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The Portfolio

A Climbing Trip In This Spring’s Best Outdoor-Inspired Menswear

Three modern-day “dirtbags” take on a rock face wearing the season’s latest collections

The sport of rock climbing is having a Hollywood moment thanks to last autumn’s Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, which follows Mr Alex Honnold’s rope-less ascent of climbing’s holy grail face, El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. The movie’s fans include Messrs Jared Leto and Jason Momoa, both of whom have sought out Mr Honnold and Free Solo co-director Mr Jimmy Chin for romps around a Los Angeles rock gym in recent weeks.

But the mainstream interest in the sport feels more like a culmination, coming on the tails of other legendary climbers in the news – men such as Patagonia founder Mr Yvon Chouinard, who began his company fabricating climbing equipment for himself, and saw massive success with the 2016 re-issue of his memoir Let My People Go Surfing. Mr Chouinard also wrote the preface for Mr Glen Denny’s seminal climbing archive Yosemite In The Sixties, which depicts the first waves of legions of nomad climbers (“dirtbags” as they’re affectionately dubbed), living and scaling the National Park’s now iconic pitches.

Upon seeing the photographs of fit, young climbers in cropped chinosdown parkas and beat-up boots, it’s apparent that, as in any subculture, climbing carries with it a distinct affectation, and loads of style that have made it a favourite crate for clothing designers to go digging in, especially for this spring’s collections. At least, that’s our interpretation for this shoot, in which we’ve taken the best of the season’s outdoor-inspired pieces for a spin against vertical rock faces, courtesy of a trio of Californian climbing experts: Messrs Alex McAfee, Taylor Zann and Dave Clark.

Of course, pretty pictures are one thing, but the benefits of climbing will always outweigh the cool gear, however ingeniously technical it is. Mr John Muir wrote, “climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” which is kind of the perfect testament to this quiet, brutal and elegant sport. Like surfing, climbing puts its participants directly into the arms (and occasionally claws) of Mother Nature. A vulnerable experience that Los Angeles-based climber and entrepreneur Mr Alex McAfee says leads to some undeniably spiritual experiences.

“All the old guys have stories of feeling the spirits up on the mountains,” Mr McAfee says. “[Italian climbing titan] Reinhold Messner has the story of coming down after his brother Günther perished on Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas in 1970. He said he felt a kind of angel or guardian walking with him, guiding him to safety.”

Mr McAfee’s own dirtbagging days of living in his van and crisscrossing the globe eventually led him to attend Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, where he sought out the legacy of Mr Jack Kerouac and discovered Buddhist meditation. “I ended up researching a report on the world’s most spiritual mountains,” says Mr McAfee, who now lives in Venice Beach and sells designer meditation gear. “In every world culture and religion, there are stories of people going into the mountains and having trials, returning home enlightened.”

Mr Taylor Zann, a cinematographer who originally hails from Seattle and has now settled in Southern California, says that his most sacred connection to climbing was forged through blood. “My dad was a hardcore climber back in the day,” says Mr Zann. “He had me climbing multi-pitch routes by the time I was eight or so.”

Like thousands of climbers before him, Mr Zann has experience on El Capitan, travelling there the past two summers with his summit-obsessed dad. “Being 1,000ft up on El Cap in a portaledge with your father, with nothing to do but talk and relate to each other, it makes climbing a really intimate sport,” he says. “Your life is literally in your partner’s hands. That’s trust-building. And, of course, that’s going to forge a different connection with someone than just grabbing drinks.”

“The relationship with immediate death!” Mr Dave Clark laughs, when asked why he keeps coming back to climbing. “It activates your body in a way that you can’t really replicate elsewhere.” Mr Clark describes climbing as both a meditation and a dance that requires absolute focus – which triggers what athletes describe as a “flow state” – where thought is removed and muscle memory forged through years of practice kicks in. “To be able to access that place you’ve rehearsed while under extreme conditions is worth coming back for,” he says.

Mr Zann agrees, comparing climbing to his other childhood passion, skateboarding. “Both climbing and skating put you into flow states,” he says. “You know that if you zone out, you could get hurt. So the rest of the world melts away. You’re not thinking about your break up or your job, you’re thinking, ‘Is my left foot going to hold?’ And there are some really nice emotional by-products to that.”

Anyone who has seen a world-class climber up close notices that, like cyclists or swimmers, there is a certain taut athleticism, a ballet-like elegance of movement that, Mr McAfee says, comes from the consistent contorting and strengthening of the entire body that climbing requires. “Until I got into yoga later in life, climbing was my physical practice for flexibility and strength,” Mr McAfee says. “There are a lot of moves in climbing – toe hooks, balancing manoeuvres – that require total body awareness, which is different than just raw strength, or trying to bust out as many pull-ups as you can.”

It is this balance of movement and stillness that makes climbing distinct. On a particularly difficult route, explosive strength must be tempered with monk-like delicacy in touch and breath, a harmony which is the foundation of Zen and gives climbing an almost mystical quality. Warriors descending in darkness to the base of a peak, a showdown with only two conclusions: heartbreaking retreat, or topping out jubilantly – hours, days, or weeks later – amid the clouds. It is a challenge that brings generations together again and again.

“There’s something to the idea of shared suffering, and the bond that creates.” Mr McAfee says. He laughs recalling a story of climbing in the Bugaboos of British Columbia several seasons prior. “The British Army was there looking to hire climbers to take their soldiers up onto the mountain to have a certain kind of harrowing experience.”

Psychologists have been warning of the dangers of modern society’s lack of rites of passage, yet man versus mountain offers an age-old one, available for the price of a National Parks Pass, and with physical and emotional benefits to boot. Mr Zann, as a documentary filmmaker, finds this element to the sport the stuff that great stories are built on. “It’s natural,” he says. “Two characters are trying to conquer something, being tested by massive forces greater than them and here’s how their relationship changes over the course of the ordeal. How great a plot is that?”