Tuolumne Climbing: Zee Tree

October 26, 2009

Day 2: Zee Tree (5.7) on Pywiack Dome

After the previous day of fairly intense climbing on West Crack, Ben and I were thinking that something a little bit easier might be nice.  After tossing around some options we decided that Zee Tree looked like fun.  The route is actually quite visible from highway 120 and Ben recalled seeing what he believed to be “zee tree” while passing many times.  We were excited to be getting an earlier start than the day before and hoped to be the first ones on the route.

When we pulled into the trail head parking lot, it was nice to see it fairly empty.  While we were getting our gear together another group pulled up with plans to climb Dike Route (5.9R) which starts in the same location as Zee Tree.  They had done both routes before so we decided to follow them to the start of the route.  However, along the way and quite unconsciously, we stopped following that group and continued walking along the southern edge of the dome to where we thought the route started.

From the road you can see this huge tree growing out of Pywiack Dome, many times larger than any other tree on the rock.  With such a large tree we assumed that it was “the tree”, it simply had to be.  So we climbed up the 3rd class slope and setup an anchor when it turned into fairly steep 4th class climbing.  The previous day I discovered that I’m pretty comfortable with low angle climbing so I decided to lead the first pitch up to a pair of bolts.

I managed to place a few pieces of protection but after 200′ of climbing I ran out of rope and there were no bolts in sight.  After a few minutes of searching around, I made myself secure so Ben could check the topo to see if he could figure out what the deal was.  With only a glace at the beta, it was obvious that we were very far off from where we should be.  This presented us with a little problem.

I was 200′ up a mystery route if it was a route at all and needed to get back to the ground.  This gave us two options, Ben could climb up to where I was with another rope and we could find something to rappel off of or I could down climb the 200′ back to Ben.  Given that the climbing was very easy, I was pretty comfortable down climbing.  When I got back to the ground we packed up and headed back towards the road and the start of the real route.

During the hike back we laughed at how fixated we were on that big tree.  It gave us such tunnel vision that we diverged from the group that actually knew where they were going.  I’d love to know if I was on a known route but we joked about my first ascent.  Our mistake ended up costing us a good amount of time and we found ourselves getting our real start at about the same time as the day before.  So I declared the name of our mystery route “almost noon”.

Zee Tree

The real Zee Tree route

Feeling somewhat confident that we were on the right track, I prepared to lead the first pitch again, hopefully finding the bolts this time.  After about 100′ of climbing without a single piece of protection, I enthusiastically reported to Ben that I had found the bolts and that we were on the right path.  Ben joined me at the anchor and prepared to lead the next pitch.

Zee Tree is a face climb and in Tuolumne face climbs usually translate into massive amounts of runout.  Because there isn’t any crack systems in face climbing, these routes are usually protected with bolts but the first ascent parties tend to be a pretty brave bunch and only lightly bolt the routes.  Amazingly the second pitch featured 9 bolts for 180′ of climbing, this is very heavily bolted by Tuolumne standards.  The section between the first anchor and “the tree” featured climbing through 20′ or so of glacial polish.  Thankfully the polish is broken up in a few places enough to get an edge for your feet.

For the third pitch it was my turn to take the lead again.  This pitch was an easy 100′ section of 5.3 climbing that I pretty much ran up (almost literally).  I think we managed to complete this pitch in less than 15 minutes which felt really great.  Up to this point the entire climb had been bolted and we didn’t need our rack of trad gear but that would change on the next pitch.

For the fourth pitch there were a couple bolts leading up to a layback crack where some traditional pro could be placed.  But instead of taking the entire rack we decided that Ben could simply take a few cams and the set of nuts.  This would have worked out great except for one small problem, we thought there were bolts for an anchor.  When Ben ran out of rope and discovered that there were no bolts in sight he had no option but to build a traditional anchor with the few nuts that he had left over.  Thankfully he had enough and the climbing was so easy that there was very little chance of falling, but it was an excellent reminder that it’s a good idea for the leader to have all of the gear.

The final pitch was this very fun looking 5.7 layback crack.  I was having so much fun on the route that without even hesitating I said that I’d love to lead the pitch.  It didn’t even occur to me that I’d never been on the sharp end for a pitch this difficult or the fact that I didn’t have much experience with layback cracks.  But I just went with it and it went off without a hitch leaving me feeling quite proud of myself.

Standing on Top of Pywiack Dome

Peace out from the top of Pywiack Dome

Compared to the day before where I followed Ben for the entire route, this day I managed to successfully lead 3 of the 5 pitches, what a fantastic feeling that was.  The view from the top of Pywiack Dome was also an incredible one.  Overlooking Tenaya Lake as well as all of Tuolumne Meadows was such a treat.  After spending a solid half hour on top looking around and eating we rappelled back down to the ground.  Back at the parking lot we hung out a bit before taking off.

Ben’s wife Linda as well as our friend Tyndall were heading up that afternoon to spend the next couple days climbing with us and we thought it would be fun to run into them alongside the road.  After about an hour or so of chatting with tourists and hearing their various reactions to our chosen recreation, we headed back to camp and waited for them outside the campground entrance.  With resupplies from Linda, the group of us relaxed at the campground and prepared for the next days adventure, Hermaphrodite Flake.

Day 1: West Crack (5.9) on Daff Dome

As excited as both of us were, we had some things to attend to before we could start climbing.  Little things like, paying for our campground and getting enough cash to do so.  Then there was the bigger thing of teaching me some trad climbing skills.  As I mentioned in the last post, I started top roping last January and have been lead climbing since June but trad climbing was something that I hadn’t done before but was about to embark on.  On top of that, I’d also never done any multi-pitch climbing so some quick lessons close to the ground were very much in need.  We found a short 5.6 crack that I could get some practice on and right after placing my first piece of protection, I fell.

Talk about a humbling experience.  How could I fall on something so easy?  This question was so humbling that it really shook me up a bit and I wondered what I was getting myself into.  This crack was 15′ high and about as easy as they come.  I found myself looking up at the 800′ tall domes that surrounded me and all of a sudden the meadow didn’t feel quite so open anymore.  Massive feelings of doubt washed over me as I questioned my climbing skills more than I did when I didn’t even have any.  But I finished the “climb” and we packed up our gear and headed off to our actual destination for the day, Daff Dome.

Base of West Crack

Base of West Crack

We found the trail head and from the road we could actually see the route called West Crack that we were intending to climb.  I looked up at this mountain of granite above me with this sliver of a crack running up it and couldn’t help but almost laugh.  So I was pretty nervous but also incredibly motivated and really curious to know if I could do the climb.  So we headed off to the base of the route with me mostly keeping my doubts and emotions to myself at this point.  When we got to the base we found that there were two parties in front of us.

Having a bit of time to look at the route, I started to feel pretty anxious for the climb to begin.  I wanted the feeling of some success to build up my confidence a bit more.  When it was our turn to head up, Ben took the lead and made the pitch look pretty easy.  Once he finished with the pitch it was my turn to climb up behind him, clean the protection that he had placed and join up with him at the belay.  The length of the first pitch was 165′ and by the top of it I was breathing pretty damn heavily.

I distinctly remember two things while standing at that first belay station with Ben, the length of time it took me to put all of my weight the anchor (minutes) and Ben asking me if I wanted to keep going.  This was a very good question of Ben to ask because after this point the climb gets pretty committing and if we continued on, there would be a lot of pressure to get to the top.  I didn’t share with him the fact that I was questioning if I was cut out for this.  Instead I replied with “you bet I want to keep going!” which yielded a response of “I knew you’d want to”.  What Ben didn’t tell me was that his question was kind of a leading one and that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue.  But my enthusiasm kept him going.  So when you boil that down, the experienced guy was kind of motivated by the enthusiasm of the newbie who was questioning himself.  What a pair of climbers we are :).

So Ben took off on the second pitch with me once again cleaning behind him.  This pitch intimidated me because the guide book labeled sections of it as being off-width.  Off-width climbing is not one of strongest skills but it actually wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected.  The beginning of the pitch also featured a slightly overhanging section which was quite awkward with the backpack on.  Thankfully there were huge jugs on the left hand side and while awkward, it wasn’t too difficult.  Ben ended up loving the pitch and it was clear from the smile on his face that he was glad we kept on climbing.  While I was happy to have completed almost 300 feet of climbing, what I saw ahead of me made me swallow pretty hard.

Third Pitch of West Crack

Third Pitch of West Crack

Looking up at our third pitch I saw nothing but and endlessly long (about 200′) finger crack.  While it was an amazing and beautiful sight, I was having a hard time imagining myself being able to climb it cleanly.  So when Ben asked me if I wanted to lead it, I laughed and said hell no.  So Ben took off again and after about 40 feet of climbing he paused for a moment, looked down at me and said “it’s harder than it looks”.

Shit.  Without even touching the rock I was thinking that it looked pretty hard and Ben’s telling me that my eyes are fooling me. Given the fact that Ben is a much better climber than I, the possibility of having to ascend the rope with prusik loops seemed almost like a certainty to me.

By the time Ben finished the pitch I managed to get the thoughts of failure out of my head and instead focused on taking it one step at a time.  In reality I really didn’t have anything to fear because if I came off of the rock I’d only fall a few feet.  But I was trying to put myself in the position of the leader and gauge if I’d be able to safely lead the pitch.  My conclusion?  Nope.  While I didn’t fall, I wasn’t comfortable enough physically or mentally to have pulled it off.  When I reached Ben I congratulated him on a superb lead.

We hung out at the third belay station for a good while.  There was a great ledge that I took a seat on and finally had a moment to absorb my surroundings.  Up until that point I was so fixated on doing the work that there was no space left for observation.  Ben once again asked if I wanted to lead the final pitch and once again I declined.  While the climbing looked easy, my mind was not in the right place to be on the sharp end.

While the climbing on the last pitch was easy, there were few places for protection.  I think over the last 200′ of climbing Ben was able to place maybe 4 or 5 pieces with sections of at least 50′ of runout.  But we both reached the top without any incident leaving me exceptionally relieved.  Great sections of the climb were kind of a blur to me, overshadowed by the questions running through my head.  But I had answers to some of the questions, answers I was very satisfied with.  I was able to do the moves, stay safe, not get freaked out and finish the climb (a hard one at that).

There were still many questions left in my head but the next two days of climbing would continue to answer more of them.  Next up, Zee Tree (5.7) on Pywiack Dome.

Looking towards Hetch Hetchy from the top of Daff Dome

Looking towards Hetch Hetchy from the top of Daff Dome

You know you’ve had a good summer when the adventures have been so huge and so tightly packed that there wasn’t time to share the details in a timely fashion.  Climbing has been the recreational focus for me this summer and has made for one of the most adventure packed, enjoyable and interesting summers I’ve ever had.  Last winter I picked up the Tuolumne Free Climbs book on a whim and kind of jokingly set a goal to do some of them by the end of the summer.  Well last September that joke turned into a reality when my buddy Ben and I decided to go on a four day climbing trip to Tuolumne Meadows.

This climbing adventure was so monumental for me that it’s hard to find words that I’m satisfied with, perhaps a photo will help.

300º view from the top of Pywiack Dome

300º view from the top of Pywiack Dome

Nope, that doesn’t quite do it either.  Everything is just too damn big.  To get a slightly better sense of things, click the above photo to see the original.  Even though it would take two 30″ displays to view the entire photo at once, it still doesn’t do the scene any justice.  Not only were the views on this trip huge, the experience as a whole was huge and one that I couldn’t even imagine doing just a year ago.

In fact, it’s too big for one blog post.  So as a warm-up I’ll give a bit of an overview of the area as well as some of my thoughts going into the trip.  Then I’ll throw up a separate post for each of the three big routes that we climbed (West Crack, Zee Tree and Hermaphrodite Flake).

Tuolumne Geology

Tuolumne Meadows is located in the northern half of Yosemite National Park and is accessible during the non-winter months via Highway 120.  Through these meadows flows the Tuolumne River which carved out Hetch Hetchy valley over millions of years and presently fills the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir providing water and electricity for San Francisco and surrounding area residents.  While there is great sadness downstream, the Tuolumne area is breathtakingly beautiful.  Situated at 8600 feet above sea level, the meadow is surprisingly large and surrounded by dozens of domes, peaks, spires, lakes, and valleys.

While the main attraction in Yosemite Valley is naturally the valley itself along with the waterfalls, Tuolumne is a bit more subtle in its beauty.  For its elevation and surrounding peaks, the meadow is very large.  Rising up around the edges are these wonderfully smooth looking domes of granite upwards of 1000 feet tall.

Around the time of the dinosaurs, what is now the Sierra Nevada mountains was deep underground and in the form of magma.  But plate tectonics started to force the area upwards and very slowly, under huge amounts of pressure from the rock overhead, that magma cooled and turned into various types of granite.  Over the next 150 million years or so, the tens of thousands of feet of rock above the granite were pushed upward and eroded, creating the fertile central valley.  Around 4 million years ago the area started to undergo massive tilting and the range that we see today was pushed upward.

As the rock above the granite eroded, pressure was reduced on the magma and it started to expand upward to form domes of solid granite without any layers.  As it expanded it formed joints along the curve of the dome, making each dome similar in structure to an onion.  As glaciers moved into the area, the lack of vertical and horizontal joints in the domes made them quite resilient to glacial plucking (pulling out large chunks of rock).  Instead the glaciers ran across the domes, slowly sanding them down and creating what is known as glacial polish.

This glacial polish is easily seen today when viewing one of these domes up close.  It isn’t too hard to find rock that has been polished as smooth as a granite counter top and reflecting the sun like a mirror.  You can also see long tiny lines in the polish, these lines indicate the direction that the glacier was traveling over the rock.  I find comfort in this humbling knowledge.  To think that water and ice could remove so much material in just 4 million years puts the earth’s 4.5 billion year history into greater perspective.

Such beauty is more than this climber can ask for.  The challenges and variety of climbing that the area offers makes the views from the top sweeter than I could have imagined.  Being able get far above the tourists and see just how rolling the domes are, how huge the meadow is and how things flow into one another is addictive enough all by itself.

Thoughts Before the Trip

I’d been climbing for 10 months before embarking on this trip, lead climbing in the gym for 4 and a handful of sport routes outside.  While I’ve put a lot of time and energy into climbing and made fast progress, in Yosemite terms, I’m far from an experienced climber.  In fact, looking back on things, the set of things I didn’t know was larger than the set of things that I did.

But Ben is a fantastic climber, extremely great guy and a good teacher.  So while this trip had a bunch of firsts for me, I had a lot of confidence that I’d get the instruction that I needed.  Even still, I was nervous and for good reason.  In trad climbing the leader places protection (nuts, cams, etc) into the rock as they go and the follower removes them.  All new to me.

On top of that, I’d never done any multi-pitch climbing either.  We were looking at doing climbs that were 700 feet tall and I wasn’t sure how I’d react both physically and mentally to that.  To quote comedian Steven Wright, “I’m not afraid of heights, I’m afraid of widths”.  While that’s a joke, it’s actually pretty damn accurate for a lot of people.  Being high isn’t the problem, it’s the contrast between high and low and when you’re hanging off of the rock in the middle of a climb you’re a part of that contrast.  The fear of looking down at the air below you and the intimidation of what you have left to climb.

But I was excited and highly motivated.  For years I’d looked at rock faces and thought about how amazing it would be to climb it without ever believing that it would actually be possible for me.  It seemed like my dream could actually be coming true and what scared me the most was walking away from the trip having failed to achieve it.  Being forced to look at future faces without the ignorant bliss of no data but with nagging memories.  I find that I’m somewhat prone to negative stigmas and I didn’t want one surrounding such beautiful structures.

Given that I already mentioned the three big climbs that we did, you can guess that I didn’t walk away with any negative stigmas from the trip.  In fact, it was one of those trips that continued on in my mind, constantly getting better, long after we returned.

Climbing The Bear

September 7, 2009

The climbing adventure this weekend was to The Bear on Mount St. Helena near Calistoga California.  The first climbing I ever did was actually just down the (fire) road from The Bear on a formation called The Bubble, so it was kind of nice to return to the area with some sharper skills.  I went with a small group of climbers from the gym which made for a nice and relaxing day on the wall.

View From The Bear on Mount St. Helena

View From The Bear on Mount St. Helena

At 4,342 feet, Mount St. Helena is the tallest point in Napa County and marks the intersection of Napa County, Sonoma County and Lake County.  It also happens to be the site where Robert Louis Stevenson spent his honeymoon writing The Silverado Squatters.  The mountain itself is roughly a 2.4 million year old volcano that had it’s origins a bit further north by Clear Lake.  I found the rock at The Bear to be quite beautiful with streaks of reds and black mixed in with earthy browns.  It also had some of the largest crystal structures I’ve seen in rock and am now wishing that I took some photos of them.

The guide book for the area (Rock Climbing the San Francisco Bay Area) is a bit out of date in that there are some new routes and bolts that change things up a bit.  There is also a much easier climbers trail that leads to the wall than what is described in the book.  The book describes a trail on the left hand side of the fire road marked by a 16′ pine tree on the right side of the road.  This trail is easy to find and can be scrambled up with some effort but it’s much easier to continue walking up the fire road for a couple hundred more paces.  You’ll reach a break in the pine trees where there is only shrubs and a very distinctive trail off to the left, use that one.

There is roughly 20 routes setup on The Bear that range in difficulty from a 5.9 crack to a couple 5.12b’s.  There is even a few of routes that are a couple pitches tall.  Pretty much all of the climbs have a steady and slightly deceptive overhang to them and I was surprised how pumpy I felt at the top of a couple of them.  The first route we setup was Jeckyl & Hyde (5.10b).  This route used to be runout by sharing the same anchors as Rampage but now has its own set that has removed the runout.  The route has plenty of very solid hands and feet but I found some of them to be kind of elusive at first.

We also setup a rope on Rampage (5.10c) and had a report that a new line had been established just left of the bolt line that was a 5.10b but the rating on that climb might be a bit off.  I intended to give this route a go but instead found myself with a very strong desire to try the next route to the right and with a name like The Beast (5.11b) how can you blame me.  The bottom section of this climb is fairly straightforward.  It features some great underclings and generally easy 10c moves.  The fun starts to kick in between the second and third bolt.

I decided to tackle the problem by continuing to climb straight up after the second bolt and then traverse to the right over to the third bolt.  I didn’t make the moves cleanly but it felt like a solid enough sequence for me.  After this point I found myself resorting to a series of layback moves alternating between the left and the right.  The sequence was really quite fun and while I managed to make it through all of the moves, it took a few tries and a good amount of problem solving.  I’m anxious to try it another day.

After a little break and a quick snack Tyndall asked if I wanted to try leading Mark’s Moderate (5.10a R).  The climb is described as a chimney and while a couple moves fit that description, I found that the majority of it was stemming.  The climb through the first half is quite solid with fairly obvious moves.  However, around the top of the climb the crack starts to narrow and you have to move onto the face a bit.  Because of the runout in the top section I decided to do a slightly shorter traverse over to the anchors for Black Hole Sun and setup a top rope from there.  Maybe it was just the rush of onsighting the climb but I found it to be kind of fun.

So now we had a rope setup for Black Hole Sun (5.10d) which happens to be rated as one of the best climbs in the area, naturally we had to try it.  Up to the first bolt it shares the same section of rock as Mark’s Moderate but then traverses a bit over to the right.  Because of this the route features a number of different climbing techniques.  You’ve got some chimney/stemming in the beginning, a short traverse to some larger pockets and a sections of overhanging rock as well.  On the top side of the overhang I even found some very handy heel hooks that allowed me to recover from a couple moments of hanging by one arm.  So when I reached the anchors with my third onsight for the day I was feeling pretty pleased.

We left the mountain just as the sun was starting to set and I think all of us would be happy to return for more fun in the future.  There is still a bunch of climbs that look like fun and I’m feeling pretty determined to get a redpoint on The Beast.  Add in the fantastic shade that the entire wall gets after 2pm and it gets pretty easy to spend a bunch of time climbing The Bear.

Yesterday was my first adventure to Pinnacles National Monument and it won’t be my last.  Earlier in the week a friend of mine from the climbing gym, Ben, and I started making plans to do some climbing over the weekend.  Ben had been to Pinnacles a couple times before and suggested that we make it our destination.  After hearing that it was full of climbs that fit my style (slightly slabby, thin and requiring balance) I was very excited to check it out.

Photo: Flickr/seangloster

Photo: Flickr/seangloster

Pinnacles is located about 120 miles south of San Francisco and is the location of the northern half of a 23 million year old volcano.  The San Andreas fault once ran directly underneath the volcano and is responsible for tearing the volcano into two.  The southern half has stayed put near Lancaster California while the northern half has slowly traveled 195 miles north.  The rock at Pinnacles is mostly rhyolite in a breccia formation.

Rhyolite is a type of igneous rock that has some similarities to granite but tends to be rather explosive during an eruption.  Breccia is most easily thought of as a natural forming cement, essentially it’s ash and other rocks bonded together with lava.  The lava and ash seem to erode faster than the rock chunks which leaves them sticking out of the side of the sheer faces.  On top of that, when rhyolite cools quickly it can form rock with a glassy texture.  To a climber this makes for an extremely interesting climbing experience.

At first I found the climbing at Pinnacles a little unnerving.  Falling rock is not a possibility, it’s a guarantee.  Frequently there are plentiful amounts of hand and foot holds but it takes a bit of time to trust them because they simply look like pieces of gravel sitting on top of the rock.  But in reality they are (frequently but not always) cemented into the rock and extremely solid.  However, many times the holds can be quite glassy and thus very slippery.  The hand holds are also frequently at odd angles with sharp edges that make them a little painful sometimes and completely unlike anything you’ll find in a gym.  All of this is what makes it fun.

With over 900 climbs in the park there is not much risk of getting bored.  Ben and I decided to spend our time on the Discovery Wall which boasts 50 climbs all by itself.  We got to the wall, opened up our guide book and decided that we’d warm up on a climb called Protent (5.6) which is regarded as one of the best climbs in the area.  The beta for this climb said that you could do it in three short pitches or one long pitch but we decided that we’d do it in two pitches.  Ben was on lead and I was going to second him and clean on the way up.  He placed one cam and then used three fixed bolts but oddly couldn’t see any more bolts up ahead.  Much to our surprise, he ended up topping out the route with the last 40 feet of it being all runout.  So we decided that I’d lower him down, I’d do the climb, clean the route and then rappel back to the ground.

Only one problem.  As I lowered Ben back to the ground we almost ran out of rope.  I had to climb up a few feet so there was enough slack for him to get off belay.  Given how easy the climb was, this wasn’t a big deal at all but we were thankful that we had a knot at the end of the rope so it wouldn’t slip through the belay device.  So I then cleaned the climb, set the rope up to rappel down and started my rappel.  About 20′ from the bottom I noticed that I didn’t have the middle of the rope at the top of the climb which meant that I couldn’t make it all the way to the ground.  Oops.  Thankfully I had tied a backup prussic loop onto the rope before I started the rappel which allowed me to self belay myself back up the climb and then walk off the back of the cliff.

So our first climb of the day didn’t go very smoothly but that happens once you leave the gym.  For our second climb we decided to give The Wet Kiss (5.9) a try.  This climb was suppose to be an 80′ climb but after 50′ or so Ben reached the chains at the top, we both thought that was a little odd but at least this climb went smoothly.

Continuing our warm-up we decided to knock of another classic climb called Stupendous Man (5.10a).  Ben lead the climb and made it look beautiful so I decided that we’d pull the rope and I’d lead it as well.  It’s really a one move wonder that involves a fantastic mantle over a small ledge, blissful once completed.  Feeling pretty good we decided to bump it up a little bit.

Thirty feet to our left was a climb called Pistol Whipped (5.10d R).  This climb consisted of three bolts, the first one about 20′ off the ground and required two cams up top.  Sequence and concentration was the key to this climb.  Ben didn’t have too much trouble getting through the moves and placing the cams.  So we pulled the rope and it was my turn to try it on lead.  Getting to the first clip is solid but a head trip and something that shouldn’t be tried if the climb is at your limit.  The crux is above the third bolt and we solved it by moving slightly to the left and grabbing the small ledge above with a slight dyno move.  But for me the drama happened right at the end of the climb.

I was within five feet of the anchor at the top and was delighted to inform Ben of this accomplishment.  I high stepped with my right foot and was a simple mantle move away from finishing the climb when my right foot slipped and sent me falling.  My last clip was on a red cam about five feet below me and with slack and rope stretch I ended up falling about 20′.  This was the first fall I’d taken on lead outside as well as my first fall on trad gear.  Thankfully Ben is good at placing gear and I ended up finishing the climb without any injury and a smile on my face.

While we sat down for a little break and grabbed some food we started thinking about how wrong the first two climbs felt.  So we examined the guide book and discovered that we were in fact on the wrong routes.  Turns out our first climb wasn’t Protent, it was Plague (5.10a R) and our second climb wasn’t The Wet Kiss, it was Ordeal (5.8).  I found the names of the climbs that we actually did to be a bit ironic but it was soothing to figure out what was going on.

We rounded out the day with an easy but interesting chimney called Cleft (5.6), The Verdict (5.11a) and Lithium (5.11b).  Ben successfully lead both the 11 climbs but they were a bit above my comfort level on lead outdoors so I tackled them on a top rope.  I found the start on The Verdict to be especially fun and Lithium has been added to my project list to lead.

So it truly was a fantastic day of climbing and one with a lot of good safety reminders.  Here’s what I took away from the day:

  • Climbing outside is not climbing in a gym, there are inconsistencies, unexpected events and things that go wrong.  Plan for it to happen.
  • Different rock requires different techniques, give yourself time to get accustomed
  • Always tie knots at the end of the rope when belaying and rappelling
  • Always use a backup knot when rappelling
  • Stay focused until the climber is on the ground
  • Carefully study your guide books (but don’t assume they are right)
  • Climb with a person that you trust

So there’s this gym in Mountain View called Twisters.  They seem to focus on gymnastics and dancing, but they also have a small climbing gym. Last month I meet a few folks there that had never climbed before so I was excited to see them have a good time.  I had also never been to this gym so I was going to experience something new as well.  Sadly I think everyone walked away feeling pretty disappointed.

First impressions can say a lot, but sometimes they don’t say enough.  I showed up right around 2pm on a Saturday and strangely enough I couldn’t get into the building.  The entrance was around the side of the building and honestly felt more like the back door of a restaurant than the entrance to a gym.  The fact that the door was locked only added to this sensation.  But apparently the guy working there heard us trying to get in and opened it up for us.

As soon as I stepped in I realized that this was a very small gym and that we were the only people there.  The guy behind the counter got out some harnesses and tried to give me one even though I was already wearing one.  But what was really surprising is that he didn’t give anyone any climbing shoes.  He didn’t even offer to rent anyone a pair.  This was very surprising because I had heard that this was suppose to be a really good instructional climbing gym and climbing shoes really make a world of a difference.  In fact, this quote taken directly off of their website seems to suggest the same thing:

If you are just starting out, you will want to take advantage of the Bay Area’s best instructional rock climbing gym!  Twisters is a nationally recognized member gym of the USAC and is the only rock climbing gym in California with certified coaching staff! We are excited to help you climb!  Of course our expertise will be available to you at all times, but our classes are definitely the best around. In as little as one hour you can be off on your own, handling the ropes and reaching new heights!

There are some pretty bold statements in that bit of text and given that they ended 80% of the sentences with an exclamation mark tells me that they even realize how bold they are.  The only problem is that from my experience I have a hard time believing a single part of that quote.  The “instruction” that our group got was miserable at best and actually woefully inadequate.

The guy there did show the group how to tie a figure eight knot as well as a fisherman’s knot, so in theory they should have been able to tie themselves into their harnesses.  He then spent a couple minutes showing them how to use a grigri belay device.  The grigri is a locking belay device which can give people a false sense of security.  It’s also a more complicated device than an ATC, so proper instruction is really important.  On top of that, it’s somewhat awkward the first time you try to belay someone and he didn’t even bother to see if people were understanding the basics.  Instead he demonstrated belaying one person and then expected everyone to just get it.

I guess the last sentence in the above quote could be correct.  He did have everyone off on their own in only 15 minutes and I was a tiny bit worried that they would be off to new heights, heaven.  At this point we had four people who had never climbed before barely understanding how to tie some knots and maybe understanding how to operate a grigri.  No mention of any voice commands.  No helpful hits on climbing technique.  No confirmation that anyone knew what they were doing.  Climbing is a dangerous sport and he was treating it like it was ping pong.

Not only were these far from the “best classes around”, this guy clearly wasn’t excited to help.  In fact, I’d actually be surprised if he wasn’t completely stoned at the time.  Thankfully the two of us that had climbed before could fill in the gaps (and by gaps I mean very wide canyons) in the instruction.  However, what we couldn’t make up for was the safety of the gym itself.

The floor of every gym I’ve been to is covered in this thick foam material with a blue fabric on top.  It can absorb a fall from six feet off the ground without issue and is really great stuff.  This gym had the same blue material on top but was actually missing the foam underneath!  I didn’t realize this at first and hopped down from a bouldering problem and landed on the floor so hard that it caused a great amount of pain in my heal for a few days.  I then started inspecting the rest of their gear.  I then found carabiners with stuck or sticky gates, a couple ropes that looked like they should be retired and I think I even saw a static rope.  I can’t help but wonder who is insuring this gym.

I will say that their routes were challenging and that they were playing some good music (Dispatch) but I really can’t recommend anyone going to this gym.  For the sake of the people that love this gym, I hope I caught them on an off day (or month… or year…) and that it truly is a safe place to climb, but somehow I doubt that.  Besides, when it comes to safety and climbing, off days can result in serious injury.

Why I Climb

April 11, 2009

This last January I joined a small group of people (8 in total) for a half day rock climbing class.  I’d done a very small amount of climbing before and figured it would be a good time, but honestly I was hoping to just meet some women.  Much to my surprise, this was the start of a new love affair… one with rock.

Climbing has taken a toll on my hands

Climbing has taken a toll on my hands

In February I joined a climbing gym (Planet Granite) and have been spending about 10 hours a week torturing myself on its walls.  This is a huge amount of time for someone as busy as I am but for some reason I really can’t help myself.  Just like any other attraction, there is a certain amount of mystery behind it and I like to solve mysteries.

So I’m making a list.  A list of feelings and skills that showcase themselves while climbing. I doubt this list will be able to fully express things enough to come to any conclusions but I’ve got to start somewhere.  And just like Columbo, I’ll probably have to come back in the room and add in “just one more thing”.

Forced Social Behavior – Pretty much all of the outdoor activities that I’m into are ones that you can do by yourself.  Climbing is refreshingly different.  Because every climber needs someone to belay them (take in the rope as they climb) it’s kind of a hard activity to do by yourself.  This makes it very easy to approach others and strike up a conversation and so far almost everyone has been receptive of this.  In a world where most people avoid saying hello to strangers, climbers seem to encourage it.

Freedom – For years I’ve been exploring various parts of the wilderness and seeing rock walls that looked impossible to scale.  Being an idiot, I naturally want to conquer such things and it’s this kind of desire that I think worries my parents.  But as it turns out, acting on those desires can be really empowering.  The ability to traverse over any physical object opens up whole new worlds.  No longer is that island plateau off limits, no longer is the view from the top of that mountain out of reach and no longer are you simply stuck to foot paths.  It’s physical freedom on a level I have never experienced.

Problem Solving – Unless you’re on a ladder, climbing isn’t a straightforward task.  You need to plan your moves, anticipate the crux and find places to rest.  It sounds simple and logical while on the ground but these are easy things to forget when you’re getting mentally and physically tired.  This is what makes the sport so challenging.  You know where you want to go but just need to find the right combination of movements that will get you there while staying coordinated, balanced and under control.

Focus – Problem solving requires focus.  You can’t think about what is below you or how the last sequence of moves didn’t go as well as you planned.  You need to be looking ahead and knowing what your next few moves are so you can execute them logically.  At the same time you can’t forget about proper foot placement, keeping your hips close to the wall, progressing using your legs and so on.  You get so tuned into the task that you forget about the other things around you and feeling them reappear when you’re finished adds to the sensation.

Grace – Grace is just another word for control.  While keeping your temper and frustrations under control is very important, I’m actually talking about control of movement.  Making smooth movements to adjust your center of gravity helps you be a more efficient climber and use less upper body energy.  Watching the fluid movements of an experienced climber really is like watching someone dance on the rock, very graceful.  While the less experienced climber looks more like the portrayal of a white guy dancing.  I am a white guy and I think I stand a better chance of being graceful on a rock than I do a dance floor.

Physical Strength – Climbing is a full body physical activity.  Every muscle group can be used at different points but only some of them require real strength.  You discover pretty quickly that the muscles you want to use the most (your forearms) are the ones that are the weakest.  I may be in the minority, but I truly love pushing my body to its limits and feeling like I’ve done something at the end of the day.  If climbing doesn’t do that for you, it’s time to move up a few levels.

Mental Strength – Focus is the product of mental strength.  As a climber gets tired there seems to be a tendency to climb in a less efficient manner, this is clearly a downward spiral.  So having the mental strength to remain focused in the face of increasing pain is a valuable tool.  Being able to trust yourself to hold onto a grip is also an aspect of mental strength, if you can’t do this all you’re doing is closing off options.  There is also an aspect of dealing with fear.  Falling is a very natural and healthy fear, but if gone unchecked it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

Achievement – The feeling of accomplishment after finishing the hardest climb in your life is simply fantastic.  You struggle through it, push through the pain and come out on top.  Then down the road you find yourself able to do the same climbs that you once struggled on without an issue.  Because the routes follow a (sometimes rough) rating system it’s pretty easy to see improvement over time.

Endless Challenges – There is always a harder route to climb and many different types of rock to play with.  You can work on slabs (rock that isn’t quite vertical), overhanging rock, cracks, chimney climbs/stemming (using pressure with your feet and hands to scale up two parallel or adjacent faces), routes that require a lot of balance, routes with a lot of crimping holds, etc.  You can have some fun on some sport climbs or get the full rack of gear out for some traditional climbing.  This translates into a lifetime of goals.

Nope, that list doesn’t solve the mystery but perhaps it’s the mystery itself that is so appealing.  Afterall, one of the things that drew me to start climbing was the mystery of what’s at the top.  It seems kind of fitting that the mysterious journy to the top is what keeps me coming back.  So maybe this one should go unsolved.

Climb on.