Monday, May 23, 2011

Climbing in Wales

I am leaving the UK tomorrow, barring any complications from volcanic ash, and since the world has not ended, it is back to life in Colorado in a short while. The Welsh portion of the trip finished with a day on the slate quarries and an early run/hike up Mount Snowdon before heading to Sheffield. Slate is a very interesting surface/medium on which to climb as it looks very steep and difficult from below yet upon actually climbing you discover that typically the angle is 80 degrees and many small sharp edges emerge. The rock can be anything from mirror-smooth to sharkskin-rough and all on the same route. It is very reminiscent of many areas in New Hampshire that feature fussy steep slabs, such as the South Buttress of Whitehorse Ledge.

What is particularly striking is the landscape and approach. An entire side of the valley above Llanberis has been transformed by terraces and slopes of excavated slate. Hidden from immediate view are the huge bays, holes and caves that form an underworld of gigantic proportions. We didn't get to explore more deeply here but Mark Reeves, Llanberis local and climbing author regaled us with stories of the history of the place. It is an evocative place, shaped not by the impersonal and natural forces of wind and water but by the minds and hands of human beings. There are vast walls, terraces, buildings, platforms and other structures, creations that lead one to wonder what the lives of the miners were like. The Llanberis Slate Museum, which I didn't have time to visit, has an excellent website to get an idea of what this era was like. The Dinorwic quarries closed down in 1969 and a sense of the past, especially of the 19th century, is particularly strong as you approach the cliffs.

The next morning I got up early with the thought that I might climb Snowdon before breakfast. The hope was that despite a relative lack of hill-running fitness, some memory of previous seasons could provide inspiration and lead to the summit. As it happens, Snowdon from Llanberis is a stout excursion, especially after about 2/3 of the way. If I had known that it was 9 miles round trip, I might have reconsidered but the chance to immerse myself, if even briefly, in the heart of the Welsh mountains, was too important to pass up. Even if I could barely walk the rest of the day. Strangely a side trip to a small sportclimbing area proved that climbing is perhaps the easiest of physical activities. I was easily able to climb a few 5.10s while the 5 minute walk to the cliff was agonizingly slow.

More on my visit to the gritstone edges in the next installment.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Posting from UK Part 2

Now that I am somewhat over the jet lag, I can post something a bit more lengthy. The weather unfortunately has been less than cooperative for climbing. Tuesday was relatively dry and Mark Glaister from Rockfax Books took me and Hubert Canart, who runs, for a low-key excursion to Holyhead Mountain on Anglesey, directly adjacent to the famous sea-cliff of Craig Gogarth. This cliff is a very appealing chunk of gray/white quartzite with a wide variety of lines from easy to relatively hard. The rock is very solid, smooth and quite hard but very intricately featured, allowing lots of unlikely holds and hidden protection options. Best of all, it does not have the death-defying approaches of its more famous neighbor, a reassuring aspect on a grey damp day.

I realized that I have not climbed anything requiring placing my own gear in years and the kind of instinct one has for leading on natural pro can disappear over time. I was happy to lead clipping Mark's gear and get a feel back for the kind of things one has to do to lead unlikely pitches safely.

The weather was barely cooperative and sitting at the top of the crag was a bit of an ordeal in a stiff damp breeze but the sensation of climbing on a green island overlooking the slate-blue Irish sea was a welcome change from the much drier Colorado mountains. Unfortunately I will not get the chance to become better acquainted with this unique place as we are leaving on Thursday and I am heading for the Peak District for a few days. However, I am certain that I will want to return. North Wales is a landscape that is small, intimate even, with a climbing style that has adapted beautifully to the varieties of rock on offer, maintaining a sense of adventure and discovery on even relatively moderate pitches. The sense of history and local culture, both climbing and non-climbing is an integral part of the experience.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Posting from The UK Part 1

I am sitting in Manchester Airport, after a long flight from Colorado, about to head southwest to Wales. The weather looks dreary which means I may get a chance to transcribe the interview with Dave Graham that I recorded Friday. Climbing? We'll see. More news soon.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Hardboiled Emergency Blog Post

The little problem called Hardboiled in Boulder Canyon has been getting quite a lot of attention recently. First ascended by Daniel Woods about 7 years ago, it quickly became part of a circuit of V10/11 problems in the canyon. Most recently a number of ascents included a strapped-on kneepad and it was clear that what had been a reasonably soft 8a was something else. Ryan Silven was the first to state the obvious by climbing it both ways. For the 8a version he wrote, " sans kneebars. the sequence is different enough that it's almost a different boulder. can we still call this 8a if new, easier beta has been used? idk. it sucks my 100th double-digit boulder is mired in controversy. and kneebars." and for the 7c version, " with kneebars and a kneepad. not 8a. a kneebar takes weight through all the crux moves. 1.5 grades easier than w/o kneebars."

The talented female boulderer Alexandra Kordick continued the trend, grading her ascent 7c and commenting, " This problem is more funny than fun. An all around good humping sesh with Andrea Finklestein. I know this is a proud tick for lots of people and I don't want to take that away from anyone, but I'm kinda a kneebar specialist and v9 for it seems REALLY generous." And so on. Most recently Jens at 8a seemed to be implying that here was a woman who, in the words of Brian Kimball, "rode into town, cow~girled up with her guns a blazin' and just LAID DOWN THE LAW with an official down rate too V9 and 'that was being generous'."

Well not exactly. Comparisons with Rifle immediately spring to mind, since that is the place, with the exception of perhaps Jailhouse Rock, where kneebarring rules supreme. In Rifle everyone expects to use the maximum amount of kneepads, kneebarring, and general jessery. This may be in part why internationally known climbers visiting the US tend to go elsewhere to climb and why the canyon's hardest grades are pegged at a lowly 14c-ish. But be that as it may, kneebarring is a real climbing technique.

However bouldering has been fairly slow to accept this technique and indeed problems that feature kneebarring and kneepads tend to rate lower, maybe even much lower, on the desirability scale. Boulderers by definition are not automatically interested in the easiest method and will create and even seek out eliminates of all kinds. Hardboiled with kneepads and kneebars is one way of doing the problem which may be interesting to some. Without the pads, but with the kneebars, it could feel quite different again. Instead of a downgrade of Hardboiled to soft 7c there is no reason not to list separate variations of with kneebars or without them. If you want to tick the problem regardless of method, that's your choice and you get 7c if you use kneebars. But choosing to skip the kneepads and the new beta is a legitimate option as well.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Is 40 really the new 30?

Recently I posted an article from Gripped Magazine on my Facebook Mountains and Water page. About a year earlier, Gripped ran a similar story, focusing on male climbers, but with the same angle, that older climbers can still get up hard routes. Thoughts of this sort even circulated a bit in the media after Chris Sharma's stunning ascent of two 5.15s just after turning 30.

On the one hand, I want to agree with the yea-sayers who assert that age is mostly an imaginary barrier, one much more easily overcome than in the past, thanks to much better equipment, proliferating climbing gyms, and much more rational attitudes towards the sport overall. However, I also want to caution against unthinking acceptance of the belief in the ageless climber.

There is no question that the physical demands of high-end climbing are not entirely incompatible with aging. Sure, you have to be much more careful to avoid potentially threatening moves, mostly because you realize that an entire climbing season lost to a soft-tissue injury is not just an inconvenience. But I find that the mental and psychological demands are the hardest to overcome and by that I don't mean forgetting a sequence or dealing with fear.

Instead I am talking about the undeniable truth of aging in general, that you simply perceive the world differently. In my current chosen discipline, there are very very few serious 40+ practitioners of the sport in the entire country. If I want to get out at all, I have to accept that I will either be climbing alone or in the company of people whose life circumstances are completely different from mine, which sometimes can feel like the same thing. Very few serious boulderers that I know are dealing with the demands of a family and career in any meaningful sense of the term.

But there is a deeper problem and that is one of finding meaning in the activity after such a long time practicing it. For me it is a constant struggle, a process of self-examination and reflection in the face of external pressures and internal change. The paradox is that in many instances I find climbing well to be one of the least self-reflective of activities and yet preparing for a problem and looking back on it can involve hours of contemplation. The tension between the two states of mind can be difficult to resolve at best.

The landscape changes underfoot, so to speak while I am crossing it. The familiar becomes too familiar and then in an instant uncannily different. My response to the climbing environment is tempered by the presence of histories both personal and general. Perhaps other older climbers don't reckon with these spirits of the past but I find them everywhere. Friends and acquaintance age and transform, even here in the world-headquarters of eternal youth and age-denial that is Boulder.

I think this process moves ahead regardless of physical appearance and indeed, Oscar Wilde's parable of Dorian Gray may allude to it best. The outer appearance of physical strength and climbing achievements is only the surface of a person. Deeper, darker and truly human truths lie beneath, truths that only emerge over time. Sure, celebrate the persistence and determination of older athletes. But understand also that the real struggle is probably happening somewhere else, out of the reach of cameras or even words.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Will Levandowski Operation Smile Climb/ World Record

Starting tonight and continuing on Thursday, Will Levandowski, a local climber, will attempt to transform a lowly stretch of Flagstaff sandstone into an arena of world-class proportions. Jenn Fields, a writer for the local paper, has a great article that explains everything.

I first encountered Will a couple of years ago when I was doing a warm-up session below Beer Barrel Rock and noticed someone climbing the same problem again and again on the formations known as the Mugs. I thought it was curious and asked what his reason for repeating the same thing literally hundreds of times. He explained that an injury in his foot from running limited his ability to either fall or negotiate a tricky descent so he found this one spot that allowed him to climb continuously for hours.

As an aficionado myself of logging vertical mileage at Flag, I can easily understand his motivations. However I freely admit that I would not want to try to log 25,000 feet on the same 10 foot problem. That takes a different mindset altogether. If you want to cheer Will on and even act as witness to his Guinness World Record attempt, you can find him starting at 5 pm tonight, a couple of tiers below Beer Barrel Rock. He will climb until 11 pm, take a break until 5 am and continue Thursday until 5 pm.