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

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.

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.

Sad Face in my Taxes

April 12, 2009

So in typical Ryan fashion I filed my taxes yesterday.  Some people may call this type of behavior procrastination but I prefer to think of it as lazy evaluation.  I am pretty proud of myself because this year I managed to get them filed a whole three days earlier than I did last year.  At this pace, by the time I’m 60 maybe I’ll have them taken care of in January.

No Spouse Sad Face

No Spouse Sad Face

I filed them online and in the process of filling out their forms they asked if I had a spouse.  While it’s always fun to play pretend, I don’t think the IRS enjoys the game so I fessed up and admitted I didn’t have one.  After I was all finished they showed me a summary of my information which is where I saw the image to the right.  When I first saw this I thought they had a sense of humor and had put in a sad face because I didn’t have a spouse.  This of course made me smile and for a moment I was amazed that a tax website could have a sense of humor.  But then I realized that they were trying to output and underline a social security number that wasn’t present and all I was seeing was the dashes that usually follow the third and fifth digit.

So I guess this isn’t a sign of humor at all but more of an oversight.  Either way, it made my taxes a little more entertaining and I’m only paying in $38 so I’m not complaining one bit.

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.

For at least the last eight years SGI has been slowly dying a painful death but this seems to be the end of that road.  Yesterday they declared bankruptcy and sold themselves to Rackable Systems for $25 million in cash (at their peak they were doing about $4 billion in revenue per year).  While this news isn’t shocking, it does leave me feeling a little sad and reminiscent of my hacking roots.

Back in 1997 I first visited the Virtual Reality Applications Center at Iowa State University as a high school senior.  I was so taken back by the things they were doing in their lab that I simply had to get my hands dirty with it.  I ended up attending Iowa State after high school and one of the first things I did was to walk over to the VR lab and get more information about what they were using to build these virtual worlds.  Enter SGI, stage left.

I walked away from the lab that day knowing that these SGI computers played a big part of making these virtual worlds.  At this point in my life the only thing I had ever programmed was my TI-86 calculator and I had never even heard of UNIX based computers.  Somehow none of this discouraged me one bit.  I simply saw a toy that I wanted to play with, end of discussion.

During the summer after my freshman year I started going to these surplus sales that the university had.  One week I walked in and couldn’t believe my eyes, sitting on a shelf was a SGI Indigo Elan.  This was a computer that once sold for tens of thousands of dollars and could now be mine for $225.  It came complete with a 19″ monitor, 64MB of memory, a 500MB hard drive and a R3000 processor at 33MHz.  Not exactly a barn burner in 1999 but like U2 says, “love is blindness”.

So I got the damn thing and had absolutely no clue what to do with it.  The university wiped the hard drive so I had no OS to run on it.  I knew that somehow I had to get a copy of Irix 5.3 to install but that wasn’t an easy thing to come by.  But with the help of some folks at ISU somehow I managed to get the thing to going.  It was now officially my first computer and would end up being the most influential.

I can’t imagine how different my life would be today if that computer was a Windows machine instead of an SGI.  My SGI allowed me explore in depth the wonders of networked computers.  Being able to login to a remote machine, pipe windows over a network and mount network drives.  It fostered my love with the command line which is a fundamental requirement for being a productive geek.  I loved this machine so much that I ended up purchasing two more just like it.

By the end of my second year at ISU I had my three Indigo’s and also a R5k Indy at 175 MHz.  After finding a copy of Irix 6.5 the Indy became my primary workstation.  But my collection didn’t stop there.  Over the next few years I got a couple more Indy’s and a couple of green Indigo 2’s.  Then came my favorite machine, my purple Indigo 2 R10k.  I have so much respect for that machine.

That machine served as the database server for my search engine for two years, handling millions of queries each month with grace.  However it was also the last SGI that I owned.  Eventually my needs outgrew what this pile of hardware could provide.  Just like the next generation of startup companies, I too was making the transition to commodity hardware running Linux.  Exit SGI, stage right.

When I moved out to California I left behind my old flames.  They now reside in my parents basement in Iowa, collecting dust and probably dreaming of being useful once again.  Somehow I can’t imagine the thought of actually getting rid of them.  There is a part of me that would like to fire them up again and just look back at that time in my life.  What was on my desktop?  But I can’t bring myself to do it at this point in my life.  What’s the point of looking backwards when there is so much in front of me?  Besides, it would just make me crave the days when I had so much time to simply learn.

Maybe I’ll compromise and pay a visit to the Computer History Museum and see if they have any old SGI boxes on display.  Not only is the hardware and software they produced of historical significance, the museum now occupies a building that SGI once owned so it only seems appropriate.