Monday, April 30, 2012


It's time to wax philosophic. I love the smell of sweat-stiffened nylon, stained white from climbing chalk. The slight stench of climbing shoes makes me nostalgic. When I first began climbing these smells epitomized rock climbing. I scrambled and bouldered on the slippery graffiti-covered traprock cliffs in Watchung Reservation. I still remember my first outings in the Gunks. Ascents like V-3, Modern Times and Elder Cleavage remain etched in my mind. The exposure was terrifying, yet supremely satisfying. Spraining both ankles during a lead fall on Classic stands out too.

Many rock seasons have come and gone since then. I don't notice the smell of sweaty stiff nylon or the distinct smell of climbing gear in my pack anymore – I miss this. I've retired dozens of fuzzy, chalk-coated climbing ropes. Lots of my stinky climbing shoes have been thrown away. I haven't paid a visit to the small basalt crags at Watchung in over a decade and frankly, that's alright. I've climbed V-3 more times than I can count on two hands and Elder Cleavage is still hard. My ankles still crackle and roll easily as a result of spraining them on Classic in 1998.

After hundreds of days of climbing and miles of vertical up-and-down in the Gunks it's easy to become desensitized. Day in and day out, It's just climbing. Buying new gear can be a drag. Many evenings I'm tired and gathering the motivation to run or climb after the work of guiding seems like an insurmountable challenge. I have most of the routes at the McCarthy Wall ruthlessly wired - I'm a toprope master. It's hard not to spew gear beta at newcomers trying to onsight Star Action.

The truth is, it's not just climbing. Ask someone who's no longer able to climb due to injury, or because they don't have the spare time or money. They'll tell you the truth – it's a wonderful way to live and a beautiful way to move. Seeing familiar faces at the crag each weekend is a relief, and it stands in stark contrast to our busy internet-laden digital lives. Whether it's an onsight or a thousandth ascent, the way we move over stone is beautiful. It's meditative and the tunnel vision, the narrowing of our focus to a single spot, which starts with our handholds and ends with our footholds isn't confinement, it's liberation.

This rock season in the Gunks has been eye-opening for me. Outwardly, very little has changed – things still look the same. As a guide though, seeing people enjoy every single pitch of the climbs we do together has helped remind me that climbing is special.

It's good not to forget that.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Boat Anchors and Bolts

The Red River Gorge is full of sport climbers. Traditional climbing curmudgeons like myself love to hate sport climbers. Crowds drive me nuts. At popular sport crags there are bits of litter all over, poorly disposed of human feces are only a stone's throw away in the woods, chalk is everywhere and beta spraymasters are a dime a dozen. Grrr.

That being said, I recently returned from an amazing trip to the Red. This visit, my third, sealed a deal of sorts. I've climbed extensively throughout much of the Southeast. It's an awesome place to live if the only climbing you do is rock climbing. You won't find any alpine climbing, ice only forms during short winter cold snaps, and the only significant multipitch climbing is found in southwest North Carolina. All this aside, the southeastern sandstone belt hosts some of the finest rock climbing in North America. The New River Gorge has a lifetime of amazing hard climbs yet offers very little for beginners. In contrast, the Red River Gorge offers a lifetime of amazing traditional and sport routes for climbers of all ability levels. Even if you're injured or you only want to climb easy trad routes, you'll find weeks of worthwhile climbing in the Red.

Dolci on another classic 5.9 at the Wall of Denial

My partner Dolci and I like to keep all options open, and we usually roll pretty deep in the gear department. The overhanging, pocket-laden bolted faces typical of the Red are nice and incredibly fun, but we've always been unable to ignore the many stunning traditional crack lines. The Red's crack lines vary in width - it's not uncommon for a single pitch to have a technical crux in a thin fingercrack followed by an offwidth section. We routinely used a couple of 4” cams and the 5” and 6” (a.k.a boat anchors) on many pitches. The Red's trad routes typically involve crack climbing skills and are technically demanding too.

The Inhibitor inhibited me in the first 30 feet

During this recent midweek visit we stayed at Miguel's and enjoyed our time there. Miguel, who's nearly always present, is friendly and intelligent. He's made serious upgrades since our last visit four years ago, and at $2/night this place is a serious contender for the most dirtbag friendly climbing area in the east. Despite the fact that the Red is a serious sport “hardman” area, Miguels was full of friendly approachable climbers. Apparently, ego isn't part of the scene there, which is nice.

Big Spiders there

We visited several very traditional crags during our 5-day stay and were blown away by the lack of crowds and beauty of the climbs. Climbs like Autumn (5.9-), Rock Wars (sustained 5.10a), Riptide Ride (5.10c with no moves easier than 10a for 60 feet plus blind shallow gear placements, can you say sandbag?), Blue Runner (amazing varied 5.9) and Funhouse (never-ending challenging 5.7 in a steep corner) are among the best trad pitches of their grade in the U.S.

Thousands of ants hatched and flew away in a few minutes

So, no lines, awesome rock, friendly camping and cheap food at Miguel's – why wait? The Red is an awesome spring and fall destination with lifetimes of amazing sport and traditional climbing. It's definitely on my radar for another trip this fall.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Perfect Climbing Pack

Last Fall (2011) I purchased a Cold Cold World Ozone backpack. The Ozone's simple design and durable ballistics nylon fabric make it the perfect guide's pack for rock climbing. With no external straps, no spindrift collar, and a stiff foam backpad it packs and unpacks easily and carries well between routes and climbs well on routes.

To my surprise, the Ozone ended up being a great winter pack too. For most moderate ice objectives the tools and crampons, plus my kit of 6-8 screws, lightweight puffy, water and a small thermos all fit inside. The pack worked as well for winter cragging as it did for summer cragging. Placing the tools inside the pack frequently confused my partners but also meant easy hiking through thick brush, no chance of a lost tool or crampon and no worries while taking the pack in and out of cars or houses. I've done a number on more than a few car bumpers and walls trying to sneak packs into small spaces only to leave a big scratch. Having the sharp stuff inside, which never occurred to me before having this bag, makes good sense.

After only a few weeks using the bag I noticed some things. The stock 18.5” torso length on the Ozone is a good length for individuals that are under 6' tall. The bag carries fine because it's small, packs well and rides close to one's back, but if you want the waistbelt to ride on your waist for carrying heavier loads you'll want the torso length customized for your back. The other thing I noticed is that this design has extreme potential for 2-3 day alpine routes and longer days on alpine ice routes. Having the option to carry a picket or ax externally in the mountains for a bit more internal carrying capacity made sense.

This spring I contacted Randy Rackliff, who makes Cold Cold World packs, about making me an Ozone pack with a longer torso, a floating/removable lid, a spindrift collar, and external ax loops. We discussed other options and the potential for making a similar yet slightly larger pack. The time needed to construct a new pattern for a bigger pack was prohibitively costly. When all was said and done I had also decided to have the new pack made with 500D Spectra grid fabric, which is essentially half the weight of the ballistics nylon but still durable enough for heavy use.

A close up of the floating lid attachment points
I eagerly awaited the arrival of my new pack, which took only one day to ship from Jackson, New Hampshire to my home in western Massachusetts. A new Cold Cold World pack is a thing of beauty. The design is simple and the construction is flawless. There are no loose threads, no missed stitches and each fabric panel fits perfectly with all the others. Little details stand out too – the inside is yellow so that it's not so dark while you digging for small items deep within the pack, and the haul loop and rope strap are red, which stands out and looks nice too. Even the shoulder strap length was adjusted for someone with a longer torso.

I was feeling hesitant about using this beautiful lightweight bag. Really, not use it? No way. I took it out for a spin at the crag the other day and many of my feelings about the bag were confirmed. It's the nicest pack I've ever owned and the timeless, no-frills design is exactly what most climbers need year-round. There's nothing extraneous on this bag and it's going to work equally well at the local crag and in the Cascades and Alaska on big alpine routes.

Ax loops and daisy chains were added to the outside

The 2” longer torso length makes the webbing hip belt ride perfectly on my waist and increases the carrying capacity of this pack enough to make it useful as more than just a crag pack. The floating lid and spindrift collar will help with this too. At the crag I can now carry more than just a single rack comfortably, without overstuffing the pack.

A side-by-side comparison shows the substantially greater
 potential volume of the new Ozone.

This summer I'll be able to take the same pack on multiday guiding trips in the Cascades. A BD Firstlight, Big Agnes Aircore pad, and Mountain Hardwear Phantom 32 will all fit inside along with a small climbing kit plus a jetboil.

The best thing of all – the packs are made locally and Randy is willing to work with you to make sure you get the right setup. If you're interested in a bag like this here are my suggestions:

  • Unless you're really counting grams, Ballistics nylon is the way to go for durability. The weight difference, when compared with most clunky modern packs, is neglible.
  • Decide whether you want the pack's hipbelt to ride above your waist (like a BD Bullet or Hollowpoint) or like a real load carrying pack, on your hips. This will determine carrying capacity and torso length.
  • If the bag is a crag only pack consider omitting the spindrift collar, which can make repeated packing and unpacking challenging. I have one friend who cuts the collar out of most of his bags.
  • .If the bag is a crag pack, omitting the external ax loops would be fine. The tools will fit inside handily.
  • The floating/removable lid is nice even if you don't have a spindrift collar. Then, while climbing with the bag the lid can be placed inside the pack, which is largely empty now that you're carrying all of your kit on your body.
All these comments aside, I'll probably stick with my current design even though the spindrift collar makes packing a tiny bit more challenging. At some point I'm going to get a Ballistics nylon version for hard, everyday crag use.

This bag, and many of the modifications are based largely on recommendations from Dane Burn's fantastic blog Coldthistle. If you're even more curious about packs head over there and have a look. He just finished writing a series of three posts about pack design and construction, components an alpine pack should(n't) include and how to fit packs properly.

All told, this pack was $158 with shipping. That's a steal for a versatile, well-made and durable all-around pack. Here are some useful links regarding this pack and versions of it:

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Fitness Is Hard To Find

The slow periods for many guides, known to some as "shoulder" seasons, are generally the late fall and early spring. For me, these times of year are good for being at home, cooking, cleaning, maintaining a healthy relationship with my lady friend, and training.

Once the guiding season gets rolling it's harder to find good blocks of time to train. Summer days are hot and I don't feel like climbing or running after working all day in the sun. Winter days are short and it's hard to run outside before dawn or after work in the darkness. I almost always spend an evening or two each week in the climbing gym, but gaining real climbing strength and endurance plus a substantial aerobic base takes hours of time. Four hours of aerobic exercise plus 10-20 hours of climbing each week seems like more free time than many of us have available.

I try to make big fitness gains during the spring and fall, and maintain fitness throughout the year. Sometimes I'm successful and other times I feel sloth-like by the end of a long guiding season.

Near the end of this past ice season, during early March, I attempted to flash (nearly onsighting) Hydropower in the Black Chasm. It has sustained challenging mixed climbing that lasts for nearly 80 feet. Fun climbing gradually increases in difficulty until you're force to make repeatedly long M7-ish moves for the final 30 feet. When Matt McCormick established the line he called it M9-. During my initial attempt this spring I hung on for so long trying to figure out moves that I was spent for the rest of the day. I let go only four feet from the ice but I knew there was no way could move up or even clip the next quickdraw overhead.

This effort was so physically demanding that I experienced severe delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that lasted five days after the effort. My biceps and calves were so tired during the following days that any sort of climbing or running was out of the question.

The following week I began running again and felt so beaten down that getting out of bed in the morning was painful. My calves were dreadfully sore and I was experiencing severe muscle tightness in the upper portion of my left hamstring.

The experiences served as a reminder for me that, while my job is quite active and physically demanding compared to many indoor jobs, I can't expect to have a high level of fitness without extensive training. Our warm winter hadn't provided enough days outside climbing and I hadn't been running or hitting the climbing gym enough to train. Long routes and hard pitches don't come easily if you haven't been training. Carrying a heavy pack uphill all day or trying to move fast through moderate alpine and rock terrain only leads to muscle cramping and fatigue if you're not fit.

I'm four weeks into a serious training cycle now. The muscle soreness has abated and I have plenty of energy after most days of climbing and running. Some of my days off have even become almost entirely devoted to fitness, with a morning run, plus an evening run and a rock gym session at some point during the day.

If you're trying to motivate yourself to get fit, here are some suggestions that I've found useful:
  • Get a heart rate monitor. In January I began using a new heart rate monitor, a Polar FT80, that allows me to track individual workouts and look at the data from each week of the year. It's been useful for building an aerobic base and ensuring I don't work too hard unless I want to.

  • Find good training partners. For running, I'm a big fan of having my dog along. She's fitter than I am for running, always psyched to go out, and loves to trail run. I've also joined a local running club and occasionally do X-C races or track workouts with a group. On the rock, I've tried to find people that are willing to go along with me on longer days and are willing to push the grades a little. It's still early season, but getting a few really challenging days in early pays off later in the season.
My favorite running partner taking a break during a trail run
  • Have several pairs of running shoes. We all have multiple pairs of climbing footwear – boots for ice, maybe double boots for really cold weather, approach shoes for easy climbing and edging shoes for hard rock routes. Why not have several pairs of training shoes? I keep a supportive trail runner on hand for off-road running and a lighter, road-oriented cushioned/stability shoe around for road runs and speedier workouts. I also use custom sports orthotics in my training shoes. This seems to help prevent injury in the lower body.
  • Sleep as much as you can. Starting this past fall my partner and I began going to be earlier. Getting up in the morning isn't dreadful and you'll have more energy late in the day.
  • Try to get an aerobic workout first thing in the morning. It seems to help the day along and then you don't have to worry about not working out in the evening, or you can go boulder or hit the gym at night.
  • Eat well and you can eat as much as you want when you're working out a lot. For me, as long as I don't eat crap I can eat whenever and whatever I want when I'm training and I still seem to get leaner. Minimize alcohol consumption and don't drink too late at night either. You'll stay leaner and sleep better.
  • Try to enjoy workouts and each day but still keep your goals in the back of your mind. I love being outside and that's one of the most important factors for me. However, while training I do try and focus on my goals, it seems to keep me motivated.
Remember, it's supposed to be fun. However, it isn't always easy to roll out the door at dawn for a run before work or at dusk when you're tired from the day. Knowing that your training makes achieving your goals easier is good motivation though.