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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Post-comp goodness

After a competition is the best time to be bouldering. There’s a whole lot of new stuff up. It’s labeled from easiest to hardest. And there’s a bunch of stuff in the easier ranges. It’s playtime!

I headed out for my usual Tuesday session today, but David was sick, so I bouldered. And it was really good. Normally, I’m not a big fan of bouldering, and bouldering alone to boot. I find it really disheartening, because the curve is so steep between “ho-hum, no problem,” and “falling off on the opening move.”

But after a comp is different. For one thing, you have to take some downtime between climbs, because you’re walking around looking for the next problem in the sequence. By the time you find your next challenge, you’re rested up a bit from the last. And for another thing, there is a set increase in difficulty. I love having the numbers. For one thing, it’s fun to see where on the list you bottom out. But for another, you can build a session around it – say, climb until you get to the first one you really can’t do, then go back down in reverse order, so that you get a natural peak and then have to keep the effort going as you get more and more tired. (I didn’t quite get that in today, but then I was tired when I came in, having skated the whole length of the Rideau Canal this afternoon – after an hour an a half or so I was already feeling my legs wobble a bit when I jumped down from problems.)

But it was good for my ego, to work my way up through the competition problems, get myself good and tired, and quit when the skin on my hands really started protesting and my legs were complaining when I climbed the stairs to the upstairs cave. And it felt really good to head home feeling really, truly worked.

(And for the first time – I guess because the music was low in the gym, or maybe not even playing, I don’t remember – I had a climbing song stuck in my head, the way I do in summer. For some reason, it was this. . . )

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The terrible truth behind high gravity days


Admit it: you knew this was true all along.

On Tuesday, I met David at the gym (along with a couple of newbies, who were delightful and who I hope we get to see again).

It was dreadful. I have no explanation; all I know is that my feet popped off everything, my hands felt like dead fish, and my legs felt like large slabs of meat hanging limply from the bottom of my torso with a minimum of nerve tissue connecting them to my brain.

It was that bad.  I tried to keep up a positive attitude – I’ve been slacking lately, I was off climbing for a couple of weeks over the Christmas break, I’ve been working crazy hours since I got back to town – but it was depressing.

On Wednesday, the next day, I actually sat for a few minutes in my car outside the gym, contemplating whether I should just turn around and go home. It was going to be crowded in there: Wednesdays are the nights that the Alpine Club of Canada crew come in. By the same token, the place was going to be full of people I know, and I was having one of those days where I have a mild horror of having to conduct social interactions.

But I had told David I would be there. Bah, I said; F— it, I said; and I went in.

And it was better. It was a lot better. I started out easy, on some low grade climb, and I took a few at well below my grade to warm up (thanks to David, who made me climb that one more 5.8 before I got on anything too challenging). Before long I was back to working my usual range. My brain could communicate with my feet. I could lock off on those small holds and get a foot up to that small high step. I didn’t have the staying power I’m used to, but my brain was checked in and it wasn’t anywhere near as hard to see the placement of the next holds and know where my weight needed to be, how I’d have to do the move.

On one climb, I even had a moment where I thought: Kate, this is where you usually do something really stupid because you’re tired, thus falling on the final move of the route. You’re tired now. Don’t do something stupid. Oh, and don’t let go. And I didn’t, and I flashed the route. And I was pretty happy with myself about that.

I’m convinced they turned the gravity up on Tuesday, and down on Wednesday. It’s the only explanation. (Well. Unless I go into levels of introspection and self-analysis that I would rather wave away by telling myself there’s a big dial under the desk and Andy turned it down for me last night.)

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Someone out there on Imgur tied glow sticks to their wrists and ankles and then took a long exposure shot.


Dawn Wall

I didn’t intend to spend a lot of the afternoon watching the live stream of the last few pitches of the Dawn Wall climb. But I heard, this morning, that Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson were going to be finishing the world’s hardest big wall free climb today. And as I was checking for updates online, I stumbled across the stream, and since what I was doing at work was something I could do with an extra window open on my monitor . . .

Credit Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson on the last stretch of the Dawn Wall. Credit: Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Well, I wound up watching most of the last three pitches. A few hours’ worth. I had to leave work just as Caldwell reached the last ledge, raised his fists in the air, leaned against the rock for an emotional moment, and then started building the anchor to bring up Jorgeson.

I was suprisingly excited, sitting in my office chair, watching him race through the last pitch. Surprisingly moved to be able to watch a piece of climbing history happen.

But there was another reason I compulsively watched it. When I tuned in, the two were at the start of the third-last pitch, standing together on a ledge. And I knew what they were doing. Not in the particulars or anything, and I wouldn’t presume to say I have a clue what big wall climbing is like, but I have at least done long days of multi-pitch climbing, so I had enough of an idea of what’s involved that I could picture it. The second, getting to the anchor. The fist-bump (which made me grin). Then stopping for a moment, shaking hands out, setting gear back up. Rope and carabiners and knots and slipknots and friction devices, and (at one point) pulling out a longer-sleeved shirt and putting it on.

While they were at the anchor, the camera zoomed out to show more of the wall, because there wasn’t anything big happening on the ledge. Although I wished it would zoom in. How were they going through the process of switching leads? How were they coiling and stacking rope? I couldn’t hear anything, of course, but I could imagine the talk. Did the second hand gear over to be re-racked? Maybe. Both of them looked to be carrying minimal gear: traveling light. I assumed they must have worked out the minimum gear they’d need for each pitch.

I looked at the rope setup – how long the ropes were, where they were stacked, how they were kept clear of each other, the extra line each of them was trailing as they led. I imagined how much extra weight that extra line represented. And then I watched while Caldwell put his shoes on (put his shoes on!) and set off – downward, first, from the anchor, on an overlap, and then traversing rightward.

He paused for a long time, on a tricky section. It was while I was watching him test out the moves, back down, adjust, try the move again, back down, adjust, try it again, then edge downward to start from a new angle, that I really got hooked. Because I knew what that felt like. I was watching something very familiar happen, albeit on a much, much higher level. I was watching a climber work. Not just a climber: one of the best. This live stream – unedited, unpackaged, unproduced, with no soundtrack – was quite possibly my only chance to really watch someone like Tommy Caldwell climb.

2-1-0They weren’t the hardest pitches of the route. Caldwell and Jorgeson were both tired from 16 straight days of this. They weren’t on showpieces; the hardest and craziest pitches of the route were below them. It wasn’t the most spectacular climbing. But through the quiet, straightforward gaze of that telephoto camera trained on them from across the valley, I got to watch a couple of the world’s most elite climbers work, in that unique environment, all alone on the rock. Regardless of how many cameramen were rigged up on the wall or how many people were watching online like me, I was watching these guys climb the hardest big wall in the world, each of them all on his own as he led a pitch. Thinking about each foot placement, each handhold, each chalk bag dip, each clip and gear placement, each one-hand rest. I got to watch them make decisions about wayfinding and protection, when to go for it and when to stop and think, and when to back up, and try from another direction. I got to watch each leader get to the top of the pitch and build an anchor, and pull up rope, and signal to the second, who would pull on his shoes and get moving. And when they met up on the ledge, they’d go through the routines of securing, rope handling, gear switching, and then one would set off again on lead.

It was slow and methodical and sometimes one of them would stall out for long stretches of time, and because it was live, there was no quick, cute editing to speed it up or cut to the next cool move. I watched at the speed of reality as they made their way slowly up the wall. This is how it really is, I thought. This is amazing, and slow, and fitful, and bundled into it there is so much skill and experience and knowledge. The live stream was the opposite of most climbing videos, and the opposite of that adrenaline-fueled stereotype that some people have about climbing.

I watched through to the end of Caldwell’s lead of the last pitch because I wanted to see them get to the top – but I watched everything before that because . . . when else will I have a chance to watch someone on that level, on the climb of their career to date, in the fine, basic, essential detail in which they pull on shoes, haul out rope, look up and decide whether to lunge, or to think again? When else will the livestreams of the world be watching while the world’s greatest climbers do what they do every day? This was a unique privilege for me. I’m glad I stumbled into it.


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