A Momentary, But Edifying, Lapse Of Focus

This past Friday, I went climbing in the Shawangunks with my wife and daughter; we were guided by Carolyn Riccardi of Eastern Mountain Sports and received some wonderful instruction throughout the day. My daughter attempted some elementary routes as did my wife and I. I also attempted and succeeded in climbing a slightly harder route–for me: the 5.7 rated Nice Crack Climb, whose most tricky part is a bouldering move to get off the ground. It took me six attempts to get past that; a very satisfying if exhausting accomplishment. A little higher up, a crack needs a little work as well, and here, I spent a little time figuring out how to move up. Finally, I saw what had to be done; I would have to twist my body sideways bringing my left hand across to the right and then as I pulled myself across laterally, to reach up with my right hand to a very useful little hold that was now visible. I reached across and moved up–and then, in the very next instant, I had slipped and was dangling on the rope in mid-air, expertly and safely belayed by our guide below.

I had started my celebrations a little too early–and I had paid for it. Not for the first time, I was rudely reminded that it is best to wait till the finish line is reached before tooting one’s trumpet.

In that fraction of a second before I slipped, I had experienced a surge of elation. I had figured out how I was going to get out of this jam and move on to the top of the crag’s face. Till then, I had been tired, a little sweaty, my hands scraped and blistered in a couple of spots; I had started to experience some doubt about my ability–as a very inexperienced climber–to solve this face’s challenges. And then, when the ‘solution’ presented itself to me, I thought I had glimpsed the promised land, the end of the route. I had already started to imagine the backslapping and congratulations I would receive once I had rappelled down. And in that fraction of a second, my mind and body weren’t working together. And so I slipped.

I got back on the route and finished it, this time making sure that I remained focused on completing the move. And I did indeed, celebrate with the rest of my climbing companions once I got back down. That glow was worth basking in; but the most important lesson hadn’t been the fact that I had completed my first challenging route in the ‘Gunks. Rather, I had gained insight into something I had read in many accounts of climbing: that it requires concentration and focus at all times, that the worst mistakes happen when you take your eyes off the prize. Many climbers write of how this intense focus can be intensely pleasurable, allowing them to feel a level of awareness of their body and mind that they do not experience elsewhere. I think I have the faintest glimmering of an idea of what they are getting at now. For this permanently distracted person, that focus seems especially alluring. It sends out a siren call of sorts, beckoning me away from my desk.

On Being In A Quandary On Quandary Peak

On July 19th, my wife, my daughter (aged four and a half years), and I set off to hike Quandary Peak in Colorado–one of the state’s fifty-three fourteeners. We awoke at four a.m., left at five a.m. and after a longer-than-expected drive, were on the trail at 7:50AM. By Colorado standards this was a tad bit late for hiking a 14’er; the truly wise depart the trailhead a little after six so that they can be safely off the mountain in case of an afternoon thunderstorm–a very common occurrence in the Rockies. The hike up to Quandary’s summit is considered an ‘easy’ one by 14’er standards; there are no scrambles, no technical climbing is required, just a hike up to the top.

But that hike still requires you to gain some three thousand feet of elevation in a little over three miles, which can be a reasonably sized task if you are: a) not used to the altitude; b) a young human being with short legs. Both these conditions were true of my daughter, so our progress up the trail, and especially on Quandary’s East Ridge which offers a rocky path over talus, was markedly slower than the other folks heading on up. On several occasions, as my daughter complained of tiredness, and as I glanced up at the imposing East Ridge, I wondered if our plan to hike the mountain was truly practical. At about noon or so, we ran into some acquaintances heading down after having reached the summit. We stopped to chat; their closing remarks were, “You’ve got glorious weather today even if you’re a bit late!”

Famous last words.

We finally made it to the summit around 1:30 PM. Between 1 and 1:30 dark clouds rolled in as we ascended the final few steps to the summit; I reached first, my wife and daughter followed. My heart sank as we ate a hasty lunch; we were late, and our fortunes had changed for the worse, all too quickly. A storm was brewing, and we needed to get down, off the ridge, down among the trees, quickly. Thunder and lightning were threatening and an exposed ridge was no place to be.

Unfortunately, and entirely expectedly, our descent down the ridge was tediously slow; my daughter was exhausted and spent; her mood had changed for the worse. Getting her down a rocky trail with big steps was hard work; it was made harder by the rain and by a whipping wind that chilled us quickly. Up and around us, thunder rumbled, and lightning flashed. We continued on down, slowly, nervously, trying to keep our daughter’s spirits up as best as we could. She was not shivering, but did complain about the cold; we quickly threw on all the layers we had on her and continued walking. A bearded hiker walking down past us issued a chilling warning; he had noticed my wife’s hair standing up on end, a sign of static electricity in the air, and advised us to throw away our hiking poles if we heard a buzzing sound ‘like bees’–a warning of an impending lightning strike. We hurried on as best as we could through the intermittent sharp rain and wind, casting longing glances at the pine trees and sundry bushes below at treeline.  At 5:30 PM, I started to wonder if we would be able to get to the trailhead before it turned dark; our place was glacial and daylight was not unlimited.

Finally, once we made it to the treeline and as the weather improved, and temperatures rose, our pace quickened, and my daughter’s mood improved. She became receptive to humor again, and we even indulged in some horseplay as we approached the trailhead. We made it to our car at 6:30PM, damp and bedraggled and exhausted. But safe. A hot meal in Frisco restored our mood; my daughter dozed off in the restaurant, and only awoke once we had reached ‘home’ in Louisville.

We made several miscalculations: a) we should have done a ‘warm-up’ hike to ease into the rigors of this ascent, especially because we were hiking with my daughter, who has hiked a bit before but would have still found the learning curve steep on a hike that involved three thousand feet elevation gain; b) we should have found a way to start earlier; c) we should have made a snap decision sometime between 1 and 1:30 PM to have turned back–we were definitely guilty of a little ‘summit fever,’ perhaps understandable for we were very close to the summit when the bad weather did show up.

Still, in the end, like all ‘good’ adventures, the  hard times ended safely, and we had a stock of stories for the future. And my daughter has bragging rights to her first 14’er.

 

Learning To Live With The Fear Of Heights

I’m terrified of heights; vertigo, nausea, fear, and anxiety instantly make an appearance as I near an airy ledge of any kind. Cliffs in the wilderness, building balconies, these all induce these effects in me. My fear of heights bothers me; I like hiking, I like mountain views, and the best ones are always up among the regions where my fears are at their most insistent, clamoring for attention, demanding control of my body and brain. I gaze at photos of mountaineers on ridges and summits and ice walls, and I’m thrilled and nauseated alike. I want to be up there, but I know what I will feel: terror. During my boarding school years, in the tenth grade, I took up rock climbing in an effort to try to either master, or co-exist with, this fear. Those motivations were quite conscious; I hoped to move on past the worst aspects of those sensations so I could enjoy the mountains. My rock climbing was elementary but I did achieve a moment of acute insight once while abseiling down a training cliff: my feet slipped momentarily, I swung back hard into the rock face, and panicked. Around me, mists swirled, and below me lurked a seemingly bottomless chasm. As I called for help, my instructor yelled at me to push away from the cliff and continue moving down. I was not going to be rescued. A few seconds later, I came to an overhang, pushed out, and smoothly swung down to the floor to come to rest; I was exhilarated. I had encountered trouble in a scary place, and somehow, I had moved on–despite my fears. I had seen a glimmer of a better place; perhaps by controlled exposure to heights, I could learn to live with my fears well enough to be able to travel to places I wanted to see.

Over the years, this insight faded; I left my boarding school in the hills, returned to the plains, graduated from school and college, migrated; I’d gone back to my old ways. I continued to hike in the mountains, but I never took up any kind of climbing again. I remained scared of the heights.

Sometime last year, I began resolving to push myself back to the heights, to train, formally and informally, to get back to trying to ‘master’ those old fears of mine. I took a climbing course in New Hampshire, and an ice climbing course in the Catskills; neither of those classes involved exposure to great heights, but I hoped to start learning those skills and techniques which would let me make a foray to places where I would encounter them. I also hoped to start pushing myself to, er, ‘expose’ myself to, exposure.

This past week’s hike to Mt. Yamnuska–while ostensibly an elementary recreational jaunt, one that thousands of local teenagers pull off every year–thus constituted an integral part of this strategy; the tiny cabled ‘via ferrata‘ section on its approach had filled me with much trepidation when I had first read about it, and so it made eminent sense to attempt it. Online guides said it was not for the ‘faint of heart’; I thought I recognized myself, the very faint of heart. The evening before the hike, I was suddenly struck with fear and doubt; What if I slipped? What if I fell? What if I looked down?

On the day of the hike, the cabled section finally made its appearance; one hiking partner went first, and I followed next. Because the cable is strung tight, it affords a comfortably secure grip as the ledge is traversed; there was one tricky section where the slack in the cable sent me alarmingly into open air. I hung on, slid my hands across, as I hung on tight and moved on. There was some genuine fear in there for a second, but it subsided. A second later, I was done. The summit was a short scramble away. (Interestingly enough, because you have to concentrate on your grip and the placement of your feet, there is little time to think about the exposure behind and below; a very useful lesson.)

I feel faintly ridiculous as I write these words; all I had done was walk across a short section of a cliff ledge, all the while hanging on to a cable. But these sorts of things add up, I suppose, and I can only hope they continue to. I don’t think I’ll ever ‘master’ my fear of heights, but perhaps I’ll learn to live with them in a way that will allow me access to those regions up among the clouds that do so much to lift my spirits.

Back To Conferencing, Thanks To The Mountains

Last year, indeed, almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a post titled My First Academic Conference. In it, after describing my reluctance to attend academic conferences, I closed with the following lines:

Now, I don’t go to conferences any more; the travel sounds interesting, but the talks, the questions and answer sessions, the social schmoozing, the dinners, (and the conference fees!) don’t sound enticing. I prefer smaller-scale, more personally pitched interactions with my fellow academics.  But perhaps a suitable conference venue–with mountains close by–will overcome this reticence.

Well, that ‘reticence’ was ‘overcome’ and unsurprisingly, mountains had something to do with it. Last week, I attended the University of Calgary Philosophy Graduate Student Conference to deliver a talk–as one of four plenary speakers. Calgary is, of course, wonderfully proximal to Banff National Park and the Bow Valley; hiking opportunities would be ample; so I gratefully accepted the invitation. My wonderful host was Justin Caouette, a doctoral candidate in the department who had organized the conference, and amazingly enough, offered to put me up and arrange a couple of hikes too. His hospitality and friendship made this trip memorable; he is a professional ethicist engaged in a constant struggle to abide by the theoretical principles he espouses; I can extend no higher praise to a practicing philosopher.

On arriving in Calgary on the 2nd, we drove up to Banff for coffee and some pleasant strolls around the stunning local lakes.  The next two days were taken up by the conference; I attended all the talks and participated in most question and answer sessions; I’m glad to say that these went well and were not hijacked by the kind of querulous interactions that are the bane of academic philosophical discussions. My talk closed out the conference; the time allotted to my session was generous and allowed for a very engaged interaction with the audience. (More on the content of my talk in a separate post.)

Once done with the conference, Caouette and I headed off to hike Mt. Yamnuska in the Bow Valley. The hike is an elementary one in terms of distance and elevation gain, but the scrambles above the treeline make it an exciting one, as does a short cabled ‘via ferrata‘ section leading up to the final summit ridge. Descending by a looped route requires scrambling down long scree slopes, an experience which was utterly novel. The views from the summit were stunning; the good ones always require a little work. (I will write more, in a separate post, about the personal challenge that the cabled section presented to a terrified-of-heights person like me.)

On the following day, Caouette and I had planned to hike Mt. Rundle, but locals in Banff informed us that avalanche conditions made that too dangerous. We settled for a pleasant hike from Lake Louise up to Lake Mirror and Lake Agnes. The lakes were still frozen; they were stunningly beautiful. The forested paths leading up to them were blanketed in snow, and hikers were rare. We were able to enjoy the stillness of that snowy walk in relative solitude.

Finally, on Sunday, we went for a little indoor climbing–my first crack at this endeavor. I chose a wall equipped with an auto-belay and tried a few routes; the 5.7s were elementary but the 5.9s defeated me. I consider myself a reasonably strong and fit person but was amazed at how quickly my arms grew tired; some failures resulted just because I could not hold on or pull up any more. (Much more on this experience too anon.)

I’m back home now, and have already notched up a full day’s teaching. But I’m only partially here; one part is still dreaming about the mountains.

On Seeking Out The Unpleasant For The Subsequent Relief

This past Saturday afternoon, after I had completed my abortive attempt to scale Mt. Washington, I returned–exhausted, bedraggled, and freezing–to my motel room in North Conway, NH. It was about 3:30 PM; I had stopped off on the way to pick up a cup of coffee (and had my car get stuck in the parking lot snow for a while; some good samaritans pushed it out for me.)

Once inside my room, I began peeling off my various layers of clothing, all inflicted with varying degrees of wetness from sweat and melting snow: a pair of soft-shell climbing pants, a pair of hiking pants, a ‘base layer’ of long-johns for the bottom, and then, up top, a heavy fleece jacket, a mid-weight jacket, a lighter jacket, a wool sweater, another lighter jacket, then a matching ‘base layer’ for the top. Off came the two pairs of gloves, one light, one heavy, and then, two pairs of ‘smart wool’ socks. I had planned to shower once I was indoors, but all I did was slip into a pair of shorts and get into bed. And there I lay for several hours, reading Nicholas Howe‘s Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire, (a superb read, which I finished that night itself) and occasionally checking the news on CNN and MSNBC; later, for dinner, I ordered in some pizza. My fingers and toes cramped repeatedly; four fingers and two toes still burned and tingled and ached, showing signs of incipient frost-nip/bite (a diagnosis grimly confirmed now by blisters on two fingers); my throat was parched and I drank water by the liter.

It felt awesome.

And I couldn’t wait to subject myself to the same grim business I had subjected myself to earlier in the day: the rising at 530AM, the ‘gearing up,’ the exhausting plodding through deep snow, the freezing cold on my face and fingers and toes, the biting wind, the clumsy climbing and slipping, the constant reminders of my lack of co-ordination, the persistent doubt and fear about the venture I was undertaking. And I was willing to do this again because I knew that at the end of those trials and tribulations would lie the pleasurable recovery, the basking in the glow of aching muscles and a slowly warming body. I had ‘failed’ to reach the summit; I had been beaten back down by a combination of bad weather and my own weaknesses. A stronger, fitter, more skilled climber might have made it to the top; I hadn’t. But that didn’t stop me from ‘enjoying’ that late afternoon and evening of recovery.

Very often, we voluntarily subject ourselves to the painful and the uncomfortable not just because we can, because we want to find out whether we can endure those states of being, but also because we know that the relief station at the terminus of the unpleasant is especially salubrious. The ordinary pleasure becomes extraordinary within those precincts; we enjoy a form of sensory and perceptual enhancement there quite unlike any other. We have altered our state of consciousness radically; pain is understood differently now. It signals not trauma now, but something else altogether.

The prospect of such relief might be compelling enough to make us want to subject ourselves to the trials required beforehand; that pleasure is sweet enough is to draw us on, upwards and onwards through zones of persistent discomfort. And to make us want to go back again for seconds.

Notes On Winter Climbing In The White Mountains – II

Yesterday, I made note here of my activities on the first of a pair of days of guided climbing in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Our plan for the second day was to try to summit Mt. Washington, a beastly business in the winter. I had hoped a) to become proficient enough in climbing to attempt one of the gullies in either Huntington or Tuckerman Ravines as an ascent route and b) that the avalanche risk in those ravines was low enough to allow us to do so. Neither conditions were realized; I was still far away from being competent enough in climbing to try to do a gully ascent, and moreover avalanche risk ran high in those ravines (the Forest Service assesses the ravines’ conditions and posts updates on their website.) We would stick to the standard Lion’s Head Winter Route.

On Saturday morning, Nick Aiello-Popeo (of Synnott Mountain Guides) and I geared up at the AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and set off; the snow lay thick about us, and kept falling lightly. I found the going hard; winter hiking is slow and tedious at the best of times. I was also still coming to grips with the cold-induced clumsiness and stiffness; everything–putting on crampons, changing layers, grabbing a quick snack–was harder to accomplish. Once the Winter Route began, the slope pitched steeply upwards, and some caution, including roping up, was required on a couple of sticky sections.

lionshead1

 

lionshead2

We slowly cleared the treeline, heading for shrubs, which is where we encountered a fierce wind and swirling snow. We pushed on for a while; our steps were slow and labored. The wind–which had been forecast to pick up during the day–was strong enough on occasion to push me back down the slope I was attempting to move up on. I followed Nick, who kept breaking trail, but even his steps were quickly wiped out by the snowdrifts that came cascading down. My goggles were fogging rapidly, and my slightly shortsighted vision meant that I kept misjudging the depth of the snow in front of me. Indeed, the swirling snow and poor visibility meant that at one point, I lost sight of my leader and had to call out to confirm his location. (Thankfully, Nick was only a few meters ahead.) Finally, Nick walked back down the slope, and suggested we call it off; unsurprisingly, I agreed. Conditions were pretty hostile; we were moving too slowly; we ran many risks in pushing on. (Especially as, I suppose, Nick must have reckoned that my inexperience was unlikely to be an asset in pushing on.)

Our return wasn’t much easier; I kept slipping and sliding, finding it hard to internalize the simple lesson to place my cramponed heels first on the downward slopes. At one point, the endlessly patient Nick’s patience ran out, and he suggested I rope up for going down as well. I agreed; I had had my ice axe knocked out of my hands once on one slip, and a repetition would not be pretty. Fortunately for me, my slip-sliding adventures ended quickly thereafter, and we made it down to the end of the trail safely. We had been unsuccessful in making to the summit; a disappointment for sure, but it wasn’t clear to me that I could have pushed on in those conditions. (This photo gives some indication of what it was like in the Dragons’ Lair just below the Lion’s Head; as you can tell, I had my head down as I tried to move on.)

dragonslair

I was cold, exhausted, and sore all over once we had finished; I drove back to my motel, changed out of my wet clothes, stripped off the multiple layers (five on top, three below), and tried to warm up. Four of my fingers and two of my toes still complained about their treatment by the cold; one blister on a finger showed I had acquired a little frost-nip. Sustained further exposure might have made things worse.

All in all, winter climbing was an educational and humbling experience.; I need to be stronger, more practiced, more flexible, mentally more resilient. Like most things pertaining to the mountains, you get your ass kicked, but still harbor a curious desire to repeat the dose. Which I will, soon enough.

Notes On Winter Climbing In The White Mountains – I

Last week, I drove up to New Hampshire–more specifically, to the White Mountains in New Hampshire–to do a little guided climbing. (With the endlessly patient and tremendously knowledgeable Nick Aiello-Popeo of Synnott Mountain Guides in Intervale, NH.) Climbing in the winter is supposed to be hard work; this past weekend turned out to be just that. Friday saw some of the coldest weather of the year as temperatures fell to below zero Fahrenheit; Saturday featured steady snowfall, and then later, up on the higher reaches of Mt. Washington, high winds that eventually forced us back down, aborting our attempt to make it to the summit.

During my drive from Brooklyn to North Conway, NH, on Thursday I sensed, from the falling temperatures during the day, that the guided climbing that lay ahead of me would be good and frigid. My impressions weren’t mistaken; my abiding memory of my time in the White Mountains was the bone-chilling cold. Nick and I spent most of Friday practicing some elementary moves on Willey’s Slide and Frankenstein; on the former cliff, we did some basic ice axe and crampon work, moving up and down a snow and ice slope to get comfortable with controlled moves on those surfaces.

williesslide

I made a small belayed ascent using some front-pointing and low-dagger technique; the slope featured some thin ice over rocks which made this interestingly challenging for a total novice like me. We also spent a lot of time just trying to warm up: windmills galore issued from our freezing bodies. We then changed venues to a): warm up a little by returning to the car and driving to a new location and b) work on a steeper slope to do some ice climbing.

At Frankenstein, Nick set up a bottom belay–anchored to a tree a little way up the slope–and I made two ascents using a pair of ice tools and my crampons. (I rappelled down while being belayed by Nick.)

frankenstein

This was very hard work. I was clumsy and uncoordinated, and frequently slipped. To make things worse, the ice on the rock face was not very thick, making most of ‘sticks’ into the ice of not very good quality. My poor technique didn’t help either as I often forgot to front-point and ended up standing sideways on my boots, which had the bothersome effect of scraping off more ice and snow than was useful for my next move up the face. At one point, I heard Nick reprimand me gently from below, “Ice climbing isn’t a sport in which you can jump or lunge!” I took short breaks to rest and warm up my hands; I was learning in short order just how hard swinging an ice-tool can be when your hands are frozen. (Nick also provided a couple of quick lessons in ice anchoring; I continued to marvel at the amount of gear he carried, and how deftly he was able to manipulate it all while wearing heavy mittens in the freezing cold.)

Finally, with the light starting to fade, we packed up our gear and headed back to the warmth of the car. I headed back to my motel to get some sleep and rest before trying our ascent of Mt. Washington on Saturday. A report on that failed attempt follows tomorrow.