Stripping Away the Bullshit

There’s a pervasive and patently false philosophy out there among climbers of every discipline. I hear it whether I am crimping plastic, stacking pads, smashing ice, plugging gear, or clipping bolts. It’s talked about inside and outside, on short roadside choss heaps and on long alpine routes in the mountains. If you climb long enough and listen closely enough, you’ll catch some version of it from the young and old, male and female, newbies with shiny gear and crusty old veterans sporting tattered harnesses and straight-shafted ice tools. And if you’re not careful, you’ll start to believe it. It’s the belief that the best way to become the best climber you can be is simply to climb more. Advocates of this mentality decry the use of free weights and running shoes, scorning those who frequent a gym and staunchly maintaining that training for climbing by any other means than climbing is a waste of time.

A lot of people call that mindset practical, efficient, or even progressive; I call it bullshit.

Before you start looking for rocks to throw and sending me links to the websites of famous climbers who avoid gyms like the plague, hear me out. I’ll concede the point that logging a lot of hours in a harness over consecutive days, weeks, months, and seasons is likely going to result in dramatic improvements in climbing ability. You’ll learn how to move properly, you’ll build and enhance sport-specific muscle groups, and you’ll become much more comfortable in the vertical realm. I will also agree that having six pack abs or the ability to crank out thirty consecutive pull-ups doesn’t mean you’ll be a natural on the rock. While a high degree of all-around fitness generally gives beginners an edge, I’ve take muscle-bound gym junkies out for their first ride on a top rope and watched them tire themselves out in the first twenty meters. Meanwhile, the timid, scrawny girl on the next rope over sends her first route with half the effort because she’s willing to listen and apply technique and proper footwork.

However, I’m not writing this for beginners or climbers who are happy as long as they are climbing one grade harder than the masses. This diatribe isn’t intended to motivate the weekend warriors lapping familiar routes at the local crag, or those lucky individuals who are truly satisfied to climb just for fun. I am penning these words for those who climb as a means of personal evolution. There are a few of us who really don’t care what anyone else is doing unless it further illuminates the corridor of our own potential. We seek to compete with ourselves, and for those looking to maximize their personal potential, simply getting in more laps at the local crag will eventually result in a plateauing of your progression.

In a recent conversation, my brother cited elite athletes such as Ueli Steck and Steve House to point out that using weights, resistance training, and other implements and techniques originating in the gym to train for hard climbs has recently become the trend. My opinion and response to him was that it has always been the trend amongst those looking to see just how close to the line of personal perfection they could tread.

Messner carefully observed and recorded his times as he all but ran up steep hills with heavily loaded packs to train for his Himalayan climbs. Twight used free weights and the Stairmaster to make himself as indestructible as possible when he was climbing hard new alpine routes all over the world. Bachar actually invented a fitness device – the Bachar Ladder – to push the limits of his free solo rock climbing.

You don't need expensive equipment or a fancy facility to get strong; throwing figure 4's and 9's on holes drilled into a ceiling beam is a good way to get build strength for dry tooling and mixed routes.

You don’t need expensive equipment or a fancy facility to get strong; throwing figure 4’s and 9’s on holes drilled into a ceiling beam is a good way to get build strength for dry tooling and mixed routes.

The benefits of non-climbing training for climbing are of course partially physical. Increase core strength and your power-to-weight ratio and you’ll go faster in the mountains for longer and have a shorter recovery time after the ascent. You’ll also decrease the time spent exposed to objective hazards like rockfall and avalanches, and therefore lower the odds of coming home in a body bag. Not an alpinist? Those same improvements will result in a greater number of daily burns on your sport climbing or bouldering project, and of course the same bit about shorter recovery time applies. Climbing also tends to stress and strengthen very specific muscle groups; if you do a lot of climbing and don’t find a way to work the other muscles and tendons, you will typically be much more susceptible to injury.

Personally though, I think the greatest benefit of cross training is mental. Day after day of early morning runs while the rest of the world hits snooze and rolls over…workout stacked upon workout of planks, curls, pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, deadlifts, squats, leg lifts, and finger-boarding…hour after hour of sweat rolling down your face and soaking your shirt. All of these things combine to build a massive reserve of psychological strength rooted firmly on the knowledge that your lifestyle of discipline has rooted out any mental weakness – weakness that could otherwise sabotage your attempts at the route you now stand looking up at.

The philosophy isn’t new, but I believe the world we live in is softer and lazier than the world even thirty years ago. For all our increases in the technology of our gear, we have gone backwards in the measure of our discipline. By simple generational inclusion, I’m as guilty as the rest, but I am willing to do something about it.

Are you?

Rock Your Boat

“Don’t rock the boat!”

This little pearl of colloquial “wisdom” is just one of several commonly employed variations on the same theme. There’s that bit about the nail that sticks out getting hammered down, the advice to keep one’s nose clean, the adage about the apple cart, and (again with the maritime terminology) the warning to avoid making waves. At some level, I understand the original intent behind these phrases, or at least I think I do. The intended meaning behind the message seems to be that if you have a good thing – or what used to be a good thing – going, stay out of trouble, don’t piss off those in positions of authority, and in general try not to say or do anything that would disrupt your current life circumstances.

“That seems like sage advice,” I can hear some of you saying.

I don’t completely disagree. I’m only occasionally a dick, I know when to kiss ass if it gets me what I want, and I don’t typically pick fights and start arguments without a good reason. However – tiptoeing through every day and social interaction as a lifestyle? Staying in a city or with a person or at a desk that makes you miserable because you’re too susceptible to others’ opinions, afraid of confrontation, or attached to a salary to make a change? Pardon the expletive, but that’s fucked up. I’ll refrain from using definitively superlative language, but I believe that two of a person’s great responsibilities to themselves are to grow personally and ensure their own happiness. When a sizable percentage of your time, resources, and mental energy are wasted on fulfilling societal and family expectations of conduct, income, and calendar usage, accomplishing either of those responsibilities becomes, at best, very difficult.

There are droves of people – young and old – that are trying their damnedest to not rock the boat. And yes, I used the word “droves” for a reason. Webster’s defines the term as “a group of animals driven or moving in a body.” When you’re paranoidly trying to butt-kiss and maintain your way into perceived equilibrium, that’s exactly what you look like.

The condescending sneer is out on some of your faces now. Patronizing explanations and rationalizations built on the concepts of mortgages, retirement plans, corporate ladders, and children are flying my way. After all, with three kids, a second mortgage on your shitty cookie-cutter house in the burbs, and two absurd car payments on your we-had-to-buy-brand-new-even-though-the-car-depreciated-$5000-in-value-the-second-we-drove-it-off-the-lot vehicles, the thought of selling it all, taking a job that makes you truly fulfilled and happy no matter the salary, and spending every spare second doing things you love with people you respect sounds like a pipe dream. You have a somewhat valid point. As far as I know, children don’t come with a return policy even on the worst tantrum days, banks aren’t cool with your cessation of house payments, and your depreciating asset of a car is still damned handy (although not necessary) for getting around.

The good news? Houses, offspring, careers, and vehicles don’t necessarily require the permanent, bloody sacrifice of your dreams. But if that’s true, then how exactly do I propose that you change, fix the problem, shed the herd mentality?

The answer sounds simple, is easy to apply, and remains frustratingly difficult for most to stick with: you rock YOUR boat.

There’s no need, rhyme, or reason to be an asshole and pick a fight with your boss or spouse. There’s also no call for rampant, damaging irresponsibility to get yourself temporarily closer to your ideal life. The problem is you, and it always has been. It’s the boat you built with your own two hands, or at least the one you willingly boarded. It’s the decisions you made, perhaps unconsciously or because you saw everyone else doing the same thing.

The solution is to make a change, even a little change. Find the aspect of your life that makes you most unhappy, and do something about it. Hate where you live? So did my brother Matt, so he left his high-paying job in Chicago and moved to Washington to be in the mountains that he loves so dearly. It took him years to make it happen, but now he’s happier and more fulfilled than he ever dreamed. Stuck in a toxic relationship? So was my mom, and she had the courage to move out and move on with her life, even amidst a cloud of judgement and questions from others. Now she’s happily married to a man who completes her and loves her.

I’ve attempted to live the words I’m writing too, and I know I haven’t always done the best job of making decisions or thinking about how those choices will affect others. Nobody’s perfect, and sometimes the changes you make won’t create immediate positive upgrades to your life circumstances. I know this though – while the process is tough and road can be rough, the journey will almost certainly be something you look back on with gratitude.

Horizontal scribbling about vertical scratching

I didn’t think a thirty-six hour escapade deserves a place under the “Trips/Adventures” menu, but I wanted to bang out a quick blurb about what turned out to be an awesome weekend of first experiences and new accomplishments.

Nate and I left New Brighton early on Saturday morning for Casket Quarry in Duluth. Casket is unique; unlike the ice climbing quarry in Sandstone where there are plenty of moderate pure ice and mixed lines, Casket has been developed almost exclusively for hard, ground-up mixed climbing. If you can’t pull at least M6, you won’t have much fun there. This is really the first season I have started scratching around on steep rock routes with ice tools and crampons, other than the occasional easy mixed climbing moves on alpine routes. To be honest, I always viewed modern bolted mixed routes as contrived and a good way to burn through expensive picks and crampon front points. Now that I’ve gotten in the game though, I’m addicted. Hard mixed climbing takes an incredible amount of physical and mental strength, and I have already seen my endurance and technique on pure ice routes improve because of it.

We had the privilege to climb with an incredible crew on Saturday – many of these guys are legends and pioneers of the Minnesota climbing scene, and they climb HARD. It was a super productive day, as I led my first two M7 routes and didn’t take a fall on either. One of my three resolutions for the year is to lead M9, so that only leaves two grades to go…and next weekend the goal is to lead Reefer Madness, M8.  Nate and I were so fixated on the climbing that we neglected to take a single picture that day, so I’ll include a link here to the Mountain Project guide for Casket Quarry.

After a beer and a mind-blowing wild rice burger at Fitger’s Brewhouse in Duluth, Nate and I pointed the Corolla south towards Sandstone, arriving at the quarry at about 2000. We set up camp in the dark, made some hot cocoa with peppermint schnapps, and passed out in the tent to rest up for another day on the ice.

Not a bad view from the tent.

Not a bad view from the tent.

We woke up the next morning ready to hit it hard. Amidst a growing sea of brightly colored topropes, we ticked one steep ice route after another. I led up each WI4 and WI5 route we could find, placing three or four ice screws on each to protect against a fall. At the top of each route, I slung a tree or clipped an anchor bolt and set up a belay to bring Nate up as he unclipped and removed the screws. When we were both safely at the top, we untied from the rope and let it fall back down to the base, and then rappelled down on a fixed line, grabbed our rope, and started on a new line of ice. We started to get pretty tired after a few hours of that cycle, so it was a welcome reprieve when my girlfriend Liz showed up for her first ever ice climbing experience!

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Liz only started climbing when she met me last summer, but she already regularly knocks out 5.9’s and the occasional 5.10 both in the gym and outdoors. I suppose a high degree of fitness from being a disciplined distance runner and a regular at the gym didn’t exactly hinder her progress in a harness. That being said, she’s not a huge fan of being cold, and ice climbing is a totally different animal, so I wasn’t sure how she would do or whether or not she’d like it. No big surprise – she tied in on a steep route and smoked right to the top. Even her heavy, clunky ski boots didn’t seem to hold her back, and she enjoyed it enough that I think we’ll be looking for some real ice climbing boots for her.

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A couple beers and an episode of the Mighty Boosh closed out the weekend, and now it’s back to the daily grind for five days. If only it were five days of play and two days of work…

I resolutely resolve to accomplish these resolutions

I thought about turning this post into a rant about discipline, commitment, and other assorted desirable character qualities that walk hand in hand with accomplishing New Years resolutions and goals, but the theme seems a bit tired right now. “Put up and shut up” seemed a more appropriate philosophy, as in put up my resolutions on my blog so I have some level of accountability to others, and then shut up and go work on accomplishing them before another year slips away. So with that in mind and without any more preamble or fanfare, here are my goals for 2015:

  • trad lead at least one 5.12 rock climb, most likely at Palisade Head – no bolts, just balls.
  • lead WI6 comfortably.
  • lead M9 bolted routes without a fall. I’ve never placed a bolt, but I’ll admit they do have their place (just not next to cracks that take gear or to make up for a deficiency in ability or courage). My logic is that if I can lead M9 on bolts at a crag, M6 on trad gear in the mountains won’t feel so sketchy.

Surprise – they all have to do with climbing. I have other plans and intentions, but these three will largely guide my daily training, my reading, my eating habits, and my use of weekends and time away from my job. The ice climbing trip out to Montana and Wyoming over Christmas and New Years was amazing and productive, but it also opened my eyes to my potential and how much work, time, and dedication it is going to take if I want to make significant gains in ability. I climb for myself, but sometimes one’s own expectations can be the hardest to live up to…

Anyway, there they are. Pictures and a story to come as I accomplish each throughout the next 11 months and 19 days!