Saturday, March 26, 2011

Chalk and a little creativity

It's unclear to me if there is a rock climbing expert. However, after almost a month of climbing, I've learned that with hand chalk and a little creativity, most climbs are possible!

In the photo to the left you see me belaying Timal. He's a great climber. Honestly, he makes the most challenging routes look fairly effortless. It was the first time I belayed him on a route that he was actually wondering if he could complete though. And I discovered the other side of climbing in a real way - being the belayer.

Even the most experienced climbers can slip off the wall, jump for a hold they can't reach, or get tired and need a minute to hang off the wall and strategize. I didn't tell Timal this at the time, but I kept thinking, "What happens if he falls and I drop him? I don't know first aid!" Luckily climbing gyms often have climbing ropes anchored to the ground that a light belayer can hook into. With the assurance of that anchor, knowing that Timal's weight falling would not pull me up,  I did my job. And, of course I watched as Timal completed yet another ridiculously challenging climb!

Strategy session with Jen - one of many!
Then it was my turn. I climbed the same wall you see Timal on. But of course, I didn't think to take any pictures, which pains me because it was the hardest climb I've completed. The wall juts out on an angle, so you start the climb in the hardest position - you need to use all of your strength just to stay hanging on.

Here's the lesson: If you try climbing, make sure you bring encouraging people with you.

With Jen and Timal's encouragement, I got past challenging move after challenging move. And even better, with their comments from the ground looking up, it made my success that much more rewarding. On the wall, I was simply focused on moving. But on the ground, they could see how I was maneuvering and would comment when I did moves that, to them, were creative.

One of the interesting things about climbing is that people don't necessarily go up the same way. Depending on your height, weight, arm span, flexibility, and strength, a climb can be tackled a number of ways. Heck, I witnessed Jen make a move by resting her right foot on a hold and her right knee on a slightly higher hold - I have no idea how she moved out of that, but she did!

So get yourself some hand chalk so you don't slip and then get out there! (If you're like me, you'll love how toned your arms are when you get home!)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Just smear it

Say what?

You heard it right. Start smearing.

Let me introduce you to some climbing lingo I’m learning. Smearing is a climbing technique used when you don’t have a foothold handy and you need to balance or gain momentum to make your next move. Basically you press or “smear” your foot over/against the wall as you move your arms and other foot to get to your next handhold.

Not sure what I mean? Go stand beside the nearest wall in your house. Rest your foot against the wall about 5 inches off the ground. Slide your foot along the wall from left to right; really press your foot against it. Now imagine you’re about to lift your other foot off the ground too. You did it. You just smeared!

I learned the value of smearing on my climb at a new gym this week. My climbing mates took me to Boulders Climbing Gym where I was truly tested. You know it’s going to be hard when getting the first foot off the floor is a challenge.

I started on the ground watching my climbing buddy go up a challenging route. From where I stood looking up, the path was clear. “Just reach up and grab that hold!”

Payback is a female dog. That’s right. Because when my turn came I couldn’t even figure out how, with my short stature, I was going to reach the first handhold. After my friends patiently waited, cheered me, and helped me strategize, I realized I would have to move awkwardly. Right foot on a hold, body against the wall, left foot smearing and then stretching almost a meter off the ground onto an angled wall – and finally jumping with my left arm extended. (I’m pretty sure I didn’t look graceful. But at least I got started!)

The rest of the climb was equally challenging. Sadly, I didn’t finish. I just didn’t have the energy or strength by the time I got to the wall overhang. And so, I learned the immeasurable value of a belaying partner you can trust and a solid figure eight knot. I’m pretty sure I slipped, lost my grip, and fell back at least three times as I tried to leap upwards.

Thank goodness for a strong figure eight knot – the key to keeping your climbing line safe. In case you weren’t a scout, aren't a hobby fisherman, or a magician trained in the art of knot tricks, check out the video of Timal (my climbing guru) teach how to tie a figure eight knot.

He calls it “I hate snowmen.”

Saturday, March 12, 2011

How strong are your fingertips?

How strong are your fingertips? This is not a question we usually ponder. How much can you bench press? What's your best time in a 10K? These are the questions we ask. But as I was dangling from my fingers suspended high above the ground, my fingertip strength was in question.

Rock climbing is unlike any other sport I've ever tried. It's not fast. It's not heart-pumping gonna make you sweat. Instead, it's a strategic journey in which the climber maps his/her path up a puzzle that runs perpendicular to the ground. Each body movement needs to be measured and precise. And yes, most of the work seems to be done by your fingers and your forearms. Of course, a seasoned climber might disagree with me; however, on my last trip up and down the climbing wall it was my fingers that I kept cursing for slipping or being too weak to hold me until I had positioned my body.

A range of hand/foot holds to get up the wall
So let's talk about positioning. On my first week the best advice I received from the instructor (and again from my climbing mates this week) was to lean back from the wall, arms straight out, fingers gripping the hold, while contemplating the next move. The instructor also advised me to suck my hips into the wall and look at my body position - are you shaped like a triangle? In the picture of me on this page, I'm about to move, so I'm positioned more like a square. But my arms are gripping the holds in the most energy efficient way possible. The closer you are to the wall, the more work your arms and body have to do keep you there.

On a climbing wall you choose your route. As you can see best by the coloured tape at my feet, I was on an easier 5.8 pink route (I think they go up to around 5.15 at the gym I was at). Some of the holds were fantastic - big, rounded, and easy to hold onto. Others were like over-sized thumbtacks that didn't do much for me except help me balance out before making my next move. The other photo on the page shows there are a lot of different types of holds that climbing walls use. The bigger ones make climbing easier because there's more to step on or hold. As climbs increase in difficulty, the holds get smaller and/or more awkward.

Although it's not fast-paced, as I moved to tougher climbs I did find myself sweating. And my poor little fingers couldn't always keep me on the wall. I actually turned down hand chalk, which is used to get a better grip on awkward holds. Oh the arrogance of the naive! Next week, there will be chalk. And yes, I've been pumping iron with my fingers (well... punching keys while typing words. It's gotta help).

Saturday, March 5, 2011

On Belay

What do you wear rock climbing? This is the girlie question I was asking myself as I rushed around knowing I was running late for my first rock climbing experience. As a soccer player, I’m accustomed to wearing a uniform. There is no rock climbing uni. Seriously, after stepping into the Crag X climbing gym and looking around, it became clear that anything goes – comfort appears to be the common ground. You do, however, need climbing shoes and a harness for top lining. (More on top lining later.) The rental shoes I had on were definitely akin to bowling lane rental shoes. Need I say more?

Our instructor ran through a ton of climbing lingo and began demonstrating knots we’d need to know, equipment we’d need to work, and the art of getting into your safety harness. Climbing is a dangerous sport. I suspect that in a climbing gym people are rarely seriously injured, but you do need to trust another person and equipment with your well-being.

To be honest, I was getting bored. And then suddenly, we were actually doing it. I was paired up with another beginner who had also come on his own (thank goodness, because you can’t top line alone). He had a good sense of humour and patience; all good things in your first climbing partner!

Here’s how it goes. Top lining involves a climbing rope (i.e. line) chained to the ceiling (i.e. top). The line is there in case you fall while climbing; your partner, who is belaying you, stands on the ground and keeps the line tight while you work your way up. When the climber gets to her destination she calls “Take” down to her partner. Then, once the climber hears the partner call “Got” back, the climber sits in the harness and lets her partner and the line do the work of getting her safely back to the ground. Sound easy? Some of it is. Most of it isn’t.

The first climbs we tried were deceivingly easy. That, and I wasn’t tired yet. My partner was always the first to climb, which gave me a chance to psych myself up and rest between climbs. It also meant I was always the belayer first.
(From top down) Carabiner, Gri-Gri, & line

Belay: (noun) A setup where the climber can attach him/her self to the rock with climbing equipment, creating a belay so that they can bring their second up. A belay should be able to hold a shock load.

Belay: (verb) To protect another climber from falling by using a friction creating device. When the climber falls, friction prevents the rope running through the belay device and the belayer's weight prevents the climber falling.

(Definitions courtesy of the Rock Climbing Glossary on ClimbFind.)

Funny thing is my partner was at least a foot taller than me… and I was his anchor if something went wrong. Aside from checking to make sure he was properly tied in to the line, my job as the belayer was to keep tension in the climbing line and get him slowly and safely to the ground after I yelled “Got” and “Lowering”. Keeping my feet on the ground while I lowered him down the final meter of the wall was one of my biggest challenges. A couple of times I nearly got stuck in the air beside him, also dangling in the air!

He made the climbs look pretty easy. And after my first climb I thought, “I can do this. This is so easy.” And then, because the universe doesn’t like anyone to be overconfident, we moved on to a much harder climb.

The climb we tried next involved a corner and a path that was not straight up, but rather to the left and then to the right, and then up. I was sweating mid-way, which I hadn’t anticipated. My forearms were burning. My feet were frantic, searching for a foothold. But, I made it!

After I had untied myself and was standing back to study what I’d overcome, I realized my forearms and hands felt like they were going to explode. I never use my forearms. I rarely use my arm muscles. Thank goodness I just finished a month of boxer training; I don’t know that I could have managed without all the arm work I’ve been doing. But the adrenaline and pride I felt at the bottom was awesome.

Prophesy: Climbing is going to be addictive.

It’s a challenge between you and the wall. You are in charge of your success or failure. I think I’m going to like this sport.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Rock Climbing

It's official. March's mystery sport is... rock climbing! I am psyched.

No, the Oscars did not influence this choice (although I did recently see 127 Hours... but it's not a climbing story that really brings people to the sport). In fact, I can't really think of a movie that references a female climber - instead I imagine Tom Cruise dangling effortlessly on a rock face in Mission Impossible.

For the record, I do not intend to go outdoors and try to climb a mountain any time soon. I like the safety of a monitored environment and the idea of being surrounded by a lot of people. I'll be experimenting on a few different climbing walls though.

My decision to learn to climb couldn't be better timed. Just this week a local climbing facility announced that it will be hosting the first North American World Youth Climbing Championships in 2013. (Read about it here.) The sport is catching on and gaining legitimacy. In fact, the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA) is making strides in its campaign to be recognized by the Olympic Committee. According to the UIAA there is mountaineering, climbing, and ice climbing. The UIAA is on the road to getting ice climbing officially declared a sport in the Winter Olympics. And, the Boulders Climbing Gym indicates that "in 2008, climbing was recognized by the International Olympic Committee, and is moving through the process to become an Olympic event." Clearly I'm receiving a sign from a higher power that I should be trying this sport!

I'm looking forward to learning the lingo of the climbing world. For example, "aid climbing" versus "free climbing" - with aid climbing you rely on the ropes and gear to help you; free climbing is apparently like it sounds, without anything to help you. The photo of Tom Cruise is an example of free climbing. Judging by my mighty arm muscles, I will probably be in the aid climbing community this month. But, maybe my boxing practice has prepared me better than I'm aware.

If you want to find a place to learn to climb too, check out this great resource on the Climbing Wall Association website. (I didn't know there was an association either!) If you have any tips, please share.

Hold your harness ladies and gentlemen; it's going to get rocky.