I don’t even know where to start with the past month or so of climbing adventures. Started on Vancouver Island with some local cragging (Fleming Beach and Mount Wells with various friends) before heading east… Squamish was stop number one – managed to squeeze in a bit of fun at the Smoke Bluffs and then tackled Deirdre, a multi-pitch on the apron of The Chief. Who knew there would be a queue at the start of this popular climb? Turns out it’s not only quite common to pick a number and wait your turn for popular climbs, it’s also very common to start chatting, swap contact info, and later send fellow climbers photos of each other. The climbing fraternity is a friendly one – small enough that everyone pretty well knows someone who knows someone – and large enough that on any given day one is likely to run into total strangers from halfway around the world and neighbours from back home.
After Squamish it was off to Canmore (climbed Ha’Ling), the crags at Heart Creek and Cougar Creek, Banff (Black Band Crags and then the multi-pitch Gooseberry).
While up in the Rockies it was impossible not to also visit Lake Louise. Though winter kept threatening, the day we climbed was nothing short of glorious.
After three weeks of climbing nearly every day (the last couple of climbs in Cougar Creek near Canmore were finger-chillingly cold) it was time to pack up the tent and head west again – to Skaha, climbing mecca in the Okanagan Valley. Pulling into town it was a balmy 24 degrees and the next five days were just lovely. We climbed a mix of stuff – harder, steeper stuff with teeny ledges and crimpy finger holds that tested one’s nerves and balance, some cracks (including Assholes of August, which we climbed twice – the first time in the near dark, the second on a sunny afternoon). What was most exciting (at least for me) was starting to lead – both sport climbs and gear routes (where there are no pre-existing bolts in the rock).
Leading adds a whole other level of terror to the whole climbing experience. Unlike top-roping, the lead climber heads up first, clipping draws into secure bolts (and then the rope) along the way. After clipping, there is always a stretch of time (the distance between bolts varies and depends on the particular climb) and it’s during this bit of time after you have climbed beyond your last clipped in protection (increasing the possible distance you will fall if you come off the wall and before the rope catches you) that the mind starts playing tricks. And, once the mind panics, it’s a terrible feeling to be stranded above the safety of the clipped draw, frozen against the face of the rock, convinced upward movement is impossible, horrified at the thought of climbing back down again… That is exactly what happened on my first lead – complete mental meltdown. Incapacitating. I wound up coming back down, Fabio led the route, I top-roped it (and realized I could in fact climb past the tricky spot without much trouble) and then re-led it. Switched gears and climbed some other stuff and a couple of days later led a couple of climbs of the same wall without difficulty.
If clipping into bolts can get exciting, placing gear (nuts, cams, and other bits and pieces of climbing gear used when there are no bolts), then trad climbing is even better – or, worse, depending on whether you are inspired or horrified by adrenalin surges. I had my first couple of experiences leading on gear routes – easy enough climbing, but a whole different ballgame when you add in the strategy of where to stand (in a relatively balanced, comfortable spot) while choosing from the assorted gadgets dangling from one’s climbing harness, fiddling to wiggle nuts or cams or whatever into any available crack or corner, then clipping a draw to the protection and, finally, the rope into the draw. Though hugely stressful at times (I wound up bailing off a route as dusk was closing in and I completely lost my nerve – poor, patient Fabio had to climb up and rescue what gear I had managed to place), I think the trad climbing is the most interesting and compelling of what I have tried so far.
The additional mental puzzle of figuring out what’s available (both in terms of the rock and the gear) and then keeping a cool head while matching the two up makes the whole experience of getting up the wall all the more challenging. Starting to learn these new skills has also had the side benefit of taking some of the pressure off challenging myself to climb harder routes – the elbow brace is holding up remarkably well, but the injured arm is still injured, so I have to be careful not to overdo it, especially when climbing day after day. The easier grades mean the physical climbing is not so bad, but the leading those routes or starting to try my hand at gear placement keeps things… entertaining.
All of this, of course, has taken me outside almost every day, hiking into some of the most beautiful places in the world and climbing some of the most spectacular rock anywhere. I wonder if one ever gets tired of the vistas one encounters as one hauls oneself up and over the top of a cliff face. I hope not.