Fall Speaker Series: Francis Sanzaro





The season is upon us here at the Gunks. Crisp days followed by cool nights, and, for the climbers among us, a sea of sticky stone. While your day might be filled with plugging gear or even a Catskills run and hike, join us at Rock and Snow every Saturday night from September 27th to November 15th for our annual Fall Speaker Series. We’ve hand-selected the most entertaining, stellar speakers for the series, which is free of charge. Check in at our Events page to stay up-to-date and follow our blog every Monday for musings on the upcoming speaker.




Have you ever thought of climbing as more than just a sport? Climbing as art; climbing as movement meditation—these ideas that dip deeper into our beloved sport than just hammering though the next V-grade or past the next piece of protection.


Francis Sanzaro, a Baltimore native, does this as he contemplates bouldering within a philosophical context. A full-time writer who pens for an academic publishing company writing on a variety of topics from philosophy to health care to business, Sanzaro will present this Saturday at 8pm on his book The Boulder: A Philosophy of Bouldering published in 2013.



Introduced to climbing at the age of 12, Sanzaro came to climbing with a gymnastics background, giving him an interesting interpretation of the art of movement in bouldering. Though the content of his book and main form of climbing interest is bouldering, he has participated in all forms of climbing across the country, giving him a broad understanding of the sport.


John Gill, known by many as the father of modern bouldering, was an inspiration for Sanzaro from early on. “[Gill’s] notion of grace within difficulty,” says Sanzaro, “is central to The Boulder.” Gill, incidentally, wrote an intro to Sanzaro’s book saying:


“Finding a climber who perceives bouldering as a moving meditation, or one who values form and style far beyond difficulty, is a daunting task ... bouldering needs its own analytical literature. In this book, Francis Sanzaro takes a significant step in that direction.”


 Francis Sanzaro photo collection.


But while Sanzaro’s book waxes philosophically about bouldering and what happens when you’re body meets the rock, it also explores thoughts on the athletics and aesthetics of the sport. Borrowing ideas from sports like skateboarding and parkour, as well as other bodies of thoughts and interests like architecture, Sanzaro attempts to treat bouldering not as an act that fits neatly into a box, but as something deeper. His meditation of bouldering brings into light how thinking philosophically about the basics of bouldering can “strengthen body and soul”.



Who is Sanzaro and what motivated his book? Check out his answer below to get a deeper glimpse of Sanzaro before the show.




I've read that you were a gymnast before a climber. Can you tell me about how gymnastics helped set you up for climbing? What did gymnastics teach you about body awareness and movement that translates well to bouldering?


The first thing gymnastics taught me was that the sensation of flow and bodily cohesiveness makes all the difference. For gymnastics, it really matters since you’ll get deducted if you have wasted movement, such as a bent leg. But also, for the type of moves gymnasts do it is actually easier to do them with better form. It is just the way the skills were designed, so a bent leg is not just bad form—the trick is actually easier, and injuries are more easily avoided, with good form.


The second thing it taught me, and this is how it pertains to climbing, is when you feel flow and cohesiveness you will be able to climb better and stronger. A climber should not set out to have good form—they should send, pure and simple—but the strange thing is that bouldering actually values good form as well. Although the sport does it unintentionally. Of course, we all can get away with a sloppy send here and there, but the body is definitely most at ease, the muscles work in concert, effort is more efficient, we overgrip less, are more focused, and we make less mistakes, etc., when we can inhabit movement in a more profound way, and that takes patience to try and figure out what each boulder problem requires of us. 


 Francis Sanzaro photo collection.


What was your first bouldering experience like? How did it change your life?


My first bouldering experience took place on absolute shit rock. It was summer on the East coast, so it was muggy and there was poison ivy all around. We were kids and we had warm beers that we stole from our parents—put it all together and you have the makings of a brilliant time. For years, and I’m around 12 at the time, we climbed every rock we saw in the woods. We all pushed each other, and it was just fun. We had no idea what we were doing—we were toproping with a piece of webbing slung around a tree at the top, with one guy holding the loose end and the other end tied to our waists. It was in my nature to push myself, and so I guess I found my sport. When I was 14 I went out west and soloed the 3rd flatiron and I was a different person thereafter.



Define creativity, or movement art, on the rock. What does that mean to you? 


This is a big question. Creativity on stone is not trying to create something on the rock. Boulder problems are not created the way art objects are. I sculpt a lot, and I can point a stranger to a sculpture and they will nod in agreement that such object is indeed a sculpture. But point a stranger (non-climber) to a boulder problem and they will be like, “What’s that white shit on the rock?”


Creativity for the climber is breaking ourselves down, our barriers and assumptions. The creative process for an artist is about overcoming barriers as well, but whereas they manipulate materials, climbers are themselves manipulated by the stone. A musician plays an instrument, but in climbing we are the ones getting played. Creativity is letting that happen. To let that happen, we do not need to so much "create" on the stone as much as overcome the idiosyncrasies of movement that are keeping us from moving freely. Ideally, given enough strength, we should all be able to climb v14, I mean you don't have to be able to do 10 one-arms to climb that grade. People that excel at that higher lever are those for whom realize that humility is as important as aggression when you climb...I guess this goes for life as well. Creativity in movement is not getting stuck in a style of movement—style is stifling to a climber—knowing that this is the case, and having the resources to make adjustments.


 Francis Sanzaro photo collection.


Your book is a meditation on bouldering. Can you tell me about the spark to write this book? What was the process like? Did you learn anything about your own climbing through the writing process that you, only now stepping back, see?



I really wrote the book to get rich. And since that hasn’t happened yet, I guess I could say that I wrote it because I love climbing and writing. It was never really work to write. Pure fun, really. Of course, I thought I could make a contribution to the literature, since I was basically unable to find something like it out there in the market. The fact that I didn’t see any of the type of stuff out there that I wanted to write about was a big motivation. In the process I learned why I love to climb so much, and I was able to give put bouldering into conversation with a host of other things, which was an intellectual challenge. That was the most difficult part—get the concepts sharp enough so they at once reflect the sport but also are fluid enough to make the reader a better climber.



While the book covers bouldering, tell me about your climbing outside of bouldering.  How does the creative process translate to other disciplines?


Well, I guess I should say I’m not just a boulderer. I’ve done first ascents on big walls (one on Shiprock for instance) and I’ve been on the sharp end of a bunch of hard trad routes in Colorado and Yosemite. I speak personally here, but I would never feel good about myself as a climber if I didn't have those experiences. Though since high altitude bouldering has since made it possible to boulder all year out West, it wasn’t the case when I was in college. I bouldered in Colorado before RMNP became developed, which is also to say the seasons led you to climb trad in the summer, alpine/ice in the winter, and boulder in the spring and fall. I miss that about climbing in Colorado, but I’m lucky since I go back for a while each summer. For now, the trick with climbing “outside” bouldering is being able to be in good enough shape to boulder hard but also, within a month's time, be able to do something big in the mountains that requires a lot of leg power and endurance. To that end I'm always training. 



You mention in the post on Andrew Bisharat's Evening Sends that you thought books could change lives (it was within a question about bouldering responsibly). What's a book that changed you're life, particularly in the climbing/adventure literature?

They sure can. A book is not just lots of pages framed by cardboard. To read is to be caught up in a great story, to be moved by something over a period of time and have that material sink deep into your psyche. Great teachers are like books, and vice versa. Hard climbs are the same. Paper is just an effective an delivery device. Books that have changed my life seem to be thinkers with bold visions, Deleuze, Nietzsche, etc. “Wind, Sand Stars” by Antoine de Saint Exupery changed my life. He’s a pilot in the early 20th century when they had no air routes mapped out and they would fill their tanks and be told to “find a passage” over the Andes, for instance. And so these early pilots would just take to the sky and figure it out. Real adventure. But more than adventure I learned about how to write about your craft with an intellectual edge, and I learned that it is best to write on a topic you know really, really well. I hoped to have brought that to The Boulder.



How was Gill, or other greats that came before like Moffatt, an inspiration to you?


Gill has always been in the back of my mind, since the beginning. At first it was his one-arm lever that caught my imagination as a younger athlete. Seeing that famous photo just made me train harder. I personally blame him for my right bicep tendinitis. In that photo resided absolute composure within an act that is so difficult it’s hard to imagine. More than physicality, Gill was a original character, and a brilliant mind. I think I saw in him a great thinker—his writings are essential for any boulderer—and a great athlete. Specifically, his notion of grace within difficulty is central to The Boulder, and it is conceptually rich and practical for any climber.



Tell me about climbing in the zone. What does that mean to you? When have you achieved this perfect state of movement? 

This is another big question. I’ll try to get to the gist of it here—the zone is always there when we climb, but, like a clean windshield, it’s hard not to drive and muddy it up. It could be clean, but somehow things get in the way. What, then, is mud? Expectations, lack of attunement, too much willpower, conditions, our unconscious, aggression, distraction, lack of understanding, etc.


It’s a paradox that we have to learn so much to achieve this state all the while it is always there. When a famous Zen master was asked about the essence of Zen, the master replied, “Chop wood, carry water.” And he was being serious. It is because things are simple that we think we can do them without attention. Of course, we can do them without attention. However, the point is that within a targeted attention, within applying this attention to decoding a sequence and having your body travel through it, there is something special to be discovered. Is it religious? Nope. It's a property of the body and nothing more--it is a small gem that only reveals itself when we are ready. This feeling is beginning to accompany me more and more. 


 Francis Sanzaro photo collection.


Can you give me a glimpse at your life outside of climbing? 

I am a full-time writer for an academic publishing company, which means I write on a lot of different topics on any given week—philosophy, health care, business, etc. Writing really sustains me. Other than that I play with my kids, run, train and regret eating crappy food. Life is pretty simple really. I’m in the mountains at every chance I can get.


Can you tell me about your forthcoming book? 

The book examines how certain industries and technologies are creating destructive impulses in our physiology. It is essentially a socio-cultural analysis of the body, as was The Boulder, but an analysis not about vitality and movement, but its opposite. That opposite is that, as a people, we are becoming more intolerant, more escapist, and we consume more types of fantasy material than any civilization. I talk about porn, biotech, religion, film, sport, and a host of other cultural sectors where you can find the “death drive,” as Freud called it, gaining momentum.



Last, do you have any trips planned in the near future? Where to?

My next trip is probably to the NRG, to do some sport climbing. I also plan to do some chunks of the Appalachian trail really quickly, sort of distance running coupled with sleep deprivation. Aside from boulder problems, it’s hard to find big challenges in Maryland, which means you have to create them.