora, landscape features, and so forth. We had no real purpose, direction, or motivation beyond climbing new challenging and/or interesting problems. I, along with a cadre of others, established a slew of problems in the park and added variations (not contrivances) to others. Many of these are lost to obscurity, others were re-"established" by other climbers, some remain very popular, and still others were never completed or were eventually linked by the likes of Fred Nicole.

I can ramble on and on about "the good ole' days."

There seemed to be a real sense of camaraderie (as much as there is among climbers) out there. Most people were not protective of their projects. If you were strong enough to climb the problem, so be it. Related to this was an unreal sense of what was normal. It seemed everyone (or at least a lot of people) climbed hard and did not even realize it. It was not a very good place to take yourself too seriously because some unknown climber would surely school you. I remember traveling and being amazed that there were not more V10 and harder problems at other areas and often the hard problems were relatively untouched. Eventually this changed and I think Hueco had a lot to do with that. People would visit the park, see what was possible, and apply it to their home areas.

FRB: Did you ever catch any locals spray painting?

Chris: Not really, but there was a weekend when we put up a bunch of the problems in the corridor leading into the new meadow. One week later we came back and the wall across from Rudy was scripted with white spray paint right across problems we had just established. It was really annoying. Ironically, this was after the restrictions were put into place. Oh, and there was the time I was hiking down from the top of North Mountain and I peripherally noticed some guys in one of those caves (like the one you go through to get to the New Meadow). As a walked down I began thinking that they may have been up to no good. I went directly to the Ranger Station. Regrettably Alex was the only person in there. I told him about it and that he should wander up there. I then went to Dragons Den and kept an eye peeled toward North Mountain. Guess what. Alex never went up there (he just drove his truck around the campground loop). Big surprise. To this day I cannot be sure those guys did anything wrong, but I am still suspicious and regret not confronting them myself.

FRB: I've heard rumors of early developers
          pumping the juice. Is this true?

Chris: I have heard the same speculation as you. None of the folks I climbed with ever did that.

FRB: You must have seen some sick stuff during the
          early days of Hueco. Any super human acts of
          strength you can remember?

Chris: I don't know. It goes back to that skewed sense of reality at Hueco. I have seen lots of impressive stuff, but it was fairly mundane. If you see it every day it becomes less noteworthy.

I do remember one day climbing with Fred Nicole and Toni Lamprecht. After a quick warm up, we started the day at the Scream, circumnavigated West Mountain and part of North Mountain with stops a various problems. Near sunset we arrived at the Power of Silence. This is where things got disturbing. Toni had recently done the low start to the problem (matched on the slopy undercling, which he thought was the original start). Keep in mind this was the end of a long day. Fred grabs the undercling, his feet stemmed across the roof, and casually locks the thing off. Ah, but Toni is a tall powerful guy and the reach from the undercling to the edges on the "normal" start is not trivial. Fred extends completely and just cannot grab the hold. He steps off and does the Power of Silence like it is a V2. He must have done this five times in a row. He was never able to do the problem from the low start that day (though I believe he eventually did it), but the casualness with which he climbed the normal line was awe inspiring.

FRB: What about the guy who used to climb in his socks?

Chris: Mushroom Roof is easier in your socks. Try it sometime.

You are talking about Jake Rothfork. The guy had (has) a volatile combination of power and endurance. More important, he really enjoys climbing. Oh and he is by far the best dynamic climber I have ever seen. At Hueco, Jake often did interesting link ups like up Right El Murray, down Left, and up Center, or up and down 45 Degree Wall (while ranting in a fake German accent) and then up Double boiler. He also nabbed the first ascent of Lead belly (something like 200 feet of steep climbing) on West Mountain. He did a mile on streambed (Socorro). It is only 5.11 or so, but it's a mile. He also did some disturbing straight up lines in Socorro. I am sure there is a lot more than I know about.

FRB: Who did you boulder with mostly while in Hueco?
         On the Front Range?

Chris:
Hueco: Different people at different times: Eric Heawole (Peck) was probably the person I climbed with the most, but others included Jeff Drucker, Dave Head, Jason and Kurt Spier, James Robertson, Mike Rafiti, Marene, and a smattering of local and visiting climbers.

Front Range: Depends on the day: Marene, Mike Hickey, Jade, Scott Cox (though I haven't seen him for months), Calvin Filder, Steve LaPorta, Matt Esson, Steve Landon, Will, Amy, and Rufus Miller and Bob Williams when they will have me.

FRB: So did you get paid for your cameo in Free Hueco?

Chris: Nope. Its not like anyone can even tell it's me. That's a good thing.

FRB: It seems most Front Range boulderers feel the grades
          in Hueco are soft compared to CO.
          Any thoughts on this?

Chris: Most Front Range boulderers consider Hueco soft ??

I don't really want to start a grading debate, because it is all so convoluted and stupid and I would rather climb than have a discourse on grades, which pisses everyone off in the end, but since you asked . . .

Of course any area has problems that are "soft", but in general I think the claim that Hueco is soft is crap. First, if you use a little logic. It cannot be soft since the V scale was developed there. I think this notion comes from the fact that Heuco's problems always seem within reach. We have all heard the comment "I did the moves on _____________, I think it is soft." What they neglect to say is that they never linked the thing together. Hueco is all about power endurance.

If you juxtapose this with the Front Range where most problems are short and often dynamic, problems are usually sent shortly after the moves have been worked out. In a pure sense it is a lot easier to link 3 moves than 13.

I actually see an entirely different phenomenon. Grades are getting soft everywhere. This has been happening for a while (this really hit home the day I warmed up on a V9 at the Happy boulders on a 100-degree day. I am not that strong.). In fact my feeling on grades on the Front Range is that the older problems tend to be graded pretty accurately (from right on to a little stiff), newer problems tend to be much softer (right on to really soft). This is happening everywhere, including Hueco. In fact the most absurd thing I have seen at Hueco is the upgrading of testpeice problems. That is just plain stupid and it seems that once it is done that's it. The V10 is now a V12, or whatever. I just hope this upgrading is associated with mere confusion and not bloated egos. And no I do not want to go into details on which problems I am talking about (though I think you know what some of them are). I would be happy to discuss it in private, but not on a public forum. That will just piss people off.

My personal philosophy is to avoid grading new problem unless I am pressed to do so. When I do attach grades to problems I prefer to err on the side of stiffness (no I am not trying to sandbag anyone). After all, it is a real let down to wander up to a problem that you think will be a real challenge only to find that it is really not all that hard. After all, a big part of the reason we climb is to challenge ourselves &, for many, grades are essentially the descriptors of such challenges.

FRB: If you could construct a Hueco style boulder problem
          from linking Front Range boulder problems what would
          you create?

Chris: I have no idea.

FRB: Okay Chris… obviously you have a long history and
          love for Hueco. That being said, how do you feel about
          the current climber management system at Hueco.
          What changes would you make if any?

Chris: Boy, where do I start. . . I suspect you used the phrase "climber management system" on purpose. The primary flaw with the plan/system it that it was implemented without any real logical framework. Instead, it is just a knee jerk reaction to a problem that was building over three decades. For years, local and other climbers (and select other groups I assume) continually pressed the TPWD to implement some semblance of a management regime (this included the donation of neutral fill to stabilize archeological sites, a radio tower and, if I remember correctly, 25 radios, and manpower, including an university archeological field school) but we were continually rebuffed until the hammer came down. What resulted was a plan that does not address the most significant problems at the park. It just hides them from view and concentrates impacts in localized areas. Also the current situation really makes it difficult for people to form a real bond with the place. This is dangerous, because Americans do not protect resources to which they do not have some sort of attachment. Hueco may be a subdivision in 30 years if it does not have advocates. From the climbers point of view things have gotten better. Access to the park has improved since the plan was initially implemented, but the same problems exist and they will rear their ugly heads again as people return. TPWD is not addressing the core issues. So . . .

To come up with a management plan on the fly is virtually impossible, but I'll try. I would probably make wholesale changes to the current plan. First, it would be resource based and not reactionary. To do this one needs to get experts out there to find out what is really there and whether we can mitigate impacts to the resource in specific areas in order to protect the park, as a whole. Next we need to consider what level of access we can allow while protecting the resource. Finally, we need to ascertain what the real threats to the resource are (this probably does include climbing in some locales). Only then, can a plan of any real utility be developed. My gut feeling is that my plan would include the following: rotational closures of areas (like Dragons Den, or East Spur Maze) in which the closed areas are reseeded with local native seed stock, Archeological sites that are in danger of being damaged by natural processes (or visitor use) would either be recovered (dug) or stabilized, a coherent logical trail system would be constructed, the fee system would be restructured (probably more expensive for the casual visitor, regrettably), Volunteer guides would go away and, in their place I would add a couple climbing rangers to the staff ( tangentially related to this is the fact that I would require that all the rangers get out and patrol on foot extensively. I would want an official presence out there), guided tours would go away (because they would be unnecessary), the orientation program would go away, or at least be restructured, and on and on. I would hope what would come out of the plan would be a management philosophy that protects the resources while allowing compatible uses to continue. An outgrowth of this rubric, however, is the fact that there would have to be more law enforcement and active management going on. Ideally, various user groups would be included in the implementation of the plan, as applicable.

FRB: It seems like you have a personal attraction
          to the V4 grade?

Chris: What do you mean? Isn't everything V4 or V5. Wait a minute . . . Are you trying to say I am a sandbagger? Who me? I would never do such a thing.

Actually in all seriousness, I do seem to have a reputation as a sandbagger, which is fine. Sometimes I deserve the title, but it is all tongue in cheek (like down rating problems because I added a harder sit start. After all you have momentum going into the original crux.). If people get their panties in a twist over that they are taking themselves too seriously. At the other end of the spectrum I do tend to grade conservatively (when I seriously try to grade a problem). The reasons for this were already discussed.

FRB: Rumor has it you were a Ranger in YoVillage.
          Do any bouldering while you were there?

Chris: I was a naturalist ranger in both Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows for three summers (97,98,99) and one winter (2000). I did do a fair bit of bouldering in both the valley and the high country. I even did some back country stuff near some of the alpine lakes.

I did a lot of the Camp 4 classics and even better problems in other areas, but one of the things I am most proud of was the first ascent of the Pugilist. It is such a striking line. I was amazed no one had done it before. Sending the thing took me a while to because the technical climbing of the problem was not what I am particularly good at and I had no one working it with me. In other words, beta came slow. After doing the problem I had no idea what to grade it and declined to do so, but I saw a photo of it on FRB recently with the ubiquitous V10. That's probably about right.

FRB: How did you come up with the name Pugilist?

Chris: The thing kept slapping me around and the impact with the ground usually felt rather violent for some reason.

FRB: Have you done any development in Colorado
          that you're especially proud of?

Chris: None that I am liberty to divulge. They are not at secret areas, but the areas are certainly low key for a variety of reasons (and it has nothing to do with saving all the first ascents for myself).

FRB: What reasons would that be then?

Chris: Questions of access, boulders in sensitive environments, small areas that cannot handle more than a few climbers per session, so forth, and, sometimes the mere fact that I don't trust climbers to respect an area. I don't want to come across as a misanthrope, but sadly there are entirely too many idiots out there (Of course this is not limited to the climbing world.) And I would rather not wade through a gaggle of self-centered schmucks in order to go bouldering.

FRB: Word Association! Just drop in whatever comes
          first to your mind!

Chris:
8A.nu - To each his/her own
Chipping - If I put what really came to mind my answer would surly be censored. Chippers are the lowest of the low, no better than politicians or pimps
Hueco - mixed emotions. . . paradise lost
Boulder Colorado - The little city that thinks it can
Love - Marene
Friends - Companions, partners in crime
Music - Damn now I've got this crappy song stuck in my head. It goes " Her name was Lola, She was a show girl, . . . . At the Copa Copacabana."
Beer - right now, Arrogant Bastard
Morrison - Just training. Fun in small doses.
The month of December - Hueco (hopefully)
Indoor climbing - Just training
Glue - The tool of the unimaginative and inflexible climber.
Rock - It depends on the rock. Challenge, choss, disappointment, inspiration, joy, pain, . . Then if I get philosophical, the cycle of time. . .
Peppers - You silly Midwesterner (Denver is really more Midwestern than Western, but that's a whole academic discourse, not a bouldering chat), It is called Chile
Message Board - Sewing Circle
Steve Laporta - One habitually late, fit, rugby playing, rock climbing, mofo.
Tick Marks - Amateurs
High Ball - What I wish I had imbibed before I found myself halfway up this god dam rock face contemplating my impending doom.
Parking lot weed - Do you mean the one I beat your ass with after the Willie Nelson concert?

FRB: Any parting words of wisdom you would like
          to share with us?

Chris: A bastardization of a Nietzsche Aphorism, but I think he would approve. . . You never climb in vain. Either you reach a higher point today, or you exercise your strength in order to be able to climb higher tomorrow.

FRB: Thanks for taking your time to share you thoughts
          with us Chris!!!

Chris: You're welcome.

 

 

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