The Big V: The Bouldering rating scale was named for this Vermin who still lives out of his van.
John “Vermin” Sherman, the man who created the North American Bouldering scale, remembers the past and keeps going for it on up on the rock.
John Sherman, a.k.a. Verm—short for Vermin—got his climbing start at Indian Rock in Berkeley California in the 1970s at the age of 15. Back then, a patch of carpet was the closest you would get to a crash pad, and down climbing was standard practice. At Hueco Tanks, he devloped the V (for Vermin) scale to grade bouldering problems that is now standard in North America. He became an author along the way, starting by sending stories to Climbing in his unique voice.
Now, 53, and still the perpetual traveler, Verm continues to discover and develop boulder problems to this day. Shortly after we completed this interview, he parked his rig/home, Anna Nicole III, somewhere in Arizona and caught a plane to Australia to climb at Arapiles with Dawn Kish, a redhead with a knack for photography.
These days, Sherman is promoting the update of his book Better Bouldering (Falcon Guides: 1997, 2012) via short, entertaining instructional YouTube videos – with the occasional beer reference. He’s authored Stone Crusade (American Alpine Club: 1994, 1999), and Sherman Exposed: Slightly Censored Climbing Stories (The Mountaineers: 1999).
How did you start bouldering?
I went bouldering almost every afternoon after high school. I took my EBs to school and rode a different bus route home that would drop me near Indian Rock, then I’d boulder until dark.
Indian Rock is such a tiny area everyone ended up climbing together regardless of how hard they cranked. You would see people who were climbing there since the ‘50s. Most everybody got along real well there and it was a super-supportive environment.
What was the gear like back then?
We didn’t have pads yet, so when you hit the ground it hurt. Hence, you tried really hard. That led to style, fluidity and things like that. You’d try to climb with a high degree of control.
And the scene?
When I started, you wouldn’t call yourself a 5.10 climber unless you could walk up to 95 percent of the 5.10s in America and send them. I led my first 5.11 around 1977, but I refused to call myself a 5.11 climber for the next 15 years because I had always avoided the Torpedo Tubes on The Nautilus [at Vedauwoo, Wyoming]. I just was not all that strong at offwidth.
Were you always a writer?
I was a wellsite geologist at oil and gas wells. I’d spend a lot of time looking through a microscope looking at rocks. I worked 100 days a year. I cranked out my first article for the mags in the fashion I’d seen them publish, which seemed boring to me, so I said, “Fuck it, I’m gonna do one the way I like it.” I got A’s and B’s in college and the only C I ever got was in creative writing. I don’t understand the technicalities in grammar but I do understand when it comes out right.
I cut loose and had fun, like I was writing a letter to a friend. Climbing mag went with the fun version. My first articles came out in ‘84, ‘85. I fought over every piece to keep it true to what I was trying to express, not what the mags wanted the public to read. Stone Crusade: A Historical Guide to the Bouldering in America came out almost 10 years after my first article.
What are your thoughts on hangdogging?
I always said my grandmother would climb 5.13 if she hangdogged. I figured I’d have to prove my point myself by redpointing a 13 at age 50 with a partially paralyzed arm [from an accident during surgery] and two fake hips. It was Pump a Rama, in Rifle.
I submitted the original Hueco bouldering guide without ratings. Just before it went to press the publisher got cold feet and said it would never sell without ratings. So I went back and rated all the problems from memory or doing them again. In the process the V-scale went public then it just took off with some fairly negative results (chipping and the like to attain a certain number). I felt like Doctor Frankenstein. He was trying to do something good, you know, bringing life to the dead. But he didn’t have control over his creation and it ran amok.
Where are you living these days?
I’m living in a F350 custom camper rig that I designed myself. This is the fourth van that I’ve lived in, starting in 1985. Right now I can see Cochise Stronghold in front of me. It’s this tremendous wanderlust. No matter how good a time I’m having, after a while I feel nervous and itchy and gotta get up and go. There are over 600 areas—at least, just off the top of my head—I’ve climbed in the states and dozens more overseas. My dog Thimble went to 47 states with me.
What are your latest projects?
I had Ibex to myself for five years. It was super satisfying—spiritual, I might say. In retrospect, it’s hard to justify the risks I took doing highballs with no pad or spot or phone signal and the nearest house being 40 miles away. But there was this feeling that I was doing exactly what I was meant to be doing at that time.
Do you still go for it?
I don’t climb nearly as hard as I used to. Too much accumulated wear and tear. But even though I can’t push it as hard physically, I can still push myself mentally. I like doing scary highball first ascents where I have no knowledge of what the next move will be or how hard it is or who else has done it. I need to make the decision to go for it based just on my own experience and technique. I love that. Fortunately, I have 37 years of bouldering on which to base my decisions. •