Supply run: or, shut up and take my money, MEC

When I headed for MEC this afternoon, I only meant to get some stuff for the trip to Kentucky next week: a big widemouth carabiner for belaying because I was tired of my little Hera carabiners crossloading, and a Black Diamond #13 stopper to replace the one of David’s that I kinda sorta dropped down a crevice yesterday. And some wire gates that I could finally hang my cams and nuts and hexes on so I could rack them in smaller sets on my harness. And maybe a camp stove. That was it.

But then I started looking at the Scarpa Helixes and remembering that I have a hole developing in the toe of my Technos, and I’m going on a week-long trip as of Easter Friday, and even if I don’t buy the shoes now, I’ll need to by the middle of the season anyway. So I tried some on, and then grabbed a pair (climbed in them later, and while they’re tight now, the Scarpas break in amazingly fast in my experience – the Technos took about three sessions before they were fine).

Then I went upstairs with Jex, “just to look around,” and I was being really good – I was – until I was on my way to the fitting room to check out some clearance-rack cycling pants, and I passed the Outdoor Research Ferrosi climbing pants on the rack, and even though MEC generally only goes up to size 14 in their technical clothes (grumble grumble) I figured, why not, I can at least try them on (since yesterday I actually climbed in a pair of stretch jeans – comfortable enough but not ideal). I grabbed the last 14s from the rack and headed for the fitting room.

The cycling pants I’d grabbed from the clearance rack were. . . depressing. The Ferrosi pants, though . . . fit me perfectly.

WHAT?

Climbing pants – technical climbing pants – that fit me? That breathe and move and actually pull up over my butt? I felt like I’d stumbled into some wacky alternate universe. Normally, they just don’t make climbing pants – athletic pants of any kind – that fit me. I think I’ve got a strange width-to-depth ratio. MEC doesn’t often carry any pants over size 14, except for their “hiking” and “leisure” pants, and even those generally just don’t fit. I’m just not a shape they plan for, apparently. So finding these was like discovering El Dorado. I didn’t even bat an eye at the price. To have nylon, durable, breathable, soft shell pants designed for climbing? For the first time in my life? Shut up and take my money, MEC.

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Enter the season

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I’ve been waiting for this for weeks: the first climbing day of the season. Yesterday had temperatures in the low teens and bright sun, and Home Cliff faces south. In the summer it’s an uncomfortable, wasp-ridden griddle: but in the spring it is just about perfect. Sunlit, the rock’s warm, you can pull off the jackets, bask on the big slab below the upper cliff, and if the wind stays down, you can even start to get a little too warm.

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Home Cliff is one of the busiest areas on the Escarpment, because the walk in is short and the rock’s good. It’s not super high, but there are some beautiful climbs and it’s probably one of the longest-established areas around. And, on the first glorious day of spring, it was packed with climbers.

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David climbing old school, in his hiking boots.

David discovered, as we were unpacking, that it must be the first day of the season: he’d forgotten his rock shoes at home. And didn’t even have a spare pair (yes, we mocked him for this).  Bruce offered to swap shoes since their feet are about the same size, but while we were all warming up, David led everything in boots. “Kicking it old school,” is what I call it, ever since the time about four years ago that he did the exact same thing one afternoon at Home Cliff.

It was decided that I shouldn’t try leading anything with my hand still damaged (I strained it again last Wednesday on a pockety gym route I had no business being on, and it’s been set back a couple of weeks). Not that I couldn’t climb, but the fear that I might wrench the finger wrong while on lead and let go was a little too prevalent. And I don’t think Bruce leads trad. So David led everything we climbed yesterday. Some of it in hiking boots.

I’ve said it before: particularly in the spring on our first climbing days, I am reminded how much just being out there makes me feel contented and happy. Being on the cliff, climbing or just sitting there in the sun futzing with gear and listening to the clink of carabiners, is like infusing my system with some chemical it’s been missing.

I said it keeps me sane: Jex cocked an eyebrow at me and said, “I think you mean it maintains your equilibrium. I wouldn’t say ‘sane.’”

Me, seconding Piton Highway: an area classic, in my opinion. The crux section in the middle is awesome.

Me, seconding Piton Highway: an area classic, in my opinion. The crux section in the middle is awesome.

We were also joined by David’s friend Hélène, and her two little ones: adorable little dudes, maybe around two and four. The oldest, Valérik, wanted to try climbing, so we harnessed him up and let him give Piton Highway a go, since we had a rope up on it. It’s a long climb, too, one of the longer ones on the crag.

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… and Valérik at the same spot on Piton Highway. Making me look bad.

On the first try he made it as far as the crux section, which is challenging even if you’re a grownup: then his mom climbed it, and then we let him give it another run (patient Bruce belaying all of this). He insisted that he not be pulled up with the rope – no belayer assist – and he fought his way all the way up to the top, to a lot of cheers from us grownups. He was super stoked about it.

I only tried and failed on one: Lavender, which David led (in Bruce’s rock shoes, of course, not in boots) in a couple of falls and had to bail on the final crux moves, going over to a secondary anchor. It’s a tough climb (5.9, but the grades in Gatineau are notoriously stiff), and when I saw how much effort David was putting into it I kind of assumed I might not make it up.

And I didn’t: but I think I gave a good account of myself; no one else in the group even really got off the ground on it. The opening is vertical, edgy, crimpy, and calls for a lot of delicacy and tiny feet; on lead, David said, it’s pretty heady. I spotted him and I was really worried he was going to come down on my head, on the steep ground at the base. Then there’s some power moves to get over a lip, and then you get into a section with a slippery feldspar vertical crack for your right hand, a tiny edge for your left, and a gigantic, above-the-hip high steep that you have to make and rock over onto off of small and slippery handholds, and by that time I just didn’t have the juice for it.

So, at the end of the day, David had to re-climb Lavender to take the gear down: everyone else being pooped, I climbed Piton Highway again to take down the anchor. You know it’s been a good day when, starting into the first moves of a 5.7, you can feel how tired you are.

Great way to ring in spring.

Next weekend: Red River Gorge!

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A first-trip-of-the-season teaser. . .

We have plans for Easter weekend (and the following week)! I’m kind of excited.

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Ups and downs

Well, this weekend I repeated the dyno I stuck for the first time last weekend: a few times, even. Once, even, when my friend Mike was watching. He said he could tell I didn’t quite have the muscle integration down: there’s a fast-twitch muscle response that isn’t quite trained in, and he could see it in the way I moved. But it felt good to nail that short dyno a couple of times in a row.

And then we headed off to do some bouldering: I don’t often get to boulder with a group of people who are all climbing about the same level. The other two, Mike and a friend of his, are both stronger than me, I think, in terms of big muscle groups, but I’ve got the technique and balance to make up for it so we could work the same problems and be in about the same space, coming off at the same spots, working out the same sections, which is a cool feeling.

Sadly. . . toward the end of the session we were up in the upstairs cave, and I tried a problem with a start move that involved a big undercling and a full-body tensed position to get set up on the problem, and I tried it, and I couldn’t hold it, and when my balance tipped backward the angle of my hand was just that bit wrong, and the damn strained tendon decided to fail on me.

I sat for a bit, rubbing the forearm and trying to feel how bad it was, and I did a couple of other problems and they weren’t too bad, but after about twenty minutes it was clear that I’d gone and injured it again, and the Voice of Reason told me to quit.

So, I went home and iced it. I think (I hope) that it’s not really that bad: it just feels bruised, so a few days of rest and I’ll take it for another spin.

Still. Dammit. But, focusing on the good things, I did pull off that dyno several times in a row. Go me.

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Rice buckets and dyno ladies (or, training, training)

Yesterday I got to do a satisfyingly long session at Coyote with Jex and a couple of other friends. I feel like I’m almost recovered from the injury, which is a nice feeling: sent a couple of the 5.9s I’ve had my eye on, but didn’t go after anything harder just yet. And Jex was sharing some of the stuff she’s learning in her climbing course: some of it things we already knew but just never really got around to doing, like doing laps on easier routes to build endurance, doing exercises to strengthen tendons and core, that kind of thing. Training.

Jex introduced me to “the rice bucket”: which is exactly what it sounds like: a big bucket full of something like 10 pounds of rice. (My friend Mike, who was also climbing with us, said there are also sand buckets and rock buckets: I presume the rice bucket is the baby version). There are a bunch of exercises you can do with your hands buried up to mid-forearm in a bucket of rice, and most of them will make your forearm muscles burn and pump out in less than a minute (if you’re me). It was a feeling I haven’t had since I started climbing and had that crazy, pumped, hands-like-dead-fish feeling after an hour or so.

One of them sounds ridiculously easy until you actually do it: stick just your fingertips into the rice, then flick it away as fast as you can, extending the fingers as much as you can. Feels silly for about ten seconds. Then your muscles start burning. Ditto for the one where you stick your arms in up to mid-forearm and then rotate your fists, clockwise, then counterclockwise, against the resistance of the rice.

I’d also brought along my fake-leading rope, a 20-or-so-foot length of rope David had left over from our falling-rock mishap a while back. You tie it in as though you’re going to lead, then tie in to the toprope (or autobelay) as well, and climb as though you’re leading, clipping the loose end of rope through the draws as you go up. It’s surprisingly harder: for one thing you have to stop and clip – which is mostly why I do this, since my clipping technique is brutally bad – and you have to plan how and where you’re going to rest, which holds you’re going to go for, which ones you think you can hang onto with one hand, while you free the other hand for clipping. You have to think ahead a bit more.

photoThere was another pair of women there bouldering, too: Jex knew them from her acroyoga group. We stopped to talk for a bit, as they were working on the dyno wall. Since the last major reset of the problems on the big boulder, there’s been an area set up that lets you work on dynos (the jumping moves where you launch yourself up and go for a big hold with both hands, flying for a minute). They were there, and I was glad to go over and try practicing them, because, as I said, “not as many women can do them.”

“Hey,” said one of the bouldering ladies. “None of that kind of talk.”

“But that’s why I want to learn how,” I said, “because you don’t see as many women doing them.”

So we played around on them for a bit. The lowest of the holds you could simply reach up and snag without leaving the footholds, and the only trick was working out the two-handed swing up to release the lower hold, then bring the hands up to grap the higher one. But somewhere around the middle ranges the move becomes more of a jump. I tried all the lowest ones, just to get the feel of it.

My sister said once that there was just a day when dynos went “click” in her head, and you have to keep trying, and looking silly, until that happens. It didn’t happen for me last night, but I felt like I could get a feel for what it was supposed to be like if I did it on the lower ones and just kept trying to get higher and higher.

Tonight, Jex and I came back specifically to do bouldering. Bouldering can often take more power, especially on overhanging problems, and we figured it would be good to work some of those skills. Toward the end of the session, when Jex’s hands had really started to hurt too much to keep going (I’ve done more bouldering than she has, so my hands don’t get raw as fast) we wound up back at the dyno wall. I did the highest one I’d managed the night before, then lined up again, crouched on the start holds.

And something went “click” in my head. I looked at the next highest, one I hadn’t been able to reach last night, took a couple of setup bounces, without taking my eyes off it, and then launched – and stuck it. It wasn’t so much that it physically clicked as that it mentally clicked: I’d just known I was going to reach it.

Of course, I couldn’t repeat the performance: too tired, too aware of myself maybe. The time I did actually make the dyno I wasn’t consciously thinking about what I was doing, particularly not during the setup: I was just looking at the target. All the other times I was totally aware of my body and every move it was making. I tagged the last hold a couple of times but never got that sense of just sailing up to it and -bam- latching on.

But. I did it once. That was my first dyno. I was doing happy dances about that all the way home.

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Hello 5.9 my old friend…

… I’ve started sending you again:

Although my hands are less grippy,

And that means I find your holds slippy,

But the skills that were planted in my brain

Still remain,

So now I’m back to climb you!

 

(5.10 I’m still being cautious about but still, it’s nice to have my hands more or less back to normal!)

My bouldering game sucks

. . . for now.

I say again, for now. Not for ever.

Got to Coyote late tonight after work and David hadn’t yet given up on me getting there, so we climbed some routes. But as he’d been bouldering for a while on his own, we didn’t climb long. I was pleased that my hand didn’t actually hurt at all, except for a little ache when I tried out a boulder problem in the new wing. (Of which more at the end of this post.) And I tackled a 5.9 up an arete that had a bunch of slopers and some dynamic-balance moves that meant I had to just go for holds that I wasn’t certain about the shape of, and that’s scary when you’ve got tendons that might turn on you: you can’t really just throw for an unknown quantity with the same confidence when one wrong bit of torque could set you back another couple of weeks. But although I fell, I made it to the top, and I think I could send it now that I know the shapes. A week or so ago I’d have backed off it because of the hand. Progress!

But then David headed out and I thought I’d stick around and do some bouldering.

Wow. I thought I’d been knocked down a couple of pegs in my route climbing. Bouldering was downright embarrassing. I’ve been off bouldering since mid-December, after all. It matters. Also, it was nearing 10:00 pm and I hadn’t really had dinner, there was that, too. But mostly I was just . . . kinda limp and weedy.

But, I told myself, these things can be improved. Having to work around my hand has taught me to watch for tiny improvements. I climbed a route today that I couldn’t have done a couple of weeks ago. I’ve also been doing a lot of extra running and weights in the last month or so, and I’ve noticed differences there – I can run longer, and faster, now than I could two weeks ago. Bouldering can be the same thing. It’s just hard to get there.

So, I decided to set myself a basic goal. Something to work at every time I go to the gym. I’m going to start doing laps on the island in the middle of the bouldering cave, just going around it, one side, then the other. Just to get my hands strong again and my legs and core back into the swing of it.

And so, feeling less than badass, but motivated to work at it (slogans from CrossFit internet memes dancing in my head) I decided to set my goal, and then go home, because if I kept climbing tired, hungry and discouraged I really would re-injure myself.

Sadly, as I was getting changed, a girl came into the changing room, and said, “You were doing really good out there! You were getting pretty high up on that one problem!” And maybe I was prepped to hear it, but it sounded like ‘encouraging the newbie.’ I mean, here I was falling off the easiest problems, and although I had my own shoes and gear, and a couple of pieces of outdoor gear hanging off my harness, I don’t, exactly, look like “a climber” at 180-185 lbs. But just when I’d told myself it didn’t matter what anyone thought about me, and that I was just going to get myself to the gym and freaking train like a boss . . . I got the helpful person assuming I was a noob, and perkily encouraging me. The sort of thing the author of the Dances With Fat blog apparently gets a lot at the gym.

Augh. 

I said thanks, but then made a point of saying something about the strained tendon and how I was trying to get my grade back up. Just to assuage my dented ego.

Anyway. Never mind.

The point is, I’ve been watching myself make steps forward since I injured my hand, and that can be very encouraging. When you can see the improvements, tiny though they are, you feel like you’re accomplishing something. So I’ll hold on to that.

And in the meanwhile . . .  the new section at Coyote is now open! HOW COOL IS THAT?

A set of near-vertical slab routes, a new lead area that’s not set up yet, and quite a lot more bouldering. Really, I’m just super pleased because I really do love Coyote, and I’m happy to see them doing well enough that they can expand. It’s not the tallest gym in the city, or the biggest gym in the city, but it’s the nicest. Coyote’s my home gym.

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Toque of sending +2

There’s a running joke among some of my climbing buddies about why it is that a certain type of climber – a certain generally male, generally young, generally boulder- and/or power-oriented type – is pretty much always wearing a toque. In the height of summer, you can see them, stripped down to rock shoes, knee-length baggy shorts, a hemp or leather thong necklace, and a toque.

And to be fair we all have toques as well, of course, and have in fact worn them while climbing, and have sometimes attributed mystical powers of strength to them, like Thor’s belt or Samson’s hair or, um, Prince Adam’s ring:

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And my friend Mike started calling the climber toque the “Toque of Sending +2,” which is a terribly geeky joke but one I have to admit I loved him a little bit for. So, after a season or so of saying I was going to do it, I did, last night. Chain stitched onto my favorite climbing toque:

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Yes, I am an enormous geek. What else is new?

Making the “why evens” go away

Hit the gym late tonight with Jex. It was quiet, partly because we got there around 9:00 pm (I’d been at a book launch that evening, so we couldn’t go earlier).

I had been feeling like crap about my climbing. The strained tendon in my right hand is still giving me trouble. I couldn’t go to the gym Tuesday (one of our regular nights) because I had to work late and missed the gang. I had to bail Thursday (the other regular night) because I was having back trouble (one of those things where you get up in the morning, go to pick up something completely harmless, like a bag or something, and your back suddenly goes WHAM OUCH and then you can’t move properly for a couple of days). So tonight, Friday, I really wanted to go, because I was starting to have those “why even” feelings. The despairing thoughts about just giving up on climbing if I’m going to be this broken and terrible at it.

Hoo boy is THAT ever time to get to the gym. So I did. And it was good. I didn’t climb anything hard at all: nothing above 5.8. But the things I did climb, I tried to climb well. Although I looked longingly at the harder stuff I didn’t go after it. And I looked for the positives about what I was able to climb. Like the way I climbed much smarter, and thought more about the moves, even on the easy stuff, because I was always thinking about what losing my balance or relying on brute strength would do to my hand. I placed that hand carefully and discovered things like: the trick with wrapping your thumb over your index fingertips for extra strength works not just on tiny crimps, but on all kinds of other holds too. I rediscovered how much the distribution of weight in your lower body can affect the amount of stress on your hands, especially with vertical finger edges.

In a way I guess I was climbing more like I climb when I’m on lead, thinking more about how to do each move and what exactly I should do to make sure I can do it properly.  So, I reminded myself, I can learn, while I’m climbing low grades, all kinds of stuff about climbing smart. I tell myself this will all pay off when I get my hand back to strength. And thinking that drives away all those “why even” thoughts.

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The comeback kids

There are days when the point is you showed up.

I’ve been waiting for the strained tendon in my right hand to get better: it hasn’t shown much sign. But I need to get back into the gym more regularly, despite the twinge in my hand and wrist. Jex, meanwhile, spent a few weeks in December sick. So we figured we’d go together tonight and suck in solidarity. Her strength was down and my hand was still sore, and both of us were a month out of practice or more.

So we went and focused on just climbing as well as we could, at easy grades. “Nothing higher than a 5.7,” Jex said (although in the end we got on a couple of 5.8s too). Which is actually good for me, since when a climb is easy I have a tendency to climb it sloppily. It’s a good mental exercise to try to climb a 5.7, say, as well as possible.

Partway through the night we ran into Glauco, a guy we’ve climbed with before. He was bouldering on his own, but feeling injured too: something with his shoulder. He seemed down about it, so we told him how low we were setting our sights for the night and told him to come climb with us. We then all proceeded to climb at a couple of grades below our best, but used it as a chance to think about technique, critique each other on the easy stuff, look at climbs and think about the moves, and basically train mentally.

Even injured, Glauco is one of the most graceful climbers I’ve ever seen. He never throws for a hold if he can move statically and in control for it: you can actually watch him thinking about technique and analyzing the moves before he makes them. He’s smooth and controlled. Tonight, a woman climbing near us stopped to watch him climb, twice, and finally came over to tell him, “You’re a beautiful climber, you’re just great to watch.” And working with Glauco always helps me think creatively and with focus about how I climb.

I was interested in how thinking very carefully about finger placement and support for my tendon and how I placed my hand on a hold had an effect on everything else I did. I had to be cautious about the right hand, which meant I focused more on what I was doing and how I was doing it. We didn’t stay very long, but by the time Jex said her knee was starting to give, I was starting to feel like I’d pushed the hand about as far as I wanted to, as well, and Glauco was ready to head out.

I took the last climb of the night to push myself a little bit, mentally and physically. The route itself isn’t that hard, but it spat me off last week. It overhangs, by about 15 degrees. The holds are mostly big jugs with a couple of slopery rounded holds. The footwork isn’t that tricky. But about three-quarters of the way up, the holds move around a corner and you have to walk your hands up a big semi-vertical rail, around the corner. There’s some balance control to adapt to the new geometry there, and the rail was really hard on my bad hand, last week. The way I was holding it made my strained tendon protest.

This week, I got to the rail and for some reason still had the power and the brain to find my footholds, walk up, reach for the hold beyond it, and then I moved through the last set of moves to the end on the sheer force of refusal to fall now that I’d made it past the bit that defeated me earlier. I was pleased with a couple of things: one, that I tried it; two, that my focus on climbing well all night had made it easier for me to get through the lower part without wasting energy; three, that  I knew I couldn’t climb blindly, because of my bad hand, so I forced myself to keep my focus even after I got through the crux.

And then my hand was hurting and I felt like that was the best time to quit. While I had tested it, but hopefully before I’d done extra damage.

Slow and steady: Jex and I are hoping to be able to climb frequently and easy for the next couple of weeks. We both want to get back into top form, but I think we’ll need to help each other be patient about it. Meanwhile, I’m going to try and learn as much as I can about climbing well at low grades.

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