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Head and boulders above the rest

For many, rock climbing typifies extreme sports, where risk-taking daredevils push the boundaries of safety and sanity for the sake of a thrill. That's an image  professional rock climber Peter Dixon would like to change.

The Ashland resident, originally from the Sacramento area, has climbed competitively since he was 12, and for much of his adult life he's taught young climbers a cautious, measured approach.

“Even in good climbing magazines they have shots of people climbing without helmets, and they focus in the writing on how dangerous the climb is," he said. "And that really glorifies and reinforces this idea that to do something great in climbing, you have to do something that puts you in danger.”

But just because Dixon isn’t reckless, that doesn’t mean he isn’t challenging himself. He has climbed some of the most iconic faces in the world, including Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome. That climb strengthened his resolve to climb more safely.

Dixon and another climber were using a technique called simul climbing, where both climbers ascend at the same time on the same rope. The first climber places protection, pieces of metal that are jammed into spaces in the rock to clip the rope to, and the second climber removes them as they follow. Dixon had completed a very technical stretch of the route that did not allow for placement of many pieces of protection. When his climbing partner came into view around a corner some hundred feet below him, Dixon realized there was only a single piece of gear remaining in the rock to catch both of them should they fall. By his estimate, they were roughly 3,000 feet above the valley floor. His partner placed additional pieces, checked in with Dixon, and they successfully completed the route. But Dixon says that moment sticks with him.

While the Rogue Valley may not be Yosemite, there is plenty of opportunity for Dixon’s chosen specialty: bouldering. Bouldering is a physically challenging style of climbing that focuses on short, low-elevation climbing that does not necessitate the use of ropes, harnesses or metal protection pieces.

In early June, the best bouldering climbers in the world gathered in Vail, Colo., for the World Bouldering Championships. After placing 10th in the U.S. Nationals despite a forearm injury, Dixon was invited to climb for the U.S. team. In Vail, competing among nearly 80 of the best climbers in the world, Dixon came in 13th, the second-highest placement of any U.S. climber.

During the competition, climbers ascend pre-set routes bolted to a climbing wall as opposed to actual boulders. Points are awarded for completing routes and for what are known as bonus holds, a hold placed above the crux of the bouldering problem. Climbers have never seen the routes ahead of the competition, and they only have five minutes to ascend the route.

“The moment you turn around, your five minutes starts," Dixon explained. "You have to assess how you are going to get up the problem, what you might have trouble with. So there’s a whole strategy around time management and energy conservation, and how you are going to grab the bonus hold and the finish hold.”

While the only things that matter in the competition are grabbing the holds, Dixon says there is definitely more to the showmanship aspect.

“Most athletes are concerned with their climb and that’s about it," he said. "I understand both aspects of the sport. The climbing and the showmanship. That if the sport is going to grow ... there has to be enough interest in the sport. So, I’m always finding a way to pause half way up the route to rally the crowd behind me and get them even more stoked.”

Dixon said while many companies are willing to sponsor climbers with gear, it’s rare to find one that will provide the monetary support necessary to compete in far-flung places. While Dixon’s chief sponsor, Mad Rock, does provide him with airfare, hotel funds and competition fees, he said his local training sponsors have been invaluable. Dixon is vegan, which can make eating tricky on the road. He often arrives to competitions a day or two early to ensure he has enough time to find the food he needs to keep him going. Here in Ashland, however, he has secured the sponsorship of Northwest Raw on East Main Street. While most athletes seek out sponsorships from equipment manufacturers and apparel companies, Dixon said the sponsorship of the restaurant has been integral to his training.

“It’s a little juice bar with organic salads and smoothies and things, and they’ve been a really awesome sponsor. To be able to have the juice and salads, that nutritional sponsorship, has been huge.”

Dixon trains five days per week, both at the Rogue Rock Gym in Phoenix and at the Hidden Springs Wellness Center, another sponsor. He said the aesthetic of the facility is important to him.

“I can’t really do the 24-hour fitness places. The sterility of them is kind of hard to deal with. I mean, they sponsor me as an athlete, so I can go in there, and instead of looking at a TV while I’m working out (at Hidden Springs), I’m looking at a little garden.”

Dixon also practices yoga regularly. He said the combination of careful nutrition, reasonable climbing practices and preventive exercises have made a difference.

“I notice it in my recovery time, for sure. And for now, while I’m climbing competitively, that’s great. But I’m more concerned with being able to do this for the long haul. Maybe when I can’t compete at this level, I’ll move back to longer outdoor climbs. But I want to be doing this in some capacity when I’m 70. If changing my diet can help keep me active all my life, then that’s great.”

Alec Dickinson is an Ashland freelance writer.

Dixon, a vegan, says food from sponsor Northwest Raw in Ashland helps keep him healthy. Photo by Alec Dickinson
Peter Dixon of Ashland practices on a climbing wall. Photo by Andy Wickstrom