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 :-)