Mike Papciak, a well-known Bay Area climber and bodyworker, has been a longtime member of the Touchstone community. Born in Detroit and growing up in Atlanta Georgia, Papciak traveled and climbed across the western United States before arriving in 1992 at Diablo Rock Gym Manager Hans Florine’s Bay Area home. Mike has climbed for more than 30 years and has helped climbers with their bodies for the past six. He spoke with the Touchstone blog about climbing and bodywork.
John Vallejo snapped this photo of Mike climbing at Mortar Rock
When did you start climbing?
1983 during the Atlanta years. Westerners might not know it, but Atlanta is in fact a great climbing town. I wish I had more time there.
How did you start climbing?
My high school youth group took a bus trip around the U.S. after freshman year. This included a few days in Yosemite. I saw dudes bouldering in Camp 4 and that was it. We also hiked Half Dome and looked over the edge and that was it, too. I went back home and used the Rockcraft books and the Sierra Club book that was shot at Indian Rock, and taught myself how to climb from those. Mostly bouldering, because there were some funky jungle-covered boulders within biking distance. Usually I climbed alone, no pads, just me and the skeeters. This is probably how I fell in love with The Move. Eventually I found a couple partners and mowed enough lawns to buy some Goldline, a Whillans harness, and some hexes. There were no gyms and we were always keen to climb, so we did weird, nerdy stuff like free-solo skyhooking on the sides of brick buildings, rappelling off the high school at midnight, lots of buildering and traversing on retaining walls. A couple times a month we could take the car and the rain would stop and we’d get out to the excellent crags of North Georgia, Alabama, Chattanooga, etc. My first love has always been bouldering: simple, powerful, social, solitary. I’ll never quit.
What are some of the highlights from your climbing career?
France in 1993. I spent a month there, mostly at Ceuse, which is one of the best and most gorgeous crags in the world, at a time before internet media, when little was knowable in advance about these almost-mythical places. Most of the homies who went to France back then did so with a crew of other Americans. They’d rent a house and a car together, climb with the same partners they climbed with at home, and have lots of bickering and drama. Fine and good, but I wanted the cultural sink-or-swim experience, so I went alone, took a train down south from Paris, hitchhiked to the crags (I got an epic ride thru the Hautes-Alpes in a convertible Maserati), and climbed with random Euros. I did some 7c onsights and a few 5.13s in a couple tries each. Brilliant routes on immaculate rock in an exotic setting. Hueco in the late 80s/early 90s was another highlight: open, empty, and quiet. A secret that hadn’t been spoiled yet. You would actually be psyched to run into other climbers in the park, because it was so rare, and because it was so cool to run into other climbers who came all the way to west Texas to go bouldering. Like meeting members of the lost tribe. My indoor highlight was winning a couple comps in the mid-90s, which showed me that people who were too cool to talk to you beforehand would come up to you after you won, and kiss your ass — lame! Locally, my highlight is the second ascent of The Kraken at Mortar in March 1997. Over thirty years of climbing, my first ascent record has been undistinguished: a couple forgettable routes in Arizona and a few eliminates on the local choss around the Bay Area, the best of which is probably Hoop Dreams — all five feet of it. I’m noticing that all my highlights are from last century! Hilarious and pathetic. Time to go climbing.
Mike doing body work in Berkeley
What do you do for work?
I’m a bodyworker. The paperwork says “massage therapist,” and that term is correct if you want to use it, but there’s some baggage around the word “massage” that I don’t like, and it also suggests an approach and style of working that’s different from what I do. The term bodywork has been in use for a few decades and I like its literalness: I work on bodies. I work with all of your contractile and connective tissue — muscles, fascia, tendons, ligaments — to unravel the stored tension, adhesion, and neuromuscular dysfunction that we naturally accumulate with the stress and exertion of modern life. I help with pain or discomfort if you’re injured chronically or acutely; I help optimize performance if you’re a performing artist or athlete; and I help give you more ease and relaxation in your body. Working closely with different kinds of people and their experience of embodiment is truly special. I love it. My practice is diverse: in a given week, I might see a pro climber, a retiree training for the AIDS ride, a computer professional with hand and wrist problems, a choral singer who needs more ribcage mobility, a yoga teacher, an exhausted parent or two, and a couple folks who are refugees from mediocre massage and want some expert, precise, thorough bodywork, and deep relaxation. I also teach individuals and corporate groups how to self-treat their own aches and pains. I call this muscle hygiene: just like brushing your teeth, you can, in a few minutes’ time maybe twice a day, live with less pain, more comfort, and better performance. Take care of your musculature and you will reap astounding benefits.
How does bodywork apply to climbing?
One of my basic messages is: your body’s probably not as injured as you think it is. But it needs maintenance. Maintenance takes time, effort, and money. Many climbers and other athletes come to see me after months of despair over what they assume is some kind of slow-healing tendonitis or joint-related problem. Often it turns out that the tendon healed long ago, and the joint is undamaged. Their lingering pain, weakness, and restriction comes from adhesion, dysfunction, and compensation in the surrounding neighborhood of contractile tissue. When those areas are restored to full functionality, the supposed tendon problem dissipates. Another basic message is: even the good stuff makes us tight. This includes our exercise — climbing, running, even yoga. It’s not that these things are bad, or as climbers like to say, “hard on the body” — our bodies evolved beautifully to do things like run and climb. Instead, where many of us blow it is in the aftercare. We don’t do that maintenance. We might do a hasty warmup, throw a few stretches at our hamstrings now and then, and do some pushups, and think we’re being all sophisticated and preventing injury. Those pushups won’t do anything to release tension from overloaded and imbalanced shoulders. And stretching can actually make us tighter. (This is not to be confused with yoga, which is so much more than stretching. Yoga is one of the best technologies I have encountered for staying healthy in your body, and it is a shoulder re-education like no other. I predict that in the future, yoga will be considered essential cross-training and injury prevention for climbers.) What’s missing from many climbers’ programs is release work. This is my generic term for therapies that release tension and adhesion in the musculature: bodywork, massage therapy, chiropractic, self-treatment with foam rollers and other tools, etc. I’ll leave you with this thought: A tight muscle is a weak muscle. It takes much more effort to use a muscle that’s stiff and dysfunctional than to use a muscle that’s pliable and responsive. Tight muscles are also slower, less coordinated, and more prone to tearing, spasm, and injury. An athlete who’s not getting regular release work from a practitioner and/or doing it on their own is hobbling their performance. Loosen up!
Has climbing helped with your bodywork, and has your bodywork helped with your climbing at all?
Yes in both directions. They’re great cross-training for each other. Climbing keeps me strong for working on bodies. Working on bodies five days a week is a kind of manual labor, so after some years of decline, I’m getting stronger again. Now I just gotta take a climbing trip!