My blog hasn’t been doing a very good job of letting my friends and family know that I’m still alive. In an effort to catch up, here are a few photos from what now feels like the distant past.
Karina and I spent a week skiing in Nelson that included the Kootenay Coldsmoke Powder Festival. It was a well-deserved vacation for Karina, whereas for me it was more a case of ‘getting away from already being pretty much away from it all’ (incidentally the title of a David Foster Wallace essay that I read during our trip while curled up next to the fire).
Two of Karina’s longtime friends, Rob and Michelle, live in Nelson and own ROAM, an outdoor store that was the title sponsor for the ski-mountaineering race held during the festival. Their involvement with the race went far beyond simply kicking in some prizes; they oversaw the whole event, from timing, to organizing the volunteers, to re-breaking the skin track at 6:00am the morning of the race. And they were too polite to object to us imposing on their hospitality during such a hectic time.
Rob and Michelle were also great tour guides to the backcountry terrain around the Whitewater resort. Although the avalanche conditions were a bit too touchy to ski any of the really impressive lines that are pretty much within spitting distance of the lifts, we still skied lots of great powder. Our most exhilarating run of the week, however, wasn’t on skis. We went for dinner at the wonderful home of Rob and Michelle’s friends Randy and Nella. They live high up an unplowed road, so Randy rode down on a quad and ferried us up (an adventure in and of itself). After dinner (and a few glasses of wine) we each chose a GT snow racer and took off careening down the three kilometers of icy and rutted switchbacks by headlamp. In spite of crashing repeatedly, I had so much fun that I’m considering giving up skiing in order to more fully pursue the exciting sport of tobogganning. Decidedly less fun, however, was hiking back up the hill the next morning to look for (and miraculously find) Karina’s car keys.
The Coldsmoke Powder Festival lived up to its name – it started snowing on Friday and didn’t really stop until the events had concluded on Sunday. With so much snow, the festival could’ve hardly failed to be a success; I certainly came away with a favorable impression of skiing at Whitewater.
With the abundance of new snow and much of the course being outside the ski area boundary, the randonee race felt like a genuine Kootenay backcountry adventure. Although Rob was out putting the skin track back in at some ungodly hour the morning of the race, it’s fair to say that the new snow created a lot more work for the racer(s) at the front of the field. Thankfully, I think that people generally finished in the order that they deserved, with the field simply being more tightly bunched than it would have been otherwise.
Overall, I was pleased with the way that I raced. I felt slightly fitter than I had two weeks prior and I was able to avoid repeating some, though not all, of my previous mistakes.
The main technical aspect that I struggled with throughout the race was getting my skins to grip in the soft snow on the steeper climbs. There are few things more demoralizing than slipping and sliding backwards. I would flail and try to muscle through with my arms only to plunge my poles up to their grips in the deep snow next to the track. I was reminded of classic technique cross country ski races in my youth where I’d missed the right wax. The real challenge is trying not to dwell on it too much since there’s no guarantee that anyone else’s skis are any better and at least you’ve probably got good glide. I think that the ideal would be to have a quiver of skins so that for races with soft snow or extra steep climbs you could carry a backup pair with extra width and grip.
My other demoralizing moment came when I skied off course on the penultimate descent. I’d studied the map, so I was able to correct my mistake before it was too late, unlike another unfortunate racer who got completely lost. However, the minute or two that I lost shuffling cross-country to get back on track was enough that I lost contact with the group in front and I was never quite able to close the gap. I ended up finishing in fifth place in about 2:53.
After the ski-mountaineering race in Golden, Paul Backhouse and I did some ice climbing in the Rockies.
For a few consecutive seasons, I spent quite a bit of time ice climbing in the Rockies. I took many overnight greyhound buses from Vancouver to Canmore during reading weeks at school. I slept in my friend Stefan’s van, in employee housing in Lake Louise (where slipping on someone else’s frozen urine on your front door step was a recurring cause of injury), and I even spent a month living in the Canmore trailer park with some French-Canadians. I may not have been much good at ice and mixed climbing, but I did a lot of it.
During the past few years, I’ve only managed to make occasional, brief trips. This time was no exception, but it was enough to remind me of why I used to go to so much trouble to climb there. Although a couple of things we had hoped to climb had either collapsed or were not touching down, there were still so many good climbing options that each day it was difficult to decide what we wanted to do the most.
The range is justifiably famous for its scenery. Unlike the steep-sided V-shaped valleys of the coast where you can drive along the roads oblivious to the vastness of the alpine landscape above, the broad open valleys of the Rockies mean that views of the high peaks are ever-present. I think that the visual prominence of such impressive mountains has as much to do with the strong tradition of alpine climbing in the Rockies as does the actual quality of the climbing (they also don’t have the distraction of quality granite rock climbing like we do on the coast).
The day after the race, Paul somehow convinced me to climb Nemesis, a classic pure ice route that neither of us had done before. The climb was excellent, although both my body and mind were exhausted. Thankfully Paul can always be counted on to be highly motivated. Given how pathetic I was throughout the day, it seemed somehow fitting to top it off with a few face-plants during a headlamp-illuminated ski down to the car through bottomless facets on my race skis.
We enjoyed a couple of days of cragging in Field and at Haffner Creek, but for me, the other highlight was an ascent of Polar Circus. Although I’d climbed the route a couple times in the past, this year a feature called the ‘Pencil’ was formed. Part of the perverse appeal of ice climbing is the ephemeral nature of the routes; when something like the Pencil (which I believe last formed in 2005?) is in good condition, it feels like a rare privilege to be able to climb it. Of course, everyone wants the privilege, and the pillar was fairly hooked out and not really too bad at all. Seeing as I’m weak and a wimp, that suited me just fine.
For years I’ve been afraid of competing. It is easier to harbour delusions of athletic talent if you never test them. Being injured actually gave me an excuse to sign up for a race. I felt that I could cope with mediocrity if I could claim (mostly to myself) to be an off-the-couch cripple. Admittedly, nearly two months after abandoning my crutches, I’m getting less and less sympathy in the cripple department. Nonetheless, I’d never done a ski-mountaineering race before and had no idea what I was doing, so I figured that entering the Dogtooth Dash in Golden was an experiment my ego could handle. The whole thing was also made more attractive by the fact that I could combine the race with some ice climbing in the rockies.
In short, the race was a lot of fun and I didn’t embarrass myself too much. I was eighth overall, and although I was miles behind the top two racers, I felt like I was generally competitive with a group of competent racers (and one elite woman) for most of the course.
What follows are a few thoughts on the race; probably only of interest to my future self should I do another one.
• Transitions matter. I practiced taking my skins on and off while skiing to Red Heather a few days before the race, but I really wasn’t very concerned about losing a few seconds in transitions here and there over the course of two hours of skiing. However, the race contained roughly 15 transitions, so not only did the seconds begin to add up, but again and again I was demoralized to arrive at a transition at the same time as another skier only to leave with a 20 meter gap to close. Besides being generally slow, I also made a couple of rookie mistakes in the transitions. On the second climb, I didn’t attach one of my skins properly and it soon fell off, forcing me to stop and reapply it. At the top of one of the boot-pack sections, the transition was in a rather precarious spot. I ripped the skins off my skis before putting them down on the snow which made stepping into the bindings a very delicate and slow procedure so as to avoid kicking my skis off the ridge.
• I strongly believe that ski-mountaineering races should be as technical as possible (I suspect that liability is the limiting factor in North America); otherwise you may as well be cross-county skiing. The race in Golden had a few challenging descents where the snow was a bit variable and choppy. On one of these, about two-thirds of the way through the race, I crashed and broke a pole. I’m not sure how much less efficient it is to ski with only one pole, but it was certainly a blow to my morale at a critical point in the race. I noticed people using a variety of different types of poles, but in the future I think I would use light aluminum ones if I thought I might fall on any of the descents.
• I finished with a time of 2:25. During that interval I ate two gels and drank about a liter of water (I carried five gels and 1.5 liters of water). It’s something that requires further research, but I suspect I would have done well to eat and drink a bit more. After breaking my pole, I felt as though I was suffering and slowing down quite a bit on the final two climbs. No doubt my pacing could have been better, although I really did feel relaxed and comfortable through the first half of the race. I feel that I bonked at the end of the race partly due to lacking a solid aerobic base (1.5 months ago I was in the worst shape of my life), partly from not taking on enough water and gel, and partly from a lack of mental toughness that comes from racing experience.
• I was pleased to be the first non-lycra-clad finisher. Unfortunately, I was way overdressed and I can now see the benefits of a dedicated ski-mountaineering suit. Not only was I sweating profusely, but I had a hard time getting my skins to stay put inside the front of my windbreaker on the descents.
• There were a number of sections of boot-packing on the up-hills. I felt that I really struggled on these compared to the sections of skinning. The pre-kicked steps were generally far enough apart that considerable leg strength was required. Given that slogging up snow slopes is pretty much my greatest skill as a climber, I had hoped to be stronger with my skis off.
• I think that it would be worthwhile to ski the course (or at least the descents) before the race. Although the course was always well marked, I still found it difficult to focus on skiing while still keeping an eye on the red flags. At one point, I actually skied slightly off course even though there was a marshall there clearly directing me in the right direction. I also often skied more conservatively than necessary because I didn’t know what was coming up around the next corner or what the snow was going to be like.
• The race was extremely well organized and the course was excellent. There’s no reason that ski-mountaineering races shouldn’t be both well-attended and competitive in Canada. Having high quality races like the Dogtooth Dash is a good start.
• A short video that gives the flavour of the race can be seen here.
This is the second post of photos from the past month.
I wish I had some profound observations to accompany these photos, but if I wait for a flash of inspiration, I may be waiting forever.
Skiing has been a great way to get back in shape. Ski boots are quite supportive and the movement is generally low impact. The ski terrain within a reasonable drive of Squamish is wonderful with no shortage of different areas to explore.
My photos might give the misleading impression that every day is sunny with fresh powder. Sadly, this is not always the case on the west coast in January. My efforts to regain some fitness have actually seen me skiing in the rain on a number of occasions. This in spite of the fact that I once declared that I would never leave the car if it was raining. However, perhaps by skiing on the miserable days I fulfilled some sort of karmic design and was thereby granted a number of truly fantastic days.
Below are a few more photos from the good days.
This is the first of two posts detailing what I’ve been doing during the past month.
I just read an essay describing the fervor with which my generation (Gen Y, apparently) has taken to creating “personal brands” through the use of blogs and social media. Although I’m the type of person who actually untags themselves in photos on Facebook, the fact that I have a blog (henceforth to be strictly referred to as an “online journal”) was enough to make me feel guilty of at least some of the shallowness with which my generation is quite rightly accused. In my defense, the generational generalizations aren’t always apt. I feel a bit embarrassed and insecure about having any online existence and am quick to judge others; all supposedly attributes of the preceding generation. Furthermore, I think that I can take comfort in the knowledge that if I was somehow a brand, I wouldn’t be one likely to catch on anytime soon.
I recently upgraded to a newer but still reasonably cheap point-and-shoot camera and have since been enthusiastically snapping photos – even at times when I probably should have been focused only on belaying. Of course, I’ve discovered that taking decent photographs requires more than just enthusiasm and a multitude of megapixels. The visual arts have never been amongst my strengths, and I’m not always even sure that I recognize a good photo when I see one. As a result, I’ve begun to adopt the “room full of monkeys with typewriters producing Hamlet” approach to digital photography as will become clear if you deign to scroll through the rest of this post.
I’ve been skiing far more than I’ve been climbing lately which is less a reflection of my priorities than it is of the weather and conditions in the mountains. Nonetheless, I’ve been rambling around in the alpine or hacking away at pillars of ice as often as I can in an effort to regain some of the strength and fitness that I lost during my convalescence.
The transition from crutches to crampons has occasionally left me feeling like a beginner. My tender feet have been prone to blisters. I’ve been whining and complaining even more than usual. Lacking strength and fitness makes everything in the mountains appear more daunting. Although the challenges of climbing are largely mental, I’m not someone with an innate and unwavering belief in my abilities. As a result, my rehabilitation has been as much about regaining confidence as it has been about regaining strength.
There are joys to returning to something that you’ve developed a competency for through years of practice. Yesterday, after I’d wobbled my way up a few rock climbs that I would normally free solo, the old muscle memory began to kick in and I started to feel comfortable again on the rock. It’s the same feeling I get sitting down at a piano after a long absence; I’m not likely to be the next Rubinstein or Gould, but the scales and etudes of my childhood didn’t go completely to waste (although if my old piano teacher could hear me playing Elton John, she might disagree).
Likewise, I’m not a particularly talented climber, but I have climbed a lot. The payoff is that on the frequent occasions when my mind is uncertain, my body often remembers what to do on its own accord.
Although climbing can often be scary and miserable (see the above photos from White Blotter for example), it can also be genuinely enjoyable while you’re actually doing it. On the crux pitch of an ice climb called Loose Lady, I was too much of a wimp to climb the obvious line on the front side of the freestanding pillar. Instead, I chimneyed up between the ice and the rock even though I wasn’t sure it was going to work. I was not looking forward to eventually pulling around to the front, but when the time came and I actually committed to it, the climbing turned out to be dead easy. I arrived at the top of the climb feeling somewhat like I used to as a child when a dreaded piano recital went more smoothly than expected.
In fact, I felt so pleased to be climbing that I even forget for a time to worry about being shallow, talentless and crippled.
Four months ago, I slipped while topping out a boulder problem in the forest below the Grand Wall. I fell awkwardly, missed my crash pad, and landed squarely on my heel. I made it out of the boulders and to the hospital thanks to the kind assistance of my friend Tony. The doctor in Emergency happened to be a boulderer himself, and it was with genuine sympathy that he informed me that my heel (“left calcaneus”) was broken.
This seemingly minor injury confined me to an extremely sedentary lifestyle for three months.
The good news is that there’s more to life than climbing. Being injured has been a good opportunity to focus on more intellectual hobbies (although blogging was clearly not one of them). It’s also been a good chance to visit with (or perhaps test the patience of) friends and family. In particular, I’d like to thank Karina and my aunt Sue for their generosity.
Being injured has made me thankful that I’m not too much of a type-A nutcase. I’m quite capable of sitting around for weeks at a time without doing much of anything – an ability that’s only really an asset while injured or storm-bound on an expedition. Nonetheless, a person can only spent so much time studying philosophy, reading Joyce’s Ulysses and writing short stories (a more honest list would include watching TV shows on my computer, researching ski gear on the internet, and reading british crime fiction) without getting a bit restless. Luckily, there are many opportunities for one-legged recreating within easy crutching distance of my front door.
A few interesting things happen if you sit on the couch for months on end. Not surprisingly, if you continue to eat as you did before, you’re likely to gain some weight. Thanks to the complex that my university track and cross country teammates gave me years ago, it will likely be months before I’ll feel comfortable taking my shirt off in public. Further, the muscles in your unused leg begin to atrophy. The circumference of my forearm is currently greater than that of my right calf (the hangboard in my room hasn’t been completely neglected). Large chunks of toughened skin peel from your feet in the bath. While fat accumulates elsewhere, the protective fat pad under your heel disappears and takes months of walking to build up again. In short, when you eventually get off the couch, you’re likely to be even weaker and more whiny than you were before.
On the climbing front, I’ve had plenty of time to research and make plans for the coming year. If I’m able to accomplish even a small percentage of my goals, I may actually have something worth writing about here in 2012.