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