UC Drive: Jamie Emerson
The best thing about having a blog is there’s no space limit. You have all the freedom in the virtual world to blab for, like, ever. It’s one of the few things the internet does better than print. So, why not? I recently wrote a Drive profile on Jamie Emerson for Urban Climber, and did WAY too much work (typical) knowing it would be cut. But I couldn’t help it. I had so much fun interviewing Jamie, hearing his take on climbing, ethics and life, I wanted to write something creative that showed his personality in a deeper way. Sure climbing’s important, but I’m way more interested in what makes people tick, and understanding the personality traits that shape their lives and obsessions. So…since I did all this work, I decided to post the extended interview here. Enjoy!
In a perfect world, Jamie Emerson wakes up to a cup of overly sweet Turkish coffee, discovers a brand new bouldering area – say in Switzerland – climbs fresh, hard boulder problems into the night, and rounds it all off with a good meal and a thick book.
In reality, Jamie’s life comes pretty close to perfect. On any given morning, he vacates the spare laundry room where he sleeps on 10th and Marine, grabs a cup of so-so joe, and clocks in at Movement – Boulder, Colorado’s newest climbing gym – where he sets routes professionally. After work, he usually heads to Lincoln Lake (a.k.a. Wolverine Land), a new-ish bouldering area at Mt. Evans that’s exploded with development this summer.
In 1998, Emerson began climbing at Grand Ledge, a small sandstone cliff in Grand Ledge, Michigan, where he grew up with two parents who taught at the local high school and a younger brother. While earning a Bachelor’s in Earth Science from Michigan State University, Jamie climbed at the tiny crag five days a week and memorized every move on every route. That year, Todd Skinner gave a slideshow at MSU that fully converted Emerson to climbing. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s unbelievable, I want to do THAT.’” In 2003, Jamie moved to Boulder, Colorado, began setting routes for the Spot, and within a year, was setting for national competitions.
But Jamie isn’t just a routesetter, he’s also a bookworm and can be frequently found kicking back on the couch, face deep in post-modernist literature. Recently, Jamie’s put his love of books and boulders to good use, collaborating on a new bouldering guide to Rocky Mountain National Park and Mt. Evans with Sharp End Publishing, due out soon.
When you first meet him, Jamie’s desire to talk about everything but climbing might surprise you, especially if you’ve read his blog. On the provocative B3Bouldering, Jamie loves to debate controversial issues like grades and sexism – a habit that’s earned him the nickname “The Sheriff”. But Emerson isn’t interested in telling people what to do, he just wants to argue – objectively, of course.
“I respect that Jamie stands up for things he believes in,” Dave Graham said recently during a climbing sesh at Lincoln Lake. “That’s more than a lot of people. I appreciate people who stand up for what they believe in, even if it’s not always justifiable or perfect – at least they believe in it.”
From climbing and developing new areas, to writing a guide book, updating his blog and setting international comps, Jamie reflects a whole-hearted dedication to the sport. As U.S. climbers gain international fame, Emerson is shaping the climbing world inside and out, challenging climbers to hone their bodies and their brains.
CT: What have you been up to recently?
JE: Dave Graham came to town this summer, sat me down and said, “Where can we find new boulders?” We discussed the possibilities, looked on google earth, hiked to Lincoln Lake the next day and were both like, this place is incredible. There’s tons of internet hype about Lincoln Lake. The reality is, there are a bunch of awesome alpine granite boulders we’ve been cleaning and climbing on all day. It’s an amazingly beautiful place. Often, people who lack experience developing areas, don’t see the potential. You have to do some cleaning, like anywhere. That granite’s been there for thousands of years, it’s gonna be a little dirty.
CT: What gets you psyched to climb?
JE: I haven’t found a better way to express myself, physically. And because I like to think, I climb, then think about what I’ve done. I’m passionate about climbing and think about it obsessively, but I don’t have to climb every day.
CT: What boulder problem you’ve done means the most to you?
JE: Probably Slashface. The first exposure I had to climbing, outside Michigan, was Josh Lowell’s Free Hueco. And the hardest problem in it was Chris Sharma on Slashface. At the time, it was the hardest boulder problem in the world. So to go to an area like Hueco and climb an amazing, hard, classic boulder problem was really awesome. I think I did it in five days. I put a lot of pressure on myself, it was an amazing feeling.
CT: You’ve been setting routes for national comps going on eight years now, how has route setting evolved? Where will it go in the future?
JE: Five years ago the U.S. didn’t have a bouldering World Cup and now we’ve had three in Vail. And we have competitors like Alex Puccio and Alex Johnson who compete internationally. That’s huge progress for the U.S. in the international climbing community.
As gyms get more popular, route setting will play a more important role in climbing. Gym owners need to understand they’re not selling the wall, they’re selling the routes. If you have good routes, you have a good product.
CT: Does routesetting push climbers to evolve? Are climbers getting stronger?
JE: As a routesetter, you have total control. You define climbing movement. You can force athletes to do new things. But I’m not sure it’s clear people are getting stronger. If you had a comp with the exact same finals problems as five years ago, it might be a little easier but I doubt everyone would flash the problems.
What’s it like setting for the World Cup?
JE: We try to set a really good mix of styles for World Cup. We want the best climber to come out on top, the climber that makes no mistakes. That’s the highest expression as a routesetter. You want that singular moment when Daniel flashes the problem and wins the comp, but it’s hard. Chris (Danielson) and I consistently get really close but to nail it every time – it’s a toss up. No injuries is really important, too.
CT: Ever get on a rope?
JE: Only to set routes. I would like to climb 5.14 though.
CT: Do you train?
JE: I train once a week using video analysis on the campus board and systems wall. Flannery Shay-Nemirow is kinda my coach. She uses Dartfish, a video program that overlays images so you can compare consecutive attempts at the same time. You can even watch two different people trying the same move at the same time. It’s so cool.
CT: What’s the best way to get stronger?
JE: The campus board, it’s such an amazing thing, I love it.
CT: You’re very active in the climbing blogosphere, how do blogs fit in with the climbing mags?
JE: I think climbing deserves a thoughtful look. If the sport wants to go anywhere, it needs to be criticized in a positive way. The magazines are fluff -so and so did this, said that – there’s a lot more to climbing. It’s really complex and that’s really cool.
CT: What’s your biggest beef with the climbing industry?
JE: I’m really tired of the idea that climbers are just hippies hanging out in the woods enjoying nature and that’s the end of it. It’s much more interesting than that. It’s not just a hobby. It’s what I do – climb rocks.
CT: Tell me about the guide book, what does it mean to you personally?
JE: So many people approached me about writing the guide book saying, “You’re the one, do it, it’s time”, so I felt like I should take responsibility and it’s been awesome. I thought I knew The Park really well but in detailing everything so thoroughly, I realized I didn’t. It’s going to be all color, Sharp End Publishing. I’ve gotten to know Heidi and Fred pretty well.
CT: What’s your take on grades?
JE: Grades are basically meaningless. They’re opinion-based. But because they’re so meaningless, grades are really interesting to talk about. There’s no answer, no answer at all. I think the progression of the grading system is based on the media.
CT: How would you describe yourself?
JE: I’m obsessively analytical. I think too much about everything, which is positive and negative. I try not to think that I’m ever right about anything. I’m passionate, objective and very curious.
CT: Your blog reflects that interest in arguing – it’s a platform for a lot of issues.
JE: I’m curious how other people think. I have opinions, but I try to be as objective as possible. If someone presents a better argument, I’m totally open to that. I always try to find the best argument. I’m not emotionally attached to my arguments, if anything I’m attached to arguing. I care so intensely, I try to be objective as possible.
CT: How does your online persona differ from how you act in person?
JE: My online persona is just one part of my personality. My blog is true to my feelings about climbing but in no way does it represent my whole person. I see it like literary criticism for bouldering. I put it out there so people can respond. I want people to have counter opinions, I welcome them. In the end, it doesn’t matter who’s right, we’ll all learn something. That’s what I’m interested in.
CT: You should be a lawyer.
JE: You’re about the 800th person that’s told me that. My mom’s been saying that since I was eight.
CT: What do your parents think about climbing?
JE: When I started climbing, my parents didn’t get it at all. They thought I was just blowing responsibilities away. But with my blog, they’re much more understanding. My Dad reads it every day, he even makes suggestions sometimes.
CT: What did you want to be when you were a kid?
JE: I was pretty psyched on just being a kid. I didn’t think much about being an adult.
Favorite book: Blood Meridian by Cormack McCarthy, Ulysses by James Joyce, or maybe the dictionary.