Life is climbing

There are a ton of T-shirts and decals that say “Climbing is Life.” But a week or two ago I had this day, and the moral of it all seemed to be that actually, life is climbing.

It was one of those days. Every little damn thing just seemed to be unnecessarily difficult, from finding my keys in time to get out of the house to getting to the radio station to pre-record an interview and discovering I didn’t have my calling card (which you need to do long distance calls from CKCU.) Every little damn thing was just so hard to do. Harder than I wanted it to be.

I somehow got through it all. Whenever another roadblock loomed, I just thought of a way I might be able to get past it, and I did that thing, and somehow I got past that stage and on to the next roadblock. And when I finally got home and was curled up on the couch with a cocoon blanket wrapped around me, having not failed entirely at any of it, I started writing in my journal. And came to a realization as I wrote.

That was just like leading.

If I’m leading, I’m out of my comfort zone. Even if the falls are as small and safe as they are at the gym, my hindbrain doesn’t necessarily know that. It is more than aware of every inch of rope out. So moves that, on top rope, would be insignificant, suddenly take on a massive significance. Gigantic volumes for my feet become treacherous. Big moves feel bigger. Small crimps feel smaller. And each time I make it to a clip, the headgame starts.

I’m tired and I’m under stress. I could just call “take” and drop off now.

If I move on, I pay out rope. If I pay out rope, I fall further. Unless I can make the next clip.

The pump clock is ticking.

If I don’t move off this hold, I’ll eventually get tired and come off. 

If I call “take,” I could just drop off now and say I pumped out. Then I wouldn’t still be here, tired and under stress.

I don’t know what the next moves involve. I don’t know for absolute certain that I can do them.

These games happen in my head even when I’m leading in a gym, which is ridiculous, if I stop to think about it. I won’t fall very far in any case, and I’m completely safe. And so, usually, the conversation in my head turns into:

It doesn’t actually make any difference if you fall now, or fall a couple of feet up. So why not just make that next move? 

It’s wimping out to drop off. Just make the next move, even if you think you’re going to fail at it. Even if you know you are. Just try it. So you fall slapping for a hold you couldn’t make. Better than shouting “take.”

Just make the move. And if you fail at that, you can rest. But if you succeed. . . 

Well, if you succeed, we’ll have this conversation again in a couple of feet.

And I have that conversation a few times over, and then I’ve had it enough times that I’m at the final anchor. And I come back down, and I do it again.

Thinking about that long, difficult day I’d had, I realized that it had felt a lot like leading. Every time another complication or deadline or problem raised its head, I thought, “I really just want to go home and give up on this crap.” Seriously, the idea of my couch and a couple of anime DVDs would thrust itself in front of my eyes and there was nothing I wanted more.

And each time, I thought, “Look, just solve this, and get on to the next thing, and if everything blows up in your face, then at least you gave it a shot.” Essentially, each time I thought, “Just do the move, and we’ll have this conversation again in a few feet.”

That revelation has helped me since. When I’m having a really hard day, when I really just want to go home and cash it in, I say to myself, under my breath, “Just do the move.”

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The Shoes of Sharpness

DSCF4449I think, after two months or so of breaking in, I can safely say I’m a fan of my new shoes.

There’s a thing you need to know, if you don’t climb: climbing shoes are astounding technology, involving a deep and intense knowledge of foot anatomy that I will never even remotely understand. The people who make these things do stuff with structure, with rubber, with leather and fastenings, that actually makes a difference to the performance of the shoe, and the bumbly wearing the shoe. It’s . . . freaking alchemy.

Anyway, I spent rather a long time at MEC, agonizing over buying my latest pair, a set of La Sportiva Katanas. I knew that my go-to Nagos were great all-day, long-day, walk-around-at-the-bottom-of-the-crag shoes. I also knew that a lot of people buy “aspirational” gear – stuff that’s way too technical for them. I remembered a friend of mine who, a year or so into climbing, bought a pair of pretty aggressive, technical shoes in hopes they’d make her climb harder, valiantly climbed through the pain for a few months, then sold them off again in defeat because her climbing had actually suffered because she couldn’t put her feet on anything without flinching.

(Because this is the other thing non-climbers should know about rock shoes: they are tight. Seriously tight. It’s hard to walk in most models. They work great if you’re hanging off your fingertips and need something to help your toe cling to that little crystal. They suck for anything humans normally do with their feet.)

So I didn’t want to talk myself into buying shoes that would actually hurt my climbing game. But I also didn’t – exactly – want to buy the all-day-comfort, perfect-for-beginners shoe again. I thought maybe, maybe, I might want to step it up. I texted friends from the bench where I was trying on the Katanas, then the old pair, then the Katanas again. Because I also knew that whatever the shoes feel like when you put them on, it is absolutely no indication of how they will feel after a five-minute climb, or a five-hour multipitch. And that it’s also true that whatever they feel like when you put them on, you don’t know what the breaking-in process will do.

But, I figured why not? I have old pairs of comfy shoes for those long multipitch days – with holes blown in the toes, but still serviceable – and I can get them resoled, resole them myself, or buy a new pair if I have to (they’re not that pricey as climbing shoes go). And I wanted to see what would happen if I took my shoes up a level.

DSCF4456I never want to say that a few millimeters more or less, here or there, in the structure of my gear matters, but. These shoes hurt a lot. I couldn’t wear them two days in a row for a while, and I collapsed onto the floor at the gym to pull them off between climbs. They burned. But then, after a while, they didn’t hurt so much (though I had a bit of a backslide a week ago when I cut a toenail too short. Ow).

And I was sending stuff I didn’t send before. Between finally conquering a route I’d been fighting for months at the gym, and clean TR and second sends of Welcome to the Machine and Tits ‘n’ Ass at Lac Sam, I was actually noticing a difference. I did a 5.10c at Montagne d’Argent in one fall a while back. Best I’ve ever done on that route. And then one day, bouldering at the gym, I put a foot way out for a tiny hold at the edge of my reach, and it stuck there. Magically.

Confirmation bias? I don’t think so, after this long. Here’s what I experience: when I’m in the middle of a route, and put a foot out for a hold, I am conscious of the energy all the way to the end of my big toe. I feel ways of using that energy that I didn’t before. The shoes force your smaller toes inward, focusing power into the big toe. Being that aware of my toes makes them feel more prehensile. It keeps my footwork in mind.

I’ve noticed that when I’m going for a small foothold in the gym, I need to be precise because these freaking shoes will stick to the texture of the wall above them if I’m a little bit too high. They’re forcing better footwork, and by extension, more economic use of the handholds I’m using. I even feel as though when I pop my feet on overhanging stuff to reset them, I’m doing it with more grace. My legs climb smarter.

Also, after a couple of months, I can keep them on longer and longer. Only pulled them off a couple of times tonight, and not with anything like the same kind of collapse-to-the-floor desperation.

Apparently, I was climbing better enough – and raving enough about The Shoes of Sharpness – that David (the traddest of trad, long-day-comfy-shoe climbers) finally caved and got a pair of more aggressive shoes himself – though not Katanas; they didn’t have them in his size. He got some Scarpas instead, and brought them to the gym tonight, and I might have crowed a little. “Come to the Dark Side! We have blisters!” I said, as he pulled the Velcro free even as I was lowering him off climbs. But, he did sail through a 5.11b/c. . .

Slight differences in construction. Noticeable differences in my climbing. Feeling pretty good about finally stepping up to the “aspirational” shoes.

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Saving Daylight

2014-11-02 16.24.13Daylight Savings time ended last night, so the sun went down at around 4:50 PM today. It’s getting dark a lot faster these days. And something about the sun going down an hour earlier seems to switch everyone into “winter mode.” You start pulling the winter jackets out, turning on the heat. You turn to face the snow that’s eventually coming, you think about how it feels to walk on ice, and you go get winter tires put on.

Add to that the fact that it’s November, and the weather was calling for temperatures around 4 degrees, and most people were bailing on climbing.

They chose poorly.

David and I met up around 8:30 to head to Home Cliff. Generally, it’s a no-go zone in the summer: it’s south-facing, and if the weather’s warm it’s almost intolerably hot. In mid-July or so, the wasps that nest in the ground come out and get aggressive, and through August they’ll attack anyone that gets close. But in the early spring and the late fall it’s sheltered from the prevailing wind, it faces the sun, the wasps are gone, and the rock warms up early and holds the heat of the sun late. It’s our go-to spot at the thin ends of the season, and it hardly ever disappoints.

When we pulled up along the road and got out of the car to hike across the farm to the cliff, the wind was bitter cold, and we worried a bit, but by the time we’d scrambled up to the crag we were a lot less worried. We were also peeling off our outer layers, and the rock was warm. I got up to the crag first, and I was basking on a slab of stone by the time David joined me. My shirt had come up a little and I realized my back was touching the stone with no chill.

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Back to the Wall – my second lead of the day.

It was a gorgeous day: not warm, but we were never cold. Maybe on belay we’d pull on the extra fleece, but, climbing, I was in a long sleeved tee and comfortable. The sun was warm, the breeze was light, and the sky was an incredible shade of blue. The rock was warm enough that you didn’t worry about your hands, and cool enough that it stuck like glue to your feet. It was just about as close to perfect as it gets; and we had the whole crag to ourselves, aside from a couple of hikers who clambered up the approach trail and headed on up toward the top of the escarpment.

I’d been feeling a little off on the way up, but I took the opportunity to do a lot of gear leading on easy ground. I haven’t done much this season and on my way up Main Corner I realized I still need practice, especially with tricams. So I placed a ton of gear – more than I needed to – but that in itself was fun, looking for ways to place gear, reminding myself that sometimes there’s no easy placement and you have to climb higher, reminding myself – well, having David remind me – that sometimes I need to remember why I got the nickname “Runout.” (I did, eventually, find myself back in “Runout” mode: on the last climb of the day, after a moment where I got stuck, I got on a roll and started just climbing. David asked, “So, are you just going to climb straight through to the anchor?” and – for a moment – I thought about it. . . but then I thought better.)

2014-11-02 12.39.26The head game is interesting. When you’re on easy ground, you could either stop every metre or so and place gear, or you could just keep climbing. It doesn’t actually matter: but when you’re about to go into a more committing set of moves, a sequence where you know you won’t be able to place anything, it’s good to plug one or two pieces in. I think one of the things I learned today was the “or two” part of that equation. If you’re going into a big set of moves – you’re going to have to get over a bulge, through a steep section, the moves are sketchy – place two, hell, three, pieces below it. Then just go for it. Just climb. The next time you have a moment to breathe and think will logically be the next moment to place something else. Don’t try to get fancy and place anything mid-crux: there’s not really much point.

I led three different routes, and David decided, because there was no one else around, to go for some rumoured thing called Arete and Ramp, which turned out to be a meandering, truly trad (I like my latest neologism, “tradcore”) beast that roamed from the base of Back to the Wall over to the anchors for Peggy. It was messy and unclimbed, and following him up it I pulled a really sizeable rock off the wall. Not something you expect at a place as heavily traveled as Home Cliff. Nor was the sketchy traverse across a ledge with birch trees growing out of it, covered in loose rocks, oak leaves, and dirt. Not the best part of the climb. The rest was pretty good though.

And once we were at the anchor, we could both rappel down from it and toprope Peggy, an area classic. The only tricky part on Peggy is at the bottom, a set of moves around a bulge on small ledges and locks for your fingers, and I think I probably did better on that than I’ve ever done before – flashed the moves at the bottom, then sailed through the beautiful climbing above it. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that climb: there’s something about it.

2014-11-02 16.15.37As the sun was starting to set, I led Crack and Block, then traversed over to put a rope on One Up. It’s a climb with one daunting move: I’ve climbed to that move before and struggled with it before. The one move is a polished, rounded layback handhold or two, working your feet up a bit, then lunging for a big jug. You can’t – well, I couldn’t – finesse your way up to the big handhold: the crack’s too rounded and flaring. You have to just pop up for it.

And when you do, and your hand sticks, it’s satisfying as all hell.

At this point the sun was sinking fast, so we packed up, stowed everything, and picked our way down through the talus and loose, slick oak leaves to the field. We were walking across the field exactly at sunset, watching the escarpment start to glow.

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Why I scrub rock in the rain

On Saturday it was drizzly, with patches of actual rain, and around 10 degrees. Climbing wasn’t on the cards. But David suggested, since we were both free, that we could go out to Lac Sam for some cleaning and bolting.

So I broke out the merino base layer, pulled on my windproof shell pants and my rain jacket, and we headed out, late in the morning (not feeling a whole lot of pressure to get out there early).

IMG_3168It rained all the way out, and the hike in was full of slippery, fallen maple and beech leaves and slicks of rich black mud. But it was only drizzling by the time we made it to the top of the crag, dropped our packs, and hunkered down for a moment to eat something and have a slug of hot tea before we started working.

The plan was that we’d go put some anchors at the top of the new climb I sussed out last time we were here, a little bit to the left of the anchor station we already have on Pink Floyd Wall. Then I’d start down on rappel to clean and scrub my project, while David ran off to put a couple extra bolts into T ‘n’ A (he did finally decide it was a good call to add them) and a bolt to protect the approach to the Falling Frog/Big Finish area. Then he’d come back, and bolt Welcome to the Machine.

So we picked our way along the wet rock to the top of Pink Floyd Wall,  and David clipped in to the anchor there, and headed over to the edge where we thought the anchor for the new climb (let’s call it Furry Animals) should be. David put the first bolt in while explaining the process to me: then handed me the drill for the second.

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My first bolt! So proud.

So you figure out where you want to put the bolt (in solid rock, away from any faults or weaknesses), you smash at the spot with a hammer just to see if there are any faults you couldn’t see, then you get the drill set up. You drill in a couple of inches, perpendicular to the surface of the rock, probably stopping about halfway to let the bit cool. Then you blow the dust out of the hole through a plastic tube to clear it, set the expansion bolt (which is what we’re using) into the hole with the hanger all set up, and drive it in with the hammer. When you’re close enough (like a half inch of bolt sticking out) you adjust the angle of the bolt hanger to where it lies flattest against the rock, tighten the nut down with your fingers, then get out the torque wrench and tighten it down to 20 pound-feet of pressure. (More and you might weaken it.) And you have a bolt!

Having put in my first bolt, I then set up on the new anchor, and started the long, slow, chilly, inch-by-inch rappel down, with a wire brush, crowbar, and gardening cultivator clipped, via a number of carabiners, to my harness, and the rope wrapped multiple times around my right leg as a friction brake.

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Cleaning is . . . not something a lot of my other climbing friends jump to volunteer for. It’s kind of unglamorous, unless your idea of glamorous is thuggish gearheadedness, crowbar-wielding, and a willingness to get utterly filthy,

I looked for things that seemed like possible holds, and scrubbed at them with the wire brush to get the lichen off – that grey dusty wax paper lichen, and the big stubborn brown rock tripe that’s harder to remove. I checked for places where rocks might be loose, and pried them out with the crowbar, sending them rolling and ricocheting down the cliff. As I got lower, I started thinking about what the moves might be, trying to remember what I did the last time I climbed it, and scrubbed off any available ledge, edge, crack, or sidepull. With a hiking boot braced in the muddy, dirt-filled, dripping corner of the dihedral, I unclipped and reclipped the cleaning gear on my harness to free my hands up to reach up and feel for holds. Would that one be what you wanted to go for? How about this? Where would your feet be, if you were climbing this?

When a section seemed as clean as I could get it, I’d loosen the rope, lower a couple more feet, and keep going. It’s a balance between a cursory sweep and Clean All The Things. You can’t scrub a whole rock face clean of lichen. Even if you did, it would just come back next year. You have to pick your battles (or, you know, your crevices and ledges.)

I did have some fun with some biggish chunks of rock.

Halfway down I started to get cold and damp and shivery. I halfheartedly maneuvered on the rope, stretched out a kink in my leg, raked at a patch of mud with the cultivator hoping to clear off something useful, but I was bonking, and starting to get pretty chilled. My core temperature’s energy needs were starting to trump the rest of me.

Clif bars in your pocket? Are amazing. Calories? Totally underrated.

With a little energy restored, I scratched away at the muddy and awkward bottom half of the route, trying to figure out what to do with it (I had a couple of options for where the first few metres of the route should go).

At this point, David had finished with the other stuff and he was hanging just on the other side of a bulge of overhanging rock between us, so I could lean back a bit and talk to him. His drill’s battery was starting to give out, though, so at the second last bolt he agreed we should probably pack it in. I scrubbed a bit more, but mostly just rappelled down to the ledge, and across to where he was, then switched onto his rope for the sketchy wet downclimb to the “main” base of the crag so we could walk along to the steep gully that gets you back up to the top.

IMG_3189At the top, there was the last slug of warm tea, rope hauling and coiling, packing up, and a hike out before the wind picked up.

A couple of times this weekend, I’ve wound up explaining to people why I would choose to do this with my Saturday. I hadn’t really thought about it in specific terms before.

I’ve felt an affection for Lac Sam ever since David and I came over here, with another friend, and first paddled across the lake to discover Lower Cliff. And then again when, a month or so later, the two of us set out to climb up from lake level to the top, and discovered Upper Cliff. It is exciting to have this beautiful crag to explore and develop. Discovering climbing routes – some of them pretty darn good – that no one climbed before? That’s cool. Hanging out on the top of the cliff on a sunny day and knowing you’re the only climbers around – the only people around? Also cool.

(Watching a boat go by on the lake below and wondering if anyone’s looked up and said, “holy shit, someone’s climbing that cliff up there!” is also pretty fun.)

But also, putting in the hours on rappel to clean and establish a route, grinding dirt into the blisters on your knuckles, getting your rope dirty and soggy, clearing loose rock and putting in the protection: all of that is my way of giving back to the sport. I love this sport and I want to contribute to it. I can’t contribute as a great athlete, or as a trainer, or anything. But I’m doing three things out there in the rain on a development day: I’m learning about rock, about gear and about routesetting; I’m working on a project (just not on the level you see in the films); and I’m putting in the Little Red Hen level of work, helping to open up a place for other people to climb.

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September Spectacular

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Well, if you are a climber and you weren’t out this weekend and didn’t have a darn good reason, like injury or emergency, then maybe you need to turn in your climber card. It was . . . restoratively gorgeous out there.

DSCF4461There were supposed to be a number of other people coming out with David and me on Saturday, but when I got to his place, they’d all bailed or switched to Sunday. Which meant we could go. . . anywhere. Given that the forecast was for mid-20s with high UV, we ruled out the more notorious high-summer griddles like Home Cliff and the Weir. Then, given that it was just the two of us, and David had been wanting to go to lead Tits ‘n’ Ass and finally make it official – and he wouldn’t be able to go with the Sunday group, too many new climbers – and I anticipated that with all the leaves turning it would be the most beautiful of the areas we can get to. . . we picked Lac Sam, and loaded up the car.

This is quite possibly the best time of year to climb. And Lac Sam guarantees you solitude (it’s just us out there, so far) and beauty. I felt a lot more inspired, and we ended up ticking a decent number of goals.

David setting up on the top of Pink Floyd Wall.

David setting up on the top of Pink Floyd Wall.

We rappelled in to Pink Floyd Wall first because David wanted to check out where he might be able to put a couple of bolts on the start of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, a route that starts out with some big juggy overhanging moves on what is actually kind of crappy rock. It’s a bit friable and feels porous to me. And on the opening overhanging moves, a lead fall would send you off the belay ledge and down some steep terrain: not good. So, we want to get a bolt in on the underside of the overhang, something you can clip before you get off the ground, enough to protect you through those first moves. Then, another one when you get established above the overhang. After that, it’s a straightforward gear lead with great and abundant placements, so we’re going to leave it as a mixed climb. (David opted against hauling the Hilti and hardware out, so we planned bolts but didn’t place.)

I got a reminder about climbing undeveloped rock, though: partway up Shine On I had a small handhold snap off under my fingers. I popped off, and fell. . . and kept falling. . . and fetched up about 10 or 12 feet below where I’d been,whooped, and then laughed like a loon for a bit. I’d been on top rope, of course, but a 70-metre rope has one heck of a lot of stretch to it. It was a totally clean fall, and felt a little like a bungee. Fun. (Getting back onto the climb was a little bit of a challenge, though.)

So after a big fun fall, I was set to pull off some other big stuff, climbing more cautiously (remembering that this rock is undeveloped and you need to be a lot more careful about your moves) but with a fall under my belt to make me a little bolder. Between that and The Shoes of Sharpness, I managed to send Welcome to the Machine (I’ve sent it before, but not, I think, this year). The first challenge is right off the ground, a tricky rockover onto a small foot with a bulge below you; the second is about 2/3 of the way up, when you come up against a chunk of thin face climbing with a sloping ledge for your foot, a couple of vertical edges for your hands, and a biggish move up to a really big solid flake for your left hand. . . I did it way more dynamically than I have before, and it was fun.

DSCF4456Ah yeah. The Shoes of Sharpness. I mentioned that my last pair committed spectacular self-immolation a while back at Montagne d’Argent. I headed off to MEC and spent quite a while agonizing: go with the trusty workhorse La Sportiva Nagos, or try kicking it up a notch with the slightly more aggressive Katanas? After a lot of deliberating, I went with the Katanas, figuring I could resole one of the three pairs of Nagos I already own for long days, multipitch and slabs. The Katanas hurt like a sonuvabitch for the first couple of sessions. I would come off a climb and collapse to the mat to pull themoff desperately. I wouldn’t be able to wear them two days in a row. But slowly, slowly, I’m getting used to them: and slowly I’m learning to love them. I really feel like I’m climbing better in them, in general. Smarter, with more focus. And they stick to the tiniest stuff. At the gym, they threaten to stick to the texture on the wall above the hold I’m aiming for, they’re that sticky.

Anyway, I feel like the shoes gave me a boost heading up Welcome to the Machine.

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David’s rope, up the first free ascent of Tits ‘n’ Ass: photo taken from the vantage point of the second, partway up.

After that, David thought it was time to go after his goal for the day: leading Tits ‘n’ Ass, which he bolted a few months ago, and making it official. So we rappelled down to the base and he started up it. I had taken a look at the bolts back in July and they looked . . . run out, but the climbing’s not bad in the long sections. Still, I had mentioned the runout to David at the time, and he’d scoffed and said the bolting was fine. So I laughed at him when, partway up the lead, I heard him say, “Man, these bolts are really far apart. What was the asshole that bolted this thing thinking, anyway?”

“Yeah,” I said. “He’s probably some cowboy who decided the climbing was so easy he didn’t need to waste hardware. . .”

Personally, I was super pleased that, climbing second, I sent the climb with no falls: the first time I’ve ever made it up without a fall. It’s a great route, really: up some blocky stuff to a bulge which is all broken up underneath but dauntingly holdless on the upper slope. It’s a puzzle rather than strength-based, and if you focus, think, and move slow, you can make it through the bulge, only to discover a stretch of tricky, sloping, insecure climbing before you reach the bolt. After that there’s a decent stretch of just less than vertical climbing with a few interesting moves, and then you get to the most salient feature: the gap between two big roofs, which look enough like breasts from below to give the climb its name. You have to climb up to just below the roofs, then maneuver through the offwidth, flaring gap between them somehow. Sooner or later, you wind up wedged in the gap around your waist, with your butt hanging out below and your feet flailing blind. You find something for the feet, reach up for a magic edge with the left hand, and I wound up chimneying up into the dihedral, pressing my back against the right side. Hey, it worked. As I got through the gap, I whooped.

“And that’s the first time I’ve ever got that thing clean!” I crowed.

“Great,” David said. “Now don’t screw up and fall on the rest of the climb.”

The climb is below me: victory shot at the top of T'n'A.

The climb is below me: victory shot at the top of T’n’A.

The rest is a lovely walk up the arete on the right side of the dihedral, then some moves on good ledges and up into the dead easy scramble to the anchor, and I did manage not to do anything stupid and fall, or break a hold and fall. And I was pretty pleased with myself. Again, I had felt like I was climbing smarter, more deliberately, and I had more energy moving into the hard part than usual, because I’d been conserving it. Between that and smart foot placement, I got through it.

We scrambled for the shelter of the trees again (the sun was reallyintense, and it felt like summer) and decided against either of us leading Scylla and Charybdis, just down the crag. We were just feeling too sun-stunned. So we rappelled in and top roped it for the fun of it – it’s possibly one of the best climbs at the crag, with a nice rhythm and a number of big, committing moves up at the top, where you move through a series of mini-bulges. I have attempted leading it before and backed off: it takes some creative gear placement and I don’t think I have enough experience yet to see the gear. Last time I tried, I realized I was asking David about every placement, and once I was out of eyeshot, I’d be screwed: I backed off. It’s still on my goal list: I just think it’s a little further along the trad learning curve.

And then it was time to chill out and do some exploring. We’d already peered at the rock just to climber’s left of the established stuff on Pink Floyd Wall, picking our way over across a gap in the grassy ledge, and thought we saw something up a corner before the rock ran out and got less interesting. There was a neat corner we wanted to check out. So we rappelled off the Pink Floyd anchor, heading off to the left. I was first down this time: trundled some big loose rocks and got to have that moved-rock smell (there is a distinct smell when you move a big heavy chunk of rock off a cliff). But most of the rock looked really solid and the possibilities looked. . . cool.

David rappelling down what might be two new project routes at the edge of Pink Floyd Wall.

David rappelling down what might be two new project routes at the edge of Pink Floyd Wall.

There’s a big old cedar curving out of the rock just below a sloping ledge: above it there’s a corner and a steep face, and below it there’s some blocky climbing. I went up under the tree, negotiated my way around it, traversed up the face just a little above the vegetated slope, then got into the corner only to find that all the fun climbing was on the face anyway (and it was really good: a little tricky but there were plenty of holds: the climb itself might come in at a 5.5 or 5.6 once it’s cleaned). It was a really cute climb (sometimes the adjective “cute” is just the one that works). I got to the top and brought David up: he opted for the arete, and said that with the lichen cleaned off it might also be a really good, easy climb in the same kind of range. I have a name or two already picked out for the corner: since it’s part of Pink Floyd Wall, either Ummagumma (I think I like that option) or Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict.

So now I just need to clean it, bolt it, and lead it, and it’ll be mine to name. Hah.

And with a couple of new routes identified, and a couple of goals met, and a whole lot of gorgeousness absorbed, we called it a day and headed back into town.

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Attitude adjustment

I was having a slightly demoralized day last weekend: it was a rainy day but we’d gone out anyway to Western Cwm. Still, the rock was wet enough that the guys I was climbing with made the assumption I wouldn’t want to lead anything (fair enough, I didn’t, really, but I was kicking myself out of girl-guilt for not), and I got my butt whipped by a climb that I have sent in the past but haven’t managed to send in a couple of years. I was a month out of practice and feeling lumpish. And everyone else – everyone, including the newbie with us – were clearly a lot stronger and more fit than me.

At one point I used heading off into the woods to pee as an excuse to get away from the group for a few moments and deal with my brain and its ego problems.

So I left my gear at the base of the rock, walked out and away from the crag and the access trail, did my thing, and then stood for a moment breathing and listening to the trees rustle. It was actually starting to get warm – after a drizzly morning – so I took the opportunity to change out of my wool base shirt and pull my t-shirt back on. And for a bit I stood in the warmish fall woods with my shirt off and the breeze on my skin, and I started to feel better. I reminded myself why I come out here, and it’s not to climb harder than anyone else. It’s to enjoy doing what I do and being outside doing it. And then I went back to join the others.

And I have to thank David for coming to get me, before my second run at the climb that had spanked me, saying, “Can you come climb something for me and take the anchor down?” He’d led some easy unnamed trad line next to Mr Toady’s Dihedral on Reaper Wall in order to get an anchor on it, and wanted me to follow that line, then unsling a tree at the top of that line and do a traverse of about six feet rightward, from a little way above the anchor, to where I could get down onto the anchor and be lowered. I’ve done this kind of thing before, and as he pointed out to me, of the group we were with, I was the one most likely to be comfortable with doing moves like that above the anchor.

He was right: though all three of the others were stronger than me physically, I was more likely to be okay with the sketch factor. I’ve spent longer on outdoor rock and I’ve done way worse traverses after unhooking anchors. So I climbed the easy route, got up to the lip of the rock, took the sling off the tree, put a foot way out to the side on a little edge, switched my weight over onto it, dumped all my balance into a sidepull that was right in front of me to hang rightward, and made the traverse across and then down and onto the anchor. It was a little scary, taking that sling off the tree, sure. And my left hip and right calf sure felt the tension. But I could do it. And it was just what I needed to do, since I’d been feeling so bad about my climbing. I did a little more of that kind of clifftop anchor-moving that afternoon, with a whole lot of extra confidence.

Everyone else might have been stronger than me, but I’m bolder than I think I am. It meant something to have that pointed out to me.

So between a couple of moments of quiet in the trees remembering what matters, and having someone make me remember that I can be more of a badass than I think I am, my mood was greatly improved.

Not even dampened by the fact that when I grabbed a belayer and ran up to North Wall to get a gear lead in at the end of the day, the skies opened in a downpour when I was halfway up, meaning I finished in the rain, built an anchor in the rain, and then belayed in the rain so we could take it down. Then we packed up a sodden rope and gear, pulled on wet raincoats, and picked our way – carefully – down the path to the car in the rain.

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Sawteeth Summit

From the summit of Sawteeth Mt., High Peaks, Adirondack Park. When you can't climb rock, climb mountains.

From the summit of Sawteeth Mt. When you can’t climb rock, climb mountains.

So this weekend, because Jex is on an enforced recuperative hiatus from climbing (to let a finger heal) we went hiking in the Adirondack High Peaks instead, and climbed Sawteeth Mountain. Now I think I have a new bucket list goal: all 46 official over-4000-footers in the High Peaks. Two down: this one, and that peak over there on the right of the photo: that’s Gothics. Which I summited the hard way in 2011.

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La Sportiva, can you ever forgive me? Can you take me back?

Last summer I picked up a pair of Scarpa men’s Technos online on a members-only sale site. They were $25, what was I supposed to do? And they were tight, but they fit fine. I did lots and lots of climbing in them. I went to England and Scotland in them. And they started developing holes in the toes – the tips of the toes – this spring. (I know that it’s partly because when I make big rockover moves, I hop my lower foot up the wall to help a little. I know that’s tough on shoe rubber. But it’s also how I pull the moves.)

So, I went back to MEC. They didn’t have my usual, workhorse, fit-like-a-glove La Sportiva Nagos in stock, so I poked around a bit and settled on a pair of Scarpas again, Helixes this time. I picked them up so I’d have them for the Red River Gorge trip in April.

The first few times you buy shoes, you don’t know what you want. Then you find a brand you like and maybe you stick with it for ages. Then you start figuring out, by buying and wearing other stuff, what it is you *don’t* want.

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Scarpa Helix-induced blisters. (Yeah, the nail polish is wearing a bit off. I’m mean to my feet.)

The Helixes were not a great call. They didn’t really hurt my climbing: but man, did they hurt my feet. They caused blisters on my big toe: I started slipping my shoes off every chance I could get between climbs (and with lace-ups that’s a pain). I think the problem was that the toebox was too boxy: they fit my foot, but smashed my big toenails back hard into the toe (even clipped back as far as I could manage). By the end of the day, my feet would be burning.

And the rubber was thin. Both the Technos and the Helixes wore through a lot faster than my Nagos usually did. I could usually wear a set of Nagos for a year and a half or two: the Technos lasted ten months, the Helixes just five, and then this weekend, working on some smear-heavy, high-texture granite at Montagne d’Argent, this happened.

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The rubber just peeled off in great flakes. I lost a chunk about the size of my little fingernail on l’Écaille du Dragon, on the big layback moves up the top of the flake. And the rest came off on a tough crack climb that was too hard for me. I know I was scrabbling a lot on it. And it didn’t help that by the time I made it through the crux, I was scrabbling on that smooth white plastic. (Other shoes I’ve worn have leather under the rubber, and it doesn’t peel nearly as fast. The plastic was a surprise: I thought these shoes were supposed to be more sensitive, and I feel like this would be a lot stiffer than leather.)

I get that the rubber on these shoes probably isn’t meant to take out the punishment I was giving it this weekend. I had a weak weekend: my head was gone (of which more later maybe) and I wasn’t feeling particularly strong. Which meant I scrabbled a lot, I slipped and fell. I lost skin as well as shoe rubber. But still: between being uncomfortable, particularly for longer days, and having fairly flimsy rubber, I’m really not regretting retiring these shoes. With thanks for helping me clarify what I want, and for a couple of good days, and a no thanks for the blisters, aching toes, and the surprise slippery plastic.

I’m going back to La Sportiva, if she’ll have me.

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Age and experience = score

There really is no substitute for experience. One of the great things about climbing is how much opportunity there is to learn from more experienced people, and the things you learn can be really surprising. Experienced climbers know a lot of odd things about how rock behaves: for instance, that rock isn’t actually hard, permanent, or immovable. Rock actually flows and flexes. Experienced climbers also know a lot about the application of force and physics. I got a demonstration this weekend.

We were up at the STD Wall at Rigaud on Saturday, an area I hadn’t been to before a week or so ago. When we got there, I spotted a bright yellow sling sticking out of a crack very low on the rock. “What the hell?” I thought, and went to check it out. When I got there, I saw that it was, indeed, a cam, and a brand new one – a C3 #2, in fact, in nearly mint condition.

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My reconstruction of what happened was this: a new-ish trad climber had gone out and assembled a rack. Judging from where the cam was lodged, they’d plugged it into the wall to hang their rack, the way a lot of people do, but they weren’t familiar enough with small cams to know that they’re really easy to overcam. You have to be really delicate with them. They pulled the trigger all the way back, plugged the cam pretty deep, hung their rack, and then couldn’t get the cam back out. I imagine they fought with it for a while, trying to squeeze the trigger harder and not being able to get it any smaller, trying to wiggle and slide it up and down in the crack. Eventually, probably with curses, they had to abandon it. There goes $50 or so. It is now, how we say in climbing, “booty.” Whosoever shall pull this cam from out this stone is rightwise owner of it.

And it was brand spanking new. I really, really wanted to get that cam out. Most of my “discount rack” is made up of hand-me-downs, booty pieces and repair jobs. Plus, it was a challenge. So, between climbs, I’d go over to the cam and start trying to figure out how it went in and how it might come out. When I managed to get it to slide up a few centimeters and into a slightly wider chunk of the crack, and then forward a bit toward the outside, I really got determined. I got a nut tool and started trying to break away the loose flakes of rock inside the crack to widen it. I jimmied the nut tool behind it to try and wiggle the lobes a bit more selectively: maybe I could slowly walk it forward that way. . .

Then one of the guys we’d ended up climbing with, Calvin, a climber with something like 30 years of experience, came by to take a look at it. He went back to his gear, pulled out a slightly bigger cam, and brought it back. He stuck the bigger cam in, a little above the C3 where the crack widened, and we tried pulling on it to pry the crack a little wider. That didn’t work, so Calvin clipped a sling into it, and stepped up into the sling.

See, how a cam works is that it’s a force multiplier. You pull the trigger back to pull the lobes together, reducing its width. Then when the cam is placed in a crack and the trigger’s released, the lobes press out against the rock. When force is applied to the stem, the lobes expand out harder against the rock. The harder you fall onto it, the better it sticks.

Calvin’s weight on the sling put enough force into the bigger cam’s lobes that the crack in the rock actually expanded: just a tiny bit. Just enough that the C3 came out as easily as if it had been placed properly. It was the coolest trick I’ve seen in a while. Though he’d really been the one to get it out, Calvin handed the cam over to me and said I could have it. I did happy dances.

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I know, intellectually, that climbing involves forces that are massive, but it’s still amazing to see it demonstrated like this. Look up what a kilonewton is: as far as I can tell, a fall from 10 feet above my last piece would generate, for me, something over a thousand pounds of force. If I’m falling on a cam, it’s directing that force against the walls of the crack and multiplying it. If just stepping on a cam can spread a crack in granite, think how hard the cam must bite into the rock on a fall. And the engineering is as amazing as the physics: these things can bend the rock before they’ll break.

And now, I have a brand new piece of gear as well as a renewed respect for the kilonewton and a lingering sense that rock is a much more complex beast to interact with than you’d think at first.

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Note to self: don’t save the steepest for last

Having been kept out of the Dacks by rain, David and I ended up spending the whole long weekend on local crags (Round Lake – which I’ll talk about in another post – Montagne d’Argent and Rigaud). Three straight days of sport cragging makes for a tired, tired climber – at the Dacks we would have been doing longer, multipitch trad routes. The routes themselves would have been much longer but the climbing wouldn’t have been as strenuous, simply because when you’re climbing long trad you tend to be climbing significantly below your grade. But when you’re cragging, especially sport, especially somewhere you can get top ropes up, you can climb much harder stuff.

Which meant that by the third day, when we met up and decided where to go, I should not have settled on Rigaud. It’s not that it was a really bad call, but after two days, including fighting a couple of 5.10s the day before, I was starting to feel it. My energy was a little low. And then I had to deal with Rigaud’s weird (for this area) rock. Rigaud is made of pinkish, high-feldspar, glassy stone that breaks along blocky fault lines. It’s jagged and pointy, with a lot of pillars, deep dihedrals, horns and ledges. Leading at Rigaud can be spooky because of all the blocks and spurs – there are a couple of spots on the easier climbs where a fall could smash you into something if you’re not careful (at least on the harder stuff you’re usually falling off an overhang and into empty air).  At the lower sections of the cliff there’s often ground fall potential.

It’s also steep. Even the areas that aren’t, overall, vertical or more than vertical are often made up of a series of stepped slightly overhanging sections. Which means there are a lot of moves that require you to hang off your hands over empty space trying to walk your feet up high enough to find purchase and push yourself up. To add to that, the holds are often just a little less positive than you’d like and at just the wrong angle for what you want to do with them. It’s upper-body intensive. It asks for arm and hand strength.

So I pick it for the last day of three?

Needless to say, I probably didn’t have as much strength left as I should have, and I did rather a lot of falling off things I probably shouldn’t have been falling off. Then, on top of that, I picked a lead (Morning After) that starts out with a serious overhang, flailed below the second bolt, fell off a few times, and had to have David finish the lead. But, it wasn’t about the tick list, I suppose, and I’m getting to like Rigaud more and more as I figure out how to climb it (it takes a different skill set from the stuff I’m used to/good at). I’m much bolder at Montagne d’Argent where I’m climbing faces and slabs and cracks; Rigaud takes me down a peg.

We did, though, go check out a section of the wall I’d never been to before, off to the right, where there’s a number of harder climbs (in the 10-12 range) and some quite nice easier climbing. I struggled on a 5.9 there that had a burly move, pushing up onto a big ledge with one arm while trying to get a finger ledge above, and trying to get the feet onto something even remotely useful below, and finally had to admit defeat. I don’t often have successful days at Rigaud; but I do have satisfyingly exhausting ones.

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