Why You’ll Love Climbing Alone

For the past six or so years of my climbing career the majority has been dependant on climbing with others. I started out in a gym where I would text my friends to come climbing before I went and sometimes not go if no one else was. Although climbing is one of the few sports that you can actually do alone, the sense of community is the essence of climbing. I can’t stress that the community in climbing is what makes it such a great sport, the type of people you meet and the trust that you build with each other’s lives in your hands. It creates bonds that an afternoon of badminton never could.

But off my philosophical speaker box, I’m here to talk about Climbing Alone.

This past week, I spent some time in Colorado trying to learn about where to climb in the massive state. Not only did I end up lost pretty much every day, but unlike in Europe, the crags were relatively empty except on the weekends and most days I found myself all alone trying to climb.

Crossing the Selfie Threshold
Crossing the Selfie Threshold

My motivation in my head was extremely high, but when I walked up to the first boulders at Horsetooth near Fort Collins, Colorado, I suddenly realized that a 10m v0 even wasn’t going to happen by myself. I tried to think positive, but then a low rattling sound made my heart drop – a rattlesnake lay across the path, just a few feet from my legs. The dry jingle of it’s tail made me realize even moreso that if I was bitten I would still be all alone. I backed up and moved to a high line of boulders, hoping that the snake would stay where it was. I decided to make up some problems, tossing the guidebook aside and taking what low climbs I could handle, something this guidebook guzzling girl never would dream of before. The sound of my shoes on the ground and the shuffling of the mat left a hallow feeling like I would hear the snake again instead, so I put on some music just like I was at the indoor gym.

After an hour or so of some attempts to spot myself, trying to fall exactly where the mats where (and of course missing), I concluded I was probably going to be fine.

When we are on our own, whether we mean to or not we start to err on the side of caution.

I decided to walk down to a v5 traverse I knew was low and long, promising hours worth of relatively safe entertainment. I brought my bank of supplies with me, my two measly mats, my phone playing music and body ready to get some ‘real’ climbing in.

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Punk Rock Traverse v5

The hours crept by. I tried the problem a few times, but struggled at the end, worried that I actually had to do 80% of the problem without a mat at all. But it was fine.

I was worried that my motivation would straggle and I would sit around like I sometimes do with my friends and stare off into space or just watch others climb. But when it’s only you, it’s almost easier. No one is watching and you really find out how much you actually like climbing. I tried the v5 over and over and I found I was getting exhausted in just a few hours. With no one else to show me how it was done or to make me rest, I was tired pretty quickly and found just a few hours enough for a full day.

I continued to another boulder called the Meditation Boulder, where my two mats were definitely not enough, and decided to do some easy face climbs. I got to the flat and wide top of the boulder and had a seat, suddenly lost in the expansive view afforded me. It was quiet except for the wind and the faint twinkle of my cell phone playing some song I could barely make out and in that moment, I was glad I was alone.

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The view from the path in Horsetooth Resevoir.

In the stillness of the Meditation Boulder I suddenly heard a sound and snapped my head towards it. I saw a few boulder mats poking from the dry bush near the water. The voice carried and I could see the approaching climber – another soul to save me! I quickly down-climbed and gathered my things. I’m not usually the type of person who runs to speak to others unless they are my friends, but I couldn’t resist having a conversation, a climbing partner and some more mats.

That’s the thing about being alone, you really start seeing other people as opportunities rather than someone to be judged or not good enough to climb with you. Everyone can bring something special to your day.

I rushed over trying to be cool asking if I could try the traverse with him. I was ecstatic on the inside, I knew I would take anyone. But in a few moments of his incessant chatter and complaints at failure because of a hangboard session the night before, I felt all too quickly that being alone wasn’t so bad after all. But then I realized that we need companionship and that he was just a passionate climber, just like me, brave enough to bare the dusty rocks alone too; we we’re one and the same and I was glad for the company at the mats.

Feeling worn out, I walked back up the trail to my car, so tired I hardly noticed where I was going. I suddenly realized that I was on the snake path and quickly shuffled onto a boulder instead of the path. I stopped, breathing a sigh of relief that he wasn’t hiding the bushes or on the rock. I paused and decided to turn back just to see if he was still there, to reassure myself that I had even seen him at all. I dropped my bags and crept along the path and sure enough there he was. In the same position on the side of the path, guarding the way to the boulders, ensuring that no one else could pass. I thought to myself, perhaps he wasn’t out to bite me at all, but maybe he was there to watch over me, to keep all those other people away, so I could climb alone in peace.

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The rattlesnake on the path.

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Why bother with Mallorca? That’s just for Sharma

The arch stands about 15 meters from the shore and if the ocean’s pull isn’t just right, you are stuck breathlessly swimming to the start. Arms flailing and feet heavy in my climbing shoes, I am no Michael Phelps. Swimming is probably my least favourite activity, falling a close second to pushups. I’ve been climbing for three years and Mallorca was my dream ever since I saw those tan arms and messy hair tackling the 9a. Having seen the 9a in life, I see that it has more than enough to defeat me, but it is not unachievable by man. One day I will be the first woman to do this, I tell myself. I will train, and I will move here, and I will never give up. Then my video will have twice as many hits as Sharma. Uh huh, my mother would say as I told her my dream. She doesn’t even know who Sharma is and probably not YouTube either.

There’s been enough climbing magazines that say why Mallorca is a number one climbing destination. Mostly they talk about Sharma and his insane strength climbing the 9a Es Pontas sitting underneath the watery arch.

But Why Mallorca?

It’s the ocean, of course. It’s blue. Who knew it was supposed to be blue? Check yourself UK costline and central Florida!  Let’s be serious: It’s the rock. Shoes wet, hands slipping, I can somehow still hold on as I traverse The Might of the Stalactite a 7a with huge pumping Stalactites (clearly) and technique that would blow a muscle puff’s mind. It’s hot. My hands are even sweating but I don’t fall. I finish and smile. A 7a flash!! Unheard of so far in my lifetime.

Each route hanging over the water as you solo presents a series of amazing holds. They are mostly huge jugs—the difficulty is the overhanging. It requires some muscles of course, but I found for the most part the Mallorca routes are about your endurance and technique to keep those muscles from failing and plummeting into the icy water. The limestone is mostly sharp when not a smooth stalactite, and although a piece is known to break off occasionally, the quality is unbelievable. Each route feels like a 5 star. There are some misses of course, but the majority renders only fun. There is hardly an irrtatingly high graded or polished boulder problem like you may find in Fontainebleau or the Peak District.

Who’s ready to buy another plane ticket? I’ll meet you there.

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Jump in or not?

Just get stronger, right?

It’s unavoidable. Once in a while we all take a break from climbing. Life gets in the way, injuries, as in my case, or just business, long jobs, travel. And what happens when we come back? It’s been about a month and since I started climbing again and the progress is slow, and the positivity is quick to fall.

There is nothing more frustrating then knowing you have the ability, but you just cannot muster the strength to climb something.

But you have to fail to improve.

But in my esteem to get back to where I was, or to improve, something about climbing became clear. With little of the strength at my will, it became obvious that body positioning played a huge part in the climbing. Now this is something everyone knows. Climbing is about technique. But it was a discovery more along the line that climbing is more about technique than I was willing to admit before. There seemed to always be a secret to a move that at first seemed too hard.

While people say strength + technique = is the key to climbing, I think I’ve discovered that the secret to climbing well, has little to do with strength, but body position, confidence, and most importantly, body awareness. Can’t say that I would be able to do a series of crimps on a 45 degree wall, but I could easily do challenging slabs, or some of the trickier Font problems that are more about how you approach them than how much you’ve trained.

For more specific tips on technique, see future posts.

Learning to climb 5a

This past summer when I decided to restart my blog, I spent the majority of the sweltering months back in the USA concentrating on not climbing. So when I decided to go with some friends to Fontainebleau for my birthday this September, I was a little more than skeptical about how the trip would go. But first, I’ll be honest, I’m generally a grade chaser. I spent most of 2013 trying the same problem over and over so I could claim by first 7a+ (v7), Early Doors in the Peak District in the UK, but I didn’t have much confidence with my long-lasting injuries and wasn’t successful (but hey, now you know you can almost climb 7a even with injuries). But in the USA after my orthopaedic physician, physical therapist, natural healing masseuse and acupuncturist all said I probably just needed to quit climbing, I decided I would take the summer off and see what happened.

Font 2014
What happened was a dish of humility served onto my plate. Not really expecting anything anyway, I knew I would barely be able to climb not having used the muscles in weeks. I did a taster session at Mile End Climbing Wall in London my first week back in the UK, but there wasn’t much to show. I did a v2, but was actually impressed that I could do it and was proud of myself. But my reaction surprised me more than my weakness. I remember my competition climbing days when if I had hurt myself, I would be eternally frustrated that I couldn’t produce the same results (v5, v6) immediately or repetitively.

When we arrived at La Musardiere campsite near Milly-La-Foret in France, instead of driving straight to the rocks, we settled in for chicken korma, French wine, and an early bedtime. The next morning, we packed ourselves into our little car, with the boulder mats strapped on top, and drove to Rochers aux Sabots. Ironically, Rochers aux Sabots was the first place I had done a 7a outdoors in Europe. I had previously done one v6 in America, but the climbing style is very different (other than maybe Horse Pens 40 in Alabama) and it was a whole new level to gain a 7a at Font. There it was, Jeux de Toit, Roof Games, my first 7a sitting, looking polished and so very hard? I was surprised I had ever managed that before and was impressed with my past self.

But that day was about the blue circuit. Font is famous for its circuits which are labeled with coloured paint, fours crossed straight into the rock, so you don’t actually need a guidebook to climb there, just a map. The blue circuit ranges from 3a-5c (vb-v2) and doesn’t follow any order so you get what you get. This time I was struggling on 3a-5c, which used to upset me. I’d stop for the day, outdoors, or decide I was bored and leave the climbing wall, indoors. But I was okay. I had finally graduated to a climbing adult: I realised climbing should be about having fun more than a competition. And while climbing 7a can be great, sometimes is equally as nice to learn how to climb 5a all over again and spare a few moments for some cheese and wine.
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Why

climbing comp february 13I’ve been writing since I was small. I’ve always been that annoying kid in class who actually read all the books assigned. But in my third year of college, I opted for a serious English degree thinking of my high school teacher, Mrs. Brenner, who showed me that books were more exciting than I assumed, and that good writing takes more work than you think  (as she crossed through the fifteen extra words I added in my essays from the thesaurus to sound smarter). I chose to specialize in Creative Writing instead of English Lit (since I probably read more than I probably talked to people at that point).

I would say that was probably the most influential decision of my life up to this point, but another decision, perhaps, impacted my life even more deeply– my decision to start climbing.

Always an athlete, I was obsessed with one sport to another. I tried tennis, ballet, tap dancing, swimming, softball, baseball, and the long-lasting volleyball for about eight years, but nothing stuck with my like climbing. When I started to climb at the Tallahassee Rock Gym, it wasn’t really love at first sight. I was terrible. My arms hurt like hell and all of my skin started to peel off, like the outside of a mushy banana. My fingertips were bloody and blistered. And thanks to the advice of my friends, I bought Evolv Elecktras that were three sizes too small (which now I have decided is a very stupid idea spurred on by strange, masochistic climbers).

For if no reason other than I hate being bad at something, I kept climbing. And somehow, I began to improve, and fast. Within six months I could do V3s easily and by the time I had been climbing for a year, I was actually pretty good. I entered a competition at TRG for kicks, just to see where I stood with the other girls who had been climbing far longer than I had, and I ended up in the finals. Not only was I shocked, but amazed that going from not being able to do a pull up at all, I had risen to placing third. And boy when that happened, there wasn’t much that could stop me. I’ve been climbing and competing now for about four years and despite my (many) injuries, a few surgeries, summers off and even drama at the rock gym, I haven’t stopped and I dont think I can.

Climbing has turned into my life.

I’m a yoga teacher, dancer (not necessarily a good one), an occasional volleyball player, aerial artist, but I don’t feel that any of these define me how climbing does.

I think about it, talk about it, and when I’m not doing it, I’m plotting the next time I can. It’s unavoidable, I’m a climber. I’ve been dodging the urge to start another outdoor blog as there and many, and plenty amazing to choose from, but I give in. How can I not write about something that is so much a part of me, that before I even started this post I had 20 more ideas of what I can write about next. I look forward to this adventure together & thanks for reading! -Alice