Tag Archives: training

Objective Hazards

There are two broad categories of climbing risk: subjective hazards and objective hazards. Subjective hazards are risks intrinsic to the first person. These are things like failing to properly tie a knot, pack a jacket or place the right protective equipment.

Objective hazards are everything else. They include things like loose rock, weather, avalanches and equipment malfunction.

Objective hazards may be avoided. One may choose to stay home if the weather looks bad.

Objective hazards may be engaged. One may choose to go out despite the 110 degree temperature, but choose to go to a shady crag at high altitude.

Objective hazards may be accepted. One may stick with the plan despite the blazing heat and just be prepared to climb poorly and suffer.

What one may not do with an objective hazard is control it. It should be obvious that weather, snow, loose rock, misguided guidebooks, and other people are all objective hazards.

However, although we readily accept natural forces and conditions of participation as objective hazards, we generally do not regard other people as objective hazards.

We count on others to behave in certain ways and blame them when they do not. We don’t make our best estimate of another’s capacity, plan accordingly, and then accept what we get. We expect performance according to role, which is characteristic of subjective hazards, at least when they do not prove hazardous.

This is insanity.

Advertisements
Tagged , , ,

The edge

IMG_1133

One hundred degrees feels hotter in the desert than it does in town. The relentlessness of the sun is part of the difference. Running in the Sonoran desert, in Summer, is unwise, but I don’t claim to be wise. It is just a few miles, after all, on good trails.

The sun is rising high by the time I get going. The first three or four miles remain comfortable, but I can feel the heat building in the air and in my blood. I have to slow down. Still, it gets hotter.

Half way around the pile of granite blocks which passes for a mountain in these parts, I feel a little adrenergic twinge. Those who have pushed themselves will understand what I mean. It is the thing that comes after a second wind in the form of a slightly panicky, angry feeling accompanied by a tightening of the skin and a little nausea.

The feeling marks a reserve opening up, but at a price. Blood goes to the muscles and away from the viscera, but also away from the skin, where it is needed to exchange heat with the air. I slow down some more, but the heat keeps building.

I am getting close now. I can see the power lines which cross the trail just a half mile from the trailhead, with its shade-shelter and water. I think I know just how much I can allow myself to speed up, and I do.

The last quarter mile feels a little desperate, but I trot into the shade in good form, with a little left. I walk back and forth for a long time, cooling down. A cop patrolling the trailhead gives me a hard look. I understand; I don’t like the idea of getting sucked into a rescue either.

I was close to the edge. How close, I don’t know. That’s the thing. You can’t know where the edge is until you are over it.

Or rather, there isn’t really an edge. Sure, there’s a last step and an end to all efforts, but that last step is in a different spot every day. You can get pretty good at knowing when you’re close to the last step, but you can never know just exactly where and when you will collapse. The uncertainty keeps things interesting. The uncertainty is motivating.

And, the uncertainty is everywhere. The same run is not the same run. Feet land in different spots, the wind shifts, the sandy dirt is soft or packed.

So it is with all defined entities and their instances. Identities hold for instances. This desert is this desert, where I run this close to the edge, but not over. That is true. This desert is also the Sonoran Desert – practically, but not really. Accepting the latter sort of identity gets me to the trailhead, but no more. It doesn’t get to the truth, any more than talk of the edge informs me where the edge really is.

But now I recall; it is not true that there is an edge, only a retrospective, last step. I’m always thinking about the edge, because it helps keep me off the last step. Knowing about the last step does nothing for me, even though it is the truth.

Or rather, it does nothing because it is the truth. It is local and transparent. I can’t pack it up in a box and take it away to inform me elsewhere and in the future. But because it is local and transparent, I must move by it. And because I must move by it, the truth is inextricable from my motivation.

I think that’s why all of us remain enamored with the truth, even though it is useless in its own right. I know that’s why I will continue to run in the desert – the uncertainty of the true, last step and the very deficiency of my edge-theory – even though it may not be the most useful thing for my health in the end, mental or otherwise.

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , ,

The Hammerhead Mentality

IMG_0473
Hammerhead (ham-er-hed) n. 1. the part of a carpentry tool used to drive nails 2. any tool’s feature designed to impact an object 3. metaphysically, an implement used to achieve the wielder’s intent through main force 4. (slang, common parlance) any person with a modus operandi analogous to that of the tool, usually expressing the speaker’s contempt 5. (slang, among climbers) any person with a modus operandi analogous to that of the tool, usually expressing the speaker’s admiration and horror.
A hammer has a sort of minimalist beauty. It is clean. It has a singular answer to all challenges. It cannot – it will not – be mistaken for something which it is not. The beauty of the hammerhead mentality is the same. It forges a pure, guileless path in the world. It wakes each morning without ulterior motive; it pounds through each day without ulterior motive.
The psychological dynamic at issue has always been part of the human repertoire. The most famous, historical hammerhead was Alexander the Great. I’ve heard people question why anyone would ever follow such a jackass, as the blustering fool marched his army across Asia Minor to no good end. He wasn’t a blustering fool though, he was a hammerhead and I’m sure his men caught a serious case of Special-Sense-of-Purpose from him. Sure, he didn’t need to conquer India. He was simply out conquering, and India was next. Likewise, cutting the Gordian knot wasn’t a clever, if arrogant, statement or “out of the box” thinking; it was a natural hammerhead move. At the end, nobody was worried about that damned ox-cart anymore, and they could all get on with the conquest.
IMG_0461
In fable, Aesop’s grasshopper, from The Ant and the Grasshopper, is a hammerhead. But only in a certain version of the fable – the one where the grasshopper is not a dissolute slob, the one where he’s just really, really into dancing and singing. It’s the version of the grasshopper with which we can sympathize. It’s the version which exposes the potential meanness of the ant’s viewpoint.
Their noble clarity is why we climb with hammerheads, why we train with them, and why we stick around to pick up the pieces. Because the unaided exponent of the hammerhead mentality is doomed from the start. Nature is bigger than us, and that’s a fact. Some routes will not go. There is a limit to strength, reach, and flexibility. A person can only go without sleep, food and water for so long. You can’t always just push through.
IMG_0456
It’s a flaw as well as a merit of the hammerhead mentality that its hold is unwavering by nature, on the outside and on the inside. Once the hammerhead is engaged, it’s too late. The focus takes over and won’t let go, even in the face of impending doom. Nevertheless, we need the hammerhead mentality. At the very least, we have some unique lessons to learn from observing it in action.
The hammerheads have two things to teach the world. The first thing is: they show us how lucky we all really are. We are much more in command of most situations than we imagine, and we shouldn’t always act so surprised about it. If we just set aside our doubts and fears, we could often do more than we imagine. The odds are naturally in our favor.
As climbers, for instance, our eyes are drawn first to the peaks rather than the smooth rock faces. Our digits are shaped to hook over edges and close around corners. The knobby bits at the bottoms of our brains are really good at keeping us in balance. Our fingertips have little ridges on them. The game is rigged in our favor. We just need to know how far we can push our luck, and of course, that’s the problem for hammerheads.
They need to direct themselves at manageable projects. They can’t be allowed to build up too much momentum. In short, they need help, by means of another behavioral model to back them up and good counsel. They need ants. Not the nasty little ants in the bad version of Aesop’s fable, just waiting to say, “told you so,” and slam the door in the grasshopper’s face. They need the clever ants, the ones with some tricks up their sleeves, who can appreciate the merits of the hammerhead mentality and are prepared to compensate for its flaws. This isn’t pure charity on the ants’ part either.
IMG_0460
Focus is a necessary virtue, despite the requisite sacrifices. A person fixated on the summit, the anchor chains or the next hold has abandoned their self-control in order to push through. On occasion though, nothing else suffices. We all can – indeed we must – slip into the hammerhead mentality from time to time for good and ill, even if it’s not our policy. That’s the hammerheads’ second lesson. Even a good ant may need an ant in their own head now and again, if not a doppelganger at the other end of the rope. Being the ant at the other end of the rope is just good practice.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Samsara

Setting up for the finger lock.

Setting up for the finger lock.

The endless cycle of suffering which is death and rebirth. This has been the Samsara Summer. It is a story familiar to every climber. Just as the season gets rolling, the rain starts, a partner gets hurt, work asserts itself and the momentum dies. You’re left training, but it isn’t really training. Training implies a purpose, and soloing on a top rope and doing pull-ups has no end-point.
For me, what is left when the cycle turns is Tongueless Wonder.
The route is a Pete deLannoy creation at the most unfashionable crag in Spearfish canyon. I don’t know if Pete put this thing up in the absurd, power-drill-on-lead style for which he was famous. I kind of doubt it, though it would be fitting. The whole thing is ridiculous. It is a horrible crack-climb, with as many pockets and pinches as it has hand-jams and finger-locks. It is a horrible sport climb for the same reason. Furthermore, it is an ethical disaster. The bolted crack could be protected with clean gear, but only as a nightmare. The route is only twenty meters; most of the time on route would be spent with only one piece of gear between yourself and the ground. Much of that gear would be placed blindly due to the serpentine nature of limestone cracks.
I’ve lead it on the bolts, so I’ll never have the clean, first lead on gear. What I’ve got left to me is that most absurd of all climbing achievements: the headpoint. Headpointing is the thoroughly rehearsed lead, with the moves and gear placements worked out and practiced in advance on top-rope. In its own peculiar way, a headpoint is quite alarming. During the rehearsal, you fall off. Denial, the onsight climber’s friend, becomes unavailable. One is motivated to get the route wired.
CIMG4106
I’ve been working on this one for, four years, five maybe? I’ve been almost ready several times, but Fall caught me and I had to start over the following year. Perhaps the situation is closer to the Greek version of an endless cycle of suffering – Sisyphus in the underworld. Except, I don’t have Zeus to blame. I’ve chosen to push this, but it is finally an excuse. I like the climb, and that’s the only truth. Climbing it on gear is an arbitrary purpose which keeps me coming back to the route with renewed motivation.
Next lap coming up.

Next lap coming up.


It’s pointless, but so is climbing in all its forms, and work, and every one of our silly struggles – Samsara. We still do it, though. We’re groomed for this game by our heritage. We can’t lose, because points and pointlessness don’t stick to us; the truth is we like the doing and that’s all. Just like Sisyphus, who I believe out-foxed Zeus in the end. Maybe not on the tenth lap, or the fiftieth, but maybe by the thousandth or ten thousandth, old Sisyphus was into it, I’m sure. Then it didn’t matter whether he ever got to the top; he’d beaten Zeus and escaped the cycle of suffering.

Tagged , , ,

The Dry Cat Food Paradox

So close, yet so far...the Tetons

So close, yet so far…the Tetons

I’ve recently had the privilege of attending a continuing education conference in Jackson, Wyoming. As a climber who thinks of himself as primarily an alpinist headed to the Tetons, I should have felt like the proverbial cat who ate the canary. Instead, I left my gear in the basement. It wouldn’t have fit in the car with all the ski equipment and clothes anyway (the whole family of four was signed up for the trip). It wouldn’t have done me any good even if it did fit. Four months out of the year, those mountains are shut down due to a horrendous snowpack. When conditions allow, the climbing is still high up and far back.

It turns out that it is almost as hard for a climber to subsist on Teton routes as it is for a cat to live on hunted birds. Signs of compensation for these difficulties were everywhere in Jackson. Right around the corner from the conference center, was a sign for the “Teton Ice Park”. When the first morning of lectures ended, I walked up to take a look. What I saw was the result of  a noble effort, but one obviously born of desperation. An enterprising guide service had run a few hoses over a 40 ft. retaining wall to produce about five, moderately-angled chunks of ice. The ice park rented gear, but I decided to utilize a different compensatory facility – the climbing gym just outside of town. It turned out to be quite nice.

CIMG4000

Back in the conference center that evening, I was mulling over the dissonance of indoor climbing in the Tetons when the next set of lectures began. Maybe I should have been paying better attention to the speakers. However, it was a series about nutrition, and though the subject is interesting, the hard science behind it could be covered in about fifteen minutes rather than the three hours allotted  As I considered my Teton climbing experience, I kept coming back to the viewpoint which kept me in the Black Hills for all these years: alpine climbing is more about training than actually climbing. Adaptation to harder routes in the mountains paradoxically required less time climbing mountains. Living in a place like Jackson resulted in strong legs and weak skills. Unless a climber availed himself of  an artificial training facility, the volume of technical climbing needed to improve was just not accessible, at least to anyone with a job. My mind wandered back to the lecturer. He was talking about the Paleo Diet and I found it strangely relevant to the contradictions involved in trying to be a good alpine climber.

Guide service storefront.

Guide service storefront.

This diet is supposed represent our nutritional heritage. It encompasses the type and mix of foodstuffs our hunter-gatherer ancestors adapted to eat. Therefore, runs the logic of the diet’s proponents, it is the mix of foods that we ought to eat to  maximize our health and longevity. On the menu is lots of meat and a few plants. Grains and legumes are out. We should eat more like cats than cows, the speaker admonished. To back up his assertion, he flashed a slide on the screen with a picture of a cat at the top and a chart favorably comparing the body compositions of hunter-gatherers with those of cats.

The picture looked a little like my cat, but my cat thrives on dry cat food. I say “thrives”, because I have a dietary comparison-state for her. She was a stray who showed up in our garage when the weather got cold. Before coming to live in our house, she had, in fact, been subsisting on the cat version of the Paleo Diet – fresh, free-range mouse and bird meat. She wasn’t doing so well. She was thin and listless. After a few weeks living inside and dining on kibbles, however, she was tearing around the house like a maniac, destroying rolls of toilet paper and climbing the curtains.

Here are the first four ingredients listed on her cat food label: chicken by-product meal, corn grits, chicken fat, tuna, brewer’s rice. One would expect a wild cat to catch birds, but I doubt one ever took down a tuna, much less an ear of corn or rice. Still, a cat’s ability to live a long and active life eating nothing but rock-hard brown morsels shouldn’t surprise us. Evolution makes the most  of things, not necessarily the best of things. Wild cats developed the capacity to survive on mice and birds. Cats are therefore well suited to that diet. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a diet better suited to cats. Perhaps humans are much the same.

A subsequent  slide showed a Kung! tribesman butchering an antelope with a stone tool, and then a chart with cholesterol levels and heart disease rates demonstrating the sterling health of various modern hunter-gatherers. Unfortunately, the health data for the Tarahumara, a group of indigenous people living in Mexico and renowned for their feats of long-distance running, look just as good. The Tarahumara subsist primarily on corn, beans, chiles, and beer.The answer to this dietary conundrum is not found in the diet, but what comes with the diet. Both the Kung! and the Tarahumara are incredibly active, and they do not suffer from surplus. The Paleo diet is not the answer to our health problems. No such simple answer exists.

Of course, there are limits imposed by natural adaptation and on artificial adaptation. Artificial answers are also incomplete. To be a good alpinist, one must climb a certain number of big routes in the mountains. But plate after plate of summits will limit a climber’s potential in the end. Though it isn’t complete in itself, some artifice is required as well. Likewise, when my cat came to live in the house, she didn’t just get dry food, she got a warm, stress-free place to sleep, immunizations, and anti-parasitic medicine. I’m sure she would not be so healthy if we limited our involvement with her to setting out a plate of kibbles on the driveway.

Of the billions of humans alive now, most are suffering from the short-comings of an agricultural, and subsequently an industrial, society and a few are suffering from its excesses. As the most realize the economic, social and technological benefits which drove the move to agriculture in the first place, they no longer get the grace period which the few enjoyed. The harms of excess come right along with the initial development. We can’t simply go back, though. Solutions will require some artifice, and may have an unsatisfying appearance – less like grass-fed beef  and more like a bowl of dry cat food or an indoor climbing gym in the Tetons.

Tagged , , , , ,

Ice Climbing is Dangerous

CIMG3954

So we place tubular screws in the ice to secure the rope in case of a fall. But even placing the  protection is difficult enough to be controversial. You find them less and less, but there are some experienced climbers who feel it is safer to go without protection against all but a catastrophic fall. Their rationale is that the screws are too tiring to place and the placements are not predictably reliable.

As if it isn't hard enough - penalty slack

As if it isn’t hard enough – penalty slack

I disagree, of course, but I’m an optimist. I figure, if the screw hit an air pocket,  it may fail if I take a big fall on it, but that means it may not too, and I know that the ground will be even less forgiving. I have some data to back up my optimism. There are the drop tests done by Craig Leubben and Chris Harmston. Then there’s my anecdotal evidence. I know several people who have fallen on ice screws. The majority came away with fractures, true, but the screws held and all the climbers lived to climb again. In addition, I have personally witnessed two falls on ice screws.

CIMG3957

The first was several years ago. A friend and I were watching a couple of guys climb Jaws a waterfall in Rocky Mountain National park. The sun was baking the upper third of the climb and the leader wisely placed a screw just before he climbed out of the shade. About fifteen feet into the tropics, he started having trouble getting his tools to stick. He placed another screw and continued. After ten more feet, it was clear he could not go up any farther; the ice was just too thin and rotten. Things looked better off to his right though, so he struck out in that direction. It proved a false hope. Two moves into the traverse, he slid down several feet. He recovered, made two more tool placements, then popped off. The upper screw blew out of the ice without even stretching the rope. The shadow piece caught him after about fifty feet, just five feet from the ground.

CIMG3959

I witnessed the second fall just five days ago. A younger gentleman was climbing at our training area. I had led a solid line just to his right a few minutes before. He wanted to go a bit steeper. The line he chose had a little overhanging icicle about fifteen feet up and he launched for it. Rich had tapped on that feature on his way past it, and neither of us liked the sound it made. I almost said something, but I didn’t want to intrude. Tony’s a good climber; he would be careful. He drove an ice screw in the pillar below the icicle, hooked a tool on a feature in the middle of the hanging dagger, and took a tentative swing for the top of the icicle. As soon as the pick of the tool made contact, the whole thing cut loose. Fortunately, he had his legs out from under the falling chunk, so he missed having his bottom half skewered. The screw caught him just before his crampon points scraped the ground. The screw did not bend and the ice around the hanger hadn’t a chip in it. The fall factor had to be close to 1.5. I shall persist in my optimism.

CIMG3952

Tagged , ,

Dr. Blue Thumb (with apologies to Cypress Hill)

Right Pillars

Right Pillars

The crop has come in. It may be no taller than G1 in Hyalite, but it is more potent, and much closer to home.

Central pillar

Central pillar

Overhangs, chandelier, steps – it’s all there for the pleasant terror of the community.

All ninja missions require video documentation for payment. Left pillars.

All ninja missions require video documentation for payment. Left pillars.

Maybe the Black Hills will sprout some more ice climbers after all.

Tagged , , ,

Just a Taste

A few days of cold make a big difference.

The cave is finally formed up.

Either side is going at ~4+ right now, with indifferent protection.

Maybe it is going to be winter after all. On the other hand, it is 45 degrees and raining right now in Northern Wyoming. Hope this isn’t global warming – my boot is awful heavy, and the crampons are really sharp.

Leo demo's that essential piece of ice gear, the down vest.

Tagged , ,

48 Hours at the Gym

Welcome to our facility at Whitewood

 Going to the gym in Wyoming is a little different. You don’t just pop over for the afternoon, it kind of takes all day. There is generally a commute involved.

 With luck it does not involve a shovel and a come-along. 

There is often a cost of admission, but if you are clever you can bargain it down. 

Every training session involves some cardiovascular work – mandatory cardiovascular work.

Approach to Leigh Creek ice

The machines are limited, too. No circuits, just different versions of the same exercise.

M?

 
 

The motivational posters are great, though.

Just a little bit of limestone, Ten Sleep canyon.

And you can’t beat the ambiance of the locker room…

…or the cafe.

Mid-continental sushi after basking in the sun for 3 hours on the back seat. Thank you Baby Jesus, for giving us Wasabi.

Tagged , , ,

Should You Be Trapped in a Basement

Yes. And if you are already, congratulations, because it means that you are serious about a non-productive activity, and a certain class of non-productve activity – an obsessive devotion. Not a hobby, hobbies can happen in a den and earn their keep. Hobbies are spare time things, to be set aside when they become inconvenient.  I don’t mean hobbies, I mean all those things for which the term ‘amateur’ was devised and were the reason why, in sport,  that term used to define the Olympics. Obsessive devotions will eat you up and must go in the basement, or sometimes a garage.

Anyway, for all those amateur mechanics, body builders, musicians, inventors and artists, I have no advice. For climbers, though, I can say exactly what to do should you be trapped in a basement. 

First, pick the right basement. It should be grim. No windows, no decor, it should be a concrete box if at all possible. Flourescent lighting, at least in the form of fixtures with tubes, is out. A single, bare bulb will do. A single door is best, too. It ought to lock from the inside. People should wonder what is going on down there. Wild fantasies keep people away on the front side, and compare favorably with reality if need be.

Not perfect, but close.

Fill the room only with training devices which pose an eminent risk of harm. Use free weights, no machines. You need at least one campus board. If you have a bouldering wall, pad the L.Z. with the minimum cushioning required to prevent fractures. Any Russian training device you come upon, buy it and put it in the room. They have had the world’s biggest basement for over 100 years, they have what you need. For instance, a bottle of garlic pickled in vodka may help to see you through moments of weakness.

You will need a ferret, or other small, vicious animal. Let it run free to control vermin. It will keep you company without being too chatty. Ferrets are best because they also provide a good moral lesson. Once they struggle to consciousness for their four waking hours per day, they have a pure focus on destruction. Animals ten times their size rightfully fear them.

Training secrets

With this basement, you can train at 4AM or midnight. You won’t want to linger. You won’t need some meathead in a campaign hat, or worse, spandex tights, to keep you moving. Lose focus and you will crush a toe, break an arm or get bitten.  When you can finally bust out to climb outside, you won’t need a warm-up, you will be ready to send.

Tagged , , ,