Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Scott Frye: Behind the Paddle

I thought this was a pretty funny interview that I did with Scott Frye for the Touchstone Gym blog.

Eying his opponent from across the nine foot long table, Scott crouched and spun his paddle. The small white ball volleyed towards him. Scott blasted sideways. His paddle smashed the ball. The hit gave the ball topspin and accelerated it towards his opponent in a finalizing blow.

Frye's Coach Xin, 9 year old national champion and Frye's sparring partner Kevin Lee, and Scott Frye

Scott Frye is no ordinary ping pong player. The 53 year old Berkeley native and Touchstone Climbing Gym stock boy is also a father in the era of modern sport climbing. With the same obsession that he now plays ping pong with, he once climbed with.

In 1973, a fifteen year old Frye headed to Yosemite with Nat Smale. The pair had a carpenter’s hammer, a handful of pins, serious desire, and a lack of know-how. Using Steve Roper’s Green Guide to Yosemite they made an ascent of Church Bowl’s Aunt Fanny’s Pantry (5.6) and then attempted Black is Brown, a 5.9 and one of the hardest routes in Yosemite at the time. By trading off their one pair of climbing shoes, Frye made it to a ledge halfway up the two pitch route. Nat followed and arriving at the anchor turned white as a ghost. “Don’t move!” Nat said. He then pulled out every pin that Frye had placed with his hands. Smale quickly rebuilt the anchor. On the drive home from their near death experience, they ran off the Priest Grade road. “We went from one near death experience to another,” Frye said of the trip. Frye went back to Yosemite though and began climbing more. In 1976 with 1” tubular webbing tied around his waist, the hard old school EB shoes, and a few hexentrics, Scott lead the hands and fingers splitter Lunatic Fringe (5.10c). The climb was the hardest lead of his life. “I wouldn’t give that up for anything,” Frye said of his traditional beginnings.

At the same time that he was learning to climb the difficult cracks of Yosemite, Frye was also bouldering at Berkeley’s Indian Rock. Looking to establish something different than the sandbagged problems of Indian Rock, Frye, along with John Sherman, Harrison Dekker, and Nat Smale, ventured to the steeper stone of Mortar Rock. The overhanging rhyolite hadn’t been touched and the posse of boulderers found a series of small crimps that traversed the wall in an obvious but imposing line. “No one thought it was possible, “said Frye. They tried it anyway. Smale, the strongest of the group fought through the difficulties and established Nat’s Traverse (V8). The second ascent eluded the other climbers for a year, until Frye finally got strong enough. “All of us trained to keep up with Nat. “Frye said. Though he did a significant amount of bouldering in the bay area including the 1978 first ascent of Mortar Rock’s Jungle Fever (V8), Frye’s love for trad climbing kept him heading to Yosemite.

The Valley ethic ran strong through Frye but the bouldering at Mortar Rock pushed him towards climbing on sandstone, basalt, and limestone. “The transition from trad climbing to sport was huge, huge, huge.” Frye said. The genesis for bay area sport climbing began at Mickey’s beach, where the technical nature of the rock left the climbers wondering what to do. “Weighting the rope, even top roping was considered cheating. I didn’t want to hangdog and I brow beat people who did,” said Frye. Harrison Dekker, a bay area hard man, helped Frye break through the psychological crux of the movement. While the pair worked on Dreams of White Porsches at Mickey’s Beach, Decker noted that to send the climb they would need to break it down into little boulder problems and hang on the rope in between. The pair discovered that what the French climbers were saying at the time was true, “You could climb harder, longer sequences if you worked it out.” With these tactics, Frye traveled across the US and established new difficult sport climbs.

Scott Frye during his heyday as the Indian Rock Lowball Master photo courtesy of Harrison Dekker

Many of the hardest rock climbs of the day were put up by Frye including Rifle Colorado’s Living in Fear (5.13d/5.14a), Donner Summit’s Steep Climb Named Desire (5.13d), the Virgin River Gorge’s Dude (5.13c), and the Marin Coast’s Surf Safari (5.14a). His traditional ethics never left him while he sport climbed and he remains an advocate of minimal impact. One of the things he laments is all the fixed draws at places like Donner Summit’s Star Wall, where Steep Climb resides. Talking about his first ascent ethics he noted that back in the day, “If a route was 60 % bolts we’d just make it 100%.” Unfortunately one of the natural digressions in climbing is a conversion from bolts to fixed chains. At the Star Wall, the six foot long metal chains can be seen from the nearby Pacific Crest Trail. “As a non climber walking up and seeing that I would be offended,” Frye said. “If I had known it would go that way, I would have put less bolts and more gear in.”

At 44, Frye finally returned to the home of his traditional beginning but this time he went to Yosemite to boulder. Though he had been around for the first ascent of Thriller, he had always stayed away from the smalls rocks. “When people started to just boulder in Yosemite I thought they were crazy. It was a strange concept- to drive all that way just to boulder,” said Frye. Ironworks hardmen, Paul Barraza and Tim Medina finally convinced Frye to explore the smaller stones. From the next 7 years, until Frye was 51, he bouldered constantly and rediscovered his love for climbing. Frye made an ascent of Thriller (V10) and the next year sent Midnight Lightning (V8) at the ages of 44 and 45 respectively. “I guess I just waited for the pad technology,” he said.

Frye climbing at Grizzly Peak in Berkeley

Frye has supported his endeavors through work in the climbing industry. He briefly experienced the “luxurious life” of a sponsored athlete but he found stability in the climbing gym industry. He has worked for Touchstone for over a decade as the retail assistant/shipping and receiving clerk. Frye works the morning shifts at the Touchstone retail warehouse at the Ironworks gym. “Working with Patti (Phillips the retail manager) and the Melvins (the Touchstone Founders) is a great job,” Frye said. Frye, who has worked with Touchstone for 10 years, credited the Melvins with helping a number of climbers and the climbing community on a grand scale. “There are not enough good things you can say about the Melvins,” Frye said. The Touchstone stock boy ships guidebooks, harnesses, a lot of chalk, and a ton of climbing shoes to the five different Touchstone gyms. Occasionally, Frye escapes the retail warehouse at Ironworks to mentor the older crew of climbers at the gym. “I teach them to flag and climb more dynamically- so it’s not like they’re climbing on the Eiger on frozen ice.”

Frye’s newest obsession is ping pong or more accurately known as table tennis. Though he has played for his whole life, he has focused on the sport in the past few years. Frye plays 5 to 6 days a week, runs topspin, underspin, and curve drills every other day, pays for a Chinese coach, has a mentor, and teaches a youth team. Frye also practices and trains with the kids. When they do fitness runs, he ignores his bum knee and follows them around on his scooter. “I’m having so much fun with it, trying to realize the skill set of an Olympic event,” Frye said.

These days, the little he climbs is in the gym, where he cross trains for ping pong. “It’s a funny thing, “Frye said. “After climbing for 30 years and looking back at it all, there’s one thing I wish I had done- climb more.”

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