Fall Back

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For the past month or so, I’ve been treated to scenes of early dawn light spilling across the San Francisco bay and showering the city skyline in orange hues. I’ve also managed to  catch it set over the Pacific ocean as I pedal my way up the last hill home. This isn’t because my schedule has been changing, but rather because there is just a little bit less sunlight to soak in each day. In one week, we will “fall back” into daylight savings time. The sun will start to set at horrendously early times (though at least morning runs won’t have to be done with a flashlight in tow) and everything may just start to feel…slower.

Well, probably not for me. I only anticipate becoming more busy over the next few months. But wait- allow me to take a step back and talk about what HAS been keeping me busy over the last two months since my last blog post in August. Mostly, my life has been taken over by my graduate school hunt! After around 9 months at this job, I see grad school (with some traveling in between) as my next step. My motivation is boundless, but the whole process is daunting. After months of searching, emailing, and chatting with potential advisors and professors, I’ve narrowed down my top choices to four schools. Now the real fun begins- studying for the GRE, searching for funding and actually applying to the programs themselves. Inevitably, trying to do all of this while also working 40 hours a week made me have to cut some of my climbing time. I’m okay with this, though, because when I am working on a task that I know will only improve my life and make me a whole lot happier overall, sacrificing some things is not so hard. I have been “falling forward” (more like stumbling gracefully forward) into a whole range of tasks that have kept my life busy, as the days have been shortening and the nights have been getting longer before my eyes.

BUT- I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t squeeze in as much climbing as possible in what little time I had. I definitely got out.

My last alpine scramble of the summer was the North Arete of Bear Creek Spire, a stunning feature nestled in the Inyo National Forest backcountry.

Taking a break at Dade Lake along the approach to the North Arete of Bear Creek Spire. At nearly 10,000 ft, the trailhead for this bad boy is the highest in elevation in all of the Sierra! By the time we were here, we were around 12,000 ft. The north arete is the obvious corner of Bear Creek Spire in the background.

Taking a break at Dade Lake along the approach to the North Arete of Bear Creek Spire. At nearly 10,000 ft, the trailhead for this bad boy is the highest in elevation in all of the Sierra! By the time we were here, we were around 12,000 ft. The north arete is the obvious corner of Bear Creek Spire in the background.

Unfortunately, all of the premonitions about this being one of California’s worst fire years to date came to light this summer. Four years of devastating drought has left our soils parched and replete with easily ignited dry fuel. When we climbed Bear Creek Spire, two massive fires were raging in the Sierra, (in addition to at least 20 or so more in the state, and plenty more on the entire west coast) creating hazy conditions that were only exacerbated as the winds changed during the day. Most people backpack into Dade lake and do the climb in 2 or 3 days, but we decided to do it car to car, because we are slightly masochistic (but really because we are both busy and didn’t want to haul in a bunch of stuff !) We were on the trail by 5 and fourteen hours later, at 7 PM, we were back at the parking lot, with sore legs and big apetites!

My partner right below the summit block. Notice the haze in the sky from the Rough Fire down south in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

My partner right below the summit block. Notice the haze in the sky from the Rough Fire down south in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

Besides the smoke, the experience was overall rewarding. The climbing consisted of 8 pitches, the last 3 of which are very easy and we unroped for. In fact, we only actually pitched out 2 of the pitches (the starting 5.7 and the crux 5.8 chimney), the rest we either solo-ed or simul climbed. Although we were pretty slow , if we had roped up for every pitch we definitely would not have been able to feasibly do it in a day, unless we wanted to do some headlamp climbing!

Here I am starting up the first pitch! (Photo by Julie Vargo)

Here I am starting up the first pitch! (Photo by Julie Vargo)

My partner following me up on the crux chimney pitch. It was a pretty mellow pitch and loads of fun.

My partner following me up on the crux chimney pitch. It was a pretty mellow pitch and loads of fun.

Descending down the steep scree back into the Dade Lake basin. Again, notice the smokey conditions- at one point I felt like I was on another planet.

Descending down the steep scree back into the Dade Lake basin. Again, notice the smokey conditions- at one point I felt like I was on another planet.

Descending.

Descending.

Even on a smokey day, the scenery in the Eastern Sierra never ceases to impress and is one of the biggest perks of long days in the mountains.

Even on a smokey day, the scenery in the Eastern Sierra never ceases to impress and is one of the biggest perks of long days in the mountains.

On the summit!

On the summit!

The unseasonably warm conditions, while yet another scary omen of the “new normal” in California, did allow us to do this climb rather comfortably. Bear Creek Spire is east facing and at a decently high elevation. It also is quite exposed to winds. All of this combined makes it a climb you definitely don’t want to do on an already cool day. Temperature wise, we were really quite lucky. It got chilly, for sure, but we never were truly suffering.

Breathing into my shoes to warm them up before starting up the chimney!

With shorter days, *slightly* cooler weather (seriously, when is fall actually going to arrive?) and a busier schedule, I’ve fully transitioned into sport climbing. While San Francisco is pretty far from any really decent sport climbing, it is three hours from this magical hunk of granite

Star Wall in Donner Summit

Star Wall in Donner Summit

Donner Summit is home to a large range of both trad and sport climbs. Star Wall, a strikingly overhung chunk of granite that houses climbs that range from 12a-14a, is definitely the area with the highest concentration of difficult climbing in the area. It is a rare combination to have granite be that overhung, yet still maintain enough features on it to make climbs actually feasible. I have become particularly obsessed with one climb in particular- Warp Factor.

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Warp Factor is a 13a, which is sort of a numerical milestone for a sport climber in the states. (in the French system it translates to “7c+”, which is not quite as exciting as an “8a”- or 13b in YDS- for anyone using that system regularly) In addition, the style of this climb does not cater to my strengths. I excel in slightly overhung, long technical rock climbs that require stamina and good technique. This monster is VERY steep and quite short, meaning it is more of a power endurance test-piece (my biggest weakness) than anything else.

However, it is a beautiful climb. The movement requires precision, technique yet also demands an equal dose of physical strength. The location is stunning and the entire climb packs a punch- you get one very bad rest in the beginning after a very hard boulder problem, but after that it is GO baby GO! This isn’t the first time when I’ve become enthralled with a climb that doesn’t align perfectly with my “style.”  While progression through the grades is important to me, it certainly takes second place to my desire to find challenging lines that inspire me more for their movement than for the number we subjectively attach to them. I’m sure there is another 13a at Donner that would be easier for me, but this is the one I want to finish. This is the one that motivates me, the one that makes that 3 hour drive worth it.

Snowshed Wall.

Snowshed Wall, another one of the classic sectors at Donner Summit

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Like most of Donner, the Snowshed wall houses a mix of bolted and traditional routes

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Classic finger-strength/face-climbing technique test piece- Cannibals (12d)

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View of Donner Lake from Snowshed wall

I’ve made four separate trips up to Donner just to try Warp Factor, and still haven’t sent it. I am VERY close, however, and the process is definitely keeping me very eager and more excited than ever to finish it. However, with the changing times and cooling conditions, unless I can finish it this weekend (fingers crossed) it may just have to wait until next summer.

While I certainly wish I had more time to climb, work has been particularly fun lately. We have been performing a wide array of activities, from scrambling all over the entire Marin Headlands treating Pampas Grass to planting along the new Coastal trail in the presidio, it has kept me busy and engaged. It is satisfying to make the trip out to Donner and to mentally and physically exhaust myself enough so that I can focus my attention fully on the work week, returning over the weekend to Tahoe if I have the time- it is a cyclical wave that keeps me in balance with my two primary passions.

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Speaking of fire… Prescribed burns are often used in restoration as an invasive control technique. I was lucky enough to be able to see a prescribed fire in action at the Pt. Reyes National Seashore. It was actually very impressive and I was quite amazed at just HOW controlled it was. In this particular instance they were treating the same area for the fourth time over the course of (I believe) a decade, for French Broom – an invasive species that leaves a particularly persistent seed bank that actually is flushed out with fire. But, if you are able to remove the new plants before they set seed, you can really knock it back an infestation.

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Non-native (but cute) European praying mantis friend we made at Redwood Creek!

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A native monarch butterfly on a non-native Bull Thistle!

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Sierran Treefrog

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A young coyote in the Marin Headlands who decided to join me for lunch one afternoon.








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Hopefully my next blog post will be about my process on Warp Factor and its completion. However, if I don’t manage to do it this season, that is okay too. If climbing reveals anything about me, it is my self-drive and perseverance. Completing a hard route requires a mix of steadfastness, belief and, quite frankly, a little bit of luck involved in execution and conditions. What is important are the following two facts- I know I can do Warp Factor and I know I have tried as hard as I can at it so far. All of the factors required to finish the route simply have not come together yet. But, as long as I give it every ounce of energy that I have, I will find the mental clarity I seek in my climbing- even if it is interrupted by a fall. Frankly, I am proud of myself for even having the courage to test myself on something so difficult while also trying to excel at my job and plan the next stage of my life. I have changed my training cycle to accommodate all of my pursuits and have pulled countless number of shenanigans to find the time to make the long drive up for only a couple of burns at the crag. In the blur of failed attempts, I don’t want myself to forget that I am trying damn hard at everything I find important and valuable.

As I inevitably drown myself with applications and GRE flashcards and spend my weekends stuck working, I want to remember what it is that I am fighting for. I’m fighting to position myself to be pursue restoration ecology and do what I, as an individual, can to at least try to help our planet heal. That a little bit of work right now may go a long way to improving my happiness. I won’t get out as much as I want for awhile and my climbing will suffer as a result, but this is temporary and I need to remember that it doesn’t change two facts-  I am a climber and I am still a part of the climbing community. Hopefully graduate school pops me in a place a little bit more amenable to outdoor climbing than San Francisco, but let’s see where the path takes me..

Ambition in both these realms of my life fuels my dreams and feeds me the energy I need to keep at it. The process of searching for my next step forward career wise is a lot like projecting a hard route- now and again doubt floods my mind, my mental barriers break and exhaustion starts to seep into my head and my body. When that happens, giving up starts to seem like the wisest option.

But, in the back of my head, something tells me I can do it. Something tells me it is worth the struggle.

And that’s enough to keep me going.

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