Friday, August 24, 2012

Training Versus Performing

The weird thing about climbing, unlike other sports such as tennis or golf, is that people seldom separate training from performance. Golf enthusiasts head out to a driving or putting range and practice driving and putting, distinct from their weekly game of golf. Climbers, however, are almost always performing and not training. Even when climbing in the local indoor gym, most climbers are performing - that is, trying to climb a route - not training.

According to Dave MacLeod, the big four essentials for climbers are movement technique, finger strength, finger endurance, and body mass. Many climbing coaches would add - as would I - core strength to this list. If movement technique is a big determinant of climbing ability it follows that working drills to improve movement technique should be part of any climbers training regimen. But, if most of us are driven to perform most of the time, when do those movement drills get done? Never, is the most common answer.

It is tough to separate training and performing, as, for most of us, those precious days when we get outside on the rock we want to perform and climb at our highest grade, not spend time doing drills on easier climbs. I've started looking at all my days spent climbing at my local crags as training days. The performance days I am saving for when I go off on a rock climbing road trip.

There are loads of places on the internet and in various training books to find solid movement drills. Some of the drills I've been working are: climbing up and down the route, working straight arm placements, and momentum drills. 

Great day out climbing yesterday...

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Rick Collier: A True Mountaineer

The first trip I did with Rick was back in April 1998, when five of us skied the classic Southern Caribous ski traverse from Lempriere Creek in the south to the Gilmour Glacier in the north. I actually can't remember much of this trip, but Rick has documented it fully on Bivouac. I do remember that Rick was by far the strongest member of our party both physically and technically, and he also, even more importantly, always had the balls to go first when the terrain got dodgy, which it does frequently on the Southern Caribous traverse.

A year later, Rick and I, plus my dog, Kumo, skied - or should I say walked and wallowed, from the winter gate on Highway 66 up the Little Elbow River and north to a 2200 metre pass between the Opal and Fisher Ranges, and finally out to Evan Thomas Creek. This trip I remember much better as, over the 50 km we traveled at least half involved walking, another third consisted of bottomless wallowing through facetted snow in thick brush, and for the final 1/8th we actually had a packed trail. I know those numbers don't equal 100%, but neither does my memory anymore. My dog panted along with us, suffering fiercely in the facetted snow and, as our camps were cold, as only Rockies camps can be in February, I had to pull him - my dog that is, not Rick - into my sleeping bag so that the two of us did not die of frostbite overnight.

After this trip, having slept with the Old Goat - in a tent - you understand, I graduated to Old Goat status - still have the shirt. In those days, membership in the Old Goats club required spending at least one tent night with senior Goat.

Over the years, we did other trips with Rick, the most notable was hiking way into the "armpit" of Banff National Park as Rick called it to climb - supposedly a first ascent - Mount Huestis. Due to prior commitments, we could not do the entire trip with Rick so walked into to meet him near Mount Huestis. After two long days of hiking with heavy climbing packs - we even had a piton hammer with us - only a portion of which was actually on a trail, we grovelled our way up to an alpine meadow, where I could have sworn I saw Jesus sitting by a Whisperlite. It turned out to be Rick, who, at this time had long hair, a beard, and was given to wearing bandannas like a crown of thorns around his head. He was in excellent spirits after having spent four days solo in the wilderness climbing other peaks. The next day we climbed Mount Huestis and found, much to our communal chagrin, that the peak had been climbed about three times in the previous week. We spent another long day walking out. Doug and I had climbed over Quartzite Col to meet Rick and swore we would not do it again - the entire route was treacherous with about 30 cm of new snow - and Rick, happily conceded to take a longer route back, despite the fact that he had already covered serious ground on the trip. He was that kind of guy.

The last trip I did with Rick was an eight day ski traverse of the Maligne Range in Jasper during which we had beautiful sunny weather and rambled along at an easy pace spending the evenings listening to Rick tell mountain stories, of which he had many. I think at the time, that Rick must have been in his sixties, but he was still going strong and carried his own tent for the entire trip, while the rest of us shared tents and thus had lighter loads.

It's hard to believe he is gone. Like his beloved Rockies, one came to think that Rick would live on forever. Skiing and climbing with him was a privilege. 

Rick climbing Mount Huestis

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

You Are What You Do

Don't talk about what you have done or what you are going to do. Thomas Jefferson.

If you've been knocking around life and the mountains as long as I have, you learn to recognize - and quickly - the people who are really out there doing things, and the people with a skewed self-image who just think they are out there doing things. On the internet, these people are called poseurs, and they are as easy to spot as Ralph Nader at a Tea Party convention.

Poseurs are evident by spraying about how much they ski or climb, or even simply train. Poseurs will lay claim to ridiculous numbers of hours per week spent training (all hard core, of course), and report how super-humanly strong it makes them, yet, when you see them on an actual trip, they just don't perform anywhere near the level they claim. Or the poseur will spray about all the multi-day ski tours (pompously calling a simple tour up a glaciated peak "ski mountaineering") and epic climbing trips they do, but all you ever see them do is go on easy hikes and lap around the slack-country outside of a ski resort.

Sometimes poseurs try to sign up for your club trips - although this doesn't happen very often as poseurs prefer to recreate with one or two people they already know who can be relied upon to be either as weak as they are, or weaker. More often, you meet poseurs on the internet where, with a receptive and gullible audience, they spray about their athletic prowess. Almost universally, poseurs spend many hours, days, and much money acquiring gear, because, according to them, they are "hard" on their gear and wear out a jacket or pair of ski boots in less than a season.

The whole thing, of course, has long ago been explained by research. The truth is, the more we spray about what we do - preferably with a large audience such as you would find on the internet - and acquire symbols (skis, boots, clothing, etc.) that represent our chosen identity (hard-core skier or climber), the less we are actually motivated to pursue activities that will lead us towards our chosen identity. Just talking about climbing, skiing, training, or owning equipment related to these activities, becomes a "social reality" and without actually having to do anything, we believe ourselves to be a hard-core skier, climber, or fitness enthusiast. In fact, research has shown that, the more a person engages in spraying and acquiring symbols representative of their chosen sport, the less competent they actually are.

So, how do you recognize a poseur? Well, they talk loud, long, and confidently. When questioned they respond belligerently. Their achievements, which they claim are grandiose are undocumented, vague, or both. And, finally, they have mountains and mountains of stuff, and are always looking for more. How do you know if you are a poseur? Tally up what you have really done in the last year, not what you bought, or said you were going to do, but what you have actually done.  After all, you are what you do. 

Hauling big packs in the middle of the Hurley traverse

Sunday, August 19, 2012

It Sounds Crazy

When I tell people that Doug and I are moving back to Australia, they jokingly ask if I have "climbed all the peaks around here," and, are somewhat stunned when I say "yes." While not strictly true - there are some peaks within a days drive that I haven't climbed, but, those are predominantly small inconsequential bumps - the statement is largely correct. There are a few lingering peaks that require multiple days of hard bushwacking to access or are inaccessible entirely due to road washouts. But, for all intents and purposes, I've done most of the peaks in my local area. I've also climbed most, if not all, the rock routes in my grade, and done more ski tours into more areas and traveled further than any other skier I know.

Some people are happy doing the same ski tours over and over again, and banging up the same peaks with metronomic regularity, but I am not. There is very little, if any, challenge in doing trips and tours that you know well, regardless of how bad the weather when you go out. Going to new places, working out how to get there - always a big issue in BC - working out which route will go, and, putting all the pieces together by doing the route is where the real challenges lie.

Lately, I've had a yen for the high country, but no stomach for all the driving required to get to a new area so I've been repeating a few trips. Being up in the mountains is always beautiful and gratifying, but, I gotta admit, the rewards are so much less when I've traveled the road before, even if it was eight years ago. 

On Mount Stanley, where I've been before

Friday, August 17, 2012

Tunnel Vision

Sometimes that light at the end of the tunnel is a train.   Charles Barkley.

Out climbing today, I was working a 10d, and, falling off, and, getting back on, and falling off, and getting back on, and - well, you get the picture. After spending some time doing this, I lowered off and Doug went up. He did the crux moves differently than me, and suddenly, like a bolt of lightening between the eyes, I realized I had been blinded by tunnel vision.

In my mind, a mantra had been running, left hand in open-handed undercling, right hand on more positive undercling, move right hand up to small horn, go for the top of the horn where the hold is more positive, move feet up on slab below, then reach for left hand side pull. But, every time I moved my right hand off the more positive undercling to reach for the horn, I winged it off the wall.

Doug used the same two underclings, but, moved his left hand up first to the side pull, then feet up on the slab, then the right hand to the horn. A subtle deviation that made all the difference in climbing the route.

Visualizing the sequence of moves needed on a climb is good, but, you don't want to be so fixated on one sequence that you can't see other opportunities. The trick is to know when you've visualized the sequence right and should just go for it, and when you have tunnel vision and your visualization is preventing you from seeing other options.

Just Another Day Out Climbing

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Boot Axe Belays

Twenty years ago, during an ice climbing course in the Rockies, an ACMG mountain guide, said to me almost in passing that "we no longer teach boot axe belays." What is surprising is, that two decades later, people are still using boot axe belays.

There are a number of problems with boot axe belays, not the least of which is the uncomfortable position required to instigate and manage the belay. You'll find yourself bent over in an awkward position with your climbing pack riding up around your neck threatening to cut off the blood flow to your brain. If you do manage to maintain this back-breaking position, you'll have difficulty managing the rope. Remember, that a boot axe belay requires you to keep one hand on the head of the axe lest the axe pop out of the snow and your entire belay fail. That leaves only one hand for managing the belay, almost a near impossibility. You may be able to let rope slowly slide through your hand, but taking in rope while maintaining one hand on the axe head and keeping one hand on the rope as a brake is virtually impossible.

Snow anchors are as dodgy as a Harper majority, and the boot axe belay is dodgier than most as the rope running around the axe acts as a lever to pop the axe out. The force on this dubious anchor is doubled by the pulley effect, something you absolutely don't want to do with any snow anchor. Finally, if something goes wrong and you need to get hands free, this operation also is so difficult as to approach impossibility.

So, next time you are tempted to throw in a quick boot axe belay, don't. 

No place for a boot axe belay

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Experience, A Necessary But Not Sufficient Precursor For Situational Awarness

After any outdoor accident, you'll hear people talking glibly about situational awareness. What most of these people seem to mean is an awareness of what is going on around you in your environment. Few people, apart from trained ACMG guides, seem to really understand or demonstrate situational awareness, which is not only being aware of your surroundings, yourself and your peers, but recognizing patterns and understanding what they mean for you/your group, and finally, projecting forward in time and recognizing potential outcomes.

There are times when I've experienced, what feels like, near perfect situational awareness; suddenly everything coalesces into a coherent picture and, as if a movie were playing in my head, a series of different outcomes unravel each preceded by a different action - or inaction - on my part. I choose the appropriate action and we move on, the entire experience running almost outside of conscious thought.

The same people who comment slickly on situational awareness assume that their own level is high from their "years" of outdoor experience. While experience is a necessary precursor to situational awareness, experience alone does not produce situational awareness. A number of other antecedents are necessary.

The first is a wide range of experience under a wide range of conditions with a wide range of people. This is harder to achieve than most people assume, because, without real ambition to improve (something that is rarer than you think), most people take the comfortable route and recreate under good conditions, with the same (they assume) reliable partners, and, all too often, even in the same areas, doing the same hike, climb or ski trip over and over again. Such a narrow range of experience while comfortable will never lead to situational awareness. Friends of mine, who have gone on to become ACMG certified guides, spent multiple years going out in bad conditions, over terrain that was novel, with all kinds of different partners to build up this range of experience.

Even years of experience under a widely varying array of conditions will not lead to situational awareness if the experience remains unexamined. Close scrutiny of everything that went on during every trip with an eye to what could be improved upon is necessary. Painful, if one is honest, but necessary nonetheless. In a perfect world, every recreationalist would have an omnipotent mentor who could give the necessary feedback. The reality is, however, that most recreationalists bumble along with partners who are at a level close to their own and are thus not qualified to provide feedback - even if they knew how. Astute recreationalists can critique their own trips and recognize their own weak areas, but, this assumes a level of knowledge that many recreationalists never reach, caught as they are in a cycle of marginal competence. Competent enough to achieve some objectives, but not competent enough to recognize their own weak areas and how to improve upon them.

Finally, a thick skin, determined attitude, and internal motivation to improve are necessary. A thick skin helps keep your self-esteem intact when you come back from every trip with a list - long or short - of things you could improve upon, and there is always something. A determined attitude will see you through the hard times when it would be easier to just go out and do an easy trip you know well, with comfortable partners. People who are motivated by what their friends are doing, what the cool people are doing, or what is fashionable at the time, will never succeed, as the moment the going gets tough, or the influential people change sports, they'll be gone, onto the next trendy activity. The people who really succeed are those that keep going no matter what their friends or the local trend-setters are doing.

Developing mastery, which by definition, includes situational awareness, has been widely studied in many fields from aviation to chess, and, the consensus is that mastery requires a minimum of ten years of focused practice. That isn't ten years of going out occasionally - or even frequently - to have fun with your friends. That's ten years of going out every day working harder than you did the day before, analyzing your experience and adjusting your behavior accordingly. Rare indeed. 

A simple scramble made more 
difficult by bad weather and conditions

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Repeating Myself On Mount Loki

I don't usually climb mountains more than once unless I am climbing them by another route. Gimli Peak, for example, I've climbed four times - twice by the standard scramble route (the second time was a SAR training day or I wouldn't have been there), once by the NE buttress (5.6) and once by the south ridge (5.10). Mount Loki, I thought I would never climb again as I previously climbed the peak on a spectacular fall day in 2008 and so had no need to go back. Although the trip itself is probably one of the best day hikes in the Kootenay, a high summit of a prominent peak with no technical difficulty, no bushwacking (thanks to the excellent volunteer trail) and above average road access, the necessity of taking the ferry to the east shore is enough to deter me from repeating the trip.

However, some friends of ours were hiking the peak and invited us along, and, as we are set to leave the West Kootenay in a scant two weeks and Canada in under four weeks, we went along to share a last mountain summit with friends.

Some recent logging meant the road was a bit rougher than normal but easily accessible by the family sedan. The trail, apart from one 200 metre section covered with avalanche debris was in good shape, and, the summit views were excellent - if you could overlook some haze from forest fire smoke - as always.

Sharing a final summit with friends, priceless.  

Doug and Buddy on Mount Loki

Friday, August 10, 2012

How To Be A Bigshot

This essay is a satirical look at bulletin boards, forums and the people who populate them. It is a work of fiction and is intended to be humorous. All characters appearing in this essay are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

So, you're fat, bald and outta shape, and the hardest thing you've ever climbed is a one pitch sport route or grade III ice climb (which you didn't lead). Your skiing career is similarly lackluster - lots of resort skiing, and even some slack country, but you've never done a traverse, and the highlight of your ski career is bumbling your way up some easy ski peak. You've got few friends, fewer climbing and skiing partners, you've squandered any minor talent you did have, and you're stuck in a dead end job with a bunch of other losers. In short, your life is a long list of shoulda, coulda, woulda. And yet, you want to be a bigshot.

Or, maybe you're tall, skinny, have plenty of hair, you train a little bit, and you think you're training hard, but, really you're as weak as tepid bathwater, and an 86 year old Crossfitter would kick your butt. You are proud of being the strongest person in your group, but my grandmother, who never climbed or skied, and has been dead these past 30 years is stronger than the strongest person in your group (and it ain't you, dude). You suffer from such terminal nervousness that the hardest thing you've ever led is 5.6 on bolts, every two metres, and even then you were scared shitless. But you too want to be a bigshot.

The easiest place to be a bigshot is on an Internet bulletin board, preferably one that is designed, run and populated by people in a place distant to your own area. If you live in the east, join one in the west, or, if you live in the Intermountain ranges, join one from the Coast Ranges. What you don't want to do is join a local bulletin board where people will actually try to hook up with you and go out climbing and skiing. This must be avoided at all costs, as, these good folk will find out exactly what a loser you are.

The first thing you need to do on your chosen bulletin board is work out the hierarchy. You are looking for people who are as useless as you and, who are also (like you), pretending to be something they are not. Befriend these people. A judicious mix of bullying and sycophancy will win them over to your side. Don't worry, it won't be too hard. These people are just like you - weak, frustrated, angry, short on brains, but long on invective - they will recognize you for what you are and be only to happy to hitch their ego to yours.

You also need to work out who is really out there doing stuff - you know, the climbing and skiing that you pretend you do, but don't. As sure as Alberta votes Conservative, these people will be able to see through all your bullshit and will recognize you for what you are - an odious little pissant. Attack these people ruthlessly. Ageism, sexism, racism, any other ism you can think of is your friend here. The people who are really out doing stuff, especially if they are older than you or of a different gender, present twice the threat to your ego as someone who is your own age or gender. Hold nothing back. Again, don't be afraid, this is not nearly as threatening as giving it all you've got when you're out skiing or climbing. On a bulletin board, you can give it all you've got without facing any real fear of failure, and, all from the comfort of your parent's basement. You need never break a sweat, take a fall, or break a trail, you can concentrate on the real work of breaking people.

Have no morals. Don't worry about exaggerating or even out right lying about what you've done. So, you've never climbed a multi-pitch alpine route or built a multi-directional gear anchor, fake it. Ski 50 days a year, all of them at a resort, make it a 100, or better yet, 130, and all in the backcountry. These people are all so far away they'll never ski with you and realize that, far from being the next Greg Hill, you can barely drag your sorry arse up a short hill without getting winded. Lack of any kind of experience, such as mountaineering (real mountaineering not snow slogs or scrambles), multi-pitch climbing, multi-day ski traverses, climbing or skiing new routes, is not a reason to refrain from talking big. In fact, it's a reason to talk even bigger. Never climbed in the US, Mexico, Europe, in fact, never been out of your own backyard, again, no need to admit this shortcoming. A Google search will tell you all you need to know. Think big, talk big, just don't go big.

If, after all the bullshit, insults, lies, invective, and vituperative drivel you've spewed forth, the unthinkable happens and you get banned, don't stay away. Come back. The fact that these people don't like you and don't want you around is irrelevant. You have work to do here. You're a big shot. Create one, two, even three sock-puppets and keep that bullshit going. Don't waste any of your precious mental acuity (had to look that one up didn't ya?) on creating an alter-ego that is hard to recognize. After all, you're smarter than all the other people on the bulletin board aren't you - or are you?

Always have the last word. Even better, make the last word another insult. Preferably, use insults that actually reflect truthfully on your own character. Are you a liar, a cheat, a hypocrite, if so, these should be your insults of choice. Projecting your own insecurities on other people is a sure way to deflect any need for critical appraisal of your own character.

And finally, never underestimate the staying power of continuing to argue long after everyone else has left the discussion. So what if the last ten replies in the thread are all yours. After all, the great mountains of the world were eroded down to minor sand dunes by a steady drip, drip, drip, just like your personality. 

Motivation poster entertaining hilarity

Thursday, August 9, 2012

It's Hard Always Going Hard

It's Thursday, which may just be peak fatigue day of the week for me. I've had two days of Stronglifts, two days of Crossfit WOD's, two days on real rock, and one day on the climbing wall, and I'm feeling the muscle soreness and fatigue. But, today was another day to go out and train some climbing.

We went to another short, but steep climbing area near Nelson with routes that are pretty pumpy for the forearms as one of the big goals for today was to work the forearms. I led three routes, but also took a ride on three of routes. One of the rides was reasonable, as I doubt I would have finished the route on lead, but the other two were pure and simple cop-outs. I should have led them both. It's likely I would have fallen, but that's no big deal.

As I wasn't actually near falling on the other routes I led, I took four falls just for good measure. Doug was catching me a bit more softly so this time my back didn't hurt afterward. All that hurt was my pride as I am disappointed in myself for not giving two of those routes a go.

I could make all sorts of excuses about how it was bloody hot (it was), and I was pumped (I was), and fatigued (I was), but, at the end of the day, those are all excuses for not trying hard enough. 

Steep climbing, good to fall on

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Rapelling Accidents

Another rappelling accident in the Rockies, this time a young man rappelled off the ends of his rope somewhere up on Castle Mountain. This brings the total - reported in the media (there could be more) - to three in less than two weeks. In the first, a mis-rigged rappel device resulted in a ground fall from 20 metres up, in the second, two climbers died after one apparently rappelled off the end of their rope while they were simul-rappelling, and the third is reported above.

Many climbers, and even the general public, frequently claim that rappelling is the most dangerous part of climbing, and, with the incidents in the last three weeks, one might be tempted to think they are right. However, I am not convinced this is true. Technically, rappelling is one of the easiest skills to master in climbing, and numerous back-up safety options are available. Learning to route find, place gear, build multi-directional gear anchors, and even master complex psycho-motor skills associated with making certain climbing moves are all harder than rappelling (particularly from bolted belays).

I came across this interesting article by climber Steph Abegg who took US mountaineering accidents reported in the annual publication "Accidents in North American Mountaineering" (ANAM) and presented the data from 1951 to 2006 in graphical form. Of particular interest is the chart labeled "US Mountaineering Accidents by Immediate Cause" in which only 3.2% of accidents were primarily attributed to rappel failure or error.

Of course, as always, there are problems with the data set used for this analysis as only accidents reported in ANAM enter the raw data and it is certain that many more accidents go unreported. However, even with this caveat, it is clear that rappel accidents can not possibly be the most dangerous part of climbing. In fact, if you group together falls/slips on snow/ice and rock fully 50% of accidents are accounted for.

It's tempting to think that the rash of recent rappelling accidents underlies a more serious problem in the climbing community, but, any statistician will tell you that random events are not necessarily randomly distributed and, in fact, tend to cluster.

What is disturbing is that so many climbers are unable to safely manage one of the simplest psycho-motor and technical skills that one encounters in climbing (note that none of these accidents involved anchor failure, they were all failures of technique). I'm left to wonder if one reason for these accidents is that the climbers are able to manage as long as everything is running smoothly, but, put one tiny glitch in the mix, such as lateness of the day, and they have no repertoire of tricks in the tool-bag to manage any deviation from normal.

Climber on a simple rappel

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Rockies Report

Last week, we took a short trip to the Rockies for some climbing.  The thing about climbing in the Rockies is that routes can be scary run-out, particularly if you don't carry pitons (and I don't carry pitons) or loose, or both. Climbing in the Rockies you have to expect some loose rock, but loose run-out rock isn't my idea of a good time, so I find it important to pick routes carefully. Of course, if you want a real bold adventure, you could just go climb any route. However, if you are like me and want a mellow day out climbing, or want the climbing to be relatively safe, then some discernment in picking routes is a good idea.

As it turns out, we had typical Rockies summer weather (bad), so we didn't get as much climbing as we had hoped, but, we did alright.

The first day we hooked up with friends who wanted a crag climbing day so we went to the Black Band area at Tunnel Mountain. Easy approach (although it does feature the usual loose Rockies scree trail to the base) and we managed to spend the few hours that we had on the same section of wall which makes for efficient climbing. The grades are easy, the bolts plentiful, and the climbing pleasant if not spectacular.

Our second day we hiked up to Guides Rock on Mount Corey and climbed Aftonroe. Officially this is nine pitches but the climbing is all easy (nothing harder than 5.7) and the pitches short so you can easily link pitches. Climbing easy fully bolted multi-pitch routes on solid rock is great fun, and this climb is well worth doing. After rappelling off, we climbed the two pitch route Cheese Grater that is right by Aftonroe. Rated 5.8 and 5.6, the 5.6 pitch has harder moves than anything on Aftonroe, but the rock is super clean and the bolts are adequate.

Back of the Lake was our third day, but we got shut down early, by heavy rain and thunderstorms. I find the climbing there steep and technical and the routes we did felt way harder than any of the other climbs we had done grade for grade, but, sometimes you just need to time to get used to different rock.

After a rest day, we went out and climbed Beautiful Century on Nanny Goat. This climb is somewhere between 6 and 8 pitches, depending on whether or not you link pitches, and, has a spooky first pitch that you want to be solid on to lead, as, if you fall in the run-out section before clipping the anchor, you'll hit the ground from 20 metres up. I started up this pitch then backed off and Doug finished it. Funny thing about backing off, half the time, I realize I shouldn't have backed off, and the other half of the time I realize backing off was smart. This was one of those occasions when backing off was smart as a ground fall from that height is gonna be bad.

Then, as it does in the Rockies in summer, it started to rain.... 

Beautiful climbing on Aftonroe

Monday, August 6, 2012

Falling For You

They fail, and they alone, who have not striven. Thomas Bailey Aldrich.

I've just finished reading what is probably the best training for climbing book I've ever read, and I've read 'em all - Maximum Climbing, The Self Coached Climber, Training for Climbing, Conditioning for Climbing, and on, and on. What distinguishes Dave MacLeod's "9 Out of 10 Climbers Make The SameMistakes" from the rest is that it contains no complicated self-assessment quizzes, no complex training regimes, no prescribed sets of exercises, repetitions, weight loss goals, or intricate training regimes.

Instead, in plain easy to understand prose, MacLeod points out the few common mistakes that climbers make and, with a "no bullshit attitude" warns that failure to attack these mistakes doesn't result, as we may think, in our treading water as a climber, but actually results in us regressing. Unlike his more positive American counterparts, the Scottish MacLeod is ruthless in exposing the little fabrications and rationales that we tell ourselves to avoid confronting the two real blocks that climbers face - being afraid to fall and afraid to fail.

The more time that passes while we defer attacking these two key issues, the smaller and smaller our comfort zone becomes until, finally, we are boxed onto a very small ledge indeed.

Fresh from reading "9 Out Of 10 Climbers" I went out today to tackle both my fear of falling and my fear of failing by plunging right in. Right now, I don't have time for a full climbing day, but, as MacLeod points out, climbing even a little bit will help maintain fitness, a concept he dubs "reversibility maintenance." But, as well as maintaining fitness I wanted to work on my fear of failing and fear of falling so we went to a 15 metre local crag with some well bolted sport routes which are at my climbing limit.

I warmed up by leading a couple of easier routes, then jumped on two harder routes that I've climbed many times before but never led as, most times, I fall off, even on top-rope. I made the first route with only one fall, although I felt like I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth for the last moves to the anchor. The second route defeated me. I got to the final clip - having taken three falls to get there - and just could not commit to the final moves that involve pulling over a very insecure slab on micro holds. When I repeated it on top-rope, it felt no easier, in fact, I peeled off a further two times!

So, success or failure? Given that the goal was to go out and push myself beyond the fear of failure and falling, I'd say a success. As MacLeod says "Failing to fail is the ultimate failure" in climbing as we give up any chance of reaching our full potential.

Get out there, give it all you got, and that itself will be a tremendous success.

Safe for falling sport route

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sociopaths Among Us

I've previously confessed I'm addicted to bulletin boards, more for the interplay of personalities than anything else. Yet, despite being a bulletin board aficionado, I'm surprising naive at recognizing the power plays that some of the more sociopathically inclined individuals engage in. Perhaps, because, those of us with consciences cannot suspend our moral sense enough to comprehend the actions of people with no moral compass whatsoever.

We might be able to imagine getting angry, feeling slighted or wanting to make a point, but we can not understand the actions of one to whom other people are simply objects to be manipulated, for sport, for power, or, as one sociopath said, simply "because I can."

Spotting a sociopath is not as easy as you may think. Contrary to popular opinion, sociopaths function quite well in society, often rising to positions of power, and are not all incarcerated for heinous crimes. Instead, they walk among us glibly fabricating images of themselves as intelligent, talented, rational individuals. As they have no compulsion about truth telling they build facades of intricate lies and we seldom recognize them for what they are until it is too late.

Those with weak characters and self-delusion tendencies flock to sociopaths for the feeling of power they get when drifting behind in their wake and will frequently staunchly defend them. Perhaps these weak willed individuals are borderline sociopaths themselves and recognize that it is safer to ally oneself with a sociopath than it is to denounce them. Fellow sociopaths frequently form alliances which enables both of them to continue operating outside the bounds of normal convention.

What those of us with normal moral development must understand is that a sociopath will never change and will never abide by normal conventions, nor even the conventions that they insist we abide by. They will always be "beyond the pale." The best and safest thing you can do is to run, not walk away. Sociopaths are dangerous people. 


Saturday, August 4, 2012

From The Gym To The Real World

Recently, we climbed a beautiful new route on Guides Rock near Banff called Aftonroe. This superb nine pitch 5.7 route climbs very clean rock and is fully bolt protected with bolted belays/rappel stations every 30 metres. Due to ease, fun, and safety, the route has become instantly popular and multiple parties can be found on the route on any sunny day. Much of the climbing is on relatively low angle, grippy limestone slabs. To descend you rappel the route. If you add together the busy nature of the climb, the low angle terrain on much of the route and the grippy rock, you have a perfect situation for using saddlebags to rappel.

Surprisingly, few climbers, particularly those schooled on short one pitch climbs or coming from an indoor climbing background know how to make and use saddlebags. I find the easiest method is to take a 30 cm draw, clip one end to my climbing harness (belay loop) and clip the other end to the anchor, then simply lap coil the rope as you normally would on a multi-pitch route but lay the lap coils over the 30 cm draw. Start, if you can, from the end of the rope, as you will be paying out from the middle first.

Once you have finished lap coiling the rope, take both ends of the 30 cm draw and clip them to one of your gear loops. You should have a "saddle bag" of rope on one side of your harness. If you are rappelling on two ropes, the added bulk makes it much easier to put one rope on your right side gear loops and one rope on your left side gear ropes both, of course, lap coiled on separate 30 cm draws. As you rappel, simply feed coils out from your saddlebags as you descend. Any length of draw would work, but, after experimentation, I concluded that a 30 cm draw keeps the coils tidy, yet allows me to quickly drop coils as I descend. The lap coils have a tendency to fall out of longer draws.

This technique works well anywhere, but is particularly useful on busy climbs (so you don't drop the rope on people climbing/rappelling below you), on low angle terrain, in windy conditions, or anywhere the rope might get hung up on descent (descents with big cracks and chicken heads, for example).

We simul-rappelled Aftonroe using saddlebags and garnered many positive comments from the other parties on the route as we passed by them. Not only did they appreciate knowing that a rope was not about to fall on their heads, but the efficiency of the set-up quickly convinced them of the utility of saddlebags.

Enjoying the climbing on Aftonroe

Friday, August 3, 2012

Simul-Rappelling Suicide

In the last 10 days, two separate rappelling accidents occurred in the Bow Valley near Canmore, Alberta. In the first, a young woman improperly rigged her rappel/belay device and fell 20 metres from the top of the cliff to the bottom resulting in serious but not fatal injuries. In the second, two people were killed while simul-rappelling a six pitch route when one climber rappelled off the end of the rope.

As with many climbing accidents, these instantly garnered attention from the "Monday morning quarterbacks", although, strangely, but possibly significantly, the first accident was virtually ignored while the second gained huge traction on bulletin boards across the web. I suspect the first, somewhat pedestrian accident, was overshadowed by the shock factor of the second.

Improperly rigged rappel/belay devices which result in ground falls are, unfortunately, all too common and seem to occur with more frequency at climbing areas that attract novices. The first incident described above occurred at a very popular beginner area, and, the climber was new to the sport. Simul-rappelling accidents are much rarer, perhaps simply because simul-rappelling is much rarer.

Many people, even climbers, are confused by what simul-rappelling means. Essentially, two climbers rappel down opposite strands of the climbing rope at the same time thus acting as a counter-balance to one another. With bomber anchors, straight-forward rappelling (from bolted station to bolted station), adequate rope length, auto-locking belay devices (such as the Gri-Gri), and two experienced climbers, simul-rappelling can be a fast and efficient way to descend long routes with many rappels. Experienced climbers can literally cut descent times in half.

However, simul-rappeling with novices, on difficult terrain (such as alpine climbing where there are no established stations) has been described as double-jeopardy, because, if one climber screws up (rappels off the end of the rope), both climbers face potential death falls.

I first learnt to simul-rappel about this time last year before a trip to El Portero Chico. Climbs at EPC are long (12 to 26 pitches) and the descent is always to rappel the route on solidly placed bolts, so simul-rappelling has the potential to, not only save enormous amounts of time, but get you down in daylight rather than dark.

After a couple of practice sessions at our local crag, my climbing partner and I felt good to go. Since then, we have safely descended literally dozens of routes by simul-rappelling. While this does not mean it is a technique to be used by everyone in every situation, there are clear instances where rappelling not only works well, but has safety advantages (getting down before dark or before a storm).

Of course, the Monday Morning Quarterbacks in semi-hysteria are convinced that simul-rappelling will, given enough exposure, lead to almost certain death. "A gri-gri is not going to help you or your partner if you go off the end of the rope, or if one of you didn't rig your device properly, or if one of you didn't buckle your harness properly or...or...or....or" one pundit gasped.

Well, sure, I could be a fucking idiot and do any number of stupid things, but, as it stands, I'm not.

Simul-Rapping at a local crag