Monday, December 26, 2011

Talismans of Winter

For many years, my general feeling towards winter could be summed up in one syllable: "meh."

Don't get me wrong, as a kid I relished each and every snow day. We had a fantastic sledding hill right in our yard, so flinging myself downhill at frightening speeds was never more then a few steps and a few layers of clothing away. As much as I delighted in the adventure that was sledding and snowman-making, I was equally stoked to come inside, shed all the heavy, wet and cold layers, and wrap my hands around a warm mug of hot chocolate. With marshmallows.

As you get older though, snow becomes less about fun and more about work. When you start having to shovel the driveway at 5 AM in the morning so you can slide to work in a 1-ton "sleigh"(also known as a car), the white stuff loses its magic and become more of a burden to be feared and dreaded then relished and enjoyed. Sure, things like snowblowers and 4-wheel drive make it's consequences a little less burdensome, but its never quite the same.

Unless you're really into snowsports.

Here in the northeast where I live, we have winter. In fact, we're kind of famous for our snowy and cold winters. So much so that the history of many snowsports in the U.S. has its origins somewhere in the Northeast. Yes, we have a long, proud tradition of folks who made lemonade out of their lemons by cutting ski trails into the mountains and more recently, keeping Subaru in business.

For this reason, I am convinced that snow can be magical again, you just have to choose to enjoy it. I am adamant that people who live in the Northeast and complain about snow should do one of two things:

  1. Move. Somewhere in the South so you can quit whining about snow.
  2. Take up a snowsport so you can quit whining about snow.*
*point of clarification: quit whining about snowing. Participation in snowsports does not guarantee against whining about the lack of snow.
Harsh? Perhaps, but I see no reason for people to complain about something that is going to happen every year. And more importantly, something they know is going to happen to every year. So last winter, when I noticed that I was complaining about all the snow and generally having a "meh" attitude to winter, I decided I should probably take my own advice.

Since moving wasn't an option, I decided to take up skiing. 

With a fresh dumping of snow almost weekly, starting with the day after Christmas last year, skiing seemed like a safe bet in terms of a winter sport to help me enjoy the season more. So when the weather started turning colder this fall, I began obsessing over skiing. I watched every Warren Miller flick available on Netflix. I even watched that horrible 80s flick 'Hot Dog' that has more nudity in it then today's NC-17 pictures. I relentlessly researched skis and boots and poles. I bookmarked the homepage of all my local ski resorts and began checking their conditions reports several times a day. I talked endlessly to anyone who would listen about skiing. I even created a spreadsheet cross-referencing the days I had available to ski with the availability of cheap lift tickets at the local resorts. Egged on by the Halloween snowstorm, it was official: I had a bad case of powder fever. 

But now the joke is on me. We've had no significant snow fall since Halloween. Not that that is unusual. What is unusual is the unseasonably warm temps we've had all of November and into December, making it impossible for the resorts to make what Mother Nature refuses to give them. The NY Times ran a story last week about how many resorts across the country aren't open yet, or have so little terrain open, they can't even make enough money to pay their employees yet. And here we are, December 26, what is supposed to be the busiest week of the ski year and things are looking pretty bleak out there. 

For my part, I'm convinced this poor ski season can be directly attributed to the fact that I bought skis this year in anticipation of another good snow year. In my mind, they have become the talisman keeping this snow away. I've skied on them once so far and already I've contemplated selling them on eBay, a sacrifice to the gods to make it snow. 

Of course, without skis, I'll probably lose the motivation to go skiing and end up back at my "meh" attitude towards winter. I guess if I'm going to take my own advice, I should get packing. Maybe this time I will move to Never Never Land, where I don't have to grow up and where snow will always be magical.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Zen and the Art of Leading

Each of the last three times I've gone rock climbing, I was sure it would be the last rock day of the season. But these unseasonably warm days just keep hanging on. Each time I go out, I have this odd kaleidoscope of feelings- happy to still be out rock climbing, having one of my best seasons ever, but also sad that on December 4, with new skis on the way, there's barely a whisper of cold & snow in the upcoming forecast.

One thing I am grateful for in this weird shoulder season weather is that the guiding season is slow, so I actually get to go climbing with my hubby for a change. With me having a regular 9-5 ish kind of job, I only have the weekends off, which are his busiest days of the week during the guiding season. So the last fews times that I have gotten to tie in with him have been a real treat.

But it hasn't always. Many people dream of having a partner in climbing and in life. I can say that it is a wonderful thing, but it has its moments. Especially when your husband is a professional guide. Unless you really like being treated like a total novice climber all the time. I don't, so this has caused friction in our climbing relationship on more than one occasion. I don't think we've managed to go on a climbing trip without getting into a huge fight in 3 and a half years.

It also doesn't help that he is practically a Zen master when it comes to climbing, especially leading. He climbs just about as hard on lead as he does on top-rope. Some days I am in total awe of this mental space, but mostly I'm just jealous. There I said it, I'm jealous. We've had endless conversations about what I need to do to obtain this mental space myself while climbing and leading, but his esoteric retorts about just putting your mind into that space, like turning on a switch, only infuriated and frustrated me more. How the hell am I supposed to find said switch when I'm stuck in the pitch black without a headlamp?

Sunday was forecasted to be a nice climbing day, all things considered. Mostly sunny, highs in the low 50s, so we decided to head out. At his insistence, I took a pair of his rock shoes that were too small for him, but actually kinda perfect for me to wear with socks, a big plus for a chilly day of climbing. We got to the cliff and I had a real urge to lead a climb that I have lead many times before,  but I will often use as a gauge of where my head is at for leading that day. Even though I knew it was totally within my ability, I also knew it was going to feel weird in different shoes. Gleaning from past experience, it is not uncommon for something to "not feel right" and it negatively impacts my climbing that day. For instance, if my layering system is off and I feel too restricted by my clothing, I often won't climb nearly as well I know I otherwise could.

So leading this climb on shoes that were fitting a little more sloppy then I'm use to was going to be a bit of a mental challenge for me. I did have a few moments during the climbing where my feet felt insecure and I started to get a little nervous, but overall, it didn't seem to degenerate into the all-out-fear-fest I've had happen on some climbs before. You know, the kind where you're practically in tears wishing you could get off that damn hunk of rock as quickly as possible?

While belaying Hubby up the climb, I had a brief moment to reflect (I do mean brief, he usually runs up my leads in his approach shoes) and I had a little epiphany. Namely, that I found my light switch. This season, especially the later half of it, I've switched my focus to just having fun. I've had this as a goal in the past, but this year, I achieved it in way I never quite had before. Previously, I would make having fun the goal of my climbing day, but would unwittingly focus on the times when I wasn't have fun. I expected that the fun would just happen because I was outside and climbing and had made it my goal. What I realized I did differently this season was that I actively chose to have fun while climbing outside. I let go of all the "shoulds"(re: expectations) and just embraced the "coulds" and "cans." Instead of a mental dialogue around I should be able to do this, I structured a mental dialogue around I could try that, its looks fun! or I can totally do this climb! And when I took that pressure to perform off of myself (and yes, I realize that I was the only person putting that pressure on me in the first place), boom! I found my switch! I succeeded on climbs a grade harder then I thought I could. Granted, it wasn't always pretty & graceful, but letting myself at least try them, I discovered I was better then I thought I was. And this led directly into having more fun climbing and, well, more climbing!

I also realized that everything I could remember leading this year was a climb I have lead before. And while I hadn't made any gains in terms of the numbers, I had made significant mental gains. The climbs I lead the second half of the season stick out to me because I felt calm and strong enough on them to actually enjoy them. No freaking out. No crying or pleading with God to teleport me to the ground instantaneously. No placing gear every foot because I was that scared. When I stopped placing expectations on myself to lead a certain grade and just started enjoying whatever climb I led, no matter what grade, it all seemed to fall into place. And it struck me, that by traversing familiar terrain, what I had done was to create a positive mental dialogue about what I was doing. Instead of getting scared and then letting the fear ramp up in my brain, when I started to feel scared I practiced taking deep breaths and reminding myself that I could totally handle the task in front of me. Once I learned how to break the fear cycle, I knew how to turn on the switch to access that clear Zen-like state where a subconscious part of my brain continued to make second-to-second decisions about what needed to be done, but my conscious brain felt clear and vast, like a blank state ready to be imprinted with the details of that moment- the crystalline feel of the rock, the sound of feathers slicing through the wind as peregrines dove into the updrafts, the angle and strength of the sun and even the exact hue of the blue sky and white clouds.

Unfortunately I think that everyone has their own way to their Switch and what works for one person will not always work for another. And because each path is so unique and elusive, its easy to pare it down to "you just do it" and make it sound much easier then it really is. If you haven't found your Switch yet, keep trying; its an ever-evolving process and there are no shortcuts. For myself, I'm looking to try out my Switch on new climbs next season. That will be the true test of what I have learned this season- if I can find Zen even on foreign terrain.

Oh and one more thing, I also learned that when I have fun & just enjoy the climbing, Hubby & I have a lot more fun at the cliffs. I went from avoiding climbing with him to it being my second favorite way to spend time with him. We might even take a our first fight-free climbing trip next year :-)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Getting ready for ski season!

Last night, I went to open gym at my local Crossfit. My adrenals are not in any shape to be able to handle 15 minute met-cons, so I generally skip the WODs and stick with the strength work. Nice, slow strength progression with lots of rest in between max lifts. This was pretty easy to do last night in particular because the box was packed! All present were women (except our coach) and it was awesome to see so many ladies sweatin' it up and moving some pretty burly weight!

Crossfit-style workouts did a lot to help bump up my climbing game during the early fall. Funny thing about having increased strength for climbing- its makes the climbing more fun! When you've got the guns to hang on a little longer, or try a harder grade climb, well, climbing can become down-right addicting! The increased strength & endurance also did wonders for my leading, giving me a cooler, calmer head and fewer instances of sewing-machine leg!

For various reasons (re: excuses), I've not been working out regularly for the last two months. However, with ski season baring down on us (maybe, I'm taking this on total faith that the earth is tilted far enough away from the sun here in the northern hemisphere for winter to happen. Its currently the end of November and today's weather forecast is calling for highs near 60 deg F!), I decided it was finally time to get my ass in gear and start building some strength & endurance in my legs for skiing. Knowing now what seemed to help my climbing, I decided to apply the same principles for ski season training.

So here I am, at Crossfit, doing some back squats. Photo credit: Jennifer Steck
I did set a PR last night of a 125#, which isn't going to win me any strongwoman contests, but I felt it was pretty good for only my second time ever back squatting. After completing my strength progression, I did a round of 30-20-10 box jumps to help train some dynamic power in my legs as well. And since it is nearly 60 degrees today, I threw some assisted, static pull-ups in there for good measure, just to keep my climbing strength up :-)

Now this is what I love about Crossfit. Ladies, do not be afraid to lift heavy weights! Unfortunately, the most that typical gyms offer is a set of Nautilus-type machines that often times, are not designed for a woman's biomechanics. This is how injuries happen! Furthermore, while there is a time and place for doing isolated muscle movements (if you're a bodybuilder for example), what I've learned from my training in anatomy and kinesiology is that there is no such thing as a muscle moving in isolation in real life! The buzz word in Crossfit circles is "functional movements." Now that term can be, and is, debated endlessly. But a squat is what I would call a functional movement. Why? Because you are moving multiple muscle groups in a way very near to a situation you would use in real life- there's something on the ground and you need to pick it up. How do you accomplish this? You either bend over at the waist with your knees bent a little and then press up (deadlift!) or you squat down and then press up through your legs. Bonus for our fair sex- squatting is key to building the right amount of tone through the muscles of the thighs, hips and pelvis so that the muscles of the pelvic floor are the correct length and tone to do their job. And what is their job, you ask? Their job is to keep your pelvic organs where they belong- in your pelvis! Incontinence & prolapse of pelvic organs are symptoms that the pelvic floor is not doing its job. So if you pee when you sneeze, you need to squat! (Note: I don't want to get in to a technical discussion of the biomechanics here. But if you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend surfing on over to and purchasing the "Down There" DVD or the No More Kegels online course. Katy Bowman is an absolute wiz at the biomechanics of a woman's pelvis. She probably knows a thing or two about a man's as well.)

But I digress. What I love about Crossfit is that you can lift like this here. They actually have heavy weight plates, lots of bars and floors that you can drop weight on to if you need to dump them. In contrast, gyms these days seem focused on cardio & toning. Both are useless in my opinion. 30 minutes on the treadmill a day will probably result in just enough weight loss to keep you shelling out $10-$25-$45 bucks a month to keep walking on that treadmill 30 minutes every day, literally, going nowhere. And what about toning? If you want to build muscle, build some freakin' muscle! Lift something heavy!!! If you're a women, unless you are taking anabolic steroids or testosterone injections, it is physically impossible to get "big" lifting heavy. (I promise, the other ladies present at Crossfit last night were all devastatingly good-looking and they were moving some big weight!) You will however, get more tone and actually develop some useful strength in the process.  Which brings me back to my squat. Do you ever watch people ski? They are essentially in a squat position the entire time they are going downhill. Squatting helps train the strength & endurance to hold this position during long runs. Meaning more runs, with less pain at then end of them. Which means MORE FUN!

Which, at the end of the day, isn't that what its all about???

Friday, November 25, 2011

How to appreciate your thunder thighs and ba-donk-a-donk butt in 3 easy steps

Another blogger I follow had a post this week about how she finally got over hating her thighs. I think it's common for women to focus on a part of their body they don't like, which is really a waste of energy. Better to switch focus to what that body part does for you and how amazing our bodies are in general.

1. Take note of other athletic women. Competitive athletic women. Downhill skiers, mountain bike racers and anyone else who's race uniform involves at least some amount of spandex stretched across their arse. Compare this to the waifs on the catwalk. Notice that women who actually do something with their bodies besides act as stand-in coat hangers have *gasp* muscles!

2. Observe your profile in a mirror. Slip on a pair of high heeled shoes. Observe your profile again. Notice how standing on your tippy toes pushes up the calf & butt muscles. Now you know the real reason these foot torture devices were invented: to give shape to the shapeless. Rejoice that your ample thighs and butt give you this desirable shape without foot pain, calluses and bunions.

3. Take up backcoutry skiing. Feel your thighs and gluts burn with lactic acid from skinning up and skiing down. Better yet, learn tele- free the heal and feel the burn. You'll learn very quickly that there is no way you can have this much fun without strong quads & gluts. You'll beg to go to the gym and have your legs torched by set after set of back squats, deadlifts, and lunges till your quads rip out of a pair of shorts like the Hulk.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

You say "snowflake", I say "rhinovirus" OR Living la vie da Charlie Sheen

I think winter has officially begun somewhere north of where I currently am. All the local ski resorts have pushed back their opening dates, hoping for colder weather to insure their snowmaking efforts are not in vain. Meanwhile a foot or more has fallen on the Daks and the resorts in the Green Mountains. So while most folks are planning to spend the Thanskgiving holiday with their loved ones, I'm hoping to hit the slopes.

One problem with this plan.

My body has betrayed me, given up the good fight and given in to the dreaded rhinovirus, aka the common cold. At least I hope that's all it was. Ironically it was my obsession with skiing that got me sick in the first place.

How, pray-tell, was that you say?

Ski porn, my friends.

Yes, the last two weeks while the hubby was away in Vegas, I kept some fast & loose company of my own, namely Warren Miller flicks with some very fast skiers on some very loose pow-pow. (And here you were thinking of something much dirtier, weren't you?) Yes, instead of going to bed at a timely hour, I would instead stay up much later into the night, awash in cold sweat watching ski porn. Sometimes, just watching wasn't enough, so I sought to engage even more of myself by visiting forums of the equally obsessed and scouring the internet for deals on toys, or um, gear. The problem was made even worse when I would forgo eating nutritonally balanced meals for quick take out so I could spend even more time indulging my powder fantancies.

In short, I had it bad.

And it caught up with me. Too much stress, too many late nights and too few vitamins coalesced into a whopping cold two days ago. Finally it would seem, I looked as strung out as I felt. The white powder finally got the best of me.

Somewhere up north a bunch of that beautiful white powder is falling. Will I get a hit of it this weekend or will I have to sit it out this weekend, instead learning a hard lesson about delayed gratification???

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Story of Gear

"Don't spend money on gear, spend money on plane tickets." solo expedition kayaker (and grandmother) Audrey Sutherland, who has paddled more than 8,000 miles around the world. 

It's November and there is a cold drizzle falling outside. Despite my pleading entreaties to the weather gods, rock climbing seems to be officially over here in the Northeast. With rock season over, its time to box up my cams and send them to Black Diamond to be reslung. The original nylon slings seem to be in good shape, but at the ripe old age of 8 years, the prudent thing to do would be to have them replaced, fresh and ready to go for next year's rock season.

Or perhaps, I'll wait just a little while longer. There might be one more warm day hiding in the forecast and I don't want to miss it if half of my rack is in SLC. Then again, if I had new cams, the newer lighter C4s, it wouldn't matter. And with that, my inner gear whore starts the wheels turning.

Despite my determination to not let the season end just yet, a new season means a new sport. And a new sport means what else- new gear! I've been really looking forward to trying my hand at some backcountry skiing this winter. The one unfortunate thing about this is that a backcountry rig ain't cheap and its hard to find that gear used, at least it is in this neck of the woods. I can rent backcountry gear up in the Daks or New Hampshire, but not locally, so it would be terribly inconvenient if I wanted to go run up the back side of Hunter in the Catskills one afternoon. Having your own gear can be very important sometimes because it just might mean the difference between doing something you love outdoors and staying at home. And as expensive as skis are, few people are blessed to have a spare rig just laying around to lend to a friend.

And there's ice climbing. I do own ice tools, crampons and boots. My boots are a pair of Scarpa Freney's that picked up several years ago for $100 on Sierra Trading Post. Apparently, there are very few men on the planet with a size 5 foot, or whatever the men's equivalent of a women's size 7 shoe may be. Because they are men's shoes, they have a pretty funny shape. In terms of length, they are short, but since they are built on a men's last they are wider then a women's shoes. They look like moon boots. For a child.

They've gotten me this far. And considering I average less then 10 days of ice climbing a year (OK, let's be honest, more like, less then 5 days), there is really no need for a new boot when those work perfectly well. But oh, the La Sportiva Women's Nepal Evo GTX! How beautiful they are! I look at their thin, dainty profile in sharp contrast to my bulky moon boots and wonder if my footwork on the ice would be improved  by the narrower, more streamlined boot. Perhaps, if I had better footwork, I would climb better, enjoy climbing more, therefore I would go climbing more and this is how the logic goes to justify the need to buy boots that I don't need. Same for tools. I climb now on a hand-me-down pair of Quarks, wrapped to the hilt in grip tape by my DH, the Guide. These are perfectly serviceable for my limited forays each winter, but when I look at the new Black Diamond Fusion tools- Father, forgive me for I have sinned. I've had impure thoughts about purchasing those tools.

It's in these moments that Audrey Sutherland's words haunt my thoughts, like my own damn Jimney Cricket. I go to work everyday, getting more and more pasty as I languish under the fluorescent lights. I make money then spend it on gear & toys I'll rarely get to use because I have to go to said job to keep making the moola. Or I could stop the insanity, learn to be content with gear & toys I do have and then spend money on plane tickets.

If only it were that simple. Plane tickets, in addition to their upfront costs also require time away from work. No work, no pay. The hidden cost of the trip is the lost revenue. In this way, the gear is cheaper. And then let's not forget the added bonus of it sitting on the floor next to the door, silently mocking me each time I run out said door, late for work again.

It's a fine line between having the right gear that let's you get out more and helps you enjoy the experience more when you do get out, and overdoing it on having the latest & greatest simply because it is the latest & greatest. Where that line is, I believe, is different for different people. DH, the Guide, for instance, has more of need for those shiny new, light-weight C4s then I do. So each season, I work on vanquishing that inner gear whore and instead focus on getting out and enjoying the sport itself with Audrey Sutherland on my shoulder of course.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Why the world needs another climbing blog

The short answer is, it doesn't.

Every gear retailer has a blog now. Every sponsored athlete seems to have one too. And then there are the obsessed masses who must write about climbing between once a month climbing outings in order to keep the adrenaline rush going. Junkies.

I suppose the sheer fact that I am sitting in front of a computer, writing this on a Monday morning while I'm supposed to be doing my 9-5 puts me squarely in that third category.

So why put more Monday-morning-my-weekend-was-so-awesome-wish-I-was-still-climbing-and-not-at-this-lousy-job drivel out in the blogosphere?

Because if you're reading this, you are probably one of us. One of the weekend warriors that lives for Friday afternoons when you can throw all of your gear in the back of the car and VAMMOOSE!

Because if you're reading this, you need this. You need it like a smack fiend needs their next hit. You went climbing this weekend and got to experience that delicious Eden where you lived like you once were- exhilarated and free, in nature. You got home Sunday night with a big grin on your face, at peace. Then you woke up this morning and went to work, crashing back to the reality of responsibilities like bills, jobs & kids.

Because, especially if you are a woman and a climber, you probably struggle mercilessly with fear and self-doubt. Not that these struggles are unique to either women or climbers in general. Rather, that women climbers seem to have a unique dichotomy of experiencing climbing as both incredibly self-affirming and incredibly self-effacing. Sometimes at the same time.

My husband, a professional rock climbing guide, called me this morning from Red Rocks. There were several parties ahead of him & his partner on the route they did yesterday, so he spent a lot of time hanging out at the belays with the second from the party ahead of them. He described her as a cute, tall, blonde chick who was a strong climber. He learned that she use to lead 5.11 trad climbs. When asked why she wasn't swinging leads on this 5.8 climb with her partner, she told him that she stopped leading after she started climbing with a group of women who climbed even harder then her.

This apparently led to a punctuated conversation at each subsequent belay about what it is about women climbers and how they can feel so threatened by other women climbers. Or, more exactly, why we are so quick to compare ourselves to other women climbers and deem ourselves unworthy. How that feeling plays that out is unique to each woman. Some, like this woman, choose to give up something. Others find excuses to mean or harsh to these women, trying to bring them down to their own level.

Earlier in the week, I was climbing with a friend who had pretty much given up on climbing this summer. She had a litany of legitimate sounding reasons- a pretty serious fall earlier this season, scheduling conflicts with preferred partners etc., but if you stripped away all the "fluff" at the heart of it, she doubted herself and her climbing abilities. So she avoided the issue by not climbing at all.

I suspect there is more then three of us out there (for those having trouble with the math, I'm including myself in the total count) that experience this place. This place of desperate passion for the sport of climbing that drives us so hard to achieve and yet, the failure to achieve will cause us to give up way too easily.

For those of you who have ever experienced this place, or who feel like you live in this zip code, welcome.  I hope this blog can be a refuge for those struggling to find again the joy of climbing when you feel like you're ready to give up on climbing altogether.

And that, I believe, deserves another blog.