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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Bah, weather gods.

Who should I address my disgruntlement to? Amun? Thor? Zeus? Ehecatl? Who’s in charge of “flurries, sleet, cold and general drizzle”? Who’s responsible for the weather forecast for Keene Valley next weekend anyway?

Screenshot 2015-03-31 12.14.36Looks like the Adirondacks Easter trip is off.

Ah well. There will be other weekends.

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It has begun!

What’s that you say? A Sunday with predicted highs of around 4C? Sunny? A south-facing local crag?

You’re ON, universe.

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That there in the middle is Home Cliff. Heavily trafficked in summer, south facing, about 30 minutes out of town, and the best thing you can do with the first sunny, above-zero day of the year.

David got injured in a skiing fall a while back, so we thought today would be a good chance to get out and see how he’s doing, in advance of heading to the USA on Easter Weekend. (We had thought a four day trip to the Shawangunks: we’ve downgraded that to a day trip to the Adirondacks, since he’s still a bit stiff.)

It’s definitely still wintry out there.

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But we crunched up through the corn snow toward the base of the crag, and we were both pretty warm by the time we picked our way up the collapsing wooden stairs at the top of the trail (someone should really replace them) and made the sunny base of the upper cliff.

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Apart from the large frozen waterfall on its eastern edge, the crag was surprisingly dry, except for some runnels of ice leaking out from under where the bulk of the stone sits above the slope that runs down to the Ottawa Valley. Those runnels always remind me that you can see where the veins of the rock are. Water is always running and seeping through it: it’s porous, it breathes and swells and shifts. It flakes and calves and changes, sheds layers of weathered patina. Spring always reminds me of that.

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It was a gorgeous day: you could feel the sun’s beams through your clothes, the rock was dry. And David offered me the first lead. Which I took, although it was a bit embarrassing. Let’s just say that the first time you get back on real rock after the winter hiatus takes a little adjusting. Also, small finger edges can feel pretty slippery when your fingertips are numb from the cold rock.

Just starting to form. Brand new baby bruises.Admittedly, there were the bruises I knew I was going to get from a particularly ill-considered attempt at getting through the first move of that lead. Which I looked down tonight and discovered, blossoming happily on my upper right arm. That’ll teach me to try and use my humerus to lever through a crack move. (Oh, early season . . .)

But I was pleased. I had a moment, halfway up, where I thought I might actually fall – on a really easy climb – because I was climbing like I’d never been near a rock before, but I got it back together without wimping out and backing off (my pride usually has a lot to say about the idea of backing off) and in the end, I ended up choosing the slightly harder, slightly longer finishing moves just because I was feeling much better about myself.

And I was glad that my first outdoor climb of the year was a trad lead, and I didn’t really feel much fear on it: at times, a pervasive sense that I was probably climbing like an idiot, but not fear.

And the secure feeling will come back. Or, as I said to David, “The little tiny footholds just need to grow over the summer. By August, those same little edges will be huge!”

But after a couple of runs up the cliff, the wind started to pick up. And it was still icy. We didn’t even consider the main big corner: it was full of ice. There was glassy-looking sheet ice and dripping water on some of the more west-facing sections. But David thought one of them looked okay. As he was heading up it, little flakes and chunks of ice would get blown off by the (increasingly cold) wind and rain down on us at times. I was pretty chilly on belay.

In fact, we started bundling back up.

2015-03-29 14.32.55  2015-03-29 14.28.01

But you could still feel the sun, through the cold wind: in fact, I think I might have gotten a little sunburned. And the cold didn’t stop me tackling the last lead of the day. Again, I was pleased with myself: when David asked if I wanted to lead it, I thought it might be too cold, and hesitated, then looked at it again. It’s an easy climb. It looked dry. Okay, why not, I thought, and grabbed the rack.

And I had a really good time with it, though I felt like I was climbing in a spacesuit, with the hat and extra layers and down jacket on under the rack, and the jacket hitched up around my waist so I could reach my harness gear loops.

We decided to call it there, and headed home: David wants to be cautious about his injuries, and I was fine with having a short, bright, sunny, snow-glare day, complete with tea in a Thermos (the best thing you can possibly do with tea is bring it with you to a cliff and drink slugs of it between climbs, trust me on this) and hands on the rock again. This promises to be a great season.

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Gaming my brain

Lately I’ve been looking for practical (read, applicable) advice on how to use my own weaknesses as incentive rather than a discouragement. Actual stuff you can do, not inspirational poster “the voice that tells you you can’t do this is a liar” stuff.

One challenge: what gives in first, fingers or the rest of you?

One challenge: what gives in first, fingers or the rest of you?

Context being, I’ve been slacked off from climbing for a bit. It’s winter: many of my climbing partners have switched to Altitude, which is harder for me to get to, and which I have to pay to climb at (when I’ve already got a membership at my home gym). Other climbing partners have been traveling a lot, or injured, or are focusing on other projects right now (like a couple who are off right now on a major cycling trip).

It’s hard to go in and boulder alone, and frankly I often find it discouraging, because bouldering, for me, goes “easy -> pretty easy -> fucking impossible.” I went in to the gym last week, and it wasn’t great. Everything from my skin getting raw too fast to knowing what I HAVE BEEN able to do and comparing it to what I can do now. I made a point of leaving on a high note: working a problem a few times, then putting on a push of energy and sending it, as my last thing. But I was still discouraged, walking out.

And the real bad sign was the night before that: I could have gone to Altitude to meet up with my “Quebec-side” friends and didn’t because I was too embarrassed by how weak I am right now.

That shit has got to stop. So I started thinking of ways to keep myself in the game. When you’re improving, it’s easy to keep at it. When you’ve slipped, it’s hard. So, what do you do to stay motivated?

Here’s what seems to have been working for me. I stopped on the way home from the gym, on that fairly rotten afternoon, and bought myself a notebook. A nice notebook, with a magnetic latch and all. I stuck a GoPro “Be A Hero” sticker on it, just because, and then I sat down and wrote up my session. I drew a little star next to the send I had worked on, and I even wrote an uncharacteristically perky, “I GET A STAR!” next to it.


Taking photos of my targets just because.

I logged my next session in my weight room, too, in detail. And then I took the book along to the rock gym a few days later, and wrote down how the session went (including the fact that when I started feeling selfconscious, I went to the locker room, got my iPhone, plugged in my headphones, and cranked the music up so I could ignore the people around me.)

When I sent stuff that I hadn’t managed the session before, I noted it. I took pictures of the problems with my phone. I even Tweeted them if I felt pleased with my send. I wrote that perky little “I GET A STAR!” next to the entries. I picked a target for my next session – something I’d nearly got but couldn’t send – and I wrote down where it was so I could tackle it right off my warmup next time.

So I’ve been in now a few times with my book. And my headphones. And my phone. I’m not really doing anything systematic with my notes in the book (I know that the people in the climbing courses at the gym do have notebooks and I have no idea what they actually do with them). I’m mostly just making a point of logging “achievements unlocked.” And I think that physical symbol that I’m doing something incremental and intentional lets me feel better about climbing a lot at lower grades, rather than focusing on climbing harder stuff just yet. I am reminding myself that there’s a process here. It helps me think about the session in terms of warming up, then tackling and sending targets, then picking new targets that I can’t send yet, then climbing at my current level until I get tired, then cooling down on dead easy stuff and working on still moving smoothly when I’m tired.

2015-03-26 20.08.03The perky little stars, cheesy as they are, help too. I can actually look at the page and pick them out, see how many there are this time compared to last time. I can give myself a star for a send, but I can also give one for a good effort, for applying smart technique or proprioception in working on a current problem, for overcoming that urge to chicken out on a tricky top out. I can even give myself a star for managing a V0 with silent feet when I’m tired. Whatever. The stars are just internal pats on the back. Take as needed.

And if you’re feeling like everyone in the gym is way better than you and they’re all looking at you like you’re some kind of newbie, it helps to have some noise blocking headphones and the music of your choice to help you move smoothly and feel like a badass even on something fairly easy. You’re training. Not only does their opinion not matter, your former self’s opinion doesn’t either. Crank the rock music or whatever and get up there.

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It’s a sign

I did, too. Dream about a spring climbing trip, to somewhere with fine-textured, whitish granite slabs and vertical faces with splitter cracks.

So, not the Gunks. But in the dream we were among the first crews out, it was one of those startling spring days that pop up out of winter with no warning and turn the grass green, there were new leaves and, like, patches of wildflowers and shit.

I think the last month and a half of -15C weather may be wearing on me.

But now I have something to look forward to!

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