Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Memorial Day Weekend Adventure

I love three day weekends. It gives me a little extra time to do a slightly bigger adventure- something usually involving a road trip of sorts. So three days before the long Memorial Day weekend, I got it in my head to go do the Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Clocking in at over 22 miles in length and over 10,000 feet of accumulated elevation gain, the "Presi Traverse" follows an alpine ridge line that summits the 7 of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi, including the mythic Mount Washington, home of the "world's worst weather."

I was lucky in that my partner for this scheme is fairly strong physically, but more importantly, is not easily intimidated. When I first mentioned the trip to New Hampshire, I suggested we go hike Mt. Washington as training for summit attempts on Rainier later this summer. Talking him into going for the whole Presi Traverse instead was easy- like taking candy from a baby.

It seemed that some of my friends may have thought I was acting rashly- planning such a big hike in so little time to think it all the way through. I got questioning looks and not a few, 'are you sure you're not biting off more than you can chew?' comments when I divulged this plan. I understand that these people love and care about me, didn't want to see me get hurt and were really just trying to intervene in my own interest of safety, but their questions began to raise questions in my own head. I went from confidently thinking, 'I can do this' to anxiously pouring over the 'what ifs.' 

I know in climbing and the outdoors that considering the what ifs is what often helps keep us alive to climb another day. But there can also come a point where one reaches "paralysis through over-analysis" where consideration of the what-ifs becomes too great and squelches any and all action before it even happens. This is my problem. I have been raised to be a scaredy-cat. I come from a long line of professional worriers. In climbing I find that most of my frustrations comes from the reasonable risks I'm too afraid to take, rather then the unreasonable risks I thoughtlessly take.

I am actively working on transforming my relationship with these reasonable risks in both climbing and my life in general. From what I have learned so far, the key ingredient appears to be confidence. If I am confident and know that I can lead a 5.8 route, then I can do it. If I am confident and know that I can pull off a 22+ hike over some of the toughest terrain in the East, then I can do it. This is one of the things I love so much about traveling in the mountains; its such an opportunity to learn about one's self and to gain confidence from your successes as well as important lessons from your failures. 

We successfully executed the Traverse this weekend. By the end, we were tired and spent and my feet felt like raw hamburger meat, tenderized by the miles and miles of talus. I knew there would be pain involved. But I also knew there would be success.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A haiku:
It's Monday Morning 
Dirt under my fingernails 
Weekend was well spent
Even though I live only 20 minutes from the Gunks, I still live for weekends. Yes, I'm close enough that I can often get out for a climb or two after work when the days start getting longer. But the weekend days are a still sacred.

Climbing after work involves rushing home to change and grab some food and my gear. Then rushing to the crag, speed hiking into the climbing area, and usually only getting to the Uberfall to run up some top-ropes to fit in as much climbing as possible before dark. Rush, rush, rush. Multipitch climbs, climbs at the end of the cliff, all waste precious time on belaying and scouting instead of doing what you came to do: climb.

On the weekends, none of that matters though, when time is more "easy come, easy go." For instance, yesterday while climbing, my partner and I 'wasted' at least two hours hiking down to the end of the Trapps and then trashing around in the brush looking for the start of a climb. On a weeknight, this might have meant that no actual climbing got done. On a weekend though, we simply shared a laugh over our little misadventure. And as it turns out, that misadventure, even though it didn't result in any actual climbing, gave me the biggest lesson of the weekend.

At one point as we were thrashing around in the woods, I apologized to my partner. The route had been my suggestion and I felt as the 'local' it was my duty to lead him to it. Since he drives 2+ hours one way to come climbing in the Gunks, I felt terrible for wasting his time and his climbing day. Luckily my climbing partner is a pretty mellow fellow and his reply changed the tone of the rest of the day for me: "It beats a day at work."

Until that point, I had been quitely stressing about the number of people at the cliff and how best to avoid them to get as much climbing time in as possible. I also still had last weekend's unfortunate tradegy rolling around in the back of my head, causing me to second guess myself in all safety matters, even though every anchor I built yesterday could hold a truck off the ground.

But his nonchalant reply was a turning point. It reminded me to relax, to enjoy the simple fact that I was outside, in the sun and the fresh air and not in a stuffy office growing pasty under flourescent lights. (Don't get me wrong, I am very fortunate to have work that I am very good at and that I find very rewarding, but in every job there is a little bit of tedium and stress- that's what makes it work!) It also reminded me how lucky I am to get to climb and to live so near climbing. In a world where so many people struggle just to survive a day, we truly are privleged to get to spend our free time and disposable income engaged in an activity that makes survival a sport. So even though we didn't do anything hard or particularly challenging and even though I didn't rack up a big mental success like pulling off a hard lead, onsight, etc., it was a perfectly fulfilling day because I learned to slow down and enjoy just being able to spend my weekend climbing. And the dirt under my fingernails this morning is my little reminder of that lesson as I head for another day at work.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Thoughts on Risk

One of the things that has always fascinated me in the climbing community is how individuals deal differently with the inherent risks of climbing. Personally, I consider myself a "safety girl" (said in the exact intonation of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman) who prefers to be anchored in at all times when my feet are off the ground. A couple of weeks ago, I was climbing in the Gunks and was on a ledge about an arm span wide and a full pitch off the deck. As I was beneath a busy rap station, I chose to be anchored in just in case someone rappelling from above dislodged some thing. So I was little amazed when I saw a party walking along the ledge just as casually as they'd walk down the street. They were coming over to the rap station we were anchored by. Although some would not find this to be a safety hazard at all, its also not a terrible idea to give someone a little hip belay as they walk across such a ledge. So when one of these guys tripped on a root and lost his footing, my heart was in my throat at that moment. Please, please, please stumble in toward the cliff and not toward the edge and the abyss on the other side, I thought to myself. It was all over in split second, and this guy was back on both feet, continuing to walk toward the rap station like it was no big deal. Could I really have been the only person on that ledge that saw how easily, had things gone a different way in that moment, the results would have been tragic?  Since they didn't seem to notice, perhaps I am the only person that still even thinks of that moment and the terrible consequences that could have been. I eventually put the incident out of my mind but it came back to me this past week when a young woman died at the Gunks after her top-rope anchored completely and catastrophically failed.

She was 22 and going to graduate from college in a few weeks. She had her whole life ahead of her. For this terrible tragedy, my most sincere condolences go out to her family. It is still unknown exactly what happened and I don't know if we will ever know all the details. What is known is that she was top-roping the route Easy Keyhole, a popular route for first time climbers like her, that a previous climber had climbed and lowered off the route on the anchor, but when she fell or leaned back to lower off near the top of the climb, the system failed. The rope and several slings/pieces of webbing were on the ground next to her. She was initially conscious after the fall, but eventual succumbed to internal bleeding.

Many of us climbers respond to incidents like this with a near-pathologic need to know the details, as if knowing them will somehow protect us from making the same mistake- and meeting a similar end. Others feel the need to immediately critique the decision making process of all involved leading up to the accident as if demonstrating their superior-decision making skills will somehow insulated them from tragedy. But at then end of the day, I think we need to accept that our sport is potentially dangerous and that the biggest danger of all comes from habituation to that risk.

Now a caveat- I'm talking about real risk, not perceived risk. Because of this tragedy, this woman's family probably perceives climbing as significantly more risky then it actually is and will probably do so for quite some time. But all perceived risk is is just that- what we make up in our own minds, based on prior experiences and expectations, which may or not be based on anything real. Since its our own mind playing tricks on us, its harder to habituate to perceived risk, because as soon as we do, our brains will find a new way to create fear. After years of leading, being on the sharp end, even on a 5.3, has the ability to get my heart racing in a way that being on top-rope just doesn't.

But objective risks- rock fall, holds breaking, weather hazards, equipment failure- these are real risks that are always part of the equation. These are the ones we become habituated too. If you've ever thought to yourself, 'I don't need to wear my helmet here, I'm just top-roping and there's no one above me,' you've become habituated to risk. It's not necessarily a bad thing, provided you've thought through the risks and potential consequences and are prepared to accept said consequences. And that is perhaps the even bigger point here: when engaging in a potentially dangerous activity like rock climbing, it can be a matter of life or death to have a real and true understanding of the potential consequences. Once we become habituated to a certain level of risk though, we tend to get lazy and not do the work of truly understanding the risks we are taking and their potential consequences.

I doubt the climber who died this week had a true understanding of the such consequences- how could she have? It was only her first day climbing. The biggest risk she took that day was the person or persons she chose to trust to build the anchor that ultimately failed her. We can criticize and point fingers. We can obsess over the details. Or we can do something much more useful and check in with how we approach risk in our own climbing. Maybe we've been putting comfort and bravado ahead of common sense in what terrain we choose to stay anchored it on. Maybe we've been leaving the helmet in the pack more often. Maybe we've started climbing with a new partner and we've made some assumptions about that person's skill set based on our old partners, and not them. I'm not saying that there are any clear-cut answers to these scenarios, and the appropriate answer is going to be different for each person in each situation. That's why the most important piece of gear we have with us at all times (hopefully!) is the pink, squishy thing between our ears- our brains- and the ability to use them. To stay safe in the mountains, we need to consistently think through our situation, analyze the risk and make appropriate choices based on the consequences we are willing to accept. Perhaps that is how we got the saying,
"There are old climbers and there are bold climbers, but there are no old, bold climbers."