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Change it up

February 19, 2009

“How much they have missed!  … those who only enjoy rock-climbing, or only the ice climbs, only the ridges or faces.  We should refuse none of the thousand and one joys that the mountains offer us at every turn.  … Variety is the spice of life.”

– Gaston Rebuffat, Starlight and Storm (perhaps the greatest climbing book ever)

Jenn changing it up, first time drytooling.

Jenn changing it up, first time drytooling.

I recently had occasion to witness another of those classic arguments between the crusty, old, tired trad climber and the calorie-counting sportaneering addict. One person eschewing bolts as the “murder of the impossible” and “desecration of the temple”, and the other complaining about “elitism” and the smell of most “tradsters” and “preventing the standards from rising” and all the usual B.S.

I have to admit at one time I might well have been an advocate of one or the other of these stereotypes. These days it seems to me the argument might actually be the wrong one. I sympathize with and like to think that for the most part I understand the positions of folks passionate about their own preferred style of climbing, but I think perhaps we should open our minds a bit more these days to the possibilities that suddenly present themselves if we take a more well-rounded approach.

What I’m getting at is that I’m finding it far more fulfilling to become a more dedicated all-rounder. Some seasons I’m more focused on clipping bolts, next year I’m more psyched on crack climbing, and the next it’s all about the alpine. Heck, I’ve recently even begun to enjoy bouldering! I used to view boulderers as the skateboarders of the climbing world, seemingly spending more time socializing and posing in baggy clothes than actually climbing, but lately I’ve discovered the joy of focusing purely on moving over stone unencumbered by rope and rack. And some of the local high-ball problems seem to offer a lot of fun games with the old headspace.

Thinking along these lines, I offer some suggestions. Have at it:

If you only ever clip bolts, go trad climbing. Experience the joys of using natural weaknesses to protect your climb, and the satisfaction of moving over rock without leaving a trace of your passage. Discover and overcome the fear and uncertainty of finding the next good piece on a runout or the satisfaction of FINALLY figuring out how to jam properly.

If you only ever climb cracks and fiddle in trad gear, go sport climbing. Discover the ultimate limits of your strength and endurance, and see how hard you can really crank when you can fall without consequence. Get stronger. Enjoy toting a lighter, smaller cragging pack. Get completely and utterly worked in an hour.

If you only ever toprope and rehearse routes, try really, really hard to onsight something from the ground up at your limit. Come close, fail, send, succeed – satisfaction and frustration are all part of the experience.

If you only ever go cragging, try a multipitch route. Get totally worked because you didn’t bring enough water, were too slow at belays, under-estimated how long it would take, or got caught out in the weather. Or do well getting after it and enjoy a sensation of commitment and the pleasure of moving up all day on a long route. Or go mountaineering. Learn that the approach is sometimes harder than the climb. Get yourself into spectacular positions and relish the exposure. Get trapped in a storm or race the weather back down. Appreciate high-pressure systems more than anyone. Wonder how it is that snow is the hardest medium you’ve ever climbed. Get skunked. Onsight the big line. Gasp for breath in a spindrift avalanche.

If you only climb granite, go climb limestone. Seek out a new medium and see how much worse or better or different it really is. Climb a choss heap. Climb the most splitter cracks on the best rock you’ve ever touched. Climb bullet sandstone in the desert.

If you only rock climb, go ice climbing. Instead of strutting and posing with the rest of the scantily-clad gymrats this winter, inhaling too much chalk dust and shredding your tips on plastic, get outside and get on some of the most spectacular features you’ll ever see. Know what it’s like to freeze your hands and feet, get the screaming barfies, climb bulletproof ice, climb plastic ice, get pounded at the belay and really appreciate your warm thermos and puffy coat. Learn that leading hard ice is more about being an artist and less about being strong. Wonder why you’re not in the warm gym. See the most spectacular winter landscapes. Learn what hard mixed climbing is all about, and how changeable the medium is. Feel the desperation of scratching your way up the latest drytooling testpiece.

If you’ve always stayed low, go high and experience the headaches, breathlessness and nausea of acclimatizing to high altitude. Experience the incredible feeling of being above the clouds and take in the distant views. Enjoy enhanced cardio fitness for weeks after returning to the lowlands. Get frustrated with your T-rex physique at the crag after the trip.

If you’re an expedition climber, spend some time bouldering. Enjoy the simplicity of focused movement on small rocks or get in over your head on highballs. See how small that giant crashpad looks from ten feet up. Get really, really strong. Blow a tendon, tweak an ankle. Send the most beautiful line you’ve ever spotted. Hang out. Be social. Pose lots.

If you’re a social creature, go climbing alone. Learn how to rope solo or just go unroped (and be careful!). Grab your crashpad and work on that nemesis problem alone. Notice things you haven’t before because your friends distracted you. Or, if you’re a soloist, go with a partner. Experience the trust and partnership and friendship and love the rope symbolizes. See more through your partners eyes. Watch them send the pitch you couldn’t, or send because they’re there cheering you on. Give them your last mouthful of water at the top. Share their last energy bar.

Instead of spraying about your latest big send, keep it to yourself and reflect on it. Help a close friend fire the route. Take a beginner out climbing. Go out with an old master and be humbled.

Sit back and think about it all after. Appreciate it all. Think about how sport climbing made you stronger. How alpine climbing showed you the bigger picture. How bouldering was so simple. How you finally got FIT before the big expedition. How your headspace improved after a season of hard ice climbing. How much more you noticed and appreciate the changes in the seasons.

Most of all, realize how much better it is to be outside year-round with your friends. Get good at all of it. Generalize, specialize and be better off for it.

Go climbing.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 6, 2009 11:01

    Great blog Nick. Made me think a bit more. I have started to learn to hand jam….shhh, don’t tell anyone. I’m not anywhere close to getting it or enjoying though. 🙂

    I think you learn a lot about your self by trying everything and evaluating why you like some things and don’t like others. It can tell you a lot about your motivations.

    • Nick Buda permalink*
      April 6, 2009 12:59

      Thanks Kendra. I won’t tell anyone…but if someone were to (hypothetically of course) be learning about hand jamming, they would want to know that the secret is in the twist more so than the squeeze…(hypothetically speaking).

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