1.16.2013

Transported

Despite sore fingers and daily low temperatures in the single digits over the past week, the climbing continues apace here east of the Sierra Nevada. The weather has been greatly improved over the past couple of days by a high pressure system. Highs are nearing 60, which is actually almost too warm for hard boulder problems. It was hard to complain too much today, however: I happily wore a tee shirt all day as I shredded my fingertips on the sharp granite in the afternoon heat.

 It might be snowy, but it's still about 50 degrees out

 My favorite thing about the Buttermilks aside from the view is the size of the boulders: even some of the warmups and easier problems are extremely tall. The beautiful north face of the Grandma Peabody boulder...


...is probably about 40 feet tall. The great thing about this boulder is that there are at least a dozen lines ranging from V4ish to V14 on the colorful face, but almost all the hard sections end where the lichen does and the slab topout is much easier.

The Drifter boulder

It's pretty easy to put together a nice fitness circuit in the 'milks, depending on how well one knows the problems. My favorites are High Plains Drifter, Change of Heart and Saigon, as well as the tall but really nice NW Arete of the Grandma Peabody. Soulslinger and its variations have almost become daily destinations; even Stained Glass lured me back to complete the sit start (and erase an egregious two-foot-long rookie stripe at the top) but the tiny edges didn't do my fingers any favors and that one won't be on the 'casual lap list' anytime soon. I've been trying to wrap my brain around bouldering again as it's actually somewhat of a difficult transition from two whole seasons of mostly traditional climbing. I get worked pretty fast from doing boulder problems, especially in the Buttermilks. Why? Part of the answer is: skin! The rock here is so sharp that it's pretty easy to just shred right through your fingertips in mere minutes depending on the problem. For me, obviously, avoiding finger injuries is another major issue. The trick is to build up finger strength slowly by doing lots of volume. Unfortunately, I always end up wanting to try harder problems...
  
 The quintessential hard boulder problem in Bishop: The Mandala

 Many of the lines that are at the top of my to-do list (like the Mandala) are not for short people with weak joints. Some of these will probably have to be filed in the 'long-term' goal category, if such a thing exists for me. I did get to watch strongman Joel Zerr gun down the stand start yesterday. He made it look about as easy as it can look and it still didn't look that easy. I can establish on the starting holds and try to pull a move but that's about it. A slightly more reasonable pursuit for me right now is to try some of the taller but relatively easier problems around here. I was pretty excited to do one of them the other day, although in retrospect I really wish I'd checked it out on a toprope first.

 Transporter Room more or less follows the green line. The Karate person is probably pretty near to proper scale: the Grandpa Peabody boulder is about 45 feet tall at its highest (edit: I looked again and the karate person is maybe a bit on the small side. Think of him/her as being the size of a large dog)

Transporter Room, a Dale Bard problem from the '80s, is the original Buttermilks 'highball' problem. Being in general a stubborn fool, I sought the purity of a 'ground-up' ascent. I watched a couple of videos of someone else climbing it (or maybe it was the same video twice) and decided it didn't look so bad. It really isn't (V5, crux in the first 15 feet) but the rating belies the overall seriousness of the endeavor: you must not fall off the ending slab! I didn't want to fall at all. After a couple of false starts up to (and careful retreats down from) the hueco at around 20 feet (where the green line jogs diagonally up and left), I finally stood up and gained a large edge above. I manteled onto this hold and committed myself to the final 20 feet of lower angle climbing. The next section was a bit harder than I expected, but the biggest problem was that the rock quality was anything but great: at the 25-30 foot mark I found myself absolutely committed to weighting some holds that inspired little confidence in their structural integrity. After a tense moment, the holds thankfully disappeared and the 5.9 friction climbing above seemed much more secure. Next time I'm bringing the rope up first: questionable rock adds a lot more to these challenges of mental fortitude than I sometimes care to take on.

When the sun dips down behind the Sierra, the temperature drops about 20 degrees almost instantly. Aesthetically, however, it may be the best part of the day: shadows lengthen, outlines soften; color eventually shoots across the sky and alpenglow lights the mountain peaks. Hard projects start to feel easier, or, if it's already been a full day of climbing, fingers begin their telltale ache and damaged skin contracts as the temperatures fall. It's no small wonder this special area is so popular but on a sunny weekday I can think of few better places to be.


1.12.2013

The Weakest Link(s)

Have I already used that title for another of my posts? Perhaps two? It's very possible. For the past four years (actually almost five) I've dealt with a number of climbing-related injuries either from overtraining or pulling too hard on the wrong types of holds. Notice that I didn't say 'a number of different climbing injuries'; that would be precisely because it has been the same fucking injury over and over again in the same finger on both hands! Technically, the specific injury is a sprain of the collateral ligament(s) (radial proper and/or accessory) of the proximal interphalangeal (or PIP) joint of both of my index fingers, with possible tearing of the ligaments that stabilize the palmar (or volar) plate.

The first occurrence of this injury, on my left hand, required me to completely rethink my relationship with climbing and offered a frightening look at how skewed priorities can become when pursuing something physical (like climbing) with such rigor. For instance: I write with my left hand; I like to play guitar; I like to be able to grasp objects and/or move them from place to place. I also like to push my limits in climbing, but when it directly interferes with these more basic issues of functionality it's hard not to reexamine what I tend to expect from my body. Fast forward to a re-injury of the same finger. Then a new sprain of the same finger on my right hand earlier this year. Then a re-injury of that finger two months later.

Somewhere in this course of events, valuable insight has been gained...and lost...and gained...and lost...and gained...and lost...and gained...

...and lost again, although this time I think I've been lucky enough to get a warning. More specifically, I've once again gone through the process of building up fitness (climbing a lot), carefully pushing the envelope a bit to see how my body responds (climbing harder routes), then going full throttle (bouldering), perhaps too soon, suffering the typical setbacks that come along with trying hard. Injury is almost inevitable with sports, but the fact makes it no less troublesome. This time, I don't think I did any serious damage but I certainly reactivated the injuries incurred earlier this year to some extent. Instead of the grim prognosis of two more months off from climbing, followed by rehabilitating an even weaker finger joint, I don't anticipate this taking more than a couple of weeks if I'm smart about it; which brings me to the reason I started typing: I haven't been smart about any of these injuries so far and have apparently learned very little from a combined year and a half off from climbing in the prime of my youth!

Is my old age enough to spark some kind of understanding between mind and body, between a standing expectation to always attempt to forge ahead towards the highest level and a certain type of connective tissue that has just fucking had enough? Or is being injured, albeit slightly, just part of the game, a necessary ingredient in the gamble?

A number of things bother me about my response to this issue over the years. Key to understanding this, I think, is the identification (in myself, obviously) of a rather laissez-faire approach to training. Training for climbing, for me, has always meant climbing more. At times in the past I've dabbled with weighted pullups, one-arm pullups (will my body ever allow me to do one of those again? Yeesh) and campus boarding but never to the extent that it dominated my time as compared to actual climbing. I actually don't think this is a worthless approach just so long as nothing goes wrong. Acute injuries are usually caused by a 'too much, too fast' event (and yes, this can include falling and breaking an ankle amongst a pile of sharp talus). A relatively slow buildup of skill and strength through actual climbing, as opposed to a regime of periodizing workouts towards maximum fitness, is a great way to progress. It's most likely not going to get you up the hardest of the hard routes, but for many of us neither is any sort of training regardless of its efficacy.

The problem, however, is that the 'slow and steady' thing hardly ever stays that way. Once I find myself with the requisite core strength and endurance (and I think there is a time when one just 'feels' competent again), I never hang up the fingerboard and begin a careful finger strength program to get me ready to pull really hard on tiny holds; I simply go and pull on the holds. I want the immediacy of the experience. I never had to do the homework when I was 24 because I had iron-strong fingers. I also could drink 7 beers the night before a climbing day and still pull 5.13 with ease (which might be a slight exaggeration, but the point stands).

Now I'm lucky if I can eat normally without a major uprising in my gut and get through a climbing season without any further career-destroying finger fuckery. It's true: the rebellion that began in my battered finger joints (a hand surgeon I consulted about a prior injury scoffed and told me I had hands like a career plumber's; I told him to go piss up his own asshole) apparently spread to my stomach earlier this year. No beer, no coffee; hardly any food. Actually, aside from the first week of acute distress, the latter of the three is untrue: having taken Prilosec for five months I could probably win a habanero pepper-eating contest and celebrate after with shots of rubbing alcohol muddled with aspirin and poured over broken glass. Actually, I'm really just thinking about how my stomach initially felt during the course of this malady. In truth, I am having to reinvent this thing called a diet that so many of us take for granted. Rather than everything in life that is edible to humans comprising a free-form omnivore's cornucopia as it did before, now I must hold up each olive, each chocolate square, each bite of peristalsis-inducing spicy Thai curry and think "Is it worth it?" Is it worth the aftermath of deglycyrrhizinated licorice, slippery elm bark and marshmallow root cocktails and bile-flavored morning eructation (put that one in your vocabulary pipe and take a fat hit)?

Occasionally it may be worth it, just as occasionally a minor injury is worth the feats of sport that preceded it. Usually it's not. I still struggle with this question. I've had an incredible month of sport climbing and bouldering, not to mention a wonderful three weeks in Joshua Tree. Shit, at least right now I can actually still climb without it being painful: I just have to lower the intensity for a little while. Was it inevitable that in climbing at the Buttermilk Boulders three or four days I week I would eventually write a couple of checks my fingers couldn't cash (there has to be a raucous double meaning there somewhere)? Probably. Had I taken a slightly more conservative approach would I have avoided any such setback? Possibly. The problem with my continued failing to learn a better strategy in this case leaves me with these questions. Time to get a hangboard? Probably. Time to sit back and strategize a bit, revisit goals and expectations? Probably. Time to switch over to a vegan, gluten-free diet and start doing yoga? Probably. When there's multiple links in the chain rusted through, you probably better not tow too much shit with it until they're fixed. Or something.

Anyway, treat those injuries with respect. When you're putting maximal effort into something with minimal caution, accept the risk of failure. Be grateful for these extra chances occasionally given before real disaster strikes. Or something. Fuck, never mind. I'm going to go rub homeopathic sports cream on my joint and play Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

1.07.2013

Stranger in a Strange Land

Bishop, CA has always been a sort of fantastical land for me since I spent a few weeks here years ago and a couple of days or weeks on a few other occasions. The town itself somewhat resembles other small mountain towns, although with a few charms that elevate it, especially around here in mid-to-southeastern CA. But the real greatness is in what surrounds the town: on both sides of the broad Owens River Valley, mountains soar thousands of feet above the valley floor. To the west are the eastern Sierra Nevada; to the east are the White Mountains. All are currently blanketed in snow and against the blue skies of the desert are truly awe-inspiring. I've never stayed long in a place like this and it's exciting to finally have the chance to do so.

The other attraction here for me, obviously, is the vast amount of climbing within a mere 20-30 minutes of downtown Bishop. The Owens River Gorge, with it's almost nonsensically twisted volcanic formations; the bouldering areas of the volcanic tablelands, warm canyons filled with crazy boulders that are absolutely festooned with sharp pockets, edges and all manner of strange holds; the Buttermilks and its outlying areas: the most idyllic of all the local areas here, with huge, gorgeous monzonite boulders reminiscent of Joshua Tree but with more of the coveted 'patina', a varnished coating of rock that provides the most solid holds and the most aesthetic climbing experience. In warmer months, the high Sierra provide endless challenges somewhat at altitude (13,000 feet) and many canyons lower down have larger granitic formations accessible once the snow melts. Higher country areas to the north like Mammoth and the Sherwin Plateau offer similar respite from the hot temperatures of spring and summer. In short, the area is paradisaical for a climber. Being able to stay here for a winter without camping in the sometimes single digit nighttime low temperatures is an incredible blessing for which I am most grateful.

Bouldering has always been a key aspect of my climbing but in recent years has fallen out of favor for me for a number of reasons. One of these is the persistence of finger injuries that make it difficult to use the often desperately small holds on harder boulder problems. Another is the absolute horde of people often found at popular areas like the Buttermilks. The attitudes of the worst of the boulderers are often even more flippant and arrogant than those found in other climbing pursuits because bouldering has so much more of that cool kid cache: the hardest moves on rock are being done in the context of bouldering and the basic level of commitment required is extremely low. That isn't to say that really good boulderers aren't good climbers; rather, bouldering attracts many people to the sport who, for better or worse, don't want to deal with ropes, gear, falling at great heights (even though roped falls are often safer than bouldering falls), etc. At best, bouldering offers the freedom to try very difficult moves and to develop creative new movements that are often dynamic and sometimes completely counter-intuitive. At worst, it means standing near a popular boulder or problem and watching the absolute lamest example of a dick-measuring contest ever conceived.

Alright, I'll allow that it's far from the lamest, but it can still be pretty lame.

Yes, it's possible to just avoid this type of situation entirely, but at an area like the Buttermilks it is almost impossible not to witness the occasional hipster boulderer wank-fest. Whether it's a sponsored professional doing a photo shoot that cock-blocks the boulder problem you really wanted to try for hours or a group of gym kids playing too-cool-for-school while they fall repeatedly off the same move on some famous V12, the scene is guaranteed to weigh heavily on the psyche of even the most hardened veteran of climbing. Beta will be sprayed at you indiscriminately from buffoons who can't even climb the problem they're describing; holds will have tick marks the length of shoelaces radiating outwards from the best usable surfaces; trash will be cast casually to the ground by callous weekenders that hail from cities near and far; kids with strong fingers will purposefully hike your projects in front of you while photos are taken for their sponsors. Yes, bouldering is no country for old men who want a quiet, contemplative experience. The purity of movement on the rock, the ingenuity of the human body at deciphering incredibly challenging movements: these are mere vestiges of a stodgy past, a reliquary for all sentiment and insight and other things dusty and old. Instead the inexorable progression of difficulty rules, the hip and cool compete in a vast outdoor arena where free gear and sponsor branding are the spoils for pulling on some small holds and grading the problem as high as possible without risking too much deflation thereafter. It is yet another chance for hipsters with handlebar mustaches and ass-tight black jeans smoking hand-rolled cigarettes to try to establish dominance over you, as laughable as the outcome often is. Just as frequently it is a forum for the relatively inexperienced to make a splash in the world of climbing news: get strong enough, climb the right problems and you just might be the next ! There has to be at least one gear company desperate enough for publicity to give you a free t-shirt with their brand name on it!

If you haven't guessed, I'm being relatively facetious here while adhering somewhat to the truth. Bouldering really is a scene at the popular areas, but elsewhere it is often a study in solitude and freedom from the confines of protective equipment and belayers. I love bouldering. I dislike the crowds it brings and their oft-dismissive attitudes. That aside, I will say that this trip has been the absolute best for me in terms of finding good situations even on the most crowded days around here. Almost every time I've gone out alone I've ended up climbing with posses of boulderers from all over who not only weren't outlandishly annoying but were even supportive and fun to climb with! Maybe there's some credence to keeping an open mind, whatever that means! Anyway, I really have had some great experiences, the net result of which is an improved attitude towards boulderers in general! I actually believe these experiences to be the rule rather than the exception. I never thought I'd say this, but I don't hate all the annoying hipster boulderers! In fact, their insolent and rockstar-esque behavior is downright entertaining! I know that when I arrive at the Buttermilks on a sunny Saturday in January, it's not going to be a day of solitude in the wilderness. What I used to interpret as somehow threatening, however, this being all the chest-beating and posturing that inevitable occurs, is now pure gold from a theatrical standpoint. This is a sure sign of a relative reduction of the dominance will of my own ego that has heretofore always attempted to turn the joy of anything I did into some sort of quantifiable accomplishment.

Now my only question is: when did I get so fucking old and crotchety?

No matter: when all the young whippersnappers see this old hand crushing the business like I was their age, it will all show its worth! Just so long as I don't throw my back out in front of them or hide it well if I do, my plan can't fail! I just did a hard slab problem the other day that probably gets climbed less than once a year, if that! Take that, kids!

In all seriousness, Bishop is a great place. If my fingers can stand the heat of pulling on all these tiny holds, I really look forward to climbing here. And yes, all the droves of pad people who flock to the hills to make a name for themselves or simply for fun, I love them too, at least in that sort of condescending, faux-enlightened, putting-on-airs fashion so popular right now. Hey: I never said I was perfect either!