Sunday, December 23, 2012

Eat Real Food

I remember, with horror, my days as a Carbo Crashing Junkie (CCJ) when I ate the standard “healthy” diet prescribed by practitioners throughout the western (entire?) world, full of “healthy whole grains.” A diet, I now recognize in retrospect was loaded with calorie dense, highly glycemic and highly palatable (read, you eat more and more and more) food guaranteed to, among other ills, cause metabolic syndrome. There is no doubt that, like trickle down economics, the standard western diet has failed miserably at achieving a healthy population. Rates of obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease and more, are now endemic in the western world, affecting at least two thirds of the population base.

The standard advice to exercise more and lose weight through a low fat calorie controlled diet is doomed to failure when the standard diet, focusing as it does on carbohydrate dense foods serves only to make people hungrier and hungrier as insulin spikes, then falls, then spikes again. The only answer is to reduce the amount of carbohydrate in the diet, particularly calorie dense carbohydrates that are promoted as a weight loss strategy by well intentioned but clueless practitioners.

Here in Australia, fatness is epic. I rarely see a slim Australian. What I do see are Australians whose entire diet is composed of various grains (in all their myriad forms, from breads to pastas to rice to noodles), calorie dense but nutrient poor starchy vegetables (the ubiquitous white potato), and an excess of treats. I am astonished at the amount of biscuits, cakes, pies, ice-creams, muffins, and other goodies that Australians eat. A treat is “an event that is out of the ordinary and gives great pleasure”, all those treats should be just that, treats, eaten sparingly, not at every snack and every meal. Even in my days as an unenlightened CCJ, I only ate treats sparingly, like one biscuit or a small serving of ice-cream per day.

Here in Oz, breakfast is some calorie dense, carbohydrate junk (frequently advertised under the “healthy whole grain” logo), followed by biscuits and cake for morning tea, capped a couple of hours later with some other calorie dense, carbohydrate crap (a thin slice of lettuce or tomato might accompany the “meal”). Then, as blood sugar inevitably crashes two hours later, some more biscuits, muffins, ice-creams, are consumed, followed in a brief two hours by dinner with, no doubt, white potato, rice, noodles, and possibly a very small amount of green vegetables.

It makes me crazy to watch. Some people seem to get away with it and are not too grossly obese, just mildly plump, others are big as buses. What they all share, plump and obese, is weight around the midsection, one of the cardinal signs of metabolic syndrome and the worst possible place to carry excess weight. The absolute disregard for their own health appals me. I worry about just sitting an excess amount of time on days when I can't be moving around all the time or missing my regular yoga session; these people are slowly (?rapidly) killing themselves and they don't care.

Some days I just want to scream at them all 'EAT REAL FOOD!'

Protein powered, tucking in to bacon and eggs before a ski day
at the Caribou Cabin

Friday, December 21, 2012

Muscle Up

Everyone has their own climbing style, Doug's is cautious and controlled with good technique, mine is way too slow and given to thrutching, and some people muscle up using brute strength. Women typically climb with better style and technique than men as their less muscular bodies don't allow them to haul their way brutishly up climbs. But, as always, there are exceptions to every rule. Yesterday, climbing with a new friend at Bangor, I saw, for the first time that I can remember in all my years of climbing, a female who muscles her way up climbs relying on big muscles to overcome technique.

It's interesting and often instructive watching other climbers. Sometimes you can learn new ways of doing things, sometimes you can recognize in others things you are doing wrong – such as climbing "like you poo and not like you screw" – and sometimes, it's just kinda interesting to see someone's style so clearly. Like my new female friend, who muscles up routes making use of big arm and shoulder muscles.

Doug showing good form on an overhanging climb at Bangor

Monday, December 17, 2012

Happy Holidays

Go here for our annual Christmas letter, a bit brief this year due to time constraints.  Best of the season to y'all. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

20 Grams, 10 Down, 2 Weeks

It's been two weeks since the 20 g netcarbohydrate experiment started, and I'm down 10 pounds with no significant hunger, fatigue or energy loss. Apart from the metallic taste in my mouth (sign of ketosis), I feel great, and have been continuing to do all my activities and work-outs. Apart from the tedium of measuring out cups of lettuce, the experiment has been remarkably easy. I think I screwed up the first week by eating too much protein and too little fat, but, since I cut down the protein and added in things like mayonnaise, avocados, cream, cream cheese, and flax seed, I've been pretty consistently in ketosis. My plan is to carry on for one more week and then start gradually increasing my carbohydrate intake until I reach my individual tolerance level.

Our weekend paddling Pittwater provided a stark contrast between the Fat Adapted Cruisers (FAC's) and the Carbohydrate Crashing Junkies (CCJ's). The CCJ's are overweight and overfat, need to eat every two hours (high carbohydrate foods, of course), and seem to have barely enough energy to get through the day, while the FAC's cruise along eating just three times a day and have plenty of energy to run laps (paddle laps) around the CCJ's. I probably ate a quarter of the calories of the CCJ's yet expended four times the energy and am about four times as lean. A good rule of fours. 

Fat Adapted Cruiser in the foreground

A Lazy Paddle On Pittwater

My brother, Ken, had planned a leisurely kayak trip from the south end of Pittwater north to the only camping area in Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park at The Basin, and was kind enough to invite Doug and I along. A couple of Ken's friends, Debbie and Mark, also joined the trip and paddled a sit-aboard that is operated by pedalling the legs that Ken owns. The rest of us were in sea kayaks – Ken and Renee in their Seayaks and Doug and I in our new Marlins (all made by Prijon).

On Saturday, we wandered lazily north to Great Mackeral Beach, before turning back and making camp at The Basin. On Sunday, we wandered lazily south back to Pittwater. The weather was great – apart from a little rain on Saturday night – the water a gorgeous clear aquamarine and wonderful to swim in, the wind mostly calm, and we rode the tide up on Saturday, and the wind back on Sunday.

The Basin is a lovely campsite right by the beach on a big grassy flat area with tame wallabies, ducks and even goannas. I would hate to be there when it is at capacity – 400 people – as it would be crowded as a New York ghetto, but, as the school holiday season is not quite in full swing, it was not too busy on this weekend. Given the number of people that packed up their camps on Sunday morning, mid-week would be quite pleasant.

Doug and I spent a couple of hours in The Basin itself (a big protected deep lagoon closed to power boats) practising wet exits and entries and eskimo rolls. Wet exits were easy, but entering the flooded kayak without a paddle float was impossible for me, though Doug, after much struggling did manage it once. With an outrigger paddle attached to the swamped boat and rafted up to a second boat, I was able to wet enter reasonably easily. Both of us were stoked to be able to eskimo roll our kayaks, even though we haven't rolled a kayak for about ten years, and have never rolled a sea kayak. The key is to make the sweep stroke really count – start way forward and finish way back and keep your head down.

The sheer quantity and size of boats on Pittwater is astonishing – and frightening from a global warming perspective. As is the sheer quantity and size of most of the Aussies! I was happy to see that at least three groups, including us, were actually self-powered at The Basin. One group on bicycles, one group of hikers and ourselves in kayaks. It is surprising that more people weren't in kayaks as it is a safe – provided you don't get run over by a boat – area to kayak with good scenery and wonderful swimming. 

Ken paddling on Pittwater

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Out On The Water

A beautiful day out on the water today in our new ocean kayaks.  After years of paddling a double kayak, it's probably not a surprise that Doug and I spent most of our time paddling a long distance from each other, me on one shore, Doug on the other, revelling in the freedom of single kayaks.  We launched at Swallow Rock Reserve, a small park and boat ramp, a fair distance up the Hacking River and paddled with the tide but against the wind east towards the ocean.  Port Hacking is really quite a beautiful waterway.  Although the north shore is solidly lined with houses, the south shore is mostly National Park and features a lovely eucalypt forest among outcrops of bush rock.  We paddled as far as Deeban Spit, a huge white sand bar that sticks out into the clear green water, and makes a great break and swimming spot, although the current fairly rips by. 

Our new kayaks felt great to paddle.  It's been years since I paddled a single kayak, and I certainly feel the need to brush up on my basic skills, high and low braces, wet entries/exits, and also paddling the kayak in rougher water.  We had pretty tame conditions today, apart from a few minor current riffles.  The cockpits on our Marlins are smaller than many which is really nice as we are smaller than many, and thus fit snuggly in with feet, thighs, hips and back well braced.  I felt I had good control over the kayak, but would undoubtedly find rougher water challenging until I bring my paddling skills up to speed.  Lots to work on, just the way we like it.

Our kayaks on the beach near Maianbar

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

New Kayaks

After much searching and a certain amount of angst, we finally have two single sea kayaks for our trip around Australia. Our hearts were drawn to fibreglass boats with their sleek lines, low weight and fast touring speed, but our bank account, along with fears of beating up a pair of shiny new fibreglass boats led us to HTP boats. We ended up with a great deal on discontinued Marlins (made by Prijon), one lime green, one, mango.

Today, we'll go out for a paddle on the sheltered waters of Port Hacking to get a better feel for them. 

Loading boats for the drive home from Gosford

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Short Trip South: Sport Climbing at Nowra, Kiama Coastal Walk

The kayak search is still ongoing, but, in the midst of that, we got a great Ebay deal on a cargo barrier and combined a trip to pick up the cargo barrier with three days away. Our first two days was spent climbing at Thompsons Point near Nowra. Apparently, the most popular crag at NSW's most popular sport climbing area. Very solid rock, nice solid ring-bolts (this is a sport climbing area), nice ambience above the Shoalhaven River (with ready access should you want a dip) and reasonable length climbs. We found the climbs on the average side (Wingello has better climbing), but, all in all, a nice place to spend a few days and there are hundreds of routes to climb.

On our third day we walked the Kiama Coastal Walk – a 22 km trek along the coast from Minnamurra (northern suburb of Kiama) to Gerringong Harbour. I'm not sure how many people walk the full distance, as, despite it being a beautiful sunny, but not too hot, Saturday, neither Doug nor I saw anyone doing the full walk. We did our usual trick for these through walks with one person starting at either end and crossing paths in the middle.

Personally, I like walking and could walk for a good part of each day, all year long, so pretty much relish any walk – heinous bushwacking probably excepted, so it's no surprise that I enjoyed this walk. It's not as wild as some, in fact, the entire walk passes through a heavily modified landscape from the suburbs of Kiama south to the farmland near Gerringong. However, the scenery is delightful, sea breezes keep you cool, there are dozens of opportunities for swimming off white sandy beaches in clear water, and, for the most part, you won't see many people.

If, because of fitness, motivation, time, or any other constraint, you could only walk one section of the full 22 km, the section from Marsden Head to Werri Beach is the best. This section cruises along farmland above cliffs, dropping every so often to sandy bays and rocky beaches and is away from houses, traffic, and people. A nice way to end the walk at the southern end is to stride along Werri Beach with the surf crashing onto the shore, prowl around the rocky headlands (low tide only), pass the bathing pool – take a dip – and end at tiny little Gerringong Harbour tucked in a sheltered cove.

Looking south to Gerringong

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Low Carbohydrate Eating

There is ample evidence out there that the standard “healthy” western diet is, in fact, anything but healthy. All those so called “healthy whole grains” and that plethora of dense carbohydrate sources (breads, bagels, pasta, rice, etc.) along with the avoidance of fats causes a whole panoply of ills that have been well documented. Unfortunately, this overwhelming evidence has not yet (will it ever?) trickled down to the overwhelming majority of clinical practitioners, and, of course, has got no where near the general public.

Doug and I gave up on conventional nutritional advice at least three years ago and since then have enjoyed enormous benefits from lowering our carbohydrate intake, increasing our fat and protein intake and cutting out all grains. These benefits have ranged from simply “leaning out” to resolution of joint and gastrointestinal issues to more energy, more strength and more rapid recovery from heavy exercise sessions.

But, it ain't easy, and no-one who watches their diet as diligently as we do could ever tell you it is, particularly in western countries which are drenched and drowning in high carbohydrate foods primarily made from grains.

I've found it tougher than usual to stick with my normally healthy paleo diet in Australia as this country, even more it seems than Canada, is sinking under a morass of carbohydrate rich food. There is literally a bakery on every corner, and the standard Aussie diet seems to be even heavier in dense carbohydrate sources (pastas, rice, noodles, bread, etc.) than the Canadian diet (obesity and wheat belly is endemic in Oz). It's also prime fruit season in Australia right now and the stores are full to bursting of the most amazing tropical fruits – pawpaws, papayas, mangoes, passionfruit, pineapples. Fruit, of course, is no where near as bad for humans as grains, but, fruit is a dense source of carbohydrate and does have a high gylceamic load.

In the last week or so, I've been experimenting with a super low carbohydrate diet – under 20 grams of net carbohydrate a day. I've been eating lots of protein and a moderate amount of fat. What is amazing about this diet is how well the human body can run on protein and fat. It's easy to go six or more hours between meals without running out of energy, getting a headache, suffering from mood swings or any of the other symptoms associated with the standard western diet. I am still able to train, hike, climb, swim and do any other activities I like so my performance is unaffected. In fact, I feel incredibly well.

I'm not sure I'll stick with such a low overall carbohydrate intake for ever – gotta eat some mangoes before the season ends - but, for a few weeks, it seems like a good idea to fully switch my metabolism into fat burning mode.  I always perform better on a cleaner diet, and, I'm always interested in performing, so, apart from a big wheat belly, I got nothing to lose.

Climbing in Mexico where it is easy to eat a clean diet

Forward And Back

It's hard to believe we have been in Australia almost three months and are still – apart from our short trips away – in Sydney. After a big purge in Canada, getting rid of sleeping bags, crampons, ice axes and the like, we are now in the process of accumulating more stuff. For the last four months we have lived, quite comfortably, with just the contents of the two backpacks (each) we brought with us from Canada. True, we have bought a few things like a vehicle, a little two burner cooker and gas tank, a water jug and a bunch of carrot hangars, but, other than that, we've been having lots of fun with minimal gear.

The only thing that is holding us in Sydney is our increasingly frustrating search for a couple of ocean kayaks. We already own a double Feathercraft kayak – a great kayak (although it has become quite a wet boat as it ages) for travelling with (particularly by airplane), but a poor option for day or weekend paddles. Our Feathercraft, whimsically named “Headwind,” takes at least an hour to put together, and, must be carefully washed and dried after use. Not ideal for day tripping, or even multi-day tripping when on the road longterm.

Currently, it seems like every kayak we look at has some kind of downside – skegs in the middle of back hatches, massive weight and length, dodgy hatch covers, too small hatch openings, uncomfortable seats, and the list goes on.

We have found one kayak that fits all our criteria, but, our preference would be to buy one second hand rather than new. And so, we keep looking. In the meantime, we are having lots of fun swimming in the ocean, riding boogie boards, hiking, climbing, and paddling various kayaks borrowed from friends and family. Tomorrow could be the day we find the ideal kayak. 

Paddling borrowed kayaks in Botany Bay

Monday, December 3, 2012

Some People Never Learn: Another Wet Walk or Waterfall to Heathcote on the Bullawarring Track

After our semi-epic in the Budawangs, you might think I would be smarter than I was today heading off on a half day bushwalk after a night of rain with only an umbrella for rain protection. I could prevaricate and say that I thought the trail involved more fire trail walking than it did (fire trails are wide enough that you don't get slapped by wet bush every second, as opposed to typical Australian trails where you are doused with cold water at every step), but if I was honest I'd be more likely to admit that I breezily brushed off any concerns of wet bush as I didn't feel like both carrying and thrashing my nice new waterproof jacket.

In any case, temperatures today were 20 degrees warmer than on our Budawangs epic and while I got wet right through again, I didn't get cold, and, had I taken waterproof pants and jacket, wearing them would have rendered me just as wet from sweat. A change of clothes, however, would have been nice as, once I hit the water line road, I could have changed into dry clothes instead of staying in wet clothes until I got home.

In any case, this was a pleasant, rather typical hike through the Australian bush, handily accessible at either end via train. I took the train to Waterfall and walked south to north as I thought finding the trail head from the Scout camp at the Heathcote end might be difficult. From the end of Warabin Street, a trail (Bullawaring) leads downhill following Waterfall Gully and fords Heathcote Creek on a fire road. The signed trail leaves the fire road on the west side of the creek and follows Heathcote Creek roughly north, past a few (mostly) signed trail junctions to a final trail junction where you can gain the water pipe road in either 0.5 km or 1 km. As I was drenched by this point, I took the shorter route to the water pipe road which guaranteed me a final dousing as the trail was very bushy.

Once on the water pipe road, my clothes gradually dripped a little drier and I strode along crossing Battery Causeway where there are a couple of nice pools on Heathcote Creek. I had lunch at Mirang Pool where I hung my shirt to dry on a tree – no luck – and then walked the final kilometre to where the water pipe road takes a big dogleg and you reach the junction with “The Friendly Trail.” It's very pleasant walking along this section on the quiet road with views down to Heathcote Creek below and across to the small escarpment of Tamaroo Ridge. The Friendly Trail is, well, friendly, a really nice section of trail on a mix of natural and well placed sandstone steps through open gum forest full of tree ferns and coming out at a large Scout camp. From the Scout camp it is a short 1 km walk to the train station. It was a little chilly waiting for the train in my still damp clothes and I had to tighten up my pack waist strap to hold my shorts up as their increased weight was dragging them off my hips.

If this trip were to have a moral, it would be don't walk in the Aussie bush after a rain storm if you want to stay dry. If a dousing doesn't bother you, you could well have a very pleasant day walking, as I did, but, a pleasant day would be a great day with the addition of a dry change of clothes.

Pretty pools on Heathcote Creek

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Just Because We Can

Play is the exultation of the possible.  Martin Buber
Years ago, when Doug and I lived in Calgary, a few of our friends became enmeshed in a commercial self-development program, the name of which has long since passed into the oblivion of my memory.  What I do remember about the program is that, apart from costing a lot of money and having innumerable tangential programs which one could continue taking (all involving large expenditures of cash), it encouraged people to schedule time to be spontaneous (yes, I do recognize that is an oxymoron), to play (the phrase “get in touch with your inner child” nauseating as that sounds seems familiar to me), to “live true to themselves” and other similar either meaningless or outright selfish activities.  The whole thing was decidedly “cliquey” – people who had taken the courses spoke their own jargon and instantly bonded at social events, they did inexplicable things, like buying masses of expensive and completely unnecessary sporting clothing and equipment, or, notably worse, left their young children and spouses to pursue their own self-actualization.  One of my more cynical friends dubbed these folks the “shiny happy people.”  Self-actualization, self-fulfilment, personal development, whatever you want to call it was so frenetically pursued that these folks seemed to have no time left to enjoy themselves.  

The whole thing smacked of crass commercialization and narcissism, and, it was never clear to me that the people who had taken the courses were any better off than those who hadn’t.  Twenty years on, I’ve long since lost touch with these folks, but, I do occasionally hear about them via the grapevine (usually from our mutual acquaintance who originally coined the “shiny happy people” moniker) and to an outside observer, their lives now seem anything but successful.  Marriages are either broken or breaking, inheritances have been spent, debts are big, self-actualization is receding as fast as hair-lines.  

But, that is all a somewhat, but not completely, tangential aside.  Yesterday, Doug and I were at a birthday party at my brother’s house with a number of my relatives and friends who I had not seen for 23 years (since I moved to Canada).  Almost without exception they were (while exceptionally nice people) overweight and out of shape.  My brother’s house sits about 30 to 40 metres above the Georges River and has a well-built (190 steps) staircase that leads down to a pontoon floating on the Georges River (at the top of the steps, he also has a built in swimming pool).  It was a classic Aussie day – 30 C, brilliant clear blue skies – perfect swimming weather.  Doug and I were diving in and out of the river and blasting up the steps to swim in the pool.  We played a bunch of impromptu water games which I haven’t played since I was a kid.  It was, as one of my friends would say “a hoot.”  

Most, but not all of the people at the party, at some point staggered down the 190 steps to sit by the water while Doug and I cavorted like seals.  It seemed, for many of them, a big achievement to make it down and back up, although, the elevation gain is truly not more than 35 or 40 metres.  Doug overheard two comments that he later related to me.  The first, one of my cousins saying “I’m 66, getting up 190 steps is bound to be hard,” the second, “I haven’t seen people jump into the water like that (in reference to Doug and myself) in years.”  Afterward, the whole thing struck me as desperately sad.  All my regular skiing and climbing buddies back in Canada are 60 plus (some 70 plus) and they all routinely climb 5.10 and pound out big days in the mountains.  

Walking 35 metres uphill just shouldn’t be that hard.  The human body was made to run, to lift heavy objects, to squat down, to carry things.  We should do more of these activities.  We should also remember what it is to play – to jump in the water and swim just because it feels good.  To run up steps, climb trees, play on jungle gyms, climb rocks, walk in wonder through the woods with the birds calling overhead and kangaroos disappearing into the scrub.  We should just be children again, not in a structured “get in touch with your inner child” way, or as part of some scheduled spontaneous time, but just because we are lucky enough to be alive, to have enough to eat and drink, to have friends and family, to have a roof over our heads, just because we can.   

Doug playing around on the trees at Corang Camp

Friday, November 23, 2012

Swimming With Lizards: The Shoalhaven River Gorge

In the southern highlands of NSW, the Shoalhaven River runs through a 500 metre deep gorge as it winds its way eastward and seaward to the Pacific Ocean near Nowra. For much of its length, the river runs through native bushland and has a wild and remote feel. A number of trails travel down to the river from the highlands, we chose to descend the Long Point trail from Talong, mostly because our 30 year old guidebook described the Long Point trail as well graded. Having experienced steep Australian trails – the descent down Mount Solitary to the Kedumba River still fresh in our minds – we opted for a slightly longer but better graded approach.

The approach road ends at a spectacular lookout, Long Point Lookout, where, deep below, the Shoalhaven River is visible winding sinuously through the surrounding ridges and hills. The excellent trail, follows a ridgeline south and descends around the western side of Kingpin Mountain, a small pimple on the end of Long Point Ridge, reaching the Shoalhaven River near the confluence with Barber Creek (dry) and McCallums Flats.

The surrounding ridges are dry, but, down in the river gorge, the environment is moist and teeming with life. Huge eucalpyts, she-oaks, and palm trees overhang the river, kangaroos bound off through the bush, lizards drop into the river and birds screech overhead. We felt, as we often feel in Australia, as if we had stepped back in time and were travelling through some prehistoric forest. From a many trunked eucalpyt, a metre long goanna watched us from a tree as we travelled upstream to a verdant green shoreline heavily tracked by wombats and kangaroos.

Wandering north around the curve of the river through the open forest of McCallums Flats, the ground is covered with native flowers in a myriad of colours. A little further along, at a bend in the river we found a sandy beach lined with she-oaks and swam in the deep pool, crossing the river to crawl out onto rocks on the far shore as the lizards do.

From sun-drenched to shivering – back at ridge-top a gusty wind was blowing in the next moist system.

Goanna by the Shoalhaven

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

It's All About The Weather Or A Minor Epic In The Budawangs

Here’s a cautionary tale about a three day backpacking trip through the Budawang Ranges in Morton National Park that turned into a four day backpacking trip with a little unplanned fasting and hypothermia thrown in.  

Our plan was to follow the trail from Long Gully Campground up Kalianna Ridge to Monolith Valley, through Monolith Valley and past Mount Cole, then continue on to Burumbeet Brook, Corang Peak and finally follow another trail down a ridge-line to reach the Yadboro River where a trail would lead us back to Long Gully Campground.  Initially, we thought we might do the trip in two days, but, as Doug is not partial to long days spent marching through the backwoods with an overnight pack we planned on three days.   The entire trip should have been on trails – marked on the standard government 1:20,000 topographic map – and through an area rated as one of the best bushwalking areas in NSW.  We had previously tossed out any idea of off-trail travel having learnt on our previous bushwalks that bushbashing in Australia is every bit as bad, and possibly worse, than bushbashing in Canada.

Doug on the trail under Castle Cliffs

Our old – circa 1980’s – guidebook described the first day of the bushwalk, from Long Gully to Corang Creek campsite as a “tiring 9 to 11 hour day” so we were prepared for a tough first day of walking despite the moderate distance and elevation gain required.  We got away at the very reasonable hour of 8.20 am with cool and cloudy weather conditions.  Initially, the track was in good shape, but, as we began to contour under cliffs lining The Castle we encountered what would become the theme of the trip, dense spiky dripping wet bush that overhung the narrow trail to such a degree that the foot-bed was barely visible.  Within half an hour, we were both soaked through to – and including – our underwear.  

We had about three very brief – 5 to 10 minute – stops during the course of the day as we were too wet and cold to stop for any longer, and it was about 3.30 pm when we found the campsite by the Corang River .  Not even close to a “tiring 9 to 11 hour day”, rather a modest 7 hour day that left us both with plenty of energy.  Doug was doing pull-ups on a handy gum tree when I left him and walked up towards Mount Tarn in the early evening.  

Camp by the Corang River

Next day we packed up hopefully and continued on contouring past Mount Bibbenluke and descending to Burumbeet Brook under mixed skies on a very overgrown trail.  Continuing on we crossed a ridge to Canowie Brook and filled our containers with water as we were unsure of finding a water source for our next campsite.  I hiked over Corang Peak on a reasonable trail while Doug took the bushy trail around it on the east side and we met on the south side of the peak and continued – on an increasingly good trail (we discovered later that most parties enter the area from the west and go no further than Burumbreet Brook, hence the better trail in this section)-  to where the section of trail that would close our circuit hike descends Snedden Pass to the Yadboro River, and found no trail.  

Well, that’s actually not technically true, buried deep under almost impenetrable heath we found the scanty remnants of a foot-bed.  We followed this for perhaps 60 metres – a painful and slow 60 metres – but quickly came to the realization that our planned exit was going to prove too long, too difficult , too painful (pushing through Australian heath land bush is like pushing through a razor wire fence) and too slow if, in fact, it was possible at all.  Our only option was to turn back and return the way we had come.  

While not ideal, retracing our route was not actually a big cause for concern.  We knew we could get back to the campsite at Burumbeet Brook easily that day, and, from there, we would have, at most a nine hour walk out, not as long nor as hard as many days we’ve had mountaineering in Canada.  We reached Burumbeet Brook and the scenic campsite around 4.30 pm, and, in a fit of optimism, not accurately foreseeing what might go wrong the next day, burned up the last of our fuel cooking our last dinner.  No worries, we could eat a cold breakfast next day and be down in the valley in time for dinner.

Burumbeet Brook

Early in the evening dark clouds raced across and covered the sky with a uniform blanket of deepest gray, but, no rain fell, and, during the night the sky cleared off to display a panoply of stars.  Morning, however, was cold and grey again, but it did not begin raining until 7 am when we shouldered packs and started the walk back.  We were both wearing rain jackets, beanies and long pants – our entire arsenal of clothing with the exception of our puff jackets which we were desperately hoping would stay dry in our packs - yet, within 20 minutes we were both soaked to the skin, more from the constant sluicing of water coming off the thick bush than from the rain.  Despite the trail climbing gently uphill and ourselves walking as fast as possible – which is actually not that fast on such a bushy trail – neither of us could generate any body heat and we became progressively colder and colder.  My hands and feet went numb and I stumbled along the torturous trail trying not to trip as a twisted ankle could quickly become serious.  

I was getting so cold it was actually painful and we gave up hope of reaching one of the dry camping caves near Mount Cole and planned instead to make it back to our first camp by the Corang River to set up the tent.  An added complication of the terrain is that the bush is so thick that it is impossible to set up a tent unless you are at an established site – otherwise there is simply no clear ground.   We stumbled into camp by the Corang River and, with numb hands fumbled to get the tent up – every Canadian mountaineer has experienced the frustration of not being able to use their hands because they are too stiff and cold, but it is not something you expect as summer approaches in Australia.  Shivering in our damp sleeping bags, we spent the rest of the day and night trying to dry our gear out with what little body heat we had, stay warm, and not eat or drink.  Now, rationing our remaining food seemed like a good idea,  and, while we had plenty of water, going out into the storm was not a good option.  

Twenty four hours after the rain started it abated, our tent and all our gear was filthy, one tent pole was bent from the battering winds, and, when we tentatively stuck our heads out of the tent at 7 am the next morning all we saw was grey mist.  We discussed our predicament, but, without some assurance that the rain was not about to start again, we were not keen to move as we could see the previous day replaying itself all over again and we had no spare gear to risk getting wet.  With little food in our bellies, we also thought that generating body heat and keeping hypothermia at bay would be harder than before.

Luckily, the weather showed some signs of clearing , and, at 9 am, we were back on the trail, this time, rashly dressed in all our clothing for a single push to get out.  Owing to the strong winds, the bush was actually slightly less wet than the day before, and, although we were soon wet from the hips down, our torsos were dry, and the gradually clearing skies encouraged us.  We were eventually warm enough to take our puff jackets off but left our rainwear on, and, apart from missing the trail as it ascends between Mount Cole and Donjon Mountain, we were well on the way to escape by lunchtime.  We mentally ticked off each leg of the journey successfully completed, traversing Mount Cole, crossing Monolith Valley, descending to Oakley Creek, traversing the cliffs under The Castle, and finally, the last leg, the easy walk out down Kalianna Ridge.  Doug stopped at the beginning of this section to eat his last food as exit was now assured, but I continued plodding down, now in shorts and a tee-shirt and marvelling at the difference between this day and the one previous.

On the plateau leading to Corang Peak

One of my friends who is an ACMG certified Mountain Guide always stresses the importance of a debrief so we can learn from our mistakes.  Ours were myriad including, but not limited to, underestimating the toughness of the Australian bush and climate.  It’s easy to be cocky coming from a mountaineering background in Canada to think that nothing serious can go wrong in a warm dry climate like Australia’s but, in fact, things can go wrong just as quickly and just as seriously as they do in the wilds of Canada’s backcountry. 

Here’s a catalogue of our mistakes:

  • We underestimated the potential seriousness of Australian weather.  There were no major storms in the forecast when we left on this hike, but, clearly, serious storms can blow out of nowhere and a bushwalker needs to be prepared for the worst.
  • Our gear was inadequate for the weather we had – I needed an extra pair of pants, and we both needed water proof rain pants and plastic bags to line our backpacks to keep the rest of our gear dry.
  • Trails, no matter how clearly shown on standard topographic maps, may no longer exist.  We figure that, unless we get independent verification that any trail is still passable, it should be considered impassable.  Doing some research after this trip, I could not find a single reference to the trail down Snedden Pass and along the Yadboro River, probably a clear indication that it has not been used for half a century.
  • Bushbashing is not a viable option unless you want your clothes ripped to shreds, followed by your skin, and are happy traveling at about 0.25 km per hour.
  • Despite its reputation as a sun-kissed paradise,  Australian weather, even near summer, can be bad enough to result in hypothermia in unprepared walkers.  
We were lucky the storm that buffeted us lasted only 24 hours.  Had the weather remained bad for longer, had one of us twisted an ankle or been otherwise unable to travel our situation would have been much worse.  No-one knew where we were or when we were expected back, and, although we were carrying a mobile telephone, we had no reception.  Our back-up plans were non-existent.  We cannot take any credit for escaping with no other injuries than scratched up legs and bashed up gear.  Luck alone was on our side. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Still Too Far In The Comfort Zone

It's been a good week in and around the Cave.  Doug and I have kept busy climbing, paddling and body boarding in the surf.  I've gone completely Paleo, and, as usual, feel so much better, so much stronger, and have so much more energy now that all those toxic carbohydrates (particularly gluten) are out of my diet.  I've been training moderately hard - training really hard is difficult without a bunch of heavy weights - but, I'm up at 6.30 am every morning and out the door for my warm-up (pull-ups, dips, squats, warrior sit-ups) at the local kiddies park, and then into the garage at the Cave for a Black Box WOD.  Lifting sewing machines, gas tanks, water jugs is slightly unorthodox, not to mention hard to get perfect form, but better than lifting nothing. 

My new rock rings (more than double the price in Australia compared to Canada) are proving useful, if boring.  Definitely not as good as a home climbing wall or nearby bouldering area, but definitely better than doing nothing and preferable to many other things.  I keep meaning to go down into the bush near the Cave to scout out some bouldering locations as there is plenty of rock around, but other things have been getting in the way. 

Could be I am imaging it, as it was only on Monday that we took a spanking at Bluebell, but already I feel stronger, more positive and think my climbing is finally on the upswing instead of the downswing.  Certainly I am feeling more enthusiastic and motivation is the one thing that is absolutely necessary for improving - or even sticking with - any activity, be it chess or climbing. 

There is still more work to be done, however.  Yesterday, climbing at Bangor, I was still not pushing myself as hard as I should have been.  I was climbing on top-rope so, as long as there are no nasty pendulum swings, there really is no reason not to climb until you fall off instead of sagging off as I did a couple of times.  Fighting until you fall is a real mind game, as, it is so much easier to stop, take a rest, get back on and try the moves again than it is to fight until you fall off.  One pushes you outside your tiny little comfort zone, the other locks you in tighter.  There is no where to go put down when you stay in your comfort zone.  Climbing, however, is about going up.  

Doug busts out some A2B

Monday, November 5, 2012

More Classic Sandbags, Training and Body Boarding

Climbing day yesterday, first at a crag called Bluebell near Heathcote, with possibly the biggest sandbags and scatterplot grades we have encountered yet in this country.  We thought we would warm up on a 10 and 11.  Converting to YDS grades used in Canada, these two routes would be 5.3 to 5.4. Something akin to the classic 800 metre NW Ridge of Sir Donald - which Doug and I soloed a few years ago.  Or not.  The 11 was probably a 5.9, the 10 maybe a 5.8, both around 80% undergraded.  We climbed a couple of other routes, I think a 16 and 19, both of which were probably slightly undergraded, but not so fiercely as the other two routes.  Moved then to Bonnet Bay and climbed a few more routes there finding the 15's easier than the 11 at Bluebell. 

Fed up with my lousy finger and core strength of late, I started training hard a couple of days ago.  I bought some Metolius Rock Rings - easy to hang in a nearby tree - and great for lock-offs, finger hangs, knees to elbows and all that painful but necessary finger and core training.  I'm also doing back at Crossfit type workouts, but this time Max Effort Black Box, using water jugs, backpacks of climbing gear, propane tanks, etc. for the weight. Not as convenient as a barbell and much harder to get heavy weights going but a reasonable proxy.  Strangely, I feel way better now I have that familiar all over body fatigue and muscle pain.  

Today we went down to Cronulla with my niece's soft surfboard.  It is way too small for either Doug or I to stand on, but was good fun as a body board.  The water is still a bit chilly and a fair wind was blowing so a wetsuit would have enabled us to stay in the water longer.  But, you can't have everything.  

Doug on a small wave at Cronulla

Sunday, November 4, 2012

In The Lair Of The Hoons

In Canada, they are known as piston heads or sled heads, the, mostly male, types for whom burning fossil fuels holds a crack cocaine addiction.  In Australia, they are called hoons - after their penchant for hooning around.  Today, Doug and I paddled up the Georges River with my brother, Ken and his wife, Renee.  Most of the way was very pleasant paddling going up river with the tide, poking along beside mangroves, watching fish jump and birds flying over head. 

Much of the shoreline here is, wisely, protected as various parks and reserves.  On the west side of Alfords Point Bridge, however, there is a two kilometre stretch of waterway designated for water-skiing and here we entered the lair of the hoons.  Like sled heads and piston heads, hoons seem to have burnt out most of their brain cells breathing in carbon fumes and get unexpected pleasure from driving fast for short distances mindlessly burning fossil fuels.  Hoons, however, seem slightly easier to take than sled heads, perhaps because legislation keeps them relatively constrained.  Or perhaps it is because hoons ignore any one who isn't a hoon, whereas in Canada, sled heads love to ride their pistons in circles around ski tourers in the mistaken belief that we are all enviously eying their machines.   We never have and never will. 
About to launch the kayaks

Friday, November 2, 2012

Scatterplot Grading: Climbing in the Bluey's

Doug and I are back in the Cave in Loftus after a couple of weeks hiking and climbing in the Blue Mountains. The Bluey's – Australians have a penchant for shortening names and adding a “y” - are close to Sydney and feature literally dozens of crags spread across the big sandstone escarpments that wrap around all the major rivers in the area. There are short climbs and long climbs, gear climbs and sport climbs, and lots and lots of carrot climbs. Carrots are those mysterious Australian protection bolts that began life as a machine bolt hammered into a hole drilled slightly too small in the sandstone. They have no hangar, so each climber has to carry a chalk-bag full of hangars (of different styles as not all carrots fit all hangars) to fit over the bolt head before clipping the bolt with a standard (wire gates not recommended) quick draw. The old carrots are frighteningly manky affairs rusted brown with age while the new ones may nor may not be stainless steel glue-ins.

Australian's use, what at first glance, appears a very simple grading system named after it's originator John Ewbank, and, called fittingly enough, the Ewbank Grade. This starts at one and is open ended. Apparently, the Ewbank system is meant to take into account exposure, length, rock quality and protection as well as technical difficulty, and also includes unspecified “smaller factors” in the rating scale. It's unclear to me how all such factors can be rolled together into one grade. Would a technically easy but hard to protect, long exposed climb on bad rock get a higher rating, while a technically hard route on solid rock with good protection gets an easier rating? Is the protection rating dependent on how big a rack you have or does it assume some standard but unspecified rack, perhaps containing a dozen number two cams without which the route will be desperately run-out? Hazards clearly abound with such an idea. For example, inexperienced climbers might find themselves on desperately hard routes with ridiculously easy ratings simply because someone thought the route wasn't “exposed”, or was short with good protection.

Initially, I thought the Ewbank system would be the perfect solution to the thorny issue of grades that plagues the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) grade system that was truncated for years by the idea that 5.10 was the hardest climb. But, after a month of Aussie climbing, I've revised that opinion as Ewbank grades, whether this was their intention or not, are scattered across the map – and the map is pretty large. As an example, at one tiny crag (where most of the routes were done by the same first ascencionist) we climbed an 18 that was easier than two 14's and a 15, a 20 that was easier than a 17, and backed off an 8 (theoretically equivalent to a 5.3) because the moves up to the first dodgy carrot bolt were difficult and dangerously exposed. All the routes had similar protection (either carrots or ring bolts), similar exposure and rock quality (except the 17 had poor rock while the 20 had good rock), and were exactly (to a metre or two) the same length. Throwing darts at a board would result in more accurate grades. 

Doug preparing to rappel down to the climbs 
at Mount Boyce

Thursday, November 1, 2012

You Don't Know What You've Got 'Til It's Gone

Finger strength and endurance, body mass and technique, are, according to Dave MacLeod the big four key components to climbing well. Seems like, of late, I've lost three of the four. Too much “cheating” on the paleo program, and too little training and climbing has left me with weak fingers and a heavier than ideal body. Even my technique has gone somewhat adrift as it's difficult to have good technique on steep climbs when you are weak and heavy. The mind may know what to do but the body doesn't necessarily obey.

At our old home in Nelson we had a small climbing wall that I used about every second day. Sometimes, I wondered if all that tedious bouldering – staying on a small wall for even half an hour at a time is crushingly boring – was doing anything at all. Now I know. We also had a fairly well set up gym with a good stack of heavy, but simple, weights, a pull-up bar, and a jump box. The most important thing I had back in Nelson, however, was a routine. Three days of Stronglifts a week, five to six days of Crossfit WOD's per week, and three days on the bouldering wall per week. Written down, that seems like a lot, particularly as all that was in addition to whatever mountain activities I was doing that week, and Doug used to frequently tell me I was overtraining. Sometimes even I wondered if I was overtraining. In hindsight, I don't believe I was.

It always seemed to me that I lost whatever fitness I had frightening quickly, and regaining that fitness was always frightfully hard. That concept kept me nose to the grindstone – or hands to the weight bar – on a very consistent basis.  Two months away from my regular routine and training equipment has left me too heavy and too weak, and, any elation I might feel over being right is profoundly overshadowed by dismay.

Of course, one can train without any equipment - although for building pure strength, nothing beats a simple 5 x 5 weight routine (which is impossible without heavy weights) - so much of my failure is due to lack of will not lack of equipment. Undeniably it's easier to stay in a familiar and well set up environment than it is to scrounge around in multiple different locations to find a good area with at least a tree branch or playground set for pull-ups, a boulder or step to jump on, and a steep, long hill to run. Certainly, scrounging around for a work-out location, scheduling in that workout when your life lacks routine and coming up with creative ways to lift heavy things, work on explosive speed and power, develop core and finger endurance and strength has, at least for me, been overwhelmingly difficult.

I had thought that the regular climbing and hiking we were doing would be enough to maintain a good level of climbing fitness - wrong, wrong, wrong. It is clear to me now that I need a structured, targeted and regular training program in addition to recreational climbing and hiking to stay fit. The difficulty is going to be constructing and implementing such a routine when I'm forever moving around and lack easily accessible training facilities. Joni Mitchell was right, you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.
Sunset Over Eucaplyts
Blue Mountains

Friday, October 12, 2012

This Ancient Land

Wow, time passes. My last blog post was about walking the Coast Track through the Royal National Park. Much has happened since then, including buying a vehicle (Hyundia Santa Fe), leaving on a three week road trip, which, for reasons which will soon be disclosed, turned into a three day road trip, and watching a big storm hit the NSW coast while humpback whales breached off-shore.

The thing with moving to a new country – and, although I grew up in Australia, I left when I was 26 and that was 23 long years ago so coming back home feels like moving to a new country – is that there are so many things to do that it's hard to decide what to do first.

In any case, after much dithering, and with a somewhat uncertain forecast – spring in NSW is proving wetter and colder than we anticipated – we packed up the Hyundia and drove south. As usual for us, we didn't get very far – blame it on an extreme aversion to driving – in fact, at our furthest we didn't get more than 1.5 hours from the cave in Loftus. Our first day was spent on coastal beaches south of Wollongong as a big rain event the night before meant that the crags at Mount Keira that we had been intending to climb were wet and dripping. So, we drove south to Killelea State Park where we had a wonderful walk along Mystic Beach to the Minnamurra River and camped for the night. Next day, we visited “The Farm”, the other beach in Killelea State Park. The surfers were out, somewhere in Australia surfers are always out, and we both conceived an almost overwhelming desire to learn to surf!

Doug on Mystic Beach

We spent the rest of the day climbing at Mount Keira enjoying a full range of grades, although we actually weren't climbing that big a range – it just seemed that way. That evening, we drove west up Macquarie Pass to the top of the Illawarra Escarpment and camped at a deserted NPWS campsite near Carrington Falls in Budderoo National Park. Australia is a funny place where passes are actually routes up to higher ground instead of being a low passage between two heights of land. It's also funny to pay $30 to camp at a State Park yet camp for free (for up to two weeks) in a National Park.

It rained in the night, and the next morning was fogged in – in Canada we would call it a white-out were you on a snowfield - and the fog was actually easily as dense as I've ever seen it on a big Canadian Icefield. We walked through the misty forest with huge gum trees looming overhead and the eerie calls of Australian birds echoing through the forest to a series of look-outs above Kangaroo Valley. Standing out on a rock promontory overlooking – if being totally surrounded by white can be called overlooking – the gorge carved deep into the sandstone of the Illawarra Escarpment was like standing at the edge of the world, and I thought what an ancient land Australia is, with everything worn down to its essence. 

Nellies Glen

Later that day, we walked an 8 kilometre loop through the Barren Grounds Nature Reserve, a heathland area on the Illawarra Escarpment bursting with spring native flowers and the calls of birds. A big storm was predicted and, our telephone search for reasonably priced ($15 each) indoor accommodation for that night was unsuccessful so we drove back to the cave for the night and, sure enough, overnight a tremendous wind arose and lashing rain came in.

On Friday, during a lull in the rain but just as the winds were increasing in strength we drove down to the Kurnell Peninsula to witness the storm. The ocean was a mass of white spume spraying the cliffs for 50 metres and, in the two hours we were out, the wind increased to such a force that walking was difficult and spray from the ocean was blowing inland 100 to 200 metres. We were lucky to see a pod of humpback whales breaching off shore as soon as we arrived. For half an hour, we watched them leaping almost entirely out of the water then crashing back in, before the seas became so rough that they were all but obscured.

The day after (today) dawned clear and sunny with only light winds. For newcomers to the country, used to the (usually) gradually building and dissipating storms of western Canada, the nature of Australian weather, where blue skies become storm clouds rapidly and equally rapidly clear, the weather is hard to read.

The week ahead has lots of fine weather forecast and tomorrow we leave for the “Blueys” (the Blue Mountains) for some climbing and hiking. Hopefully we won't be back in three days. 

Humpback Whales