Thursday, October 6, 2011

Dirt-bagging is in my genes... and a Father-Daughter climbing trip to the Tantalus Range

I grew up in a very outdoorsy family. Pretty much everything we did for fun together revolved around some type of outside activity. Most of my favourite memories from childhood are from hiking trips in the Valhallas and Goat Ranges of BC, canoe trips down the Slocan Lake and backpacker-style budget travel abroad. Pretty early on I began to understand that the necessary cost of adventure was occasional discomfort. When I was 12 my parents, sister and I all slept in a compact rental car in the Sheraton Parking Lot in Hawaii after finding ourselves on the “wrong side” of the island with nowhere to camp and a fancy hotel stay beyond the budget. Closer to home, I remember laying awake in a tent pitched on an exposed ridge with my Mum and sister while a thunderstorm raged, worried that even if I didn’t get electrocuted, I’d get eaten by a grizzly because I had stashed a pack of Juicy Fruit gum under my sleeping pad. The climax of the night was when my Mum, worn down by my fearful whining, rushed out of the tent and tossed the gum dramatically off the ridge, where it was snatched by the wind, slender sticks of fragrant Juicy Fruit raining onto the adjacent mountain slope where those foul breathed grizzlies could chomp on it freely without having to claw their way through our tent first.

Of course, most memories from my MEC-catalogue upbringing are more positive. One of the biggest bonuses of going on hiking and camping trips was that, for once, my sister and I were given free reign to select treats that were otherwise verboten in our millet, lentil and tofu laden family cuisine. I still remember the taste of a Jello pudding cup I ate at the Lake O’Hara campground in the Rockies. I think it was butterscotch flavour. God, it was good. But seriously, I think my affinity for the life lived outside was born on childhood camping trips. What could be better than reading a book while sprawled out in the fragrant padding of an alpine meadow or taking an icy dip in the bluest of blue tarns? Playing Super Mario Bros and eating CoolWhip? If you had asked me then, I’m afraid I probably would have preferred the latter. Clear proof that kids don’t know what’s best for them.

My adult life has evolved into a natural continuation of the outdoor adventure I first experienced on these trips with my family. The main difference is that I can watch bad TV whenever I want and instead of buying bottles of Pepsi with my allowance, I opt for red wine. Actually, the main difference is that I spend a ridiculous percentage of my waking hours rock climbing, something that neither of my parents had experienced much before I got into climbing in my 20s and began guiding them on the rock.

I bought my Dad a climbing harness for his 50th birthday and taught him how to belay in the Gunks. I had only been climbing around a year, but thought that since we were on a family trip to visit relatives in Montreal, we shouldn’t miss the opportunity to check out the quintessential trad destination. I sketched my way up 5.5s and 5.6s, and wondered why my Dad seemed so scared to trust that I knew what I was doing. He eventually grew to trust the rope, and me, and we have been on numerous climbing adventures since. This summer my Dad turned 60, so to commemorate that, and in some ways, 10 years of our climbing adventures together, we went climbing for 5 days in the Tantalus Range near Squamish, BC.

My Dad's photos of me revealed that I was committing a few Alpine Guide Fashion (isn't that an oxymoron?) Faux Pas: apparently NO ONE tucks their pants into their gaitors any more (I missed that ACMG memo) and it doesn't inspire confidence in your skills as a guide if you look like a 10 year old wearing your too-big baseball hat crooked. Luckily for me, I am not a real alpine guide and my Dad is many things, but fashionista, alpine or otherwise, is not one of them.

It's really hard to believe we are related...

The trip began auspiciously, with a solid forecast and an amazingly scenic heli flight into the Haberl Hut, where we were delighted to find we were the only occupants. This Alpine Club of Canada Hut is no slummy bivy, boasting huge windows showcasing amazing views, a BBQ, and bright, clean interior. Because we flew in, we were able to bring in fresh veggies, salmon and steak for our first few nights in the alpine, not to mention a six pack of beers we kept literally glacier-cold by stashing them on the glacier right out our door. If all alpine climbing was like this, I'd probably do it a bit more often!

Happy in the sun upon our arrival at the Haberl Hut

Slumming it

Hungry mountain climbers need good fuel

Q: Which of these things is not like the others?: ROCK, ICE, LACE, SNOW, KOKANEE BEER

We were visited one evening by a bride and groom who had flown up just to take some photos on their wedding day.

In our first few days in the Tantalus, we climbed the classic steep snow and ice of the North Face of Serratus and the pleasant glacier approach and moderate rock climb up the South West Face of Dione. Our third day was spent hiking from the Haberl Hut to the Tantalus Hut at Lake Lovelywater. We completely underestimated the time, effort and energy it would take to hike the few kms between these two huts and by the time we finally made it to the trail along the shores of Lake Lovelywater, we were tired, hungry and I was being plagued by a swarm of black flies that were obsessed with crawling in my eyes, nose and mouth. My heavy pack had chaffed my hips and sacrum raw and I was wondering why I had opted to carry all the heavy stuff, when in reality, my 60 year old Dad is probably at least as fit as I am. After a big meal and long sleep, the trials of the previous day reduced to faint bruises, we were ready to get after it once again, and went up the East Ridge of Alpha. The approach and route were enjoyable, but just as we made it to the summit it began to snow, and then it began to rain. The descent route was slippery and a bit treacherous, particularly on the steep vegetated slide paths above Lake Lovelywater, but we picked our way slowly down and survived yet another climb unscathed. Our last day was spent canoeing on Lake Lovelywater and hiking down the steep trail to the Squamish River, where we were picked up by a boat and brought back to all the luxuries and distractions of life in town.

Winding our way up the North Face of Serratus

The Mountain Man on the summit of Serratus, Tantalus and Dione in the background

Dad takes in the morning light on the way up to Dione

On Dione's South Ridge

The East Ridge of Alpha

Mist on the way up the East Ridge of Alpha

Summit of Alpha, just as the snow and rain begin

Paddling one of the Tantalus Hut's canoes on Lake Lovelywater

Descending into the coastal jungle on the hike down to the Squamish River

I feel tremendous gratitude that I was raised by parents who made wilderness adventures a fundamental part of their lives. Sharing climbing trips with them brings me closer to a feeling of contentment than anything else I do. And in retrospect, I totally appreciate all the processed food and bad TV deprivation of my childhood; I can treat that with measured doses of DQ soft-serve and Glee.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Quality AND Quanitity at The 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell, Arkansas

Imagine how you feel at the end of a full day of climbing; the pleasant forearm and back ache, the tenderness of the skin on your fingers and toes, the craving for a cold beer and some tasty food. That's pretty much how I felt 8 hours after the starting gun went off at the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell in Arkansas. But instead of giving in to fatigue I chugged some canned coffee beverage, scarfed down one of the turkey-hummous-veggie wraps I had pre-prepped to avoid energy bar burnout and dragged the rope over to our next pitch.

A few light snacks for a day of climbing

High Octane Fuel

My climbing partner extraordinaire Brittany Griffith had done the event three times before so had laid out a strategy that allowed us to climb 80 pitches each in the first 12 hours. I enjoyed the feeling of getting fired up and climbing moderates as fast as I could, and our technique was reminiscent of short-fixing on an aid route, meaning that we had to stay focused and not make any foolish mistakes.
Brittany and I at the starting line, feelin' fresh

Getting the rules of the game from event organizer Andy Chasteen

After nightfall I expected the climbing to feel much more difficult, but with the featured sandstone illuminated by the beam of my BD Icon headlamp, I could easily see all the features I needed. In fact, climbing in the dark forced me to focus on the terrain at hand rather than worrying about what was ahead, necessitating confident and decisive movement.

Despite the energy troughs and sore skin that accompanied the night shift, this was by far the most memorable part of the event. A womens team called The Cannibals climbed beside us for awhile, complete with crazy teased feather adorned hairdos, large and elaborate tatoos on their bare arms and legs and glow sticks taped to their quickdraws. They were scary. But not as scary as the huge Copperhead that was curled up on the trail, which was in turn not as scary as the dude I saw deliberately raise a watermelon sized rock over his head and drop it on the Copperhead, killing it instantly. I screamed like a girl when i almost put my hand on a Hobo spider on a climb, and Brittany got bitey ants inside her shirt and got chomped on the back. We climbed a route called Hairy Butthole Pussy Potter, which stuck in our fatigue-addled brains so much that we sang the route name and giggled maniacally for the next several hours.

Strange things lurk in the woods of Arkansas at night

Just as Brittany warned me it would, 3AM brought on a physical and mental low. I felt weak, unmotivated and unpsyched. I came close to pitching off a steep, short 5.10 and a nasty case of gut rot was causing me to fart audibly every time I pulled hard. We also had to move on to an area where there was no one else climbing (because we were out of routes, not because of the farting) meaning I could no longer sponge enthusiasm from other climbers. Clearly it was time to resort to chemicals. I washed down a triple dose of Ibuprofen with alternating glugs of Red Bull and PBR and moments later felt as perky as the body page of a Patagonia catalogue. The final 5 hours flew by, with low pitch counts but constant motion. The sunrise manifested as several seconds of a surreal orange dappled glow on the wall, and before long it was time to pack up and head down to the ranch to turn in our scorecards. Surprisingly I was way too fired up to sleep for hours after we finished climbing. Endorphins were coursing through my veins and I felt great. I am pretty sure the rest of the Patagonia team wanted to kill me when I suggested we head out climbing. After a dose of hot pizza and cold beer I finally took a nap. While I was sleeping an evil gremlin put sand in my eyes, rubbed the skin off my fingers and injected lactic acid into my arms and legs.

Desperate times call for delicious measures

The rest of the evening was a blur of awards ceremonies, slide shows, arm wrestling comps and dancing. At the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell I learned that climbing for 24 hours straight when you don't really have to is actually pretty fun, as long as you have a great partner, some comfy rock shoes, a ton of quality stone, piles of water and food and 200 other participants and a bunch of volunteers keeping the stoke up.

Awards ceremony in the barn loft

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Dolomites - Italy installment 3 of

OK, I know this post is tardy beyond any reasonable limit of tardiness. I'd like to think that in Italy, they would understand. I've had a summer full of wine to drink, rocks to climb, people to guide, events to attend... sitting in front of the computer just hasn't factored high on my list of priorities. At any rate, I'd like to seal the deal on this last installment of stories on my trip to Italy before I move on to some future posts already brewing.

Our trip to the Dolomites was brief, and really did not scratch the surface of the climbing there is to be had there. We arrived prior to the true climbing season, so many of the roads leading to the prime objectives like the coveted Tre Cime were still closed. We did, however, get a taste of the surreal beauty of the landscape in the Dolomites, and were inspired to return for some future play time.

We arrived in Cortina in the late morning, and were blown away by the sleepy state of this glitzy resort town. It was like arriving in a ghost town version of Banff, Whistler or Aspen; designer boutiques, cobblestone streets, cosy wine bars, galleries devoid of people and tourists. Many of the hotels and stores were closed for the off season. We were happy to avoid the hubub, and enjoyed strolling the quiet streets of Cortina, inhaling the crisp, cool mountain air after the oppressive heat and throngs of tourists in Arco.

Our first climbing days were spent on the Cinque Tori (5 towers) located a 15 minute drive from Cortina. The geometry of this group of spires is amazing, and the rock offers 1 to 4 pitch routes on mostly decent rock with a super short approach and fantastic alpine scenery.

Taking a stroll in the alpine, with the Cinque Tori in the background

Climbing on the Cinque Tori

Our second day at the Cinque Tori we had a lovely picnic after completing the first of our objectives, a 4 pitch 7a. As we got up to walk to our next climb, I began feeling woozy and before long, I was barfing up lunch, breakfast and everything in between. Something in the picnic had poisoned me, and I think it was the canned tuna. That ended our day pretty fast, and I spent the next 24 hours bedridden and in rough shape.

When I sprung feebly back to life the next day, we agreed it was wise to avoid climbing until I got some energy back, so we took a scenic drive and a small walk in the vicinity of the Tre Cime. We enjoyed the beautiful signage. Billboard companies in North America should go for this style I think.

The Tre Cime... drool.

The next day I was feeling revived and ready to tackle some climbing, so despite an iffy forecast we headed up to the Primo Spigolo for a 7 pitch 7a. A group of four older German climbers arrived at the parking area at the same time as us, and matter-of-factly began racing us to the base of the mountain. Evan began chatting with them to see if they were doing the same route as us, which looked a bit unlikely given their equipment. But they assured him they were doing the same route as us. Disappointed and not wanting to climb under a party of four on the somewhat loose looking limestone face we began to discuss alternative options. At the base of the route, the Germans encouraged us to follow them, stating that there was no loose rock and that they were going to solo the first pitch anyway. Evan looked at me with a quizzical look on his face. The first pitch was one of the cruxes of the route, so it seemed like a bit of a stretch for these grey-haired folks to be soloing it. But it IS Europe, so you never know! Turns out they were doing a moderate route adjacent to ours, but Evan and I had a few good moments of being half impressed, half horrified about witnessing this posse soloing 5.11+.

We started up the route as the sky became darker and darker. The climbing was well protected wherever it was tricky, but run out and loose everywhere else. On the final pitch, with the weather coming in, I pulled off a huge rock and thought I was going to kill some people below us. Trying to stop the rock with my foot, I sliced my ankle and squished my finger, and was in poor spirits at the top. As the wind picked up and the rain drops began, we started the rappel, nervous about getting down the loose face on a rap line that was separate from the route. As Evan made his way down the second rap, the rope above him knocked off a huge microwave-oven sized block, which narrowly missed him as I screamed "ROCK". Both of us were shaken, and as I began rapping down the pitch I noticed the tag line had been badly damaged. Yikes. A few raps on a jammed-knot on our lead line later, we made it to the ground and I hobbled on my sore ankle back to the car. We were ready to high-tail it to France to finish the trip with some sport climbing in the Gorges du Loupe.

Hiking up beside the Primo Spigolo

Climbing the final arete, right before I pulled off a big block.

All you need is love (and your rope to not get cut in half)

Friday, July 8, 2011

Arco, Italy. Oh... and did I mention Ferrari Spumante? Italy - Installment 2 of 3.

After two glorious weeks in Castelbianco, throwing ourselves at steep sport climbs with abandon, it was time to move on. Some projects were put to bed, others, like on all good climbing trips, must be revisited in the future for the redpoint. We piled ourselves and our gear into our teeny Chevy Spark rental, we called her Sparky, and began driving across Northern Italy to Arco. We stopped periodically at gas stations along the Autostrade (freeway), not to fill up on gas, but for another necessary, aromatic and delicious type of refuelling... coffee! Each gas station was equipped with an espresso bar where you could grab a damn tasty cappucinno, macchiato or espresso for a few euros. No paper cups at these joints, just spotless white porcelain to hold the deliciously fresh concoction for the few moments between production and consumption.

Staying caffeinated and alert was important because driving in Italy is slightly terrifying. Even with Sparky's pedal to the metal 140 km/h was about our max on flats or downhills, but other drivers would make us feel like we were standing still as car after car passed us going 200 km/h. The road traveled through more frequent tunnels than I have ever experienced, meaning our eyes were constantly adjusting to light and dark.

We finally arrived in Arco late at night, and an enthusiastic and friendly young Italian man named Mateo met us and escorted us up one of the steepest hills I have ever driven. Our destination was a four-apartment villa situated on a hill above Arco and Lago (Lake) Garda. The villa was surrounded by vines which Mateo explained were of the Ferrari Spumante variety, a specialty of the Trento region. I could hardly believe our luck... not only were we staying in a comfy villa, far from the tourist-ridden streets of Arco, but we were surrounded by a grapes with the world's most fun-to-say name. We took advantage of our upscale accommodation, and our friend Dylan Taylor, an American expat photographer and mountain guide living in Chamonix joined us for the week.
The villa and of course, the Ferrari Spumante. Dylan Taylor photo.

Is this really us? With our afternoon antipasti and wine you could almost mistake us for 'normal' people on a Euro-holiday. Dylan Taylor photo.

But "normal" people probably don't buy the 1 Euro bottle of wine, just to see what happens...
Dylan Taylor photo.

"Maybe if I let it breathe a bit it will become drinkable..." - rest assured that bottle was NOT poured down the drain. Dylan Taylor photo.

Oh yeah, I forgot, there was some climbing done on our rest days from eating, drinking wine and lounging in our private vinyard. Oh yeah, and then there was swimming in the numerous lakes in the surrounding countryside. Some of the climbing we did in Arco was actually really good. And just being somewhere with so much climbing history was fun. Since 1987 Arco has hosted the Rock Master climbing comp, and a few minutes walk from downtown Arco is the giant artifical wall where this competition is held. The town is surrounded by single and multipitch climbing, including up to 12 pitch climbs on Mt. Colodri, which is literally a 5 minute walk from your morning cappuccino or afternoon gelato. We climbed Zanzara, a fantastic 12 pitch 7a+ on Mt. Colodri. A variety of climbing styles, sustained and technical pitches and fairly minimal polishing made this one of the most classic and memorable climbs of our entire Italy trip. Even the descent is classic, a via ferrata popular with tourists winds its way down from the summit ridge, which has both a castle and a giant lit-up cross, along steep ledges back to town.

Climbing on Zanzara. Dylan Taylor photos.

Looking down on Arco from partway up Mt. Colodri. Dylan Taylor photo.

The single-pitch climbing in Arco was also really good, but much of it was on sunny walls and while we were there temperatures were spiking above 30 C. The popular and stacked crag Massone was also the most polished rock I have ever climbed, making it difficult to relax and enjoy the movement on the gently overhanging flow features. We did do some amazing pitches, and if I found myself back in Arco I'd hope for some cooler temps to have a few more burns on the amazing 7c tufa climb called Abissi.

After just over a week in Arco it was time to move on up and out of the heat. Next installment: Dolomites!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ferrari Spumante and other stories from the land that 'booted' me back into climbing shape - Installment 1 of 3

I recently returned from a month of climbing in Italy with my husband Evan. It was our annual 'lose-ski-legs-drink-cheap-wine-pull-steep-limestone" pilgrimage to Europe, and as a vacation destination, Italy did not disappoint. To keep this from being a mega-post of unwieldy proportions, I am breaking it up into three installments I will post in the next few weeks.

We began our trip in the Castelbianco region of Oltre-Finale, a collection of limestone crags in a lush, peaceful valley in the Liguria region of Italy. Around 1.5 hours from Nice, and a quick 20 minute drive from the Italian Riviera, Oltre-Finale offered great climbing in a variety of styles for us to get back in the groove after a long winter. Some of the best crags faced south, making them too hot for the late spring temps, but we found an all-day shade paradise called Erboristeria (translation - Herbalist) that had a few great warm-ups and enough 40m challenging pumpfests to keep us busy for much of our 2 weeks in Castelbianco.

The morning commute to Erboristeria included crossing this old stone bridge

Climbing at Erboristeria

Jeff Banks climbing at Erboristeria

For me, a great climbing trip has to engage all my senses, not just pump out my arms. I can do that curling soup cans in front of the TV at home! As soon as I arrived in Italy, I knew this climbing trip was not going to lack for sensory stimulus.

Our first trip to a supermarket revealed an amazing selection of excellent produce, cheese and wine. The gelato was to die for - flavourful and creamy. The pizza was a simple and delicious combo of thin chewy crust, tangy sauce, flavourful cheese. The coffee was strong and invigorating. Oh, am I still on taste?

Smell - the air in Castelbianco was consistently fragrant from the blossoms of numerous flowering trees, shrubs and plants.

Sight -medieval stone villages, fig and cherry trees laden with fruit, small scale agriculture and well-kept dwellings.

Touch - the feel of the warm, smooth, water sculpted limestone underfoot after a chilly dip in the river. According to Italian vending machines, touch is very important....

Sound - every morning at dawn melodious birdsong drifted into our apartment.

On one of our rest days we broke the golden rule: never climb on your rest day. We convinced ourselves that an easy 5.9 7 pitch traverse above the Mediterranean in the blazing sun couldn't possibly be anything but restful, so we drove down to Finale and rapped in to this truly amazing traverse. It was worth the aching toes and sweltering heat - it was really beautiful climbing on the white stone above the deep blue sea.

Exploring the old walled city of Finale also proved to be a great rest day activity. I fell in love with all the old bikes and scooters leaning against the stone walls of impossibly narrow alleys.

The scooter in front is called "BETA"

Coming soon: installment #2 of Italy trip blog about our time in Arco.