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The Future of Technology and Climbing – Part 1

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Late last year my wife and I bought a house in Colorado and we went through all the normal stressful steps accompanying it. At one point during the process, I received a return phone call from my real estate agent from an unusual place – he was climbing the Third Flatiron!

Now my first jealous thought was “dammit, get back to work…”, but then I started thinking about technology and climbing. I know my agent carried some smartphone so he was probably checking his email and calling from the summit before rapping off.

Personally, while I’ve had the ability to do business while climbing (by using my iPhone at the crag), I’ve always hesitated for a couple reasons.

First, there are the financial issues. These devices are not cheap and I’m not interested in breaking one by throwing it into my pack while climbing. I know his can be mitigated with a nice case, but it’s still an issue.

The second factor is simply the separation of work from play. While I know many times working on a project or training for climbing feels like work, it’s still climbing. I’ve always believed that a bad day climbing is still better than good day working.

I’ve also been thinking about how mobile phones and other technology could be used for climbing, especially as guidebooks. Flashed is selling guides to some areas for the iPod. Mountain Project has a nicely optimized site for the iPhone. There’s also a couple climbing related iPhone apps now.

Each is a great idea, but relies on the premise that you’re willing to take your device out with you climbing.

When I look at my large collection of tattered and dirty climbing guide books, I can see that I’m perfectly happy to throw them on the ground and generally handle them with little care while out climbing. I’m not sure I’m willing to do that with an expensive electronic device.

With the relatively recent demise (and subsequent potential rebirth) of Alpinist and the launch of Dead Point Magazine (completely available online), where is climbing media headed?

Climbing guidebook services like SuperTopo and Dr Topo appear to have had some success with the PDF ebook model, but how many of you actually use them? And if you do, don’t you eventually just print them out to take climbing anyway?

Print media is not going to disappear anytime soon, but what will the future look like? Will print publications grow or should we begin to embrace the emerging digital formats? I’ll explore my thoughts on this question in part 2, but what are your opinions?

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  1. For me, the benefits of having a GPS enabled interactive guide to a climbing area would far outweigh my fear of potential damage to the device. I’ve often not been able to find entire areas because a paper book doesn’t have the ability to point me in the right direction. Paper guides also have mistakes, which cannot be automatically corrected in the way they can in the real world.

    However, as you mentioned, having that device might entail keeping yourself “connected” back to the real world. That issue is a personal choice and self restraint. Just because we have a phone on us does not mean we need to answer calls or respond to emails.

    I was a realtor myself, and I would always bring my phone with me, partially because I had the mistaken notion that every call was relatively urgent (would I lose the client if not available), but also to ease the guilt of taking the day off. Perhaps it would have been better to work harder and more effectively during “work time” to reward myself with a completely unplugged “play time”.

    Just because it’s an electronic device does not mean that you can’t be unplugged. My iPod doesn’t do anything except play music, so that one is easy. I never set up email on my Treo (though I did check it during downtimes while out and about).

    This is an issue that we’re all going to have to figure out quickly. Climbing guides on your iPhone is just the tip of the iceberg. It won’t be long before you can just see route overlays by looking up at a climb, without bringing along a special device. Don’t believe me? Watch the unveiling of “Sixth Sense” at TED:

  2. Oops, that should read “Paper guides also have mistakes, which cannot be automatically corrected in the way they can in the DIGITAL world.”

    Don’t let that mistake suggest that divide between the real world and the digital one becomes blurrier every single day. 🙂

  3. I worry about the separation of work and play as well. But, what about when combining the two through technology leads to more play. My favorite part of the promise of new technology is the liberation from the cubicle. I’d rather work from the crag than work from work.

  4. To me, the biggest issue is safety. Having a cell phone with you is definitely a good idea, but it both helps and hurts safety. The benefits are obvious. Where it hurts is, first, when it’s a distraction and second, when it fails when you need it most and you have no backup. We grow dependent on our tech too much – we carry with us a GPS, a two-way radio and a cell phone – all are wonderful inventions. But then the GPS gets smashed or lost, cell phone gets rained on or simply runs out of juice and we get stranded, scared, injured or dead.

    ALWAYS take low-tech equipment with you (I wouldn’t even call it a “backup”) – paper maps and guides, a compass, a whistle and a signal mirror, etc. And know how to use it all, of course.

  5. I agree with the desire to keep my work life and adventure life separate, to some extent. The driving reason behind my move to Boulder was so I could experience one of the epicenters of climbing. If technology allows me to take time off to work to climb then I will embrace it with both arms, even if that means I have to take a small break to pound out an email or field a call from a client. My only skepticism is the impact of chalk, dirt and sweat on my precious Blackberry. As you stated before, I have a hard case but that only does so much. I guess that’s why I have insurance on my phone! Even if it does go down at least it will only be $50 to replace, a fee I would be more then happy to write off for all the days that this handy little device has allowed me to slip out of work and hit the crag. I haven’t started using it for guides, yet, but now that the idea is in my head I’ll do some investigation on the best way to implement this. Great thought provoking post, as always, it’s what keeps me coming back!

  6. I am a big fan of the climbing eBook. Since you can store PDF’s online I can access my Supertopo guidebooks from anywhere. Also in places like Red Rocks, Tuolumne Meadows and Yosemite it is really handy to be able to just print out a few pages of the book and take them with out. You can even make duplicate copies for both the leader and the follower just in case you drop one copy.

    As far as devices go I enjoy being unplugged. I like leaving my cell phone off and completely exiting the real world for a week or the weekend is pretty nice. On the flip side I have brought a Ipod bouldering so we could watch videos of various problems to help figure out the beta.

  7. Smart phones are a invaluable tool in my business, Guided Rock Climbing. you might think as a climbing guide all I do is climb……Wrong, my personal climbing time is limited just like any other person that is employed full time or even more by being self employed. my Android gives me the freedom to book trips from anywhere with a decent cell service. most summits in Joshua Tree, Lovers Leap, Devils Tower, Mammoth Lakes area, ect…. In the Rock Climbing Guide world he or she that answers the phone first gets the work! Thank you ATT&T….

    Seth Zaharias