Erika Shorter of Uniform takes a look at the future of technology within climbing and other adventure sports. Does technology sanitise the outdoor experience, enhance it, or a bit of both? Find out more about these four innovative concepts currently gaining ground in the climbing sphere...
I read a lot. The one thing I’ve read this year that’s stuck with me most was Landmarks, by Robert Macfarlane. A reflection on the relationship between language and landscape. Landmarks opens with a list of words recently removed from the Junior Oxford dictionary. Among these are acorn, buttercup, conker, kingfisher, ivy, lark, lobster, magpie, minnow, mussel, newt, otter, ox, pasture and willow. Their defence? Lots of children have no experience of the countryside, and can’t relate to these terms.
Essentially, they have dropped in relevance. Additions to the dictionary were attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. It may have been the location (Christmas in Torridon, one of the most strikingly beautiful places in the UK), the arresting solitude (no internet, scatty phone signal), or watching my friend tear up at the same passage, but the book struck me at my core. Nature. Childhood. The loss of something as profound as language.
While my gut reaction was horror that ‘digital’ words are elbowing out language intrinsically tied to the best memories of my childhood, I know that not all technology is working against the natural world. I need to stop myself from falling into the trap of morally valuing the rural world over the urban. Why? Because there’s no need. There’s room for BlackBerrys and blackberries in dictionaries. Technology can be a solution to the problem of getting people back into nature in the right (i.e. environmentally responsible/respectful) way, rather than a herald of its eventual ruin. All over the world, outdoor pursuits are thriving, the number of participants growing exponentially. Is it a rebellion against our increasingly sedentary, screen-bound, urbanised lives? Or are technological advancements helping us access outdoor pursuits with greater ease and comfort, allowing not only for more participants to swim further, climb higher and paddle rougher water? I’m guessing both.
So where’s the line in the sand between good technological intervention and bad? And who decides? I think most can agree that if need be, climbing ethics can be reduced to one sentence: leave the natural environment the way it was before human intervention. Despite common compromises such as cutting back rhododendron or scrubbing moss off a project, it’s a pretty solid ethical reduction. One of its biggest threats? More people. Fears of what overcrowding will do to climbing are very real, and very valid. Of course climbers and alpinists covet and protect the mountains. Chop bolts. Scrub graffiti. Respect nesting season. It’s a largely self-policed community, and one understandably nervous of numbers swelling out of its control, although influence might be a more accurate word. Farmers allow us to cross their land to get to crags, but what happens when it’s not 4 or 5 a weekend, but 20? Will they be so obliging? Will the day come when big tourist money and their permits win out over nature preservation and - like Half Dome - a handrail and chains appear up Ben Nevis?
Technology and these concerns do not sit together nicely. But wait, don’t they? Advances in gear technology allowed for protection that can be removed without leaving a trace. Chalk - a technology in its own right - might linger, but it’s nothing a good soak can’t take care of. The discussion isn’t as reductive as technology creeping into the sport being a good or bad thing, it’s about the right technology gaining and maintaining a foothold and the wrong technology staying out. So what is the right and wrong technology? The following four technological advancements in climbing and alpinism showcase technology that is playful, responsible, respectful, empowering and community-oriented. In other words, the tech we, as climbers and alpinists, want to see coming into our sport. The tech that makes us better athletes, a tighter community and protects our place of play.
1. The Rockfax App
You’ll likely be familiar with (if not already a user of) the Rockfax App, which collates all the information found in Rockfax guides and UKC logbooks. This mobile guide has revolutionised the experience of guidebooks by making them them social, accessible and modular.
It’s not the features of the Rockfax App that make it so forward thinking. They are largely what you’d expect: crag and route information, free sample crags, maps linking to the UKClimbing database and a comprehensive directory of indoor climbing walls, gear shops, clubs, accommodation, tuition and guiding services.
What I find most promising about the Rockfax App is its ability to democratise the experience of climbing and make it personal - tailored. Guides are expensive, and with good reason, considering the time and effort that goes into curating, writing, checking, editing and publishing. The app allows you to purchase individual crags, or bundles of crags in areas that match up with printed guidebooks. As the app itself is free to download, users can see if they like it before committing.
Turning a guide into an app, while valuable, isn’t a mind blowing innovation. It’s a pretty clear and smart next step, really. What Rockfax has done that is particularly insightful is tap into the climbing community itself. As the data in the app is linked to the UKClimbing logbooks, climbers can log their ascents, see community photos of the route and read comments, all while at the crag. In the future, it’s no stretch of the imagination to assume these communities will grow and expand, linking out to other platforms. Maybe one day it will notify friends ambiently when you arrive at a crag nearby, or even offer hands-free guide access for the diligent belayer, although a union of belay glasses and Google glass may be a few steps too far…
The Rockfax App is a story of 13 years of work, starting back in 2002 when the first Rockfax Route Database was created, leading to the UKC Logbook system in 2005. The creators explain that the intention even way back then was to deliver information to devices, although they didn’t know what those devices would be. And so the world they predicted back in 2002 is here. And while there will always be a place for the beauty, nostalgia and physicality of those scruffy well worn guides and laminated multi-pitch maps- guardians of some of your best memories - this isn’t a case of either or. We can (and do) have both already, with community sources such as UKC strongly supplementing physical climbing memorabilia, maps and literature.
What else is happening in the world of mapping?
FATMAP is a 3D mapping app and platform for skiers, snowboarders and alpinists. FATMAP solves the critical question of logistics, answering the practical questions that can make or break a day in the mountains. They’ve created highly detailed 3D mobile maps of outdoor hotspots for skiing and mountaineering. Their 3D models enable users to read terrain in new ways, finding the data they need as and when they need it. The data is highly specific: both in terms of context and sport. A community of experts is responsible for the information being up to date and accurate. FATMAP’s focus on community curated content gathers (and even creates) the best people. FATMAP links skiers and alpinists all over the world and provides both a practical resource and a platform for sharing and celebrating.
FATMAP is about getting more from the outdoors, and looking to not only the future of the sport, but the future of technology, which is more immersive, knowledgeable and empowered that it has ever been.
FATMAP founder Misha Gopaul explains their motivations:
“At the top of the sport, technology is allowing us to push boundaries and break new ground whilst also opening up the sports to a wider audience by reducing barriers to entry and lowering the bar in terms of the level of skill and experience required (e.g. fat skis making it easier to ski off-piste, new equipment making it easier and less physically demanding to climb a given route, GPS enabled maps removing the need for complex navigation). Technology is making more possible in less time, giving us better information to make better decisions, reducing uncertainty and ultimately making adventure safer.”
Here Misha explores a common concern with technology entering the climbing/alpinism arena. To what extent should we worry about technology sterilising the experience of the outdoors?
“There-in lies the paradox – if an adventure became certain and 100% safe, would it still be adventure and would we still get what we came for?”
It’s a catch-22 outdoor enthusiasts need to work out for themselves. If we acknowledge that more people enjoying and accessing the outdoors cheaper, safer, and easier than ever before is a good thing societally, at what point does it become a bad thing for the sport? Where does altruism lose out to personal enjoyment? Where is the threshold?
Misha feels similarly. “In our increasingly urban societies, there is a growing need for people to disconnect and experience adventure. Virtual reality experiences are starting to allow more people to discover the world’s wildest environments in comfort and whilst they are ultimately experiences in themselves, they will also undoubtedly serve as a gateway for people to discover the real thing.”
As technology pushes more and more people into the entry level of previously ‘niche’ sports, what’s happening at the top end, and is the expansion of the top end the answer? Whose responsibility (or privilege) is it to bring nature to those who can’t enjoy it?
FATMAP believes: “Ultimately technology is having a positive impact, allowing more people to enjoy climbing and alpinism in relative safety, whilst simultaneously allowing top athletes to push the limits of what’s possible. As participation of outdoor sports grows, it will increase the profile and importance of our wild places and simultaneously serve to help protect them.”
Protecting these wild spaces while simultaneously increasing access sees us return to those early tensions, one that technology behemoth Google has recently had to consider.
3. Google Earth
Google Earth has released a virtual experience of some of the world’s wildest places. Users can access 360 degree view of Yosemite, Everest, Kilimanjaro and recently Mont Blanc on desktop and mobile devices. For the Mont Blanc project, a team climbed to the top of the mountain range with a hi-tech Trekker camera and took panoramic footage that allows the viewer to traverse the mountain in its entirety.
My favourite aspect of this project was the nod to history. Google’s team worked with the world’s most famous skiers, guides, climbers and mountaineers, and were careful to source the help of the athletes linked to specific areas. The resulting Easter eggs in the experience are that much more meaningful for their inclusion: Kilian Jornet hurtling across the summit, Ueli Steck and Catherine Destivelle ascending famous faces and free skier Candide Thovex streaking down the slopes. The new imagery also allows you to ‘walk’ Mont Blanc’s Goûter Route, thanks to Korra Pesce (Italian alpinist and guide) hauling the Street View Trekker to the summit and back.
Last year the team mapped El Capitan with the help of Lynn Hill, Alex Honnold, and Tommy Caldwell. And this is exactly what adds value to the experience. Technology here is respecting and celebrating history. They didn’t transport in their own Google team of athletes to Yosemite, but looked at who had the historical relationship, the ascents. Who knew it best. They could have tapped hundreds of people, but they chose current and past Yosemite heroes.
Ally Swinton, sponsored climber and trainee mountain guide splits his time between Scotland and Chamonix, where he also sometimes helps out on random exciting film work - such as assisting Google Earth’s Mont Blanc 360 experience.
“Working with Google to create the Mt Blanc section of their new system was amazing. It was a great feeling that I was playing my part in creating a product to not only entertain, but also help people around the world who may not have access tap into the unique experience of being in the mountains. These virtual maps allow users to imagine and picture what is out there, but in safety and comfort.”
Ally also pointed out that tools like Google Earth are for extreme athletes too - people that are already active members of the climbing and alpinism communities.
“Using these maps, we’ll go outside with an idea of what we’ll be doing, and can feel more confident. These maps are an amazing piece of technology for people who have difficulty visualising a mountain landscape from looking at a traditional paper map.”
As a prospective guide, let’s assume Ally isn’t talking about himself there. Showing people areas of the world they may never experience, while important and altruistic, is the obvious appeal. There are other benefits to Google’s exploration that may be even more important, such as Google’s hope that the Street View imagery will be a digital record of Mont Blanc, which could - sadly - educate future generations on what the mountain once looked like as it changes through the effects of global warming.
So current technology in the outdoor climbing and alpinism arena is looking to inspire us, connect us to our community, keep us safe and push us further. What’s happening indoors?
Some climbers use indoor walls exclusively to stay fit for outdoors. Others use indoor walls as their primary enjoyment of climbing. No matter which camp you fall into, gamifying the experience makes for a motivating way to spend time at an indoor wall. Which brings us to Grip.
Grip is an internet-enabled virtual coaching experience developed by creative agency Uniform. Grip is not an answer to, but a question exploring how relatively new technologies like the Internet of Things (Internet-enabled objects) and virtual reality can work together to grow sport at a grassroots level, in this instance, bringing elite training to everyone.
Working with Shauna Coxsey and her coach Mark Glennie, Uniform created Grip with internet-enabled climbing holds, RFID technology (like the kind you get in Oyster cards) and a VR headset. Grip works with both high-tech virtual reality kit (like a Samsung VR) and grassroots tech, like Google Cardboard, a VR headset made out of - yes - cardboard.
Imagine you could pull a hold off the wall and spin it around in front of you, while a world class coach explains the best way to hold a sloper. What if you could rewind that dyno and watch world cup boulderer Shauna Coxsey climb it again. And again. And again. What would your learning curve look like if you could unlock coaching every time you fail, and a reward each time you succeed? The core tenets of Grip are Try - Learn - Achieve - Reward, concepts that could be applied across nearly every sport. Far from using technology to replace human interaction, Grip looks to show how elite coaching can be brought to the grassroots level in an engaging way.
While technology like Grip has been designed for an indoor climbing environment, the concept of movement analysis for success made one of the most famous ascents of 2015 possible. Kevin Jorgeson arguably would never have made it up that critical 15th pitch without his team on the ground whatsapping him video footage of his failures. Ged, the owner of the Climbing Hangar, is an advocate of technology to increase participation. Shauna herself, not only an elite athlete but also a staunch supporter of increased involvement in the sport (here’s looking at the Women’s Climbing symposium) sees only the positives:
“I’m not concerned about technology coming into our sport because in my eyes, if it can be positive, and encourage more people to start doing exercise, then that can’t be a bad thing.”
Grip isn’t a product you can buy, although if you live in Liverpool you can try it out. Grip is currently installed in the Climbing Hangar, where you can borrow a headset and give it a go next time you’re in.
Watch a video about Grip below: