Coming Home

Our roadtrip ended in typically anticlimactic fashion with one of those decisions that seemed at the time to be largely out of our hands. As a few days of rain (or snow depending on the altitude) began in Utah, the mental and physical impacts of about ten weeks on the road were making themselves known in a big way. Checking the forecast, we realized that a significant storm front was moving westwards towards us, looming for days over our most direct route home. This meant a trying drive at best, and chain laws and closed mountain passes at worst. After two amazing days exploring Canyonlands, and a brief, wet morning in Arches, we were ready to begin the drive east, hoping to get through the mountains before the storm hit and avoid being stuck for a few extra days in Utah.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park

Merissa takes in The Grand Overlook

Islands in the Sky

I realize ‘stuck’ might seem somewhat dramatic, or even ungrateful. The Moab area is one of the most outstandingly beautiful places that we have encountered and we would be lucky to be there, even in less-than-ideal weather. In hindsight, we possibly could have stuck it out, but likely at the cost of souring the experience. Being wet and cold is different when you share your sleeping and eating quarters with all your wet, cold, and profoundly smelly gear. Having both succeeded in mildly hurting ourselves by the end of our time in Joe’s Valley, sticking around for climbing was also unlikely*. We chose to end our trip slightly early on a high note and carry those good feelings through the long drive ahead.

View in Canyonlands National Park

Mostly, they have overlooks. But what overlooks!

Ancient Puebloan Granaries

Puebloan granaries, around a thousand years old.

Buck Canyon Overlook

Buck Canyon Overlook

This long drive (from Moab, UT to Owen Sound, ON, almost three thousand kilometres) ended up taking us roughly two and a half days and might be compared to the agonizingly long coda at the end of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Having sacrificed some part of ourselves to the fires of moderately difficult bouldering, we now had to return home, not sure what the end of the journey would bring, but plodding along all the same.

A monstrous burrito

It sustained me through the entire drive. The picture isn’t blurry, those are tears in your eyes.

One thing I will note about this mostly uneventful grind was that we learned the state of Nebraska is apparently the same ‘age’ as Canada. Both celebrate their one-hundred-fiftieths this year. What a coincidence. Also, Iowa has some of the best interstate rest stops we have so far encountered.

After spending some time in Owen Sound with our folks, and reuniting with our Special Kitty, we have returned to our apartment in Ottawa. Ontario has already gone to the trouble of reminding us why we wanted to leave so badly in the first place, with consistently bad weather and a particularly buggy spring. We tried to boulder at Halfway Log Dump while in Owen Sound, but the rain, humidity, and bugs made it less than enjoyable. Nevertheless, it is good to be home. Now it’s time to pull on some plastic, plant a garden, and enjoy summer in Ottawa. Cheers!

View at Halfway Log Dump, Bruce Peninsula NP

One of our ‘home crags’ – Halfway Log Dump, Bruce Peninsula NP

-K and M

*Merissa somehow damaged and possibly broke her big toe; I fell off-pad onto my left hip while trying Planet of the Apes on my own. Whoops. Also, remember, sandstone is friable when wet and so we would not only have to wait out the rain, but also wait for the rock to dry afterwards.

A Stiff Cup of Joe’s

To break up the monotony of the ‘Loneliest Road in America’, we stopped at Great Basin National Park* in Nevada on the border of Utah. The park, tucked into the surrounding mountains, is the only cold desert in the US which means that most of the precipitation reaches the land as snow or during summer thunderstorms. The park has a couple of unique features: playing host to a stand of bristlecone pines and to the ‘Lehman Caves’. Given the high elevation of the bristlecones (10,000 feet+), the roads up to the stand were unfortunately still snow packed and closed. I am disappointed that everywhere we go the paths to the bristlecones seem to be closed thanks to the heavy precipitation the states received this winter (but I am simultaneously thankful that they have been pulled out of the drought they were in last time we visited). There’s something about being in the presence of a tree that has lived for thousands of years that I crave. Maybe Rocky Mountain National Park will reward us with some of these trees. Fingers crossed.

Kent looking through binoculars

Can you see the Bristlecones, Kent?

The other feature, ‘Lehman Caves’, is a set of caverns with unique formations and a constant temperature of 10 degrees with 90%+ humidity. To see these caves, you must sign up for a ranger tour and pay a minimal fee. The pictures looked amazing and the chance to see such a fragile ecosystem was tempting but I just couldn’t. The ecosystem is so delicate that tourists cannot bring any food, water, or even carry a bag/purse through the caves. The alterations made by the park (adding wooden steps and electric lighting) have already had measurable impacts on the species inhabiting the caves – changing the composition of the species able to survive and introducing new species that have displaced others. I settled for the spectacular images on the National Parks website and I suggest that you do too: click here for some more. Making these kinds of decisions can be tough. Travelling so far to settle for pictures and not first-hand experiences can be frustrating but I think it is the right choice.

We did some short hikes. The elevation (8,000+) made doing any strenuous hikes difficult but the camping was excellent. The first night we were there the campground was full but a kind couple from Oregon share their site. Thanks, Bob and Betsy! The second night we had a campsite to ourselves and got to see some turkeys and deer roaming about. Kent learned that the turkeys were actually introduced into the basin/desert proper below the park for hunting. The turkeys, unbeknownst to the hunters, are ‘mountain turkeys’ that prefer high elevation. They migrated into the park and the Ntl Park Service has been monitoring their introduction since. Tehehehe. We got a chuckle out of that.

Merissa hiking through a field with mountains in background.

Hikes! Mountains! Deer! Such Elevation!

Moving on, we left Great Basin National Park and headed along the lonely road to Orangeville, Utah. Similarly to last trip, we feel bad about leaving Joe’s Valley until our last climbing destination. The ‘General Fatigue Syndrome’ is weighing heavily on us at this point in our trip. Our bodies are exhausted, tendons are tender, and the desire to sleep in our own beds is strong. But we press on! Arriving later in the day to the free camping on the Ntl Forest Lands, we still got out for a short evening session before heading to bed. The psyche was high (or at least, not entirely faded).

Views at ‘New Joe’s’

We have climbed a solid 5 days since arriving here – some days even doing split sessions between late morning and afternoon. Our attitudes are drastically better than last trip. I am pretty sure I climbed more problems the first session than the entire time at Joe’s last trip. I have had some of my best days in terms of V points and Kent is continually amazed at my stubbornness in terms of what I am putting my tendons through (I have had some light injuries to both of my ‘strong’ fingers on my left hand which has slowly moved to my right hand as well – now I am stuck taping four fingers in order to climb). Joe’s Valley is definitely “soft” in terms of grading but the confidence boost is appreciated this late in the trip. Being able to climb anything is encouraging, being able to flash 4’s, 5’s, 6’s and climb 7’s is keeping the psyche flame kindled.

Merissa climbing sandstone.

When the ‘v6’ flash is just too hilarious not to stop and pose for pics.

Resting here is much easier this trip thanks to the newly opened ‘Cup of Joe’s’ from which I am writing this blog post. The shop, opened as part of the owner’s house front, is super cozy and the owners are fantastic. The place is a great spot to talk with some locals about climbing, get some stunned looks that we come all the way from Canada, and above all, a great spot to get tasty coffees. This place, combined with the Aquatic Centre in Castle Dale (hot showers!) has really helped keep us sane. Visiting the aquatic centre cost only $4 for a day pass and we had the Olympic sized pool mostly to ourselves. Swimming helped with muscle recovery, but the treading water for 20 minutes made my legs a bit sore.

Kent looking silly while climbing.

Kent with his ‘dyno face’ on.

Overall, I still think Joe’s would be better appreciated near the beginning of a trip. Maybe next time we will reconfigure our travel plans so we can fully enjoy it.

Merissa doing a big move while climbing.

Merissa ‘warming up’ on ‘Bowling Ball’.

-M

*In spite of my attempts to locate the “original”/name given to the park by the earlier inhabitants, I have failed. Do you know what the groups in this area call the Great Basin? Let me know in the comments.

Western Round Up

If you want to visit the cleanest vault toilets in the entire national park system and probably all public lands in the U.S., then those found in Great Basin National Park are a good bet. This park on the border of Nevada and Utah is where Merissa and I have ended up after a good week of travelling and a lot of kilometres on Craig VanWagen. Normally it wouldn’t take a week to drive from Bishop to Great Basin, however, we took a detour in the opposite direction first, visiting some new, and some old favourites from our last trip.

We headed north from Bishop on Hwy 395 but didn’t get too far before deciding to rest our tired bodies at Whitmore hot springs. Since the springs are on BLM land, we spent the night nearby and enjoyed them again in the morning before heading out. Finding hot springs out in the high desert can certainly be a challenge, and sometimes they end up full of algae or dry, but thanks to some helpful locals we found our way. Also, I saw a scorpion. A reminder that walking around barefoot in the desert isn’t the best idea.

Mono Lake, on the 395 north of Bishop.

After a morning soak, we drove further north until we were able to cross the Sierra Nevada range via Hwy 88. The idea was to get to Yosemite National Park, and then continue to the Pacific coast. Since California has had such intense weather this winter (some ski resorts are looking at keeping runs open almost all year), all the passes were closed, warranting this detour. Though it was a long drive, it was beautiful. Nothing makes you appreciate tall trees and lush forests like being in the desert for nearly two months. Even humidity felt nice for a change. We passed through one town that was particularly memorable: Angel’s Camp. Quaint doesn’t even begin to describe this place. Not even its rustic charms could keep us still for long though, and we pushed on to Yosemite National Park, arriving pretty late, and lucky to find a campsite outside of The Valley.

Angel’s Camp, photo from Randy Lewis/LA Times

What more can be said about Yosemite? It is magnificent. It really is. The various waterfalls that thunder over the granite walls into the valley were particularly vigorous and plentiful this spring, thanks to the previously mentioned snowpocalypse. We were surrounded by the intensity of The Valley, the spray of the falls refreshing and the looming formations awe-inspiring.

Upper Yosemite Falls, the tallest falls in North America putting on quite the show this year.

We were also, of course, surrounded by people. It is no wonder that so many want to experience Yosemite, but more so than any other national park (though in a similar fashion to Joshua Tree), the sheer volume of visitors has produced a culture around staying for any length of time. Merissa and I tried our luck at this game, waiting in line at 7am (though others were there earlier) to try and get a first-come, first-served campsite, or take advantage of an unlikely cancellation. After waiting an hour, registration opened for the day and the rangers let us know that there was one site available. The other dozen or so of us went on a waiting list. After this, we decided to just enjoy the day and head to one of the national forest campgrounds outside of the park.

El Capitan and Horseshoe Falls.

‘Enjoying the day’ consisted mostly of wandering around and staring up. We didn’t undertake any serious hikes, but saw some amazing sights nonetheless. Though deeply tempted, we decided not to climb. This might seem absurd, but we were both looking to recover from a month of hard bouldering and just wanted to take in as much of The Valley as possible, instead of getting sucked into one or two boulder problems. I can say this: the boulders that we saw looked to be of outstanding rock quality, and were largely either exceptionally bold, or diminutive one-move wonders. I’m sure there is plenty of variety, and safer/more accessible climbing, but my impression is that pulling onto the classic lines of Yosemite would generally be a serious undertaking.

To go along with our sacrilegious decision not to climb, I’m going to mention how shitty Camp 4 seems. Maybe we are just bitter that we couldn’t get a site, but the “climber’s campground” appeared to be more the place that the Park corralled the climbers into, than a place to wait in line for. Of course, we checked out Midnight Lightning (if any boulder problem is famous, then this one is it), and I appreciate the history of the place, but the rebellious mythology that goes along with that history doesn’t seem to be present there any more. This negative impression wasn’t helped by the flooding and mosquitoes that had taken over much of the campground. But enough grumping.

View to Bridalveil Falls driving in/out of The Valley on Hwy 120. Also, some tourists.

After the day in Yosemite, we were relieved to find ‘Lost Claim’ campground on National Forest land just outside of the Park. Overjoyed because we got our choice of great sites, the bathrooms were clean, RVs couldn’t make it down the bumpy road, and it was blissfully quiet. Trying to get a site within Yosemite is a given, but if you must ‘settle’ for one of these campgrounds, don’t feel too bad for yourself.

The following morning we set off for the Pacific coast. On the way we checked out Point Reyes National Seashore, which is probably incredible, but unfortunately the fog was so thick that day we couldn’t even find the ocean! Our goal was Fort Bragg and North Coast Brewery, a favourite from our last trip that is worth the drive (as Merissa puts it – “best beer of life”). The stop in Fort Bragg would also be notable as the first time in over a month either of us had experienced the joy of hot, running water all to our selves. It was time for a shower (or three).

The Pacific Ocean, I promise.

We take our flights eight at a time, thank you.

After blowing the budget at the North Coast Brewery store (we might just share with some of you lucky people back home, if it lasts that long), we also visited Café One, a vegetarian/vegan diner that serves up amazing breakfast and brunch fare. Fort Bragg isn’t as famous as some other touristy coastal destinations, in fact, much of the town is, or was, industrial (the Glass Beach found here is the result of glass from a nearby disposal site washing onto shore, weathering, and mixing with the sand and pebbles). However, we have found a lot to love there and it has been a highlight of both of our trips.

Garbage!

Coastal view on Hwy 1.

Enjoying a brief moment without fog. Taking it all in.

Travelling the coast is wonderful, but expensive (at least relative to what we are used to), so our visit was short this time. After spending the day in Fort Bragg we set off east, beginning the long drive back to Ontario. Over two days we drove across California and Nevada and made it to Great Basin. Instead of taking the Interstate we opted for Hwy 50, “the loneliest road in America”. If California roads are quintessentially winding and steep, Nevada is defined by this strip of highway cutting through impossibly wide basins, where a sense of distance and time seems to abandon you. Lonely in terms of a profound silence and openness (and more practically, a lack of gas stations). It is incredible how the landscape changes over these long drives – we get to see so much, but pass through too quickly. While the national parks are deservedly popular, it seems like you can pretty much pick any public lands in this area of the world and be blown away, and without the crowds.

It’s a long one.

You might have noticed that bouldering was almost entirely absent from this update. We are both taking a rest after a month of bouldering immersion and enjoying some other aspects of the places we visit. There are other things in life besides climbing, especially when your body needs to recover. If you are curious about how things wrapped up in Bishop, we pretty much burnt out on the volcanic tablelands, enjoyed a few days up at the Buttermilks and Pollen Grains, and finally, said our goodbyes to Manor Market and the Black Sheep.

Reaching to the top of “Jedi Mind Tricks”. Memorable to say the least.

Merissa getting into the business on “Seven Spanish Angels”.

We missed Bishop almost immediately, but knew that it was also time to move on. Luckily, there are always way too many projects to come back to. Now, to look forward to Joe’s Valley, Utah!

-K and M

The Pursuit of Strong

I have noticed a surge on social media in the number of women that have taken up power lifting, cross fit, and bodybuilding to get strong. Not just strong but big. They are working against what they have been told is a ‘good’ female body to build muscle and become visibly strong. Whatever the reasoning and whether these women choose to acknowledge it, they are helping to smash expectations of the female body. They are expanding the categories of body types that we have been told are ‘good’ and proving that we can achieve most anything if we are determined enough. There are other social media movements working similarly to ensure that body positivity and health can be found at all sizes. These are equally important, but this post focuses narrowly on my experiences with physical strength. I encourage you to read other stories on redefining gender expectations and to take strength from them also.

Looking back, I know he did not realize what sort of impact his words would have on me; that a simple command would set off a chain reaction leading me to write this a decade later. That I would take so much more from his words and that it would become a moment that I pinpoint as the event that sparked such defiance in a ten-year-old girl.

It’s a vivid memory, and like all memories it has probably morphed over the years with telling, but here it is for all of you who have not heard it told (and many of you that know me have heard it many times so I apologize for the redundancy):

It was grade five and we were in the process of completing mandatory fitness testing. The tests were an absurd combination of flexibility and strength exercises which somehow determined if you were above or below the average “fitness level” for your age and sex category. I remember these tests being particularly stressful which I can ultimately chalk up to puberty (that’s right, puberty at age 10, it was horrible) and being nervous about how I would measure up compared to my friends. I recall the relief I felt when I discovered that I was “very fit” when it came to flexibility, being able to reach past my toes in a pike stretch; sit-ups, because doing more than 50 in a minute was a breeze; push-ups because I could bust out 60+ in a minute doing them the “real way” after insisting that I did not need to do the “girl push-ups”; and lastly came the test for chin-ups (there may have been a couple more ridiculous feats of “fitness” performed but these are the ones stuck in my head).

Even at the age of ten, I remember loving chin-ups and knowing that it was sort of strange that I was so good at them. I would try to teach my best friend how to do them on the rickety old chin-up bars at the local high-school when we were at our dads’ basketball games and was never quite sure why it did not come as easily to her as it did me. Either way, I was excited for this aspect of the “fitness” testing; the “fit” level for females was only 1 chin-up and for boys it was 3. Very excited because I had been watching as several of the teacher’s favourite students (all boys) could only do a maximum of 6-12 chin-ups and I knew I could do more. So, I got on the chin-up bar and flew through 12 chin-ups with ease. I remember a couple of my close friends gathering around and getting excited at me beating the record set by the boys. I was at 21 chin-ups (and probably was struggling but showing no signs of retreating) when my teacher called me down. “Get down and give someone else a turn” were his words. Maybe he was justified in saying that, maybe there were more people that needed testing, maybe gym class was almost over, maybe, maybe, maybe. It doesn’t matter. I was outraged, my friends were outraged, and we were sure it was because I beat out some of his favourite students and he was a sexist jerk.

Sexism was already a word we had tasted and decided was the perfect fit for all the hardships we faced that year, but that’s another story and I won’t go into it here. The take-away being that this moment was formative in a continual desire to be strong. That strength in a female body was a means of rebelling; that my strength seemed to unsettle this male in a position of power and enough so that he asked me to stop exercising that strength. It’s strange how the moment was so infuriating for such a long time (and remains so to some extent) but has morphed into something empowering as I recognize the impacts it has had on my life since then. Without this moment, would I have pursued strength in quite the same way? Maybe, but probably not with such adamant defiance.

Where has this path led? It has zig-zagged over the past decade. A struggle which many women will relate to; I have had difficulty at times balancing the desire to be strong with the need to be “feminine”. “Need” because being the “perfect woman” is something that every media shouts at us from all angles until it is engrained in our heads as some attainable lifestyle we could purchase, if we only had enough money. I would imagine my body reflecting those on the front of magazines: the perfectly tanned and lean stomach muscles; impossibly long, thin legs; arms that lacked any sort of muscle definition but would somehow still allow me to perform my feats of strength. These musings were nonsensical; I know that now. How the hell was I, at 5”2, going to grow long, lean legs? Despite the impossibility of these goals, I managed to underfuel and overtrain my body to a point where I was rather confident with my appearance and my strength remained (with a benchmark of maintaining at least 10 consecutive chin-ups since I was ten years old). This training was bland and ineffective in building strength. Think: cardio, abs, and some exercises on a mat. I “enjoyed” it, meaning that, I got satisfaction at seeing a relatively lean body in the mirror and the endorphins that accompanied each workout were a nice bonus.

I remember a competing desire at different points throughout this period of my life. A desire to have big muscles and a six-pack. I vocalized this once to a boyfriend who quickly told me he would find me unattractive if I pursued this body type. I should have told him to ‘go fuck himself’ (if somehow, you are reading this, here is a delayed ‘go fuck yourself’), but I was more interested in his affection than my own goals. I supressed this desire in favour of a lean “feminine” figure. I continued training and wearing ridiculous double push-up bras to try to make myself look curvier in all the right places.

Then I met bouldering.

One sunny afternoon I had agreed to meet a group of volunteers from my office at a climbing gym. The thought of doing pull-up after pull-up until I got to the top of a wall was appealing to me. I got completely lost, ended up being almost an hour late to the gym, and missed the belay lesson (to this day, almost 5 years later, I have still not had that lesson). The friendly staff member said I could ‘boulder’ instead and later be belayed by someone who took a lesson. Bouldering and I instantly hit it off, my combination of strength, flexibility, and masochism made me immediately half-decent at it. I revelled in my body’s ability to outperform burly men, and within a year I became a semi-regular at the local gym.

My bland training continued, I was only climbing once a week for the first year and I was still hitting my university gym to do all the cardio and boring mat exercises in between climbing. It was about a year after starting climbing that I moved in with my current partner, Kent. While I had already noticed some physical changes in my appearance due to climbing, the real changes started after we moved in together and started climbing more frequently.

In short, pre-Kent Merissa was not fueling her body properly. This was part purposeful, I wanted to look a certain way and ate in such a way to maintain that appearance, but it was also due to an ineptitude for cooking. Before Kent, I never ate breakfast and lived on a diet of peanut butter toast, soy meats, microwaved perogies, and sometimes plain beans/chickpeas with melted cheese on top. I was never really aware of exactly how terrible I was at cooking and thought I was actually doing a pretty good job as a vegetarian getting all my protein and iron. Kent and I learned together how to be ‘better vegetarians’. He had recipe books from family members on how to do it right. He liked cooking and I liked helping him/learning to cook. I started eating three meals a day, climbing more, and doing less cardio. Not surprisingly, these changes had consequences.

I remember being at a friend’s house after not seeing him for a while. I had gone to the bathroom and when I came back my friend was chuckling, saying that his roommate wasn’t sure who I was because last time he had seen me I had significantly less muscle. Eating properly and doing less cardio meant my body was able to bulk up. My arms got bigger and my back started forming more of a V shape. I got a lot of mixed reactions from family and friends. Some people were amazed at my (now visible) strength and some told me I better lay off the climbing because I was getting “too bulky”.

Those competing desires to be “big and strong” but remain “feminine” rose to the surface. I was experiencing such joy because of my successes in bouldering but I knew I was somehow compromising my status as a “female” by gaining weight and muscle mass. It was like a second puberty – my clothes all fit weird, I abandoned all t-shirts in favour of tank tops to accommodate my growing biceps, ditched my underwire bras because none of them were comfortable, and found myself not quite sure what was “flattering” anymore. I was an awkward teenager all over again.

And like a teenager, I felt the sting of people’s words despite my attempts to brush them off with a “I -don’t-give-a-fuck-what-you-think” attitude. I tried to ignore them but the negative comments followed me around. The worst was after a session at the university gym, I had completed a work-out (which since I started climbing had included sets of pull-ups) and was in the change room when I overheard a couple of women saying they would rather be fat than be as muscular as me. And it hurt. Was my body so far beyond the range of what they felt was acceptable that it was disgusting?

You might be wondering where the turning point of this blog is. The moment when I instantly became comfortable with my body and the changes I have seen since bouldering. There isn’t one. Like most people that have struggled with body image, it is an ongoing battle to be fought over and over again.

However, bouldering has helped me appreciate my body; I have come to accept and admire that my body builds muscle so quickly. I have thrown away my old daydreams about having the bodies I see on magazine covers along with my bland training regime. I know that it is genetically impossible for me and that it would be physically harmful to try to attain that body type. I have filled my head with images of strong women that I aspire to be, while reminding myself that my body is already accomplishing great feats and that I am allowed to be confident here and now.

This trip has reinforced a lot of this body-positive self-talk. Almost all the women we have met/seen are of the typical climbing stature. Lanky and lean, they have bodies that I used to desire. While I can still hear the climber chatterings in my head about “sending weight”: how I could accomplish tougher grades if I stopped weight training, quit building leg strength, and lost a bit of weight, I reassure myself that I don’t need to change. I remind myself of a BitchMedia podcast on body positive exercise, in which the interviewer notes Jessamyn Stanley’s, a fat-positive, queer, Black woman, thoughts on teaching yoga, “[S]he tries to think about her body like an instrument. She plays her instrument. Other people play their instruments. As a teacher, she strives to NOT have everyone feel like they need to play their instrument in exactly the same way and sound perfectly in unison. Instead, everyone’s instrument is different, and that creates harmony.” Our bodies are all different, it would be boring if we were the same. I appreciate mine for how it performs and I admire other women’s for how theirs performs for them. This does not mean that I don’t envy them from time to time, especially when I am trying to pull my ass off the ground or hold an unpleasant undercling. My non-typical climbing body forces me to come up with unique short-flexible-burly beta while others are maybe more suited to use the traditional beta of the first ascensionist. Neither is better than the other; our bodies* just offer different benefits and drawbacks in the game we call bouldering.

This empowerment goes beyond self-positivity. The movement, experimentation, and visibility of non-normative bodies reconfigure people’s expectations, in particular, of the female body in sport. I see it in the faces of others when I finish a difficult climb, and hear it in the groans of men failing on the same problem they assumed was easy because I made it appear that way. This is not to suggest ‘men’ are the enemy in climbing, but to highlight that changing our expectations can be challenging and painful given how deeply they have been engrained over time. As the work of climbing changes the body physically, there is equal, if not greater, work to be done breaking assumptions and harmful ideals. The project for the climbing community, as individuals and a collective, is to encourage this kind of work, and allow space for non-normative bodies and voices in our sport.

I would like to put down in writing my many thanks to the people that continue to encourage me to be a strong badass woman. Whether you are my ever-supporting partner, a fellow female crusher, a friend or family member that has applauded my pursuit of strong, or a random person that has complimented me on my muscles, you have helped me on this journey. I will keep trying to smash all expectations for myself and for you.

-Merissa.

*In case it needs further clarification: all bodies are good bodies. Strength and health can be found at all shapes, sizes, and abilities. There are many more expectations to be smashed than just those that have been forced on our physical bodies as females; this is just one story in a whole collection.

Hump Day and Beyond

April 15th roughly marked the mid-point of our stay in Bishop, as well as our larger three-month trip. After six weeks on the road, and a particularly rough ‘hump day’, we have settled in to the practical aspects of living out of our van and have built up some great callouses. This means that while some days we are sore, we can reliably get out and climb confidently. Slowing down, enjoying the view, and entering the mental headspace required for hard and/or tall climbing is slowly coming more easily. Frequent trips to free hot springs in the area have helped considerably! The time has come for getting after some of the harder problems that have been lurking in our minds, and in the next two weeks we will be trying to push towards some of our personal goals.

Taking time to reflect on the progress we have made since our last trip three years ago has been helpful in this regard. Merissa has made a point of trying at least one hard problem (V6 or above) every day, usually a few in the end, and making great progress on pretty much everything when she isn’t just crushing them. This not only exposes us to a wide variety of problems outside of ‘the classics’, it pushes us to get used to trying hard consistently and thinking about progress in terms other than just sending a specific line. While the problems marked out in guidebooks as ‘classic’ are undoubtedly so, we have had a lot of fun on more obscure lines. It is worth keeping in mind that most guides are written and compiled with grade and quality consensus by the majority demographic of the sport: taller guys. While the composition of climbing is increasingly diverse, Merissa, especially, often finds that ‘three-star’ ultra-classics cater towards the particular strengths of those sort of bodies, and that obscure lines that the guidebook author found awkward, cramped, sharp, etc. are not so for her (I believe she will be writing about this at greater length in a future post).

A great thing about this trip has been that our focus has broadened outside of just getting to climbing destinations and climbing. We have done a lot of hiking, and taken the time to enjoy the areas we had passed through quickly the last time around. However, in this short post I’d like to satisfy the climbers back home with some photos of actual bouldering and more spray-down than usual. Enjoy!

Merissa on Rheinstor; quintessential Happy Boulders pocket-pulling action! That next move takes strength and precision.

Green Wall Centre at the Buttermilks. Top notch technical bouldering.

At the top of Monkey Dihedral, one of our favourite problems so far. Highly recommended. Not pictured: three hand-foot matches.

Pressing up to the miserable sidepull on Mister Witty. Thin, thin, thin!

Tricky beta on Every Colour You Are. This problem has everything: pockets, crimps, handjams, heelhooks, toehooks, and highsteps and can be done dynamically or completely static. So Good.

Reaching over the bulge on Heavenly Path. This entire boulder is covered in outstanding vertical and slab climbs. Topping out after about ~25 feet of perfect patina; sublime for the experienced, gripping for the neophyte.

Merissa starts up Soul Slinger. Probably at (or beyond) our limit, we are definitely coming back to this striking line.

Exfoliating the fingertips on Pain Grain.

Kredulf on the Thunder Wall. Even better than it looks. Harder too.

Starting up Skye Dance at Waganobee/The Druid Stones. The hike up was well worth it!

Hulking out on some slab. Nearly every problem on this boulder, Hall of the Mountain Queen gets three stars in the guidebook. Unreal rock; engaging, technical climbing; what a view!

In case you are wondering, these were not taken on the same day. The thing is, I rarely change my clothes!

-K and M

Being in Bishop

Being in Bishop, CA is like attending one of those antique car shows that periodically take over sleepy, rural towns. Except the antique cars are sprinter vans, the retirees are all in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties, and the show lasts from October to May. The town, and the adjacent Paiute reservations have a small permanent population, but are generally inundated with transients and nearly always busy. Largely relying on the ‘tourist industry’ that these visitors represent, the people and businesses of Bishop seem to have accepted them; the wealthy passing through to go skiing in Tahoe to the borderline-vagrant folks bouncing between BLM sites. One can certainly find ways to spend money here, but no one seems to mind if you live in a parking lot for free – provided you move on before the welcome has worn.

Climbers, despite our ‘dirtbag’ mythology, exist in a middle ground here. The changes in Bishop in recent decades, and even since our previous trip in 2014 speak to this, and fittingly, to the broader shifts in climbing as a lifestyle and sport. A lot of dirtbag brows have been furrowed over this topic, so I won’t linger on it here. Suffice it to say that as bouldering explodes in popularity, the Mecca of Bishop shows the impact, the benefits and the growing pains. Since one of the benefits includes a climber-friendly brewery (Mountain Rambler, that we have yet to visit, but soon will), I’ll try and keep my complaints about tick marks and glassy footholds in perspective (but seriously, the central canyon of the Happy Boulders is devoid of friction).

One of the Bishop institutions that has changed little is “The Pit”, the $2/night BLM campground on the outskirts of the town. While there are a multitude of free options in the area, we have found that access to the vault toilets, a picnic table, and fire ring more than justify the price. The Pit also offers the opportunity to mingle with fellow travellers, and observe the meshing and collisions of climbers, people fishing (beyond people interested in mules and hot springs, the two largest categories of tourists in the area), and various devotees to frugal camping. As long-term living in a campsite provides an, at times, uncomfortable level of intimacy with your neighbours, The Pit is an immersion into the complex feelings you may hold for your fellow human critters. For every couple having tent-sex at the decibels and duration that falls short of obnoxious, restoring your belief in love or at least passion in dirtbag surroundings, there is a chain-smoking, mucus-filled yokel that reminds you humans are truly revolting.

A friendly neighbour at The Pit.

Merissa and I have often remarked that Bishop would be on a short-list of places we would ideally live – though preferably not in The Pit if it was much longer term. From our perspective, it is idyllic. The Black Sheep is a great coffee shop-hangout; Spellbinder books provides an excellent blend of used sci-fi, contemporary lit and poetry, and progressive/feminist political commentary to keep our minds busy on rainy days; the weather is near perfect, and this is a good thing because there is so much to enjoy beyond bouldering (if you ever get beyond the bouldering). This, of course, is a visitor’s perspective. The people of Bishop face problems similar to many rural areas and tourism-oriented towns. While we see paradise, it is important to keep the tensions and challenges of the area in mind while we visit, and consider the ways that our climbing here is a practice in building relationships, especially if we wish to consider ourselves a ‘community’, and one that is growing.

So the relationships we build through climbing are substantial, and at times profound. Approaching each problem, respect must be given to these multiple relationships we are immersed in, which allow our climbing to happen, as well as to the climb itself – lest we fall in overconfidence. Balanced with this respect is the playful side of bouldering. Never taking climbing or oneself too seriously. This state of mind might seem paradoxical, but both elements encourage a practice focused not on individual success but on the work of liberation; not temporary freedoms but continual immersion and embeddedness. The intensity of working a boulder problem can provide the opportunity to pursue this sort of respect, but can also easily lead to a narrow obsession that overshadows the context and experience. As Merissa and I work towards practicing our climbing in the best way we can, this is the challenge we try to meet.

We are extraordinarily fortunate that the playing out of this challenge for us involves the experiences shared here.

-K and M

Adventures with Sandstone

We have been bouncing around quite a bit since the last update and our time at Joshua Tree seems long ago already. This kind of traveling is tiring, and has a noticeable impact on our climbing abilities and sometimes enthusiasm level. However, it doesn’t take long for the amazing places we have been lucky enough to experience to put things in perspective. Frustration and fatigue don’t last long when we step back and remember our surroundings and the privilege it is to enjoy them.

The occasional hotel shower doesn’t hurt either. I’m writing this post in a large bed, in a large room, with an absurdly large TV relaying the most current episode in the train-wreck that is the US presidential administration. If you visit Las Vegas, do it during the weekdays if possible. Even with somewhat sneaky “resort fees” we got a room at a 3-star hotel within our modest budget. They offer these rooms at such a discount because the assumption is you will make up the difference in gambling losses, food, or by getting sucked into a timeshare. Little did they know our only interest in Vegas is the boulders west of the city in Red Rock National Conservation Area.

Red Rock

The rock is great. Excellent sandstone climbing in a variety of styles. The Kraft Boulders are the epicentre of bouldering in the area and they get busy – I’ve never felt like I was inside a gym more than at the Monkey Bar Boulder, a popular overhanging boulder with typically powerful, crimpy climbing.

The Pearl, a similarly popular boulder.

Due to the traffic, the lack of sites at the campground, and our general dislike for Las Vegas proper, we decided to head north-east to Mukuntuweap or Zion National Park for some “rest” and a change of pace. Originally we thought Zion might serve as a day-trip. A quick diversion from bouldering in the area. We ended up spending three days hiking and exploring this amazing park. Similarly busy to Joshua Tree and Red Rocks, the campground alive with the sounds of screaming children and car alarms, once wandering through this canyon formed by the Virgin River (an unassuming yet prolific river in terms of geological impact) we hardly cared. For those looking for a more subdued experience, the Park is massive and much of it is little traveled. I can’t recommend this National Park enough, and I think a few pictures will make my case:

View from beneath Weeping Wall

Zion Valley

Watchman Trail on a rainy day.

Waterfall at Upper Emerald Pool

Of the two iconic hikes in Zion, one (The Narrows) was closed, so we decided to attempt the Angel’s Landing trail, an about 8.4km hike which follows switchbacks and small canyons up to a high point semi-detached from the West Rim at about 1500 feet above the canyon floor. Despite the “strenuous” rating and significant exposure for the final stretch, there were hundreds of people attempting the hike, and we even encountered line-ups where the narrow trail created bottlenecks. One thing we have noticed about those traveling in National Parks is that they acquire a strange determination when faced with getting to the ‘top’ of something. While at times commendable or inspiring, this determination was just as often inexplicable or dangerous. Flip flops are not hiking gear. Strollers are not all-terrain. While I appreciate that everyone get a chance to appreciate these amazing places (I don’t mind waiting in lines) the frenzy to get to the top without taking the challenge seriously can be baffling and frustrating.

Line at the start of the narrow section of Angel’s Landing Trail

Some goofs at the top of Angel’s Landing.

All that said, we left Zion deeply satisfied. Though the volume of hikes constituted more of an ‘active rest’ than actual down-time, we felt ready to head on to our next climbing destination, Moe’s Valley in St. George, before heading back to Las Vegas.

Moe’s Valley, like Red Rock, is a sandstone area with beautiful dark varnish faces and sculpted, sandy, jug-laden roofs. The boulders here have what could be called character; odd holds, strange features, and hollowed-out caves. The boulders seem to ‘rot’ from the inside out, creating incredibly unlikely lines.

Moe’s Valley

We had a lot of fun at Moe’s, and the free camping in a gorgeous location didn’t hurt (the land around the Valley is owned by a School Trust and has been set aside for the time being for recreation). We also came to the realization I expressed at the opening of this post. Going hard for three days straight on boulder problems at our limit is tiring. Not showering and sleeping in a van is tiring. Cooking every meal outdoors in the wind and dust is tiring. Driving to a new place every few days is tiring. It is a huge privilege and wonderful experience, but we also need to adjust our expectations of ourselves to fully enjoy our time. In the climbing community it is somewhat of a cliché to suggest that the process of projecting is paramount to actually sending; that you learn more, that it is a more satisfying experience. Some of this is certainly true, however, when we have a limited time at these areas, it can sometimes be hard to remember.

Back in Las Vegas, and headed to Red Rock today* to get in some climbing, we will try to focus on a balance between challenge and fun. Then on to Death Valley, and our main destination: Bishop, California!

-Kent and Merissa

*Since it was raining in Red Rock, we decided to move on to a quick stop in Death Valley, and then to Bishop. Since sandstone becomes very friable when wet, it is a bad idea to climb on it after rain. In Bishop now, taking the time to post this while doing the pile of laundry we have accumulated.

Joshua Tree Reflections

Joshua Tree National Park is one of the places that I have been itching to get back to since our last trip. It has been hard to pinpoint exactly why given that I struggled so much last trip with the climbing style, with most of the boulders leaving me cursing at the bottom. This trip has left me even more mesmerized by the park and while I try to figure out exactly how to put that into words, I will outline some of the logistical details that are of interest to anyone thinking about visiting:

Necessities: Gather all food and water. Joshua Tree (proper) has a Wal-Mart and Twenty-nine Palms has a Stater Bros for getting groceries and firewood before entering the park depending on which direction you are entering the park. Pro-tip: The Twenty-nine Palms entrance usually has a shorter line into the park because the majority of park visitors are coming from Southern California and entering the western Joshua Tree (proper) entrance.

Pull over at a Visitors Center on your way into the park for water. Be prepared to consume at least 1 gallon a day if hiking and up to 2 gallons a day if climbing/doing rigorous physical activity. This does not account for water needed for cooking and cleaning. Note: Visitors Centers have wifi (especially important to let your parents know you are alive and have not been eaten by coyotes).

Fees: Pick up your national parks pass at the Park Entrance for $80/year. This pass grants you and anyone in your vehicle daily entrance into national parks and federal lands. Well worth it if you are intending on visiting multiple parks or staying for longer lengths of time.

Campgrounds seem to be constantly full during the peak season (Oct-May), try to get there during the week and scope a site from someone leaving. They cost $15/night for most of the campgrounds and they include a parking spot, picnic table, fire ring, standup fire grill, and allow for a maximum of 3 tents, 2 vehicles, 8 people per site. Some of the campgrounds farther north in the park have flushing toilets and showers (such luxury). Pro-tip: they seem to leave the ‘Campground Full’ signs up even if people are constantly leaving.

Hidden Valley is the “climber campground” because of proximity to lots of climbing areas. We stayed there this time (last time we were in Jumbo Rocks campground) and found it to be a much quieter campground with less rowdy groups. Shout out to our awesome neighbours throughout our time there. From the younger stoners from Bishop to the ultra-zen, middle-age, incense-burning yogis, all the groups that came through were respectful and went to bed in good time.

Luxuries: Coyote Corner in Joshua Tree (proper) has showers and recycling stations serviced by the Joshua Tree Green Team. This was incredibly useful given that recycling in the park only takes beer bottles and cans, plastic bottles, and trash (wine bottles aren’t accepted either for some reason). They also accept money for water donations if you choose to fill up there. The $4 I spent for 7 minutes of hot water was just enough to scrub the filth from my body and get refreshed.

Okay, back to my reflection on being in Joshua Tree National Park.

The Park itself is gigantic, 3,196 km²/790,636 acres to be exact, which is larger than Ottawa (2,778 km²) for perspective. When you drive into the park, you are immediately surrounded by Joshua Trees with rock piles scattered around you and mountains on the horizon. See below because I am not the best with words.

Whether you are a climber or not, the landscape is breathtaking. You immediately understand why people flock to the area to take in the views.

And why people would hike uphill in 30+ degree weather in the middle of the day to see a palm tree oasis, an old mine shaft, or the view from the highest peak in the park.

The National Parks Service claims that “Half the Park is After Dark” hinting at both the fiery sunsets and the mystical night skies.

Scrambling to the top of a jumble of rocks at any time of day is rewarding. I found myself basking in the sun, taking in the landscape, falling into zen without even trying to. Kent too.

The spring smells in Joshua Tree are hard to describe in pictures but think honey and wildflowers. The Visitors Center in Twenty-nine Palms had a cacti garden which smelled particularly delicious. A ‘must-smell’ if-you-will.

The climbing? Well, it is still difficult. The place is sandbagged. However, going into the park with that in mind, I ended up being a lot less frustrated when climbs graded within my ability were far out of reach. I only had a few scary downclimbs (Kent a few more), a couple unexpected falls (thanks, grainy-pebbly footholds), and one or two problems that frustrated me to tears (because that happens sometimes).

I made some great progress on problems that I could not even pull onto last trip.

And even if I have nothing I consider a “notable send”, I know that I developed some technical skills that I would never get to train in Ontario.

Not to mention, I had fun. And what is more important than that?

-Merissa

Is my butt too big for this climb?

Pulling onto a climb at Priest Draw is a somewhat masochistic endeavour. Most climbs are near horizontal roofs filled with pockets – one digit nightmares to full hand jugs – that are at once smooth and filled with daggers. Add in the change in elevation Merissa and I are experiencing (Flagstaff sits at ~7000 ft.), and you have somewhat of a struggle-fest. Fun though.

A climb we are both set on finishing up before we leave, “Anorexic Nerve Dance”, seems to be a nod toward this style. The idea being that the majority of your body weight has to reside in mutant-like finger tendons to be successful. While eating a (veggie) burger from Diablo’s (an amazing place in Flagstaff) after rather than before attempting to climb at the Draw is probably best, the general consensus is that these climbs come down to endurance and core strength more than BMI. {Merissa here: When Kent told me we were going to hop on a v6 roof climb called “Anorexic..” my immediate reaction was, “my ass is too big for this climb” but found myself pleasantly surprised with my progress through the crux only to fail due to lack of endurance} Currently, we are both very close to sending. We’ll see. It has been fun working it, anyway.

One great thing about Priest Draw is that primitive camping can be found nearby, and so far no one has been troubled by us sleeping in the van overnight. Craig VanWagen win. Merissa and I both take pride in having a ‘clean’ campsite – we derive quite a bit of satisfaction from having a self-sufficient and contained travelling mobile! One thing to note is that there is no water or bathrooms here – both can be found in Flagstaff. We understand that the best practice, should you need to, is to poop on the rim of the draw, and not in the wash, buried of course. {A trowel’s length deep for maximum biodegradability!}

Taking a break from the above, we took a short drive south through Oak Creek Canyon to Sedona. After hearing about the area from a number of local/Phoenix climbers, we decided to check things out. We were equally surprised by the beauty and magnitude of the canyon, as well as by the tourist shit-show that is Sedona. The town itself is filled with souvenir shops, restaurants, jeep tours, and a number of mystical-crystal-vortex-alien-fortune type outfits. If you need spiritual realignment, apparently it’s a great place. We can at least vouch for the views.

We ended up staying in Pine Flats campground, about 20kms north of Sedona in Oak Creek Canyon. One of our favourite things about the area around Flagstaff is the Ponderosa Pine trees that remind us of home and put us at ease after so much driving through plains and desert. Pine Flats did not disappoint, we enjoyed a relaxing evening, a good sleep, and some rest the next day dipping our feet in the Creek.

Tonight and tomorrow we are back at the Draw, getting in one more night of free ‘camping’ before travelling to Joshua Tree National Park. Flagstaff has been great, I think we may have mentioned this before, but Merissa and I think this would be a great place to live. Don’t worry; we’ll come back first.

-K and M

Canyons and Cattle

 

In retrospect, Roy, NM may have been an ambitious choice as a first climbing destination for this trip. Geographic convenience and average seasonal temperatures can have a huge impact on where we choose to climb. Roy is nearing the end of its viable climbing season, getting far too hot and rattlesnake infested during the late spring and summer, making an early stop necessary. It also happens to be roughly on our route to the Promised Lands of granite domes further West. Reading through the New Mexico Bouldering Guide, published in the past year, I was prepared for the idea that this destination wouldn’t be quite like the others we had been to in the past. Longer approaches, fewer nearby amenities, and tall, really tall, committing lines being the norm. These elements make bouldering in Roy challenging, and particularly so for those of us who haven’t been on rock for a few months. We ended up heading out after a few days, having briefly checked out a couple major areas detailed in the guidebook; knowing there was more to see, but exhausted at the prospect. This shouldn’t be taken as a negative review, however. Bouldering in Roy is a truly extraordinary experience, and when prepared for, would be exceptionally rewarding.

The boulders themselves are scattered throughout the canyons of the Canadian River within the Kiowa National Grasslands, about 15kms north of the town of Roy. Many are found in mostly dry riverbeds, and on the canyon edges, resulting in some scrambling and jumbled landing zones, but not as much as might be expected. That is lucky, because, as I mentioned, the boulders here are big. The guidebook uses exclamation marks beside a problem description to indicate how ‘highball’ it is. We found that one exclamation was usually pushing the limits of what we were comfortable with, and many lines that had no highball rating at all would have been considered as such, were they in Ontario. We didn’t even look at lines that warranted two exclamations. Here is “Beautiful Pig”, a neo-classic line in the Jumbles area, that should give you an idea of what one exclamation looks like.

What might not be obvious from this picture is the amazing rock quality and movement found on many of Roy’s boulders. I climbed moderate problems three days in a row and my skin hardly sustained any damage. The sandstone holds are unique and ergonomic, many having that quality of ‘wanting to be touched’ that draws climbers to a problem. Best of all, the rubber and chalk varnish that cover many classics in other bouldering areas are notably absent here! Those willing to make the journey will be rewarded with technically intriguing, mentally committing, and above all, memorable climbing. While I wouldn’t recommend Roy to those just starting out climbing outdoors, if you are confident at moderate and harder grades you will have plenty to get psyched on.

Regardless of how hard you pull, I would encourage other visitors to either buy the guidebook (New Mexico Bouldering by Owen Summerscales), go with friends familiar with the area, or ideally, both. Merissa and I visited during the week (Mon-Thurs) and didn’t meet any other climbers the entire time so the guidebook was indispensable. The Kiowa Grasslands have complex land ownership and particular access considerations that are important for visitors to respect, not to mention the canyons and plateaus are huge – it would be easy to get lost. The main campground is fairly obvious, but beyond that a guide – human or book, is a huge help. Here are some quick observations and tips for visiting Roy:

  • Access to some of the bouldering areas crosses grazing land and you will encounter gates on the way. Climbers can pass through these gates but must close them again. If you encounter a gate that is open, err on the side of caution and close it anyway once you have passed through.
  • 4WD is not necessary, but would be helpful in some cases.
  • The Mills Canyon Rim campground has vault toilets, fire rings, and picnic tables. It is an amazing campground considering it is free. There are other primitive camping areas to be found as well.
  • Bring your own water, lots of it!
  • Expect fairly solid to stiff grading, many lines are committing up high so work up to those at your limit.
  • Mills Canyon and the Grasslands are an outstanding and relatively wild bouldering location, take the time to appreciate and respect your surroundings.

Next stop is Flagstaff and the limestone roofs of Priest Draw. Cheers!

-Kent