A Beginner

For the first month of 2014, I’ve been injured, again. Back in the first week of the year, I aggravated a hip flexor while shuffling my way up a mountain, and a month later it’s finally showing signs of health. Injuries aren’t unfamiliar to me, but after 19 years of running, they are no less frustrating. Especially when seemingly induced by an activity (skinning uphill) that, by all accounts, should be the perfect, low-impact  winter complement to my summer pursuits. A year ago, I wrote a post about dealing with injuries, so I have no desire to re-tread that ground.

With skiing (skinning) and running off the table, I’ve been attempting to remain physically engaged in the only other activity that holds serious interest to me: climbing. Except that it’s the dead of winter here in Boulder and the local crags are typically wet, if not fully encased in snow and ice. Other than a week in mid-January when I was able to get in three days on proper granite and sandstone, this means that I’ve been climbing plastic, in the gym.

Rewritten, Eldo Canyon. Photo: Caroline Treadway.

Before the cold snap in January. Rewritten, Eldo Canyon. Photo: Caroline Treadway.

This has very much been a first for me. Prior to this winter, I had roped up in a gym exactly once before. But, I have some modest climbing-ish goals for the summer season (mostly a couple of moderate but long and tricky traverses/link-ups in Wyoming) and getting stronger and improving my technique will make those go a whole lot more efficiently, hopefully. And especially with the winter conditions, the easiest way to be consistent, improve, and lay a base for the summer is to hit the gym. At the first of the year I finally committed to the indoors by buying a pass to Movement Climbing+Fitness and have been going four or five days a week.

The climbing gym (especially in Boulder, CO, where there is a pretty astounding concentration of climbing talent) is an eye-opening place. First, I’m not a good climber. Outdoors, I’m a below-average climber; in the gym, I’m a rote beginner, both in terms of strength and technique. Second, the vast majority of my climbing outside has been of the traditional variety, meaning that I’m placing my own removable protection (stoppers, cams and the like) on lead, or seconding beneath a belay constructed of same. Third, while well-placed cams and nuts are fully capable of holding a fall—but, really, who wants to unnecessarily test this?—I generally subscribe to the maxim that the leader does not fall. As a result, almost everything I climb outside has been fully within my abilities, which doesn’t offer up much opportunity to really push myself and get stronger.

The first week in the gym, I was barely able to climb. After maybe 30-40min, my grip strength was completely exhausted and I could barely untie my shoes let alone continue clinging to a hold. To counteract this, however, is the totally ridiculous but still nice ego-boost one receives by rocketing up grades that I typically wouldn’t even consider outside. Even if one factors in the generally safe, controlled environment of a gym (pre-hung draws, top-ropes, extreme unlikeliness that a hold is going to break or a rock is going to fall on your head), gym ratings still seem outrageously inflated. In the gym, I typically warm up on a grade that is at my leading limit outdoors. Fun! And after six weeks, endurance is rarely the limiting factor for me anymore; I can usually climb with decent technique for almost all of my typical 2-2.5hr session.

Any inflation in my confidence is very short-lived, however. The simple fact is that I am a horrendous climber. This is not annoying self-effacement. This is fact. Much like how in running, the track and stopwatch don’t lie, in climbing, one’s pure strength and technical expertise (or glaring lack thereof) is laid out quite starkly in the gym. Essentially, all the heady intangibles of actual climbing—wind, loose rock, run-outs, lichen, wet rock, poorly-placed protection, etc, etc—are removed and all that is left is pure performance, the movement. My chosen gym is aptly named, I’ve found. Just like there is no denying that I’ve never run faster than a 4:42 mile, in the gym there’s no denying that in my current state, I will almost certainly fall off a 5.11b.

On any given day, I am pretty close to being the worst climber in the gym. Again, this is no exaggeration. Thanks to the previously mentioned, prominently posted grades, it’s really easy to see how easy or hard everyone is climbing. And everyone climbs harder than me in the gym. Women twice my age. Dudes with beer bellies. Tiny girls a third my age. Fellow weakling runners, who, given their technical trail skills outside (or lack thereof—I’m looking at you, Trent :-)) I would never expect to excel in the vertical world. So, it is deeply humbling. The ego is deflated.  It turns out that being able to nimbly scramble a flatiron in running shoes (or ten in a morning), or launching up a multi-pitch climb in Eldo with no more than five cams and a set of stoppers (climbing gear is expensive!) has absolutely zero bearing on one’s ability to crush in the gym.

But, the flipside of this is that my curve of improvement is pleasantly steep. In running—especially in the mountains—I’ve felt competent, even accomplished, for many years. My improvement in that arena continues to go up, but it occurs in predictably incremental steps. And to continue to improve, I have to keep paying attention to smaller and smaller details.

Conversely, after only six weeks in the gym, I can tell that I have made significant gains, if only because I started so pathetically low on the spectrum. Most of the improvement comes from simple consistency and from realizing that there is usually an easier way: rotate your hips into the wall, move your feet up, read and anticipate the sequence, don’t hold on so tightly, quickly move past the bad holds instead of stalling out on them. It’s all pretty basic stuff, but, like most things, is also easier said than done (at least for me).

While applying myself with commitment to something new is inherently fresh and exciting, it is also frustrating. Since my goal is improvement, it seems that working towards that on a climbing wall inevitably means struggle and failure and an overall feeling of incompetency. Because of the cush, controlled environment, it doesn’t take long for laps on easy routes in the gym to start feeling like complacency instead of training for endurance. So in striving to improve, a lot of my time is spent falling off of routes that are at the very edge of my current ability. This is frustrating, especially when you can feel yourself doing it wrong—climbing with poor technique—but somehow feel powerless to do anything about it.

Because I’ve been running for 19 years, being outside, moving quickly and efficiently in the mountains has become the main thing in my life where I feel competent. I feel reasonably skilled, effective, a master of meshing my effort and abilities with the terrain and covering ground quickly. If indoor climbing is supposed to be my physical outlet right now, in almost every way it’s an awfully poor one when compared to what I’m usually able to do outside.  But that’s okay. Growth only comes through challenge and failure, so I’ll take my lumps. And, eventually, hopefully, it’ll have a positive effect on my experiences out in the mountains.

More noob activity---top-roping ice in Clear Creek Canyon this week. Photo: Joe Grant.

More noob activity—top-roping ice in Clear Creek Canyon this week. Photo: Joe Grant.

UTMB 2013


Photo: Salomon Runinng (Damien Rosso).

I dropped from the 2013 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in Trient, Switzerland on Saturday morning—139km and 17hr after the start in Chamonix, France, but still 29km from making it all the way around the mountain. Curiously—despite the DNF—UTMB was one of the most pleasant, even serene, racing experiences I’ve had out on the trails. However, sometimes a few pieces of gristle are all it takes to bring a halt to our silly ambitions, and, if you let it, completely transform your outlook on the day. I’ve tried to not let that happen, but I’m a competitive bastard, and it takes constant attention on my part to keep my perspective firmly situated in the much-vaunted “bigger picture”. Sometimes you really want to win the fucking race, though. Or just finish, even. And when you don’t, it’s disappointing. Big surprise.

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Capitol-Snowmass Link-up

Capitol Peak and Snowmass Mountain in Colorado’s Elk Range are unique when compared to the range’s other 14ers in that they are composed of fractured granite rather than the teetering piles of sedimentary choss that make up the range’s even more famous 14ers (notably, Pyramid and the Maroon Bells). Because of its mandatory Knife Edge on the NE Ridge standard route, Capitol is considered by some to be the state’s most difficult 14er (debatable, of course), and Snowmass is probably the most remote 14er outside of the San Juan range—not a lot of people climb it in a single day. I have an interest in eventually completing a north-to-south link-up of all seven of the Elk 14ers, so rehearsing the best route between Capitol and Snowmass seemed like a good idea.

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When I left the Leadville Fish Hatchery at 2am on Monday morning—setting out on the Nolan’s 14 link-up—I suspect I thought I would have a much longer and more interesting story to tell about my journey than the tale I have in my head right now. The short of it is that I started out stupidly early in the morning, felt crappy already by the second peak (Mt. Elbert), and kept going for four more peaks and 10 more hours, but instead of things getting better they just kept getting worse and worse so I ultimately bailed after Mt. Belford (#6) and descended to the Missouri Gulch trailhead, in relief.

All photos: Matt Trappe.

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Nolan’s 14 Scouting

On the summit of Missouri Mt, I pointed out the rest of our day’s objectives to Joe. From our vantage point, the summits of Belford, Oxford, Harvard, Columbia, and Yale were all clearly visible. Joe and I both had linked up the first five summits before, but tacking on Yale at the end was uncharted territory for us, and the night before I’d even forgotten to peruse the internet for beta on its ascent.

The western basin of Missouri Mt, the day’s first climb.

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This week was my mom’s 65th birthday and retirement party, on the same day. Mom has been an educator for 34 years and Friday was finally her last day of school. I drove the 9hrs home to Niobrara, NE to celebrate with her and my Dad, and the entire way I fought a vicious northerly headwind that left my ears ringing and my brain exhausted from focusing to keep The Roost on the road. But, once you get a 100 miles or so away from the Front Range and out onto the Great Plains, the wind is nothing really worth commenting on. It is simply endemic to the environment. Wind notwithstanding, late May is actually a really ideal time to visit my home—the hills are resplendent with a lush emerald; the whippoorwills have already made their way back, offering a reliable and lovely serenade each evening; the weather is pleasantly warm but not necessarily yet hot and sticky; and the bugs (chiggers in the grass during the day, mosquitos in the evening) haven’t quite yet decided that it’s time to torment.

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Road Trip

“In a strange kind of way, lifeless landscapes have so much to say.” –Porcelain Raft, Shapeless and Gone

April on the Front Range had record snowfalls, so a trip south to the desert made sense. Joe had a planned rendevous with his uncle in the Grand Canyon and my apartment sublease was up and I needed a long, hot run to get ready for Transvulcania next month, so figured, why not?

Joe’s and my first road trip together was the 22hr epic out to Western States in 2010 where he drove the entire way; the long, crooked arm of the law shamelessly profiled our unkempt, hirsute visages half-way across Nevada (thanks to the “Runners To Watch” section in the WS100 Handbook, we were able to finagle a warning); and I learned the meaning of Joe’s moniker “Joe G FM”—with his olympic abilities as a conversationalist, we never turned on the radio in over 1000 miles of driving.

Gold Hill, CO running at dawn. Photo: Joe Grant.

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A Reminder

I knew it was a different morning on Longs when I left the parking lot with a bare head and bare hands. Usually I’m pretty chilly at the trailhead, but on this day the sweat was pouring off my eyebrows and nose on the very first steep cut up through the trees, and instead of dreading the breeze at treeline I welcomed it for its cooling properties.

Whenever one has a mishap in the backcountry, the chain of decisions and events that led up to it always seem so obvious in hindsight. But I suppose that’s just the way it works. I was battling a bit of a head cold and was feeling beat down from a previous 10 days of high-volume outings, so on this morning I resolved to just wake up whenever my body wanted, not interrupting my slumber with the typical 5am alarm that I set when I’m planning on an ascent of Longs Peak. As such, I arrived at the trailhead an hour later than usual, and on top of that it was a gloriously warm day—temps in Boulder later in the day would reach the low-70s.

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The Longs Peak Project

This morning was my 10th summit of Longs Peak so far this year, and the third this week. My previous two times up the mountain earlier in the week were both probably the toughest conditions I’ve experienced on the mountain. Temperatures weren’t unreasonable, but on both Wednesday and Friday the mountain was completely socked in by unforecasted, heavily-snowing clouds, and whipping winds sent constant waves of spindrift through the air. Though it was a week late, it felt more like winter than any of my previous true winter ascents of the mountain.

This morning was quite a bit different. On the way up there was plenty of snow blowing in the wind, but once I had made it to the west side of Mt. Lady Washington the wind mostly died and the rest of the day was exceedingly pleasant. All of the snow on the north face made the technical climbing feel easy and secure, so on the way down I just downclimbed instead of rappeling, and since the sun was now high in the sky I actually stripped down to a short-sleeve t-shirt at 13,000′ and ran back down to the trailhead in comfort.

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