Thursday, June 1, 2017

Trad Dad and the Boulderer

The glow of the Fall effort on the Rostrum in Yosemite had faded. I was in a dark funk of winter. The hounds of middle age were nipping at my heels. I needed something to train for, to draw myself into the light. A rematch on the Original Route in Red Rock would be the perfect thing. I pitched the trip to Ryman as we broke a multi-day fast late one night over pizza and bottles of wine. He tentatively agreed, explaining that he was but a novice placing traditional protective gear on a rope in wild settings. He was primarily a boulderer. Ryman negotiates boulders that take me weeks to piece together like an avalanche flowing through a valley. I hoped his energy might inform my own climbing. "We'll figure it out together," I told him. Here is a short video on how it went.


Friday, November 25, 2016

All the Valley's a Stage

It was on the warm up. I stood on tipped toes surveying behind a flake for a last cam before running it out on unprotectable slab. I never even suspected the flake. It popped loose, a boogie board of sharp stone. It hit me in the right thigh and rode me down. The rope caught me on the next cam, but the stone kept going. It pushed passed my legs, smashed my right foot against the slab and dropped to the ground. My trusty climbing partner, Alex, was okay. The rope was intact. I had a deep knot in my right thigh. I couldn't feel my toes. Maybe the numbness would subside and everything would be fine or maybe it was a mess under the cover of my pant leg and shoe. Alex eased me to the base. I gingerly removed my climbing slipper. Blood pricked from the corners of my darkened middle toes like drops of juice from bruised fruit.

It was my first climbing trip of the season, the first since February. There was novelty in the war story of the 5k bushwhack out from the WV jungle, then there was just atrophy of mind and body in summer.

We sat in the concentrated sun of my backyard. There was something on the grill and we were drinking beer. I hadn't seen my climbing friends in a while. First child rearing kept me away, then I was sidelined by that rock. I was happy to see them. I took a swig.

"Patagonia in December eh? " There was no way I could make it happen, but old ambitions stirred.

I listened to the story of Alex and Spencer's new route on a remote wall in Wyoming. I took another swig, the beer warm and sickly sweet.

By late August I could painfully don climbing shoes. I had planned on a trip to Yosemite in the Fall before I broke my toe, but now I wasn't sure. If I was going to take time away from family it had to be worth it, and here I had no plan, no partner and only six weeks to train.

"Man, so yeah, I could die," I said to myself sitting in the window seat on the airplane to California, reflecting on my progress leading to this moment, finally on route to the big stone.

Previous efforts uncovered new facets in the physical regime or diet. I looked inward to my motivations and fears and sought a new level of discipline on this one. Part of my daily effort was to meditate on the fact that death might come at any time, by traffic or cancer or plane crashing on my house--as it did for my dear colleague Marie--as inspiration to arrive in the moment with zeal and appreciation for what’s truly important, having examined my fears so as to control them rather than otherwise. Yet, I could not deny, if I die climbing it has a different meaning than a plane on my house. I chose this path even while I have such precious things to live for. The question of why always returns.


Climbing used to be my crusade. I would spend as much time as possible out there, stripping fears and supposed necessities, exploring adaptation to extremes. I sought to show the civilized how I could be so hardy as to leave it all, author my own survival. I adjusted and bought in to the usual vestiges of USA citizenry and have started to reap the rewards of work and family: the face of my son after a couple days away, his cracking jokes to get me to laugh, me laughing at his joke, but even more with happiness at his reaching out to me, and him, my son, laughing again, happy at my happiness.

I recalled a trail run long ago, breaking into a clearing to find 5 adolescents boys wearing bright, loose gym clothes and book bags with water bottles and accessory garments strapped to the sides. They were in the act of crossing a 12" caliper tree bridged over NW Branch Creek. Two had completed the crossing. One was mid-way, half crouched, clutching thick branches that obstructed his passage over the central trunk. One was tentatively beginning the traverse on the far end with a tall can of Monster energy drink in one hand. The last waited his turn. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Route with No Name

I'm on a boat! And I'm not impressed.
Many climbers have comfort items they take into the mountains. Some carry a can of sardines or a flask of whiskey. Others require an extra sleeping pad or a pair of down booties. These creature comforts bring peace of mind and are almost always worth their weight. But between us, Spencer and I had managed to pack 270 pounds of food and gear for nine days in the mountains. On a pound-per-day basis, this was a personal record. Were we too comfortable?

“Eh, screw it,” we thought. Two unlucky mules would be carrying it all for the first 12 miles. Then we’d load it into a raft to cross a reservoir. After that, it was only a few thousand vertical feet to our planned base camp. We had enough time to make it work. Our goal was to climb a new route on Cloud Peak, the highest point in the Bighorn Mountains of northern Wyoming, a range still cloaked in mystery. We weren’t sure what we’d need, so we brought it all.

After accompanying our mules to the reservoir, it was time to say goodbye. We piled all of our gear, plus three adult males, into a tiny inflatable. While the motor was being gassed up by our guide, I noticed the fine print on the side of the raft: “Weight limit 600 lbs.” The engine sputtered to life and we shoved off. I felt the desperately cold water as we motored along and quickly realized it would prove impossible to salvage our gear if we sank. We hadn’t yet seen our objective and already I felt committed. None of it seemed to bother Spencer. He spent the whole ride making small talk with our guide who, in a dusty Stetson and painted-on Wranglers, didn’t strike me as the nautical type.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Red Rock: The Gift of a Trip

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

"Name that band," said with expectation of Holy Communion between individuals, with voice loud enough to passively invite the half dozen of us within eavesdropping range to respond.

Funny that expectation of communion. You chase your musical whims in the vast field of methodically arranged aural frequency sets to find 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 observe the musical interfacing from the outside feels perverse, like witnessing PDA, or, in this case, a failed pick up line.

"It's Linkin Park!"

"Oh, really, I didn't know..."

I left to complete my session.

I’d been diligent about maintaining a streak of lunchtime sessions during the week. There simply is no other time, and to climb a few boulder problems, strength train a little, and run one mile each day on the treadmill is enough to keep me whole, but now the lunchtime workout was engendered with a sense of mission. My wife'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, and where you have to ski, or ski doo, as they say, 10 miles 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, crystalline liquid, curling into your nostrils, frosting nasal hairs to an iced web that cracks as you wrinkle your nose, 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 well to climbing ice, but then you encounter the severity of it. 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, embrace fear. I faked it. Now I don't want to fake it. I want to do it for real as the ice monster with tuned strength and instincts, but you have to have a certain surplus of time to nurture regionally esoteric skills. Anyway. There was doubt in my heart you see. High’s of 70 degrees in Red Rock outside of Vegas? Alex saw it 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, 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 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 warm 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 quarries in 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.