Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Red Rock: The Gift of a Trip

"Dude, name that band, name that band...name that band," says the twenty-something knit-capped mid-weekday climbing gym patron of the generic post-garageband-1st-world-white-teen-angst rock playing via Pandora on the establishment sound system. His friend first tries planned ignoring, head down, seated at one of the glass tables between roped and bouldering climbing areas, studying a laptop or something. Slowly he looks up, stalling for time, "what?" then acquiescence, "who?"

"Name that band," said with expectation of Holy Communion between individual experiences, with voice loud enough to invite the half dozen of us within eavesdropping range to observe his membership, to invite us to join, or at least to want to join.

Funny, that expectation of communion. I've felt it too. You chase your musical whims to find in the vast field of methodically arranged aural frequency sets a particular set that tingles you in old and new regions. You play and replay it, you attach it to your collage of self. You watch for perked up ears among the outside collages when you play it. Then you see someone else get tingled and it's like you're sharing the same parts. You're made of the same stuff. You attain elusive intimacy that well-functioning humans seek.

To see the musical interfacing from the outside feels perverse, like witnessing PDA, or, in this case, a failed pick up line. "It's...'' the name didn't register. "Oh, really, I didn't recognize..." I left to complete my session.

I’d been diligent about maintaining a streak of abridged lunchtime sessions during the week. There simply is no other time, and to climb a few boulder problems, to strength train a little, to run one mile each day on the treadmill is enough to keep me whole. But now, suddenly, the lunchtime workout was engendered with a sense of mission. Laura's mom and brother were coming to town for the weekend. The kids were covered. I could go climbing.

Alex and I attempted to plan a traverse of the Presidential Range in NH for this weekend weeks ago, but I had no kid coverage.  It fizzled. Then he made plans with Spencer, who has been further hardening his slender man visage to ice monster function between congressional recesses. Now I'm back and crashing the party. Spencer had our sights north so far as Quebec, where there are ice falls the color of sanitary outfall, d'Or as they say, 1000' tall, or 350m as they say, and where you have to ski 10 miles, or 16 kilometers as they say, to access the flows. But man, that's a lot to try and pack into a long weekend, and the forecast was for the kind of dense cold that feels like death itself, to be held at bay by mere fibers, and there's no good feedback saying that the big poop flows are in condition.

And ice climbing is a rough sport to adopt with home base in DC. As a rock climber you feel that your skills should segue very well to ice, and they do, but then you encounter the severity aspect. You fall off good steep rock and the rope whips through carabiners attached to metal wedged in solid rock substrate till rope tension, gentle swing into wall, and bounce to a stop. You fall off ice, which grows clean only at low, leg breaking angles, and is chandeliered when straight, and your rope whips through carabiners attached to metal in brittle water substrate till rope tension, gentle swing, crampon point catches ice, ankle break, or, worse, chandelier blows up. It defies the casual approach. I used to just get after it, and embrace fear. I faked it. Now I don't want to fake it. I want to do it for real as the ice monster, protected by tuned strength and instincts. But you have to have a certain surplus of time to nurture regionally esoteric skills. Anyway. My heart wasn’t sure. High’s of 70 degrees in Red Rock outside of Vegas I see? Alex saw too. Yessiree. Tickets booked. Hotel booked.

The wonderful thing about ice climbing is that it transports you to a crisp, ethereal, brisk world of glinting, refracting light, and sounds all hushed by snow, but, inevitably, often after a few bouts of the screaming barfies where blood returns to freezing digits and complains loudly about the whole getting shut out in the first place thing and then slugs the same part of your CNS that makes you want to barf after getting hit in the genitals, you start to daydream about the simple life of climbing rock on gear in determinate substrate, birds singing, warm light as around sunrise or sunset, with only the need for thin fabric covering. This time, dead of winter, we're cutting straight to that image, and we're going to live it out. We are going to play act the dream. Spencer, I'm afraid, is too tuned up. He refuses the dream. He will roam the quarries of PA in search for ice.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Returning, Choices, Culture from Scratch

Two years ago I felt the planets in the cosmic watch of my life shift. Myriad tiny decisions and postures of day to day had nudged them to a brink. I could feel them surpass the edge, nod toward distant gravity--fling--hopefully to find a new stable orbit.

I trusted the change. Growing up in a military family, moving every few years, taught me that change is good. Sometimes it's challenging and scary, but it's real, and real experiences provide truth. It's also usually fun, at least in retrospect.

However, with the current change, the mountains that were my crystalline focus for the last 7 years blinked from view.

I sat shirtless under the sun in the front yard of our new house sipping whiskey and picking weeds. "Who is this eccentric new home owner?" I imagined the neighbors saying.

I nursed a sour dough culture, and baked beautiful naturally leavened breads, caught in a Chad Robertson, hipster nesting fervor.

I ran the trails near my house for hours, meditating to my heart rate in a steady zone 2.

Now my son Finn is here, 1 year old, and the change has delivered according to its reputation. Fatherhood has been challenging, scary, and fun. Inklings of truth are beginning to offer themselves.

Work, family, play, curiosity, spirit, fitness, friends, excellence, mountains, booze, food. These pursuits are neither casual or isolated. The way we combine and balance these ingredients creates the most powerful force in history: culture. When it's only you, the culture you radiate is less likely to be revealed by obvious subjects. Subjects exist in the form of your peers, but you are more likely to be oblivious, to get lost in the noise and think it's just you so it doesn't matter. Then you have a kid, and it's clear that the culture you produce has an immediate, direct effect. It is your child's entire world, it is the sea your spouse navigates at all times,
it is a beacon in the fog for everyone else.

Somewhere in the soup of new pressures to take charge, the mountains returned to view. How can I offer them to my children if I let them slip away? Alex and I planned a trip to the Incredible Hulk in the High Sierras for the end of June 2015, a month before my second child is due.

Anderson's training manual as my bible, I dropped 1 lb a week for 20 weeks. I meditated. I hangboarded at 5am every third day, and traversed the gym in place of lunch.

I felt fitter, sharper, and more excited for life than ever. I was back.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Bailing Gumbies

Even after receiving the gift of life from our friends Dave and Micah at the base of Half Dome, the hike down the death slabs was a brutal endeavor. Once again it was hot when we started our descent, and the sun broiled us mercilessly. Its reflection off the slabs seemed to amplify its effect, increasing our suffering logarithmically. Both Dan and I drank about a liter and a half of our friends' water when we met them at the base of the route. But that was after more than 12 hours without any liquids. Prior to that, we had been conservative with what little water we did have. Although our stomachs felt distended after chugging what we could, our bodies were still suffering from prolonged dehydration.

Dave, despondent over not
getting to climb...but he
gave us his water!
On the hike down, this manifested itself in all kinds of fun and interesting ways. We both had headaches and nausea, along with the obvious fatigue. I was confused and lethargic. I stumbled on seemingly every other step. Urination was painful and, thank god, infrequent. But the worst of all of these symptoms was the moodiness. I had no right to be the least bit grouchy, seeing as we had just climbed one of our dream routes in good style; nevertheless, I was full-on cantankerous. I had to restrain myself from yelling at a friendly European couple that passed us on the hike down. How dare they? I also remember feeling pissed off at Dan for not thinking of asking Dave and Micah to leave us more water for the descent. In my present state of mind, that was clearly his mistake. When we finally made it off the slabs onto the forest trail, I felt like punching a French hiker for not knowing exactly how far away the bus stop was ("You'd be speaking Deutsch if it wasn't for us, you ignorant Frog!" I said to myself).

But the coup de grace came on the bus, only one stop away from the Curry Village Pizza Deck and our salvation. The bus pulled over to let off a group of hikers, and one of them had the audacity to ask for directions to a trailhead. The bus driver indulged, and took her sweet time pointing him in the right direction. "There are ten hikers in that group. Doesn't one of them have a fucking map?!" I yelled. This time it wasn't just in my head. If they heard me, nobody paid attention, and soon enough the bus stopped at Curry Village. I leveled an icy gaze at the bus driver as I disembarked. That'll teach her to waste my time. ("I just climbed Half Dome. Who the hell are you?")

Minutes after getting off that bus I had a Gatorade in hand and all of that negativity suddenly started to dissolve with each gulp. Relief from the immediate discomfort of dehydration seemed to accelerate the half-life of Type 2 Fun.

It's incredible how easily the discomfort and uncertainty of a climb can fade from memory, crowded out by the expanding ego and certitude that come with success. Mere hours after cursing at a friendly bus driver, I sat in Curry Village--hydrated and surrounded by granite monoliths and pizza--thinking that climbing Half Dome was the single coolest thing I had ever done. Soon Dan and I were relaxing, beers in hand, nostalgically glossing over our climb while wearing rose-colored glasses:
  • We hadn't really been that thirsty. 
  • We never actually would have taken another party's cache of water had Dave and Micah not been there to help us out.
  • We need to do something else; faster, lighter...bigger.
Well...there's only one thing in Yosemite Valley that is bigger than the NW Face of Half Dome, and that's the Big Stone itself. El Capitan. Our confidence, inflated to galactic proportions by our recent success, was eclipsing the better part of valor. We decided right then that we were going to climb The Nose with only a single rest day.

The Nose of El Capitan, as seen from the approach trail.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Push


I write, now, from a million miles away.  Not like for the other posts.  For those I was on the scene, in the present: training, climbing, daydreaming about climbing.  These activities have occupied me for the last 6 years in ever more coherent and intense cycles, right to this last effort in preparation for our trip to Yosemite.

It was a perfect push.  Sport climbing last year showed what was necessary to access hard grades.  Reading the China Study inspired me to overhaul my diet.  Working with Dan Hague (author of  The Self Coached Climber) helped to optimize our gym sessions.  There was the marathon last year that illustrated how to increase training loads to a crescendo, then taper for a performance peak.  The 31 pitch attempt last May that offered confidence climbing through the night.

Past trips benefited from flashes of inspiration.  The Yosemite trip would test the sum of our experience.

It was my last hard training week.  I ran 31 miles, climbed 30 hard routes in the gym, and many boulder problems.  I ate quality food, and abstained from booze.  It was time to taper.  That's when life outside of climbing--long held at bay--started to pour in, and I started to float away.

None of that mattered for Yose though.  We found ourselves buzzing after the red-eye to San Franscico at 2am.  We jumped in our rental, skidded around the turns in Yosemite at 7am, checked in to our tent cabin, bought food, and were hiking up the Death Slabs below Half Dome by 2pm.

We decided on the drive in that we had no time to mess around with fixing ropes, or waiting to start predawn.  The fancier our tactics, the more water and food we would need to carry, the slower we would go.  We packed our rope, rack, some water, and commenced.

We gained the top of the slabs 4 hours later, rested, and started climbing around 7pm.  I short fixed the first 4 pitches as the sun set, then in the dark.  After midnight, Alex took over and pushed the rope another two pitches.  We settled to bivy on a slight, ramped ledge around 2am.

We ate sandwiches, drank from our meager water supply, and tried to sleep.  First we shared a single butt scoop, side by side.  Then Alex tried to find a more restful position a few feet away, slightly weighting his harness to avoid sliding from the ramp.  I nodded off for around 20 minutes, Alex barely a wink.

A few hours later, the moon rounded the corner of Half Dome and the entire Yosemite Valley showed bright in ghostly light.  The chill of the 50 degree evening gradually overtook our thin jackets and mylar foil blankets.  We could rest no more.  "Time to go."

Several pitches later, day broke and we heard the clanging and whispers of a team cleaning up from breakfast on the wall above us.  It wasn't all ours after all.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The North Cascades: An Onsight, A Bail, and an Alpine Adventure

It was early August in DC, and most of the city was enjoying vacation. For the unfortunate few who were left without an escape plan, life oozed by like molasses. Our aggressive training schedule for the upcoming October trip to Yosemite had me psyched to climb, but I was bored of Seneca quartz and New River sandstone. I felt like I was missing something in my climbing. It had been too long since I last felt the exhilaration and uncertainty of casting off on an adventure climb. Call it serendipity, or perhaps just blind luck, but in the midst of these feelings, my buddy Spencer e-mailed me and asked if I'd like to meet him in the North Cascades for some alpine climbing. When I read his e-mail, I knew immediately what I had been lacking: I needed to fill up on some mountains. I accepted his invitation, and within a couple of days plans were laid to meet in the Cascades in two weeks.

With little time to plan, we immediately began spit balling. We e-mailed back and forth, sharing links from Mountain Project to climbs that looked like they might possess the right combination of challenge, adventure, and access. We only had five days, so we knew we wouldn't be able to trudge too far into the wilds. Plus, I wanted to maximize the Yosemite training potential of this trip, which meant that pure rock routes would be the flavor du jour. That ruled out some of the big boys of the range. But not to worry; this was the Cascades, after all. There were still plenty of climbs that fit our narrow selection criteria.

Liberty Bell Group.
Photo from Mountain Project.
With our hopes and dreams for this trip laid out, it soon became clear that the routes in Washington Pass were good candidates. More specifically, the Liberty Bell group had a number of clean rock spires that appeared to possess the right combination of good rock, challenging climbing, and access.

The Liberty Bell group, which includes five granite spires, is tucked neatly into a hairpin turn in the North Cascades Highway. Conveniently, this meant that the approach would be trivial by Cascades standards. We decided that these routes would be a good starting point to get a feel for the rock and the range as a whole.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Long Story of The Prow


As we promised, what follows is an after-action report from our Memorial Day weekend trip to New Hampshire. In an earlier post, I shared one of our goals for the trip. We also had another goal, which was to onsight the VMC Direct Direct in a quick push. In short, I guess you could say we failed to accomplish either goal. We did not onsight the Prow and we didn’t even get on the VMC DD. However, I was proud of our efforts, and we did succeed in several unspoken goals: get back safe, learn something, and have fun.

We arrived in Manchester late Thursday night and picked up our rental car. We settled for your run-of-the-mill midsize sedan, but I really think we should have shelled out the cash for a little extra American muscle—something boss, like a Camaro or a Charger. You see, we had no intention of showing up at the base of Cathedral Ledge as boring old Dan and Alex from Washington, DC. An historic and badass line like The Prow would require historic and badass new identities. This particular weekend, we’d be climbing as Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck.

oh yeah
American badasses.


Thursday, May 31, 2012

Thirty One

I thought we'd try 31 pitches in a day at Seneca for my 31st birthday, then get home in time to enjoy steak and wine for dinner.

What is it about this stage of life that makes me want to inaugurate my years with cute feats of athleticism?  Must I prove something?  Am I satirizing the impulse that I should prove something?  Either way, it's good fun.

Plus, a day of moderate routes has been on my mind for a long time.  We spend so much time pushing the frontiers of our ability that we seldom revel in the hills we've captured.  This would be a chance to enjoy the freedoms of vertical movement we've worked so hard to earn.

"To be home for dinner at 7pm, we need to hit the road by 4pm.  Assume 2 pitches per hour, up and down--that's 15+ hours of climbing, and we'll need to start by midnight."  The calculus was steeped in optimism, but it offered a glimpse of what we were dealing with.

I should note that Seneca is not your typical crag.  It's not a simple junction of vertical and horizontal with a park-like atmosphere, like something out of a Seurat painting.  It's not the Gunks or the New River Gorge.  Seneca is an MC Esher with ledges, ramps, and walls that connect in baffling ways.  These would be 31 rope lengths in a three dimensional labyrinth.  Who knew how this would go?

We armed ourselves with home-made black bean tacos and a trove of addictive cookies baked by Laura,  waded through the Friday rush hour, and exited the highway by the three giant white crosses, two oversized american flags, and municipal water tank--all arranged upon the hill like a still-life representation of the lands were we about to enter.

The steering wheel of Alex's Subaru tugged to the right.  I knew the tires were near bald from seasons of pushing them north, south, west...maybe this was just a warning.

"It's flat."

We pulled to the side of the road, swapped the tire by the light of a kind WV officer who'd come to investigate our hazards, and continued on our way listening to the whine of the front differential compensating for the doughnut.  Our adventure had officially begun.

We could see headlamp beams draped across the distant wall as we pulled into the lot around 11pm.  We met their owners as we silently marched up the darkened stair cases in the woods, and exchanged a few words.  They had their adventure--finally coming to a happy and welcome close, triumphant over stuck ropes and the uncertainty of darkness--and we had ours, just now emerging from belligerent daydream to the conflicting sensations of reality.