FrictionLabs had the opportunity to ask Jon about his life: why he climbs, how he came back from his injury, how he views the climbing community, and how his "disadvantage" is not really a disadvantage to him at all.
So read on and enjoy – and the next time you split a tip and want to complain about it, be quiet and appreciate the fact that you have a tip to split!
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?
I first learned about climbing as a sophomore in high school. One of my friends, who knew I rode BMX, suggested I join him one night at a local rock gym. I had no idea that he climbed and had been basically climbing since birth. Within a week, I learned that my high school started a climbing club using a small bouldering area that was built in an unused storage closet in the athletics building. I was already interested so I went to the first club meeting where the teacher let us watch a climbing video (the movies were Inertia Vol. 1 and 2 - still one of my alltime favorite climbing movies), and I knew I had to try climbing. I rode BMX, so I already enjoyed pushing myself, and the Inertia movies reminded me of BMX videos I watched. I guess the rest is history because climbing has been a part of life in some way ever since.
Right now, with a crazy work schedule, I climb 2-3 days a week, but train on days I cannot go to the gym or outside at my apartment. When I have more time I like to climb up to 4 days a week, either at the gym or outside. I’m mainly a boulderer, however, my goal this season is to relearn how to lead sport since losing my hand.
What’s your pre-climb ritual?
I’m not sure if it’s a ritual, but I usually fill my water bottle, put sports wrap on a scar that runs down my stump/arm, then add climbing tape on top of the wrap. Even if I use my prosthetic that day, I always warm up without it. Recently, I’ve also started doing a bit of stretching before warming up, or during my warm up - mainly exercises for my hamstrings, groin, and back.
Why do you climb? Keeping it simple is fine, but don't be shy about taking this answer as far down the rabbit hole as you want to go. We'd love to hear it.
This is a hard one, and I’m not sure I can completely answer it. I climb for many reasons, but I think I mainly climb now because of the community and the people I spend my time with from climbing. I felt really lost after my accident. I could not ride my bike like I used to, I never thought I’d climb again, and art was my only outlet. I love doing art, however, a big way I defined myself growing up was by the other activities I pursued and loved. In a millisecond, around midnight on a warm, balmy May night, I thought it was all taken away from me. That I had lost everything I had once belonged to and where I found my closest friends. Starting to climb again gave me a sense of community and belonging that I did not find in other aspects of my life. It gives me a healthy outlet and keeps me grounded regarding success and failure. A huge part is falling, and having the patience to get stronger and to work towards my goals. I’m already a stubborn and hard-headed person, and in a way this is a good thing because I won’t give up. Climbing, surfing, and art all reinforce those tendencies, which is what keeps me going after a life changing moment. Some days I get furious with where I’m at climbing-wise and where I want to be, but it’s those days I’m outside with friends, laughing, climbing, and finding peace is what keeps me coming back. Climbing and other outdoor pursuits are healing for me. I find peace and all the other bullshit that comes with life isn’t in my head. I introduce others to climbing who maybe are “adaptive” in some way or are looking for peace, because I know it can help them. I climb because I have to, and because climbers are by far the most supportive, genuine, and positive group of people I have ever met.
What prompted you to climb after your injury? What do you hope to achieve?
It took me about 4 years to start climbing again after my accident. During those years I still consistently read climbing magazines and looked at climbing websites, however, I never thought I could climb without my hand. This all changed when I started talking with Ronnie Dickson and Reid Olmstead. After moving to NYC for graduate school, Reid kept asking me to join him at Brooklyn Boulders for a weekly clinic with the Adaptive Climbing Group. I’ll admit that it took months of Reid asking, me agreeing, and then me never showing up. I was worried about what people would think, and that I would disappoint myself. I used to be a decent climber, and all I kept thinking was, “I’m never going to be as good, or as strong again.” I also was not in shape, and had been a smoker for over a decade. I’m not sure why, but one day in October of 2012 I agreed to show up to an adaptive session and I showed up. After a few weeks, and with the encouragement of Reid and other adaptive climbers, I began to climb regularly again. After a few months I even quit smoking so I wouldn’t be hurting my ability to breath during my training. Going on 4 years now, it was the best damn decision I ever made after my accident. Climbing and surfing changed my life for the better rather than sinking deeper into a high cholesterol and chain-smoking lifestyle.
What I hope to achieve through climbing is to change perceptions of what’s possible for an adaptive athlete. I do not consider myself any different from any other climber. I may take longer to figure out a sequence that will work for me and to complete a project, but every climber has different strengths and weaknesses. To be honest, I don’t really like the term “adaptive.” I don’t find it insulting, but to me it creates a divide, at times, between us (the adaptive climbing community) and them (able bodied climbers). This is not a literal divide, in terms of acceptance or thought, what I mean is that when I’m out climbing with friends I’m defining myself as a “climber," just like any other person at the crag that day. Besides, anyone who climbs is adapting, in a sense, to send their route. I might have a bit extra to consider, but you better believe, in time, I will climb that boulder. The other main long-term goal I hope to achieve, is to be one of the first arm amputees to boulder V10 and harder. I most likely will be using a prosthetic, and it’s definitely a long term goal, but it’s more of a challenge to see how far I can push myself. The grade isn’t the end all be all, it’s really a challenge to never think that I can’t continue to improve my ability on the rock!
What’s your favorite thing about rock climbing culture?
My favorite thing about rock climbing culture is easily the community. I’ve met some incredible people from all walks of life. It fascinates me that climbers tend to be on either side of the math/creative spectrum. This obviously doesn’t apply to all climbers, however a lot of the people I climb with regularly are either artists (like me), writers, or musicians - or, they are engineers, doctors, or programmers. Both sides see things differently, at times, when discussing a route, however, we all like the problem solving aspect of climbing. I cannot speak for the mathematical side, but I see a lot of overlaps in how I think of climbing when I’m creating a design for a client. To me, both are puzzles that will eventually come together and all the pieces will flow into one.
How do people normally react when they see you climb? Is there a common misconception you’d like to address?
This is a bit difficult to answer, since I don’t really look to see if people are reacting. I’m just climbing, not thinking of myself as any different. I think the biggest question I get is, “how do you climb?” And I have no answer ha! There is no formula that magically keeps me on the rock, or I use a suction cup on my stump like a gecko (this might not be a bad idea though…), it’s really about knowing my body. My coach, Kris Hampton, astutely pointed out in one of our sessions together that I have to think of both arms as independent tools. If I’m not using a prosthetic, my stump is best for compression (especially on slopers), pushing so I can reach higher, and as a balance point. Wearing a prosthetic, my left arm is used for locking off, balance, and keeping my body into the wall. This all allows my hand to find ways to reach the next hold.
I haven’t really encountered any misconceptions, besides a few people wondering if I could ever be “strong” again. I think some of the best questions I get are from kids. It’s not a misconception, but kids have amazing imaginations and uninhibited creativity. They ask where my hand went and I always respond with, “I had an accident and lost it.” The next logical question is if I’ve ever found it. Sometimes the kids proceed to go looking for my hand to help me out. One of my friend's sons came to the conclusion that a werewolf took it and probably ate it as a snack. I could not stop laughing. My main worry is what I should do if one day a kid actually finds a hand.
What do you think is your personal biggest weakness in climbing? How do you address it?
I’d say there are a few things I need to work on. First off, trusting that my stump or prosthetic will hold so I don’t lose focus on what the rest of my body is doing. And second – because of only focusing on my left arm – I tend to not engage all the muscle groups that could have made a particular move so much easier. For example, I unintentionally use mostly the power in my shoulders to complete a move, where if I had engaged my core and/or legs, I would not have wasted so much energy. As far as addressing my weaknesses, I think over time my mental game will improve with trusting my stump or prosthetic. I’ve been doing a short meditation every morning to train my brain to not give thoughts too much power and to get mental space from those thoughts. As far as making more conscious neurological and muscle connections in my climbing, I’ve recently been using parallettes and a few gymnastic exercises to learn how to engage my whole body. My friend Dom, who started climbing after years of powerlifting and playing rugby, recommended this type of workout. I’m just starting out, but I honestly think it can help!
What's your favorite climbing gym?
I’m pretty psyched on the newest gym in Northeast, Ohio. The gym is called Rock Mill and located in Akron, OH.
What's your favorite place to climb outside?
I love Devil’s Lake up in Wisconsin. The rock is a slick quartzite and so frustrating, but I learn so damn much about climbing every time I am there. The Wisconsin climbing community, in general, is also so welcoming and constantly stoked to climb! I can’t be pissed even on a “bad” day of climbing because the locals are so great to be around. That energy just makes me excited regardless if I send or not!
If you could give a single tip to a new climber, what would it be?
To enjoy the process and journey in your development as a rock climber. This is something I struggle with too. We live in such an immediate gratification society now that it’s easy at times to get frustrated by not becoming “good” or “strong” quickly. I get bummed when a certain route takes me months or even seasons to send. However, I’ve become better at reshaping my thinking regarding my improvement in climbing. We are climbers for life, or as long as we want to be; enjoy climbing and a smart training regimen instead of solely focusing on your goals. Do not forget or give up on your goals, but enjoy the journey reaching them – the result will be more satisfying.
Tell us about a time you were in a funk and felt like your climbing skill wasn’t improving. How’d you get out of it?
My answer above touched on this, and I get into funks and plateaus a lot. As I’m learning how my body works now, and having only been right handed for 8 years, I still have a lot to learn. I spent 18 years and 360 days as a two handed and left handed person. As I said a bit above, the mental side plays a much bigger role, for me, than the physical. When those negative thoughts or feelings start to bubble up it’s hard not to believe them.
I use short guided meditations (10 to 15 minutes) every morning when I wake up to help gain perspective on my stresses and negative thoughts. It helps a lot. At other times, I climb more for fun, versus pressuring myself to constantly train to reach my goals. First and foremost, I climb because I have fun, and it’s important to remind myself of that sometimes. I cross train a bit with running, surfing, and SUP (Stand Up Paddle). In those activities, I’m still working muscle groups that I use when climbing, but in a different environment. Lastly, I go through more creative spurts regarding my painting and design and my climbing and surfing fuels my art, which gets me psyched again if I feel pissed during a plateau period. I try to keep everything in perspective and even cross train regularly, that way I do not mentally burn out or reinforce negative thinking.
What was your "aha moment" with FrictionLabs?
The “aha moment” with FrictionLabs happened one summer on a trip to Devil’s Lake when it was ungodly humid and hot. The 90 degree heat and around 100% humidity (I felt like I was in a giant pool) made the already slick quartzite almost impossible to hold onto. The rock was just slimy. I had a chalk bucket with FrictionLabs chalk and then put a regular chalk bag around my waist to chalk up during the climb. I didn’t realize until I was on the rock that my chalk bag did not have FrictionLabs chalk, but another brand. In that humid hellish bouldering session, I literally learned that FrictionLabs’ chalk allowed 2-3 moves before all the chalk got wiped off my fingers and stump. The other brand came off immediately after one move. This forced me to chalk up after every single move, which proved difficult with only one good hand ha. I’m not a scientist that can explain how or why, but that was the moment I learned there is a difference on how long it stays on a person’s hand.
Anything else you want to share that you think readers might be interested in?
I recently started a climbing and surfing creative company called The Pebble Wrestler Collective. Over time we will release limited run clothing; the first batch should be out at the end of this month. In the future we'll be creating full length climbing and surf movies. Annual donations will be made to our nonprofit partner, Climbing Borders – in the future, adaptive athlete and outdoor stewardship/conservation non-profits will be added as well. The goal of the company is to bring together climbers and surfers who are also artists, but it’s largely about celebrating the outdoors community. At the same time we want to give back to our communities and to use our love of the mountains and water as a way to help others.
Where can readers learn more about you?
Either on my climbing website ampedclimbing.com (although I’m terrible at consistently writing blog posts), on my Facebook page, on Instagram @pebblewrestlercollective, or on the Pebble Wrestler Collective’s website (http://www.pebblewrestlercollective.com/).