Cragging: The Finer Points

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This past May, I spent two weeks in Yosemite. I’d trained all winter and spring and arrived fitter than I’ve ever been in my life. And then I spent the whole time battling poor weather, time limitations, and my own weakness and ineptitude at big wall climbing and ultimately had to be satisfied with topping out El Cap rather than my real goal: to free climb the Salathé Wall. All that hard work and adversity motivated me for two things. In the long term, I’m even more committed to going back and attempting to free El Cap next year. And in the short term? I got really psyched to go sport climbing.

Chris Granite

Enjoying some bolt clipping on a 13+ project near Granite, CO.

Which leads me to my actual point (No, this is not the “Top 10 Epic Big Wall Fails,” even though this would definitely be more fun to read): I’ve spent a lot of time at sport crags recently and have observed many different styles and tactics. To be frank, not all are equal. And so, I’d like to submit a proposal for good crag style (and I don’t mean this kind of style).

Pull the rope after you belay. There seems to be no consensus on who pulls the rope (or, in the case of someone wanting to top-rope, pulls the rope through), but it’s pretty clear that the best person to do it is the person who just belayed. The belayer has been holding the rope for the last twenty minutes anyway, is probably wearing comfortable shoes and maybe gloves, and isn’t preoccupied with spraying/whining about how well/poorly that redpoint burn just went. So, after your climber lands of the ground and unties (and commences the spray), just go ahead and pull the rope before you walk away and start pantomiming the route at least three grades harder than what your partner just tried (and failed) on.

If climbing in a group of three, use this rotation: belay, climb, relax. Lots of folks refuse to climb in threes because it’s too slow. When this rotation is employed effectively, climbing in a group of three can be great: a bit more social, another person to manage other random things (dogs and children mostly), and more rest in between burns. The rotation starts with belaying (because you want to send someone else up there to work out the beta so that you can make the flash!). Then, you’re psyched, so you quickly pull on your climbing boots and tear it up. But climbing is hard, especially “tearing it up” climbing, and you need time to count the reasons you should’ve sent, so you need time to relax, the third part of the rotation.

Share and care for the real estate. This means the cliff base and the cliff itself. It’s just not a good idea to put your crap at the base of a route, even under an unclimbed line in the Karakorum. Rocks could fall and tear your teal micro-puff. Or your partner could step on your peanut butter and jelly sandwich while putting on their climbing shoes. Or it will just be in the way when someone else wants to climb the route. Instead, find a nice little cove away from the base of the routes to set up shop for the day. And put your junk on a surface that won’t get killed/destroyed.

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Likewise, remember that all the other folks at the cliff probably came there to rock climb, too. You came here to climb the five-star mega classic? Guess what route they came here to climb? It’s the not-entirely-unspoken rule that the rock is first-come, first-serve, but that doesn’t mean you have laid claim to a certain chunk of rock for infinite hours.

If others are waiting, please be efficient (like not elaborating on a recent romantic intrigue or deciding you need to make a Paleo Panini just as you’re about to tie in). Likewise, folks who actually have a chance at sending the climb should get deference, especially when conditions, like sun or darkness, matter. But ultimately, it’s simple: Just like crayons in kindergarten, share.

Know the difference between booty, someone else’s gear, and fixed gear (and treat each appropriately). Booty is gear that someone left on the rock because they had to bail. This ranges from a carabiner left on a bolt to a full rappel anchor. If possible, take this stuff off the wall, and if you’re really feeling nice, try to return it to the poor soul who bailed. I say it’s bad juju to booty nice gear off a route you don’t send.

On the other hand, when there’s a line of fresh draws hanging on every bolt (possibly excluding the first one or two) on a climb, that’s not booty; it’s someone else’s gear. Of course, unless that someone – or another someone – has just tossed their rope down below that rope, you are welcome to climb it as long as you leave it the way you found it. There’s a tricky nuance here: At some point someone else’s gear does in fact become booty, but that takes much longer than you might think. We’re talking years and/or extreme wear to the point of the thing hanging from the wall is no longer booty, it’s straight up garbage that is a real danger to climbers. If this is the case, first try to figure out who’s it is and tell them to clean up their mess. If you can’t figure out the responsible party, clean it up yourself. If you’re going to leave your draws on a popular route, might I suggest something that is a tad more durable than the typical aluminum variety: Trango’s Blue Steel draw.

Finally, there’s fixed gear: gear that’s been (semi)permanently fixed to the wall because it’s just so darned convenient to have it there. Again, there’s a range. It could be a stopper in a particularly critical and challenging spot to place, or it could be a string of metal quickdraws up a popular sport climb. All you need to do is use the gear, appreciate that someone invested money and time to make it so convenient, and pay attention to whether the gear is getting worn out. If it is, don’t be lazy/cheap and improve it, or at least tell someone who will.

And by the way, if you’re going to install fixed gear, do it right. This basically means stuff that won’t be trashed by the sun, rain, wind, or just the next, say, 1.3 million climbers who will use it. A good guideline: steel.

This list is in no way exhaustive. There are lots of ways to ruin your own or someone else’s day out climbing, so I’ll end with a final criterion for good crag style. The next time you’re out climbing, take a moment to do a quick scan of your crag style. Now, imagine everyone else present is doing exactly all the same things as you. What would that scene look like? An endless junk show or pleasant send-fest? Modify accordingly.

For the record, we’re going for the pleasant send-fest. Otherwise, we’d quit rock climbing and go on tour with Ke$ha.

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The Anti-List: The Top Ten Things I Didn’t Do in 2013

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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.

Dyno

Coming up short, again.

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.

Waiting for the perfect wave, or getting attacked by Flipper.

Waiting for the perfect wave, or getting attacked by Flipper.

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.”

The Tenaya Masai: Sometimes you really can be good at it all

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So the saying goes: jack of all trades, master of none. We’re so familiar with this concept that, when we hear the term “all-arounder,” it has almost a euphemistic feel. Do we really remember anything about Deion Sanders other than that fact that he played football and baseball? Even worse is “well-rounded,” which reverberates from high school superlative awards as little more than a consolation prize.

With outdoor equipment, the label carries no fewer connotations, especially when it comes to climbing shoes. Tell me a pair of shoes does it all, and I’ll tell you it does nothing well. Fortunately, there is at least one exception: the Masai from Tenaya. From eeking up microscopic dents on a slab to toeing down hard on a sharp pocket, the Masai inspires confidence and, simply put, performs under a wide range of demands.

The Masai comes from a strong line-up of shoes from Tenaya recently released in the United States and distributed by Trango. For more history of the company and information about the other shoes, check out Trango’s site, the English version of Tenaya’s site, and this review.

I got the Masai in mid-summer. Sitting in Trango’s office, I went through a few different sizes trying to gauge how snug I wanted the fit. Ultimately, with an upcoming trip to the Bugaboos, I went with a more comfortable size. I’ll admit that I was kind of thinking “Sure, I’ll climb most stuff with these, but for the hard, thin pitches, these are not nearly tight enough to perform.” Since then, I’ve worn the Masai on a wide range of climbs: steep limestone, cracks of all sizes (tips to OW), blank stemming corners, slabs, and technical granite faces. The shoes never disappointed. By the time we were packing for the Bugaboos (after climbing in Rifle, Boulder Canyon, the Tetons, Index, and Squamish), I was confident that I only needed to bring one climbing shoe in with me.

While the Masai performs well in a nearly all climbing styles, it excels in a few particulars. First, I love it for longer routes, especially ones that are more difficult. The Masai’s fairly neutral camber makes it comfortable enough to wear for relatively long periods of time (I could consistently wear mine for two pitches unless I was really pushing hard on my feet), but its precision worked well on the technical climbing that difficult granite climbing demands. In general, I have found the Masai to climb very well on just less than vertical to just past vertical rock than involves a combination of hard edging and smearing and/or jamming.

From toe to heel, the shoe feels fairly soft, helping it conform to delicate smears, but across the toe, it is quite stiff, which allows for more power when edging and more stability in cracks. This lateral stiffness also gives good support when wearing the shoes for a long time. The uppers feel pretty soft, which makes the shoe even more comfortable. I had my concerns about the durability of this synthetic material, but aside from a bit of fuzziness, the shoes are still in great shape after probably 5000+ vertical feet of climbing, much of that on abrasive cracks in Squamish and the Bugs.

For bouldering and extremely steep climbing, the Masai is a bit on the stiff side, but the toe box does have a slight bevel giving it the little “power pocket” that is usually only available in severely downturned (read: painful) shoes. This power pocket allows the shoe to still be able to grab incut holds on steeper rock.

I really did try to be a skeptic with these shoes. I would climb a pitch in the Masai then try the pitch again later with one of my old standby shoes. Performance wise, if there was ever a difference, it was the Masai that felt more solid. What I really couldn’t get over was how much less my feet hurt at the end of the pitch. With my other shoes, I was pulling them off as I lowered down, but wearing the Masai, I came down, de-racked, sipped some water, and happily slipped them off.

The short version: If you need a pair of shoes to do it all: edge, smear, jam, hook, whatever and still deliver plenty of power without making your toes scream, the Masai is the shoe for you.

The Corrections

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So it’s springtime in Colorado, and the weather has been more inconsistent than an adolescent romance (I’m an educator, so the analogy is apropos). In between the storms and heat waves (a reference to the weather, not adolescent romance), we’ve managed to get out and climb some fun stuff around Durango. I always love this time of year as the days get longer, the weather warmer, and the rock dry enough to climb. I kind of feel like a bear coming out of a long winter of hibernation in a dusty climbing gym and finally getting to stretch out the rope in the great outdoors.

On the midway sloper rail of The Corrections.

This spring has been particularly satisfying as I have finally gotten some lingering finger injuries to a manageable level. Since last August I’ve had three separate finger injuries. While none of them have been the full finger blow out (a technical medical diagnosis), they’ve all seriously limited my climbing. I’ve learned enough about injuries that they take a long time to heal, even if they feel strong, and so I’m still taking a lot of preventative measures. That said, in the last few weeks I’ve been able to really start trying hard again, which just feels so darn good.

All of my recent enthusiasm has been directed at a specific new line here in Durango. The line is obvious, one that I noticed on my very first visit to East Animas nearly two years ago. It begins up the classic Punta Magna then cuts right across a magnificent steep, streaked wall. Someone aided it many years ago leaving a fixed bashie and some old studs along the right trending rail. About a month ago, my friend Marcus Garcia went up the line on aid to investigate the free climbing possibilities. I joined him on the second day to finish cleaning and bolting the line, and then we started working out the moves. We both immediately became obsessed. The climbing was clean and aesthetic, and we quickly realized that this route could possibly be a new level of difficulty in the area.

The Corrections

On the last moves of the crux.

After several more days and attempts, I managed to stick the precise yet dynamic crux on sidepulls and crimpers to redpoint the route, a deeply satisfying accomplishment for me after a long winter and battle with injury. I’ve tentatively named the route “The Corrections,” which just so happens to be the book I’m reading right now. I like the name for several reasons. First, the route is something of a “correction,” taking an obscure aid line and bringing it to high quality free climb status. Second, I love the book, which is reason enough. I think there’s a further connection between the themes of the book and the route, or at least my experience with it. The book traces the paths of five members of an average American family through the boredom, longing, disappointment, desperation, and rare moments of satisfaction that each person’s seemingly normal yet extraordinary and often messed up life presents. The word “corrections” comes up frequently in the book in reference to how each person subtly refines their life in some way, sometimes in reference to taking drugs and others simply in terms of seeking satisfaction where they can. In a similar way, climbing has felt like a lot of work and tedium recently: lots of rehab, patience, training, and climbing with much restraint in between the even greater struggle of balancing that with other life responsibilities. In my case, the “correction” was finding an inspiring line to try hard on. This is something I’ve slowly come to learn about climbing: The exhilaration of success tends to come in short bursts connected through the process and the pursuit of goals. Ultimately, satisfaction comes from appreciating what we can get out of both of these.

Here’s a short video I put together of Marcus and I working the route. Andrea Sokolowski shot the footage, and I really appreciate her help. The disclaimer for this video is that it was our first time out shooting video, and this is my first attempt at real video editing, so it is admittedly rough. Still, the aesthetic qualities (or lack there of) aside, I think it captures the story of the first ascent of “The Corrections” pretty well.