Sunday, August 22, 2010

Climbing and the Rules of Engagement

Debate rages within the editorial department here at the Lloyd Climbing Blog over whether the following post is at all enlightening or if it is mostly stating the obvious. Either way here it is.

Tomorrow is the first day of school for my students, and each day of the school year I will find myself asking "What's the best way to make this lesson engaging?"

The answers I come up with vary from lesson to lesson, and I try really hard, but often I'm not able make certain subjects as engaging for students, or for myself, as I would like them to be. It can often be difficult within the school setting, but when I'm climbing I always feel engaged. I'm frustrated that English doesn't seem to have a suitable word for how engaged I sometimes feel. But often I'm totally immersed in the moment both mentally and physically when I'm climbing. As John Gill once said "Bouldering is a form of moving meditation." I completely agree, and one of the reasons I feel climbing is more enjoyable than stationary meditation is that you don't have to make an excruciating effort to stay in the moment. It's a side effect caused by the nature of the activity.

Both "B3 Bouldering" and the "Mountains and Water" blogs have recently done posts discussing the rules of bouldering and the problem of defining just what it is that we are doing. As I look at the development of climbing, including bouldering, I see a system of rules that were consciously or unconsciously developed to promote and preserve the high level of engagement found within the sport.

So what are the rules of engagement? Here are some thoughts.

1. Fear promotes engagement- Nothing heightens the senses and makes one focus on the moment as much as fear. As the rules and technology of climbing have developed, climbing has become safer, but the element of fear always seems to remain in the game. If fear wasn't considered a part of the game, we'd just toprope everything. Bolts, pads, and cams make climbing safer, but they don't remove the possibility of falling. And it is the uncertainty of the fall, even if it is a safe one, that adds much of the spice to climbing. If climbing was just toproping, many would start to find it bland. This situation creates a conflict between safety and engagement within the culture of the sport. Climbers disagree on where the line should be drawn and this conflict is more at the root of the trad versus sport climbing debate than the environmental/aesthetic concern of whether the rock should be altered by a bolt.

2. Appropriate difficulty promotes engagement- The harder you're trying the more engaged you are. The true value of the climbing rating systems is that they let you plan what climbs to try so you can spend as much time as possible at an appropriate difficulty level. If something is easy, it isn't very engaging, and if you can't even imagine doing something, you won't be able to summon everything you've got when attempting it. To be fully engaging, it should be possible that you will succeed on a climb but also possible that you will fail.

3. Nature is engaging- Whether you're in a beautiful environment or trying to descend a multi-pitch climb in a thunderstorm, nature has a way of getting a climber's attention.

4. Both the body and mind should be engaged - Some activities provide physical activity but leave the mind wandering. Other activities occupy the mind, but leave the body inactive. Climbing requires the engagement of both which leads to a higher level of engagement.

5. Choices are engaging- One of the things that makes climbing engaging is the freedom that we have. You can climb what you want, where you want, when you want. A bit of conflict erupts when one climber's choices affect another's. When one climber feels a line needs bolts, but another thinks the line would be more engaging without them is one example. The first ascentionist's principle, where subsequent climbers leave a climb as the first ascentionist left it, seems designed to allow the most dedicated climbers to decide where the line between fear and safety should be drawn. Future climbers are free choose what lines they want to repeat, but shouldn't alter established lines.

6. Accomplishment is engaging- Climbing gives you the feeling that you did something. In climbing the feeling is often enhanced because the accomplishments feel quite permanent. The rock will be there for a very long time. This is one reason, beyond safety, that most climbers prefer rock that is solid, and also want a climb to remain unaltered by subsequent climbers. When the rock doesn't change, we can get a strong sense of what other climbers accomplished, even if the climb was established decades ago.

7. Sacrifice enhances engagement- It's a little disturbing, but I believe that it's true. Just like people in scientific studies enjoy the same wine more if they're told that it was very expensive, and people find groups more exciting if they need to go through hazing to join them, a climb feels more meaningful if you have to suffer to do it. This is one of the reasons people travel to the ends of the Earth to climb when there is plenty of good rock closer to home. This is why the 5.12 you had to train for is more memorable than the one that you flashed. Climbing is so engaging that most climbers are willing to sacrifice things to do it, and the more that is sacrificed the more important it feels. This creates a cycle towards obsession that most climbers follow to some degree.

Those are the rules of engagement I came up with. Feel free to post others if you feel I missed any important ones. Some of the rules I came up with can be used in my Science classes to promote engagement, like providing choices, making learning active, providing a sense of accomplishment, and creating an appropriate level of difficulty within my class. But I can't use fear or require monetary sacrifice in 7th grade to promote student engagement, only colleges are allowed to do that :-)

So what's the point of engagement in what's often seen as a pointless activity. Well... climbing has side benefits such as physical fitness, but I think the main point for most of us is that, when we're the most engaged we feel the most alive. Another side benefit is that once you have learned how to fully tune into the moment, and your activity within it, while climbing, you find it easier to "tune in" when you're in other challenging situations or even in your normal day to day life.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Trip to the Butte Bouldering Bash

A boulderer topping out "Alien Nation."

Last weekend was a summer encore. We had a four day weekend, and decided to take a trip to Montana for the Butte Bouldering Bash held at the Boulder Batholith on Saturday. We packed on Thursday, and left Lander right after school on Friday. We grabbed dinner in Cody, and kept driving north into territory we had never visited before. As soon as we entered Montana, fields of hay and potatoes bordered the roads. The traffic increased noticeably. And after a year in Wyoming, Montana felt crowded to me. As soon as we hit I-90 we started looking for hotels, but they were all full. Bikers leaving Sturgis and Yellowstone tourists had gotten all the rooms. After stopping at 4 hotels, we found an open room in Livingston, MT and spent the night.

My first view of the Boulder Batholith, while driving the next morning, blew me away. I've never seen such a concentration of perfectly sized boulders and granite formations. Hundreds upon hundreds of 15 foot boulders and vertical fins covering gentle hillsides. Thomas Kingsbury organizer of the Bash, first ascentionist and area guidebook author, confirmed the quantity of bouldering in the area. Over 1200 problems have been developed in the Batholith already and there is still a lot of potential for more.

We arrived a bit late, but were still able to register for the comp. Then we made our way to the boulders.

We warmed up on the "Nemesis Traverse" which follows the lip of the saucer seen in the photo above. As I topped out my palms started to sting, and when I looked down at my hands I saw that my right hand was bleeding. The rock of the Boulder Batholith is shockingly sharp! Significantly sharper than Flagstaff, Redfeather, or even Vedauwoo.

Our second problem was "Dead Arete." I stepped on and the hand hold flexed. On my next attempt I pulled down, not out. The hand hold stayed, but my foothold broke. The rock wasn't making a good first impression, sharp and fragile isn't a classic combination. I tried smearing on my next try, but the crystals I smeared on broke out of the rock and rained onto the pad hitting just before I did. On my third try, I only stepped in areas that looked like they had been cleaned, and carefully made my way to the top. After being so inspired by my first view of the Batholith, the poor quality of the stone was a bit disappointing.

But as we kept climbing many things about the Butte Bouldering Bash impressed me. The comp was very well organized with a freshly swept trail and small duct taped signs that labeled the areas and each comp problem. The signs made it very easy to find and identify the 90 problems selected for the event.

The formations at the Northern Bourbons, where the comp was held, look really cool and are located in a pleasant open forest. Most landings are perfect, and there weren't any mosquitoes!

Many of the competitors were wearing tape gloves and climbing the crack problems. About a quarter of the area's problems ascend cracks. Ashley and I didn't bring enough tape, but the crack lines are good and very concentrated. The Batholith could easily compete with Vedauwoo as a crack bouldering Mecca. Justin Edl, a Vedauwoo trained crack climbing expert, got 1st place in the competition and I watched him flash an open project that I had been trying.

The rules of the comp were also competitor friendly. The top seven problems were scored, and we had plenty of time to climb. A flash scored 100 extra points, but points weren't subtracted for each attempt. It was a relaxed scene where you didn't have to get out your scorecard after every failed attempt to make a tally mark.

All the boulderers were very friendly, the area has a great group of dedicated developers, and the mid comp barbecue amongst the boulders was very cool.

The vertical fins of the Boulder Batholith create many arete problems ascended by pinching the high friction granite. Slopers, and large cone shaped chicken head features are also common. Crimps are scarce and usually break off if you pull on them. At most bouldering areas you need calloused tips, but at the Batholith you want calloused palms.

Ashley climbing "Palm Aid."

I couldn't resist doing a little exploration for steep rock outside of the competition area, and someone had picked up my book with our unnamed scorecards in it, so we didn't know where we should go next anyway. Eventually we ran into Thomas who was leading people to different sectors. I mentioned we were looking for steep rock, and he took us to the Mother Ship boulder. The steep lines with long traverse endings were a lot of fun, and gave us a great workout.

A wrong beta attempt on "Lever Action." Eventually I could make the dyno, but I wasn't able to control my swing.

Not climbing comp problems for a couple hours wasn't good strategy. In hindsight, I just should have asked to look at other peoples' guidebooks. Our scores weren't as good as they could have been, but we won a bunch of great things anyway. Ashley placed third in the women's division which got her a cool new Mago chalkbag. Everyone in the comp won two raffle prizes. I won "King Lines" and "The Sharp End" videos which I've wanted to add to my collection for a while, and guides to two areas in the Boulder Batholith. I won't be going back right away for the bouldering, we've got better rock in the Lander area, but I'd consider making the 7 hour trip again next year if they hold another "Butte Bouldering Bash."

It was cool to see Montana. I now realize that western Wyoming is a relatively undeveloped island surrounded by agricultural areas and abundant small towns in Montana and Idaho. Before the visit, I'd expected Montana to be as wild and empty as Wyoming.

I wouldn't recommend the Batholith as a destination area to most out-of-state boulderers, but definitely check it out if you live nearby, or if you happen to be driving I-90 through Montana, or if you love crack problems, or if you love sketchy highballs.

One of the most sparsely featured highballs. This was a project when we arrived, but it looked like someone sent it by the end of the comp.

Our three day trip was a large loop. We spent a rest day at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone.

Then we spent a day climbing at Blacktail Butte in Grand Teton National Park. We spent half the session making redpoint attempts and toprope ascents of a great route called "Arch," and spent the other half bouldering on the "Blacktail Traverse" which Ashley sent by the end of the session.

The main wall at Blacktail Butte.

The Blacktail Traverse

Last week I noticed a large jump on my hit counter. I discovered that posted an article on bouldering travel that sent readers to Davin's China trip posts at his blog, A Place of Legend, and the Wind River expedition post on this blog. It's nice to have a lot of people reading the posts. Thanks for the attention.

Monday, August 9, 2010

More from the Source

We just finished our final climbing day of Summer Break with a long session at the Source. Ten problems were cleaned and climbed. Seven of them turned out to be good. This area is just north of the other problems we've developed. I still have three difficult high quality projects to do in this sector, and five good looking moderate lines still need to be cleaned.

Here are the good problems that were done today, with descriptions. The grades are just my opinion.

"Africa" V2 Get your feet established on the boulder with your hands on lower Africa. Then leap for northern Africa and move right towards Egypt to top out.

"Thug" V5 Begin sitting with a left hand jam and a right undercling. Then go big.

"Delicate Diagonal" V3 Start to the right of the corner on two crimps. Follow small features left to the undercling and then climb straight up.

"Coiled" V6 Start low with both hands on the obvious crimp feature. Use a very thin crimp and a shallow undercling to reach the incredibly good hold at the lip and top out.

"Creature Feature" V3 SDS on the left rail. Make your way up the feature and top out. Very nice, this boulder is taller than it appears in these wide angle photos.

Ashley on the top out.

"Crack Up" V4 SDS with left undercling in the crack and a good right pinch. Short and thuggy.

"Stuck in a Corner" V2 This problem is just as short as it appears, but the almost footless glassy walls that form the corner make it a worthy challenge.

So much left to do and explore.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Cleaning Up at the Source

A stormy sunset at Red Canyon, seen on the drive back from Wild Iris.

Three of our last four climbing sessions were spent at Wild Iris, but this entry is mostly about the Source. We've been spending a lot of time sport climbing during our first year in Lander. We've each done about 75 sport routes since the move, and I've been having a great time doing them, but I usually don't want to blog about them. It's hard to get good pictures, and sending sport routes just doesn't feel like news. Everyone already knows that Wild Iris and Sinks Canyon are great climbing areas, and though Ashley and I keep improving it's been at an unremarkable pace so far.

Bouldering on the other hand is fun to write about. Photos are easier, and most of the problems we've been getting on are new. Unclimbed boulders are all over the place around Lander. The only limit is how much time you have to clean them. Last night I took out the short rope, and rapped down a good boulder. My car is dirty and the lawn needs a mow, but the boulder has been cleaned. Davin and I found the boulder while exploring the Source two months ago.

It's up on the formation so the views are great.

There are some really cool, ancient, twisted, wind stunted trees up there too.

I brushed the main boulder which I expected to have three problems, and a few other lines scattered around the formation yesterday evening. Today Ashley and I returned to climb them. We started on what I thought would be a good warm up boulder. Some feet broke, and it was more difficult than I expected, but it did warm us up.

From there we moved on to the "Deception" boulder. It's deceptively steep, but the tallest center line "Deception" is much easier than it looks. I'd call it V1.


I expected to do three problems on this boulder, but we did six. The right arete sds is about V3 and is called "Inception." A sds to "Deception" starting in two cracks to the right is probably V2, and I called it "No Pressure." A family happened to hike up the formation while we were bouldering. A little boy reached a good look out point and screamed "Holy smokes it's beautiful!" Ashley decided to use this phrase to name her two traverses. A left to right traverse beginning with a right hand jam on the left side of the face and ending on "Inception" is at least V5 and was named "Holy Smokes." The classic right to left traverse beginning at the sds to "Inception" and ending on "Deception" was called "It's Beautiful" and is about V4. I managed to add a powerful line I'd call V6 going up the face in between "Deception" and "Inception." Off two good starting holds it makes a huge move to a poor left hand sloping edge that requires a pinch with the thumb. Then with a right foot jam you can make an insecure reach to the top. The wind was pretty strong when I did it, so I named it "Updraft."

Up at the summit of the formation is a cross, built by the summer bible camp that inhabits the valley below. Nearby is a short face that has a perfect starting rail, and spaced out, solid, incut patina crimps. I thought it would suite Ashley the best, but I was able to reach past the smallest edges to send "The Children's Crusade" V4.

Ashley climbed it too, but her sequence was much more difficult.

That's the climbing news for this week. This blog just turned three years old, and it's hard for me to believe that I've kept up weekly entries for so long, but I have. Sometimes I've had things to post, and sometimes I found myself scrambling to find something worth talking about. During the upcoming school year I've decided that I'm not going to scramble in order to have a weekly entry anymore. If I've got good photos, news, or an interesting idea, I'll post it. If I don't, I'll wait. The quantity of posts might go down a bit, but I'll try to improve the quality of what I publish. Ashley and I will be rejoining the working world next week. Summer break has been fantastic here in Wyoming! Now I think I'll get some rest, before it all begins.