‘It is almost Zen’: inside the ephemeral world of competitive rock stacking
This weekend, Anthony Jucha will represent Australia at a world championships being held in Llano, Texas. Jucha, a barrister based in Sydney, has previously won two silver medals at the championships – he heads to the United States hoping to go one better. It is a discipline that requires skill, patience and an intimate connection with nature; a competition combining creativity, speed and good fortune.
But Jucha is not competing in any ordinary sport. Llano is home to one of the more unusual world championships: rock stacking.
“It was a pretty good haul last time,” Jucha tells Guardian Australia. “So obviously I’m hoping to go one better and come back with a gold medal. But I hear the competition gets stiffer and stiffer every year.”
Competitive rock stacking is a niche but increasingly popular pursuit. The first world championships were held in 2015, as part of the Llano Earth Art Festival; there have also been several editions of the European stone stacking championships in Scotland. Such is the endeavour’s burgeoning popularity that the BBC has even asked: “beaches ‘spoiled’: should rock stacking be banned?”
The competition consists of multiple categories. The height category is simple enough – competitors have 10 minutes to build the highest freestanding stack of rocks. The balancing category sees competitors given the same selection of rocks, which they attempt to stack in just three minutes – points are awarded for each rock balanced, with bonus points awarded for the degree of difficulty. “You have to make the most impressive balance you can,” Jucha explains.
There is also an artistic category, where competitors have six hours and an unlimited supply of rocks to create the most aesthetic display, and the quantity competition, to see how many rocks can be stacked in a single column in 10 minutes.
At the 2020 edition of the world championships, Jucha took home silver medals on debut in both the height and artistic categories. The latter is quite the honour in the rock-stacking world. “To be able to make the most beautiful creation carries some cachet – not just making the tallest stack,” he says.
Jucha nearly took home gold in the quantity competition, before an ill-judged adjustment saw his ambitions come crashing down. “I made a foolish decision to adjust a rock that was already in place, and that was the end for me,” he says. “I didn’t trust the rock – I messed around with it – and it fell.”
With medals, categories and competitions, rock-stacking has leaned in to the sporting connotations. But Jucha says he considers it an artistic rather than competitive pursuit. “I think the tempo, nature and values of the activity are more artistic than sporting,” he says. “The fact that they give out medals and have turned it into a competitive event is somewhat tongue-in-cheek.”
Indeed Jucha says that the best rock stackers have ascended to a higher plane. “The really good rock stackers, the ones who are truly world class and make calendars out of their artwork, sell their art online, they don’t compete – they have surpassed that level. They’re making art for art’s sake. There will be people [in Llano] who could wipe the floor, but they have risen above competition.
“I’m not at that level yet,” he laughs. “I’m hoping to come home with a medal.”
It started while on pet duty, sometime in 2018. “I was walking the dog at night, resentfully,” Jucha says. “I found some rocks near where we live and began stacking, when I really should have been walking the dog.” A number of family camping trips near a river saw inspiration took hold. “Because river rocks can be nicely worn down to create beautiful shapes, it doesn’t have to be a very tall stack – you can make sculptures, really beautiful stacks.”
Jucha soon found himself emerged in the world of rock-stacking. “I guess with social media, you start seeing people making pretty things,” he says. “Every little subculture has a scene, a niche – I stumbled upon this. I honestly don’t remember how I found my way from seeing pretty things online to the world rock stacking championships.”
Within 18 months, Jucha was ready for his first championships – on the cusp of the Covid-19 pandemic. The final day of the tournament was cancelled and Jucha had to flee home, but he was hooked. “It was a lovely scene – really welcoming people,” he says. “The fact that I had travelled over from Australia was a big deal.”
Jucha practices in a local park in Sydney. He stacks barefoot, to ensure as much contact with the ground as possible. “You are stacking on the earth, and it seems to help to feel and connect with the ground beneath you – to fully feel the context for the rock,” he says. “Hence sitting is better than squatting or standing, and bare foot seems better too.”
When stacking, Jucha enters a deep state of concentration. “It sounds cliched, but it is almost Zen,” he says. “I can feel a shift in my breathing – it becomes very in the moment, focused on the rock, feeling the rock and nothing else around you. If it’s a difficult stack, and you know it can go, it wants to go, you almost drop into it a little bit – definitely the breathing, the heart-rate slows.
“It’s a physical shift, it is perhaps not willed, but I know when that happens, it’s more likely to stay up as well,” he adds. “It is almost part of the process – if there’s an improbable stack that I have been working on for ages, once I feel that shift in my body, I know it is going to stay up.”
It is quite a disconnect from his day job, as a barrister at the Sydney bar. “It’s perhaps hard to reconcile, other than that it is good to have something to calm yourself down,” Jucha says. He admits that a colleague, upon hearing about this interview, joked “‘that’ll help your [barrister] practice’ – it’s perhaps not necessarily something that one would seek out in their barrister.” But Jucha says it helps maintain balance in an otherwise busy professional life. “Once in a while you’ll find me stacking rocks on the weekend, rather than working.”
For now, the rock-stacking community in Australia remains small; Jucha was one of only two Australians at the 2020 world championships, and he believes he might be the only one competing this year. The Sydneysider suggests that the next big step would be for Australia to host its own rock stacking championships.
As a relatively new barrister, Jucha isn’t quite ready to give up his day job and become a full-time rock-stacking competition convenor – but he remains optimistic. “The global rock stacking community is very excited about the prospect of flying to Australia for one of these festivals,” he says. “So if anyone is interested in getting one off the ground, I can promise you a couple dozen artists are keen to come.”
Awaiting an Australian edition may take patience – but that is something rock stackers have in abundance. “It won’t be unusual when you are doing a stack, you can feel it is possible for rocks to go together, but it might take 20 minutes to get them to go,” Jucha explains. “And then sure enough the wind blows it over two minutes later.”
In the digital age, with sport of all kinds commercialised and altered with technology, rock stacking retains a simple purity. “You have to be very sanguine about the fact it is ephemeral, it is going to fall over sooner or later,” Jucha says.
He recounts once experience stacking rocks at a beach for three hours straight. “The moment I left them – these kids came and kicked them over,” Jucha recalls. “That’s just part of it.”