Monthly Archives: April 2016

M is for Munter (how to tie one), Mountains, Lady Mac, and Mixed Climbing

M is for mixed climbing, Munter and … and maybe mountains… and what about multi-pitches… Keep scrolling down if you want to get to the good part (the Munter video!)

On the first day of this challenge I was pretty sure I could dredge up something to say about climbing for each day of the alphabet… on about day five (E is for whatever E was for… M might also be about memory, or lack thereof…) I was feeling pretty panicky. I mean, you can only say so much about going up and not falling off, right? Well today I’m sitting here looking at my shortlist of M-words and I’m thinking that if I’m not careful this could develop into a long blog post!

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Me trying something waaaaaay too hard in the mixed climbing department. Sometimes you have to go past your limit to find the line in the sand… rock… ice… wherever. In this case, the line was about as high as you see here – just low enough, in fact that each time I fell off (many times) the rope stretch allowed me to gently hit the ground. With my backside.  

I’ll start with mixed climbing, a sub-genre of the climbing activity about which I had no idea before this past winter. In the vertical world in the dead of winter two solid forms (ice and rock) come together in the mountains. Climbing when you wind up transitioning from one to the other (and sometimes back again) is known as mixed climbing. The tools used are similar to ice climbing, but look closely and small difference begin to emerge.

Crampon points, for example. On a straight ice climb two front points give you a wider, more secure base upon which to perch (though, there are those who climb ice quite handily with mono-points). If there’s going to be a lot of rock on the route, though, it’s actually easier to climb with a mono-point, a single front prong. This is because the plane of the rock is very rarely exactly perpendicular to your foot placement. Unlike in ice where you can kick your foot in to create a more or less even distribution of weight over both points, on the rock, more likely you are going to carefully place your single point into an indent, small hole, or on a modest lip of rock. The chances of said placement point being exactly wide/deep/level/spaced to accommodate two fixed points on the front of your boot is slim.

Likewise, the blades of your ice tools can be swapped out with sturdier, less razor sharp options being better for rock than for ice. Fabio has a tool kit in the car especially for the purpose of swapping out pointy bits to best suit conditions.

Though both sections (rock and ice) of a mixed climb can be hard, sometimes the transitions between one and the other provides a particularly tricky challenge.

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Me transitioning between rock and ice at Haffner Creek earlier this season…

 

The Mighty Munter Hitch (Or, Italian Belay Knot)

A Munter hitch is named after Werner Munter, a Swiss mountain guide born in 1941 (though, the Italians were using it before Herr Munter, which is why it’s also known as an Italian hitch or Italian Belay). The knot is a bit like a clove hitch and can be used to belay a climber if you have a handy carabiner. What’s coolest about the knot is the way it’s sort of reversible – flipped in one direction it can be used like a brake (say when your buddy has fallen into a crevasse, you’ve stopped the fall by walloping your ice axe into the glacier and then throwing your body weight on top of the ax, and then you need to stop your friend from slithering deeper into said crevasse… After quickly building an anchor – and the thought of having to do this with gloves on and while sitting on my ice axe is nothing short of horrifying – you would then use a Munter to secure the rope leading to your fallen friend… well, not exactly – first you have to take the weight off the rope by transferring the weight of the climber to the newly built anchor… gads. That was meant to be a simple aside. Turns out it might need to be a whole other blog post.) Flip the same knot upside down and you can use it to belay your friend, letting out slack to lower her to a handy shelf or taking in slack as she climbs up and out of the crevasse.

Here’s my handy dandy how-to guide (and specially produced video!! Thanks to Fabio for being a Munter model…)

How to Tie a Munter Hitch

Step 1: Make a loop in the bit of rope that leads to the fallen climber. The end leading to the climber goes underneath.

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Step 2: Make another loop in the end of the rope that leads to your excess pile of rope (the end away from the climber). The excess end goes over the top.

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Step 3: Fold the rope in the middle to bring two loops together.

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Step 4: Insert a carabiner (preferably a nice big pear-shaped carabiner) through both loops.munter 4.jpg

Depending how the knot is oriented (which was much easier to show in the video), you can either belay (play out rope) or stop the rope from running. Now you have to watch the video, to see what I mean about flipping the knot’s orientation… Trust me. This will be the sexiest 90 seconds of knot tying you have ever had the pleasure of watching… there’s even music.

 

Mountains: I’m just going to throw the word in here because the entire world of rock climbing would disappear without them…

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Here’s one of my favourites, the iconic Mount Rundle in the Rockies. The first mountain I ever lived on was the more diminutive Tunnel Mountain, which reminded me of a round-backed hedgehog-like animal sleeping in a bucolic valley surrounded by unfriendly giants. As a kid I hiked up the Banff side of Tunnel on various occasions and, because our house was on the lower flank of this modest lump, spent many hours building forts, exploring, and playing hide and seek in the forest behind our house. It wasn’t until last summer, though, that I had the chance to climb up the steep backside of Tunnel and quickly realized that, in fact, even though it’s dwarfed by much bigger neighbours, Tunnel is still worthy of its mountain moniker.

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Mount Lady MacDonald is a popular hiking destination near Canmore. Here, she peeks over the trees at Grassi Lakes, where we were climbing yesterday afternoon. How handy that her name begins with the letter M.

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As for multi-pitches… well, another blog post, I guess! I am out of time… making that video was exhausting.

L is for Love Affair

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Much as I adore him, I would never dream of going on a date with Cliff without using protection…

It’s 4 am and the alarm isn’t due to go off for two more hours. Then, I’ll leap into action, make a quick lunch, and jump in the car to head for the mountains and a rendezvous with the love that has rocked my world. “I’m too old for this,” I think. “Roll over. Go back to sleep. Your date with Cliff will go a lot better if you’re well rested.”

And then I’m back in the middle of  a dream where my heart races and I feel a surge of excitement as I catch sight of those big angular shoulders and broad back and say something ridiculous like, “I think that’s cheese in my chalk bag.” Then, trying to disguise my awkwardness, I start to tie a follow-through figure eight knot but then realize I’m not having any luck because I’m not holding a climbing rope: the thing in my hands is a garden hose and it’s leaking red paint all over my favourite climbing shoes. And at that point a rock falls from the sky and cuts my new skinny rope and I fly backwards off the crag, down, down, down toward certain death. My own gasping wakes me and, heart thudding, I lie back on the pillow trying to calm myself with slow, even breaths. Because I am in love and obsessed and every night my dreams are filled with variations on the theme of Cliff.

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On the drive to see Cliff I make plans, visualize the way I will caress the stone face that awaits me, the way I will gently, but firmly, plug gear where it fits best. As the miles roll by and the grade gets steeper, I talk to myself about being brave and not letting my fears of attachment (or, failure to attach) get in the way of having the best date ever climbing to rapturous heights I could only imagine before finding this perfect partner of mine.

The signs of a love affair are everywhere: well-pawed climbing magazines cover the coffee table, my email inbox is full of ads from MEC and REI and Arcteryx and special promotions from Black Diamond and Evolv and La Sportiva. I drool over Facebook photos posted by one friend who has run away to Kalymnos, another living out of a van in Joshua Tree, yet another in Squamish. I stop on the way to the kitchen to hang from my fingerboard and count the minutes until I will see Cliff again.

Foul weather is no obstacle for our outdoorsy romance: even during the depths of winter there is evidence everywhere of where I would rather be: my ice tools and crampons dry over the heat vent in the living room, the Thermos waits on the kitchen counter to be filled with hot tea, and my thick puffy jacket is draped and at the ready by the back door. Cliff is never far from my mind, even on the coldest of days when he wears his frostiest of cloaks and tries to frighten me away with his icy glare. So fiery is my passion that sub-zero temperatures, high winds and snow flurries cannot keep me away.

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In the warmer months I wrap my fingers in tape before a date with Cliff with the same careful concentration as another woman might shave her legs before meeting her paramour. Instead of lotion to smooth my skin, I carefully dust a layer of chalk over my hands before ever so gently stroking my fingertips over my sweetheart’s waiting form. Occasionally I indulge in a spritz of insect repellant behind my ears.

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Lunch, a squashed sandwich or piece of bruised fruit is consumed at my true love’s feet, perched on a slab of stone, the sun tangled in the bit of pony tail that has escaped from beneath my helmet.

If a successful date is judged by how much sweating and grunting goes on before collapsing, utterly spent into bed, then a date with Cliff (or his big brother, Montagne) ranks right up there with the very best. Hanging out with (or, hanging off) Cliff leaves me no choice but to live in the moment and day after day finds me breathless and giddy, all a-quiver with the sheer joy of being alive and partnered up with the most magnificent of rock specimens in all of the great outdoors. I can’t imagine anything more delightful than lazy summer days spent playing footsie with his ledges or the moments of near rapture when I’m wrapped around his arete in a heartfelt embrace. Not quite as much fun are those times when I find myself spread-eagled and vulnerable, too scared to make the next move but unable to retreat.

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And I ask you, what better way is there to spend a long evening than with Cliff’s other lovers when we rehash those shared memories – both the exhilarating and the lamentable: that overcast morning when I got my hand stuck in a dark place and thought I’d never get it out, how, when the two of us are in balance it feels like we are performing a graceful pas de deux, and that time when Cliff and I stayed out dancing so late I needed a headlamp to find my way back to the car.

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Not that things are always perfect in this dizzying romance of mine. There are moments of tension, for sure – when I feel like the bottom is dropping out of my world, when I can’t trust the ground I’m (not) standing on, the way Cliff can be cold and heartless and unforgiving. There are days when I can’t stand the way he ignores my pleas for a handhold. There are times when I want to walk away because I don’t understand how it’s possible he doesn’t feel me shaking when anxiety threatens to overwhelm me. It baffles me how he can steadfastly refuse to do anything to help me get a grip. On those dark days it almost feels like Cliff is trying to shake me loose.

And yet, when I go back the next week, the next month, Cliff is there, strong and silent as always. Waiting. And when I lean up against that solid form, push my hips in close and take a moment to breathe, I feel another breath echoing my own. A whisper, calling me home.

Of Knees, Knuckles, Knots and Kalymnos

My knees have never looked worse. Even as a kid I never had so many bumps, bruises, abrasions and scabs as during this past year of climbing. Regular run-ins (bang-ons) with rock and ice will do that. Sometimes, knee damage occurs due to poor technique (leading with a knee and crawling over a ledge is not considered to be beautiful, stylish climbing…) and sometimes due to the rock being a tad closer than expected (bang!). Not that knees are always in the way. There are a couple of techniques that depend on clever knee placement. Knee drops are one of those – kneebars are another.

This video shows how the climber pivots her foot on the hold, drops her knee, gets her hip close to the wall and is then able to reach up and through to a hold above using a dropped knee.

Kneebars require the climber to wedge the top of the knee against or behind a bit of rock while the foot on the same leg is jammed against another bit of rock. Tension in the leg then creates a pretty stiff anchor strong enough to support much of one’s body weight. You can then either take a quick rest and shake out one (or both) arms or gain a bit of extra distance with an arm when you need to reach for a hold.

This video shows a bunch of different knee bars on various routes.

My knuckles have also taken a bit of a beating – not just from superficial scrapes (they often make me look like I’ve been fighting in back alleys), but also because they regularly get stuck in tight places.

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My knuckles are still stiff, sore, and swollen after this crack climbing practice session at the University of Calgary climbing wall… Jamming your knuckles into a finger crack can make you feel pretty secure in the moment, and rather miserable for days after. 

As for knots, it seems like they are the bane of my existence at the moment. Being dyslexic, it sometimes takes me an inordinate amount of time to master any technique that relies on things moving through space in a particular direction. Over, under, around and through, recently I’ve been attempting to add more knots to my ropey repertoire.

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Here we are back at home a couple of weeks ago at our simulated anchor at the playground,  practicing crevasse rescues. Prussiks, Munters, Gardas, clove hitches, figure eights, overhands, and who knows what else were all knots we used during the exercise… Wherever possible, each was tied while wearing gloves – being able to tie a knot without taking your gloves off could mean the difference between frostbite and no frostbite, remaining functional and, well, perishing. 

As for Kalymnos, I really, really, really wish I had photos I had taken at this climbing mecca in Greece. As it is, I’ve never been there. Kalymnos is right at the top of my climbing bucket list: hopefully we’ll get there during next year’s planned sailing trip in the Med. For now, here’s a link to the guidebook:

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Kalymnos or Bust! (Meanwhile, my birthday is coming up soon and I don’t yet have a copy of the guidebook… hint hint.

Hey, with any luck we will be on a sailboat next April, just in time for the 2017 A to Z Blogging Challenge! If my knuckles haven’t completely seized up before then, maybe we’ll do a water-logged blog and on this date next year I WILL be posting my own Kalymnos photos…

J is for Jungle, and Jolly Good Jumping (on rocks)

I is for Ice and Infamy

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Ice and rock – strange and beautiful sculptural bedfellows – This photo taken in an icy cave near the top of This House of Sky in the Ghost Wilderness Area

Today’s post for the A to Z Blogging Challenge will be mostly photos – of ice. Which is definitely a bit strange given I am sitting beside a swimming pool in Hawaii as I write this… But ice has been a bit of a theme back at home this year. I knew there were people who climbed frozen waterfalls, but to be honest, I didn’t really think I’d ever be one of them. And then, I met Fabio, who is obsessed with ice climbing.

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Fabio (right) leading the last pitch of Cascade Falls (Banff National Park) – the wind creates the most amazing twirling fingers of ice

I can’t say that I’ve become obsessed with ice climbing in the same way climbing rock has seized me, but I have lost track of how many times I’ve had my breath taken away while in the presence of some icy feature.

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Johnson Canyon in the Rockies – a popular place for ice climbers and tourists alike

At various points during this winter’s explorations I’ve found myself hanging out in ice caves – either to get out of the wind, wait my turn to climb, belay safely without getting bonked on the head by falling ice or, once, when I decided I wasn’t up to the final, steep pitch and was happier waiting for the others to climb while I snapped a few photos.

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This House of Sky

By turn brutal and delicate, intimidating and fragile, ice is nothing if not unpredictable. From one day to the next it can change and, depending on its mood, can make for a fabulous climbing partner or an obnoxious opponent determined to thwart one’s best efforts to ascend. Softer, wetter conditions make it much easier to sink your ice tools deep, but too warm and things can literally start falling apart beneath you.

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Fabio – Johnson Canyon

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Whack at a piece of hard, glassy, blue, extremely cold ice and your tool is just as likely to bounce back at you, barely leaving a scratch on the surface. Hit the rock hard surface at a slight angle and you might dislodge a knife-edged slab of ice capable of decapitating you or your belayer.

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Tuck in behind a curtain of ice like this one at Bear Spirit near Banff, Alberta and it can feel like you’ve been transported to a parallel universe… One where ice fairies might emerge from their glassy bedrooms to dust the wintery world outside with a sparkling of frost… 

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I’ve got my brave game face on here, but I was actually terrified. I was about to step out and around a very steep column of ice at Louise Falls  early in the ice climbing season and very early in my ice climbing career. Though I had serious doubts about my ability to get to the top of this one, once my palpitations subsided, in the end all went well. 

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Haffner Creek in BC is a place lots of climbers go to practice their ice climbing skills. Here I’ve been sent on a mission meant to improve my footwork. Note that my ice tools are parked down at the bottom and I’m climbing without them. Instead of relying on hooking the tools into the ice and hauling myself up, I can only use my gloved (and increasingly cold) hands for a bit of balance. All the upward movement came from my feet, which is as it should be.

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As I write this today I could not be farther away from that magical, icy world of the mountains in winter. Here in Hawaii we visited Pearl Harbour this morning and spent some time in quiet thought at the memorial of the sunken battleship, Arizona. In the museum I was intrigued to see the handwritten edits to one of the world’s most famous speeches delivered by F. D. Roosevelt the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

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The word “infamy” was not in the original Pearl Harbor speech. 

I’m busily editing three different manuscripts in progress at the moment and they all look a bit like that typed page, full of additions and deletions and new directions and re-thinkings. Not that any will be as significant as The Infamy Speech, but it is reassuring to see that even the most eloquent of writing likely started out looking quite different to its final, polished form.

H is for Hawaii, Sarah Hueniken, Hips and Hula

I’ve got it! The connection between climbing and hula is (obviously) hip action!

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Watching the hula in Honolulu this evening made a lot of people (yes, including me) pretty happy.

It only makes sense that one generally wants to keep those hips in close to the wall – there’s no point in shifting your centre of gravity way away from the rock face – that kind of thing will pull you off faster than you can say ‘take!!'[For non-climbers, that’s what you yell at your belayer when you need the slack to be taken out of the rope, generally yelled during a moment of panic and/or exhaustion, often just as you are beginning to fall.]

At the same time, it’s impossible to see where you are putting your feet if you keep your hips glued to the wall and never look down. Which is where the hip action comes in. This is particularly pronounced when ice climbing when you need to stick your backside waaaaaaaay out before you move your feet.

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Hips in – that’s Joe climbing This House of Sky in the Ghost River Wilderness Area earlier this season…

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Hips out – Fabio on This House of Sky

Pushing your backside out accomplishes two things – your arms stay straight (less tiring than keeping them flexed by pulling into the wall) and allows you to yank the points of your crampons out of the ice, move your feet up, and kick them back into new positions higher up. Once your feet are comfortably set, you push your hips in toward the ice before you pluck your ice tool free and swing it home again above you.

If you want to watch a short (and very cool) video about ice climbing by my friend Craig Hall (handy his last name starts with the letter H) about  Sarah Hueniken, here’s the link.

That’s all I’ve got – I’ll let the sun set on this blog entry…

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Sunset – Waikiki – nothing in this photo has anything to do with the letter H. Sorry.

 

G is for Gaston

“Do a gaston!”

“Say, what?”

It’s always fun to get advice partway up a climb that makes no sense. A gaston? What the heck? Who, or what is a gaston?

Turns out it’s a climbing hold named after Gaston Rebuffat, French mountain guide and climber (and author of various books including On Ice and Snow and Rock in which he is seen doing a double gaston) who liked to use a reverse grip that requires turning the hands backwards and pressing outwards to create resistance. The image used to describe what a double-gaston looks like is to think of how you’d put your hands if you were trying to pry open an elevator door.

Maria Ly posted this image of a double gaston in action:

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Photo by Maria Ly (Flickr, made available under a Creative Commons license)

Much like in this photo, there was a narrow crack right in front of me that would have been very useful, had I known what a gaston was before I found myself looking for somewhere useful to stick my fingers. Enough said. Now I know. The gaston has been added to my toolbox of climbing tricks.

(I was also going to write about ice climbing in the Ghost River Wilderness Area and the super fun multi-pitch called Geronimo at Red Rocks, but alas, hula dancing is calling my name, so those subjects will have to wait for another day… Not sure if/how I’ll be able to link hula dancing to climbing, so even though tomorrow will feature the letter H, you may never get to find out how my evening is about to go here in Hawaii…)