Bree Newsome. . . climber?

I watched the video of Bree Newsome taking down the Confederate Flag with all the requisite this-is-history-type chills. This looks to me like civil disobedience at its most moving and meaningful: a brave and fierce woman making a striking stand for her cause, calmly and with conviction.

But I admit that I also, in the midst of it, looked at the gear she was using. I can’t help it. It’s a thing. I see climbing, I check for gear. Hmm. . . a harness. Looks like she has a foot in a loop to help in ascending. A couple of friction bands to edge her up the pole, attached to the harness. A helmet, even.

Then I saw this, tonight.

Sorry, what? I know people who pole dance. No, it doesn’t involve harnesses, or specific gear. No. Just no. The point with pole dancing is that it’s about using the friction of your own skin and the physics of specific moves. But whatever. Meanwhile, she answers a question I’d kind of wondered about: where did she get the climbing skills?

And then she adds:

If you’re ever in the Ottawa area and you want to get out climbing, Bree. Just saying.

Walking on the walls

It was pouring rain this afternoon, so I cancelled on going out to work at Lac Sam and hit Coyote to boulder instead. And I wound up spending three hours.

Last Wednesday I dropped in but it was hot and humid and I felt lax and saggy. I just didn’t have any body tension and my hands were fried within an hour or so. Today I seemed to have it back.

2015-06-28 15.58.21I’ve got a couple of new target routes among all the new problems that have just gone up: one is a fairly low-difficulty problem that puts you firmly on the ceiling for a bit. I’m always happy to find ceiling problems that are in my range, so I’m glad to see this one.

With this route, you start on a relatively steep wall, then move up to holds on and around two big volumes hanging from the roof. So far, as usual with ceiling problems, I can get myself onto the ceiling section but not really through it: basically because more than one or two moves with my feet at the same level as my hands is pretty daunting.

But, I played on it for a while and added it to the hit list. It’s fun, and it’s cool to have a problem to work on that actually makes me work on my roof skills. It’s been a while since there was one at Coyote.

I did rather a lot of overhanging stuff, and when my hands started to get raw, I went upstairs. And I discovered this problem: one where you have to stem, pressing away from yourself and up with a foot and hand on either wall, in a wide, obtuse-angled corner.

It looked like something that was right up my alley. I love this kind of thing: it takes more thought than brawn, asking you to decide which foot to move up first, how to position your body, what angle your hands should be at. This style also usually rewards flexibility and core strength, and pressing rather than pulling muscles in your upper body. Bring it. So, I worked it for a bit.

2015-06-28 17.26.53One issue with this problem is that the holds get less and less positive as you get higher, and further and further apart. The last move is the spookiest, with shallow, sloping feet and your body so curved into the corner that it’s hard to look up and find the final hold.

You also have to climb this problem as much with your legs and ass as with anything else. To stay on, especially with the wall sloping just that little bit toward you, you need to keep your hips close to the wall. The motion as you move up and then tuck your hips and torso back into the corner is sinuous and, really, quite satisfying.

On the first couple of runs, the smooth, sloping footholds spooked me too much to finish the last moves. But then another three climbers came in, and turned out to be the kind that you end up chatting with, working through a problem, talking styles and techniques. One seemed newer, and we helped and cheered her through working on a problem nearby. I mentioned the red taped, stemming route, and a couple of them gave it a go. Then I pulled up onto it.

There’s a bit of a bonus in having people watching you, if you know they’re friendly. That time, I made it through the final moves far more easily than I expected.

I stuck around afterward and did it a couple more times, filming so I could see how it looked. Then I got home and played around with my video editor to patch the two runs together so the whole line got in the frame.

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The overhang game

I’ve really gotten into filming myself when I’m bouldering: it’s a good way to see what I’m doing well, what I could work on, where I think I’m moving more smoothly than I actually am.

This afternoon I hit the gym and started playing on the new routes that had just been put up in the “distillery room.” I had thought that the level 3 problems were beyond me, but there are some now that I can take down. I worked out the crux problem with this one, then sent it:

Things I like here: the body tension I maintain through most of the problem; that crossover hand move, with the foot out to the right to move off it again; that drop knee about two moves from the end. I have some fluidity happening, and I’m doing well at keeping my legs bent and shifting my weight. You can actually watch my hips shifting my centre of gravity, which is kind of fascinating. (Also, if I only had a tail . . . !)

I can see where I bounce a little, a couple of times, to “set” a hold, and probably shouldn’t, and I can see that I start to lose my body tension toward the end. Right now, I feel like grip strength is one of the things holding me back. Technique, not so much. Hands. The basic ability to hold on to marginal stuff. That’s the real challenge. But I hope that more overhanging work will build those abilities.

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Seeing other gyms

My sister Amelia and her husband Brad (and their son) were in Hamilton last week, visiting Brad’s family, and since they live in Scotland and they were going to be – hello! – only a six hour drive away, I went to visit them. (Well, okay: I actually went to Detroit for the weekend with a friend to see an exhibit at the DIA and visit my aunt, and then went to Hamilton on the way home but, you know – details.)

The morning of my first day in Hamilton I made my way over to Brad’s parents’ house from my hotel and Amelia said, “So. . . you want to go to the climbing wall?” They had been there the day before, with Brad’s sister, but there’s a difference between taking less experienced friends and family to the gym, and going with another climber and trying to pull down some hard shit. And Amelia was itching to pull down some hard shit. So, Brad took their son off to run some errands and Amelia and I headed to Climber’s Rock in Burlington.

Amelia scouting for the next route to climb.

Amelia scouting for the next climb.

I’m always curious about other gyms. My home gym, Coyote, is a bit short by most standards, being built inside a warehouse and limited in how high the walls can be. Climber’s Rock has the same problem. Compared to the 15-metre walls at Amelia’s home gym, Transition Extreme, it’s pretty stumpy. We just toproped: hard to get a groove on when you’re leading if the walls are 8 metres or so.

So I don’t know what their leading is like (though I saw a few lead routes, a lot of them going across roofs and through arches, things you just can’t toprope), and I also don’t know if they let you lead with ATCs or not: the top ropes used GriGris, clipped to your harness rather than to the floor like they are at Coyote. I much prefer ATCs for almost everything – faster, lighter, simpler – but for some reason the gyms I’ve been to in Ontario use GriGris. (Coyote even requires you to lead belay on a GriGri, which is one reason I’ve never been certified to lead belay there.) I think it’s an insurance requirement, because GriGris lock automatically and it’s harder to screw up catastrophically and drop your partner. But still, I don’t like GriGris as much.

Fun shapes, but short and stumpy.

Fun shapes, but short and stumpy.

Amelia said the belay tester had been a real stickler the day before, picky about keeper knots and things like that, but the woman that checked me spent most of the time watching Amelia climb and almost no time at all watching my belay. Then she said, “you’re good to go, great belay, have fun,” and went back to the front desk. (I assume, though, that she did watch me and did make the judgment that I knew what I was doing. She wasn’t lackadaisical about it or anything. Different employees take different tacks.)

Amelia said she thought the grades were a bit soft, although she’s not so used to the American grade system anymore. I jumped on a 5.8 to warm up, came down and said, “Yeah. Soft. Very.”

Their 5.8s felt like 5.7s back at Coyote. The same held for everything up to the 5.10s: 5.10- was too easy for me, and I was taking only a fall or two on straight 5.10. (Like Coyote, this gym has gone to a +/- system instead of letter grades to distinguish difficulties above 5.9: hence, 5.10-, 5.10, and 5.10+ instead of 5.10a, b, c, or d.) Basically, the grades generally seemed a level or two softer than I was used to.

(Meanwhile, Amelia was in the mid-to-high 5.11s, I think, and still not actually falling off things. But then, she’s a much better climber than me, and she has a tendency not to fall, which may or may not come from a lot of trad climbing. She eventually did find a route that knocked her off, after some searching.)

There was definitely a lot of bouldering space. We didn't try it out though.

There was definitely a lot of bouldering space. We didn’t try the bouldering out though.

But, grades are always a subjective thing. I wondered if maybe Coyote compensates for their short walls by making the grades a little stiffer – sure, they might be only about 8 metres, but the climbing would be sustained at the grade for those 8 metres, knowing that normally you’d be trying to keep it up for twice the distance. I don’t know if that’s the case. And there is the fact that other gyms in the Ottawa area have comparable grades – and the outdoor grades in the region are a whole other thing (being, um, “old-school,” and therefore ass-kicking if you’re used to indoor climbing.)

Whatever it was, the grades here seemed soft. Although, Brad said that once you got higher, into the high 5.11s and 5.12s, the grades seemed to be about what he expected.

And to be fair, the route setting was pretty good: there were a couple of routes that I looked at and thought, huh, never seen anything like that before. There was a sense of whimsy to some of the routes, and some – like a 5.10- I got on that started out of an arch over a doorway – that were aerial, acrobatic, and really satisfying at their grades.

The bouldering looked steep and probably pretty burly: we didn’t try any of that out though, sticking to the rope.

In the end we spent a couple of hours. It was fun: the facility itself wasn’t anything too spectacular, but the routes were good and I love any chance I get to climb with my sister (I love any chance I get to see my sister: she does live in Scotland, after all). And it’s always fun to check out a new gym and see what people are doing in other towns.

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Getting some Altitude

A whole lot of my usual climbing partners switched gyms last fall. I still climb at Coyote – I have a membership there, it’s fifteen minutes away by bike, and I like the route setting there. But for a while the routes weren’t getting refreshed that often and things were a bit rocky: the owners were busy setting up their other venture, North of 7 Distillery, and had a lot on their plate. Since then, they’ve come back and the gym is getting new routes again.

But, the Quebec-side crew have it a lot easier going to Altitude. One’s on the Gatineau youth team, for one thing, so he trains there. Plus, they live closer, naturally, being in Gatineau. There’s a lot more leading at Altitude as well, and they’ve gotten to the point where they just bring ropes and lead almost everything they climb. Meanwhile, I don’t get that much lead practice in (to lead at Coyote you need to be certified by their staff to belay a leader on a grigri, and I haven’t actually practiced that).

Oh, yeah, and there’s a lot more steep stuff at Altitude.

I joined up with some of the Quebec-side folks yesterday on my way home from work, and got my dose of humility. The last thing I tried was up that steepest bit up the middle in the wall pictured above, and I got two clips up. “Aim for getting two clips higher maybe,” my friend said to me, “and then call it,” when I had to drop off and rest. So I got myself back on, and threw for a hold further up, and my hands and arms just couldn’t hack it any more. Hoo boy.

Leading takes more energy. For one thing, I still get tenser on lead. I grip harder than I have to and my hands lose power. But for another thing, you do have to free up a hand to grab the rope, bring it up, and clip it, and I can feel that I don’t have the practice yet at finding comfortable, easier ways and places to hang while I do that. I waste energy on tense stances where I have to fight against unbalancing or barn-dooring off the wall.

But it’s a spur to make me work harder. I can’t always get over to Altitude, and besides, I have a membership at Coyote and a long, long relationship with it as my home gym. But a stint at Altitude will remind me that I need to get more air time – as always, I need to fall more, lead more, and climb more steep stuff. If I can’t manage to do it on the rope routes, I should work on getting my stamina up by doing laps on steep boulder problems.

Between climbs, I watched a couple of young girls on the youth team working through the roof high up near the top of the wall. (I really love watching badass girls and young women climb hard stuff, especially when it’s groups of girls belaying for each other, encouraging each other.) One girl, fighting hard through the roof moves, wound up hanging by one hand only, from a hold at the edge of the roof, clipping with the free hand. The watchers below cheered when we heard the carabiner click – and then she slipped off, and dropped, falling halfway to the ground – 20 feet or so? – in a sudden plunge. Apparently, the rope hadn’t actually made it through the biner and she’d gotten full value out of the fall, with the rope as far out as it could get. And she was laughing as she swung at the bottom. My friend, watching, said admiringly, “I would be shaking after that, and she’s just laughing.” And I envied the girl her confidence and her strength, and started trying to work out how to get myself to where she was.

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Wild and tended, veterans and newbies: all the extremes this weekend

Me on lead, on Castor Bricoleur (5.7, trad and tricky)

Me on lead, on Castor Bricoleur (5.7, trad and tricky) at Montagne d”Argent.

It’s been another two-day climbing weekend (the second in a row). And there could not have been more difference between this one and the last. Freeze one weekend in your down jacket, with Hot Shots tucked in your chalk bag to warm up your hands; get dehydrated and sunburned in a tank top the next. That’s eastern Ontario for you. Pow! Wham! Summer!

Though with the temperatures up into the 20s and the leaves not out on the trees yet, it’s a strange spring. It’s been so dry that the trees up in the hills are still clinging to their buds as though they’re afraid to commit to all the transpiration they’ll be getting themselves into if they let the leaves out.

And yesterday, out at Lac Sam, the earth at the base of the climbs was dry and powdery. When the wind kicked up we all got lichen dust and bits of loam in our eyes, the consistency of dried-out peat moss.

It was also a bit of a weekend of extremes: on Saturday five of us went out to Montagne d’Argent (super civilized and maintained – they even have running water, campsites and a communal firepit) and the majority were new to outdoor climbing; and on Sunday there were seven of us, all experienced outdoor climbers, at Lac Sam (nearly undeveloped, wild, isolated, not suitable for newbies).

I was probably the least experienced and youngest of the bunch at Lac Sam, actually. Most if not all of the others were part of “the ACC (Alpine Club of Canada) crew,” and even members of the ACC will admit that the average age skews high in that club. Somehow, younger climbers don’t seem to join. I haven’t, though I’m considering it, for the discounts at gyms and gear shops. So the group I was out with were older than me. Some of them were the sort of climbers who tell stories about climbing with pitons and hammers back in the day (like, the 70s and 80s).

Loading packs at the parking area by the Lac Sam trail.

Loading packs at the parking area by the Lac Sam trail. More people than we’ve ever had at Upper Cliff at one time: and it was a lot of fun.

You climb with older climbers and you get a sense of why and how people continue to do this sport into their sixties, seventies and even eighties. Sure, the twentysomethings in the gym or on the hard sport crags are strong and powerful. Maybe they take more risks and climb harder grades. But there’s something about climbing that means your goals and your challenges are totally personal, and change over time. The point is that you’re outdoors, using your skills, challenging yourself, and being with people who love the same things.

I had a talk about that with one of the ACC guys on Sunday. He was talking about how as you get older, you don’t take the same risks, and you don’t push your physical boundaries as hard. Climbing then becomes a game of pushing your mental boundaries. You get more cautious: when you’re older, injuries take longer to recover from, you’re more worried about bad falls. Maybe you’re not as strong as you were in your twenties either. But at the same time you have, perhaps, fewer irrational fears and are more able to judge yourself and your reactions to the rational ones (and from talking to older people I feel like that may be true in a lot of aspects of life. I know I have far less fear now than I did, say, a decade ago).

And though maybe you can’t push it into harder grades and maybe can’t do things you once could – and he said that was frustrating at times, as was the knowledge that it’s not going to get any better as he gets older – you are still out there having fun and testing yourself at the level you’re at, whatever it happens to be.

And climbing is also not all about climbing hard stuff. Especially if you climb trad. I know I get a real joy and satisfaction from having the skills and competencies I need, especially to tackle a place like Lac Sam where the climbing is wilder and the risks are a little higher. There is always more to learn about gear, about rope, about rock and how it behaves. There are always new circumstances to work with. And having the right gear, having thought to pack it, having just the right length of cord or extra sling or spare carabiner when you need it, knowing different ways of using it, being creative with anchors and problem solving: all of those things are as much fun as the climbing itself.

A raspberry I got taking several falls on a crack in an offset corner. Looks possibly worse than it is. Still, ow.

Some road rash from taking several falls on a crack in an offset corner. Looks possibly worse than it is. Still, ow.

Oh, and the climbing this weekend? Was pretty great. I got myself really banged up on a trad lead that I eventually had to back off because I was starting to climb with my brain disengaged by frustration, but as I put it at the time, that was me getting all my trad lead falls in for the season in one go . . . so now I won’t fall on gear again, right?

And to make up for it I got to put up a “first ascent” at Lac Sam (I named it Ummagumma: probably 5.5 or 5.6), led a couple of other things, took a 5.10b with only two falls at Montagne d’Argent, got to meet someone I previously only knew through Twitter and introduce her to outdoor climbing, and woke up Monday morning a little stiff, sunburned and scraped, and happy.

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Up a notch

I’ve been complaining for a while that bouldering is discouraging, because I didn’t seem to be able to move beyond a certain level. Bouldering is a strength and power based form of climbing, great for training . . . if you can do it beyond a certain level. If you can’t, sometimes it feels like all you’re building up is the calluses on your little fingers.

My gym uses a colour-coded tape system rather than grades to note the difficulty of problems, and I was stuck on the lowest two colours, white and orange, and getting bored and frustrated by them. There was maybe one problem in the third range, red, I could do, and I could do it mostly because it was straight vertical, and relied on small crimpy edges (one of my strengths).

The most frustrating thing was that there didn’t even seem to be any red problems that were in my range, which meant that I just puttered around working on the same old things, but never got to tackle any actual challenges: I could either climb it easily, or I couldn’t even start. It was starting to bother me a lot.

But then today I got myself in to the gym, and somehow, this red problem just worked. I’d tackled the first few moves a week or so ago, but it seemed so much easier today.

Okay, I thought, and I took on the one next to it, which was also red. One fall, and then I sailed up it on the second try. I particularly liked the move about halfway up, where I have to grab an undercling with my right hand, get my foot over to a hold on the right wall, then bump the left up. The undercling lock off for the right hand is satisfying when it works.

It was really gratifying to send a couple of red problems. Nice to feel some improvement. I’m not sure what was different, although lately I have been kicked back into spring mode. Meaning I get more exercise, and as a result I think more about how I eat and sleep. Also, I have more energy because it’s spring, and I’ve been climbing more because we can get out on the weekends.

All these things help to make me feel, in my head, when I walk into the gym, like a climber and not a lump of heaviness trying to haul itself around.

My hand strength is still something that needs work, and I still need to work on body tension, and I’m far from being able to tackle all the red problems in the gym, but I’ll take a couple of victories in the gym and write little stars next to them in my notebook and shoot for doing even better next time.


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Photo post! Security 5.10d

I was at the Western Cwm on Sunday and scrambled up to the top of Cave Wall while a couple of my friends were climbing so I could actually get pictures from above the climber – pictures that weren’t, well, butt shots. And out of a whole lot of snapped photos, I was particularly pleased with this one.


Security (5.10d), Western Cwm, Gatineau Park. Climber: Jonathan.

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Mind over matter (at any grade)

I just came across this, and while yes, it’s sponsored by an energy bar (hello product placement! hello Powersauce!), so much of what this guy has to say resonated with me entirely. This is exactly how I feel, seems like. Though I’m not tackling a 700-ft 5.13 by any means. Nice to hear an elite climber say exactly the sorts of things I say about climbing. And about the reasons for it, and about problem solving, the adventure of it, and just getting over that next ridge.

Matt Loyd: Mastering The Mind To Be King Of The Mountain from Perfect Bar on Vimeo.

Zen and the art of sending

I’ll say it: I am stressed right the hell out right now. I’m juggling a lot of deadlines. I have a pretty big storytelling performance coming up next week. It’s crunch week at the monthly newspaper I edit. And I have articles to write, a part-time research job to be at and, for some reason, a couple of news outlets wanting to talk to me about cycling just now. A lot of this is good, and cool, and even exciting, but I am stressed right the hell out. Finding time in all this just to get groceries is tricky.

However, I do find time to drop in at the rock gym. And tonight was a reminder of why that’s important.

I had had a rough day (at the part-time research job). I was frustrated, angry and tense when I got to the gym. Essentially, my brain was still stewing in the rotten work day I’d just had and all the surrounding pressure and self-image problems. I was climbing fairly strong, really, but I was climbing dumb, making stupid mistakes. And I was climbing with this burn of frustration in my chest that had nothing to do with my climbing and everything to do with job-related stress. I was expecting very little of myself, and I was grumpy about it.

So my climbing was a bit uneven – and I probably noticed where I failed more than where I succeeded. But for some reason I can’t explain, toward the end of the night, I had this urge to go get on a project I’d designated a couple of months back – a 5.10b/c, which is at the top of my range right now. It’s all small, narrow edges for your hands and tiny nubs for your feet: technical, focused, with a lot of high steps while clinging to thin edges. Normally, I wouldn’t go after it late in the session anyway, and not when I’ve been struggling a bit lately.

But I just wanted to get on it. I didn’t know why. And I certainly didn’t expect much. I was expecting to try hard, get a good workout, fall a few times. But then I got my hands on the first holds – tiny narrow edges that only fit about three fingers – and I fit my toe into the sloping little scoop that’s the first foothold, and I clicked.

Work was gone. The pressure was gone. The first tiny high toehold stuck, and for the next couple of minutes, I was in that space, where it flows. I imagine it’s like when meditation works, though I’ve never been very good at that. Nothing existed but the next move. My feet and fingers stuck to things they logically shouldn’t stick to. My body was integrated, and I didn’t have to consciously think about how to make the moves work, they just did.

And halfway up, I realized that I was going to send the climb. I couldn’t fail. I just flowed right up it. Even when I got my sequence wrong and got a foot onto the wrong hold, I managed to fix the problem without coming off, and kept going up, hearing myself breathe with the moves.

That feeling is what I live for in climbing. I tagged the top hold, my partner lowered me, and I was giddily happy about it for the rest of the night. You can climb for weeks before you hit a patch of flow like that – they’re rare, they’re like the moments you strive for when you meditate, or like runner’s high, or like creative bursts where you forget that time is passing while you paint or write or play music. When you do get one of those moments, it is utterly worth it.

It certainly saved my night.

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