Sunday, July 09, 2006

Climbing Gyms

In the last two months I've climbed in somewhere around six different gyms due to the travel schedule. I actually really like climbing on plastic and always have. I generally get my ass kicked, but that's what's so good about it--on rock I can often trick my way through difficult moves, but plastic strips climbing movement down to its most basic form. Back in the sixties my parents used to joke that one day you would be able to buy hand holds in the climbing stores, their joke is now a fun reality.

I've honestly enjoyed every gym I've climbed in over the last few months, and have some decent fitness going at the moment thanks to the plastic abuse. Paragliding season normaly leaves me a bit, as my my friend John Winsor says, "Fat and sassy!" but this year the comps have been near good climbing gyms so I've at least avoided the fat part. Good gyms share a few features. First is a motivated local scene. We've all seen the forlorn climbing walls inside health clubs, abandoned by the clientele and largely ignored. Some gyms inside health clubs, such as Chelsea Piers in NYC, thrive thanks to the local scene. Chelsea has a monster over-hanging wall and a good manager (Les), plus a crew of motivated locals, so it's going well. The bouldering needs work at Chelsea, but it' the most entertaining roped climbing I've done in a gym of late.

Height isn't everything--the Vsion, in Canmore, is short like a pygmie but has the best bouldering of any of the gyms I've climbed in lately. There is no excuse to walk out of that gym without blasted fingers and arms.

Good gyms also use a comprehensible system to mark holds. My biggest complaint in any gym is a poor hold marking system. This is going to be a controversial statement, but after climbing in dozens of gyms all over the world I'm going to make it: Plain old colored tape is WAY better for marking holds than using holds of the same color, putting colored doo-dads on the bolt heads or any of the other schemes I've seen (putting colored pieces of plastic behind the holds so that they stick out is second best in the marking scheme rankings). The colored hold idea sounds great when presented with a box of new bright red holds, but the reality is that using colored holds to set routes limits the creativity of the route setter (there are only so many types of hold per colored set), the number of routes that can go on the wall, and confuses the hell out of climbers. Those bright red holds start to look a lot like the bright orange ones after a few years of thousands of chalky hands grabbing 'em. I spent the last week climbing at a great gym in Montreal (Allez Up!), which has all the requirements of a good gym (great local scene, good staff, good routes, good bouldering) but suffers from using colored holds. I often heard even local climbers arguing about whether or not a hold was "on" the route, that's just frustrating for the climbers in the gym.

The floor system of a gym is also important, especially for bouldering. My favorite is the huge thick track and field crash pads found in gyms such as Allez-Up and the Calgary Climbing Centre. You can pitch off from even 15 feet up and relax. Second best is thick padded carpet with mobile crash pads, such as is found in the Wall Crawler gym in Atlanta, the Rogue Rock Gym and the Vsion. The problem with mobile crash pads is that you have to move them around, and landing on the edge of a pad can result in a twisted ankle. Pea-sized gravel is actually excellent for crashing into while bouldering and for protecting lead plummets, but turns the air into an Asthma-inducing miasma of chalk dust, gravel dust and who knows what else. Cut-up tires are a nice bit of a recylcing, but the chalk dust tends to settle into the tires and get disturbed each time someone falls on the tires. I also shudder to think what those tire bits are releasing into the gym air.

Health-club style fitness equipment is generally a waste in a gym. Nothing makes you climb better than climbing, and most of the time the bench press in a climbing gym is relegated to holding climbing bags or as a good place to sit between sessions on a boulder problem. Get rid of it. A good pull-up bar and a campus board is about all it takes, but many gyms don't have a decent pull up bar for working on front levers or just doing pullups.

The staff also counts in a gym; I'd rather have a relatively average climber who checks my belaying skills out and is friendly than a local rock star who can't be bothered to be friendly to everyone. I've seldom had a bad experience with staff in a climbing gym; occasionally someone will recognize me, but often I go through the check-out procedure just like everyone else, and that's cool with me. I heard through the grapevine that John Bachar once failed the belay test at a gym in San Francisco, I'm always a bit nervous about whether or not I've using my ATC in the locally approved manner. Standards vary. Good gyms tend to recognize that lead belaying requires a dynamic response from the belayer, but some gyms still insist on tying the belayer down. That's OK for top-roping with a fat dude and a small women, but not on a lead wall.

I've got some more opinions on climbing gyms, but time to get on a flight back home to Calgary, and the "I fly way too much so I get to sit in a nice chair and drink while I wait for my next flight" lounge is threatening to cut me off the good scotch.


Canadian Paragliding Nationals

It's over! It's been an entertaining week here in Quebec, with lots of good people and adventures. The flying wasn't very good, but the local scene is great. The hub of the local activities is the school, Distance Vol Libre, or DVL. DVL has a huge LZ with a perfect training hill in the middle of it. Distance Vol Libre has the best infrastructure I've ever seen at a paragliding/hang gliding school anywhere in the world, and a great staff of instructors for both HG and PG. I would definitely recommend the school to anyone wanting to learn to fly, I was surprised by the how well-organized the flying scene here is--we don't hear much about Quebec flying out West, but this place is cool. There's also a local aerotow operation (thanks for the party the last night!) for HGs, so it's a one-stop place for all forms of free flight. You can tell a lot about a school by how their ex-students fly--the skill level was very solid here. If you're ever in Montreal it's definitely worth checking out.

The non-flying locals are also friendly--yesterday I landed about 4K from goal and ended up drinking beer with a local farmer, which turned into a birthday party. Hanging out in the shade mangling French and drinking beer was a lot of fun, definitely one of the highlights of the competition for me. I was a little bit concerned about my very bad French and the local response, but without exception the people were amused rather than offended by my Franglais. Many people in rural Quebec speak a little English, and if you just try to speak French a bit it all works out. It's nice to be in a place where the locals don't all speak better English than I do the local language, I learned a lot (relatively speaking) of French this trip.

Mt. Yamaska is a relatively small (300M) bump surrounded by farm fields, with launches that face all directions. Despite the low height it's fairly difficult to sink out, the hill is the perfect shape for ridge soaring while waiting for a thermal. The low altitude and high humidity tend to make the air relatively smooth also. We managed to score five tasks, but the average validity of those tasks was under 400 points for the winner. Even that number is high given that validity was artificially inflated on one task because of some scoring technicalities involving turnpoint radi. Anyhow, the local pilots said flying five tasks in a week was good, but I don't think I've ever competed in such random conditions. The scattered scores from each day reflected this--it was frustrating to head out on glide and deck task after task, but that was the norm. The ground and air are very moist, which severly limits the lift. The locals said "normal" conditions are better, but anyplace this green must get a lot of rain normally. We used a relatively low "nominal distance," 35K, which is meant to be the distance of an average flight. This was obviously set too high as the average flight was about 10K, but you can't have a competition with a nominal distance of 10K, that's one thermal... Most of the tasks were decided in two or less thermals--good tasks should involve the pilots making multiple decisions, but the flights here were simply too short to do that.

Bruno Berti won the two tasks that had decent validity and won the meet, congratulations to him. I beleive he is the first Quebecois Canadian Paragliding Champion or at the least the first in the last ten years that I remember, nice one. Although I don't think much of the conditions for this competition I do respect Bruno's ability to stay patient and circle in light lift, it's a skill I find very difficult to apply in a competition.

I ended up second after racing a bit too hard on two days--this is something I've done lots of, I'm always over-optimistic about the possibilities for better thermals just down the course line. The reality is that the maximum sustained climb rates here in Quebec were under 2m/s, so you had to be extremely patient--1m/s sustained was about as good as it was likely to get, and because cloud base was so low it only took a short glide to be on the ground. At no point during this competition did we get to race, it was simply a battle of survival to stay in the air. I can do that when it's not a comp situation, but I need to learn better patience for competition situations in bad conditions. I always think, "There MUST be something better than this just down the course line!" Usually there's not.

I will come back to Yamaska and fly for sure--I imagine there are amazing days here with good lift and clouds, and the friends I've made here would be fun to visit without ever turning a circle in the air. Thanks to Eric Olivier, Mark Dowsett and the many volunteers who gave this competition a great flavour. A special thanks to Sylvie, our heroic driver, who often found us before we found ourselves. Also thanks for the great lunches each day, the hikes to launch (cool path with ropes on the steep parts, we hiked to launch every day, great way to start the day), and the $2 beers in the LZ--it's all a good memory! I hope to see many of the Quebec pilots out west this summer.


PS--my bud Josh and I have been traveling together as usual, and we've had a good time speaking Francais as we see it, which occasionally but not often is how the locals actually hear it. Anyhow, we also had a bet on the last day's results that inspired me to turn a few more circles in the .5m/s lift--If Josh flew farther than me I had to spend the morning installing software on his new Macbook, if I flew farther he had to apply his bulk to moving large rocks out of my yard. Without that bet I would have landed earlier for sure, so thanks to Josh for the good week, and I look forward to getting those rocks out of my yard, grin...