Interview with Andrew Bisharat


Aside from his full time job as senior editor at Rock & Ice, Andrew Bisharat just authored a new book about sport climbing. He’s also a very talented climber, though he’d never admit it. So I recently took the time to found out more about the book, and what else makes Andrew tick. Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy.

Tell us a little about the book you just authored, where did the inspiration for that come from?

The book is called Sport Climbing: From Top Rope to Redpoint, Techniques For Climbing Success, or otherwise known by the handy and easy-to-remember acronym: SCFTRTRTFCS. It is being published by the Mountaineers, the group that prints Freedom of the Hills. SCFTRTRTFCS is joining the Mountaineers Outdoor Expert Series–those how-to books with the distinctive red cover.

The inspiration for the book was an honest desire to try to help people improve as free climbers and enjoy the sport more. Also, I think that sport climbing has become so specialized compared to other climbing disciplines, but from what I have seen, nothing has been written that really addresses those differences. For example, one book on sport climbing has a chapter on free soloing!

I spent the first half of my climbing career trad climbing in places like the Gunks, Yosemite, New Hampshire, etc. Sport climbing was only something I did if it was raining or I had a hangover. I approached sport climbs like they were less significant trad climbs–a mistake that, in retrospect, stifled my abilities. Sport climbing demands that a climber take a different approach–know different belay and ropework techniques, use different gear, and most of all, possess a different mentality. I wanted to capture these elements and present them to the climbing community in, hopefully, an easy-to-read yet still in-depth format.

I think sport climbing still suffers from a misconception that it’s fluffy, easy to do, and not worthy. I also realize that some people may think an entire how-to book on sport climbing is overkill, like a DVD series on changing a lightbulb. This has always struck me as odd because, according to the numbers, more people sport climb than anything else, so why the lack of love? Also, I see sport climbing as having the brightest future of any discipline. We’re only scratching the surface of what’s possible. I’m hoping that a more serious and in-depth treatment will bring some legitimacy and respect to this discipline–it certainly deserves it. It’s one of the reasons I included a rich history chapter at the beginning of the book.

Was this your first published book? What were the best and worst parts about writing it?

This was my first published book. The best part of writing it was that it was such a drastic and welcome departure from the usual stuff I write for Rock and Ice. I needed to totally shift mental gears. I remember after I sent the first 20 percent of the book in to my editor Kate for review, she basically said, “Dude,  you need to turn down the jargon and the energy. No one knows what ‘beta,’ ‘send’ or ‘kneebar’ means.”

I live, eat, breathe and shit climbing all day, every day. All of my friends are climbers. Up until this book, I wouldn’t have thought twice about saying, “I one-hung the proj from the bat-hang rest to the chains with the new beta.” Escaping that mindset opened my eyes, ears and heart quite a bit. I find myself editing articles for Rock and Ice differently now as well–just being more thoughtful and aware about the ways I can help make this sport seem more inclusive.

The worst part of the book was that I basically had four months to write 65,000 words and shoot/solicit over 150 images … in addition to the work of my regular job. I’d wake up every day at 6 am, write until I had to go to work, then write/edit at work all day, and then, go home and write more. My blood pressure was really high during this time period. I had to miss my favorite holiday, Halloween, last year because I was writing about belay techniques. I was going to dress up as a Swiss beer fraulein with fake breasts and make people do shots out of my boobies.

What’s the main thing you hope people get from reading the book?

How sport climbing can be the best way to improve your free-climbing abilities. And that, above all, it’s just rock climbing. It’s meant to be fun.

How much further do you think sport climbing grades/standards can be pushed?

Put it this way: This weekend, I saw a 5-year-old in the gym in Boulder running laps on 5.10s. He was back-stepping, matching feet, and otherwise exhibiting flawless technique. Aside from a few people like Chris Lindner, we’re still awaiting for the emergence of an entire generation of people who have been rock climbing since birth. Without exaggeration, in fewer than 20 years, I believe that 5.15 is going to be a warm-up, and that 5.14 will be the new 5.12–the grade that “average” people can work toward and attain.

Guys like Dave Graham and Daniel Woods are sending their hardest routes in 10 or 15 tries. In other words, they’re hardly pushing themselves. I takes me that long to redpoint the crag warm-up, and I’ve taken over two years and countless tries to do a single route. The climbing community and sponsors are still impressed with 5.14d and 5.15a redpoints, and so many top climbers are content with only climbing at that level. When someone comes along with Chris Sharma’s belief in himself, Dave Graham’s genetics and technique, and Wolfgang Gullich’s dedication to training, then things will be pushed closer to the limit of what’s possible. It sounds like Adam Ondra may be the guy who possesses this rare cocktail.

What do you think is an attainable grade for the average climber with a full time job and average genetics?

I started climbing at the Gunks. My first route was Horseman, a 5.5. It was absolutely terrifying and gripping, but also instantly consuming. My initial introduction to this sport was that 5.5 is hard. I remember working up to “5.5+”–that special brand of grade only found at the Gunks–and then, when I felt comfortable, I got on “5.6-” … Even to this day, the words “5.9+” make me feel unhinged. I know that for most people, 5.12, 5.11 and even 5.10 may be a lifetime goal. I  totally relate to that feeling because that is my background too.

However, I honestly believe that it is realistic for an average person to do 5.13+ or 5.14. I think your question underscores an important misconception about how hard routes are achieved: that climbing hard is more about good genes and having lots of free time. To me, these are easy excuses we make for ourselves and they miss the point. Think about it: genes can’t be changed, so focusing on them as a reason you won’t or can’t succeed is a way of giving up before you even start.

I have terrible genes, and I sometimes work 50+ hours a week. Despite these circumstances, I’ve managed to climb better and harder each year. I’ve literally had to work through every single grade I’ve ever got on, from 5.5+ to 5.13+.

In my experience, having the right mentality, staying positive, addressing weaknesses in your climbing, addressing imbalances in your health and your life, surrounding yourself with a community that cherishes difficult climbing and improvement, and effectively and efficiently using your time on the rock can take you further than you can imagine. We all have limitations–like so called “bad” genes or a time-consuming job–imposed on us. The key is to focus on seeing all the ways you can expand your powers, not focus on how they are being restricted.

You spend a lot of your time climbing at Rifle, what’s the big draw for you?

The climbing is addictive, but honestly, I couldn’t ask for a better community of quirky, funny and intelligent people to surround myself with every weekend. No matter what happens, or how well I am climbing on any given day, I always have fun out there. The Rifle locals are my friends, mentors and drinking partners and I love ’em.

What’s your favorite route there?

Right now it’s Living in Fear, probably because it’s the project I’m currently falling on. The climb is chipped, but it’s beautifully chipped. The moves are really fun, and extremely non-injurious–there are no small holds or tweaky moves. If you can climb V4 you can do this route. It just gets you in shape and it makes everything else feel easier. After I send Living, I plan to climb on it every day until I can warm up on it like everyone else out there.

Are there any other local crags you enjoy?

Yes! As you know, we live in an area with so much geological diversity. I love Independence Pass granite and the tweaky cobbled pebble matrix of the Redstone crags. For some reason, those Redstone crags don’t see a lot of traffic, which doesn’t make sense to me. It has the most unique climbs in the Valley.

I just got to check out the Gash and the Narrows this summer. I think Jeff Jackson’s route Slice of Death is one of the best 5.12’s in the valley, and Matt Samet’s Red Faction is an absolutely brilliant hidden gem.

It seems like you pursue sport climbing more than any other discipline.

Sport climbing started out for me as a way to get stronger for trad climbing, as a way to learn to hold on till the end of the pitch and place gear more easily. I always told myself that once I climbed 5.13, I’d start plugging pro again, but aside from the occasional outing, it hasn’t happened yet. I’m not sure why sport climbing has so consumed me. Maybe it’s because I feel like I’m finally starting to “get it.” Maybe it’s because I’ve sprained my ankles so many times and it now hurts to torque them into cracks.

Do you ever dabble in other styles?

The thing that I love about climbing most of all is how varied it is. I’ve spent a lot of time trad climbing, aid climbing, big wall climbing, bouldering, deep water soloing, ice climbing, alpine climbing and mixed climbing. I find each one fulfilling, and I feel pretty fortunate to feel comfortable enough to be able to dabble in all those mediums.

Do you have a favorite trad route?

To me, trad climbing is less about the movement and the free climbing and more about the position and the experience. My favorite trad routes are the ones with memorable moments, like when my friend James and I climbed Journey Home in the Black Canyon. We had already done another route on another wall that morning, and we didn’t start JH until 6 in the afternoon. This is how routes go with James. He sees no reason why we shouldn’t be able to do, say, the Finger of Fate before the sun goes down, or why you’d want to take a bottle of water with you on a 1,000 foot climb in the desert. Anyway, on JH, we actually got benighted this time around, and tried sleeping back to back on a little ledge before we realized how cold, dehydrated and hungry we were. So we kept moving and eventually topped out at 1 am or something. It was so much fun. That said, there are a few routes that I’ve repeated a bunch of times and will always make a point of going and doing when I’m in the area: Moratorium into the East Butt of El Cap, Directissima at the Gunks, and the Whitney Gilman ridge on Cannon, but only in winter conditions because 5.7 in Koflachs is just that much fun.

What about ice climbing?

To be honest, I’ve somewhat lost interest in ice climbing since moving to Colorado. I started climbing ice in New Hampshire, and to me, this stuff out West just doesn’t compare. Colorado has some fantastic ice lines, but they’re all very similar in terms of the composition of the ice. It’s somehow drier, more uniform, and less variable. In the Northeast, you get such a variety of ice mediums that you never know what you’re going to get, even during a single pitch. I find that type of ice climbing much more interesting, adventurous and thought-provoking. Also, in Colorado, you can rock climb in the sun throughout the winter, which I’d always prefer. If you live in the Northeast in the winter, you don’t have a choice.

You’re the senior editor at Rock & Ice, how‘d you land that gig?

I spent three months doing an internship here, during which time I learned a lot from the dark genius Matt Samet (who now works at Climbing). Matt taught me everything I know and I have a lot of respect and admiration for everything he has accomplished as both a writer and especially as a climber. After the internship ended, I helped my friend make wine on a vineyard through the fall harvest season. Apparently, they missed me at the magazine because one day I got a call that a position opened up. I applied and they accepted me back. The people I work with are not just mentors and friends, but they’re now family. Jeff Jackson, Alison Osius, Duane Raleigh and everyone else. We help each other move, we dig each other’s cars out of snow banks, we take care of each other’s kids, etc. Rock and Ice is a pretty special place. I feel extremely lucky to be here and I try to never complain about how much work it can be.

It seems like you’ve built up a persona in the magazine that’s somewhat different (more controversial?) than who you are in person, care to elaborate on that?

Of course, I’m not actually like the sociopath that I sometimes portray myself to be in articles. All good writing must somehow illuminate an underlying truth. I sometimes try to arrive at that truth by being over the top or embellishing certain facts, but I do so very consciously. I think very carefully about each word I use and how it will be interpreted. Sometimes, I get that interpretation wrong, and I’ve gotten into trouble. Most of the time, however, people seem to be able to look past the zany persona and strong language–which I incorporate mostly to keep the pace fast and the writing entertaining–and see the point I’m trying to make. You can’t make a point if people stop reading halfway through the piece because they’re bored.

I hope my writing is a window into how my mind works. I think it is. I sometimes read my old articles, and it’s like listening to myself speak in my head, if that makes sense. I try not to put too much dressing on any of my thoughts, even the ugly ones, in order to keep things raw and honest. To me, the best writing takes confidence, and by that I mean having the confidence to hear the words that naturally appear in your head and put them down on the paper without passing through any filters that try to make your words sound like something else (Hemingway et al.).

The upshot to this, however, is that I’ve been told I’m much more boring and disappointing in person.

Anything else?

Double check your knot.

We hope to have a copy of Andrew’s new book soon, and we’re looking forward to learning a few things. Look for a review in the next couple weeks, although I guess that means I’m gonna have to go sport climbing to see if any of that stuff works…

4 Responses to Interview with Andrew Bisharat

  1. So much of this rang true about the reason I got into sport climbing and why now I place gear only a handful of time a year. This is a great topic to write on and I for one cannot wait to read the book.


    Zach October 1, 2009 at 9:01 pm
  2. Pingback: News & Notes – 10/06/2009 | Climbing Narcissist

  3. Pingback: SCFTRTRTFCS, The New Word In Developing Your Climbing Prowess… | Verde PR’s Blog

  4. This guy’s articles always bore me to death.

    Peter North July 18, 2011 at 3:22 pm
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