Climbing in 2014…and climbers amnesia

Our guide (Chris) mentioned it to us last year as well, but it struck a chord more this year: climbers amnesia. It’s a climber’s ability to forget the pain and suffering of previous climbs and instead focus on the accomplishment, views, challenge, etc. This morphs into the desire to climb again, often minimizing or completely forgetting the suffering one will likely entail. This is actually similar (it seems) to a woman’s ability to completely forget the pain of child birth when they decide they want another baby. Of course this is more of a  (probable) evolutionary phenomenon (if women were scared of the pain of child birth, the species wouldn’t propagate very far).

Anyway….it wasn’t hours after getting of Mt. Shuksan, still limping around, that I began to think of next year.

2014 isn’t far away, and given the logistics involved with these “big” climbs, planning for something in the same time frame (August) would need to start in the next month or so. Thus it certainly isn’t too early to begin to put it together. But after a few discussions, a (tentatively) agreeable point was that perhaps we wouldn’t do a big climb in 2014. Perhaps we’d spend the year on skills development (and physical betterment, for me at least).

(1) Skills development:
I’m pretty comfortable on crampons now. But I’d really like a chance to work on self arrest (with real scenarios vice just laying on the snow), crevasse rescue setup and execution, glacial navigation, etc. In general, alpine mountaineering skills. In addition, I’d like to work on more generic outdoor skills, like gear selection, wilderness survival, navigation, etc. The paths to these goals isn’t terribly complicated. First, for alpine skills, my partner and I can return to Mt. Washington during the winter with a number of different (small) outfits that will do a multi-day skills class on the mountain, with or without a summit attempt. Not only does this get me (us) the skills training, but it’s also logistically easier and financially more palatable. For the more general outdoor stuff, the combination of the local climbing club and REI-sponsored classes, again logistically simple and inexpensive. This sort of stuff can be done throughout the year with far less advance planning. Finally, rock skills. My entire climbing endeavor began outdoors on rock, on a 40 foot pitch rated v5.5 (at the absolute most). It was the initial love of that type of climbing that made me so excited for the summit pyramid on Shuksan. So, in the midst of everything else, spending some time on the local crags and in the indoor gym here would be hugely beneficial.

(2) Physical betterment
It really just comes down to endurance. Strength wise there isn’t an issue, nor is my childhood asthma a problem. It’s basically the ability to walk uphill (or downhill) with a 45 pound pack for 16 hours…and not be limping across the finish line at the end. Shuksan was incredibly trying for me in this respect. The last hour or two coming down the trail towards the parking lot was superbly challenging for me (made that much harder due to my boots and pack issue, but still). Hours spent on a treadmill and/or stair master are valuable (and has served me well), but in the end I just need to shoulder the weighted pack and get out more during the year. This isn’t super easy in my local area, but there’s still some ways to make it happen.

So, not entirely sure yet what 2014 will look like climbing-wise. But some combination of “local” skills training and endurance training will certainly be part or most of the plan.


It ain’t cheap to climb Everest

Another great post by Alan Arnette over on his blog discusses the costs associated with the various ways of climbing Mt. Everest. The bottom line is that no matter whether you go it alone, with a team, a small team or a big team, or with a five star chef at your side, you’re going to pay no less than $20,000 for the entire trip. The higher-end full service expeditions get closer to $100,000.

On one hand I’d day that these amounts seem insane, but then again, given the extreme nature of the challenge and the desire to do it safely (and usually comfortably) can push people to spend a lot of money.

The Physics of Climbing: How to Safely Absorb Gravitational Potential Energy

For many climbers, the technique and trade craft on the rock is meant to ensure your safety, and that of your group/team as well. But it usually doesn’t go past that. The actual physics of your gear and it’s efforts to save your life should you fall is quit intriguing. For example,

Fall factor is a measure of how big a climbing fall is. To be precise it is the ratio of distance fallen divided by the length of rope available to absorb the fall. This fall factor is what determines how much force is placed on the rope and accompanying gear. With normal single pitch climbing, people rarely generate large fall factors. They are perhaps around 0.2 or smaller, and this sort of fall may produce 3-4kN of force. But on a multi-pitch you can have the potential case where the first climber advances and falls before they can place a piece of gear into the rock. They would then fall down past their belayer (partner giving and taking rope) and the same distance again; this would be a fall factor 2. Such falls can produce tremendous amounts of force even though the total distance fallen can be relatively small, it is falls like this that can snap ropes and yank bolts or gear out of the rock – some of the worst case scenarios for climbers.

THIS article from The Guardian is a short and extremely topical text on the physics of climbing (well, falling in this case). The above text (from the article) is a good layman’s overview. Think you’re decent with physics and associated equations? Here is a more detailed look at the fall factor. And apparently MIT did in fact teach a Physics of Rock Climbing class, though this page doesn’t indicate whether it’s still taught (since it’s dated 2006).

First time: Old Rag Mountain, VA

Even after my first climbing class and indoor climbing, I hadn’t really done something to prove to myself that I have anywhere near the ability to really tackle a big mountain. Yes, I successfully did the class outdoors and climbed a 5.7 crag- and yes, I climbed indoors as well. But who was to say that once on a real trail, on a real mountain, that I would be able to reach the peak? With that I set out to find something that I could climb that would challenge me but yet not kill me given the below points:

  1. I’ve never hiked before. Ever.
  2. No real experience outdoors
  3. A childhood history of asthma

On the east coast there are few options that fit what I was looking for: essentially a class three scramble with a serious amount of altitude gained. But it didn’t take much searching to find something that fit: Old Rag Mountain.

Old Rag is 3,291 foot (1003m) granite mountain in the Blue Ridge formation in the Shenandoah Mountains. It’s a class three scramble (so hands and feet both needed), but is “easy” enough for someone with no experience (but in at least decent shape) to tackle. This looked like a good candidate, and luckily at the time I had a colleague who was an avid outdoors enthusiast and had experience on Old Rag. He agreed to take me up the mountain.

It was a cold day in November when we arrived at the parking lot, about a mile south of the trail head.

At the Parking Lot

The temperature was somewhere in the teens as we stepped out of the car. I remember thinking that there was no way I could spend hours in those conditions with what I was wearing (how wrong I was!). We got our bags and walked up to the trail head, where we discussed what our plans were. It wasn’t anything fancy- just make our way up the trail. My colleague explained that it’s lots of elevation gain via switchbacks while were at and below the tree-line. But that once we are above it, it turns into a scramble, and we’ll go through the false summit (even with the warning, this fooled me near the top) before actually standing on the summit.

And thus we began. Quite literally, this was my first time walking in the “woods” for more than a few minutes/steps. The elevation gain started pretty fast, and the sight of the switchbacks as we went up the mountain was a bit of energy-sapper. One thing that struck me quickly was how quiet it was: no sounds of vehicles, or people, or music, or anything else….just the wind rustling through the trees, the occasional bird, and our own boots crackling on the leaves and dirt as we made our way up the trail. At this point, the trail is both marked and well worn enough to make it out easily. Since this was new to me and my performance was a big unknown variable, my colleague was gracious enough to let me lead through this section (which took us the bulk of our ascent time- probably 80% of our time was spent through this portion).

Every once in a while there was enough of a clearing through the trees to get  decent picture out through the area and the surrounding ridges and mountains in the area.

Old Rag hike

Our trek up the mountain continued. It was about half-way up that I learned my first real lesson: you get hot when you’re moving. This is obvious and second-nature for everyone. But the point is driven home more by the fact that half-way up, as the temperature was probably trying to break 20 degrees, I was peeling off layers and was down to my lowest possible layer pretty fast. The cold was only particularly apparent when we stopped for a quick break (which was pretty often). But when we were moving, the cold was barely perceptible. Even if I could feel it, my mind was solely dedicated to the effort of making it up, and not worrying about the cold and how I probably (definitely) had the wrong boots, etc. And we continued. The scenery got more and more beautiful as we rose in altitude and as the sun came up.

Old Rag hike

But finally, we hit the rock. No longer where we treading dirt and leaves up the mountain. We had finally gotten above the tree-line and hit the rock scramble part of the hike. Like hiking, this was a first for me. The first time I really put my hands on rock for an extended period of time was just months prior when I took my first climbing class out west. Here I was staring at a lengthy (1.1 mile) rock scramble to the summit. This was more or less my last chance to turn around. Hikers can get down the switch-back part pretty easily, but once you’re in the scramble portion, the only safe way down is to reach the summit and go back the backside of the mountain. We took one last break and started through.

The first thing I noticed is that my pack was often getting in my way. This was because the spaces I was crawling through, over, under, and around were often too small for me to make it with my pack on. This was mostly the case for my colleague as well. He was leading at this point (as the physical trail disappears and you are relying on worn paint marks on rocks and memory to make it through correctly), so he would hand me his pack, make the move, and then get his pack back before taking mine so I could follow. This was superbly beneficial as well because I was able to watch him make the move first, guiding me in how I should attempt each challenge. And “challenge” is a good word for it: there were a few points were I thought rope would be handy, and one particular spot where there was actually a rope there to use (it would have been near impossible for me otherwise). There were also a few points where you would emerge from the rock and all of the sudden be faced with your altitude- above the tree-line, nothing stood between me and the drop off the mountain but my own movement. The first time I saw this I saw down and took a picture.

Above the Tree Line

Once I got past the danger part of it, I was able to enjoy the stunning view. The combination of altitude, the season (fall), the early morning light, and clouds made the sky and the view something truly beautiful to behold. Even without the summit this view alone would have made the trip worth it.

Once I stood up from the view in the previous picture, my colleague warned me of the false summit up ahead. Yet somehow, I forgot that point after what couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes. This section was harder to get through, easily the toughest of the day so far. It was probably because of that fact that once I saw what looked like a summit, I was just waiting to stand on the peak. I thought, any moment now. Of course, once we got to what looked like the peak I realized we still had more to go. The picture was worth it, though. In the below shot you can see the view from the false summit and a good portion of the rocks we had to scramble through to get there (at the bottom left corner).

from the false summit

Despite the disappointment with the false part of this summit, it was only another 10 or 15 minutes to the actual summit. You walk around a large formation of rocks that blocks your view of the summit so that you don’t actually realize you’re there until you stand at the top. But once I was there….wow. What a feeling! The view was amazing, only to be overcome by the sheer elation I felt having made it to the top.

at the summit

We shared the space with a few other folks, but luckily it’s large enough for a fair number of people to hang out. We found a rock to sit on and enjoy the view, have a snack, drink lots of water, and simply rest with the feeling of accomplishment. We then began to discuss the plan heading down. My colleague explained to me that on the trip down, it was pretty steep for short while, but then the descent began to level out and become far more gradual, bringing us to a fire road. We were to hike down that road the rest of the way, and it would bring us back to the trail head to complete the 5.4 mile circuit hike.

at the summit


This last part was boring because it was a relatively gradual and then flat hike through the forest along the fire road. But it was a good chance for my colleague and I to talk about things other than the hike itself. Ultimately it was good, because it was like a casual walk back (just long), giving me a chance to reflect on the day and what I had done.

We eventually made it back to the trail head a little while before lunch time. We saw lots of people staggering up from the trail head into the switch-backs, and I realized at that moment how great of an idea it was for us to start as early as we did. Through the entire ascent we saw 6 other people (two groups of three). Now we saw about 15 people starting on the trail at the same time! We got back to the car and dropped our packs in the back and made our way out.

This wasn’t a real “climb” (it was a hike), it wasn’t snowing or icy or super cold, and I know of people’s grandmothers and 8 year olds that have done this as well. But I wasn’t out to impress anyone, it was simply to prove to myself that I could actually do something of this caliber. Given my history of asthma and my complete lack of experience outdoors, I wasn’t entirely confident that I would be able to make the summit (and back down) safely or successfully. But having achieved it, I was convinced otherwise. The 3,000 feet on Old Rag isn’t even close to the 12,000 feet I will face on Mt. Adams next year, and the level of effort required is like comparing apples to oranges. But having done this successfully, I felt as if I could learn and train for something bigger.

My First Climbing Experience

A few weeks off of work and some time in the desert…that was how I spent the holidays last year. With a bit of free time on my hands, I thought I finally had the opportunity to make good on what I had been thinking about up until that point: learn to rock climb. The desire is easy, doing it is much more difficult. Did I want to learn in a class at an indoor gym, or do something outside? Would I need to organize a private class? Are there schools available? Are they reputable and/or safe?

Of course the answers to all of this meant spending significant time doing research: finding schools and classes, checking ratings and reputation, looking at prices and availability, etc. In the end I ended up with two different schools that ran one-day outdoor classes. I emailed both, asking about custom courses. Both emailed me back, but I had a much better feeling about one compared to the other. Ultimately I chose the Arizona Climbing and Adventure School. They were responsive over email and very accommodating as far as setting up a private lesson. I was told where to be and at what time and with what gear, and I was set. Just a few weeks out, I was excited.

At 8am the next morning I met the owner, Mark, and my instructor, Megan, in the parking lot of a Circle K in Pinnacle Peak. A quick gear check out, and from there we made our way out to a “parking spot” in the desert. Megan then lead me about a quarter-mile to our instruction site.

A view of Pinnacle Peak, in Arizona

Megan was awesome (and I recommend her to anyone looking for instruction)- I knew nothing, in fact, less than nothing about rock climbing, my gear, technique, etc. We started with a basic run through of the gear itself and the different components (harness, helmet, rope, shoes, carabiner, grigri, etc). I popped on the shoes they gave me (a very beat up pair of La Sportiva’s) and Megan started by showing me the basics on a large boulder. I wasn’t to climb it so much as I was to use my shoes to grip it: as she termed it, “learning to trust the shoes.” That was pretty hard, to trust that smearing my shoes against this small chip in the rock would provide me any leverage at all…well of course, it did.

We spent maybe an hour there before moving over to the real place of instruction, a rock face about 40-60 feet up (this is a rough, really rough, estimate based on my memory…it could have been 30 feet!). Megan hiked around the other side and up to the top to make sure the anchor was in place for the rope. Before I knew what was happening, I was roped in, barking out the commands (“On Belay?”) and looking up this rock face, prepping to climb it.

This was one of the reasons why I really like this experience. I didn’t spend hours in a classroom learning about gear and safety, or being briefed on the rules. One hour was spent making sure I was comfortable with everything, and then I was put on the rock, and told to climb. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. But, I put my foot on the rock and pushed off.

It was about half way up before I hit the crux of that particular route (I wish I knew its name)- a spot where I had to move about three feet to my right, duck under an overhang, and then loop myself out onto the upper portion of the face (which had very little in way of places to put my feet). The first time, I froze at the overhang, thinking to myself how in the world was I going to get around and up this thing. Belaying me on the ground, Megan jumped in and told me exactly what to do. I was nervous, but I told myself that the rope is there in case I fall, so I have some room for a mistake here. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, opened my eyes, and made the move.

I didn’t fall, or slip up, in fact I was now on the upper portion of the route! The remainder of the route was challenging (only because there were few good places for my hands or feet), but it was a straight shot to the top. Once there, I was able to peak my head above the rock and get the sunlight on my face. I rapelled down and unhooked, feeling exhilarated. Megan was congratulatory, saying that I did great and better than many of her first-timers.

We re-did that same route a bunch more times. I got more and more comfortable with it so that by later in the day, I was able to go up and down it without instruction or fear.

As the end of the day neared, Megan showed me a variation of the route, where the starting point (about 2 feet off the ground) was much harder. This particular starting point made this route a 5.7 or even a 5.8 (depending on who you ask). The rating didn’t matter too much to me because as far as I was concerned, it was just harder. A lot harder. In fact, I couldn’t do it without some assistance from Megan pushing my heel (and thus my foot) into the wall, allowing me to get the leverage I needed to get up that new opening move.

Quickly, the day was ever. I was bleeding in at least three places on my hands, and my shoulder hurt a bit (at one point I fell, and I barn-door’d right into the wall with my shoulder). But it was amazing. Megan made sure I was safe, I had a blast, and I knew that this was something I wanted to do more. Lot’s more.

I’m still using the harness that I bought for that one-day class. It’s a Petzl Adjama, and it’s been great for me thus far. The adjustable leg loops are comfortable, and the double-back buckles on the straps are just an added safety benefit. I’ve been using it for indoor climbing and it’s been reliable and comfortable.

Petzl Adjama


It seems that I am climbing….

It started with a plane flight in South Asia more than three years ago…it continued with an interesting NPR interview about a year later…and came to a head on Tom’s Thumb in Scottsdale, Arizona a year after that. From someone who couldn’t imagine sleeping somewhere without running water or a soft bed for comfort, I was clinging to a rock about 30 feet off the desert floor, trying to get to the top in order to see the sun over the rocks. My first climbing experience was a rush and a thrill I won’t soon forget. Since then, well, I’m hooked.

The obligatory first post introduction- I’m going to use this place to chronicle my climbing (attempts)- indoor locally here on the east coast of the United States, my planning and training for my first alpine climb/expedition next year (Summer 2012), and the quest to get better and meet good people who share the joy of climbing.