Saturday, October 31, 2009

Things you see in the woods, Ice

I was out for a hike in the mountains yesterday and saw these tracks. Five or six animals, lots of deer in the area, hmmm... I'm going with wolf.

The temperatures around here have absolutely spiked, all the way to the summits. When the big melt ends we'll have the big freeze, and things are likely to be very, very good for icicle hunters in the Canadian Rockies. Until then it's rock climbing season again...

The Gravsports Ice pages are up and running again too, lots of people out and about!

Happy Winter,


Thursday, October 29, 2009


I often hear comments such as, "I only climb/fly/paddle/walk/whatever for myself." While this is ultimately true, the same people always immediately know their best onsights, longest distance flown, most impressive route climbed, etc. etc. If you ever want to see some competitive attitude come out among climbers just suggest that the local favorite 10c is really 10a... So people do measure themselves, and care about the results. This is why weight-room training is so seductive; you get measurable results, you can compare your results, and it's all very controlled and nice.

I'm still stuck on this idea of people, myself included, measuring what we did or didn't do in alpine or winter climbing. Maybe because there's a tremendous amount of posing in these genres of climbing, and no real quantifiable definition of success other than reaching the summit and/or surviving. The tales that come back from these trips often read like the participants succeeded due to fantastic ability, toughness, training, etc. This interests me; I know I've come back from alpine climbing trips with the feeling that the climb took everything I had to give. But was that feeling real or had I just set my own limits and then bumped against them? And when I or anyone fails on a mountain/alpine/whatever climb we usually pull out all kinds of justifications. Too much avalanche hazard, too little snow, not enough ice, wind blowing the wrong direction, etc. Usually these "reasons" are presented as absolutes. "There wasn't enough ice to go up."

I suspect that often my and others achievements on any given day are not all that special in the mountains or on the ice, and our failures often more mental than real. By that I mean that if you put a large field of people on that face in the same conditions times would drop dramatically, success rates go up, etc. etc. Ueli Steck has shown this with his North Face ascents in the Alps. Now Ueli is my friend and a very talented guy, but he's not special genetically or even mentally (well, a bit special mentally). The fastest time on the Grand Teton is held not by any of the guides or well-known alpine climbers who have lived and worked in the range (and gone fast on a lot of routes) but by a runner with enough climbing skill to handle the technical challenges of the Grand.

I'm dancing around an idea here, trying to figure it out. Perhaps the most obvious example of a large pool of talent showing the actual potential of a mountain situation comes in paragliding. A competition day can be lousy for flying distance; weak thermals, bad wind, overcast, etc. etc. But if you set a competition task someone often completes it. Even on a day when the local pilots would all say no cross-country was possible. A little of the positive result comes from the field working together, but it's often one or two pilots who go off alone and make it to goal. Those pilots show the real potential of the day; if only a few pilots were sitting on launch they would be lazy and the day would be written off as "not good." How many climbs have I failed on for lack of vision?

To me this realization is cause for great optimism about the future of many mountain sports. 5.9 used to be hard; the rock hasn't changed, our raw strength hasn't changed dramatically, but now 5.9 is commonplace, a beginner can do it in street shoes. The north face of the Eigre was the be-all end-all route, worth dying for. Now a guy runs it in under four hours. Running a 30-foot waterfall was the absolute edge of the sport 25 years ago; now people are regularly going over 100 feet, and the "record" is closer to 200.

When we're in the mountains we're likely limited more by how we perceive the situation and our abilities than we are by the reality. If we put 100 top or even good athletes on a route in the same conditions the results would be mind-blowing, even in less than ideal conditions. A few years ago we tried to climb a north face in the Himalaya, and never really got going. A few other climbers showed up and sent it in four days, easy. I'm not arguing for pushing harder in the face of "stupid" danger, but trying to understand why the hard routes of yesterday are easy today, and why the impossible is often the easy when enough people put energy toward it.

This blog is likely to slow down for a bit, it's climbing season and I am so stoked to go and mess with my own limits and headspace, breathe clean air, move, smash some ice and get it ON! Happy winter!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Everest Dash for Cash (and gloves)

I'm over the pig flu and back training, hopefully climbing a lot more soon!

My bud Kelly Cordes put some info on gloves here, with comments from various people. It's good, different perspectives, interesting.

I recently had a long discussion with a group of friends about types of climbing, ethics, and what accomplishment in climbing means. In sport climbing it's pretty simple; you climb harder than anyone else, or you win the big comps. Either way you're bad-ass, and there's an obvious record of it. There are still disagreements and bitching, but by and large it's clear who is climbing at a very high level in sport land. Or you could be the person who climbs 200 days a year for 20 years; that would be cool and a major accomplishment to me too, maybe the coolest. I don't think you have to be having the most fun either; climbing is nonsensical, but it's often not fun, and that's fine with me. But what if you wanted to find out, say, who was the "best" alpinist? Would you look at summits climbed, new routes done, articles written or times on popular routes? All of these things to me are markers, but they are not direct forms of comparison because of varied conditions and a hundred other variables. Alpinism is a weird game because a lot of people are vying for the public's attention as being "noteworthy" without having any sort of empirical comparison method. No, if you wanted to compare alpinists you would have to have them all compete on the same objective at the same time, as in any other form of sports competition. This would put a group of people in a true competitive environment, and would produce meaningful results. So, if I had an unlimited budget, I'd have the following event:

1. Everest Dash for Cash. Invite 20 of the "best" alpinists in the world to Everest by offering all expenses paid. Have a start line, and a guy sucking oxygen on the summit with a stopwatch. First one to the top wins a million dollars. First one back to basecamp wins another million dollars. No oxygen, use the fixed ropes, don't, whatever, haul ass up. Most alpinists of course won't show up, as they don't actually compete. They just write articles and pose about their accomplishments with little to no data to back the claims up. It's easy to "win" an event where you define the rules, the time, the participants, the place and the objective. In fact, incompetency or bad planning is often rewarded or celebrated in alpinism. A few alpinists climb at a very high level (Ueli Steck comes to mind--nearly onsights El Cap, excellent Himalayan climber, and my friend Steve House finally climbed solid 5.13 so he's definitely trying). Steck holds the record on the Eiger, Matterhorn, etc. I'll bet he would play the Everest Death Race game. This is all hypothetical and a little bit sarcastic, but what if? Second place is of course a set of steak knives.

2. The Mountain Decathlon

A lot of us take it easy on ourselves by saying, "Well, I'm a generalist, not a sports-specific kinda guy." Bullshit, sucking at everything and claiming to be a good generalist still means sucking at everything. But, in the interest of finding the best generalist (and I know a few men and women who could give a solid showing in all of the below), how about a comp with:
1. Mountain Running
2. An AT ski race.
3. Sport climbing.
4. Crack climbing (use an artificial crack).
5. Ice climbing.
6. Mixed climbing.
8. Kayaking (creek race).
9. Mountain biking.
10. Heinous road bike climb maybe, but more like likely would be a Loppet-style ski race. Road biking is not really a mountain-specific sport (Hell, look at the road-bike capital of the world, Holland--the place is flat).
I'm leaving out paragliding 'cause nobody but weirdos do that sport, but if we could get enough of us together that would be cool to have too.

Anyhow, I'm thinking about all of this as I look at a few events I'm planning for the next nine months. My "events" are about heading off into new mental or physical zones, pushes to the convoluted edge of my own physical and likely mental limits. In a way I'm coming up with "Alpine" objectives, in that I'll define all the variables I can. Hmmm, what if I write about it too? You know, I really over-think the hell out of things sometimes.

Right, back to "real" work, the computer calls...