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Jamie Emerson: the Man, the Myth, the Sheriff

There are few climbers out there as passionate as Jamie Emerson. After leaving his humble roots in Michigan to test his ambitions on Colorado’s Front Range...

Jamie Emerson

...Jamie found himself at the beginning of a long chapter of Colorado bouldering development. His earliest introduction to the community was “acting” in the Bennett Scott film, A Colorado Daydream. Shot in the early 2000s, the story follows the young/mohawked Jamie as he dreams about finding and ultimately climbing five-star Colorado classics.

Soon after filming, Jamie started documenting his personal exploits via his now infamous B3bouldering.com. With a series of databases, top ten lists, videos, photos, and serious grade debates, B3 was one of the few go-to blogs for any core boulderer at the time. B3 debates and public rating call-outs ultimately led to Jamie becoming known as “The Sheriff.” 

In 2011, he released the first-ever complete bouldering guidebook to Rocky Mountain National Park and Mt. Evans.This guidebook is a testament to his dedication to the bouldering community. With an obsessive focus on history, details, and grade consistency, Jamie’s guide is considered the best resource for alpine bouldering in Colorado.

Fast forward to today and Jamie continues his ambitious search for new boulders and quality rock. If you see him at the gym or crag, make sure to say hi and ask him where is newest project is… he might even share. ;-)

Tell us about yourself: How did you get into climbing? How many days a week do you climb? What type of climbing do you do?

When I was 12 years old, I went on a fishing trip with my father and my brother to Ontario, Canada. It was the typical Northwoods setting: scattered rocks and cliff bands. Dotted with lakes. Loons cruised the water and wolves prowled in the forest. Inevitably I started scrambling on the rocks. One face caught my interest and I starting trying to climb it. It was slippery and a little tall. I wasn’t even aware at that time that other people went climbing and that bouldering was a pursuit in and of itself. I tried the line for several days and on the last day I finally got up it—my first boulder problem. That was 26 years ago. In some sense I feel like I was born to put up new boulders.

I probably climb 3-4 days a week, and bouldering is pretty much the only kind of climbing I do. 

People often reference a link between math and climbing, but it’s seldom explained. As both an applied math major and a climber, how would you describe the connection?

There is something unique about a mathematical mind and its connection to bouldering. Bouldering and math are both kind of stripped down forms of problem solving. Boulder climbs are called “problems,” I think, because of their puzzling and sometimes devious nature. They may take many attempts to solve and there are often many ways to solve them. The same could be said of math. Solutions to both can come through intense and rigorous thought, and when they do finally become realized, it can feel effortless. In math, the great equalizer is logic; in climbing, it is gravity. I am attracted to difficult puzzles, and climbing and math both satisfy that interest. John Gill, the founding father of our sport, was a professional mathematician.

Jamie Emerson

What's the most interesting trip you've been on recently?

Recently I went to Minnesota. Most people think that’s a little odd, and that’s fine. I’m interested in new landscapes, seeing different things and stepping away from the crowds. The scene up there was warm and welcoming. It was a lot of fun. I love climbing with quiet, thoughtful, interesting, and intelligent people. Colors, shapes, sights and sounds of the natural world provide me with much inspiration. Minnesota is a place I had been before, but only briefly. I explored the shoreline of Lake Superior with a friend while a thunderstorm rolled out over the water. The wind whipped across the lake and the rain pelted our faces. It was incredibly beautiful and we found some really cool boulders. This is the kind of experience I seek.

You’ve been passionately developing new boulder problems for quite a few years now. What got you into climbing development? Why do you love it?

To me, climbing is about adventure and exploration. It’s about searching the unknown. It’s about a creative and unique vision and going out into the wild and amazing world to seek that vision. I’ve been a developer from day one, but it’s certainly become more of an interest as I get older. It doesn’t get me very excited to just do what everyone else is doing. If anything, I’ve learned that the best areas are still to be found, you just have to be willing to work for it. When I moved to Colorado, I thought that all the best areas had already been discovered. That was before anyone had ever bouldered at Mt. Evans, Newlin Creek, Lincoln Lake, Texas Creek, Wild Basin, Endovalley, Arapahoe Pass, etc. Those that know me well know that I have a burning drive to see all there is to see. I love my life, I love the opportunities it has afforded me, and I love the outdoors. And I am so thankful to have such wonderful people in my life to share it with!

How do you balance trying to find the next classic problem versus something few people will ever climb? Are you motivated to find something the greater community might enjoy or is your personal relationship with the boulder more important?

What motivates me the most is a personal vision I’ve developed over the years. Many of the best first ascents I’ve climbed are in quiet areas few people will ever visit. It’s nice when people acknowledge that you’ve found and climbed a problem they’ve enjoyed, but to really be on the edge of what’s new, I find myself in areas people may never go, or it may be years before the masses start showing up. I’ve always seen my climbing as an artistic expression, and the focus has been on the art itself, and not really who will consume the art when I’m finished with it. I’ve walked past hundreds of climbable boulders and several areas that later become popular because they didn’t fit the vision I have.

Jamie Emerson

Do you have a fun development story to share with readers?

I’ve spent some really great days with Justin Jaeger. He’s insane but in the best way possible. We had scoped a new boulder in a wild canyon in Wyoming. Jaeger decided that the best way to clean the boulder would be to rappel down the rope he had set up, but without a harness. As you may wonder how one might go about this, I myself wondered the same. Before I came to a conclusion, the rope, which had caught itself on a rock, came loose. Jaeger, perched at the edge of the boulder, slipped—and because his only form of protection was himself holding onto the rope, he went flying off the edge, lost control of the rope and crash landed on his side in a pile of rotten logs. Somehow he avoided several jagged rocks to his right and to his left. Thankfully, he was okay. I think he went on to finish the boulder.

You used to operate B3bouldering.com, one of the original climbing blogs. Can you explain why you started the site, what it was like to run it, and why you let it go?

I started it because I wanted to share my climbing experience and bring about a legitimate forum to discuss ethics and controversial issues in climbing. Pretty much everyone who posts on social media only writes about themselves and how amazing they are. I wanted B3 to be about everyone and how we all approach bouldering as a noble pursuit. I worked hard to keep the conversation positive, thoughtful, challenging, and intelligent. I wouldn’t say that I’ve let it go, but I would maintain what I’ve often said, that if I want to update B3 I will, and if I don’t, I won’t. Mostly school has taken over and I just don’t have time. But I am currently writing several posts which I think will be of interest to former readers.

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What's your favorite thing about climbing culture? Least favorite?

My favorite thing about climbing culture is the shared adventure I’ve had with a few close friends—people who I’ve been friends with more than 10 years. Really stand up individuals who have been there through thick and thin.

My least favorite thing about climbing culture is the privilege. Many “pro” climbers I know come from money. I don’t have a problem with that at all. But it’s awful having to read about them complain about how hard it is when they “just don’t feel motivated to travel to exotic places and climb rocks.” Or that their flight was late. Or how terrible it is that they flew all the way to Australia and it rained three days in a row. God forbid they get their free North Face jacket wet.

On my trip to OZ I woke up at sunrise and hiked my butt off in the pouring rain. Every day I woke up with a big smile on my face and deep excitement in my heart because this little kid from Temperance, Michigan made it to Australia, land of hopping creatures and never-ending projects. And for that I am ever thankful. If you are fortunate enough to call yourself a “pro climber,” stop whining. There are people out there that have real struggles in the world. Like not being able to eat. Or get out of bed because they are sick. Be thankful for what you have and show some humility. Tommy Caldwell is an amazing counterexample and one of my climbing heroes because of it.

What direction do you see climbing going in upcoming years? What about bouldering development specifically?

Climbing is definitely being molded by the gyms and we are already seeing the influence of Parkour and American Ninja Warrior. It will only become more specialized. We still haven’t seen an ANW course with V10 boulders on it. Or real deepwater soloing combined with those crazy obstacles. But I think we will! Eventually, we’ll see jetpack obstacle courses. But maybe not for a few years.

The radical new shapes coming out from hold companies are also changing the way people climb. We’ll see new outdoor problems get put up to reflect this, and new areas will come into vogue (maybe Castle Hill in New Zealand where people can do more geometric style problems). A sad trend I’ve seen lately is people going back to areas already picked over, climbing dumpy problems, and claiming that their new boulders are amazing. It’s like Hollywood when it demakes movies like the new Ghostbusters. If you’re willing to work and drive, better things are out there.

I do believe that even given all this technology, people will still go bouldering outside, because they aren’t interested in the next cool thing—they simply love the sport of bouldering.

In terms of bouldering development, Asia is a massive black hole in terms of a world-class bouldering area. But the Himalaya are an enormous range. That’s a no-brainer. Better satellite imaging has already lead to more and more boulders being found. I really believe that in my lifetime we’ll see personal flying devices. This is why I haven’t had any regard for approaches when searching. Some day it won’t matter and we’ll be able to get into anywhere. FYI, I have spent thousands of hours on Google Earth. I have over 1,600 places currently pinned in Colorado alone. By the end of the year I will have mapped the entire state, and I have maps for all 50 states. So I would imagine a few of those will turn into something exciting!

Jamie Emerson

Given that so many of the best problems are steep, how do you identify them without being able to see the overhanging faces on Google Earth? Do you have any tips or best practices?

Ultimately you just have to get outside and start walking. The aerial photo technology has improved so dramatically in the last 18 years that I never end up going anywhere that doesn’t have rock. I really love hiking; it’s a second passion of mine and I’m willing to get into places most people are totally uninterested in visiting. Approaches to new areas for me often include deep river crossings, huge hikes that involve nasty bushwhacks of deadfall or thick brush, sometimes in prime grizzly bear habitat.

Google offers some wonderful tools. One allows you to get an elevation profile of the hike, so you have some idea if the approach is going to be like Area A at Mt. Evans or Lincoln Lake before you even step out of the car. Another great feature is the measuring tool. You can measure the size of the boulders. Usually, I look for at least one 40 footer. You can’t always tell if the rock is steep, but occasionally you can see shadows underneath the largest ones. That’s always a great sign.

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What's your favorite place to climb outside?

My favorite place to climb outside is anywhere there are large new boulders that haven’t been climbed on yet. I seem to prefer the mountains, but there are so many incredible settings it’s impossible to choose just one. When I first moved to Colorado I had the really narrow-minded view that the world ended at Chaos Canyon. But after spending a lot of time in Wyoming, other parts of Colorado, Utah, Montana, and Alaska, there are an unlimited amount of stunningly beautiful places with incredible problems. You just have to want a little adventure!

What do you think is your personal biggest weakness in climbing? How do you address it?

My biggest personal weakness in climbing is that I hike too much. I would climb a grade harder if I weren’t always looking for the next best thing. But I’m willing to give that up because it’s out there, and I have seen it! So to me it seems worth it. Some people think that I get scared on tall problems, and I do sometimes, but I also usually end up doing them. It’s important to have a realistic assessment of the risks involved. A shattered ankle or broken back is a serious thing for me, so I take a while to make sure the risks are properly managed if I try a tall problem. Avoiding injury is one key factor that has kept me climbing consistently for years.

Jamie Emerson

What was your "aha moment" with FrictionLabs?

Literally the first time I put it on my hands. I couldn’t believe how well it worked! And the more I used it the more I realized it was working so well because I was using less and less. It really is an incredible product. I feel naked without it. It is the best chalk ever made.

Keep up with Jamie's adventures on his website, B3bouldering.comInstagram, and Facebook

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