2018 was my second year on my search and rescue team. It was rewarding and in some areas I feel that I did the job well, but there was one area in particular I knew I was weak: climbing.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Rigging for Rescue basic course, an intensive one week field seminar where we spent a lot of time dangling by ropes, near cliff edges, and other things that would make any normal person a little …. excited. But in the course I saw that, by a country mile, I was the weakest of climbers in that course.
Then in September of 2018 I ended up going over the edge of Mt Dana’s Third Pillar (mountain project info). My discomfort with exposure was showing as was my general lack of familiarity with rope systems. You’re good at things you do, and not at things you don’t. I didn’t climb, and it showed. So, I started climbing.
Then the winter set in which shuts down the climbing opportunities around me. Through my work I managed to find a few climbing gyms when traveling, and I stayed in Reno at a hotel that has a pretty cool outdoor wall with autobelays. There’s a rather savage indoor bouldering area in Mammoth’s industrial center that I would go into mid winter, freezing my ass off, but I made progress.
I dropped regular gym life. For those of you who know me, imagine the pain I felt walking away from barbells. I opted for more climbing and alpinist training:
- Lots of climbing, but not so much that I broke myself. I start most every indoor session with ARC training. It’s a terrific warmup and allows for drills like silent feet. Even if you have a strong fitness background climbing will tax lesser-used muscles and tendons in big ways. Overuse is extremely easy, as are the infamous pulley injuries.
- Doing outdoor climbing whenever I get the chance. So far I’ve been to Horseshoe Slabs, PSOM Slab, Fashion Slab, Area 13, Happy Boulders, Warming Wall (a lot) and my biggest accomplishment to date: Stately Pleasure Dome in Yosemite.
- Suspended pistol squats.
- Single leg Romanian deadlifts.
- Ring dips.
- Kettlebell swings.
- Kayakers, or seated dumbbell twists.
- Other things of that sort. Think of all the minimal-gear stuff you can do to focus on big range of motion activities, twisting, and single leg.
Climbing is normally broken into three distinct components:
- Your fitness. This matters, but not as much as you’d think. But like most of life things will be easier the leaner and stronger you are.
- Your skills. These take time to develop and the types of things you climb on will require their own skills. It’s different to go up polished granite than it is to climb under an overhanging roof.
- Your head. It can be extremely challenging to be hundreds or thousands of feet in the air and to step from a good location towards a really sketchy and thin rock abrasion and then to keep moving towards even less positive holds.
The head-game one, unless you’re Alex Honnold with a non-functioning amygdala, is a battle you will fight non-stop. But I’ve appreciated the carryover to other aspects of my life. In Rock Warrior’s Way (a book I highly recommend) much attention is given to the very subject of attention and intention. If you can tune out your brain screaming at you that you’re going to die and instead focus and execute the placement of your foot on a pencil eraser sized rock poking out of an otherwise glass-smooth rock face as hundreds of feet of air sit under you, you’ll notice your ability to focus on a lot of other things approves as well.
I’ve actually noticed it with a lot of climbers: they can be spooky focused and attentive. In a world of multitasking, constant phone alerts, and 24 hour news, climbing is about keeping your head extremely clear of things that don’t help you and putting all of your mental capacity towards a limited set of items, sometimes just one very little thing.
This year, I’m again fortunate enough to participate in Rigging for Rescue, this time the higher up small-teams course. We’ll be going to a multipitch route somewhere in the Eastern Sierra and I’m really looking forward to it.
If you’re older (like me, past 40 I get to say that now) climbing is nice because most of the classic and super-fun stuff is not that technically difficult. There are plenty of extremely difficult climbs but maybe 3/4 of the routes that people drool about doing are fairly achievable (and safe) for a first or second year climber.
And as a forewarning, because climbing equipment is a life-safety issue feelings tend to run very strong. Also, a lot of climbers are weird. Don’t be put off by such things, I find the weird anti-social guy just as off putting as you do. There are some nice people who’d be happy to literally and figuratively show you the ropes. Your first time crag climbing start off top roping with a good belayer: you’re not going anywhere. If you “fall” you’ll go down 6 inches or so, the rope giving you a nice cushy stretch.
And lastly, wear comfortable shoes if you buy or rent some. Climbing shoes don’t stretch that much in general, especially if you’re not climbing that often. If you are climbing a lot, you’ll end up with multiple pairs anyway and having a comfy pair of go-tos will not be wasted money. I have a pair of La Sportiva Mythos that I could nearly wear as house slippers. As much as tight shoes are important, shoes that hurt your feet make climbing suck really bad. You have plenty to focus on without needing to add in foot pain.