Saturday, June 4, 2011


I recently quit my job at the grocery store and headed north in an attempt to break the cycle. The constant back and forth between working erratic hours at the store and jumping in the saddle to go climbing started to take its toll. I created a lifestyle for myself in which I was either working so I could afford to travel, traveling so I could go climbing, or climbing because, let's face it, it's fucking awesome. Bottom line: it was time to do something different.

I  started out by visiting my sister in Chicago. She just graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and I couldn't be happier for her. So proud! After enjoying the weekend with my family, I hopped on a plane and made way to Canada. I arrived in Toronto roughly two weeks ago, and I've since had the opportunity to catch up with my friends, explore the city, and ultimately do what ever it is that I want to do.

Surprisingly, the only thing I haven't been able do is any proper rock climbing. As is the case almost everywhere in North America, it's been raining. A lot. But last weekend a break in the forecast was enough to justify the 250 kilometer drive up north to Lion's Head. Unfortunately for us, despite the absence of precipitation, the entire cliff was saturated. Even the back up cliff, White's Bluff, was unclimbable. So we did what you do when things look bleak- we drank beer, we made up games, we acted foolish, and we made lemons into lemonade. As my friend Stephan pointed out, Some times you go rock climbing, and some times you don't. This time around we certainly didn't do anything that remotely resembled rock climbing, but we had a great time any way.

Storefront Display @ Mini Mioche

So while we wait for the weather to get its shit together, I've been pursuing other interests. I bought a beater bike and I've spent most of my days riding around the city, finding little gems, catching up on some personal work, and enjoying the stability found in the simplicity therein. As odd as it may seem, I'm enjoying the day to day I have here. Rock climbing has monopolized my time recently. And all things considered, I personally feel as though I haven't made any significant improvements in my actual ability to rock climb in quite some time. Trying to carve a path for yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally takes an unrelenting commitment to self-improvement. It's a lot of work. And sometimes that work isn't fun. But that's why it's such an incredible and rewarding experience. But, pursuing any endeavor so relentlessly is far from sustainable. So, while I truly enjoy living on the run, it seemed like it was time to ease my foot on to the brake.

The G-Ride
Genuine Canadian Steel
Obviously this will be short lived, as it certainly isn't normalcy in the sense that I can count on it for much longer. But I'm enjoying my break from reality- or at least what became my reality for the past two years. I've had this discussion with many of my friends, and many of them have admitted that feigning sympathy for my situation is not an easy thing to do. But I'm not looking for sympathy. What I'm looking for is a better understanding of our collective circumstances. The fact of the matter is that cliches like "the grass is always greener" exist because there's a profound truth to them. 

I've not had the stability that many people have and so often take for granted. And while I'm willing to admit that part of this has been my own doing, I certainly don't value stability any less. We're creatures of habit; we like security and the comfort inherent to such an institution. But regardless of my current state of affairs, I remain positive that I'll find my rhythm- one that will afford me the balanced lifestyle I've been looking for. Just like it goes in rock climbing, sometimes all you need to do is wait for the right conditions, let go of the head games, and, above all else, commit when you find yourself in a position to make that final push for the summit.

But! Until then I'll just keep plugging away. There are worse ways to spend the transitional phases in your life, right? I'm not hurting anyone. I'm not whittling away years of my life stuck in an office. I'm not making excuses or wishing things were different. I'm just trying to stay grounded and maybe do some rock climbing along the way.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

warrior mode

Last month I made my way out East to meet up with my friend Natalie and the rest of the lifers in Beattyville, Kentucky. The forecast was questionable at best, but life's too short to play it safe. It's good to gamble every now and then. And besides, I just got back from Vegas. I was feeling lucky.

At the outset of my visit I knew that time wasn't on my side, so I got to work right away. Things on the short list started out relatively well. I began my brief campaign at the Motherlode where I was able to one hang The Madness (5.13c) quickly. I of course realize that one hanging a 130 ft. pitch at the 100 foot mark doesn't guarantee anything, but I chalked it up as a small success and decided I needed a mental break from this particular route.

So the following day I changed the venue and headed to Bob Marley Crag with my sights set on No Redemption (5.13b). Jimmy Webb had done the route the day before and he was able to give me the quick and dirty on the pitch. After two attempts I felt that a proper redpoint needed nothing more than adequate conditions. Previous days had been remarkably hot and humid, and unfortunately for us, the weather didn't look as though it would break any time soon. But what are you going to do? Make excuses, or take a swing? I figured I'd plan on hitting the cliff when things turned around.

But in the mean time I managed to run in to some bad luck. What started out as the day to siege quickly turned into multiple days of getting my life together. The short bit is that my car got broken into. Almost everything stolen. Fuck. My. Life. But what are you going to do? In life you generally have two options: you can get bent, shut down, and let the past poison the present, or you can get your fucking life together and handle your shit so you can go rock climbing.

So gears had to switch and I spent the next two days on the phone with the police, the bank, my insurance company, local collision centers, credit card companies, my cell service provider, work, and all the other institutions that have a hand in making it possible to live on the grid. At the end of the day, losing my things wasn't really something I was concerned with. It was losing my time, my momentum, and my relentless optimism.

But like I said, when the trajectory of your life changes unexpectedly you can either pack up and head out, or you can bring the big heavy and deal with it head on. No matter how hard gravity hits, there are moments where you need realize that no one owes you anything, and if you want something bad enough you just have to take it. It's never fun going solo when things look bleak, but this is how you define yourself as a warrior: an individual who can endure suffering in any number of capacities, an individual who tries fucking hard despite the circumstances, and an individual who knows that you miss 100% of the shots you don't take.

So after setting things in motion it was time to head back to cliff. Despite bleak conditions I went back to No Redemption and was able to clip the chains on my first go of the day. It felt good to pull the trigger on this one. The route is fucking brilliant: powerful, low percentage moves on sculpted holds scattered over 70 feet of golden, vertical stone. Absolutely savage precision. Definitely one of the best I've ever done. So psyched.

As I often do, I kept celebrations brief and my friend David and I headed to Left Flank. Still hungry for more, I gave Table of Colors (5.13a) a go. I was able to send the route second try, and while I don't much like this style of climbing, I can certainly appreciate the history behind the route. As long as I've been climbing at the Gorge, no other route in the grade seems to carry as much weight. I've heard people refer to it as the 13a test piece. Not sure if I agree, but an interesting climb nonetheless.

The following day we headed over to Drive-By where I was able to hook up Easy Rider (5.13a) first go, despite some wet holds going to the chains. It always feels good to siege a 100+ foot pitch. Straight up warrior mode. No tact, no finesse, just an all out assault. Proper endurance climbing with a heart breaker move at the anchors. Full value- thanks to Mike Doyle for equipping what will inevitably become another classic route in the grade for the Gorge.
Photo by Katherine Smith
When things get stressful it's good to take a step back and recalibrate. Sometimes you need to take fifteen minutes to regroup, to make your mind right. And sometimes you need three weeks. 

Even though I was able to buy more time due to the circumstances, I found it quite challenging to find a rhythm. The weather prevented us from hitting the cliff regularly and after a few days of great climbing, things came to a grinding halt. Torrential downpour and spikes in humidity kept us shut in Brendan's trailer, and being that I live out of my truck, a broken window provided the challenge of some cold nights. And sure, it would have been nice to do The Madness and some other routes, but that's what's amazing about rock climbing. You always get another chance to try. 

Besides, what's the point of getting wound up over some rain? It's always sunny somewhere else, right? It's better for your heart to live your life the way it plays out instead of getting warped about how you'd like things to be. And truth be told, I don't wish that things went differently. Wishes never come true any way. All you can do is play the cards you're dealt and keep swinging when your back's up against the wall.

Life on the run provides an infinite number of challenging encounters. A fortunate by product of this reality is that it allows (or sometimes forces) you to learn, to adapt, and to change your perspective. Life can change dramatically even if nothing actually happens at all. It's a peculiar thing to flip a switch and start living differently when the right episodes play out. While I've given up stability, roots, financial security, and the like, I've managed to develop a relentless ability to swing for the fences- even when things look bleak. It's warrior mode. I'm militant minded. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

lost wages

So I got back from Lost Wages late last night, and it goes without saying that I'm completely disoriented. Vegas is disorienting. Flips your lid sometimes. My life is a fucking mess.

I've never spent such little time in one place and felt as though it was an eternity. The desert can be a harsh environment: no water, no escape from the sun, and unpredictable weather. But that's what makes the desert an intriguing place to live: you're not supposed to, and yet we try. I found it ironic that a place like Las Vegas, one in which everyone's basic needs have mutated into needs in excess, did little to provide shelter from the desert. In other words: it's almost impossible to relax in Las Vegas. By day four my sunny disposition and relentless optimism had taken a critical hit.

Vegas has a peculiar energy, one that was not on my radar during my last visit. My previous visits I went in with blinders on; solely focused on the climbing and not really experiencing the absurdity and over-the-top, perverted illusion of luxury that is Las Vegas. It's funny how perspectives change once you've acquired more lenses.

Social commentary aside, I was pleased with our tour of the area. As a last minute game changer, the opportunity to check out the Kraft Boulders came up. The days at the boulders turned out to be some of our favorite days simply because we were able to cover more ground quickly. While the concentration in this area is low, what problems happen to exist on these boulders are amazing. Big, varnished sandstone blocks with improbable combinations of unique holds- what's not to like? This is what makes certain routes and boulders impressive. Had some of these blocks landed in a different orientation they might not be climbable at all, or they might have yielded a completely different set of challenges. It's when factors like these come together and harmonize that makes life an amazing thing. It's good to be alive, no?

Aside from appreciating small, amazing things, it also came to my attention that for the first time climbing had taken a back seat. It was strange to go climbing without the same hunger, drive, and relentless commitment that I typically throw with. But you can't fake passion and if it's not there you just roll with the next best thing- having fun with your friends, climbing rocks, playing in the dirt, and drinking margaritas.

By now, those of you who are looking for numbers, names, and a tick list are probably disappointed. Trust me, I am too. But sometimes life throws you a curve ball and you can either find any number of factors to blame, or you can swing- accept that you're only human and that it's time to sit down, reflect, change lenses, and try again. Besides, it's Vegas. No one wins big in Vegas, right? Despite how badly you might want something, you might not get it. This is life. It's what makes all the successes that much sweeter.

[ Small highlights on my end included flashes/onsights of Classic Monkey (V6), Sunny and Steep (5.12a), Give Me Back My Bullets (5.12a), and redpoints of Special K (V6), Angel Dyno (V7), Caliman (V7), and The Glitch (5.12c) ]

Honestly, I could talk more about the climbing in Vegas, but the bottom line is that it was nice just to go out and enjoy climbing for what it is- something we're not supposed to do: fighting gravity and having fun doing it.

So now I'm back and ready to find something new. I don't know what that is yet, but I'm sure it will be great. It’s hard to wait for the cues that life hands you, but opportunities fly by every day. Keep your eyes open.

*Every photo featured in this post was stolen from my friends' respective Facebook pages: Sophie Binder, Yoli Chen, and Natalie Hunter

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

on climbing

My primary objective for my visit to Hueco was to fill out my climbing resume. Having spent little to no part of my climbing career with a focus on bouldering, I lacked a respectable catalog of problems in my personal database. Wanting to change things, I decided that it would be best for me to put together at least three problems in every grade from V0 to V8, with a secondary focus on flashing as many moderates as possible. While I could have spent the majority of my visit chasing numbers and burying harder climbs into submission, I thought that deversifying my portfolio of problems would ultimately make me a better climber.

I firmly believe that within climbing a correlation exists between performance and experience. The more experience you have (i.e. the more climbs or moves you have done or even attempted), the more prepared you'll be to execute similar climbs with unwavering precision. Furthermore, I think that experience breeds confidence, and climbing with confidence is the fine line that sets talented climbers apart from the rest.

As I mentioned in my previous post, after a disappointing start in Hueco things began to turn around. In the end I was able to get relatively close to my goal- having sent 45 different boulder problems in 10 days with at least three in every grade up to V7. Due to some complications with our East Spur tour, I was unable to try any of the V8s I had hoped to bag before my time in Hueco was up (Better Eat Your Wheaties and Mr. Serious). On the flip side, I was able to send the only V8 I attempted during my stay.

[ Favorite problems from my visit (some of which are featured in the video above) include Seka's Specialty (V2), Sign of the Cross (V3), Bloody Flapper (V4), Dragonfly (V5), See Spot Run (V6), Babyface (V7), and Ultramega (V8). All five star climbs in my book. ]

I'm definitely glad that I spent the months of December and January honing my skills as a boulderer. While the gains in strength are a bit difficult to tack down, I'm certain that I successfully rewired my brain and reformed my approach to climbing. Retooling your brain is a difficult task, one that requires intention, awareness, patience, and discipline. Often times realistic gains in climbing performance come down to flipping the switches in your head, making clear decisions, and fully committing to those decisions.

This notion was inspired during my stay in Ontario with my friend Bonnie. During a session at the Halfway Log Dump boulders, Bonnie pointed out that "trying hard" was a skill set that my climbing repertoire lacked. Now, I think most people would have been put off by a criticism of this nature. I mean, no one wants to be told that they aren't trying hard enough. Right? But, having great respect for my friend and a natural inclination to learn, I listened. 

And she was right.

Always wanting to be in control, I spent years shaping my style in order to make climbing an effortless endeavor. I've often said that the appeal of climbing lies within the ability to make the seemingly impossible seem effortless. In a sense, I trained myself to climb at my limit by putting in just the right amount of effort- no more, no less. While I still think this is an important approach, it's only one side of the coin. Having the ability to flip the switch and to put the kung-fu grip down is a viable strategy- one that I had lost sight of during the last two years.

I'm looking forward to applying what I've learned on the boulders this winter to the vertical world. The weather is shifting, and luckily the transition into fitness climbing is much easier for me being that fitness is my only natural strong suit. That being the case, I figured I could get away from fitness training until the last possible minute.

So, after a considerable break from sport climbing, I'm back at it. Any and all days that I've had off work have been spent in Southern Illinois. More recently I was lucky enough to score four consecutive days off work and headed to Eastern Kentucky. (Hence the delay in updating the blog.) On the whole it was a good visit; one in which I was able to repeat old favorites and onsight/redpoint some routes I had previously overlooked.

In addition to putting in vertical mileage, I was able to kick it with my friends from Toronto- a fantastic surprise! But now it's back to the grind. The weather's completely switched gears and the rain's moving in. All signs point to keeping to the city. The next few days will be spent at the store, the gym, and the yoga studio. But I'm not sweating it.

John Oungst, The Glitch 5.12c (February 2009)

 10 days to Vegas.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

on hueco

I spent my formative climbing years watching videos, flipping through magazines, and dreaming about visiting Hueco Tanks. The nature of the climbing was by and large unknown to me, but what little I could glean from videos like The Road and Sessions was compelling enough. I was sold. I wanted to go to Hueco.

The reality, however, was that during the early stages of my personal development as a climber I lacked both the resources and the knowledge to make such a visit possible. And so, the thought of climbing in Hueco remained just that- a thought.  Over time that thought slipped my mind entirely, and I spent subsequent years maniacally devoted to growing my skill sets as a sport climber. I had completely forgotten about Hueco.

That is until I returned from The Red River Gorge this past November. While I was busy skitzing out about projects in the Gorge, several friends of mine had been putting a trip to West Texas together. Even though I had spent 2010 exclusively sport climbing I knew better than to let a great opportunity pass me by. It is, after all, much easier to explore a new venue with a motivated crew than it is to go solo. So, as my friend Jaime had advised me to do, I pulled the trigger and booked a flight to El Paso.

On paper, Hueco appears to be a logistical nightmare. Restrictions on park access, strict park hours, and mandatory reservations all seem like too many hoops to jump through just to go rock climbing. An article in the August 2006 issue of Climbing Magazine titled "Seven Reasons Why Joe's Valley is Better Than Hueco" even used these access restrictions in the thrust of its argument. 

But the reality is that the climbing restrictions in Hueco are mild at best, and incredibly easy to comply with. There wasn't a single day during those two weeks where we were denied access. The park allows 10 visitors without reservations to walk in every day, and guided tours are available with a 24 hour notice. This certainly makes having an agenda difficult, but you're guaranteed to find world class climbing in every zone, on every mountain. It's really hard to be disappointed.

Doug Munsch, Try Harder (V9)
Restrictions aside, what I can say for sure is that Hueco houses the best climbing I've encountered West of the Mississippi. (That's right, I still think the best climbing is in the South East. What of it?) The boulders are big, the holds are sculpted, and the concentration is high. I have never climbed on such perfect features before. Good moves. Good height. Good scene.

After spending two weeks in Texas it became clear to me how heavily this sector has influenced what I consider to be modern bouldering. On the whole, the problems that make Hueco a stand out sector are the ones that feature incredibly powerful moves on relatively in-cut holds in remarkably steep terrain. More often than not the climbing is gymnastic, committing, and not for those who lack mental tenacity. This style has been adapted to the indoor climbing arena in a big way, and has become a staple in every route setter's catalog of movement- whether they are aware of it or not (myself included).

In a lot of ways, the style in Hueco is very much what I have been looking for in my climbing experience- difficult, long pulls between in-cut crimps. It's hard to find that in Southern Illinois, and I certainly haven't seen such climbing elsewhere in my tour of the States. The Red River Gorge is the only place that comes to mind, but the sandstone in the Gorge is far more forgiving than the volcanic granite found in Hueco. I've never bruised my finger tips before! Yikes!

Our first day in the park was an interesting experience to say the least. Admittedly, I was quite anxious. I wanted to get a good sense of the climbing ASAP and I wanted to come out of the gates HARD. 

What initially put me off were the serious mob scenes that developed at many of the boulders. While I understand and respect every individual's right/privilege to climb in an area like Hueco, I personally don't perform well in front of a crowd (a personal problem I am now in the process of addressing). The bottom line is that I couldn't keep my shit together on my first day out, and while I saw quite a bit of North Mountain I was disappointed that I let my nerves get the best of me. 

Case in point: I managed to punt off the top of Mexican Chicken (V6)- the proper start to 100 Proof Roof (V3) that adds five moves into its crux. 

That's right. 

I botched the top of Hueco's easiest V3. 

Rookie move.

But by mid-day I started getting a handle of my anxiety, and I was able to put Daily Dick Dose (V7) on the board. After a strange first day in the park I managed to level out. From then on out it was on.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

on the whole

Astute and avid readers may have noticed that while I had promised to post during my two week stay in Hueco Tanks State Park, I in fact did no such thing. Although, astute and avid readers probably know by now that such empty promises are a staple of the blog.

This preface is not so much an apology as it is a statement of acceptance. While I had both the resources and the time to post about daily happenings, lessons learned, and general thoughts regarding my stay in West Texas, I chose to neglect the blog simply because Hueco was off the fucking chain.

Rather than farming my brain for an insightful and potentially useful summary, I've decided instead to break up my experience in a series of shorter posts which (if my schedule allows me to do so) will be posted over the course of the next week (or two). Hopefully by that time my friend Vishal and potentially myself will have edited the compiled footage from the trip. Look out!

With that said, I arrived back in Saint Louis two nights ago. I spent my first day back in the city getting my life in order. Being in the desert for two weeks was disorienting to say the least. After working a short but enjoyable shift at the store, enduring an evening of running errands, and generally hating the time suck that follows such activities, I jumped in the car and headed to Southern Illinois.

I lucked out and managed to come back to the Midwest just in time to enjoy a sunny 60 degree day at Jackson Falls. It being a Thursday I was unable to secure a partner for the day, but despite such a small detail I set out anyway. I spent the first half of my day rope soloing all of the routes in The Gallery- all varying in difficulty from 5.10a to 5.10c. The second half of the the day I was able to climb with my friends Chris and Lauren who were also eager to take advantage of the agreeable weather. 

Wrecking Ball, 5.12c (Fall 2010)
 After finishing up at The Gallery we made our way over to Lovely Tower where I enjoyed three world class routes: Fine Nine (5.9/10a), Lovely Arete (5.11a), and Hidden Treasure (5.12a). It was good for morale to have my first sport climbing session go so well. When all was said and done I had climbed 14 pitches, and I had successfully managed to fight the pump! It was nice spending the day solo in my favorite sport climbing area, recalibrating my brain, and getting back in my zone.

The month of March has me working quite a bit, but my hope is to have more days running vertical mileage in Illinois. Having not sport climbed since November, I want to bring my fitness level up to a respectable level before I hit Vegas in April. While I have no particular goals, I certainly don't want to spend a week in the desert punting because I can't hold on.

Chances are good that I'll be able to supplement my visits to So Ill with a short stay at The Red. The only way to get fit is to get out. Period.

It's not too late to get psyched, get fit, and get going on that Spring 2011 to-do list!


Saturday, February 19, 2011

estimated time of arrival

The days leading up to my visit to West Texas have been hectic to say the least. With the winter weather on it's way out, I only had a few days left to tie up loose ends in Southern Illinois. Recently I've been finding that time itself is a commodity, but with a little bit of planning, hard work, and enough motivation things can still get done.

Case in point- last Friday I drove down to Illinois and was successfully able to send Titlest (V8/9). I was on a mission for sure- I had only budgeted enough time to drive there, warm up, try the problem a hand full of times, and drive back in order to make it back to work on time.

It was nice to put Titlest down before leaving for Hueco. Not only was it a great litmus test for the past few months of training, it was also a definite morale booster. I feel fairly confident that I've made remarkable improvements both in terms of strength and power (the difference of course being that power is the amount of strength one is able to output over time). It was also nice to put down a route that was considered to be one of the first hard lines in the area. I've looked at it for years and was drawn to it's savage simplicity.  It's the perfect problem- one that demands power and unforgiving accuracy for someone with my proportions (read: height). Not only is the line difficult, it's stunning as well. Very proud to have done it this year. Watch out for the video when I get back!

The following Sunday I made it down to The Beach with a few friends where I was able to flash Sex on the Beach (V5) and grab quick sends of King of Smears (V4+) and an unknown problem on the back side of the main Beach boulder (V5/6). In addition to a tour of the classics, I made great head way on another problem on the same boulder that clocked in around V8/9. While I was unable to seal the deal, I'm fairly confident that when I return I'll be able to summit quickly.

Ian Anderson, King of Smears (V4)
But that's yesterday's news and right now I'm on my way to El Paso for two weeks. I'm not sure what to expect, but I'm eager to test my sensibilities and push myself physically. The line between having goals and having expectations is thin. It's difficult to say what I want, but at a very basic level I want to climb well- calculated, composed, and intuitively. I'm not sure what to expect, but I'll keep interested readers abreast of the situation once the opportunity arises.