Alpine Sirens

December 3, 2012

Every day that I’m out climbing is a memorable one… some more than others. However, the remote alpine climbs tend to leave the biggest impressions. Maybe it’s because they are in amazingly beautiful places. Maybe it’s because they offer big, humbling rock faces to ascend. Maybe the extra work required to just get to the base offers up an extra reward. One thing is for sure, all of these factors can combine to produce a modern day siren song.

Recently Rob and I joined another party to do some climbing on The Incredible Hulk. Thankfully we managed to resist the call of the siren, but the other two in our party had a different experience. Finishing their route at sunset, in the rain, at 11,000′, with threats of lightning and a 5 mile hike out that night; they seemed to be creating memories that they would rather not have. While their story is not for me to tell, I too have been seduced by the alpine sirens and their epic reminded me of my own… which happened almost exactly two years earlier (off by two days).

My epic took place on the Southeast face of Clyde Minaret. In the weeks since, I don’t think a single one has gone by where I haven’t had a thought or memory that’s somehow connected to Clyde. Some of the memories make my toes tingle in delight, others make me question myself and one thought gives me a good deal of comfort.

Toe Tingling Delight

Tucked away 8 miles inside the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Clyde Minaret and the surrounding area perfectly defines beauty. The rugged and inhospitable nature of the Minarets is in such contrast to the green trees and remarkably blue lakes. Connecting the lakes are wonderful cascading streams and a network of meadows. Slowly gaining in elevation up to Cecile Lake at the base of the Minarets, snow fields give a true feeling of being high up in the mountains. The lack of bridges, railings, formal trails and other things to keep humans “safe” gives me a trace feeling that I belong there but also reminds me that I don’t.

On this trip, these are the sights that got me through the tough times. These are the sights that I now dream of. These are the sights that make my toes tingle with delight.

Ritter and Banner from Shadow Lake

Ritter and Banner from Shadow Lake

Minarets from Iceberg Lake

Minarets from Iceberg Lake

Snow field around Iceberg Lake

Snow field around Iceberg Lake

Setting the Stage

The alpine environment can quickly change on you and there are some important details here that I should fill in.

The weather forecast for this trip wasn’t the greatest. Seems like there is always a slight chance of rain in the Sierra’s, but the forecast was showing the chance of precipitation building up to 70% for the day of our climb. We rolled into the Mammoth Lakes area around noon, got our permit, some lunch and hung out in town. Around 2pm a storm rolled through bringing some rain with it. Nothing major so we stayed on course to hike in the following day.

On the hike in, I was clearly preparing my mind for an uncomfortable situation. I was finding landmarks inside the first mile and wondering how happy/relieved I’ll feel on the hike out to see them again. At the same time, I was also reminding myself of some research that showed how fake/forced smiles can greatly increase your mood and the mood of those around you… I had a feeling this technique could come in handy.

That said, the conditions in the morning for our hike in were spectacular. Blue skies, no wind and a wonderful temperature. We got to our campsite around noon, got setup and went up to scope out the base of our route. Around 1pm, the winds really picked up and a storm like the day prior blew in. However, due to being above 10,000′ the rain that we had the day before was more of a sleet/hail combination. Fun.

With the chance of precipitation increasing for the next day (the day of our climb), I was figuring that we should aim to be off the summit by noon. Given that we had 12 pitches of climbing to get there, an alpine start was in order and things would have to go pretty smoothly to fit into our tight window. But they didn’t… shocker.

We got a good start but I botched the route finding on the fourth pitch, wasting an hour of precious time. A couple pitches later, being only halfway through the route I heard the first claps of thunder. Half a pitch later, it was sleeting on us. As the heavier clouds moved above us quickly, the sleet didn’t last for longer than 10 minutes. We pressed on, my level of discomfort was growing yet I shamefully said nothing.

The next few pitches of climbing are kind of a blur to me. I remember a very jarring start to the next pitch that I lead and can now clearly see in the topo that I took the path labeled “no!”. Managed to get through it but was apparently so rhythmic and focused that I didn’t pay much attention to things beyond how much rope I had left and a window of about three moves in front of me. That level of focus was quite pleasurable, the conditions outside of that focus were not.

Finally we made it to the end of the harder climbing and onto the summit ridge. With only a few hundred feet of climbing left I started to get a sense of relief despite the fact that periodic clouds continued to shower us with sleet/hail and that the wind was making communication beyond 10 feet challenging at best. Leading the second to last pitch I stopped on a nice ledge to place some gear and do some route finding. During this time my focus relaxed enough to notice a very prominant buzzing sound emanating from all around me. It was like being in the middle of a bee hive and it took me a moment to figure out what was going on… conclusion: lightning was on the edge of striking.

Questioning Myself

Let’s pause here in the story for a moment as those events really forced me to question who I am, what I’m doing and why. It’s clear now that I was having doubts about this climb before we even left the car. But why wasn’t I direct in expressing them?  When the conditions deteriorated while on route, why did I not insist on bailing and getting back to the ground? Are the guidelines I put in place for myself after my last climbing accident at all effective or just bullshit? How far am I willing to go in order to make someone else happy?

I have answers to these questions that I’m constantly refining and using to learn more about hidden parts of my personality, which is fantastic for me. But my answers are all rather personal and it’s doubtful that they would apply to others so I’ll be keeping them to myself. However, I do think there are a couple universal lessons and things to think about before embarking on any (ad)venture.

One problem that Ben and I had on this trip was an unaligned and non-communicated tolerance for risk. The two of us get along so well and see things in strikingly similar fashion that I don’t think it occurred to us that we would be on different pages regarding risk. Beyond climbing this same issue seems to crop up in all types of interactions, from business partners to life partners. When risk tolerance is aligned, you’ll be completing each other sentences. When they aren’t aligned but communicated, each person has a better ability to empathize without guessing. The challenge seems to be having the comfort and confidence to talk about it beforehand.

Somewhat related, but more of an internal lesson for me was recognizing not only my biases and preconceived notions but the consequences of them. Frequently it’s easier to have a decision making framework or to hold ideas to be true in all situations. That can work well enough for really simple things like “always look where you’re going”, but generally fails with anything sufficiently meaningful.

The result of this is that I’ve learned a great deal about myself. I’ve found that parts of my personality can be healthy and virtuous in one setting while unhealthy and dangerous in another. This is one of the unexpected dimensions of alpine climbing that I think it’s hard to recognize until you do it. While the alpine sirens draw you in and can make you blind to the danger, they can be a great vehicle for personal insight.

A Comforting Thought

Okay, back to the ledge…

In case it isn’t obvious, being a couple hundred feet from the summit of the largest peak in the nearby area while it’s buzzing with static discharge isn’t exactly the best place to be. So I took a moment to consider my options. I contemplated down climbing back to Ben at the last belay but didn’t know how much rope I had left. I didn’t feel like going any higher, that’s for sure. So I built an anchor, sat on the ledge and decided to wait and see what would happen. Given the winds I sadly couldn’t communicate this decision to Ben so he would have to remain in the dark for the time being.

While sitting on the ledge I found my state of mind to be pleasantly surprising. There was very little that I could do in the situation and I had to accept the choices and events that got me there. What’s surprising is that I didn’t feel one bit sorry for myself. I didn’t even feel worried or scared. After all, I was sitting on a really comfortable ledge in the most beautiful place I’d ever been. But the reality of the situation was far from absent in my thoughts. At one point I realized that although I was physically comfortable, that comfort would likely end the moment enough static potential built up for lighting to jump the gap. It’s difficult to say this now, but at that moment I was okay with it.

Thinking about that situation now still makes my hands shake a bit and is nothing that I want to go through again. However, the fact that I can be in a situation where I can literally hear death around the corner, yet remain calm and still smile about it is tremendously comforting.

Storms approaching with slight breaks between

Storms approaching with slight breaks between

Eventually the buzzing stopped, we made it to the top, signed the summit registry and started the (very challenging and stressful) descent. We continued to experience intermittent sleet and hail along with constant winds. In the Clyde-Ken couloir we could see that the scree at the base was just below us but the ice in the couloir made getting there slow, challenging, wet and cold. With one final rap off some sketchy fixed gear, I’ve never been happier to be on scree in my life.

As we were getting back to camp the sun was setting. We decided that we should pack up our camp and move it to the other side of the snow and ice that surrounded Iceberg Lake as it would be frozen in the morning and nearly impossible to travel across without crampons. I was feeling a bit rattled by the events of the day and kind of just wanted to be back at the car. But Ben talked me into stopping a bit below Ediza Lake, setting up camp again and having some dinner.

The next morning we finished the hike back to the car and made our way to Mammoth Lakes, stopping at the scenic overlook where the Minarets are displayed beautifully in the distance. At the overlook we ran into Heather Schneider, wife of Steve Schneider (both of them are well respected and very accomplished climbers). Apparently we looked the part as she asked us where we were climbing. With a bit of pride we told her that we’d climbed Clyde the day before. She complemented us on a “bold ascent” given the weather conditions. This was and still is quite a complement coming from her, but there is a fine line between bold and stupid.


Uncle: More Than A Niece

November 1, 2010

At the end of 2009 I became an uncle… kind of hard to believe but steadily getting easier. For the last year I’ve wrestled with this post and haven’t really felt like writing anything else until I figured it out. I was expecting an event of this magnitude to be an easy thing to write about but turns out that it isn’t. The problem isn’t a lack of excitement, it’s sorting out the excitement that is mine to share and doing so in a way that might be interesting to those outside of our family. We’ll see how I do.

When I arrived at Tate and Tammie’s place the day before Callie was born I got the feeling that I had more anxiety than they did. I got to feel Callie’s little kicks inside her Mom which made it pretty obvious what was going to happen in a few hours. Somehow Tate and Tammie went to bed but I stood in their kitchen and looked out at the massive amounts of snow on their deck. Looking at this snow and pondering what thoughts were running through their heads, I realized that never before had my brother and I been in more greatly differing places in our lives.

Tate is my only sibling and being four years older than I am he naturally dips his toe into some waters before I do. He turned 30 before me, purchased a house before me, got married before me and started working on having a family before me. Hell, I haven’t even started on those last three. Thankfully there isn’t a lot of competition between the two of us so you won’t find me complaining about this arrangement… maybe I wish that I turned 30 first but that’s it.

While my brother and I are quite similar, there is no doubt that we are in different places both geographically and chronologically. Growing up he was kind of a fortune teller. I could see the path he was taking and for so many years I instinctively wanted to follow that same path. It was his interest in having a car stereo that set me on a path to starting my own audio business when I was 16. It was his friend Josh’s acne that made me reluctant to treat my own. I even imagined that I’d join him in Minneapolis after I graduated college. This list can go on but you get the point, Tate was my role model and a fantastic one at that.

Things changed a bit when I moved to California. Without realizing it, I found a slightly different path and one that I’m pretty happy to be on. But I find it a little ironic that I never realized how much influence my brother has had on my life until I noticed how different our present places were. This realization was uncomfortable. I never would have thought that on the night before my brother would become a father and my parents would become grandparents that I’d be feeling the weight of 4 years and 2000 miles.

There’s a lot that I could say about the day Callie was born. I could talk about how amazed I was with Tate and Tammie’s calmness or how I got to see a new side of my parents. It’s very tempting to talk about how cute Callie was from day one and how nervous I was to hold her. While these are all amazing emotions, I’m going to resist because I can’t describe them in any meaningful way. Perhaps I can’t describe them because my memories of the day are overwhelmed by one simple observation.

After the delivery we visited Tate and Tammie in their hospital room. I tend to be sensitive towards various sounds and the beeping from Tammie’s heart rate monitor was one of them, it called to me. I noticed that every now and then it would jump up dramatically. The first time it was kind of puzzling. Then it happened again and again. After a few times I figured out what was going on and had a hard time holding my composure.

Every time Tammie touched or held Callie her pulse would shoot up at least 20 bpm.

You can see the connection that Tate and Tammie have with Callie by the way they look at her, smile at her and hold her. But Tammie’s heart rate shows a different kind of connection, one that exists outside of her conscious mind.

I spent some time this year thinking about what the future could hold for me as an uncle and Callie as my niece. I’ve found myself wondering if some of my interests will rub off on her. Will she be a geek or maybe play the guitar? Perhaps she’ll enjoy cooking or photography. Or maybe she’ll have a passion for the outdoors and scare the hell out of her parents just like I do mine. Maybe none of the above.

For me one of the joys of living is exploring all the different things we can do while we are alive. My parents did an amazing job of introducing me to wide variety of things and very rarely did they ever push them down my throat. Instead they presented me with opportunities and let me find my own direction and my own passions. That was quite the favor that they did for me.

But there seems to be something inside us all that wants to see our interests passed onto our children. Just take one look at the pressures that fathers can place on their kids to participate in a particular sport. If you ask me, that’s a pretty good way to ensure that they either won’t like it or will end up resenting you. So when I started hoping that some aspects of me would rub off on Callie I started feeling like a hypocrite.

After seeing her on my last trip I realized that my urge for her to have something in common with me is motivated by my desire to be connected with her. To have something that we can talk about, something we can share. So I’ve reframed things in my mind a bit. Instead of wanting a part of me to rub off on her, my goal is to share as much of me as I can and see where she takes herself.

The West Coast is a different kind of place than the Midwest with opportunities to explore different kinds of things. So it’s exciting to think about the things I can share with her out here during different parts of her life. Hopefully some of them will enrich her life and get her to ask some questions but I know that others will go right by her. But that’s okay, it will be her choice.

Climbing and Falling

November 12, 2009

Over the last month I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this post.  Thinking about how to share this story, this experience, this accident and what it all means to me.  After a month I still don’t quite know how to convey all of those things and sorting out how events impact me is always an ongoing process that I hope writing about will further.

Just so you know the gist of this story: I climbed, I fell, I broke my back… literally.  But I’m okay.

I live a pretty adventurous lifestyle.  Outside of this latest accident and a torn ACL 9 years ago, I’ve managed to get through a dozen years of activities like mountain and road biking, wilderness hiking, downhill skiing, backcountry snowshoeing, rock climbing and simply being a male in his 20’s without much health drama.  While the average American might look at my lifestyle as dangerous or crazy, to me it’s a lifestyle of being alive and one that I’m perfectly comfortable with.

What you are comfortable with is an important thing to always keep in mind.  Knowing when you can push that comfort zone and when you should stay in it.  Comfort and confidence are strongly tied together and we mostly limit our lives to what we’re confident doing because well, it’s comfortable.  But to continue growing as a person we need to expand what we’re comfortable with and increase our confidence in new dimensions.  We all do this by learning new things, meeting new people, starting new relationships and many other ways.  It just happens that one of my dimensions is exploring myself in nature and over the years I’ve become very confident  in this area.

I mention this because I don’t want the lessons I’ve learned to be lost via dismissive thoughts like “he’s crazy” or “he was asking for it”.  The reality is that we’re all crazy, we’re all asking for it and every now and then it catches up with us.  So here’s the latest story of how I was asking for it and how it caught up with me.

“We did it because it’s fun and mainly it was fun… every now and then it went wildly wrong”Joe Simpson, Touching the Void

The Stage

If you’ve been reading my previous posts, you’ll know all about the events leading up to my fall so this section will be a bit repetitive.  For those that haven’t, I was in Yosemite Valley for a 6 day climbing trip and on a route called Selaginella (5.8).  The entire trip was going fantastically and the climbing couldn’t have been better.  We were making great time, the weather was awesome, both Ben and I had done some great leads and the views were beyond spectacular.  Everything was so fantastic that even the fall that I’m about to describe can’t tarnish those experiences.

I had just finished leading a 200′ rope stretching pitch to one of the coolest rock formations and belay stations I’d ever seen.  From this location it was about 800′ straight down to the valley floor and about 170′ to the top of our climb.  So with Ben taking the next lead I was assuming that once he reached the top I’d just have to follow up behind him and clean the gear along the way, piece of cake.

I couldn’t see Ben’s progress on most of the route so I was judging how things were going by monitoring the amount of rope I was letting out.  Knowing that it was 170′ to the top I was surprised when Ben went off of belay with 60′ of rope left.  I couldn’t hear him at this point so I wondered if I was mistaken about how much climbing we had left or if the beta in the topo was just wrong.  Either way I started climbing up to him.

About 50′ from him he informed me that he hadn’t reached the top and that I’d understand why when I got there.  I was curious what was going on but Ben didn’t sound remotely worried so I wasn’t either.  He had stopped on this 20′ long ledge that was about 18″ wide and about 30′ from the top.  He didn’t finish it off because the climbing below was pretty strenuous and he wasn’t sure if we were still on route or not.  That was cool with me.

The Fall

So we looked at our options, we had two of them.  Over to the left was a large flake that was totally separated from the wall and looked like you could just push it over.  In front of us was a face section with some very thin and detached flake and what appeared to be a small crack.  The face looked quite featured and I thought I’d be able to get a piece of protection in 10′ off of the belay.

So I used these very thin flakes as foot holds while walking my hands up this seam in the rock that I thought turned into more of a crack.  These flakes were about 1/8th of an inch thick and I could feel them moving a bit when I stepped on them.  Needless to say I wasn’t looking to hang out on them for too long.  When I got up to where I thought I’d be able to get a small nut in I realized that it wasn’t going to work out as I expected.  This didn’t concern me too much because while the rock was sketchy, the climbing was easy and I wasn’t worried about falling.

Looking up at what I had left to climb I spied a nice pocket in the rock about 4 inches tall and 3/4 of an inch wide making it big enough to fit a solid cam into.  I became a bit fixated on this pocket and when I reached it I discovered that I had run out of solid footholds on my right side.  So instead of resting on the rock my foot was mostly holding on with friction.  My left foot was on the sloping section of this seam in the rocks so it didn’t have a great amount of purchase either.  I had a solid right hand in the pocket that I noticed below and a good left hand on the seam.

In order to place the cam into the pocket I had to remove my right hand from it, select an appropriate sized cam from the rack of gear, place it into the rock and clip my rope into it.  The first cam I selected turned out to be a bit too small and the lobes on the cam were tipped out.  What this means is that the cam was fully extended in the rock and it’s holding power would be drastically reduced.  So I removed the cam to replace it with a larger one.

At this point I found myself starting to get nervous.  My right foot started to Elvis (shake uncontrollably) which isn’t a good thing when it’s gripping the rock with friction.  I managed to get myself to calm down and my foot stopped shaking.  So I went back to looking for the right size cam and was having real trouble finding one that I liked.  The nerves kicked up again and this time the shaking in my foot caused it to slip.  Because my left foot was on an even worse hold and I only had one hand gripping the rock, I couldn’t hold on and fell.

At the time that I fell I was about 20′ above the belay and about 5′ from the top of this climb without a single piece of protection between me and Ben.  This is called a factor 2 fall and it is the worst type of fall that a climber can take.  When you fall on lead you fall twice as far as you are above your last piece of protection plus a bit for rope stretch.  When your last piece of protection is the belay itself, that means you’re going to fall twice as far as you have climbed plus some rope stretch.  For me this translated into what we are estimating as a 50′ fall.

At 190 lbs, I’m not the lightest climber and after 50′ of gravity doing it’s thing it takes a good amount of force to stop such a moving mass.  When the rope started to come tight Ben initially couldn’t stop the fall and the rope started running through his right hand.  Being an extremely good belayer he quickly found where the rope was leaving the ledge and stepped on it.  Outside of being a fantastic person, this is reason I climb with Ben.  Without his quick thinking my fall could have been 220′, I can’t thank and praise him enough.

The Aftermath

The rock I was climbing wasn’t quite vertical, it was sloping just a little bit.  So when I fell I slid down the first 20′ which wouldn’t have been bad except for that 18″ ledge.  When I hit that Ben said that I just crumbled onto it and then off of it, this is what caused most of my injuries.  This sent me tumbling down the remaining 30′ of my fall.  When the rope came tight I found myself upside down and a bit disoriented, kind of like the scrambler amusement park ride if it were to end with you inverted and hanging by your waist.

Ben shouted down, “are you okay?!”  I replied very quickly with “yeah, I’m fine”.  He didn’t believe me and proclaimed that he saw my fall and that there is no way I could be fine after something like that.  I felt pretty beat up but I didn’t feel broken and quickly swung over to the route we had climbed up and told Ben that I was going to start climbing up to him.  He shouted down for me to hold on because he was “dealing with some pretty bad rope burn”.  My heart sunk and I felt incredibly guilty about the injuries I caused him.

But in no time he told me that I could start climbing up to him and while doing so I noticed that my left heel was hurting a bit as well as my right knee and my lower back.  But I honestly didn’t think too much about it at the time.  I made my way back to Ben pretty quickly and got myself secure into the anchor that was now proven to be very bomber.

We hung out there for at least a half an hour.  In that time my injuries were starting to become quite noticeable and I was growing anxious for a plan of what we were going to do.  Our options were to rappel down the route leaving behind an enormous amount of gear and probably taking a least a couple hours to do so, have one of us try once again to finish the climb or wait for a party far below us to catch up and have them help us out.

With how slow the party below us was moving it would be at least a couple hours until we got to the top if we waited for them.  Rappelling the route was not only unappealing for the massive amount of gear we would leave behind, it was also pretty dangerous.  So we decided to get the guide book out and see what it suggested for our route.

Turns out we were suppose to go up the large flake over to our left.  After thinking and talking it through, Ben said that he’d be willing to lead it and I could follow up behind him.  Even with very severe burns he managed to climb up the flake and finish the route without any troubles.  The adrenaline was starting to leave my body by the time I started climbing so it proved to be pretty painful.  But even in my state I managed to finish it off without weighting the rope.

The Descent

At the top Ben asked if I wanted to take a moment to at least enjoy the view, I said “nope”.  The pain in my knee was excruciating and while I was happy to be at the top and next to a very popular hiking trail, I was pretty worried about the mile of hiking and the 1000′ of descending that was now in front of me.  I couldn’t put any weight on the heel of my left foot and the pain in my right knee kept me from stepping down with that leg so the many sand covered steps of the trail were bound to make things interesting.

So I set myself little goals.  I’d focus on getting to a landmark that I knew of or to a specified elevation.  Along the way we ran into a couple of hikers that warned us that there was a bear just off of the trail in front of us.  I thought about how ironic it would be to survive the fall but be eaten by a bear.  So we approached the area slowly and made a bunch of racket.  We noticed the bear above us and it seemed pretty content to mind its own business so we continued on our way chatting with the couple that warned us of the situation.

They, like almost everyone else that a climber runs into, was very curious about how we climb such things.  I left the explanations and demonstrations of how the gear worked to Ben.  While I was very worried that I had torn a ligament in my knee, I was very pleased with my ability to keep up with two hikers who were injury free.  Plus the conversation helped keep my mind off of things and we were back at camp in no time.

At camp we got out the first aid kit.  Ben cleaned up his burns and threw on some tape while I put an ace bandage on my knee with some ice.  After hanging out a bit and sharing what happened with Dustin and Katie we walked back to the trailhead to pick up my car and went to the grocery store for some food.  When we got back to camp I was still very sore but feeling surprisingly well.  Well enough to make us some breakfast burritos for dinner and then hang out by the fire for a couple hours before heading to bed.

I was tempted to visit the medical staff in Yosemite but figured if the swelling in my knee and heel didn’t get any worse I could wait until I got back to the Bay Area.  The next morning I woke up very stiff but was mobile.  We packed up the car and started the drive home.  Along the way we chatted about what had happened and bigger picture stuff around our climbing futures.

The Hospital

When I got home I didn’t want the doctors to be repulsed by my smell so I took a shower and headed to Stanford Hospital.  I tried to get an appointment with a sports medicine doctor but none were available so I headed over to the ER.  They admitted me and by 3pm I was in a room getting checked out and having some X-rays taken of my heel, knee and back.  Around 5pm they decided that they wanted more info about my heel so they ordered a CT scan of it, fine by me.  Around 7:30 they said that they couldn’t see anything wrong with my heel and started to discharge me.

L2 Fracture

Cross section of my L2 vertebrae

Just before signing my discharge papers the doctor came in and put an end to the fun.  He said that a more senior radiologist looked at the X-ray of my back and spotted a compression fracture in my L2 vertebrae.  My response: “you’re shitting me”.  Just like that I went from being a beat up guy to the most interesting person in the hospital and while everyone loves some attention, you don’t want it from doctors.

So I asked what this meant.  They said that they needed to get a CT scan of my spine to determine if it was a stable or an unstable fracture.  If it was unstable I’d have to go in for surgery and get my vertebrae fused and if it was stable they’d put me in a back brace for a month and I’d be on my way.  What a contrast that is, I could be fine in a month or my entire outdoor life could be over.  I started freaking out a bit.

So I called Ben and told him what was going on and asked if he could keep me company, he said that he’d be on his way.  After getting of the phone I went in for my CT scan and was very nervous about it.  I was so nervous that my entire body was shaking and all of the techniques I knew to calm myself weren’t doing the trick.  This continued for another 20 minutes until Ben showed up.

Not only was it nice to have Ben around to keep me laughing and distracted, he was a better witness to what happened to me than I was and could tell a side of the story that I couldn’t.  It also gave me a chance to hear about his struggle to find an burn specialist for his hand that his insurance company approved of.  After a series of “recommended” doctors that no longer existed, he thankfully managed to find one that was truly interested in taking care of him and he needed it.  With bandages covering the severe third degree burns on his palm and finger tips, it was pretty obvious to the staff that he was there to see me.

It was about 9pm the parade of doctors was just about to begin.  Seems like everyone that was on staff that night came to check me out and hear my story.  Each one of them performing their favorite barrage of neurological tests on my body, one of them even wanted to check the “tone” of my rectum, fun for everyone.  I kept hoping that one of them would be as attractive as Elliot Reid from Scrubs, but alas that was not the case.  As a reward for going through all of this they ordered me a dinner but the kitchen was closed so instead I was treated to a few packages of graham crackers.

The hours past and I got no conclusive information from the doctors.  They seemed to be debating about how bad my fracture was and nobody wanted to make a call so they kept bringing in people with more experience hoping to clarify the situation.  It seemed like some doctors just stopped by because they wanted to hear the story in person, one guy was even a rock climber.  But at 4am they seemed to acknowledge the fact that a decision was not going to be made and they’d have to wait for their senior spinal guy to show up in the morning.

Not wanting to admit me into the hospital and not being able to send me home they decided to stick me over in a corner of the hospital where I could spend the night.  I affectionately referred to this area as purgatory.  I don’t care what the religious folks say, purgatory was really pretty nice, they had food, comfortable beds and some pain meds which allowed me to get to sleep.  They even offered to let Ben stay in a room next door if he wanted!  While a gracious offer, home has a pretty strong pull over a hospital, especially after 8 hours and there was really no point in sticking around.  I was out shortly after Ben left.

In the morning the spinal guy checked me out and kind of laughed at me still being there, that made me feel good.  It was clear to him that my fracture was stable and they threw me in a brace and shoved me out the door.  I was to wear this brace for the next month or so and even though it was pretty annoying I was just thrilled to not need any surgery.

The Lessons

Like almost every other accident, there isn’t just one thing that went wrong in this one.  Nothing in life is black or white, safe or unsafe and this is why textbook rules are impossible to apply to all situations.

Some climbers my criticize me for not following the best practices and getting some protection in sooner but anyone who has done a good amount of living knows that things don’t always work out that nicely and trad climbing is no different.  I could have possibly clipped the rope to one of the pieces of the anchor but even that practice seems to be subjective and would not have changed my personal outcome in this case.

I could have and should have taken a look at the topo before setting off on this lead.  It would have been obvious that the face was not the way to go and would have likely avoided the whole accident.  I think about this one a lot and it frustrates me that I had this information and did not use it.

I could list off a number of other things that would have made a difference and kept us safer.  But I feel like doing so would be like telling someone that 2×2 is 4 instead of telling them why 2×2 is 4.  You could spend your life learning lessons about specific climbing situations and never know how to climb safely.  So instead I did a little 5 whys exercise to see if I could find a deeper lesson.

What I came up with is the feeling like this accident was brewing for a while.  So even if I had avoided the accident in this specific case, the risk of a similar accident would not have been removed.  I’m not saying that I got injured because it was fate and I’m not saying that I deserved this because of the activity I was doing.  What I’m saying is that the way I was escalating my climbing made a preventable accident inevitable.

In less than one year I’ve gone from no climbing experience to leading routes that 60 years ago were considered to be almost at the limits of human ability.  I spent a lot of time measuring my success and gauging when to move up in difficulty based off of being able to complete a climb at some level.  That’s a totally reasonable and safe approach to take in a climbing gym where things are predictable and you don’t need much margin for error.  Trad climbing has a different set of requirements.

So instead of some blanket rules that every climber has heard, what I have come up with is the more abstract realization that I should have been paying more attention to what was fueling my confidence.  I was comfortable leading a section that I shouldn’t have been because I had confidence in my abilities to do it.  But that confidence was founded more on ego than reality and when things didn’t go just right it caught up with me.

If you’ve done something long enough that it becomes second nature, that’s a solid thing to be confident about, that’s what I’m calling reality driven confidence.  Talking yourself up and increasing your ego driven confidence is fine, that’s a good way to push the envelope, but you should recognize when you’re doing that and avoid doing it when you’re betting the farm.

I continue to find that rock climbing closely parallels life and I think that’s why I love it so much.  You have confidence you climb, you loose confidence or find that the confidence was misplaced and you fall.  I don’t care if it’s rock climbing, building a relationship, running a company, the stock market, the housing market or anything else that involves humans, the same rule seems to apply.  The more reality based confidence in the system, the safer the climbing.

I had to report for jury duty today and I was joking on Twitter that the best outcome from this civic duty would be meeting a girl.  When I got to the jury meeting room I pretty quickly realized that all the optimism in the world wasn’t going to do much for me in this case.  What I hadn’t realized (and wouldn’t for another hour or so) was that my view of the best outcome was completely off.

So sitting in a big room with about 300 other folks I waited to hear my name called.  I was quite relieved when I was in the first batch of 70 people to be called into the court room.  This meant that I wouldn’t have to listen to the two guys in front of me talk about boxing and other macho crap anymore.  No, now I could stand in a hallway and watch prisoners in dayglow orange jumpsuits being marshaled around and wonder what their state of mind was before they got those new outfits as well as what it is now that they have them.  Pretty depressing.

As we were called into the court room all 70 of us eventually sat down and the judge started giving us instructions.  He also introduced us to the lawyers as well as the defendant.  The defendant was a middle aged guy that looked like he was being prosecuted for money laundering or a similar crime.  I didn’t think too much about it until the judge informed us that he was being charged with rape, possession of a weapon and a dozen other crimes that were listed too quickly to comprehend.  The central word in my head… shit.

I was expecting to potentially serve on a simpler case with lesser charges, not one where the defendant could end up spending the rest of his life in prison.  I’ve watched enough Law & Order episodes to know that prosecuting a rape is not a simple process so when the judge informed us that the trial was scheduled to last 3-4 weeks, I wasn’t surprised, I was horrified.

I was horrified not because of what this man was accused of or by what happened to the victim, but what it would mean to my startup.  These extremely selfish feelings are ones that I am not proud of but also can’t deny.  The thought of not making any progress for a month while continuing to burn my savings was more frightful than recent announcements from a quasi competitor.  But wait, what are these “hardships” that the judge is describing?

Turns out that there are five classifications of hardships that are reasons for being excused from jury duty, one of them being money.  I just had to fill out a form making a case for the financial burden that jury duty would place on me and the judge would review it and decide if I could be excused.  I haven’t focused that hard on making my writing legible since drafting class in high school.  As the hardships were being reviewed in the back, the deputy would bring them out in small batches and inform us of the judges decision.

I don’t have any problems paying attention and generally can always find something to keep myself entertained, but not in this case.  I needed something to pass the time but there was nothing.  I couldn’t even find much to count… 37 clipboards in front of me, 14 chairs in the jury box (odd), one nervous defendant who had to go to the bathroom twice and one very angry man who’s pleads to be excused were revoked (coincidentally I saw this same man yelling at the security folks earlier).  Then my name is called and I couldn’t reply with “here” fast enough… “you’re excused”.

Whew!  I walked out of that court room with such a huge smile on my face that I must have looked like I was just acquitted of a crime.  While I would have enjoyed serving my civic duty, it really would have killed me at this time in my life.  So it turns out that in this case being excused was an even better outcome than meeting a girl.  I’ll just have to keep looking for more ways to meet women, hopefully ones that aren’t so threatening to my future.

Taking Healthy Risks

August 9, 2009

In a population that has an endless thirst for safety mechanisms and cleansers, does the phrase “healthy risk” turn into an oxymoron?  I’m pretty comfortable with taking risks (some aren’t even healthy) and even I don’t consciously decide to take too many healthy ones.  We all unconsciously take them just like we all unconsciously eat healthy food on occasion.  But few of us consciously have a lifestyle of taking healthy risks just like few of us consciously have a lifestyle of eating healthy.

Healthy risks might be health risks When I started thinking about writing this post I decided to do a quick search and see what others out there had to say about taking healthy risks.  So I started out with a simple Google search of “healthy risks” and laughed at the irony when it asked if I meant “health risks”.  For me, a healthy risk has nothing to do directly with putting my health at risk.  In fact, I can’t think of a single healthy risk that didn’t improve my health, even the risks that didn’t pan out.  Perhaps I’ve been lucky or maybe the things that I’ve done aren’t that risky or perhaps I’ve just been good at mitigating that risk, I’m honestly not sure and that uncertainty makes me question what the definition of a healthy risk is.

It’s kind of a hard thing to define, even the internet doesn’t seem to provide a quick definition.  I can think of tons of examples of things that I consider healthy risks, but what I find risky might be mundane to someone else, so examples really don’t provide much of a definition either.  So after a bit of thinking here’s what I’ve come up with:  A healthy risk is doing something outside your comfort zone where the positive outcome is something that you desire and the negative outcome can eventually be recovered from.  A part of me wants to also add that a risk could be healthy if the negative outcome is unlikely, but would that still make it a risk?

Now that I’ve got a definition, I can actually start to seek out healthy risks to take instead of stumbling across them.  The only question left in my mind is, how many should I take?  Like everything else that we consume, there has to be an upper bound where above that a good thing turns bad.  Perhaps the need to step outside of what’s comfortable helps to make it a self regulating system, I’m not sure.  But I think to start with I’m just going to jump at the ones that present themselves to me and see where it takes me.  Maybe I’ll come to find out that I already had the appropriate amount in my diet.

What I do know is that I absolutely love the feeling of taking these kinds of risks and I’m going to chase that feeling a bit more.  If you’d like to chase it along with me, I’m thinking that Twitter is a good vehicle for sharing the healthy risks that we take and getting ideas for new ones to try out (use the hashtag #HealthyRisk).

Feeling Like a Kid

July 12, 2009

While I endlessly enjoy being an adult, there are some things that I naturally miss about being a kid.  Not really having a care outside of what I was playing with at the time, no bills and creativity that was uninhibited by social concerns are just a few.  While those are difficult traits to have as adult, I know of one sure fire way to feel like a kid again.

Solve some really hard problems.  So much of what kids do is problem solving and it’s easy to see and hear their excitement when they find a solution.  That’s a reproducible feeling but it gets a bit more challenging as I get older because I’ve solved a bunch of problems already and the ones that are left (which are many) tend to be a bit more complex.  No longer is making a stack of blocks an accomplishment, so the trick is to seek out and find equally challenging problems, adjusted for age inflation.

Last Thanksgiving I started working on what is now the foundation for my startup.  At the time this was a project unlike any I’d ever started, I didn’t even know if it was possible to accomplish what I was setting out to do.  If it was technically possible, I wasn’t sure if I had the mental goods to pull it off.  Thankfully I’ve still got some hubris in me and I wasn’t going to let worries of what reality might be get in the way of finding out what reality really is.

I use the word hubris cautiously because it has a pretty negative connotation.  Its definition usually includes other wonderful words like arrogance and overconfidence.  These are characteristics that most people wouldn’t want to have applied to their general self but I’m wondering if they can be useful to your problem solving self, perhaps even necessary.

Arrogance – having an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities
Overconfidence – excessively confident: mistakes were made through being overconfident

Are these really bad characteristics for problem solving?  I don’t think so.  Hard problems are relative to the individual and all hard problems tend to crush ones confidence at points.  So an exaggerated sense of what one can accomplish could be helpful in getting over self imposed barriers.  As for making mistakes, they should be embraced, not feared.  They teach you what doesn’t work, which leaves your mind free to try a new path that is more likely to succeed.

I think not knowing the path from A to B is what ties problem solving to feeling young.  I like to think of each experience in my life as forming a little path in my brain.  The more I travel down the same path the more defined and worn in that path gets.  Travel a path enough and it turns into a rut.  Seems like our brain can pretty much be on cruse control when going down these defined paths.

Don’t get me wrong, very well worn paths are useful things.  Without them performing complex tasks like playing a musical instrument would be impossible.  But simply following those paths doesn’t really stimulate your brain in the same way.  Getting out in the wilderness and doing some bushwhacking, that’s the kind of activity that your brain did all the time as a kid.  This is why you never hear a kid complaining that they are stuck in a rut, there is just so much to be explored.

As I say goodbye to my 20’s, it’s not really an accident that I’m trying to lay down a bunch of new paths in my brain and the good news is that it’s working.  The feelings that I’ve had while working on my startup have been nothing short of childhood bliss.  There has been more than one occasion where I was so excited after solving a problem that I ran out of my house in the middle of the night in uncontrollable laughter.

So the next time you’re wishing for some of your youth back, find yourself a hard problem, have a bit of hubris and start working on it.  If it’s a sufficiently hard problem it will take a while to solve it, but in the meantime at least you’ll be distracted from getting older.  While it’s not as quick as going out and buying a fast car or something like that, I will guarantee that the results will feel better, make you smarter and be a lot cheaper.

Before going on a hike today (self employment rocks), I stopped by Jamba Juice for something to tie me over until lunch later in the afternoon.  The Jamba employee (or Jambalee for short) was a rather chipper young man who called himself Jimmy.  There was one person in front of me and as this customer gave Jimmy his money, Jimmy replied with “thanks boss”.  Immediately I was dreading Jimmy taking my order.

Sure enough, Jimmy called me boss when I gave him my money as well.  In fact, he called everyone boss and multiple times at that.  “Blackberry Bliss for Carla…  Here ya go boss”.  While annoying, it isn’t the lack of creativity that Jimmy had when addressing people that bothered me.  It’s the use of the word alone that I have a problem with and here’s why.

First off it’s simply an incorrect usage of a word for the given context.  Some may claim that its usage in this case is considered slang but I’m not buying it.  Besides, boss is already slang for excellent or cool.  Nope, when used as a title for another individual boss only has one meaning and it’s to denote that the person is your superior.  Not only am I not in charge of Jimmy, I don’t want to be in charge of Jimmy.

Second, essentially when someone calls me boss they are insulting themselves.  Why would someone voluntarily do this?  I can’t imagine that a person feels empowered after using the phrase.  If every random person that you serve is your boss, how much control can you have over your life?  Are they trying to boost my ego by making me feel like I’m important?  While I suppose some would appreciate that, I just can’t see the masses of service workers so willing to help out the egos of their customers.  I worked in a service job when I was in high school and it takes enough energy just to maintain your own ego while wearing one of those uniforms that there isn’t anything left to give.  Something isn’t adding up here.

I love sarcasm, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I feel like this usage of boss is actually a sarcastic remark.  I’m not convinced that everyone that’s using it intends for it to be sarcastic because lets face it, pop culture tends to be a bit of an echo chamber (in fact, I wonder if an echo chamber is a requirement for pop culture, but that’s a different topic…).  If I’m right about this, then calling someone boss is actually a backhanded complement.  Thanks Jimmy.

The difficult thing with backhanded complements is that they are often hard to reply to.  Treating it like it was a genuine complement only feeds into the desires of the person who gave it.  Replying with a backhanded complement of your own is a natural and somewhat satisfying reaction but that puts you on their level.  So what’s a good response to being called boss?

A part of me wants to treat their usage very literally by replying to the statement “thanks boss” with “you’re welcome subordinate”.  This is what I’ll call the Dwight Schrute response.  Somehow I don’t think people would enjoy hearing that all too often and they may think twice about using the phrase.

To stay on The Office theme, Angela Martin would take the direct approach and reply with something along the lines of “I’m the boss of my cats, you’re not good enough to be one of my cats, so stop calling me boss”.  While I’d love to see the look on someone’s face after that line was delivered to them, it’s not my style and I couldn’t hold a straight face.

Toby Flenderson would either take the polite route and ask that he not be called boss or perhaps the passive aggressive approach by filling out an anonymous comment card for the establishment.  While the polite route is probably the most adult way of dealing with it, Toby is pretty much ignored as a character and would likely get the same treatment in this case as well.

Stanley Hudson would go for the “whatever” reaction by uttering a “Ahhhh huh” while filling out a crossword puzzle while Roy Anderson would probably just punch the guy.  So maybe looking to The Office characters isn’t the greatest model for a response, but it sure is a fun one.

I don’t want to take all of the fun, so what would the other characters respond with?

A New Adventure

July 1, 2009

Adventure – an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity.  Is it unusual?  Even in the bay area where the unusual is fairly usual, this isn’t something that the majority does.  How about exciting?  If it wasn’t exciting I wouldn’t be able to even get to this point.  Hazardous?  Compared to my outdoor activities, hazardous is a little strong but it’s not void of risk either.  So yeah, the word adventure feels like a good fit.  But a fit for what?

Starting my own company.

That’s right, in the midst of what I hope will be the worst economy in my life, I’ve decided to leave my comfortable and well paying job at Mark Logic behind and do my own thing.  It’s not a decision that I made lightly, in fact I’ve been pondering it since Thanksgiving of 2008.  I’ve given the concept plenty of time to soak in and as the weeks have passed I’ve increasingly felt like it’s something I have to do.

I had this moment in high school where I decided that the secret to my life was to minimize regrets and after 14 years it’s still serving me pretty well.  Yes this is a risky move.  Yes I could blow all of my savings on it.  Yes I could end up regretting that.  But what overshadows all of those could be regrets is the certainty of regret if I don’t try.  Plus, I’m at the point in my life where doing something like this only gets harder.

The more time you spend in financial comfort, the harder it is to live a life of minimalism.  Plus, for most people their thirties are a time of increased responsibilities in the form of houses and families.  These things seriously raise the bar on funding your own startup.

But the biggest motivator to take this risk is that I’m very excited about what I’m working on.  I haven’t felt this kind of excitement since I was working on my search engine in college.  I’m not ready to share all of the details about my project in such a public place but I will say that it’s very closely tied to my biggest passion, music.  So not only am I going to get to work on my own stuff for my own good, I’ll be forced to listen to music while doing it, what a hard life.

As usual I’ll do my best to share the details of this adventure on this blog.  Of course, if history is an indicator of the future I might get distracted for a while and have some gaps, but we’ll just have to see.

Many thanks to all of those that have encouraged me to give this a go as well as those that have given me a moment of pause, my determination is stronger thanks to you.

Yesterday I was listening to a presentation about lean startups and a topic in the presentation really struck a chord with me.  The presenter was talking about measuring progress and how frequently progress is measured in ways that are totally incorrect.  Such an obvious observation in hindsight but one that I had never made.  Hello dots, meet your new friends the connections.

Immediately I started thinking about all of the projects that I’ve worked on and tried to identify how progress was measured on each one.  The most disastrous project had a huge specification jammed down the throats of the developers and progress for that project was measured by how much of the specification was implemented.  There wasn’t much about this project that felt right, but the self centered metric for measuring progress should have been the biggest indicator of failure.  At least 10 man years were spent on that project, it never made any money and has now been shut down.

The next project I worked on at that company was one of my own making.  Personally I was measuring progress by how much the company was able to innovate.  Admittedly that too was a stupid metric because you can have progress without anyone else caring. Consequently while the site is still around, the original projects on it were a bit of a flash in the pan and died a slow death.

More recently I was working on a project that had a pretty clear metric for progress, traffic.  But I suspect that this metric was a bit too vanilla and thus provided little value.  However, the bigger problem was that different parties had different metrics for progress.  Our group was measuring traffic and saying that generating more of it was the most important thing to work on.  While the CEO was measuring our progress by how much money we were making, which was none.  So it strikes me that not only is it important to have a good metric for progress, it’s something that all parties need to agree upon.

So I feel like a real idiot.  I strongly believe that asking questions is a fundamental part of making anything that’s successful.  I’m not talking about asking random questions, I’m taking about asking the hard questions and having the endless curiosity to ask why.  But I feel like I’ve neglected to ask the hardest and seemingly most important question of, what is our metric for progress.

So today I’m thinking about all of the other aspects of my life and it’s surprisingly refreshing to realize the places where I’ve been measuring the wrong thing.

A simple example.  When I started climbing I measured my progress by how hard of a climb I could complete.  Typical male stupidity.  That metric had me focusing on pure strength instead of technique which has caused me a tremendous amount of physical pain.  Or take this blog for example.  It’s very easy to measure my progress by looking at beautiful charts that tell me how many people are reading what I’m writing.  But is that really what I’m after?  No.  I’m just trying to share things in my life with those that are interested, not make more people interested in my life.

When taking a macro look at the things around me I really start to wonder what metrics are being used in other areas.  What’s being measured when we bail out banks and automotive companies?  Simply not dying?  How about the housing market?  More homes being purchased?  What about the economy as a whole?  Please tell me we aren’t using the stock market.

I’m hoping like crazy that someone in a position of power has answers to those questions.  But even if we have the metrics, what I fear is that the people in power don’t agree or even communicate what they are.  What would happen if every law we passed had to have a metric of success tied to it and we voted on both the law and the metric?  Then we would have real data that can be used to decide if the removal of our rights as Americans has a proportional increase in our safety.

Humm… much to think about.

The Return

March 7, 2009

Yep, I’ve been away from my blog for pretty much five months which is both alarming and saddening.  One of the reasons I started this blog is so I could share my thoughts and experiences with those that are interested.  So on the surface it kind of looks like I haven’t had a thought or done anything for the last five months.  Fortunately the surface doesn’t tell the right story.

The reality is that too many things have been going on and in some cases, things of the wrong type.  I’m sure we’ve all had points where we knew that if we opened our mouth we’d end up saying the wrong thing.  So I’ve been exercising some self control and holding off on sharing until I was confident that I’d be happy with what I had to say.  The only downside of this is that I inadvertently stopped talking about all of the fantastic and fun things that have been going on as well.

The result is a feeling of constipation.  I’ve got so much stuff to share that it’s a little overwhelming and I’m not sure where to begin!  But I’m anxious to sort it out because some of the experiences are fairly unique and the amount that I’ve learned in this duration has no match to any other period of my adult life.

I’ll be sharing again, thanks for being patient.