Sunday, March 03, 2013

Celebrating one year of rock climbing: Yosemite


Its no secret I fell in love with rock climbing one year ago. That statement doesn't quite do justice to my love for the sport so let me elaborate a little more. I'm hooked and I am pretty fortunate to have found at least one friend as into it and as crazy as I am to try outdoor climbing later as that would drive to to eventually consider new adventures I never even dreamed that I'd be considering. How much did I climb in my first year? You need two people if you want to top rope, otherwise you can just boulder. How much can you climb with someone in the gym in a day top roping? Eventually I climbed as much as I could twice a week, enough that my entire body was dead at the end of the day and I surely needed the rest. It started with 3 top ropes in a day, and I never bouldered in the beginning. Back then it was bad, my body was just not used to it. My hands would easily break down and eventually bleed. With time my hands started getting hard so instead of my hands my arms would then give out. Then later my arms got enough stamina and then the middle of my back starting giving out at the end of sessions. At one point I remember trying to see how many climbs I could fit in a session. I got up to 17 routes in a day, and I did this twice so far. I started climbing 5.11b's, I started bouldering and starting doing my first V2s. But the gym is just one way to climb.


Climbing outdoors is a whole different thing, and if you were feeling great at the gym going outdoors will easily make you feel like a piece of shit. Even if you were climbing at a specific level very well indoors outdoors that same level would seem three or four levels harder. But that's just not it... the real important difference about climbing outdoors is you're in the wilderness, you're breathing fresh air, your playing with nature, and if you finish your route you may at times get to see an amazing view. The feeling of finishing a route outdoors is like no other feeling. I remember my first outdoor climbing high moment. It is indescribable. I started out with the local San Francisco Bay area classics: Castle Rock, Berkeley hills, Mickey's beach, Goat Rock, Cosumnes River Gorge, Mount Diablo.


Eventually I started doing small camping trips dedicated to rock climbing with my friends, I hadn't camped since I was a kid. Fortunately I ended up I loving it. Camping started at Pinnacles National Monument, its an amazing place to climb. They have whole books just on climbing for Pinnacles. I'd then also start seeing people do real climbing in person and also learn about their passions. This would motivate me more to climb. The first real pro I met outdoors was Chris Bellizzi, who was just hopping on from one route to another at Pinnacles making the impossible seem trivial. Chris allowed me to record him scending Cosmos, a 5.11b route. Chris happens to have started a non profit, Achieva Climbing, dedicated towards teaching kids to rock climb in inner city schools to help fight obesity and gangs by showing kids positive healthy alternatives, with the hope to get schools to open climbing walls for kids. How dope is that? Interested rock climbers should sign up to volunteer.


Yosemite, the birth place of US rock climbing. I started visiting this park four years ago now, taking everyone who I could to visit, but I hadn't even camped there yet. That needed to be fixed and I hoped to eventually climb there as well. It wasn't going to be easy though. Yosemite doesn't only attract rock climbers, it attracts people all around the world, four million every year. Its hard to compete for camp sites with these eager beaver tourists, I had heard you had to make reservations six months in advance for a spot at Curry Village. There was hope though: Camp 4.



Camp 4 is a first come first serve camp site, its cheap, and its right in the dead center of Yosemite. It is also the birth place of US rock climbing. It is a rock climbers breeding ground. You have world class rock climbing routes all over you. You can wake up and can walk a few feet to world class bouldering problems such as Midnight Lightning, a V8 problem. Seeing young kids try this classic bouldering problem is remarkable, and you will. You also have big wall rock climbing routes on huge massive iconic granite slabs such as El Capitan. People actually sleep on the wall since the routes are so long. Unless you are a pro like Alex Honnald, who can climb a few of these routes in a few hours, climbing some of these routes make take 4-5 days on a wall. Being such an iconic place on the planet for any human and for rock climbers, and given there aren't much local reasonable close alternatives for day ventures, you better bet your ass getting a camp site on Camp 4 is not going to be easy. The drive to Yosemite alone is 4 hours from San Francisco and you have to be in line by 6am for a site, and boy do they go quick... I heard different things about this first come first serve 6am timeline, some folks told me you could camp the night before in line, some said that was not allowed anymore... I could not rely on any of this heresay.


Prior to camping at Camp 4 I ventured out there with a big set of  books, and I made sleeping arrangements through Couch Surfing. I went with my friend Lina, my sister in law's cousin visiting from Colombia to learn English, but I warned Lina that my trip was dedicated completely towards rock climbing. I had just taught her to climb two days earlier, and on her first day she got up on a 5.10a, I thought she was a natural, she seemed excited about it but I wasn't sure if she'd be up to try climbing at Yosemite, I figured she might at least like the park.


Chirstian Rozo was our couchsurfing host, we crashed at his cabin for employees at Curry Village. Couchsurfing lets you ask people online to crash at their place for free and you can also host. I've hosted and this would be my first time surfing. I highly recommend it to anyone looking to travel cheaply and that want to meet people and different cultures. I also believe that couchsurfing is likley one of those things that human anthropologists never expected: contrary to all the garbage the media feeds you about people only wanting to kill each other couchsurfing reveals that there are good amount of people that can be good and that they can be trusted, to the extent some of these same folks are willing to let strangers into their home, at times for a few days. Christian was nice enough to give me good tips for the park, and even showed me how to rappel down a rope, he introduced me to other employees at the park and I got to party a bit with them. My couchsurfing trip to Yosemite was dedicated to what I call rock climbing reconnaissance: familiarizing yourself with the area, picking up climbing guides, topos, meeting local rock climbers, anything that can help for gaining confidence for a future trip. I had read through my guidebooks and decided to scope out a few areas I figured would be good targets for my first climbs, either then or for a future trip.


The first route I climbed at Yosemite was Grant's Crack at Swan Slab, a 5.9 crack, and then... Lina climbed it as well! Her first time climbing was just two days earlier in the gym and here she was doing a 5.9 Yosemite world class granite crack. I couldn't fucking believe it. I told her how good she was but to this day I don't think she quite gets it. Yosemite quickly taught me a few good lessons. I feared for life a few times and I easily trusted what people were talking about when rock climbing. You can't do that with rock climbing, that's not how it works and its not what its about or what its supposed to be about. I now know I did a lot of stupid shit my first few trips climbing there, both on my part and later with friends but all that is done. I am now perhaps one of the most cautious climbers you'll ever meet -- that's a good thing, for now. I won't climb with randoms, a term coined by Chris Kalous to describe random climbing people you don't know or just met and having no climbing repertoire with; I will always double or triple check knots, harnesses; I simply won't trust books, nor verbal advice anyone gives if I consider them random; if we're going to climb together I'd prefer we first climb in the gym for a while and I want to learn about your passions, your drive and why you climb or want to climb. This may sound like I am being anal -- but when your life is on the line you have to be. Human error is the number one cause of accidents for rock climbing. I'm not going to be a statistic contribution.


To my surprise me and Lina ended up rope swinging at the base of El Capitan on this trip. A few rock climbers were resting at the base after a long climb and it seems one of the things they do here is rope swing after long climbs. A group leaves their rope after a climb and it'll be used by randoms for rope swinging. We didn't even have harnesses but the folks doing this realized we were watching and enthusiastically invited us to try it. We did not hesitate to accept the offer. The rope though was perhaps the oldest and most ill conditioned rope I had ever seen in my life but if these guys were doing it, I figured we'd be OK. If you have never visited the base of El Capitan I highly encourage the hike. I fell in love with that rock. It so clean... and seeing the size of that huge granite clean rock right in front of you is an amazing experience. In retrospect of course what we did was dangerous and I likely wouldn't do it again, unless I knew who exactly put that rope there. These climbers certainly didn't know who put the rope there but they and a few other climbers later used it. I don't know have enough experience to know if I'll ever trust a rope like that again but I know at least now I won't do that again. Be aware that on my second trip with two friends we ran into a bear at the base of El Capitan but please know that these guys are docile. Of all the fatalities for rock climbing in Yosemite there is yet to be any deaths caused by bears. They are actually domesticated by rangers to learn to be afraid of humans and run away from them. Lina was the first one to spot the bear, she then pointed it to me and then quickly she started whispering to Leigh in Spanish that there was a beer nearby. Mind you, Leigh does not speak Spanish. Lina was just surprised and out of shock her reaction was simply to speak to Leigh in Spanish. Eventually the bear must have heard some of these Spanish whisperings, maybe it spoke in Spanish we figured, and started heading our way. At this point I yelled at Leigh to get her ass over here, who had not yet even seen the bear nor realized why we were calling her out. She looked back, saw it and the three of us scrambled to climb as I high as we could somehow onto El Capitan. The "Spanish bear" was simply curious about us and would keep coming at us and only started running away once we started making a lot of noise.


With time I ended up coming back to Yosemite two more times to climb, once to focus on just climbing and later on what I call a "social climb", a climbing adventure focusing on routes that you know are sane and you hope to get friends hooked on the sport. We even tried French Free Climbing a 5.10a crack.


At the top of the French Free crack this is what I saw, Half Dome. This is why I go to Yosemite. The views and the feelings of playing with nature and being able to share this with friends is simply fucking priceless. That day we also night climbed but it was not something we wanted to do on purpose, the hours just passed and the route took a long time to climb.


That day my friend Leigh fell 20 ft, ending only 4 ft from the floor, it would be her first lead climbing fall, and my first big "oh shit, I can't do anything right now" moment. I couldn't do anything and I caught her (locking the belay device) properly, she just had to fall and she fell the right way, the route was just slanted a bit so she ended up scraping her arm quite a bit. These sorts of things are inevitable and only practice will get you better. Contrary to top roping lead climbing requires you to bring the rope up with you and hook your cable up as you go onto already set anchors. This also means that if you are going to fall twice the distance between your last clip and how up above you are from that last anchor. In this case Leigh was up 10 feet from her last clip. Unfortunately even after you take the lead class at a gym you can't practice lead belaying at gyms, to gain more experience and confidence all around the only option is to go outdoors. You can practice mock lead climbing indoors but never lead belaying. Lead climbing, also known as sport climbing, is essential for Yosemite, there are only so many routes you can do through top roping, despite there being a book just on top roping in Yosemite. When you sport climb though you feel as if you're starting to climb all over again though, a 5.7 may feel like a 5.9 when leading, a 5.10b may feel like an 5.11a. There is a lot more strain on your body, and your moves have to be more well calculated. Getting used to falling can take time and eventually you may enjoy it, I know I do. The difference in weight can also make things interesting... For example at the gym when me and Leigh were taking the lead climbing test they told me to make an on-purpose fall, this was expected, and I fell from the 4th clip down to where Leigh was, Leigh was pulled up all the way up to the first clip. She could not go any higher as her body would have had to have gone through the anchor. There's a lot more to practice and learn. Getting comfortable at Yosemite will take a very long time.


Lina would go on to climb more with me during her visit from Colombia, in the picture above she's climbing what I believe was a 5.9 at Mickey's Beach right before sunset. She got hooked.


Linda would later even climb in Colombia! As for Christian, he's now hitchhiking across Central and South America for a year, I cannot wait to read about his adventure, I hope he blogs about it. I'll obviously keep on climbing but I know I have so much more work to do.



You eventually want to share the love for rock climbing as much as possible, I know I have, to whoever I could. Some folks enjoy going only once, twice, but getting anyone hooked though, that's rare. Of course I don't understand why people won't get hooked.... At times we have what I call "social climbs", where you go climb, bullshit, drink a few beers, whatever. But then you have your serious stints. Climbing trips dedicated solely to the sport, with no randoms. Why do you think most professional rock climbers live out of vans? Its an addictive sport and to get better you really need to work hard at it, a lot, a lot. Fret not though, I will not quit my job, I actually love my job, just as I sought out to do activities around the bay area to balance my life with work I also cannot allow for my own activities to interfere with my own professional passions on world domination plans. I need a balance to my own balance.
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