My review of the Hyaction Jacket by Mountain Hardwear was just published on the Mountain Blog. It’s a great shell for technical adventures, so if you’re in the market, check it out.
Life and Climbing in the Rocky Mountains and Beyond
June 16, 2014
My review of the Hyaction Jacket by Mountain Hardwear was just published on the Mountain Blog. It’s a great shell for technical adventures, so if you’re in the market, check it out.
May 13, 2014
In 2006, I made for first pilgrimage to Yosemite Valley. I had big dreams and was pretty humbled. I wrote about my trials and tribulations in the 2006 edition of the Colorado College Alpine Journal. You can find it in the link below, on page 33, called “Face Down in the Ditch with a Slice of Humble Pie.” There are also lots of other great stories in the edition (and the even more excellent recent editions).
Today, I leave for yet another trip to Yosemite, this time with even bigger goals. I’m sure it’ll also be a good learning experience.
May 3, 2014
Mountain Project just released its “School of Rock” pages, an entire section of the website dedicated to instructional content to learn to climb. It’s hard to make an argument that this is any different than Freedom of the Hills and Learning to Rock Climb, only in an electronic form. Maybe that’s better, as it is more accessible to more folks, especially ambitious but moronic teenagers (i.e. ones like me at fourteen). As tempting as it is to use my time to critique, on both technical and philosophical levels, the problems with this pseudo-democratic, erroneously constructivist attempt at distributing discrete knowledge, I’m not going to. I’ll just say, buyer beware (it’s free).
There’s a section on traditional climbing, which is, disappointingly, not very funny, even in an ironic way. Admittedly, I haven’t scoured the whole section, so maybe there are some gems in there somewhere. I also can’t vouch for accuracy and exact content, but I would bet my #7 stopper (which is my lucky one, for reference) that it isn’t a whole lot different than the other tomes of climbing’s technical skills. I’ve come to believe that all of these instructional manuals are missing some important aspects of being a successful traditional rock climber, and I’m here today to give them to you: the finer points of traditional rock climbing.
Note: Some of these may not be specific to trad climbing and could be applied to various other forms of our sport.
April 12, 2014
The Hail Mary play is nearly mythical in the football world. It is an act of heroism: glory or failure, all or nothing. I mean, just imagine if Florida State’s receiver had actually caught the ball. The Hail Mary isn’t about optimizing, hedging bets, or playing it safe. It’s about putting all the chips on the table and seeing what we’re made of in one singular effort, even if the outcome is as much dependent on luck as it is on prowess. In climbing, I think we also have Hail Mary plays, and I think they deserve a similar mythical status – for better and worse – as they do in football.
I should start by distinguishing a Hail Mary attempt from other climbing tactics. In my definition, one could throw a Hail Mary on any route for which the stakes (whether physical or emotional) are high. Sure, it could be trying to onsight a hard route, but it could also be an end-of-the-trip, go-for-broke attempt on a project. Or maybe it’s a place-a-good-cam-and-climb-like-a-badger-to-the-jug or hike-up-your-feet-and-dyno-and-hope-it’s-a-good-hold. What these all have in common is that in each situation (and other variations), we balance the pendulum of success against a universe of unlikely odds, then put every shred of our being into trying to get it to swing our way.
There are some other criteria for a Hail Mary attempt. First, the game has to be close. If my team is, say, on track to set a record for one of the greatest point spreads in Super Bowl history, a Hail Mary would seem absurd at best. Likewise, I won’t be making a Hail Mary attempt on the Dawn Wall or La Dura Dura. Telling my belayer I’m going for it and then skittering off just above the first bolt demands criticism for grandiosity.
Second, the stakes have to be greater than in the individual act. For example, if I am hangdogging up a route and decide to try a huge dyno rather than crimp through a sequence, I’m just dynoing. But if I try to redpoint the same route, and because I’m so pumped I can’t grab the crimpers and desperately leap for the finishing jug, that’s a Hail Mary.
I go into all this because I’ve recently had some experience with the Hail Mary play. My wife and I drove west in early March for a grand desert adventure – nearly four weeks on the road, a good, old fashioned American road trip which took us back to our younger days as dedicated dirt bags. How the various vectors of our professional lives had crossed (or diverged?) to allow for this month of few enough responsibilities for this trip is a whole different discussion.
We first headed to the center of dirtbag gravitational pull, Indian Creek. The Creek was once the place my wife and I went to feel good about ourselves. The cracks once felt friendly, straightforward, and satisfyingly positive. Now, because we’re older and softer, the Creek just hurts. We spent several days wincing, taping, retaping, gluing the tape to our fingers, changing shoes, avoiding gobies from certain size cracks, and complaining. Basically, we got totally shut down.
My Creek experience over that last eight years or so has been tethered to one particular line: Air Swedin. At 5.13 R with unavoidable forty-plus-foot falls off the crux, it is a definitive Creek testpiece. The splitter crack and arête that make up the route loom over the approach trail to the Battle of the Bulge Buttress – one of the Creek’s most popular cliffs. In 2006, I got the wacky idea in my head that I could climb this thing. It suffices to say that at that time, it was well above my pay grade. But because of its position, basically the gatekeeper into Indian Creek, it captured me. Over the years I’ve put in several attempts, often trying it multiple times over a season, getting close to sending it, only to have uncontrollables get in the way and having to leave it behind. The last time I tried it, in the fall of 2011, I climbed all the way through the crux, only to have a foot slip higher, and fell. What should have been a mild 15-footer turned into a nearly 50-foot fall when the small cams, blindly placed in a pod, ripped. I badly bruised my foot in the fall and hobbled away discouraged and shaken.
Fast forward to this March, and our return to the Creek. I decided – after much fretting – to try Air Swedin again. After a few attempts on top-rope, which only served to make me feel more doubtful, I decided to lead it. This was no Hail Mary; it was arm-wrestling a demon, not trying to win but hoping to make a good showing. I managed to climb further than I expected, but slipped off the last hard move of the crux. The fall, while big, was fine. As I hung on the rope, I told Becca, “I think I’m done with this route. I just needed to take that fall one more time.”
The day after, as we took stock of our wounded hands and feet, we decided to leave the Creek. It was all for the better, as I already felt the lingering call back to Air Swedin, but I knew that asking Becca to go up there again would tax our partnership (and maybe our marriage) too much. So we headed to Red Rocks, NV, and enjoyed much more forgiving cracks and plenty of sport climbing. We even rented a house through AirBnb for part of the time. It was luxurious and reminded us that we are not the dirtbags we used to be.
We took a guide course in Red Rocks and had a few days off before our next engagement. We decided to go to Zion to try Moonlight Buttress. Becca and I have wanted to try Moonlight for years. It’s unparalleled for its aesthetics (one crack for 600 feet!) and quality. More importantly, it’s a big, hard route that we could do together as the nature of the climbing plays to both of our strengths.
Our initial plan was to work the route over a few days. We’d start to climb from the bottom, redpointing each pitch as we could. If we needed, we could then rappel in from the top to focus on climbing the upper pitches on a second or third day. Then we checked the weather forecast. We had one day before the rain set in. We opted for the Hail Mary and set our alarm for 6:30am.
After the exhilarating foot-soak crossing the Virgin River, we scrambled to the base and started climbing. The first several pitches, a range of cracks and face climbing from 5.10 to 5.12, all went easily. Even though we still had many hard pitches to go, our confidence increased and the gitters subsided. I started up the crux pitch, and the next forty feet of power laybacking sucked away all the confidence that the prior five hundred had provided. The crack, banged out from years of nailing pins and prying on stuck cams, offered great fingerlocks, but I struggled to blindly place good cams in the smaller crack between the scars. Midway through the crux, I tried to stuff a small cam, and the crack refused it. Desperately, I tried a smaller one, only to have this one rip out of the crack when I tugged on it. Pumped and discouraged, I sagged onto a lower piece.
I managed to find better gear and climb through the crux with a few hangs and then climbed the rest of the pitch without any falls. I knew that I could send the pitch if I tried it again, but there were four more 5.12 pitches above, and so we decided to continue up rather than burning up energy and our one good day of weather on one pitch. Becca followed the crux pitch cleanly and with confidence. I managed to onsight the rest of the pitches of the route, which felt like a huge accomplishment on its own. We topped out in the late afternoon and sauntered down the Angel’s Landing trail, deeply tired and satisfied with one of the best and most challenging days we’ve had together.
I chewed on our Hail Mary on Moonlight for a while afterwards. We hucked the ball down the field, dove into the end zone, and watched the ball bounce off our fingertips. While it was a truly incredible experience to climb the route onsight in a day, technical speaking we didn’t get the touchdown. I hung at the crux, and Becca hung on a higher pitch. It was a mythical attempt, the stakes were high, but we came up just slightly short.
But, it rained, and so we didn’t try it again. We went back to Red Rocks to meet friends and climb smaller rocks. A week later, it was time to drive home. Some other friends were in Indian Creek, and we decided to break up the drive by stopping there. It wasn’t totally on the way, and we were road weary, but I couldn’t help but want another go, a Hail Mary attempt, on Air Swedin.
We arrived in the evening, and it was easy to persuade our crew to climb at Battle of the Bulge the next day. I knew I had one good attempt, so I spent most of that day relaxing, only climbing enough to stay warm and fresh, and encouraging others to try hard. Around 5pm, the crux arête of Air Swedin went into the shade, and I tied in. This was a familiar ritual: wait for the shade, tie in, climb the crack, pull out to the arête, fall, untie, walk down, drive home.
But this time was different. I pulled on the arête. I didn’t feel confident. My feet slipped a few times, but I stayed on the slopey sidepulls. I paused just before making the final throw to a jug. I reached for it, years of failure weighing me down, but I grabbed the hold. I desperately tossed my other hand onto the hold and pulled my feet up and stood into the rest. I’d made it through. The rest of the route, maybe fifty feet of odd 5.11 climbing, was surreal. Untying was surreal. Driving home was surreal. Most of the time, the Hail Mary play is one that makes people smile and shake their heads: “That would have been cool.” And sometimes, every once in a while, it makes you feel like a champion.
April 10, 2014
I love hearing stories about how people get into rock climbing. Mountain Gear recently published a piece I wrote about Patti Winford, a woman who started climbing through the UClimb program that Mountain Gear offers.
February 27, 2014
It’s February 26, about 73.33% through winter. Not that I’m counting. It’s partly the snow, the cold, the hurricane-force winds that blow out of every gap in the ridges of Colorado’s Front Range that have limited my days climbing out of doors to 4 since early January. It’s also my ever decreasing tolerance for adverse conditions while climbing. I rationalize that I’m saving up my suffer tickets for when it really counts, like coming down a mountain at 3am, but the reality is more that I’m just getting old and suffering doesn’t thrill me like it used to.
Like many climbers, I wile away the “dark age” (i.e. winter) by training. My goal in the last few weeks has been strength training, so actual climbing has taken a back seat to hangboarding and lifting weights. Recently, I did a hangboard workout when my parents were visiting. They are already hyper-aware of my obsessive behaviors about climbing, and their reaction to seeing me strap 25 lbs. around my waist and repeatedly hang from half-pad edges fixed to the main brace of my house revealed the depth of the absurdity that training for climbing really is. Climbing, to the vast majority of the human population, is already ridiculous. Training, especially on hangboards, is everything hard and stupid about climbing without any of the thrill or fun.
So why do we do it? Why do we punish ourselves, endure hours of mundane repetition, and risk injury just to make our fingers just a bit stronger? The short answer is that it’s just that: a really effective way of making our fingers – and the rest of our bodies – stronger. And, while strength isn’t the only factor in climbing well, it certainly is a big part of becoming a better climber. But the drive to be a better climber is broadly even more questionable.
In the last few weeks, a thread emerged on Mountain Project entitled “Why climb harder?” Punctuating the typical profane witticism that only Internet forums can conjure were a variety of responses and reflections about the value of climbing harder. Several zeroed in on why one would endure discomfort (i.e. training, suffering, risk to life and limb) for the sake of performing at a higher level an activity that under the most gratuitous constructions only provides a highly subjective satisfaction. In other words, if I’m the only one who gets anything out of my climbing better, why should I bother doing anything other than maximize my fun?
So then, on a philosophical level, why hangboard (or, simply substitute any other activity that aims to improve climbing – or any other performance for that matter – that is likewise not fun and/or comfortable, which, for lack of a better term, I’ll refer to as “training” from here on out)?
An easy answer is to say that if I hangboard and you don’t (or if I just hangboard more than you) I am more likely to climb better than you. Performing at a higher level leads me to believe I am in some way better than you, thus stimulating an anachronistic conclusion that I’m more likely to survive an attack/get laid and pass on my genes to future generations. I think we can all agree that in civil society climbing supports neither and probably works in the other direction. Thus, in our more rationale moments, we can (hopefully) see that climbing cannot be strictly ego driven.
There are a lot of other reasons to train, to be uncomfortable, to get better. Most of these are mentioned in the thread. Just go read it, if you’re, say, stuck in an airport terminal as I currently am. To summarize, folks argue for gymnastic growth, surpassing of limits, developing a warrior mentality, greater access to more classics, and the safety of climbing on steeper routes.
I think there’s more to it, and I’d rather explicate my obtuse philosophy on “training” here, lest my wisdom be trumped by the next poster, probably along the lines of someone named BetterThan YoMama writing “^^^^^^ -10×4.058 Your just climing harder cuz youve got to make up for not being able to satisfy woman..”
Which at some point may have been true.
Trump avoided, the first reason I think we ought to be willing to be uncomfortable to climb more difficult routes is for the sake of novelty. Let’s say you start running three miles, three times a week. At first, if you’re never run before, you’ll be tired and bit sore and probably lose some weight. After a few weeks, those runs will start feeling easy. Your legs will be a bit stronger, and you’ll compensate for the added activity by eating a hair more. Eventually, your body will stabilize and return right back where you started. Our psyches work the same way. What we perceive as difficult at first will at some point become normal. Invariably, without new stimulus, we find routine and comfort. We stagnate, gain weight, become complacent. Novelty is, by definition, the only way to short circuit the homeostatic matrix of the mundane. By actively seeking novelty in our climbing, our bodies and minds learn to adapt, to continually grow. We force our muscle fibers, neurons, and paradigms to be as dynamic as the universe is in which we exist.
The pursuit of an aesthetic is another reason to be uncomfortable. I think if each of us ponders it enough, we all have some kind of ideal rock climb, an imaginary line that embodies the qualities we love about climbing. Mine is a long route, requiring a full day at least, in the mountains, that is mostly steep, clean, and hard crack climbing but with a few face sections (and, since we’re working in ideals, has comfortable ledges, bomber anchors – bolts are welcome – and a casual walk off). Part of my aesthetic is a route that is challenging enough that I might fall off it, which is clearly a bias toward difficulty. Nevertheless, to climb another route that more closely resembles an ideal, any climber will have to be open to a novel experience, one that has a higher likelihood of discomfort and challenge. Therefore, at some point, we’ll all have to do something that isn’t fun, whether it’s for strength for smaller holds or endurance for greater fatigue or risk, to be able to climb a route that’s closer to perfection.
There is one last reason to train to climb better. I’ve been writing this piece over a few days, and in that time I’ve done the last hangboard workout in this phase of my training. Not only am I obsessive enough to do these silly things, but I’m also obsessive enough to record each workout. As I look back through my record, it’s clear that my fingers have in fact gotten stronger. I’ve been focused on working toward this goal – finger strength, and now my mind wanders to the next step, which will be a road trip around the desert of Utah and Nevada in March, and I can’t help but feel excited at the possibilities. Working on specific things to improve our performance promises new opportunity. Climbing, regardless of how difficult, will feel different now. This is the last and best reason to “train”: the promise. Whether we actually send isn’t the point, but just feeling the excitement of the opportunity, the newest in our once familiar minds and bodies, is worth effort and discomfort.
That’s my pitch for training. It offers novelty and the pursuit of some kind of ideal, but really, working to get better promises a new opportunity. So figure out what you want to work on: finger strength, fear of falling, all-day endurance, footwork on slabs, whatever, just work on it. Get better at it, then dream about what’s next. The dark age will end; the snow will melt, and the wind will cease (at least for a few minutes, hopefully). When it does, we’ll all be just a bit more motivated, which is pretty fun.
January 3, 2014
End-of-year lists are so clichéd that making fun of end-of-year lists is, at this point, equally so. I suppose there is something reassuring to us about distilling an entire year of ephemeral experiences, however unrelated, remote, and insignificant they may or may not be, into a succinct and far less complicated list of items, preferably that fit onto a single typed page (or a computer screen so folks don’t have to scroll down). It’s even better when, like those on the tablet God gave to Moses, they happen to fall into an erosion-resistant number, like three, ten, or one hundred.
The climbing world is inundated with similar distillations, from personal posts of “What I Did This Year” to the headline piece on the January 1 Rock and Ice email blast. In the non-climbing media, end-of-year lists contain a variety of significant events, from things people did (say, an NSA contractor leaking a bunch of secret files) to things that just happened (like a 1000-year rain storm). Climbing’s lists, on the other hand, almost entirely focus on accomplishment. They’re all about what someone did. Sure, many of these successes are worth celebrating, but for every success, there are many more failures. For every dream climb or trip we do, there are many more that we don’t. So that’s what my list is about, a celebration of failures, of the things that didn’t happen in 2013.
Thus, in the great tradition of end-of-year lists, I would like to submit mine:
The Top Ten Things I Didn’t Do in 2013
10. The Arete Project at Nathaniel’ Boulders. Little rocks don’t compel me that much. I’m not slamming bouldering here, but it’s hard for me to care enough to try as hard as many of these little gymnastic challenges require. Still, falling off the last enormous dyno at the top of this arête over a dozen times turned this little chunk of rock into a big obsession. I never stuck it from the sit start, and there it remains, in obsession.
9. Onsight Burden of Immortality at Tensleep. I’ll preface this one with noting that making excuses about failed onsights invites scoff. Still, I’m going with it. This failed attempt represented the culmination of a string of failed onsight attempts over four days up there this past August. It happened the same way each time: climb up into what I thought was the crux, confidently stuff two of my fat fingers irreversibly into a pocket, pull up, then quickly realize I had exactly the wrong hand in the pocket. Here’s to second try.
8. Ice climbing. I got a pair of ice tools last winter, just before I hurt by arm, so they hung in my garage unused. While I don’t have some grand idea of even becoming slightly good at ice climbing, it seemed like a good way to give my tendons a break from grabbing tiny holds. Still, I never made it out. It’s so easy to find other things to do than go into the cold, slam your fingers against an even colder surface, hang off a face that could collapse at any moment, all while doing something you are certifiably incompetent at. I guess winter has just begun, so maybe I’ll get a chance.
7. Climb in Turkey, China, southern France, Italy, Australia. Sure there are tons of places around the world that have spectacular climbing, but these are the ones, potentially for very arbitrary reasons (like particularly pretty pictures in a magazine article years ago or something), that are on my list. And I didn’t go to any of these this year.
6. Redpoint a certain somewhat secret project at a not-so secret area in the South. Yes, I’m being vague, but years ago I tried an unclimbed line that was everything I love about climbing: hard, scary, and beautiful. It is a plum line up the biggest, proudest section of the wall. And there it waits. Living out West, it’s hard to justify such a long commute for one pitch. Trust me, this one is worth at least one more visit.
5. Surfing. Though I did manage to ride one proper wave this year, I’m still about a 5.5 surfer. I say surfing is at least as cool as rock climbing and probably much more so, especially to the rest of the world (the movie Blue Crush being strong evidence; imagine the same premise but with climbers – not that cool). At this point, I’m not about to move to the beach nor trade a trip to Yosemite for one to Baja. Still, surfing gets at something transcendent in the same way that climbing does. You try hard, deal with fatigue and fear, and every once in a while, your brain shuts up, your body and soul work together, and you get a breath of perfection.
4. Climb Fitzroy. I didn’t even make it to Patagonia, which would have been the whole point of ice climbing in the first place. I’d written this place off years ago, saying, “I can’t travel that far to sit in a tent and watch it rain.” For several reasons (a new, beautiful guidebook, primarily), I’ve changed my tune. Fitzroy is a massive chunk of some of the most aesthetic rock in the universe. Added to the bucket list.
3. Climb for the first eleven weeks of the year. I got biceps surgery on January 4. By April, I was back to climbing and even able to climb kind of hard, too. But there was a big chunk of time that I didn’t climb at all. There were also a few weeks over the summer when I was backpacking and didn’t climb. Then there was the week at the beach (see #5). Oh yeah, and there were the two weeks in November when I got pneumonia. In total, I spent about fifteen weeks away from climbing this year. Without climbing, I had a lot more free time, which (once I exhausted my Netflix “Watch Instantly” allowance) gave me the opportunity to explore some other really great ways to spend a day. I also learned a bit about how not to be a climber, how to find satisfaction, physical challenge, adventure, among other things, without climbing.
2. Free climb the West Face of the Leaning Tower. But man, was I close. I freed the hardest pitches, but a fall on each of the last two pitches (trying to onsight them) cost the true send. After pulling on about eighty bolts up a blank wall just to get to the free climbing, it became a bit easier to excuse myself from a “perfect” ascent. Quibbles aside, the West Face was a big deal for me; it was on my list (my lifetime list, not my end-of-year list). Having to reckon with the fact that perfection was more work than I was willing to give wasn’t easy, but the experience eventually settled into something I could stomach. Now, it is an accomplishment, with an asterisk.
1. Try Realization. Nor will I probably ever. I’m not ashamed to freely admit that it’s out of my league. Anyone who watched climbing videos in the early 2000s can remember the original Dosage. The indelible footage of Sharma’s attempts and eventual redpoint of the climb came closer to true climbing porn that anything before, with visceral details of the difficulty of the climb and a candid look at what it took for him to climb it.
So why would a climb that I’ll never even try be on my list (and why, of all the climbs that I’ll never try, this one)? There are climbs that capture climbers’ imaginations, and Realization was the one that captured mine. Realization is a gift because it stands as evidence that there is no ceiling to the challenge that climbing can offer.
That’s what this list is about. Of course, we should celebrate our accomplishments. I certainly do, usually with chocolate chip cookies. But what if I didn’t have a list of failures? What if I earned myself a Golden Piton for being awesome and managed to do it all. I often philosophize about the lessons climbing teaches us about life, usually with a bit of an eye roll from my wife. But I think this one is useful. We get more out of our struggles, our bumps into weakness and limitation – our failures – than we do from our successes. Besides, if climbing were easy, we’d call it “golf.”