He who binds himself to a Joy,
Doth the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the Joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.
– William Blake
What makes someone a “strong” climber? Is someone who on-sights 5.14a (8b+) regularly a stronger climber than someone who can only on-sight 6b+? (5.11a). Certainly in other sports, this is generally how it works; Usain Bolt is the fastest person to ever run the 100 or 200m dash. This year, Germany was the world’s best soccer team. Climbing, however, is a bit more nuanced than running the 100m dash or playing in the World Cup. Hazel Findlay said in Reel Rock 8 that to her a stronger climber is someone who can can climb whatever rock face he/she wants to, in whatever way the features demand. To meet this criteria a strong climber must then be well versed in all of the techniques and logistics involved in the various forms of rock-climbing one can engage in. I can’t help but agree with her; if I can only clip bolts I cannot really consider myself to be much more than a mediocre sport climber, no matter if I’m climbing 5.9 or 5.13. Rock-climbing is a multi-faceted, complex sport and I want to unearth and delve into as many of its layers of it as possible (except ice-climbing, screw that). Whereas Usain Bolt is always running on astro turf, climbers feel, touch and engage with various types of rock in various places, from overhanging limestone tufas in Spain to the slabbiest of all granite in places like Yosemite. I do not want to limit myself to just a handful of styles because I will then be directly limiting the diversity of experiences at my disposal. This spring, I decided that I wanted to become stronger, but this time I was going to make a new type of training program. For my summer training, I left my stop-watch at home, stopped doing pull ups and dead-hangs and totally indulged in chocolate. This summer’s training would be centered on one thing and one thing only – getting outside to do as much traditional climbing as possible (see the next paragraph for a quick run-down on the difference between trad and sport climbing) All this training asks of me is a good attitude, a good head and a desire to get completely thrown out of my comfort zone. Oh, and, as I would soon find out on my quest to build a trad-climbing rack- a little bit of cash ;).
Trad-climbing is, in many but not all ways, the antithesis of sport climbing. Instead of relying on pre-placed generally pretty bomber steel bolts, a trad climber carries with him/her traditional (“trad” climbing comes from the word “Traditional”) protection in the form of cams, nuts, hexes, etc. For those unfamiliar with climbing, these are all different types of gear a trad-climber uses to take advantage of natural features in a rock, usually a crack system. So, for example, one can place the right sized cam inside of a crack and attach that cam to one’s rope. If the cam is placed correctly and is loaded in the proper direction, it will arrest a lead-fall just as well as a quickdraw on a bolt due to the friction between the cam and the rock (as far as my little brain allows me to understand it). But, as you can imagine, there are many more uncertainties when placing your own gear. Experience often becomes a very important factor, and the whole process is much more time and energy consuming so trad-climbers rarely ever climb at their true physical maximum (when only considering the movement of climbing). It is also downright scary- as you get higher and higher above your last piece, you begin to wonder “was that one any good?” While sport-climbing is quick and efficient, trad-climbing- especially to a noob like me- seems like a much more laborious process with much greater consequences. Of course, experienced trad-climbers make the whole thing seem quick and easy, but to a new trad-climber like me, it has always been a daunting path that I, up to this point, had not chosen to gone down.
So, over the spring I made the decision to spend my summer dedicating myself to becoming a better trad-climber, to abandon the quickdraws for cams and to jam (use your hands or fingers as natural cams and put them into cracks and twist, using friction to help keep you on the wall instead of gripping holds) instead of crimp. First and foremost I should say that I am not a good trad climber, at all. The logistics overwhelm me and jamming has always been counter-intuitive to my natural style of face-climbing. But, I am motiviated and stubborn. I did as much trad-climbing as I could during the spring, going to Yosemite four times, while sprinkling some sport climbing in every now and again. But, my focus then was on school and I knew that during the summer I would have an even greater opportunity to get out and do some trad-climbing. So, as I finished up my spring quarter and started my last quarter as an undergraduate (summer session 1), and as even balmier temperatures hit the Central Valley (100 F, 40 C, regularly), I found myself going higher and higher in elevation whenever I could, seeking respite from the heat, seeking fear and trying to learn the right way to shove my hands into crack systems.
So, it was only natural that for my July fourth holidays I decided to reflect on the founding of my country not by taking part in the tradition of putting food over a barbeque, putting beer in your belly and watching fireworks (honestly, not a bad way to spend a day) but instead to take full advantage of my favorite federally provided program- the National Parks System. So, on July 3rd I headed to Yosemite National Park to visit and climb with my good friend Colleen (who has a guest post on this blog from a year ago) as well as to do a little bit of day-hiking.
I got in on Thursday afternoon and while waiting for Colleen to finish up with her adventure of the day I went on a short hike out to Lukens Lake out of White Wolf. The past week had been particulary stressful and so I embraced the idea of opening my eyes to the good things in life and drowning out thoughts of failure and of “what ifs” with the silence and sound of nature. While on my hike, however, I ran into a family of four from Australia and my social side couldn’t help but come out. After asking them how long they had been in the states for I was surprised to discover that they had already been traveling here for five months and had been in every single state in the contiguous US. That sure made me feel kind of like a lousy American (I have only been to 8 states) but at the same time I enjoyed listening to their commentary about their travels in the states.
Lukens lake is your typical, gorgeous upper montane lake. It reminded me of Lake Mont Pine and Lake Alpine near Arnold, CA, places my parents would take my brother and I often during the summer to swim and to explore. This nostalgia became all the stronger when I saw the Australian children, a younger boy and his younger sister, jump into the lake. I couldn’t help but think of my older brother and I having contests about who could swim the fastest, catch the biggest fish or make up the coolest jumps.
I continued my hike, this time actually alone, until the trail spit me out onto Tioga Pass, where I encountered what I found to be a very informative and interesting sign that depicts the diversity of habitats found in such a small area in a particularly relevant and accessible way. On my way back I ran into “Blondie,” the Black Bear that and been seen near White Wolf and who and been affectionately named after its light coat. Seeing a bear always makes any day better, but this encounter was particularly memorable as I was only around 40 meters from the bear, the lighting was superb (the sun had just disappeared behind the trees) and I was the only one on the trail. It was hard to imagine that just that morning I was stressing out over work and personal conflicts.
I met up with Colleen later that night and the next day we went to Daff Dome to climb “West Crack” a four pitch 5.9. The 5.9 move comes right off of the deck and is a face move protected by a bolt, so I felt pretty confident that I could lead the first pitch. The rest of the the pitch and the route is trad. I felt fairly comfortable during the entire first pitch until the last move, which was also 5.9 but this time was not protected by a bolt. I got through it just fine, however, and swapped leads with Colleen, who lead the burly but super fun and juggy 5.8 roof move. We swapped leads again on the third pitch, which featured a perfectly clean 5.7 finger crack. Despite the fact that this was the easiest pitch yet that we had climbed, I was sweating bullets. This pitch required jamming technique-, there were no microcrimps I could find to face-climb my way out of having to actually climb crack well. This was great practice for me and I felt very proud of myself for having finished the pitch with what I considered to have been good form and technique. Colleen finished the route with a quick fourth pitch and at the top we were greeted with beautiful views of Fairview Dome, which houses the famous 5.9 “Regular Route“- a route I would love to do soon.
After climbing West Crack we went on a search for Colleen’s twin sister and after completely giving up we went to Tenaya Lake to relax a bit and play some Ultimate Frisbee. Eventually Colleen’s sister, Corrina, showed up and we all played frisbee. My attempts to sprint as fast as I could in the sand at 8,000 ft after just having been at sea level were pretty pathetic and I spent more time heaving than throwing, but the relaxed vibes and good spirits of everyone made playing a lot of fun.
Considering it was the July fourth holidays, the park was packed. The next day Colleen and Corrina were planning on climbing Cathedral, one of the most popular peaks in all of Tuolumne. The grade is only 5.6 but the history of the route is rich, the climbing is incredibly varied, fun and solid and the position is stunning yet accessible (see the blog I wrote about it last year when Colleen took me up it). As you can imagine the route is very popular and there are often 10-20 people on the wall at one time, on a normal day. On July fourth weekend, however, I was cringing at just imagining the crowd that would be on Cathedral. I do not like crowds as much as the next person for hte obvious reasons of having to wait, but I especially feel that crowds detract from the overall wilderness/outdoor experience which is my fundamental motivation for being there in the first place. Sometimes I lose sight of that defining detail as it is often veiled by my sometimes questionable motivation to cilmb whatever, whenever. This time, however, I decided to do something different. Since I was already in the solo hiking mood, I took the opportunity to go on a day hike I had always wanted to do- the summit of Clouds Rest. Clouds Rest is a beautiful ridge that sits at 9,930 ft (3,027 m). It is a popular hike because it offers incredible views of particularly well-known formations (you can see the top of Half Dome) due to its proximity to Yosemite Valley. The hike was around 14-15 miles in total and was not very difficult. I was happy I invested the energy to take my binoculars with me as I was able to watch hikers climb up the cables in Half Dome. On the summit there were around 10-20 people, but I only passed a few parties on my way up.
Now, stay tuned because my real trad adventures didn’t come until the middle of July, when my climbing partner, just as psyched on improving his trad-climbing, came to visit me for a month and a half.