Academics, Climbing, Vacation -- I love what I do!
I left for Edinburgh, Scotland on March 20th. Returned 4 days later -- after much fish n'chips, heartburn, one conference presentation, a few pints of local lager, information about what's under a Scot's kilt (nothing!), some rugby rules and a bit of moss growing on my jacket. That trip was incredible despite 35 people staring blankly at me for 25 minutes while I gave a talk on my dissertation. They all livened up over wine later on, but, man, 70 eyes looking to me for instruction and information can be daunting....I'd forgotten about that whole ritual in the academic world. Shew! The town itself was wonderful. Lots of old dungeons and churches (and a few Starbucks...go figure). I saw Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Castle and St. Giles Cathedral. I spent most of my time in Old College at University of Edinburgh. The local flavor smelled of alcohol and cigarettes most of the time (they average about 2 pints and a pack of cigs per hour). The people were friendly....and unapologetically not Scottish. Mostly British, Australian and French roamed the streets of the Royal Mile and various other local neighborhoods. I was privy to one huge argument at 2am between a guy and his gal. He stormed off bellowing something about her crying and she scooted after him whimpering. The echo was tremendous bouncing off the stone streets and houses. Now that's local flavor!
I'm envious of the Scottish, English and Irish. They can hop a plane to Europe for the weekend on a cheap rate. I was tempted to just stay overseas for my Spring Break and tour around. But, my alternative plans for Spring Break were just as scrumptous! I was back on Sunday evening only to wash clothes, sleep and pack again -- this time with a completely different set of adventures in mind. I was heading to Yosemite Valley in California for some crack climbing with Chuck Claude, the ever-present East Coaster who climbs like mad but has the demeanor of a quiet scientist (which he just happens to be). And is sometimes accident prone, fortunately never in the climbing arena, though.
On Monday, as I was prepping for my much-anticipated brief jaunt to the Valley, Chuck dropped me an e-mail saying his thumb was still out of whack and he didn't want to climb on it doing hard stuff. I sat here stunned in front of my computer, whirling, tired, disappointed. Shit! What now? My much anticipated trip was a bust. Dammit! After some speedy planning, more reservations, and a phone call to Chuck, we decided to head to Joshua Tree for 3 days instead, after I visited with friends and family in Los Angeles (where, ahem, I got to see my unborn niece on ultrasound...talk about a trip! Wow!! She'll be here in about 2 weeks and I can't wait to spoil her!).
Now, J-Tree's not such a shabby place and I 'd never been so I was equally psyched to get out to it. Little did I know what was waiting for me....or that I would end up leaving some of my skin behind as a token to the climbing gods of cracks and granite. (It grows back, though, right?) Regardless, I ain't complaining about that back-up plan! And, Chuck, bless him, arranged everything...driving, camping, eating, everything. I wasn't to worry about anything at all....I wasn't allowed. And that doesn't happen very often.
On Thursday, I did the doctor's with Kari and hung out with the big bro and anticipated Chuck's arrival to my brother's house. Now, my family is fairly geographically distant from each other. None of them have ever seen me climb nor have they met any of my climbing buddies. I'm the "wild" one in the family because of this cowboy-esque lifestyle of climbing and conferences. I thought it would be incredibly warm to have a climbing pal meet my big airforce-captain-brother and his tiny-preggers-laid-back-wife. And Chuck was a great person to start them off with. He showed up on Thursday evening (driving from San Jose!) at the guard's shack on the airforce base where Tommy and Kari live. We had to do the formal thing of going to get him and vouch for his identity and bring him back to their apartment where we were all engrossed in both "ER" and the baby's nocturnal movings.
We got up the next morning to the pregnant lady laying out biscuits and assorted breakfast things -- our very own B&B....we were later told that the pregnant lady had to eat...ahhh, that's why we got fed! Chuck and I were out the door and off the base by 8am. We got to Joshua Tree by about noon and racked up right away at the Hidden Valley parking lot. I had no idea what to expect and pulled out my basic gear. The place is almost like a gym! Nothing over 1 pitch (max 80 feet) long, some trad, some sport. Some with bolts on a trad route. The granite was gnarly with great fiction and little crystals that would eventually rip the flesh from the back of my hands before I learned the art of taping up. There's no one little mountain to walk to. You have to wade through separate mounds of rock and find the most appealing crack around. Some were overhanging, others were straight up, some were slabby, and yet others were wide (becoming the dreaded offwidth and chimneys!).
Chuck decided to start me off easy (bastard!) on the Old Woman Rock...on an easy 10b called Judas. Now, it's called that for a reason! The damn thing was harder at the bottom in the first 4 moves than just about any 5.10 I've done in the Gunks. Probably because I was using Gunks technique on a crack that went through a bulge, no feet (for anyone under 5'9") and classic crack technique of hand jams and ring locks. Chuck's telling me all about these techniques like I know what he's talking about. I nod and figure I'll see when I actually get on the climb. And, I'm thinking "this is a short; nice warm-up." Warm-up my ass! It takes me about 40 minutes to get the opening moves. Everytime I jammed my smallish hands into the crack and weighted them, they would pop out. It had me freaked. So, Chuck rappelled and belayed me from the bottom where he could give me some instruction. I saw some layback potential off to the right and finally gave in to try that. Brutish strength and a few deadpoints later got me over the bulge and into more crack.......which I still didn't quite understand how to do and I was shaking from not trusting the smears which were like cheese graters and tar.
After that fiasco, we tripped to the climb right next to Judas, Bearded Cabbage. A nice 10c with a heel hooking series of moves for about 15 feet before the crack. Fun, interesting, of course, could only do one move at a time when I got to the crack. We headed around the other side and got on the classic Double Cross -- a beautiful 5.7+ (add another few pluses there!) of classic J-Tree crack on one of the more longer routes. Of course, Chuck lead it in great trad style with the blazing sun scorching his pasty back. (He declared a no sunscreen day to get a bit of a burn going...ha! He paid for that in the end.) It was nice to second it and clean gear for a change instead of snapshackling with draws and bolts. My unfamiliarity with cams caused a few gear snafus later on, but it was all good with the patient Obi-Chuck-Kenobi. The climb allowed for some stellar moves in the crack but supplied some back up face holds that I tried not to grab. I *was* on toprope for gosh sake. I tried to exploit that and not think about that nagging fear of falling that's come over me of late while climbing outdoors. But, the technique was so new to me that I was having trouble cleaning gear, concentrating on crack climbing and keeping my legs from shaking. Go figure! I'd hear a gentle nudge from Chuck every once in awhile, but other than that, you could have driven a truck over me and I wouldn't have heard it. I hit that "zone" we all live to find. I was just climbing. The sun was baking me. The chalk was free-flowing and I still had about 25 feet to finish. The skin on the backs of my hands was throbbing, but I didn't really feel it. My fingertips were already pink, but I didn't notice. I was frying because I only brought along pants, but that didn't alter my drive to push forward and learn these skills and test my ability to use them right away.
Chuck ran up Double Cross again, slapping hands with me when he got to the top belay ledge. I had spent all of about 15 minutes up there gazing at the rocks, people and desert landscape around me. When we got down, about 7 people showed up to do the climb (shew! missed that traffic jam...why wait when you have 5,000+ climbs around?). I requested some face climbs to test my other abilities in this diverse area. So, Chuck headed us over to the Real Hidden Valley to the Houser Buttress to do Loose Lady, a 5.9+ bolted routed with a bit of a runout and a completely different style of climbing. After whining a bit (Chuck, not me!), I seconded the bugger to find that my shoes were too tight, my fingers were toast and my head was not into the slab that stretched up before me. It was palm slapping mantles on micro-edges....and me in my Muira's with those damn pointed down toes. I couldn't wait to finish that climb. That was all it took to convince me that I was in Joshua Tree to learn crack climbing and not that silly slabby frictiony scary ascending. A classic little sport climb, nonetheless. It was so friction-oriented that getting down from the area was a hassle because my legs felt weak and calves were burning.
Since there were no campsites available, we headed out of the Park to the BLM campsite.....correction, the stretch of desert the BLM lays claim to off of dirt roads! We were exactly in the middle of no where with a bright, full moon to light us up. After dinner at the Thai place (where they serve a $7 buffet on Saturday nights...beware the superglue on the fortune cookie wrappers though...I got that in my mouth...oh, don't ask!) we headed to the BLM to set up camp and finally get some sleep. It was warm for a March evening in the desert so we left the fly off and were treated to full moonlight in the tent in our sweltering -20 degree bags. That was parlayed by the fact that Chuck brought a sleeping pad for me that felt like air! He bought it for his wife, Shelly, and she allowed me to sample its beauty for a couple of nights. We were woken up the next morning at 5:45am by the full sun baking our tent. And then again at 6:30am by the remote-controlled airplane club that met to fly them on Sat and Sun mornings. Not so bad considering we got to sleep by about 10pm. (I love climbing trips just for the amount of sleep I get!) On our way out, we ran across what I can only describe as a "scuplture park" on someone's private property. There must have been over a 50 huge metal scupltures stuck in the yard! I got one nice pic of it, though.
After breakfast, breaking down the tent (can't leave it there.....no one's around to watch it), we headed back to J-Tree where we saw Jim Bridwell walk through the Real Hidden Valley parking lot....ooooo, a legend in the area! Apparently, most of the big climbing names are guiding in J-Tree during the winter. Not a bad spot! Oh, and I have to mention the local climbing shop, Nomad Ventures. Nice people, good selection...especially of women's stuff. And across the street were showers at $1.50 for about 5 minutes.
With over 5,000 climbs, we were confused as to where to head in the morning. So, we ended up at Quail Springs on the East Face of Trashcan Rock. Blazing already at 10am (time just got away from us), Chuck geared up to lead that sweet 8 crack on the far left side, Right Sawdust Crack. It was only about 20 feet long, but the hardest piece of climbing that I've done. I got up to clean it and was completely thrown by the solid crack technique required: real wrenching feet (killed me...I still can't feel one toe), solid hand jamming just a little bigger than my good hand jamming and a lean to the left without many face features to cheat on. I'd make one move and sit on the rope, re-place my hands and feet, make another move to scoot my hands up and sit again. The skin on the back of my hands was screaming...bruised from yesterday's climbs and I didn't have enough layering of tape even though Chuck showed me how. It was definitely one of those gumby days where someone has to explain every single thing to you. I finished it up, but got no style points at all on that one.
We left the anchors up to try Butterfly Crack (11c). Chuck hopped on the opening moves to try trad leading, but smartly backed off when his thumb started screaming at him. We both gave it a whirl, but it's powerful, bouldery start kicked our asses. More power, more power, more power! I could do 2-3 moves and slit my fingers where Chuck's couldn't go. But, he made my 2-3 moves look awkward with his huge reach and good technique (how can a guy so damn skinny be so strong???). We let it go for another day and Chuck hopped up the 10c (Left Sawdust Crack) between the two to retrieve gear.
We moved on to the Hemingway Buttress East Face where we saw the tallest climbs yet. The buttress sits atop a foundation of rocks and holds a beautiful set of classic cracks. We hopped onto a beautiful finger crack climb that turned into a little roof, Prepackaged (10a). Chuck's first piece stuck for the Armageddon and could be reached from the start, so I left it there. The moves were smooth -- half finger crack, half face for the feet. All smearing. Chuck placed gear in my good hand holds so I would reach up and release the cam before I got to that section. I love having small fingers!!
I got to the roof where the crack widened as did my fear factor. I got the Elvis leg going and yelled "take" up to Chuck. I figured he couldn't hear me and that I would be wimping out because I wasn't even near falling. So, I sucked it up and cruised the roof in great crack style (instead of Gunks!). I used a layback instead of jamming, but who the hell cares! I did it! After the roof, though, a cam walked back and I couldn't get it out. Now, knowing that leaving gear is a sacrilege, I worked on it for a bit. But, being raised in the Gunks, I haven't set that many cams. I was reared on lots and lots of passive stuff and could remove a nut any where! I've even cleaned fixed gear at the Gunks unintentionally! I heard Chuck say something about using the nut tool on a cam, but I didn't want to risk destroying the cam....and I knew that we could probably rap down and get it out. (I've gotten in trouble for this before, so I didn't blithely scamper away from the stuck gear.) Chuck rapped, we got it, I had a bit of an epic getting down with two ropes strapped to me, but the day wore on. However, that ate up a lot of our day and my energy.
We headed back to Hidden Valley to explore the Rock Hudson area and meet up with Dustin and Richard Worth. Dusty and his friend, Tony were tramping back from bouldering, so we lazed about catching up. Chuck and I headed toward The Blob to have a look at the Hobbit Roof. I was soooo sorely disappointed at this one. It's a contrived little problem: two huge boulders stacked together; the lower part is a 10d slab/face move with one bolt below the crux. Top out, essentially and lean back to get up the 10b crack roof. You can walk around the lower move and hop right onto the roof, which is what I did. But, the sun was beating right down on us and I was completely uninspired by the climb. Chuck lead it in great style, though! Regardless, I begged off and made him walk around to retrieve the gear. (He's a saint, right? Again, I don't care.....climbing's fun, right?)
We hooked up with Dusty again and ran into Richard with his friend Olivia.....that man can clear a bouldering area, I tell you! Entertaining as hell! We tromped off after the sunset and after Dusty and Richard threw themselves at a hard, stupid slabby boulder problem (hehehehe). Off to the Thai place, the BLM campground, a bit of peeing in the full moonlight (hard to hide a pasty white ass when the moon is bouncing off of it) and finally sleep.
The next day was the half day of climbing and driving. We ended up at the Rock Hudson boulder in the searing morning heat. No wind and a bit of a trek to get there. The 5.9 (Looney Tunes) we decided to tackle was interesting from the ground view and even more intriguing while climbing. It goes from slanting crack to micro-edges for feet/stemming, to groveling chimney, to full on unprotected chimney. Chuck left his really big pieces with me and was cursing himself for that......I was passing out from the heat, so I was basically useless for sympathy. When he yelled "belay on," I dreaded going up and contemplated asking him to rap and clean gear. Shame on me! There were no bolts to rap from, though. It was a walk-off. I have absolutely no shame with Chuck.....I don't care.....I'm a whimp! It's that bitter tension, though, between overcoming fear and knowing when to back off. But, again, I was on toprope for gosh sakes! So, I hucked and hurled and groveled and really enjoyed the climb. It was completely different! And the chimneying was awesome, terrifying and difficult. I had never done a real chimney before (except with Austin at the Daks where he got his helmet stuck in the chimney). I think what happens when I climb now is that I think like a leader even while on second. The thoughts pass through my skull of what it would be like to lead this section or place that gear. Crap! I should just start leading then, huh?
The good thing is that my crack technique finally kicked in...an extra layer of tape helped....and I finished it up in style only to have a bit of an ordeal walking off......not a walk-off. Really a jumping fest from rock to rock with a bit of drop if we were off. I fell onto Chuck a couple times.....hmmm, skinny man provides good padding. We wanted to try Hot Rocks, a classic 11c right next to Looney Tunes, but alas, time was running away and we had to get showers and hit the road. 12pm to 10pm was spent running around in the car back up to San Francisco so I could catch the redeye out to NYC to arrive by 9:30 Monday morning in time for an 11am meeting. I intended to study French on the plane, but the drone of the engines put me out quick...not to mention, my fingers were throbbing.
A Club-Med vacation indeed! It left me wanting so much more, so I'm headed out to Yosemite Valley in July to practice more of that crack technique and get some mini-big walls into the mix. Chuck's promised to teach me to haul, too. I think I'm being called a "crackhead" these days. But, how can I help it? There are so many different styles and ways of climbing that it's endless. I'll never get tired of this sport.....I'll take a hiatus, but I always come back more enthusiastic than ever before. [sigh] Back to the dissertation work. I'm already searching for a big trip to Thailand or Australia for next January..........any takers???