Tag Archives: rock climbing

The New Book is Officially Out!

It never gets old, the arrival of a new book! Deadpoint was officially released into the wilds today (and, by wilds, I mean your local bookstore, library, or online bookseller…)! I love the quote on the bookmarks, “Fear is not an option.” I even like the punctuation – that period at the end of the statement […]

via Deadpoint is Alive! — Nikki Tate – Author

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Ordinary Day at the Office

There are days when I just love my job. Writing the novel Deadpoint (which is a hi-interest, low-vocabulary novel for reluctant teen readers) has been fun from Day One. Day One was spent sitting at the bottom of a crag near Mount Yamnuska observing a class of climbers new to climbing outside. Fabio was one of the teachers and I took pages and pages of notes of what was going on. I was pretty new to the whole outdoor climbing world myself and it was a great chance to pay close attention to the kinds of challenges faced by people making the transition from gym climbing to real rock.

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When making observations on the spot you really never know what might wind up being useful. I love, love, love just scribbling away, recording every impression I possibly can – trying to use all my senses with a minimal amount of reflection. Eventually, a surprising number of these weird details, snippets of dialogue, etc. wind up making their way into the story. 

As I was sitting in the sun, scribbling away in my notebook, the three main characters started to emerge from wherever characters come from. Ayla is a keen gym climber who competes in climbing competitions, but struggles with a fear of falling (ok, that weird quirk – the fear of falling – was directly drawn from my own psyche). Lissy, her best friend, is a hard core outdoors enthusiast who was ‘conceived in a tent, born in a gully, and raised in a backpack.’ Lissy and her family can’t imagine a better place to hang out than somewhere deep in the wilderness. And then, there’s the boy – Carlos, a city kid who likes to free solo buildings for fun. Carlos is new in town and catches Lissy’s eye, which sets up the friendship tension in the story.

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Carlos was born at the base of a cliff on that very first day of note-taking. 

Long story short (you need to read the book if you want to see how it all turns out), the three teenagers find themselves in trouble on a multi-pitch climb in the mountains when the adult leader of the group is injured and incapacitated. I was pretty happy with the way things were going (more or less smoothly!) through the writing and editing process. It’s great when that happens – some stories come together a bit easier than others – this one was generally straightforward and involved lots of fun conversations and discussions with my in-house consultant, Fabio, about technical details of the climbing, the accident, the rescue, etc… In fact, we wound up working out plot problems while we were on our long climbing road trip down in the USA earlier this year. I wrote away while Fabio drove…

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This surprised me a bit, just how much climbers think and talk about falling. 

And then, after a couple of rounds of edits with two different editors at Orca, I was sent a cover mock-up. I don’t think I can post the photo that was originally suggested because of copyright issues, but basically it showed a teenager top-roping what is clearly a sport climb – she has been cleaning the route and has draws clipped to her harness. It’s almost a perfect image – the sense of being way up high is pretty good, the climbing isn’t terribly difficult, the model is age appropriate… But, if one is seconding on a trad route, a multi pitch, what she would have dangling from her gear loops would be cams and nuts and maybe a sling around her torso and, yes, some draws…

An interesting debate with the editor, publisher, and book designer followed about how important it was (or wasn’t) to get the technical details right in the cover image. The thought at the publishing house (where nobody climbs) was that the image they found made it look plenty scary and showed a climber way up high. When Fabio and I looked at the image we knew that a) it wasn’t accurate and b) really didn’t reflect what was going on in the story – which has a lot to do with the strange and very specific details of trad climbing. True, someone who knows nothing about climbing would not spot the differences, but anyone who read the book and was interested in climbing, or wanted to learn more, or who might actually have done some climbing would definitely be confused.

So, I suggested we could probably stage something that was equally interesting visually (appropriately aged female, seconding on a trad route, cams dangling from her gear loops, good exposure drop-off-wise, and – bonus – a lake in the distance, which is mentioned in the story as the place where the group sets up camp).

Both the editor and designer were skeptical that I could tick all the boxes and come up with something appropriate that was going to work better than the stock image. I suggested politely they let me try and sent a couple of generic shots I happened to have on hand from some climbs at Barrier Mountain.

All of this is quite unusual – in most cases, I am presented with a cover for a new book and we all know it’s basically a fait accompli. Writers don’t get to design covers, which is how it should be. I am not a designer. I tell stories. I am usually more than happy to let the experts deal with their areas of specialty.

So I was a bit surprised and rather delighted when I got the word back from the publisher that we could go ahead and see if we could come up with something.

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Our hard-working belayers up top, managing ropes and keeping us safe. Thanks, guys! (Fabio on the left, Greg on the right – we couldn’t have done it without you!)

Of course, this immediately threw me into a bit of a logistical tizzy. I needed someone who could climb, who could pass for 16/17, and who would be willing to be climb up and down and pose in different positions so we could get the right shot. We needed to have me in position parallel with her, and we needed her to be belayed from above. We needed a pair of patient and competent belayers who could lead the routes we had in mind. And, we needed some reasonable weather – the rain and clouds and thunderstorms of the first part of summer this year have not exactly made for perfect climbing weather. We needed some appropriate gear to dangle from the climber’s harness… And we needed that perfect location that would make sense within the story.

Which is how Anne and I wound up climbing side by side routes on the upper bit of Barrier Wall. Barrier Lake is off in the background and by shooting from The Flake (11a) towards In Us, Under Us (11b) we could get a sense of the exposure we were looking for. The climber needed to fill out the frame, so I didn’t want to be too far away.

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Anne on In Us, Under Us. Not a bad spot, hey? And, note that technically accurate assortment of gear hanging from her harness. There’s even a sling around her body and, if you look very closely, a nut tool. 

Fabio led In Us, Under Us and Greg McKee led The Flake and then the two very patient belayers set up belays above us. They stopped and started belaying as Anne and I climbed up side by side. We took dozens of photos along the way, with me clipping to bolts so I could push my feet against the wall and get both Anne and the backdrop framed reasonably well… Poor Anne had to climb and re-climb sections so I could climb a bit above her and then beside her to try to get something useable. And some of what she had to re-climb was not easy!

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Anne approaching the start of the climb, which begins on the ledge you see just above her. Getting started required climbing up the lower routes so we would appear to be high enough that a multi-pitch scenario would be plausible. 

We tried having her look up, look down, look away and pretend to be stressed, concentrating, scared, and neutral. We had her traverse off the route to try to get her to stand out better against the sky. We took some action shots, some pensive shots, and some just for fun of Anne looking happy. We lucked out with the weather (it was a glorious evening when we shot the series) and, in the end, one of the shots turned out well enough that – yes – it will be on the cover of the book!

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Anne was great about going up and moving back down and letting me get repositioned to try this angle and that…

 

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This shot was taken by Greg from above as we were working (note me being very bossy and pointing out where Anne should put her hand…). What’s weird about it is that it was taken right at the top of the climb but it doesn’t look like we are that far up. We were actually about 10 storeys up and right at the limit of what our ropes would allow us do in a single push from the ground… But right below us is a bit of a bulge in the rock so you can’t actually see the vast expanse of rock we’ve climbed up to get to where we are. The next photo below gives a better idea of the scale of the particular cliff we were working on. (Photo Credit: Greg McKee)

A couple of times as I was dangling and angling for a good shot I found myself marvelling at how absolutely cool it was to be climbing with such great people in such a stunning spot on a glorious day all in the name of work! Really, a day at the office simply does not get much better than this!

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At the very end of the day our reward was to climb the classic Beautiful Rainbow (11a). Look closely… I’m in there somewhere up toward the top. Remind me not to wear brown pants if I hope to be spotted on the rock! (Photo credit: Anne Rozek)

And, in the end, this is what the cover will look like!

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Something to ponder… keen observers who know the area will note that one, but not both, roads were removed from the image (ah, the joys of Photoshop!)… Stay tuned for a longer discussion in a future blog post about why, or why not, a designer might choose to modify an image… 

Kudos to Rachel at Orca Book Publishers for coming up with this cool-looking cover… Fingers crossed that the cover will catch the eye of some teen readers in search of a bit of vicarious adventure! Deadpoint is scheduled for release in January, 2017. If you happen to be a book blogger or a climbing blogger and you’d like to receive a review copy, get in touch and we may be able to send a one your way! Then you, too, can pick apart the cover and see whether or not we got it right!

 

 

 

N is for Never too Late

I know I started the alphabet challenge waaaaaaay back in, what, April? May? And then I was spirited off to Hawaii and got swamped with work and blah blah blah – the next thing I know it’s the middle of summer and I still haven’t passed the letter ‘N’!

Return to Newcastle Island

I wrote about our first trip to Newcastle Island here. I had so much fun on that trip that I returned to Newcastle the following week to re-join Rosario and Denis aboard their Whitby 42, Counting Stars. 

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This is not Counting Stars. But it is a good example of how not to leave Nanaimo… These guys were all fine – they waited for the tide to return and then floated off… A tad embarrassing, though. This spot traps sailors in full view of Nanaimo Harbour, the cruise ship dock, and Newcastle Island. 

We sailed from Newcastle Island down to Clam Bay (between Kuper and Thetis Islands), where we anchored for the evening.

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A light breeze meant we were able to practice flying the spinnaker. 

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There’s nothing quite like the special calm that descends on a peaceful anchorage in the evening. This is Clam Bay in the Gulf Islands of BC. 

The Sylvester family lives nearby and Craig (Greg?) paddled out to the boat with a selection of carvings, including a hummingbird by his sister, Tamila (I’m not sure if I’ve spelled the names right and some googling is not turning up any further information… If you happen to know the Sylvesters and the location of a website, please let me know…).

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The next morning we continued down to Poets Cove on Pender Island to take part in the Bluewater Cruising Association Rendezvous. Just off Galliano Island we spotted three killer whales moseying along, too far away for photos with my phone, unfortunately.

The rendezvous itself was great fun, with quite a collection of boats showing up from all over the south coast (actually, from as far away as Mexico!) to gather for food, drink, and sea shanty singing.

Here’s our team practicing our sea shanty…

I had a flight booked back to the mountains, so had to leave part way through the weekend, which was a shame because I was having a LOT of fun singing, feasting, and meeting lots of sailors. Alas, much work awaited me…

New Books

Deadlines are deadlines and Dani and I were busy putting the finishing touches on two new books in the Orca Origins Series. Happy Birthday: Beyond Cake and Ice Cream should be out in the fall of this year. Christmas: From Solstice to Santa will be out in the Spring of 2018. Deadpoint, the climbing novel which will be part of the Orca Sports series should be out early in January of 2017. Perhaps the best part of writing these new books has been the research. From digging through family photos to interviewing various people to climbing mountains, reading some very cool books, and stumbling across some nifty corners of the internet, at every turn we learned lots and had fun while doing so.

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Forgive the terrible quality of this photo of a photo – this is my mother and her brothers and sister (and a cousin?) in Germany. Note those are real candles on the Christmas tree! No fire hazard there, I’m sure. 

Hard on the heels of those books are three more, currently in the research and writing stage. One is a biography for kids about Elizabeth May (more on that soon), a handbook for young activists (which will also feature profiles about some pretty amazing kids who are making real changes in the world), and a picture book about climbing. Oh, and then there’s another in the Orca Footprints series which, at its heart, is about love, community, and cooperation. It’s been interesting starting to research this one – my reading has taken me to distant places like the Congo where researchers are studying bonobos in order to learn more about what it means to be human. More, too, on this in a future post.

Also in the works (I may be done with text edits?) is a picture book that’s been picked up by Holiday House in New York. Subject matter? Bricklaying and baseball. And feminism. At the moment the search for an illustrator is on – I’m very curious to see who is selected and how he or she will tackle the artwork. Stay tuned…

I think that’s it for the children’s book projects. Whenever I can, I’m also working away on an adult memoir/popular science/medicine manuscript tentatively titled, The Dissolution of HW, which is about the nature of personality and my mother’s struggle with Pick’s Disease.

In the ‘waiting to see how it all turned out’ department, there’s Scylla and Charybdis, which may be out before the end of the year with Pearson. A retelling of part of The Odyssey, it was both challenging and fascinating to find a way to stay true to Homer’s story but still be accessible to a contemporary audience. Very much looking forward to seeing this when it comes out.

Never too Late

And, finally, in the ‘it’s never too late’ department, it’s never too late to set some crazy goals. I will mention ‘Navigate around the world’ again here just so you know I haven’t forgotten about this project.

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Approaching the crux on a pumpy 5.11a at Sunshine Slabs. Missed the clip right at the crux near the top and came flying off, but I will be back! (And by flying off, I mean, I fell as far as the previous clipped bolt… and, because this is a pretty steep, overhanging kind of climb, I didn’t really hit anything – just dangled for a bit until I gathered my thoughts and tried again. Never did make it all the way up on this particular afternoon, though I climbed it on toprope a few days later, which means I can get up there. So, leading this one is definitely within reach… And if I can lead a 5.11a, could 5.12 be far behind?)

And, I’m going to state publicly that before I die I am going to Nail a 5.12 climbing route. 5.12 is a grade of climb that’s decently challenging and which, though I sort of had this as a streeeeeeeeetch goal, I really doubted I could accomplish it until very recently. Two things changed my mind. First, I’ve been going to a physiotherapist and a personal trainer who are working together to develop a program for me to deal with my ongoing shoulder (torn labrum) and elbow (after effects of the dislocation/ligament shredding) issues. The results have been amazing and I’ve been seconding routes of various types in the 11s without suffering any terrible after effects. I’ve also made huge strides recently in the leading department and just last week successfully led my first 10d. Suddenly, it looks like I might get to 5.12 before old age and infirmity get to me. So there you go, I’ve gone and made a public declaration of my intentions! That’s the first step, right?

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.

F is for Flight, Food, Fortitude, and Fabio’s Fabulous Fancy Footwork

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Is it possible to sit on a plane with a laptop and not blog about it? Apparently not, if you’re me. I’m on a flight from Calgary to Honolulu, at this very moment being tossed about in a turbulent patch having just eaten airplane food  IMG_2155.jpg

and considering having a nap. The trip was a last minute thing where the stars aligned and Westjet had a spectacular seat sale (usually I learn about these 24 hours AFTER the deadline) and my brother needed a house sitter. You may conclude that, therefore, I offered to housesit, but my daughter, Dani, had already jumped in to volunteer! However, Dani is not just my daughter. She’s also my co-author on a couple of current projects and we’ve been trying to figure out how best to get away and spend some concentrated work time together. Voila! Opportunity knocked! We’ll write a bit each day BEFORE we surf, swim, kayak, hike, or hang out…

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There it is – the obligatory toes in the sand shot! After we touched bases about all the writing we are going to be doing, we headed for the beach to recover from too much thinking about serious things. 

As for the climbing connection, I’m hoping to hook up with some local climbers as the crags on Oahu have recently been reopened after a long closure following a rockfall accident. Stay tuned.

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Until I can find someone to climb with (or, find the crags and wander around looking like a lost puppy hoping someone will take pity on me… hey, it has worked for me before), I can always get in a little practice by climbing trees. Though, this looks like some weird variation on the pole dancing theme.

Because this is meant to be an A to Z blog challenge relating to climbing, I couldn’t really get past the letter F without a nod to Fabio and how he has changed the way I climb. Being one of his regular belayers (he has many friends, and many of those friends climb, so I am but one in an army of people who belay for him), I’ve nevertheless had lots of opportunities to watch him climb over the past year or so. And every time he floats up some ludicrous holds-free wall, I find myself mesmerized. There are days, when he is at the top of his game, that it’s like watching vertical ballet.

Every move is efficient, controlled, graceful, and deliberate. Unlike when I thrash around, groping for holds or pawing at the wall with my shoes but unable to find any purchase anywhere, he looks, spies a teeny weeny hold the size of a grain of salt, stretches out his leg and ever so precisely places his toe on said non-existent hold. A subtle weight shift follows and then he releases the one finger he’s been holding on with, smoothly reaches around behind him to dip his fingers in his chalk bag, and then circles his arm back to the wall where, without fail, his fingertips land on another ripple in the rock face. There may not be another hold handy for his other foot to move to, so sometimes he stretches that limb out around behind him where it crosses behind his first leg (the one balanced on the grain of salt) and, toe pointed, he uses the second limb like a counter balance, pressing it against the blank wall behind him (a maneuver known as a flag). Using body tension and willpower alone, he stands there ever so calmly on one toe, considering his options. And then he makes another move, equally elegant. He rarely falls. He never panics. I don’t think his heart or breathing rate ever changes except for when he is watching me flounder around when it’s my turn to climb. “Use your feet!” he’ll shout up. “On what?” I’ll mutter into the rock, because seriously, half the time there is nothing there that could reasonably be called a hold of any kind. But I can’t really say much in argument because he will have just led the route and, obviously, found all kinds of holds along the way.

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Watching him climb is, in turn, inspiring and frustrating. I have learned so much about footwork and balance and patience and seeing holds that don’t look like they would support a grasshopper, never mind a human. At the same time, there is nothing worse than getting completely stuck half way up a route and going suddenly rock blind, the term I use when it’s like a giant eraser descends from on high and wipes out any usable feature on the rock. From fifty feet away, with his bionic rock eyes, Fabio will say, “What about that hold to your right?” I’ll look to my right and see… nothing. Absolutely nothing. “To your right. Level with your elbow. The side pull!” And suddenly, it materializes as if he has conjured it up for me! An inch long lip running vertically beside me in exactly the right spot to reach out and hook my fingertips around, a perfect little hold to lean against so I can shift my weight onto my left foot so I can move my right foot up to… Oh, God – up to where? At this point as my right foot waves uselessly in the air, I can hear Fabio below tutting and groaning, wanting to pull his hair out with frustration because, of course, even from way down there he knows exactly where my right foot needs to go.

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Fancy Footwork Fabio – dancing his way up the steepest of walls without a care in the world… 

Sigh. At times like this when frustration fuels my fury I need to remind myself that Fabio is in his fourth decade of climbing, which gives him a small advantage over those of us who are relative newcomers. Which is where fortitude comes in. I’ll need lots of that if I’m going to keep having fun feeling my way forward to future footwork finesse!

E is for Elvis, Ed Viesturs, Everest, and Easy

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Me playing around on the cool, textured rock (once a coral reef, I think) at Graceland… that leg on the left might just be a jiggling… 

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)…

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Meathooks area – a place climbers go to hang(out)

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.

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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.

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Assholes of August is the crack on the right – there’s a dude on there, if you zoom in… 

Bring on Assholes of August! I’m going to lead that puppy, you mark my words!!