Warm Days, Cool Crags

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An article of mine was featured in the Spring 2012 issue of Escondido City Magazine, and I’ve included the piece below for those that missed it the first time ’round!  It’s written for non-climbers, so please excuse the pedantic jargon ;D

Photo credits: Tehara Tweed

It isn’t often in April that the sun shines like it has been all day, and though only partway through my shift I can’t help but think I could make some afternoon climbing plans. Unfortunately, the local resources have been tapped and I couldn’t scrounge out a partner to hold the other end of the rope.

Just as I was resigning myself to an afternoon of laundry and grocery shopping a familiar face walks into the climbing store I work at off of Grand Avenue.

“Hi, Mom. Looks like you got the afternoon off?”

It looks like I found a climbing partner!

My Mom, Kit, and I started climbing together quite some time ago and are 100% climbing addicts – who else could I expect to have a harness and rock shoes in their trunk on a Tuesday?

A short while later we are parking at the Trout Cove parking lot at Dixon Lake. Ten minutes from Nomad Ventures, Daley Ranch and Dixon Lake are a great resource for anyone local looking to squeeze an adventure in remaining daylight.

I’ve been visiting this crag for years, and many of my first climbing adventures were here – coming back again, for the first time in a few months, I got to replay in my head what it was like the first time I put a rope on and clawed up (somewhat clumsily) these steep rock faces. My family started climbing 11 years ago, and this could be the fiftieth time that this Mother/Son combo are out at this local cliff.

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There isn’t much light so first up is a hard one – The Shoulder. A thin crack that weaves back and forth across a dead vertical buttress of rock, down below the Aeries that are visible from El Norte. At one point I had hoped to just get up it, hanging on the rope if need be, but after hundreds of laps it gets reduced to muscle memory. Every hold I grab feels familiar, every placement of my sticky rubber shoes exactly as it was the last time. Soon I am on top, having started from the ground and using the rope only to catch me in the event of a fall and placing temporary anchors that the rope gets clipped to. In this style of climbing, Leading, I am more susceptible to a longer fall but is a very pure way of climbing, that is starting at the bottom and ending on top without a safety line from above.

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Anchoring a top belay, I tell Mom to tie in to the rope and start when ready.

“I may not finish, this one is still hard to me.” She warns.

“You’ve done it before, you can do it again!”

I know she is very capable and, despite the warm sun causing slick sweat on the hands, shouldn’t have much trouble. Even still, with the rope anchored from above instead of being held behind her, a slip will not result in a fall any longer than available slack in the system, which I am very adament about keepign taught!

From my vantage there isn’t much to see, but the periodical stop-and-go movement of the rope through my locking belay carabiner tells me when she is in a tough spot.

“I might come off here!”

“Jam your hands, thumbs down, just above the little constriction in the crack!”

By offering advice (or what climbers call ‘beta’) another climber can assist… if it is warranted! Some prefer the on-sight, bottom-to-top adventure into the unknown…. I, however, don’t mind a little help, and soon Kit finds the hidden hand-hold and is up on top.

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Summit high fives were exchanged, and I could tell she too has reconnected to the elation of what that first time up The Shoulder was like, all those years ago. We gather our rope and gear and head out to the next objective.

This small cliff, next to Dixon Lake off La Honda, has on it about 20 (worthwhile) climbs, all documented in a Guidebook to San Diego Rock Climbing. Along with Mount Woodson and Mission Gorge it is one of the more traveled East County locations, and despite the occasional beer can or spray paint is a great afternoon getaway into a pristine area. Whether a rock climber or just a hiker, scrambling to the tip of the escarpment with care can afford great views – just practice leave-no-trace tactics and clean up behind you!

Already tapping into nostalgia gets me excited for a climb, or route, I hadn’t tried for a while – Overhanging Buckets. It is a good deal more physical than The Shoulder, consisting of long reaches on an overhanging bulge just around the corner from the trail. The holds are small, the rock is sharp and it packs a punch in just 6 climbing moves – a veritable 100 yard dash as opposed to the calm, methodical techniques a vertical crack climb requires.

Owing to a nagging shoulder injury Kit opts out of the climb, and being that Overhanging Buckets is devoid of cracks or crevices to place temporary anchors I choose to top rope the climb with the rope anchored above me. Attempting to climb it without a rope is out of the question, as a fall from even the first move would put one tumbling down a rocky hill.

So instead of starting from the bottom, I start from the top, and anchor the rope and toss it to the start of the climb. Using rappel devices we slide down the rope from above and I tie a knot around crucial points of my harness and a fist-bump sees me off. The moves right away are steep – and hard, for me. I realize as I reach for a pocket in the rock that can only accept 3 fingers that the last time I put my hand in that hold George Bush was still on his first term as president and Friends was still on the air.

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Another climb, another memory. Light was beginning to fade as the rope was put away and there was time left to squeeze in some bouldering.

Not requireing any gear, bouldering is my usual option for climbing when I can’t scrounge up a partner. All one needs is shoes, chalk and strong fingers – though portable gymnastic pads designed for absorbing impact from short climbing falls are often recommended. One of the great things about Bouldering is the ability to focus on doing the most difficult moves possible, because there is no consequence to most falls and a difficult section can be worked over and over again if it is right off the ground.

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Crimping fingers over an edge, smearing feet on tiny nubbins of rock, all techniques used by climbers to ascend blank looking granite slabs. If I look close I can see my home from on top of one of these boulders, and I look back and reflect in this fading light. How lucky I am to have this in my veritable back yard, I wonder, and more so I am reminded that I needn’t travel to Yosemite, Joshua Tree or the Grand Canyon to have a quick adventure. All you need is motivation, and sometimes, your mom.

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