Monday, April 21, 2008

Climbing area review

I am so psyched to climb that I can barely stand it. My knee is totally jacked (meniscus tear) which makes it a little more difficult, but the rest of my body is good so I've been out on the ice a bit (yep, it's still ice time here in the Rockies!) but mainly hitting various climbing gyms around North America as I've had to travel a bunch lately for paragliding clinics, speaking, a TV show and some other stuff. I look forward to climbing in new gyms almost as much as new crags. Here are some "mini" reviews of a few of the gyms I've been into lately:

Joe Rockhead's, Toronto:

I first climbed here almost 20 years ago with the owners, the Bergman's, and it's gotten better since then for sure. I was in town for a TV show (CBC's "Test the Nation," which was a bit weird), and ended up taking two fellow contestants, both Olympic medalists, along with me for the pump. The curler did slightly better than the speed skater (his legs were a definite disadvantage!), but both had talent and had a great time. Introducing people to climbing is just fun. Anyhow, Rockhead's has good bouldering, good lead climbing, good lighting, decent ventilation. A good spread of problems, and good training facilities for any level of climber. Nice to see Brian still at after all these years, yeah! My only complaint with this gym involved the front desk staff; maybe it's a Toronto thing, but surly staff seemed the norm around the city. The guys working in the gym were great, and I ended up doing a demo climb for a local high school group. How cool is it have a high school PE class in the climbing gym?!

Portland Rock Gym, Portland:

I used to hang a bit with the owner way back in the day, and ended up getting a savage pump with Gary. For some reason I'm always psyched to see other "lifers" still at the climbing game with the same level of enthusiasm as we had 20 years ago. I was flying in and out of Portland for about ten days (family in Hood River and speaking/clinics elsewhere), so I hit the gym up about four times while heading to and from the airport. This gym had the best bouldering of any gym I've been in recently, lots of variety in the problems and excellent modern route setting. There's a good lead scene too, but I never tied into a rope, the bouldering was just too much fun! You can tell there are some seriously strong climbers setting problems here, but even the "V0" problems were well-set in general. I especially liked the mantle problem--it starts with a big dyno, and I thought I was done when I hit the rail finally. Then a local helpfully pointed out that it kept going with a clean mantle onto the rail... Doh! Super good scene, motivated but not pretentious, I often wound up bouldering with a new crew of friendly locals. The natural and electric lights are really nice, this is just a first-class operation.

Vertical World and Stone Gardens, Seattle:

I was teaching a paragliding clinic in Seattle and wound up staying for a couple of extra days so I got to climb in both of Seattle's major gyms. They are very different; Vertical World (VW) is focused primarily on lead climbing, while Stone Gardens has OK roped climbing but the bouldering is definitely better. I found the lead route-setting at Vertical World to be fully retro; part of it is that most of the holds were new in about 1995 or so, but the movement tended to be jerky with minimal footholds--classic "early 90s" setting. One of the fastest ways to tell what era a gym is setting in is to look at the number of footholds compared to the number of handholds; a good setter will often use about twice as many small footholds as handholds. I think the person who really figured this out was Mike Pont, head setter at Paradise in Denver in the 90s. His routes really flowed and often felt like real rock. The grades at Vertical World also redefine "sandbag;" I have fun doing a psychological profile of route setters based on their routes, and I got the sense that the route setters were super strong and younger but likely hadn't been climbing for more than a half decade, and that there wasn't a strong "knowledge transfer/training" program for the setters. I told my profile to my partner, and she said that was about right. One 11c was much closer to 12c. Grades shouldn't matter (it's plastic, right?) but they do. Most of the climbers in Vertical World also tended to be older and primarily interested in training for "outside" climbing. Temperatures were also tropical, but you can't take your shirt off. I don't take my shirt off to expose my fish-belly body to other climbers, I take it off 'cause it's HOT. I considered getting a sports bra and a thong to meet the dress code, but Christian Griffith couldn't hit Fedex in time for me to have some fun with the dress code.

Stone Gardens: This place rocks. Tons of well-set problems on an excellent variety of angles, with some longer traverses and highballs that kept the game interesting. I climbed here twice and met locals both times, there was always a nice "Give 'er!!!" psyche with no attitude. SG definitely has really good bouldering structures; the more I climb in gyms the more I think terrain is at least as important as setting. Without both the gym won't be "great." Gym design has come a long way in the last 15 years, a well-designed bouldering area would look a lot like SG's. But without modern setting and holds even good terrain won't make for a good bouldering experience. You can take your shirt off in SG too. I had two psycho bouldering sessions here, the kind where you walk out with your skin blown and your head hanging loosely 'cause you're too pounded to hold it up. If I lived in Seattle I'd be pretty happy with this gym.

I'm finally back home, and went out to Marble Canyon yesterday. I did a nice long mixed pitch that started with a few bolts of overhanging grunting before a run-out thin ice section into some really cool pillars. It was brutal to pull so hard while cold, and I had the usual "This is NEVER going to work" feeling as I pulled off the ground on the mixed start. But I had some power from the month's bouldering and locked off, reached a few times and then got a super cool stick into the side of a two-inch thick "pipe" of ice. I love that sort of thin ice move, and it was reasonably safe. The next 15 feet of thin ice might have had bolts hidden under the ice but I couldn't see them, it was suddenly pretty real and I was pumped. Tick, tick, gentle, smooth, and that first full-depth "Thunk!" stick, loved it. Wicked! EJ stayed calm on the belay, and the rest of the route was just super fun. EJ did his first grade 5 lead which was super fun to watch, and it was an all-around fine day of climbing. Now I'm gonna say something "stupid:" I've had as much fun climbing in the gyms as that day in Marble. I love fighting through the, "I can't do that!" feeling whether it's on a plastic mantle or a run-out thin ice section, it's all the same game and I love it. I have no good reason for why I'm still fired up to climb rock, ice, plastic or whatever, I just like going up. May your spring involve going UP!