Bob, Red Rock Canyon
“The rock quality didn’t look great… and as soon as I stood up, the block I was standing on slid out from underneath me, and all this rock started falling out of the wall.”
Whenever UPenn has its spring break, you’ll probably find their physics professor, Bob, deep in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area getting on higher and harder rock climbing routes each year. With cheap flights and accommodations in Vegas and its proximity to world-class climbing, he says it’s hard to not come back every spring. This March he came for 10 days, and a group of five Philly climbers, including myself, gathered for the trip.
On our third day together, Bob and I set off for the classic route Epinephrine. At 1600 vertical feet, it’s the kind of route where you get started before dawn if you want to reach the summit before dusk. As we scrambled over boulders in the canyon wash to the base of the route, my stomach dropped as I got a sense of how this wall-of-rock towered over everything I’d climbed before. About five Clif bars and 13 rope lengths later, we just about collapsed at the summit. The sun had already passed the horizon of the desert mountains and the lights of Vegas started to shimmer in the distance.
The crux of the route is getting through a few hundred feet of ‘chimney climbing’. To get up these smooth-walled cavities about the width of a chimney, you have to constantly push against both walls with a combination of your back, knees, feet, and hands. It’s a simple physics problem between opposing forces and static friction versus gravity. One night after a long day of climbing, Bob told me about the physics involved in climbing, how understanding the physics behind it can make you a safer climber, and what he loves about the outdoors.
When did you start rock climbing?
I started climbing six years ago in Philadelphia—I was into it right away. One of the reasons that kept bringing me back was you could see progress week to week; what was literally impossible last week, now you can do. It’s pretty empowering. I ended up meeting a lot of people because I didn’t have one particular climbing partner that I climbed with. I always wanted to go up to the Gunks, so I had to be open to meeting new people and asking if they were interested in climbing.
I first saw you when you were instructing the Philly AAC (American Alpine Club) ‘Physics of Climbing’ event, how did you get involved with that?
I started to get involved with the AAC because of Kate. [Kate is another Philly climber that joined us on this trip]. She was one of the first people that I met climbing, a bunch of us at the same level climbed at a Meetup. She became more involved in the AAC, and we were discussing [the physics of climbing idea that I had] and we made it happen.
Afterwards, I was talking to Sean about all the new things that were going on with the AAC and he told me about the education clinic program that they were trying to get off, and I was like ‘Oh I’m super psyched to get involved in that’. [Sean is one of the two guys that started the Philly Chapter of the AAC.] I’ve been searching for an outlet to teach and mentor other climbers.
You mentioned maybe even writing a book on the physics of climbing?
I think that would be fun, I gotta find time to do it. I’m still developing the material, and I’d like to bounce more of these ideas off someone and see what people are interested in learning about. There’s just so many great physics examples in climbing. And I think having some understanding of physics enriches your climbing. I think that’s true of anything—the more you know about something, [it enriches the experience].
There’s this idea that the more you learn about the universe and the more science teaches you, it removes wonder, right? And all these things that you don’t understand, that you appreciate because they’re just so eye catching and magical, it somehow dissolves away when you look at it through the lens of science. But if you’re a scientist, you’d argue the opposite—that knowing more about it enriches it that much more because you can appreciate it on many different levels. And so I think the physics of climbing would do that with climbing.
When you’re building a climbing anchor—that’s just such a perfect example of force vectors. It’s like a complete Newton’s laws demonstration. You got equalization, load sharing, and directions of pull. I think knowing that helps you make safer climbing anchors.
Aside from climbing, what else do you like to do outside?
I really like to be active and I really like to be outdoors. Like every day I try to do some activity, whether it’s climbing or running or yoga or biking. But climbing is my number one passion.
Is there something that inspires you to be active and outside?
I just value a healthy, active lifestyle. That became more prominent maybe seven or eight years ago, and around when I had been pretty busy at work. At one point for an entire semester teaching, I just stopped exercising and I was eating crap. So I ended up gaining a lot of weight. At the end of the semester I’m like, ‘I want to lose this weight’, so I changed my diet to a plant based diet and started being active again. I feel better when I’m doing those things.
Your teaching schedule seems to allow you to take a lot of climbing trips. It sounds like you prefer to visit familiar areas rather than trying out new spots, is that true?
I think it ties back into that appreciation for progress and learning. For me, it takes me a while to feel comfortable at a new place. For example, the first trip I ever took here, I fell in love with it immediately. It really overwhelmed me but I could see the things that challenged me and the things that I needed to do to become a better climber, so that I can experience more of what Red Rock had to offer.
There’s a bunch of places like that where I want to come back every year. Each year I come back I’m a little bit better, a little bit more experienced in that area. You’re able to be more efficient when you come back and that allows you to do even more, because you know what you’re doing. There’s just a part of my personality that I prefer going deep and learning something very intensely, as opposed to scratching the surface on a lot of different things.
Have you had any close calls with serious injury while outside?
My first two months of leading trad, I was climbing at Old Rag in Shenandoah National Forest with my friend, sort of mentor at the time, Jay. The hike is really popular, so during the day there’s like 100 hikers up there eating lunch. We were the only people climbing there that day. I was really lucky that I didn’t die honestly.
We were doing the last climb of the day, the sun was still out but [there was] maybe an hour of daylight left. Jay led the first pitch, and I was leading the second pitch. The rock quality didn’t look great, so I was knocking on holds and the one I knocked on sounded fine, so I took a step up to test the holds above it. And as soon as I stood up, the block I was standing on slid out from underneath me, and all this rock started falling out of the wall. We estimated it was probably like a thousand pounds of rock that fell.
Fortunately it missed Jay. I somehow unconsciously like snowboarded the thing I was standing on down to a ledge; at some point I just found myself standing on a ledge. And so I was fine. We were really lucky, because it was late—there was no one on the summit. There’s no cell phone reception, it’s a pretty long hike out. If he had to get out of there with just a broken ankle it would have been horrible, so that was super scary.
Last question, what do you love about the outdoors?
I think there’s this primal aspect of being outdoors, especially with climbing because it’s very primal to touch the rock. I noticed even if I’m hiking in a canyon or something, I want to touch the rock. It’s just something primal where I feel this connection to the outdoors; it feels like it’s more of a natural state in some aspects. There’s all these man made things in the world and society’s goal is to make things more convenient and faster and more accessible. And that’s not necessarily allowing humans to live in their natural state or live to reach their own potential.
Nature is there and you’re connected to it but it’s also somewhat disinterested in you. It doesn’t care if you exist or not; like gravity doesn’t take a day off. I like that aspect of nature where you fend for yourself, you come in with only the skills that you bring to the table—no one’s providing this for you. You’re not paying anyone to take you on this hike or get you up this rock face, you’re doing it yourself.
This interview has been trimmed and edited to fit this format. If you would like to access the unedited interview audio and unposted photography, see my Patreon page.