Friday, November 29, 2013

The Practice Trip

As I prepare for another trip with Liv Sansoz this winter, I look back on our first ‘practice trip’ this past spring. We’d been trying to plan something for 18 months, but because of our hectic schedules (lives of professional 30-somethings!), injuries (lives of active people!) and other plans, a trip had eluded us. Finally, Liv just suggested we climb in her home mountains around Chamonix. Perfect!
The ‘practice trip’ is a ritual many mountain climbers undergo. The point is to learn climbing compatibility, but that’s not all. It is also about learning and working with each other’s personalities, daily rituals, dietary preferences, sleep and work schedules and more.
Day 1. She picks me up at Geneve airport from my Boston redeye, with a smile and a hug. What climbing partner doesn’t make their friend take the bus?! Walking to her car, we look like twins, each lugging one end of my duffel bag, wearing jeans, same-colored Mountain Hardwear puffies and Sportiva Raptors. We even drive the same type of car (Golf TDI). Of course we talk about the weather forecast and mountain conditions, which are both shit, on the ride to her house. Her house in Les Houches is comfy and cute. I get my own room. After a nap she feeds me a delicious fresh vegetarian meal and we go cragging.
Day 2. We knew May in the Alps could be hit or miss, but we had no idea just how ‘between season’ it was. The extended weather forecast is terrible, and all of the peaks are mid-melt. There’s no safe alpine climbing to be found, so we go to a multipitch sport crag call La Maladière instead. We start late and get lost on the approach. We rappel in 6 pitches, and have a 10 pitch climb out. Of course, a “wall of hate” races in from the north when we’re halfway up and about to start a steep, traversing pitch. We stop at the belay, consider our options and make a decision. We’re going up.
Suddenly, we’ve replicated the dynamic necessary for serious mountain climbing. We kick it into high gear and the natural division of labor needs no words – lucky thing since English is Liv’s second language and ‘merci’ is the extent of my French! Though we are both undoubtedly scared, there is no panicking or arguing through hail, wind gusts, rain, thunder and lightning. We are like a well-oiled machine, using any tactics necessary to BE SAFE, GET UP and GET OUT.
Day 3. Conditions are still crap for alpine climbing. Besides, with yesterday’s storm survival we’d basically accomplished the primary purpose of the trip, proving to each other that we’re compatible in stressful, high stakes situations. What to do? Road trip south for Spanish sport climbing heaven!
When she is the driver, Liv moves her seat all the way forward and upright. In her sweet, soft French accent, she explains it is so that when she goes fast, she can brace her knees to the sides, like a racecar driver. We stop at a natural food store and load up on local, organic vegetables, brewers yeast, whole grains and all types of healthy goodness. Liv hardly ever drinks alcohol or caffeine either. She is undoubtedly a good influence on me. We take turns driving through the rainy night and are climbing in the sun the next morning.
Day 4. You may recognize Liv’s name from her amazing sport climbing career. She’s a couple years older than me and was one of my heroes as I learned to climb during college. In recent years, her focus has shifted to mountain activities like skiing, alpine climbing, ice climbing…and the insane (to me!) world of flying and free fall sports.
Come to think of it, why in the world would she want to climb with a gumby like me?! Perhaps because she has no shame or ego, two more admirable traits of hers. We are both at about 5.11 sport climbing fitness when we arrive, and we just go to work, getting scared on the spaced out bolted climbs of Siurana and Montsant, taking huge whippers in Margalef.
In the morning and at night and on rest days, we both work on our computers. There may be nothing more comforting for me on climbing trips these days than when that kind of rhythm is possible. The reality of life for many middle-aged climbers is that a work-life balance means working when not climbing on most trips. It’s not all fun and games like it might have been when we were true climbing bums in our 20s, but the reward of having work that we love and still have the adventure lifestyle is worth the sacrifice. By the end of 4 climbing days, we’ve both gotten stronger by almost two number grades.
Day 11. Our last stop on my short European vacation is Lake Annecy. She organized a weekend of parapenting training with friends to try ‘stunts and acrobatics’ with the safety of the lake below. I want to tag along and check it out, since more and more of my friends are into this stuff. Her dad is there too, operating the rescue boat (which, lucky for the ulcer I’d certainly get from watching a falling incident, isn’t needed). I get to take a ride (!!!!), and love it. And I also get to see Liv in her prime –learning new skills, assessing risk, using good judgment, and laughing and having fun through it all.
That was all I needed to see. I’ll follow this girl anywhere in the world.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Ice Climbing: I love it because I kind of hate it

Power Puff Girls, circa 2001
Typical college kids, we woke up bleary eyed November 1, 2001, after one of the infamous Ravin’ and Misbehavin’ Halloween parties in Dover, New Hampshire. Bayard and Josh were psyched to go up north for their first ice climbing day of the season and dragged me along for my first day of ice climbing ever.
I can’t remember how we procured gear for me or how Marc Chauvin ended up joining our motley crew. I do remember following that first pitch up Standard Route on Frankenstein Cliff. It was 500 feet of pure slush and both hands were soaked after my first two swings. My feet were buried at least 6 inches with every kick. Still, we climbed to the top. We laughed and suffered and laughed some more. It was weird, uncomfortable and memorable. I was *not* hooked on ice climbing afterwards. And that has kind of been my relationship with ice climbing ever since.
The contrariness abounds in this sport: How cumbersome it feels to wear boots and crampons the first few times out, and thus how liberating it is to transition into rock climbing again in spring; How miserably cold and then hot we often get several times over one ice climbing day; How terrible the screaming barfies feel but amazing for those moments after they subside.
Marc, Bayard and Josh, Frankenstein, 2001
I’ve learned to love ice climbing because I live in New Hampshire and it’s what people do. Winter is long and the ice is good. I do treasure 'hero ice' days when I can lead all day with no fear…and soloing long easy gullies deep in the mountains…and the extraordinary fall or spring conditions that allow for a link of Cannon’s Black Dike followed by sport pitches at Rumney in a day. Catching up with old friends at the plethora of ice climbing festivals each December through February and teaching newbies little tricks to make the silly sport just a little more tolerable and fun and safe is actually kind of a fun way to spend those long winter weekends. 
Still, it's funny to me to spend time at a sport I am not entirely passionate about. But I guess it is not my only love-hate relationship. I never know if my dread in anticipation of black fly season in New Hampshire or my joy at its end is a more strong emotion. And although I certainly complain about the humid nastiness of July here, I also might just love my little summer swimming holes more than life itself.
As I settle into my 30’s I am learning that life is defined by that contrariety. Think of your complex feelings about your career, creative endeavors, family and closest friends. They are certainly not perfect relationships, and probably sometimes frustrating, confusing and downright difficult. But what would life be without them? Ice climbing is that to me. The more I do it the more I realize I love it because I just kind of hate it, and that's ok.