At first, it seems as if the world has gone all monochromatic on you… And then, the subtle splashes of colour appear…
At first, it seems as if the world has gone all monochromatic on you… And then, the subtle splashes of colour appear…
When the temperature shoots up to a balmy -16C it’s time to bundle up and head outside! It’s strange how the body remembers things from childhood…
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!
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.
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.
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.
Step 3: Fold the rope in the middle to bring two loops together.
Step 4: Insert a carabiner (preferably a nice big pear-shaped carabiner) through both loops.
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…
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.
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.
As for multi-pitches… well, another blog post, I guess! I am out of time… making that video was exhausting.
One of the things I’ve found most entertaining over the past year is the way in which climbing routes are named. Take Graceland at Grassi Lakes. Every route on the wall is somehow Elvis-related. Some of the route names include: You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hang Dog (5.10d), Memphis (5.10d), Elvis Lives (5.10b/c), Heartbreak Hotel (5.10d) and Sunglasses and Sideburns (5.10c). Not that I can see why one piece of rock is more evocative of one song than another, but in the minds of those who put the routes up, there must have been some kind of logic.
Elvis’ name is used in another context at the crags. Having a bad case of Elvis Leg (sometimes known as Sewing Machine Leg) is the rather unnerving leg quiver that develops partway up a climb, the result of fatigue or nerves (or both). Generally, it happens at the worst possible moment, when you are perched high above the ground, one toe wedged onto a thin lip of rock, all the muscles in your leg tense, trying to balance or shift your weight and reach just… over … there… to some teeny weeny bump of a pebble-sized outcrop so you can reach up and over and continue climbing. If the jiggling gets too bad, it can send your whole body into sympathetic convulsions, a state of being not conducive to reaching the top. Elvis Leg often precedes a fall – wise belayers get ready to take action when the shaking begins…
The climb called Naked Teenage Girls at Barrier Mountain is named sort of sensibly, I guess. That particular wall is very smooth – no lumps and bumps to grab onto. Assholes of August at Skaha Bluffs is a nice, long crack climb – maybe the first ascenders were behaving badly in the summertime? [Editorial aside: It’s high time more women started putting up routes – surely we could come up with better names?]
Meathooks at Grassi Lakes is logically named as the steep, overhanging rock means you wind up hanging there a lot. When we were there last week there were bodies suspended everywhere (mine included… because of the overhanging angle I was suspended so far away from the place I fell off I had to be lowered, the rope twirling me like a top so I could start again from the ground)…
Someone who probably doesn’t suffer from Elvis Leg too often is Ed Viesturs, a guy who is pretty famous in the climbing world. He’s the first American (maybe the only one?) to have climbed all 14 of the 8000 meter peaks, all without using supplemental oxygen. He’s a writer and motivational speaker and recently Fabio and I have been listening to the audio book version of his book, No Shortcuts to the Top.
It’s a fascinating read that talks about his quest to reach the top of all the world’s highest mountains, perfect for our drives back and forth to our own mini expeditions. Ed was part of the IMAX film team that was shooting on Everest during the terrible 1996 season that claimed eight lives. That disaster became the focus of the book Into Thin Air by John Krakauer (another great read). Ed has climbed Everest seven times, which is why he made it onto E-Day.
And, finally, I wanted to say something about days when things go a little better than other days in the life of a geriatric climber. I’m in my fifties and sometimes it’s really discouraging to see all these youngsters in their 20s who are climbing hard and making it look easy, especially when I’m having a particularly off day. My list of creaky bits is getting long – I’ve talked about my recovering elbow more than often enough, but that’s just the first of a number of annoying failing body parts that vie for my attention. There’s something wrong with my left shoulder (made worse in the fall) and which needs to be properly dealt with at some point. My physio’s theory is a torn rotator cuff, but to be honest, I’ve been leery about getting a scan and then learning I am going to need surgical intervention. Some things are better left unsaid. So, I tape up my shoulder and strap on my brace and take some Tylenol and get on with the day. Nights are for icing and, so far at least, even though I look like my arm is being held together by tape and velcro, it’s functioning well enough.
Long approaches are really hard on my arthritic hip, the one that was injured many moons ago when I fell off a bridge with my horse (long story, and nothing in there starts with the letter E, except maybe EEEEEk!). I use a ski pole and try not to be too hard on myself when I’m slow on uneven terrain, especially when carrying a pack. I really feel my age on days when the big toe joint on the opposite foot starts to act up. That’s pretty much seized up from arthritis and can be incredibly painful on long hikes. I’ve found that cranking my boots (when ice climbing), approach shoes (for hiking) and climbing shoes as tight as humanly possible basically immobilizes the joint, which makes things mostly tolerable. Various joints in my fingers and thumbs are starting to ache – in part because I’m climbing some stuff that requires hard pinching, crimping, and pulling, but in part because old injuries are coming back to haunt me with the onset of arthritis in all those joints, too… (this is the moment when, if you happen to have one, you send me your best suggestions for dealing with arthritis!)
Listing the aches and pains has taken me a bit off course, but the point is, some days it’s easy to get discouraged, to question what on earth I think I’m doing heading for the crags day after day to climb alongside mere children!! And then, there’s a day like yesterday at Barrier where I tackled several things that I have, in past visits, found difficult (or impossible) but which were, yesterday at least, EASY!! First, I LED a route – not a hard route – but still, a lead (the 5.7 everyone uses as a warmup). Nevertheless, I wasn’t stressed (too much) and made it all the way up pretty smoothly. So, progress. After that, I climbed several of the slightly harder routes, all without any trouble at all. Feeling thoroughly warmed up, I decided to challenge myself and climb my hardest-to-date outdoors route (a 5.11b called In Us, Under Us which even Fabio admitted was ‘stiff’) and would likely have climbed it clean except I missed a very obvious hold (just didn’t see it – it was right in front of my face – here, I blame my trifocals because, hey, I was probably the only person climbing yesterday who was wearing trifocals…) andI popped off when I made an ambitious move (and almost made it!) to the next hold without using the previous (unseen) hold. Keep in mind this was on a steep, pretty blank, balanc-y face where I was trying to transition around to a corner, also without a whole lot of holds to work with… I actually had managed to grab the upper hold but just as I was about to grip and get settled, my foot (which I had managed to get nice and high with a heel hook!) slipped and I didn’t have quite enough grip on the upper hold and fell. I was a bit rattled at that point and it took a couple of tries to repeat the move (and a couple more falls) before Fabio called up, “Why don’t you use that hold right in front of your face?” At which point I saw the hold in front of my face, which was exactly where it needed to be, and I easily (EASILY!) made the next move and finished the rest of the climb without much trouble.
I tell you, that felt GREAT! I’ve been feeling a bit stuck recently, like I wasn’t making a whole lot of forward progress, but getting up to the top of that one was very encouraging. So much so I decided to have another go at the 5.10c crack climb (End Dance) that had given me such trouble on a previous visit. Flailing, I think was the word Fabio used to describe my efforts on my first attempt. Yesterday, float might have been a better word. It was so strange! It certainly helped that I had climbed it before (and done it so badly – I knew exactly what I didn’t want to do). It also helped that friend and roomie Paul was there to give me some advice as I climbed (good beta, Paul!). And, it helped that I had just climbed something I didn’t actually believe I could climb. The last time I tackled End Dance, I thought I could power up the crack by hauling myself up. This time, I used my feet, used my head, stayed relaxed and, yes, E is for Effortless!
This may all sound a bit bragalicious, but I feel quite confident that failure at the crag is just around the corner. Climbing is like that. The next time I attempt that crack climb it’s just as likely I’ll be back in flailing mode. And that’s ok. In the balance, the good moments outweigh the bad and that’s what keeps me coming back.
Bring on Assholes of August! I’m going to lead that puppy, you mark my words!!
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.