8.12.2015

Across the Border

We live in interesting times. How interesting and how much more or less interesting they are than other times is a totally unanswerable and rhetorical musing, for which no extra verbage shall be allotted from my overall word count. But needless to say, these times are harshing my mellow. For realz. Every day, the news is bad. Police, executioner-wolves in the vestment of protective sheepherders, kill three or four citizens per day on average, most of them black. Presidential candidates recreate a farce, the absurdity of which increases exponentially and the cost of which doubles, at the very least, per four year cycle. As a voter, you can choose from two sides, both steeped in the blood of the corporate massacre of all it is to be human. One promises to backdraft us into a Christian kingdom comparable in oppressiveness only to an Islamic caliphate, in which all social freedoms are hamstrung, everything else is auctioned off to corporate interests and the only actual difference from said caliphate is the religious strain and the lack of veils on women. As with any good and incorruptible form of governance, the moguls of said kingdom will, of course, be free from the burdens of any of their own moral commandments. The other side, who are called the Democrats, I think, ostensibly maintains social freedoms while auctioning off everything else to corporate interests, all the while unable to do anything of value politically both because they don't want to and because they're unable due to a House and/or Senate full of reality-hating dicksauces from the other side. That's right: dicksauces. Inextricably tied to this morass of nihilistic assholery is our economy, which props up said nihilistic assholery by fastidiously concentrating all wealth at the top of the pyramid while at the bottom the peons move the big stones around in perpetuity and feel the lash when they falter, all the while dreaming big and looking upwards in starry-eyed complacency.

How apropos, then, that I'd rather go climbing. Cliche of me to begin this way, yes, but one must vent and one's blog is the appropriate venue for such. But lo, reader and behold, for to the north of us lies a strange land, a different country where everything is distinct yet steeped in verisimilitude. Truly, it is a monarchy, but the queen is so in name only and the social-democratic principles so detested by the angry and ignorant denizens of the United States are held sacrosanct. They fund their parks as well so Squamish, where this tale is eventually leading, is a wonderful option for us Northwestern USers. Said funds put toilet paper in the bathrooms even on the busiest weekends. Single payer healthcare ensures that your climbing injury will be treated in affordable comfort, although US citizens are liable to be extradited back to their own local hospital and handily bankrupted.

So Squamish it was this last week, one of the hottest of the summer and also a weekend adjoined by BC Day, a Monday during which all of British Columbia goes to Squamish and/or Whistler. It seemed like it could be bad, but serendipity was in the air. During mine and Anna's dejected second lap through, a kind climber offered to share his site in the absolutely packed campground that we blundered into on a Thursday afternoon. With that hurdle passed, we were free to enjoy all that Squamish has to offer. Of course, rather than focus on pure enjoyment, my strange climbing desires would lead us straight to the Apron slabs early the next morning for a ridiculous dose of foot torture.

The Apron slabs have for me come to represent a mythical space, a space in which terror and focused poise hang in delicate balance while sore toes in tight shoes attempt to dance through it unmolested by gravity. Sometime last decade, Ben Gilkison and I tiptoed our way up an iconic Apron slab route, Dancing in the Light, that will always stick in memory. While mostly 5.10 with a couple of harder crux 5.11 pitches, the 'easier' pitches have as few as three or four bolts in 30 or more meters, meaning you often have to climb solid 5.10 moves 20-30 feet above the last bolt. The feeling of snapping suddenly out of focus and into conscious thought five feet below the next bolt and looking down at raw peril below is a cherished memory of mine. Slab climbing has always held a fascination for me, perhaps because it's a style of climbing that's almost entirely in the mind. And the feet, of course. The feet.

To wit, I chose for us an apparently seldom traveled route called The Crossing. With at least six pitches of 5.11 slab, an .11d crux pitch and a super thin .11b first pitch, I figured it'd be a great warmup route for us. It's bolted much more closely so I knew I'd be able to concentrate more on how badly my toes were hurting instead of on the consequences of a 60 foot tumble down the slab into the trees. Our planned 6am start would've guaranteed us shade for most of the route even if we were waylaid by some gnarly climbing. However, the enjoyment of coffee and the allure of the outhouse were hard to ignore: thus we sauntered to the base of the climb at a far more civilized 9am. It rose straight out of the moss-thick forest, of which it appeared to be an inextricable part. The climb actually starts from the ground behind a large fallen tree, but currently the rock only emerges from the gloaming by the second or third bolt, accessible from a little tuffet ten feet higher. A carpet of pine needles hid the rock for a couple bolts but soon diminished enough that I could see the way through. The pitch was a stark reminder of the demanding nature of thin slab. I stood on footholds and expected to fall, then didn't, then stood up again, higher, expecting the same, then didn't fall again. So on, so forth until I knew I was out of trouble and on my way to the anchor. I figured if this pitch went well first thing in the morning, we'd at least be able to attempt the rest of the climb. For better or worse, it did and Anna followed up, maybe weighting the rope at the thinnest section, but then again, maybe not.

Usually on these climbs, the pitches blend together as tunnel vision sets in from staring at little undulations in the rock in the search for footholds. Featured 5.10 slab is less exacting in which footholds you can use, but 5.11 seems not to allow much deviation and becomes almost sequential at times. Pure friction slab is different, obviously, but the Apron rock is extremely varied and often little crystalline holds come into play and allow passage on what would otherwise be prohibitively steep, blank slab. On this climb, because of that variety, perhaps, the pitches stand out in my mind. During an 'easier' 50m pitch that felt every bit as hard as the first, I realized my feet were going to hurt. Bad. The siren call of those freshly resoled Mythos in the morning cool had worked its dark magic on me. With the unlined purity of the shoes, I knew I could stand on almost any foothold--until pain ruled otherwise.

But for awhile, all was well. Another pitch fell as we crossed the popular Snake while a team of climbers negotiated the exhilarating traverse pitch of that climb. We reached the crux, still ahead of the sun that would soon turn the wall into a granite oven. The pitch sweeps right, then gradually steepens into what could be called fairly 'demanding' climbing. I deployed as much technical trickery as I could, but fell off as I attempted to stand on some tiny nonsense. With time to spare, I lowered and attempted to redpoint the pitch. I'd never had to do that with slab before, but this meddlesome section was pretty 'demanding', as the euphemism goes. My second attempt was fruitful, but as I neared the anchor the Mythos began to feel less comfortable. So much less, in fact, that agony was fairly rapidly overtaking enjoyment; my feet screamed for mercy, but after the next pitch, allegedly, there was nothing but relatively smooth sailing. I was expecting another hideous thin section to rear up and smite me, but the climbing felt suspiciously easy. I wondered: had we become such masters of the thin friction that now these harder slabs were mere trifles? Another thin but low angle pitch confirmed our mastery and I decided to link it with the next 30 meter section and avoid another belay. Why not? It's only .11a according to "le geedbook". The hubris grew. As I punted off, running backwards 15 feet down a bleak bulge of glacier glass, it became all too evident. The rope, running over 50m of slab below, had become more than a minor burden. The sun was on the wall and the rock was feeling more and more like a rapidly warming sheet of metal. And my feet. Yes, my feet: they were just about done. But I tried. I lowered and pulled the rope, nearly running back up to that defiant and steep five foot section. I could see what I had to do, but then I knew, as again I backpedaled frantically down onto the rope, that I just couldn't do it. The focus was gone. I've always been amazed at how quickly that can happen in climbing and how significantly it affects one's ability to perform. To the top of the route we went, with an amazing exercise in focus to show for our efforts...

...and foot pain. Lots of foot pain. The next morning, our feet and calves hurt so badly we could barely walk; I thought I'd broken my big toes. Marc Bourdon is clearly neither a liar nor a slouch and minces no words about needing feet of steel for the route. So with feet of broken glass, we hobbled over to Slhanay (formerly the Squaw) for some rest-day climbing. I chose a strange but interesting route called Godforsaken Country because Slhanay was a popular place that morning and the other classic crack romps were taken. Unfortunately, our route featured mostly 5.10 face climbing, which was no favor for our sore toes and feet. It also had several optional bolt ladders, the option being .11 and .12 cruxy boulder problems. The actual rock climbing looked good but I was still blasted and pulling on quickdraws seemed like more fun. On the final pitch I led a dirty crack that would have been quite good if cleaned and finished by traversing under, then pulling over a roof with interesting geometry.

Despite our weakened condition, the route was enough fun that we returned after a 'full' rest day to climb more routes on Slhanay. Despite its close proximity the rock there is more granular than on the Chief, with plenty of prominent, sharp quartz crystals. I once core shot a rope during a simple toprope fall while climbing Frayed Ends of Sanity, a prominent arĂȘte on the formation. On our return day, well-rested although with lingering foot soreness that would be the hallmark of the trip, we tackled a couple of classic climbs, one easier and one more difficult. The easier of the two was The Great Game, a classy crack line. The pitches were straightforward and fun. Anna's climbing has really taken off, especially for having only a year of experience under her belt; she's able to tackle face climbing up to .11b or so and crack climbing up to .11a with relative aplomb. Even better, she loves height and the exposure of being up high, which is a rarer gift than sheer ability and strength. Somehow I've failed to ruin the fun of it for her by being too intense and coach-like on innumerable occasions.

In any case, we romped up the climb and hiked down to the next objective, a line I had spied two days before on our last walk down from the top. Called Flight Simulator, the climb features mostly thin crack and one really thin section of face climbing. I've learned to never look down my nose at harder face climbing on granite, so I had no expectations as to the specifics of this climb. It begins innocuously with a short, flared finger crack. Relative to the other pitches, this one would turn out to feel quite easy with a one or two move crux section. I shared a large belay ledge with some friendly Canadians who were slightly off route on a different climb. It was a nice day, a nice ledge and altogether probably the best shared anchor experience I've ever encountered. Anna followed with little issue. The second pitch is the focal point or the route, the one that captured my imagination from the moment I laid eyes on it. The meat of it is a very clean looking white corner with a thin crack. It begins with a bit of easy face climbing up to the corner. Then it gets burly. The move into the hanging, bottomless corner was a slap in the face with some tough laybacking to get established. The corner was stellar, although the sharp quartzite made it hurt. The thin crack in the corner is incipient and after 15 feet or so the corner goes away and the jamming becomes extremely technical. I felt like I used every trick I had to wile my way through the short but potent tip jamming crux. It was a great lead for me: I was pumped, had to dig deep to get through it and ended up with some battle wounds. It felt like a reward to reach the anchor unscathed. At .12a the next pitch was to be the crux, a short but blank-looking face with a few bolts. I figured it couldn't be any more demanding than the corner below, which at .11d had felt like a serious endeavor. The summer sun was on the wall, however, and my expectation was to maybe have to pull on a quickdraw if my shoe rubber wasn't sticking. The blank face had holds, at least at the beginning. I edged up, expecting my feet to pop off the sun-drenched quartz edges: they didn't. Above the third bolt it got bleak. I pulled on little crystals, stood up on magic granite footsmears and went for a horizontal crack above. It was good enough and the puzzle was solved. I climbed a final painful little finger crack to rejoin our Canadian friends at another world-class belay stance. They were still having route-finding issues but they were really enjoying themselves and we had a good talk about the state of the world. I posited that politics in the United States suck. Before parting company, we ultimately decided that politics suck everywhere, essentially by definition.

On the last day Anna and I packed up early but hatched the plan to climb one more long route. I'd had grandiose ideas of hard single pitches to try during the trip: The Shadow (an immaculate and difficult stemming corner); Eurasian Eyes (an immaculate and difficult arĂȘte); however, the most sensible route choices emerged later. It became clear that trying to pack in the greatest number of longer climbs, regardless of difficulty, would be the most fun. Sometimes looking through the guidebook and coveting the most amazing pitches is a bit misleading; the real climbing trip will hardly ever mirror the fantasy. However, squirreling away those climbs for a reality/fantasy fusion trip is good. It's OK to put off certain climbs for the right moment. In that moment, those climbs will present themselves and the proper timing will be evident. For the last day we chose Liquid Gold, an easier route on the Bulletheads behind the campground. A devious traverse on the first pitch was enough to give some pause. A wide and funky second pitch was the first of its type for Anna and required an extra helping of patience and perseverance. The third and final 70m pitch was really the reason to do the climb and did not disappoint; the long and varied thin hands and finger crack was every bit worth the price of admittance. What wasn't was our botched rappel descent into the forests of the Bulletheads. Stuck ropes nearly derailed an otherwise enjoyable if arduous experience. Luckily, stuck didn't really mean 'stuck', and though arthritis was certainly hastened in my poor fingers, enough pulling and cursing finally freed the recalcitrant length of nylon. Clearly astray of any easy rappel route, our two ropes and a sling anchor on a tree from other wayward parties prevented any true problems from manifesting and we eventually descended successfully into the forest.

The trip was a blast. Experience finally helped me to choose climbs that at least had a chance of being enjoyable for both Anna and I and our different skill levels. Against the grain of my ego, I kept myself away from the fifty other climbs I'd deemed worthy, the personal challenges that would have had little worth as team efforts. Selfishness is important in life; in climbing, it's nearly sacrosanct. That said, however, there's a time and a place for personal goals to take precedence over other considerations. Careful planning can create a climbing trip with good challenges and enjoyment for everyone. A different trip can be devised that features all the personal challenges one desires, during which one can fail miserably or be wildly successful in one's own vortex of rock climbing fantasy. A partner during that trip might devise a similar itinerary and time is made for both discrete sets of goals. But not every trip can be that trip. Maybe it's taken almost 20 years of climbing to learn that salient detail, but learn it I have. The best takeaway lesson is that slab climbing, the great equalizer, can be used incisively to ruin everyone's feet early in the trip, thus effectively determining what's possible for the rest of the time.