Five Things You Already Do That Are Easier Than Hiking Mount Whitney

Jeremy felt like there was a bit too much O2 at 14,500'

Jeremy felt like there was a bit too much O2 at 14,500′

The small rocky outcrop nestled high above Escondido was a popular place for graffiti art and homeless intercourse, but today the crags around Dixon Lake peppered with local climbers would serve as a backdrop to photographs that will accompany an article about outdoor activities in North County. The kind and doddering photographer ambled helplessly in between the gentle boulders, navigating her way through them like a toddler through a ball pen. Sure enough once I lashed her safely into position above a 3-foot drop a camera would whip from a fanny pack and she’d hammer out a few dozen professional quality pics before I could tie in and do some climbing. The lens alone cost more than my car and after I’d received my copy of the article in print I had doubts the place was even Dixon Lake. Where was the broken glass and discarded condoms?

Fact of the matter is being a professional photographer is hard, a lot harder than rock climbing – she just hadn’t done it as much.

Walk into the Lone Pine ranger station below Mount Whitney on a Friday morning and you can feel the buzz. The long walkway that leads from a parking lot of luxury SUV’s with California plates acts as a gallows to which weekend warriors stick their necks each weekend, hoping to make the summit without puking out $40 of hiking food from Trader Joes. I feel for these folks, who step occasionally into a pretty weird world that I’ve come to call my home. Hiking is hard, but seeing them pay for a hiking map on a credit card made out of rare-earth metals while speaking a foreign language to his visiting friend from Japan I couldn’t help but think these characters can do some things that I think are damn near impossible.

1. Floss

They say it takes 21 days to form a habit. I’m 29 years old, and after almost 11,000 days I still forget just about every morning. The same guys who look at me in camp perplexed I forgot my floss are the ones I see bonking at 11,500 feet hiking Whitney. How did you not spend one day above altitude before coming up? Funny enough, he still summitted, floss in his pocket and nary a spec of foodstuff in between his molars. Even screwing it up he managed to hike Whitney, albeit in about as much pain as one can imagine having hiking 20 miles with an apocalyptic hangover.  Once we got down to some ibuprofen and beer the hiker seems to be all better, while I’m scrounging for dental plans on craigslist and considering Mexican supplements. Hiking is WAY easier than flossing.

2.  Not urinate in public

It happens all the time, without fail: I have to pee in the middle of a long desert road without any rest stops. If there’s a stretch of driving more than 30 minutes it’s almost a guarantee. The number of times I had to pull off into the dirt as far as my car could off-road to meekly relieve severe discomfort amidst looks of scorn are difficult to recall. Each time, shame and disappointment. Look at me, I’m almost 30 years old and I’m peeing on my tire in the desert. In my life I’d never seen someone do the same, yet I’m constantly having to pee when restrooms aren’t around and cruelly denied privacy or respite by long open fields. Everyone goes pee, why is it so weird? Why did stopping mid-race to take a leak in a cross country race in high school get me disqualified, almost expelled? I don’t have the answer, but I can tell you that it is a LOT easier to hike Mount Whitney than to live without peeing in public.

3. Eating Vegetables

At a wedding recently I met a family member who hadn’t had a vegetable in 40 years. While I felt bad for his gut flora I hurt more that he was missing out on some amazing stir fried dishes and salads that I had recently come across. It might be possible that I could have been him, had I not spent a few years wracking myself trying to come up with healthy meals to support my climbing habit. Month after month I’d boil broccoli or fry red pepper only to have it come out the consistency of play-doh, and each time I’d wrestle the depleted fibers down hoping I absorbed something of value in the food-paste. Perhaps the best thing about the outdoor community is the access to awesome recipes – hippy vegans have filled in my repertoire of dishes so now it’s possible that I can get a well-rounded diet without lacing my meals with bacon. My hippie vegan friends and I have wonderful conversations, some where they even lament that Whitney is such a hard hike and they’d love to do it. If I could trade my quads for their Quinoa I would.

4. Register a Vehicle

Every May I tip the U.S. Government an extra 30 dollars because I can’t seem to find the DMV before 30 days are up. When registering for a permit to hike Whitney, the license plate information is recorded in the event of an emergency, and the line of documented SUV’s with fresh oil and a clean filter outside seem to have passengers that are able to send a check once a year. Owning the lone unregistered vehicle in June and July is embarrassing, and what at first was a funny quirk of personality has erupted into full-blown compulsion. A flat tire while driving to renew, no stamps in the drawer, but more likely a week-long climbing trip wiped my brain slate clean and a penchant for avoiding paperwork means nothing is written down: I come back from climbs a brand new human, having to pick up the pieces like that guy from Memento. Disappointed glances from CHP personnel accompanied by warnings have done little – and I hope to break my streak in 2015. Don’t bet on it.

5. Raise a child

Everyone has a baby. There are literally hundreds of children in the world today – possibly more. I would go so far as to say there are enough children, yet more and more seem to keep popping up. Each year public schools graduate some, but more are taken in – haven’t we educated all them by now? Surprisingly, people keep having kids. I’ve heard that being a parent is literally the hardest thing you will ever do. After a trip to the supermarket, I have to confess that life must be so much more amazingly simple than I had suspected. Parents everywhere letting kids run wild and cause mayhem was relieving to me, as the hardest thing I might ever do requires about as much effort as owning a cat. Sure, there are great parents out there, but even the terrible ones seem to do all-right, living oblivious to the transgressions they teach their kids, and the kids themselves seem to do all right, some learning from the mistakes of their parents and some not. I’ve hiked Whitney, and it was pretty hard, but it wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve done.

So, next time you are considering adding to your family or flossing after a plate full of veggies, try hiking Mount Whitney instead. You’re almost there.

 

 

Virtual Tour: Mount Woodson Classic Cracks

Virtual Tour: Mount Woodson

Classic Cracks

Ah, Mount Woodson.  Home to so many pea-sized boulders you’ll think  you are a giant in Yosemite.  Though the high walls hidden in the Sierra might make El Cap and Half Dome seem a more grand objective, wee little adventures can be had tromping among the oak and manzanita high in the San Diego front country.

To Get There

Take Hwy 67 East out of Poway via the I-15.  I come from North County and exit Camino Del Norte, taking it to Espola and Poway Road.  If coming from the South, you can take Poway Road from the 15, just outside of Mira Mesa.  Either way, once your off the freeway the rolling hills offer awesome views not far from The Gaslamp and Oceanside Pier.  Ah, the glorious East County…

Warm up boulders

Park along the West Side of the 67 on the Shoulder.  This highway in particular is (or was, before renovations) the 6th deadliest highway in the nation.

In addition to having to play Frogger if the left side of the pavement is packed on a weekend, arriving very early or very late in the day can lead to desperate passers-by looking on your seat for a cell phone or wallet.  I’ve been fortunate enough in dozens of visits to avoid either problem, but I make sure to leave my car devoid of valuables, taking anything I like up the hill with me.  Take care as well pulling out into traffic, as cars careening past the Golf Course on Sunday Night might as well be Patriot Missiles.

The Warm-Up

Warm Ups Close Up

The first three problems in this video are on the “Practice Boulders” – aptly named.

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The lieback flake is about 5.7*, and has a mantel move off of a good sloping bread loaf just at the top.  Get a spot if you are uncomfortable, as with any mantel it can put you off-balance and a fall may not be controlled.

There is no ‘easy’ way off, so I would suggest climbing these double cracks up-and-down first, as they are my favorite downclimb:

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Or, consider downclimbing this wide crack on the back, which has a very low crux and can be squirmed pretty easily:IMG_2348

The boulder with the other two problems has an easy walk off. The second problem is a 5.10A mantel problem – getting established up on it can be a bit tricky, and trust the friction for the press.  It isn’t too high and isn’t too difficult.  The final problem is a 5.6 flake that feels easy, though the slick texture might make the feet pop unexpectedly (while filming, I came off the first time I hopped on!)

Mantels are a great way to warm-up as they work the antagonistic ‘pressing’ muscle groups, getting the blood warm without taxing the shoulders/fingers/forearms for harder problems later in the day.  As with any exercise in climbing, a pushup is better done as part of a rock climb to learn technique simultaneously, so try to incorporate strength and conditioning on the rock for better (and more enjoyable) results!

There are a handful of other problems in this area** to try and I’ve highlighted them in “yellow” on the maps above and below – except for the “Baby Robbins Area” (there’s just too much to bother color coding!).

The “5.10B/C Face” and “5.10D Thin Crack” are CLASSIC Woodson problems – they might feel impossible at first if unfamiliar with the subtle techniques hard, thin granite problems require.  Impossible one day and a warm-up the next – that’s the magic of technical climbing.  Learn to trust rubber on small edges and keep body tension for these guys!

Further up the road, take the first Left up a steep faint trail just after the Gate to reach the Sunday Afternoon Boulder.

Sunday Afternoon Boulder 

Sunday Afternoon Boulder

The Sunday Afternoon Boulder is comprised of two large, toprope-sized blocks with a handful of problems ranging in difficulty from 5.7 to 5.12.

Sunday Afternoon Close Up

The Sunday Afternoon boulder is shown in the video, via a popular top-rope problem.  The yellow text are problems not covered in the video.

SAB

The 5.7 Flakes/5.9 Jam/Flare can be reached by hiking up around to the right to reach the SECOND pair of toprope bolts – the first are above a 5.12 tips crack.  On the opposite side of the boulder, around to the left of the ‘5.7 flakes,’ is a 5.8 wide crack.  This can be top-roped via long slings and a directional from the bolts, thought it is an awkward angle.  Beware if bouldering out any of these routes, as there is a somewhat-tricky mantel move after the climb to get on top of the formation – it is only about 5.7, but feels insecure, though easier than the climbs to get to it.

I Hear My Train A Comin‘ is a world class finger crack, made famous by its first ascentionist John Bachar who (in the 1980’s) onsight-soloed the route.  Even if the climb is above your level, walk up to it and imagine in the days before crash pads hiking the route first try.  That should give a good impression of the standards those who developed this area held themselves to. PROUD!  To the right of the boulder is an awesome 10D lieback flake that can be toproped called “Razors Edge” – a great consolation prize, and with a good spot not a bad boulder problem as well.

Heading back to the road and going uphill some more, one encounters a water tower shortly on the right – Just BEFORE the water tower is a short trail heading ~30 yards to the Blackfinger boulder (10A toprope or boulder problem, fingercrack), which isn’t covered, but worth checking out.  At the water tower, turn and look right (like in the video) and you’ll see the obvious hand crack on the Elephants Trunk.

Elephants Trunk/Butt

Elephants Trunk Boulder

This pint-sized boulder offers a lot of bang for it’s short stature.  The obvious hand crack is a fairly highball 5.10, the face to the left a fun 5.6-7 problem.  Multiple warm-ups or downclimbs can be found on the Southwest side of the boulder, and look carefully to the left of the elephants trunk for a really cool face climb.  It’s mid-5.10, dynamic, and a real blast.

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Robbins Crack

Robbins Crack Approach

We’ll skip straight ahead to the best 5.10 splitter in the area – Robbins Crack!  It’s about a 10 minute walk past the water tower, past the Seminar Wall/Lizards area (tall blocks on the first major switchback past the water tower), the playground (flat spot with a spray painted boulder when the road opens up and looks South towards Downtown San Diego) and underneath the mighty Uncertainty Principle (link).

Robbins Close Up

This problem shouldn’t be difficult to see from the road.  From the cracked rock you can see the problem at there is a path going around to the left to reach it – the cracks right on the road as well are good warm-ups, if you’d like to head straight to this area and skip the bottom stuff.  The giant overhanging face is Don’t Rock The Boat, more groped than any other 5.13 on the hill.  Missing hangers and epoxied holds make it seem a bit less enticing than other testpeices in the area, and modern crashpad/spotter technology might relegate it to a new-age boulder problem.  For now, it attracts the eye of the gym rat who sees steep crimps and big moves with bolts – not something too common at Woodson.

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The crux of bouldering Robbins is, of course, down-climbing it.  I suggest trying the problem first on a rope to make sure you are comfortable.  If you’ve got a good spotter (and, perhaps, a crash pad) it can be lead with a #1 camalot – place it while standing on the good edge about head-high and cruise the final 5.8-5.7 moves to the top.  Toprope bolts on the left make a directional useful for doing laps and are conveniantly right on top of an awesome 5.11 thin-face climb, Eric’s Face.  A common toprope problem, this isn’t to be missed!  Check out the top half of Lie Detector, which is only about 5.9 – the bottom is hard, thin, old school pin scar jams and pretty damn difficult!

This problem is named after the climbing legend Royal Robbins, who famously onsight-soloed this route for it’s first ascent in hiking boots – the locals had told him it was the best route in the area, just not that it hadn’t been done yet!

Baby Robbins

Baby Robbins Approach

Quite possibly my favorite area for a quick circuit is the Baby Robbins/Jaws area.  There is so much packed in so close, almost all short enough to be considered boulder problems, and in a cool little grove to boot.  Take the faint trail JUST BEFORE the sharp switchback that overlooks San Diego a second time – inside the bend of the road is a group of boulders making a cave-like feature hiding a popular 5.10 toprope and the V-Hard testpeice False Eppulator (or Rails Problem – the real ‘eppulator,’ named after Greg Epperson, is around the back on the West side, facing the road, up a short and fierce 5.12 dike).

Baby Robbins Close Up

Too Much Stuff!  Baby robbins is a great toprope, if you can keep the rope out of the crack (hint – run it over a shoe or a pack), and Jaws is the real gem of the area though the landing make it more of a solo than a boulder problem.  Other topropes include Girls Climb (10D) and Corn Flake (5.7) – Corn Flake can be started all the way down and right to add some mileage.

perfect slab area

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With an open mind you can find more than a dozen climbs in this short area and the Perfect slab area above.  The Perfect Slab spot has a handful of awesome rails, mantels, highballs, friction climbs and knob-presses to round out Granite Technique, all doable with a single crash pad.  The face climb in the Virtual Tour Video is the “5.9” to the left of Baby Robbins, and just to the left of the “5.9” is another cool problem starting with a hop to a heart shaped hold.  Spend time here and learn the circuit, it will be a favorite spot to hit on the way up or down the hill.

The Cave

Cave Approach

The most obvious feature when hiking past this popular area is going to be the giant, overhanging Cave (11a).  This spot has a large grouping of problems to warm up on or work out.

Cave Area

The Cave is a gnarly highball or a toprope, but an easy escape off to the right at about half-height make it a reasonable boulder problem.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dBJXD0adKw

The first problem I cover is Fisticuffs, a 5.8 fist crack/offwidth that has some face holds to mitigate the jamming needed. At this point in filming the video I was pretty beat.  Wearing socks and sweating hard in the heat I used some of those face holds instead of jamming – cheater!  Not really cheating, as it’s all climbing, but again – a great problem to try different techniques.  The “Aguille De Woodson” is a pair of featured fins that have a handful of fun warm-up face climbs.  If comign to work on this part of the hill consider jumping on these first.  To the left (East) of the Cave is an arching hand-to-fist crack called Bat Crack.  It feels insanely physical and is a problem worth bringing a few rolls of tape on.

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The last problem climbed in the video is Johns Crack, not to be confused with Long’s crack (named after climbing legend John Long).  John’s crack feels easier than Robbins, but harder than baby Robbins.  A hard pull off the ground gets you established in the deeper, easier jams, so though it is tall and over a weird landing it’s not a very dangerous boulder problem.

Heading down hill you will find Alcoa and Stairway to Heaven, two test piece highballs/solos that see few ascents.

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Up the road a tiny bit, at the sharp switchback, leave for a trail heading towards San Diego and head to the obvious giant overhanging block of Big Horn.  This boulder has toprope bolts to work out the myriad face climbs and variations, a great place to get a pump on granite.

So there it is, my first installment of Virtual Tours.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and more so I hope it has inspired you to explore more and have more fun.  That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

A Note About Grades*

I spent some time thinking about how best to provide information about grading these climbs – for the most part I used what Dave Kennedy called routes in his guidebook, but sometimes I took the liberty to give my own interpretation.  There is no real consensus, just personal interpretation, and I suggest climbing them and letting me know what you think – the climbing is the fun part, anyway!

A Note About Other Problems**

I know, I know.  There are a LOT of problems I missed, even right by the spots I covered.  I know, they are your very very favorite-ist climbs in the world.  This was just a sampling, and be sure that future posts will cover more areas and more classics, but feel free to let me know which you prefer – might add them into my next post!

5 Reasons Why You Suck at Crack Climbing

Matt upside down

Hang in there, this post will get you through it!

“I don’t like crack.”

I’ll avoid the pedantic analogy to Crack Cocaine except to say that, like any drug, you just don’t know if you like it ’till you try.  Of course ‘trying’ to learn crack climbing often leaves the newbie in a bruised pile of humility.  That’s where the failure part comes in – the road you are taking sucks, your car is fine.

This article aims to deflate some preconceived notions of The Way to crack climb in place of easier, more bite-sized steps for success.  Just like any approach to training, one should check the ego at the door and keep in mind the word “Objective” when it comes to adding things to the plate (or scrapping all-together).

Started at Dixon

19 Year Old Greg

I started climbing in a gym in 2001, as a sophomore in high school, at Solid Rock Climbing Gym.  Unlike those before me I had the advent of Climbing Gyms to train and learn the craft, and back when I began that was exactly what one did – gyms were little more than steep concrete walls with bolt-on resin holds arranged by high school kids to give weekend warriors a way to get pumped on a Tuesday.  Posters all over of heroes on heroic routes – Chris Sharma on Realization, Tommy Caldwell on the Salathe, Fred Nicole on Slashface – lined the locker rooms, a reminder of ‘the real thing’ and why we were there .  The gyms were uncomfortable, dirty, and run amok by birthday parties for 11 year olds, a patron that was a necessary evil to keep the bay doors open for the handful of broke climbers in the area.  Real rock climbing was the point, and most everyone who shivered in the few abandoned all winter knew that.

Before my time there wasn’t a culture of gym climbing, and not long after the appearance of high-tech facilities there arose whole scores of climbers happily enjoying entire careers on plastic rock.  Granted, as a form of exercise a climbing gym is a bit more rad than blandly hefting  weights at 24-hour fitness or thudding on a treadmill watching TLC.  The idea, however, that one must attain a certain proficiency on indoor climbs before venturing outside seems silly and a bit too progressive a thought for my taste.  In the bright light and softly padded floors of a 70,000 square foot mega-gym the realities of rock climbing can seem harsh and unfriendly, and that feeling only grows the longer an expedition to the local crag is put off.

Climbers today do have tics on their side of the scoreboard, as all the steep terrain that is easily accessed in a gym makes them freakishly strong. More and more climbers are capable of climbing the BEST routes in the area, as the old-school hippies who trained by toproping laps on finger cracks don’t have the power-endurance for the relentless jug-hauls of the Red River Gorge.  Grades once thought elite are being climbed by children, and there in lies the problem – grades.

Wrecked on whitney

Beat and Altitude Sick at 14,000 feet

My first time outdoors, my first time to Joshua Tree, my first big wall, were all horrible failures and soul-crushing realizations of what I really was as a climber.  At Dixon Lake, my first day crack climbing, I huffed and gasped my way up a 5.7 wide crack despite climbing mid-5.10 at the local gym.   Later on, a 5.8 slab told me I really didn’t know that much about rock climbing.  The idea then was to climb the fun climbs, and walking up to a crag one wouldn’t scan a guidebook and toss aside anything naturally protected because “I’m a sport climber, not a trad climber.”  You were a “Climber” and climbed rock climbs, and California is a Granite state – that means that our 500-mile long Sierra Nevada Batholith is split easily by cracks and flakes as volcanic activity echoes onto the cold rock and exfoliates itself.  By looking very, very carefully one might find rock climbs that resemble the moves typically found on gymnastic rock climbs, but to do so would be to look through a vary narrow telescope and ignore the real quality and unique formations our state has to offer.

That long stretch of Granite, those hundreds of miles of splitter cracks offering the best rock climbing in the state by popular consensus, they are a drug worth toking.  Trust me on that one.

I hope to shed some lights on the Do Nots and give an alternative approach – with the usual amount of callous humor and some ridicule for good measure.

Heart of Darkness

Rope-Harness, Ideal for belaying a buddy on a 5.11

So, why do you suck at crack climbing?

1.  You aren’t conditioned

Illusion Dweller

A chubbier version of myself losing a war of attrition on Illusion Dweller

Would it be wise to walk into a martial arts dojo, up to a stack of thick concrete cinder blocks, and smash your forehead against them with all your might?  What if a guy on Youtube did it? What if your core muscles are even stronger than his because of intense abdominal training?  After you are revived and told why there is a hematoma sticking on your forehead, I’d hope the Sensei would say that the man on the video had spent years slamming his dome into a number of increasingly dull objects.

You don’t do this, so don’t expect to climb cracks at your grade and not get hurt.

The idea of Conditioning shouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone who spent more than a few months learning to climb in a gym. When we started our skin would quickly rot on our palms with blisters and a few short toprope laps would leave us completely gassed.  It hurt, then, to learn.  It hurt to learn how not to pendulum into the wall, how to wear snug climbing shoes, and it seemed as though getting tougher was an accepted facet of the game.  Just the same, crack climbing puts wear and tear on your body in another unique way, one that I can attest after enough practice is hardly noticable.

2.  You really aren’t that great at rock climbing

Split Finger

Huh. All that time spent in the Gym after High School didn’t get me ready for sharp Joshua Tree rock

Now, there are two problems going on with that last statement.  One, people try to climb the same grades on varying crack sizes as on top ropes in the gym.  A difficult reality, two, is that the perceived skill is actually much lower on even non-crack climbs because of the propensity of climbing gyms to inflate the ego’s of their patrons by inflating the grades on their climbs.

To put it simply, someone who climbs solely in a gym, who thinks they should climb a 5.11, should really climb a 5.9 crack – and may only climb 5.10 at best on any terrain.  Just like I was shut down just as handily on an offwidth as a climb with actual holds on it at Dixon Lake all those years ago, you can’t pick a route too easy. There is just too much to learn and mileage on real rock should trump it’s difficulty for the transition stages.  All forms of climbing should be practiced and a useful tool in a climbers quiver of techniques.  A few trips here and there can round out a skillset, much faster than re-learning how to climb all together.

3.  You dork around too much with tape gloves

Big Bobs

Big Bob’s Big Wedge – upside-down fist jams in an Iron Maiden, one of the few times I’ll tape up

It’s a classic sight, the 7am Campground Tape-Up at Joshua Tree.  In fear of losing skin (likely because of reason #1 and #2) hordes of weekend warriors from the nearby cities slap ounces of sticky restrictive tape at breakfast, only to be seen all over the park climbing the flared awkward face holds that appeared from a distance like jam cracks.  Buying tape, making the gloves, pulling them off carefully, discarding trash properly, are all things that get in the way of doing rock climbing – something I like to do the most of possible.

Now, before this is taken to the extreme by the Tape Religious out there, I don’t mean to say NEVER tape.  I tape on hard cracks, ones at my limit where I will lose skin going for the move or forcing myself on lead, as well as roof cracks.  However when top roping, running laps on classics, or getting mileage in on cold days, I prefer to leave the tape at home and learn to use my feet and finesse the route instead of bear down.  Sometimes, at least on toprope, that means I’m falling – but falling and learning is much better than cleanly climbing a route wrong.

4.  You don’t climb enough of them

elsas crack

Running laps on a Woodson 5.6

This one should be self explanatory, but there is a short bit of information that I’d like to share.  The sad reality of Trad Climbing is that it is a double edged sword, in that it takes a TON of mileage to become proficiant yet the logistics of all the gear and preparation for each route make it damn near impossible to fill a day at Joshua Tree with anything less than a handful of crowded classics.   By climbing with less, and learning the craft to a quick and efficient level, there is ample opportunity to climb 3 times as much terrain in a calender year with the same amount of climbing days.

5.  Your ego needs to be checked

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Five 5.10 pitches down, five more to go. Whose idea was this anyway? Oh, mine. Oops….

People hate to look at their own faults.  Our ego will do anything and everything to protect itself, to compartmentalize what should and shouldn’t matter into boxes of familiarity and comfort zones.  The first breakup, the first job you lost – all those things likely gave you the tools to survive the next ones.  If they didn’t, then you’re likely learning them to this day.  The 5.14 climber who lives in San Francisco yet won’t climb The Astroman because “it’s a trad climb” is scared to fail.  The rock is oblivious to how it is protected, and I’ve long held the belief that a climber should be able to do the same moves above a crash pad as a quickdraw as a well-placed Camming device.  Refusing to run laps on easier routes in order to learn will hurt his chances of success, as some 5.14 climbers wouldn’t be caught dead spending time on a 5.8 hand crack.

Chris Sharma has done multiple trad climbs up to 5.13 and Daniel Woods can be seen on a North Face special learning to hand jam on a river rafting trip.  Try it out, and try it out with the same open mind you used getting into the sport – you just might like it.

So, how can I get better?

I don’t claim to be a master crack climber, yet in my time spent I’ve learned some tricks that allowed personal growth for my own game.  Whether it was planned or inadvertent I came into the habits I have because they WORK, objectively – I don’t care how I look or what route I’m caught on, I just want to have the most fun possible!

1.  Climb easier cracks

Climbing easy cracks, preferably of lower angle, can allow you to feel out the friction on the jams and understand how much pressure should be placed on the backs of the hands.  A jug can be gripped with all your might without discomfort, yet a flared jam will only tear skin and bruise bone.  It is important to learn how to hold on with jams just enough to stay in it but not too much to unnecessarily pinch nerves and, more importantly, not get too pumped.  In addition the movement will help condition an athlete’s skin – and bones – to deal with the rigors of hand and foot jams.

Some of the best times I’d had climbing so far have been on cruiser splitters high in the mountains, where I wasn’t thinking “Left hand-Jug, right foot-edge, right hand-undercling” but moving thoughtfullly along a line cut across stone.  Protection can be thrown in whenever and on those easy big climbs you can get the full-mountain adventure at a fraction of the cost, left skipping back to the car with energy to do it again tomorrow.

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5.7 Offwidth for Breakfast!

2.  Toprope quality cracks of different sizes 

The key word here is quality, and I have a theory on that.

Awkward crack sizes are VERY important, and being able to stuff various body parts into differing fissures with the full bag of imagination is vital to success trad climbing.  However, that kind of movement isn’t conducive for learning repeatable technique.  A quality crack shouldn’t be too grainy, should be fairly paralell to force real jamming skills, and should be fun – so you enjoy doing it and will do it again.  Even offwidths and chimneys can be rewarding when viewed as breakthroughs in technique. Getting stuck, having the climb feel impossible, only to make a small adjustment and breeze up the route is the heart of Crack Climbing.

corase

Gloves, a jacket and a beanie at the ready!

3.  Climb when it’s colder

Slimy, slippery jams are no fun, and neither is losing skin to them.  Sweat can act as a lubricant for crack climbing, sometimes much worse than steep routes with big holds.  While you can go though gallons of chalk and buckets of tape to stay in the crack, it’s a better idea to walk around to the other side of the formation to climb in the shade.  Crack climbing is often very physical, especially in the learning phases and in wider cracks, and the staccato, conservative movements that make progression possible favor heavy layers.  Just make sure to hike up the sleeves past the wrists, lest they get in the way of a deep hand jam.

Where can I practice this?

For those in Southern California, you are in luck.  We are in a bastion of crack climbs and have to our disposal a plethora of options across a wide swath of San Diego and Riverside counties.  With a light rack of cams and a patient partner there is ample opportunity to get your skills up to where you’d like them.

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Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree – A great place to camp and lead classic climbs

B2/B3 5.3 – Toprope or lead.  Trash Can Rock has a handful of great easy cracks to start out on.

The Bong 5.5 – Lead or TR.  One of the absolute best routes in the park for easy jamming.

Granny Goose 5.7 – Lead.  Hand cracks, offwidths, and a bit of liebacking to boot.

Sail Away 5.8 – Lead. one of the more clean splitters at the grade.  Great protection and movement, an ideal first lead for the grade as well.

The Flake 5.8 – Lead. Offwidth, hands, a chimney and face climbing.  This is the graduation ceremony to 5.8 in Joshua Tree.

Dogleg 5.9 – Lead. Yes, it’s 5.9 not 5.8. Physical, long, warm – a great option for a winter day.

Popes Crack 5.9 – Lead. If you are a 5.10 sport climber as well consider the direct finish – it’s bolted and fairly easy for the grade.

Exercist 10a – Lead or TR after leading Nuurns romp.  An excellent finger crack.

Left Banana Crack 5.10B – Lead or TR. A great steep hand crack through a weird flare.  An easy first lead at the grade because of the awesome protection.

Illusion Dweller 5.10B – Lead.  An amazing testpeice of leaning fist jams, steep hands and finger-jam layback.  Worth every star the book gives it.

Tax Man 5.10B – Lead or TR. Glorious finger and hand crack with face holds to an awkward wide crack at the top.

Spiderman 5.10B – Lead or TR. everything from fingers to offwidth.  This one is a dousy.

Meteorite Crack 5.10C – Lead or TR. A steep burly hand crack.

Clean and Jerk 5.10C – Lead or TR.  Be careful running laps on this ultra-classic, as the sandbagged route is a popular one and it sucks to walk up to a conga line on the thing (trust me).

Jumpin’ Jack Crack 11A/B – Lead or TR.  Chimney and a hand crack through a roof.  Glorious and tough.

Hobbit Hole Offwidte V0 – a damn difficult proposition for your average boulderer!

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Mount Woodson

Mount Woodson – The best place to learn harder cracks, offwidths, and climb with only a crash pad

Elsa’s crack 5.6 – Lead/Solo/TR. A toprope often gets stuck, so if you are planning to use a rope take care.

Corn Flake 5.7 – Solo/TR.  Don’t place gear behind the awesome hand/fist sized flake! Multiple crack boulder problems nearby.

Sunday Afternoon Boulder 5.7-5.9 – several topropes available, bring long slings.

Milkbar 5.8 – TR/Lead. think finger jams and layback around a roof. Sweet.

Baby Robbins Crack 5.9 –  Boulder/TR.  Often the scene of broken hearts.

Big Grunt 5.9 – Solo/TR.  An awkward start leads to spooky chimneying…

Johns Crack 5.9+ – Boulder/Lead/TR. not to be confused with Longs crack. Low crux and flat landing make it a great boulder problem.

Robbins Crack 5.10a – Lead/TR/Boulder.  A MUST do.

Blackfinger 5.10a – TR/Boulder.  I actually led this the first time I got on it.  I don’t recommend bothering to.

The Crucible 5.10C – TR/Lead. A good place to start using tape.  An ass kicker.

Jaws 5.11A – TR/Solo.  One of the best splitters at the grade in the area.

Drivin’ South 5.11D – TR/Boulder.  A killer finger crack and the first of many 5.12-ish in the area.

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Tahquitz Rock

Idyllwild – A great place for mileage on easy routes and to climb the best stone in So Cal.

The Trough 5.4 – A great first longer route.

White Maidens Walkway 5.4-5.7 – good luck staying on route, a glorious cruise up an awesome buttress.  Varied, fun.

Angels Fright 5.6 – The best 5.6, but heads up – the slab at the end spooks people out, but its 5.5.

Coffin Nail 5.8 – The best 5.8 pitch in Idyllwild.  Combine with Traitor Horn for an all-time classic.

Long Climb 5.8 – a great 5-pitch jaunt with offwidth, chimney, hand cracks, and even some face climbing.

Daves Deviation 5.9 – Technical fingers with a slick, thin crux.

Flower of High Rank 5.9 – Splitter crack through a roof.  Climb as one pitch, or else!

Whodunnit 5.9 – So Cal’s Nutcracker, this route has it all – a chimney and thin crack crux, 5.8 roof, all on clean north-facing rock.

Consolation 5.9+ – the twin-handcrack crux will sap you, almost as much as the loose awkward 5.8 moves just below it.

El Camino Real 5.10a – The crux pitch can be reached via Coffin Nail with some trickery, and toproped.   A worthy lieback.

Human Fright pitch 1 5.10a – a great warm-up for harder climbs or thing to do laps on after reaching the anchor via Angels Fright.

Y-Crack 5.10B – An awesome, steep, upside-down Y on the North Face of Tahquitz.  A warm route, great for afternoons or shoulder seasons.

Johnny Quest 5.10B – more like a boulder problem on a rope, a classic none-the-less.

Super Pooper 5.10B – An awesome, long, sustained 5.10 pitch. Consider finishing on Price of Fear for an all-time classic link.

The Vampire 5.11a – Often considered the best route in So Cal, and attainable by most mortals.

Etude 5.11a – Sometimes it’s important to learn to climb things that appear impossible and hold-less…

Insomnia 5.11C – Arguably the best single-pitch in Idyllwild.  Go see for yourself ;D

Remember – it isn’t what you can climb, but what people on Facebook think of you.

My Tights Aren’t Ironic

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Yesterday I wasn’t the only Dude wearing skin-tight leggings in the Bishop Buttermilks.  As silly a sight as a grown man dressed for the winter Olympics might look in the desert, a few friends pointed out that there were a pair of other fellows sporting some form of Fluorescent, animal print Lycra tights.

However my tights were different.  They were not made of cheap Lycra, nor ordered off eBay from a Brazilian importer to be brought out on crowded gatherings as a goof.

They are my battle tights.

The internet is invaluable for the transfer of information, and as everyone and anyone with an idea shovels their sluice into the fire a crucible of experimentation allows the best practices to rise to the top.  Want to know the best way to Squat?  Type it into YouTube and watch a world champion explain it to you.  The best omelette, the fastest mouse, even the ‘best diets’ are getting digested by the Cross-fit crowd, too extreme to allow preconceptions or ego cloud judgement.  We found out that Gluten sucks, Kale rocks and while those skinny jeans might be all the rage in downtown social circles those of us with meat on our legs won’t be throwing heel hooks in them any time soon.

I own some skinny jeans (or regular fit, perhaps, as I have thunder thighs) that I quite enjoy, and even tried climbing in them – once.  I was on a family vacation in Yosemite, and during the wee hours of the warm evenings mid-summer I would escape to  boulder in the talus tucked behind the Hotel.  One particular route I was being bouted on was the Awahnee Arete, and the high-step first move shut me down.  At least, in my snug Billabong jeans I wasn’t making progress on that particular highball.  Frustrated and alone in the dark, I ditched my pants all together and hiked the route the next try, trembling on the tiny edges moving up and away from the landing zone my crash pad protected.  Perhaps the sight of a short hairy dude climbing house sized boulders in his underpants wasn’t my proudest moments, but the send was, and put a nail in the coffin of conversation about aesthetic vs athletic apparel.

It’s no secret that a climbing gym can be as much as a singles bar as a consolation prize for actual rock climbing.  Having been out of the fashion loop for some time now I appreciate being able to roll into Vital Climbing Gym on a Tuesday evening and see what styles are the rage this season.  Scarves seem especially popular in my demographic.

12 years of climbing has told me that you aren’t getting laid in a gym, especially if you are a chunky trad climber sweating in canvas pants he used earlier that day to paint his garage in, and there’s never been a misconception about why I’m indoors on plastic holds instead of watching Firefly reruns at home.

In High School a loophole in the Title IX clause that mandated an equal number of female-to-male sports allowed me to train off-season with the female Volleyball team.  Sure, I was 5’7″ on a good day and had the vertical jump of a Corgi, but dammit I really liked Volleyball and there wasn’t a balanced number of sports between the genders.   I understand from those humble days learning to dive on hard gym floors that boys and girls really aren’t that different, that if you liked something you should probably just do it.  I never jumped on the Spandex bandwagon, but I guess I was lucky to figure out that it didn’t matter if you looked stupid so long as you were having fun.

For some reason, ladies got us again and it ain’t an equal playing field.  Just like High School sports and title IX, women have a wider breadth of fashion that can be socially acceptable to wear to the gym or crag, and I’m here to show up in Spandex and show the boys how to get served.

One winter season I had it in my head that cold, cold running was the thing to do.  I’d seen some promotional material from Mountain Hardwear about this new fabric they are making into 3/4 leggings and full tights, that insulates yet wicks sweat.  I ordered a pair through Nomad Ventures and was immediately hooked, running long days in the mountains over snow and hard rocky trail without a hint of a chilly thigh.  After a few trips to Joshua Tree that season I realized that jamming legs into flared cracks and hooking heels around arete’s was increasingly more annoying, all the while I’d been increasingly grown accustomed to unfettered movement in my Battle Tights.

On a few trips, with a sole climbing partner, I brought the tights to Joshua Tree and Tahquitz.  Of course, I hiked with them in my pack to the base as to avoid weird looks on the trail, but quickly found out their benefits far outweighed the social price of allowing the world intimate knowledge of the dimensions of my bottom half.

Back to the Buttermilks.  The other gentlemen parading shit-eating grins across the Peabodies are not legging-kinsmen, and I was quick to point this out.  For many dudes who find themselves in flashy spandex on Halloween on Intersection Rock or back at camp posing for Instagram photos, they can only wear those glorious, unobtrusive sleeves of stretchy wonder IF they can be sure that people understand it is a goof – that it is something so foreign to their masculinity (which magically remains intact) that it is a joke.

Well it’s not a joke and leggings are fucking AWESOME.  If being secure in your sexuality allows you to interpret a same-sex individual hitting on you as a compliment rather than an act of aggression, the same logic can be applied to Body Image.  Ladies wear shorts, jeans (both loose-and-snug), leggings, yoga pants, ANYTHING they want – and that’s the way it should be.  Ass flatter than a pancake? Who cares, it’s rock climbing!

Boys, it’s time to stop shaming ourselves.

Embrace the tights.

DSC00773Tights, a Fanny Pack and Socks-With-Sandals.

All comfort, no shame. 

Middle Palisade East Face

Here’s a fun story I put on Supertopo I wrote about climbing Middle Palisades East Face, an easy scramble.  The ‘unroped’ part is an inside joke referring to a series of hilarious, hubris-driven trip reports written recently.


eff….

It all started when I was born. Much later I went to climb Middle Palisade.

I spent the previous evening in Bishop, out in the Buttermilks. I love desert camping in summer, if the temperatures are reasonable. The sky is just a bit prettier, and I had a chance to try my new pastels. I had thought about learning to draw, or paint, or sketch or whatever. Sitting in my camp chair with thirteen dollars worth of art supllies, trying to figure out how the f*#k to draw a bush… not really what I had in mind. I think I understood why so many people just smear things around and infer objects, because pastels have the feeling of drawing with crayons while drunk.

I completely slept through my alarm. That’s the problem of having a habit of not only using your phone as a morning wake-up but also a stereo to lull you to sleep. Somewhere in the middle of The Lord of the Rings soundtrack my battery died, thus leaving any quick morning plans up to local birds (and how annoying they are). Unfortunately for me, the CHIRP-CHIRP-CHIRP didn’t arrive ’til almost dawn.

Well, who needs an early start? This was a speed(ish) ascent!

You see, I’ve been a runner long before I’ve been a climber, and though I dedicate myself to climbing much like the sky is dedicated to being blue I can’t help but know I have this other thing that I do. This other sport that is kinda sorta nothing like the other but I have to keep doing it, or I won’t be able to do it well and get frustrated. It’s a weird relationship – just like climbing, there are ups and downs with running big trails. The middle chunk is always so fun – the crux pitch, the smooth and flat meadow you hit at 10k…. but it’s the parts on either end that you kinda sorta push out of your memory.

There’s a great bit Mitch Hedberg used to do about eating an apple and being left the core to deal with. Well, whatever, I learned to just deal. Whether it was High School cross country practice or hauling a heavy pig up some grainy slab that somehow constitutes as a trail, we have to pay a price somewhere to find our little perches.

Climbing is f*#king hard. Go to any major sport climbing crag and throw a rock and you’ll find someone that can out-climb me. Same with running, as I am still a long ways away from my high school mile time. Of course, 5 days a week of training pulling muscles isn’t the most conducive to a good foot turnover, but I digress. I am not that great at either sport for a guy who does little else.

Lucky for me, the venn-diagram of runner-c#m-climber is just a thin little slice. Put the two together and I can do some pretty cool stuff. As someone who was fairly recently 200+lbs, it’s hard to describe how awesome it is to prance along a slabby buttress in the evening light. Even more so when, only a handful of years ago, that same buttress was an all-day epic ending in headlamps and promises to never return. Regardless of what I’m sorta built for, I think because I just enjoy the hell out of moving fast through easy terrain. It just doesn’t get any better sometimes (well, home baked cookies…).

So anyway, back to the mountain of many souls, or whatever.

A few days before I had climbed the West Ridge of Conness with mama. We backpacked in to young lakes before climbing the 12,000+ foot peak, so combined with a week camping in Tuolumne I figured my acclimitization to be pretty good. It’s hard to look at a topo and try to get a scale for how fast you should, or could, move through the terrain. Some gnarly drainages might contain beautiful and gradual switchbacks, and just as likely a flat field could in turn become a swamp.

The best bet to plan your day is always to go by elevation gain, not mileage. ESPECIALLY on the East side of the sierra, where a few puny miles can get you on top of fourteen thousand foot ridgelines. So let’s see, 6k feet elevation gain,
7+miles out, ummm…. shitload of energy bars and aqua mura drops.

The snowball effect exists in big walls, but in big runs too. Go a bit faster, finish a bit sooner, take a lighter shell and less food. That last part I rarely skimp on, as being caught way out calorie deprived feels demonstrably shittier than carrying an extra thousand calories. Let’s not forget, too, I used to be a fatty. Any excuse to pack on the snickers is fine by me!


Quick and sweaty selfie!

I hit the trail head at a less-than-ideal 5:45AM. The nice thing about my start time was watching the sunrise light up the sage and wildflowers low on the approach was pretty stellar. Days are so long, especially in summer, but you just can’t beat the beauty of that early morning sunrise. I had a Patagonia Piton Hybrid Pullover on over a Mountain Hardwear Elmoro shirt, which was a layering system I liked using in situations where I might not want to stop to pull off layers. That’s one thing I always notice about moving fast, it has to do more with efficiency sometimes than that extra mile in training. Putting on sunscreen while hiking uphill and changing music while you pee… THAT’S the way!

The first few miles of the South Fork of Middle Palisade are gentle bumps along a creek amid that high desert chaparral that covers the entryways into the Eastern high sierra, some of my favorite terrain to run in. You can tell because of how many wonderful pictures I took (hint – there are none from this section).

As the trail flattened, I could kick hard and move fast, and in the slight uphills I would alternate fast hiking with a bit of jogging. I had pegged my day as possibly up to 11 hours total, based on the mileage and gain, so knew I had to chill out a bit and go easy because I had a long day ahead of me. Of course I didn’t listen to my brain, but my brain isn’t so smart sometimes anyway. What does he know?

The trail is absolutely stunning up to Finger Lake, heading up improbable looking gullys and drainages and along gorgeous and flower carpeted creeks. In a bit less than 2 hours I arrived at Finger Lake, and the start of my decision that this ‘speed ascent’ was grossly miscalculated. I move pretty good through talus, and on a dare might even race some quick people. However it is a game of attrition. At some point I mentally check out and go autopilot, foot-foot-foot on blocks regardless of their stability or size. A bit of a bad habit, and a bit slower going, but I’d rather put on headphones and drone along sometimes then try to focus on a game of hyperactive hopscotch.

Unfortunately for me, this game of try-not-to-snap-an-ankle would be the overwhelming majority of my day. Passing the awesome fjord that finger lake is I started to pick through gullys and up along ridges. Avoiding snow was not a bad idea, though my Five Ten Guide Tennies were waxed to all hell. Mostly I wanted to avoid the looser scree and sticky rubber allowed me to climb fourth and low fifth whenever possible.

Eventually I popped up to the last water source as noted in Croft’s book. The views behind as I sat and waited for my aquamira droplets were stunning.

I was always a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings movies. In fact, I remember being rather irked when people complained about the ending of the third one. If you didn’t know the story, the movie would keep tricking you into thinking it was over. Just as some friends were reunited or a lull was hit, the screen would go black and play softer music only to then re-open onto yet another scene wrapping up some loose end. This continued for probably 45 minutes in the film, until the fake LotR fans could finally see the credits at the end of the tunnel. THAT’s how the moraine before the snowfield felt to me. I didn’t know what was ahead, and every bump I would think “oh, is THIS where I get to stop sliding all over the f*#king place? Nope. Nope another 10 minutes. Ok NOW???? DAMMIT!” To those who didn’t fully enjoy the ending to the Middle Earth saga, I sympathized before but now I empathize.

The combination of the slog, my quick elevation gain and probable insufficient hydration smacked me in the face right about the time I started to get to the glacier at the toe of the NE chutes. I’ve been prone to AMS, even getting it in the Tuolumne meadows campground, so I’m used to dealing. What was a speed ascent, turned into an ascent, and now a hobbled ascent. Well, that ain’t half bad I guess, besides look how pretty!!!

A dude at Wilson’s Eastside told me about the start of the route, and to look for a left-to-right ramp above some steep rock. I found it easily enough, so big thanks! That section was, I’d heard, the crux. However like many high sierra routes, the most difficult moves you do that day and the crux are two different things. There was some loose rock and an eerily deep ‘schrund, but class 3 would be the highest I’d give it.

Moving right past cairns got me onto the East Face proper. It’s so improbable, that this huge gully is so featured and ledge-y. To add to the enjoyment, the better rock is off to the left along a spine in between the east face and the face above the glacier. Having a good sized headache and feeling a mite bit shitty I opted to take it easy and slow right on the ridge. To make it even more awesome-sauce there were little bouquets of Sky Pilot every 5 or so yards to come across nose-first.

That’s the thing about mountains. If you poop out on a long road run, you are stuck with oil smells and drivers clipping your elbow. Up here I could just become a rock climber, or a photographer, or a tourist and just enjoy the scenery!

The route flabbergasted me with it’s length. Yes, that’s my new favorite word. It kept going… and going… and going. By staying Left I’d avoided the looser stuff, but every now and again I’d end at a section a bit blanker, or steeper, than I’d like and have to weave around it. But before too long I found the other side of the sierra, and felt wayyyyy too shitty to take a picture of it. I plodded up to the summit blocks, and too lazy to hike around and look for the ‘easy way’ I just jammed my hands in the first crack I saw that led to the summit, then turned and sat in the little saddle seat on the block itself.

10:35AM, 4:50 after leaving the car. I was pretty happy about that, all told, though I felt that maybe pushing myself so quickly on the first ~3/4 bit me in the ass. There’s a weird ennui with summits I sometimes get, where you are so happy to be ‘done with the up’ and enjoying the vistas, but soon have to deal with some more bullshit – in this case descending thousands and thousands of feet through moraine, talus and blistering trail. Wee…

At some point I willed myself to leave the summit and downclimb. I spent a good 10 seconds looking for other options before deciding to head down the handcrack I came up on. Sometimes face-in, sometimes walking, I absoutely went the easiest way possible. Looking down onto the terrain instead of up at it, I think I might have scoped out a 2nd class option on the route. Go a few dozen feet, stop, dry heave, repeat….

“one more pitch to the summit!”
“after this rappel, we just downclimb the ridge!”
“the ridge is almost over, we just have talus back to the trail!”
“This talus is going to end soon right…”

I started to play that game, where the day gets slightly easier but you get demonstrably more crapped out. By the time I finished picking my way down talus and bullshit moraines, it was a foot-in-front-of-the-other shuffle affair. The symptons have turned into full-on nausua and headache. I was hung over next to awesome lakes. Really, not too bad.

It’s like, now I’m just hiking. I just have to hike. It’s so easy it’s stupid, but it f*#king sucks. The sun is blasting on me, I can’t keep down fluids and I’m shuffling down on switchbacks I’d just earlier ran up. Arg. Well that’s why we have those zen places to go to, to think about the best quiche ever or listen to some dance music and remember that one girl at the party the other day. Something. Something other than dusty walking.

Some time later, days eons who knows, I came back to the flat sage covered trail. Very little elevation loss left, and only a handful of miles. Tried to run, head said NOPE. So… more walking. Suddenly the symptoms dropped. After going from 14k to 8k, I was back in business – even hydrated. Alright, let’s do this! So, I ran and ran and ran… for about 7 minutes. Then I saw my car.

Well, at least I could drive home feeling decent.

So, I got my ass kicked. But it was fun. Weird.

Total time 10 hours on the dot. It took me 20 minutes longer to descend than to climb the peak. One of those days….


Relaxing by First Lake last June