Safety, Systems, and Thoughts on Thinking

When it comes to safety and systems, shouldn’t we think as objectively as possible? I think so, and I try. I suppose there’s “that one time when…” fear that can affect our thinking, or a “that looks sketchy!” impulse that can override rational thought. But exceptions and extreme examples shouldn’t cloud our thinking with climbing systems. Consider the sedentary dude, shoveling down cheeseburgers, going “I heard about this runner guy who ran every day and keeled-over with a heart attack – that’s why I don’t exercise.” Or: “My cousin knew this guy who one time was in a car wreck and they said if he’d been wearing his seatbelt he would have died, so I never wear my seatbelt.” Yeeeish.

Anyway, in May I posted some tips on multi-pitch efficiency, specifically using an auto-blocking belay plate. A couple of comments, here and on my Facebook page, echoed random things I’ve heard elsewhere (paraphrased below), and it got me thinking about how we think.

CF Scariot on Spear Me the Details, RMNP.

1. “I never let someone use an auto-blocker, because they might not know how to lower me.”

Whew. Where to start? Indeed, should you find yourself following a pitch and you fall, causing the auto-blocker to lock-up, and need to be lowered, and the person belaying you up doesn’t know how to do it, yes, that sucks. As Malcolm noted from his personal experience (in the comments), indeed it sucks, and he correctly noted that it’s essential to know how to use the device properly, which includes knowing how to slowly release it to lower. Here’s a great video, and it’s important to practice.

How heavily should that factor into someone’s belay device selection? While I hope it’s not one or the other, if it were, what sucks worse, getting stuck or getting dropped? And, which is more common, or more likely?

Here’s how I think of these things: what’s the likelihood of the situation, and what are the consequences?

An auto-blocker prevents getting dropped while seconding. Accident reports are full of dropped climbers. They rarely escape injury or death. And so, compared to the frequency and severity of getting stuck for awhile on the rare pitch that you can’t follow and can’t yard-up on, while your belayer takes awhile to lower you…

For me it’s a no-brainer: I still love the auto-blocker, not only because it’s more efficient (the original topic of my post), but it’s also safer.

2. “Never use the rope in the anchor – I mean, what if you have to escape the belay?”

This had nothing to do with the original topic of my post, but my photo (reposted to the right–>) of using the rope prompted some replies. That’s cool, it’s a good topic, let’s address it. To answer:

Well, then you escape the belay like you would otherwise – after you mule-off the climber to free your hands, you transfer the load to either a bomber piece or, if you need to, first equalize a couple pieces with a sling and then transfer the load. The basics of escaping the belay still apply, and having the rope incorporated in your anchor prevents you from escaping the belay, then you probably don’t know how to escape the belay in the first place. Personally, I know how to do it. But in 18 years of devoted climbing, I’ve never had to. Perhaps some of the folks who worry about this have had bad experiences in the past, but I asked a handful of similarly experienced climber friends, and all answered the same: nope, never had it happen.

Not to say it’s something to ignore. Escaping the belay is an essential skill – but one you’ll likely never use. And if you have to, then encountering a situation where you’re prevented from escaping for the sole reason of being anchored-in with the climbing rope is so infinitesimal, if even possible, that you should probably just say at home (“What if the entire mountain collapses?” “What if my harness breaks?” “What if a hundred-year flood unleashes on the approach?”).

Furthermore, using the rope to anchor yourself – whether to connect the individual pieces, or to connect yourself to a single equalized power point (depending on the situation, like swinging leads versus block leads, you choose accordingly) – is safer. Off of every belay on a multi-pitch climb, the potential exists for a serious shock-loading leader fall. I’ve caught some and taken some, and it concerns me far more than the likelihood of the above-addressed rare-to-non-issue of being somehow “stuck” in the anchor. The rope is the safest part of your system due to its dynamic properties, and it makes a whole lot of sense to include it in your anchor. All kinds of data (easily found) show the energy-absorbing abilities of a rope versus more static pieces like slings and daisy chains. Related post here.

To be sure I wasn’t missing something, I asked several IFMGA-certified mountain guides (this is the highest standardization worldwide for mountain guides, the equivalent of a doctorate degree in mountain guiding, requiring intimate knowledge of systems, safety, and climbing risk assessment). Unanimous: nothing wrong with using the rope. In fact, all said that they prefer it for the reasons described above: it’s the safest piece of equipment you have for absorbing impact.

I also asked Kolin Powick, who runs Black Diamond’s quality control and testing program, and to whom we owe gratitude for the ton of useful testing and education info, posted here. He summed it up perfectly: “I use the rope all the time in the belay. I mean you have it with you – why the hell not. Plus it provides a bit of dynamics to the system given that it’ll stretch a bit. And IF I needed to escape the belay, I’d figure it out – because I’m not an idiot. I’ve also never needed to escape the belay in 15 years of climbing.”

Overall, yes, learn your gear. Learn your systems. Know how to lower from an auto-blocked belay device. Know how to escape a belay and transfer the load. And, I’d say, develop your systems and make your decisions based not on emotion or old-school dogma or far-fetched exceptions, but on likely scenarios and their consequences. It’s the best way, I think, to strike that balance between speed and safety. And far better than staying on the couch.

Notes from Chamonix

On June 15 we shipped the AAJ to the printer and I hopped a plane to Europe. I’d been working my ass off for far longer than I want – like months – which left me wondering: “How the fuck do people work like this all year round? And why? No wonder so many seem so miserable.” Not sure why I worked so much — I live a generally low-budget lifestyle — other than needing something besides margaritas to obsess over while recovering from surgeries and doing rehab (for the surgeries, not the margaritas). Anyway, so I’m wrapping-up my two-and-a-half weeks in Chamonix, France. I took some notes:

• Wine is so cheap here. Good cheap, not bad cheap. As in, a 3.50Euro bottle (that’s like 5 American Pesos right now) that’s freakin’ delicious.

• The only obese people you see are visiting Americans (and the stray Brit or German). There’s no way to sugarcoat it, no excuse for it, and the comparison is shocking: Americans are fat.

• The people with mullets wearing paneled shell pants – usually red or purple in the knees – are probably Spanish. (Apparently I need to get some paneled shell pants.)

• The people wearing matching outfits are probably Italian.

• The drunken line of people singing songs, arm-in-arm, down the middle of the street at 2 a.m. – or, hell, 2 p.m. – are definitely Brits.

• Most Frenchmen do, in fact, look quite French. You know, that long slender face with a cigarette and one eyebrow raised as they go “Mmmm, how you say, maybeee, maybe not?”

• French climbers invented the colors neon green, fire-red orange, and pink.

• The access to the mountains is unbelievable. And everyone loves good access. Just wrote a post about it here.

• Classic routes are crowded. And passing parties on-route works just fine. Europe is crowded, and people learn to get along. None of this “I was here first” bullshit like climbers try to pull back home (which usually translates as: I’m slow, which, uhhhh, gives me ownership to this public route??). You’re not the only person with the idea to climb this thing, and you don’t own it. It’s the nature of classic routes. Classic means crowded in the land of activity meaning active, versus activity meaning TV. Being friendly helps. When in Rome… On the Swiss Route of the Grand Capucin, when I skipped a belay station (most of the pitches here are fairly short, so you can link them) where a Swiss climber was belaying his leader, and a fixed pin provided the only pro a body length above the ledge, I asked if I could clip the leader’s draw with my draw (hey, at least I asked…). “Of course, no problem.” Voila.

• When you’re nice to people, they’re usually nice to you. It’s very American to rip on the “rude French.” Ironic, given our worldwide reputation as Ugly Americans (“You call this a sammich?!?!?”). But this is my fourth trip to France (10 days of ice climbing in 2001, a month in Chamonix in 2003, a week of bouldering a year or two later, and this 2.5-week trip), and I can remember one or two “rude” encounters. About the same as back home. Key: ditch the “I’m ‘Merican!” attitude. The country you’re from doesn’t make you special. Having an attitude just makes you an asshole. I don’t speak a word of French. But I smile a lot, am polite, and I remember that I’m the one who’s in their country – not the other way around. The French have been awesome in my book.

• I’m fuckin’ psyched at how my body is handling this. Months of up to 15 hours a week of PT & rehab seems to be paying off – fingers crossed (and I’m still doing my maintenance exercises while here, and trying to be smart). This has been the most climbing I’ve done in a long, long time, and it feels good.

• Crazy how clear the world looks, and how quiet my mind, when I have time in the mountains. I came here for a Polartec meeting – I’m honored to be part of their Athlete Advisory Board, and some of the athletes are French, and so we had the meeting in Cham. Sweet, huh? (But next year it’s in Boston…) Anyway, they let me book my return whenever I wanted, and two weeks after the end of our meetings sounded good. Chamonix is crazy expensive, but I wasn’t busting my ass all winter and spring to buy a god-damned home entertainment system.

• Cham summary: The mountains are expensive, the wine is cheap, and the quiet I feel after a great day of climbing is beyond words.

Multi-Pitch Efficiency: the auto-blocking belay plate

Ever since writing my big exposé on the sordid underbelly of alpinism (“I Just Want to Be Held”), I’ve been inundated with requests. No, not requests for climbing partners. Rather, terrified requests from doe-eyed young alpinists: “But…how can I finish that big route before dark? I don’t want to be the big spoon. I don’t want to be the little spoon. I just want to get down in time to swill margaritas like Big Daddy Cordes!”

I’m here to help.

Morgan Boyles nearing the top of Siniestro Total, on Aguja Principal, Frey, Argentina.

A lot of things can keep you from getting benighted, stuck huddling with some slovenly dude for warmth on a godforsaken ledge in the middle of nowhere. For one, you could stay home. But otherwise, speed rules. (Unless you’re bouldering, in which case it’s all about bongo drums and the bong taking long enough rest periods to maximize ultra-crushing-power [say it with an Arnold accent].) Finishing big routes before dark isn’t always about climbing fast, but about climbing efficiently. A lot goes into this, and maybe I’ll babble more in future posts, but one of the simplest ways to speed-up multi-pitch climbs is through efficient belay transitions. And one of the single biggest time-savers comes from using a simple piece of gear: an auto-blocking belay device, like the Black Diamond ATC-Guide or the Petzl Reverso.

It’s hard to imagine why anyone would climb a multi-pitch route these days with a regular tuber or figure-8. Auto-blocking devices, an evolution from plaquettes or “magic plates” previously used mostly by savvy climbing guides to manage multiple clients, absolutely rule. They’re exponentially more efficient, addictively so (I haven’t used a non-auto-blocker on a multi-pitch climb in over a decade). They’re safer, too. They rappel and feed-out rope to the leader like normal, but, when configured correctly, they automatically lock-down if the second falls. Magic.

The only downside is that when it locks on itself (if the second falls), letting out slack or lowering someone (which you rarely do on multi-pitch climbs) is a minor hassle – read-up on how to do it in your gear’s instruction manual (here’s a video). Also, since you’re belaying directly off the anchor, obviously the anchor must be bomber. In some sketchy situations (like alpine mixed climbs, to be redundant), your stance might be part of the anchor, in which case you’re belaying off your waist.

Important: when belaying a leader, it’s business as usual – kind of like the “business in the front” part of a sweet mullet. These devices are not like Gri-Gris, which aren’t appropriate for most multi-pitch trad climbs (they’re too heavy, lock up too statically, and they don’t rappel easily – though if you know how, you can get clever and do single-strand raps). You still have to keep your hand on the brake when belaying the leader. Killing your partner is extremely poor form.

OK, here’s the system:

The magic of an auto-blocking belay device, in action.

• Lead the pitch (Dude, there I was, blahblahblah…), secure yourself to a good anchor (good and organized, with a clear, central “power point” – avoid making a rat’s nest of separate slings and quick draws clipped everywhere), call “off belay.”

• Clip your auto-blocking belay device directly into the power point with a locker, pull up the slack, and put your partner on in auto-blocking mode. It’s not rocket science, but if you configure it backwards your second will deck if she falls – same as any belaying mistake. So tug the second’s strand as a quick test to be sure it locks.

• Call “on belay” to your second. Then pull on your jacket, eat, drink, take a leak, organize the rope and gear, whatever, multi-tasking as you belay. Unless your second is constantly moving, you can – and should – do all these things in quick bursts, when you’re not pulling in slack. Time-honored, safe, and super efficient. If the second falls while you’re drinking Kool-Aid and waiting for the Rapture, the auto-blocker catches her.

There you have it. An easy way, with a simple piece of gear, to help get your groove on. Even more, it’s part of the crucial un-benighted multi-pitch mindset: keep moving, think ahead, always be doing something. No spooning. It’s way better that way – trust me on this one.

Mortenson-CAI Issue Podcast

Quick one – I’ve been meaning to post this. Just a podcast version of what I wrote on TCL (got a shitton of back-and-forth in the comments and on Facebook, which was especially cool since the discussion remained mostly civil and thoughtful), about the Greg Mortenson and Central Asia Institute scandal. I think this topic fascinates us precisely because he’s clearly not Bernie Madoff – there was little on that one to debate regarding good and bad. But here? Not so clear, at least not in my book.

Length: 6min, 7sec.

Audio Player:

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Cordes podcast on Mortenson issue 4-30-11

Surgery Six Proposition

I had a proposition. I’d readied my pitch to the surgeons at the Steadman Clinic in Vail, where, by the way, I’ve received hands-down the best medical treatment in my storied surgical career, from the people in the lobby to the nurses and assistants to the surgeons. Don’t know how they do it, but they do. This was two-plus weeks ago, and Dr. Hackett was about to trim my torn knee meniscus, while Dr. Clanton was about to remove a good chunk of the hardware store in my lower leg and clean-out scar tissue, bone spurs, and other such nastiness. Made sense to do ‘em at the same time, since it’s all on the same leg and the recoveries are similar. Plus, I’m not quite back to climbing yet from my massive shoulder surgery in December, and so we’d time it all just right – next week, I’ll start walking again (been on crutches for this short time since the surgeries), and in a couple of weeks I’ll start climbing again. Perfect. Rehab is coming along phenomenally well – if I do one thing well in life, besides fucking myself up, I do rehab.

Psyched after successful surgeries, and the news that I should be back at it soon.

This recent round made six surgeries in just over a year. Enough. Anyway, one of the super cool things they were doing is a new-ish treatment called mesenchymal stem cell transplant. Something like that. They’d go into my hip with a syringe (after I was asleep) and extract stem cells from my bone marrow, and, after doing some centrifuge-like procedure, inject them into the then-empty screw holes in my leg and the damaged cartilage in my cankle. Apparently these stem cells show great promise to speed recovery and maybe even grow new cartilage where it typically doesn’t regenerate. The stem cells take on the characteristics of the targeted cells, as I understand it, and can thus repair damaged tissue.

So I got to thinking.

“Hey doc,” I said to Clanton before they put me under, “I know this probably isn’t an approved use, but I got a twenty with your name on it if you take some of those stem cells and inject ‘em into my brain.” Everybody in the room laughed. They thought I was joking. I lowered my voice to a whisper: “OK, make it fifty.”

Then they put me to sleep.

My cankle. The "groove" is where a loose bone chunk, probably grinding into my foot whenever I moved, had worn through my cartilage; the stem cells could (we hope) help repair the damage. Dr. Clanton also cleaned-out a proverbial shitton of scar tissue, some of which had trapped a major nerve, and he removed two plates and 12 screws. Photo: Dr. Tom Hackett

Civility on the Interwebs, Little Weenies and Old Farts

Nobody ever thought I’d say this, but I like it when people communicate in reasonable ways on the Internet. At least when it’s regarding something I wrote – otherwise, since I don’t have TV, I kind of like to sit back and watch the fracas. Such a barrier exists with Internet communication that it’s easy to be a dick – just browse any number of web forums or comments sections. I’ve been guilty as well, no doubt. I think it’s just the distance. We’re more willing to be rude from behind the windshield of our vehicles than we’d be on the sidewalk, for example. And then get behind a computer, with all the tubes and microbes and gizmos and whatnot creating relative anonymity, and it’s no wonder mayhem rules the interwebs.

But I liked the tone of most of the commentary I got from my latest Cleanest Line post. It’s about adventure and the younger generation, and I hypothesize and navel-gaze over whether or not today’s youth are as inclined toward real-deal adventure (however you define that…). To be clear – as I’m pretty sure I was in the post – I’m not saying they’re weenies; I’m not saying they’re Gods. The young guns climb crazy hard, that’s for sure. It’s part of a natural evolution. It’s also undoubtedly true that, as our society grows increasingly mechanized, automated, and comfortable, each generation – overall, mind you – becomes less willing to embrace discomfort. Isolated examples don’t prove a larger point (“Yeah, well my buddy rode his bike naked to the North Pole, so your assumption is asinine!”). And maybe embracing discomfort – like the willingness to suffer for far-flung fantasies and adventure – is nothing but stupid. Intellectually, sure, it’s stupid. Why suffer? Well then, why ever leave the couch? (Aside from trips to the fridge, of course.) But somehow I’m unconvinced that the couch, or necessarily striving for comfort, equates to any sort of universal wisdom. I feel like something gets lost.

I’m drifting, but I wanted to re-post what I wrote. It’s below. At least as interesting as the text, though, are the replies. One thing that struck me is how some folks latched onto a single morsel and ran, even sprinted, with it. Like parts touched a nerve. That’s a good thing, I think. But sometimes I was like, “Uhhh, dude, I never said that. Sorry that your momma didn’t breast feed ya or whatever.” I suppose we all sometimes read things however we want to read them. Including, perhaps, our own writings.

The replies are spread over the original TCL post and the Facebook posts on my page, Patagonia’s, and Alpinist’s (they posted it, too).

Admittedly the topic doesn’t truly matter. It’s just fun to think about – I think so, anyway. Hope you enjoy it, or at least maybe fish some good chunks of lint out of your navel.

Choose Your Own Adventure 

Jim Donini, mid-approach in search of virgin climbing terrain in remote Chilean Patagonia.

While gazing into my navel and pulling lint the other day, I wondered about adventure. It seems to me that, based on my admittedly unscientific observations of news reports and the ascents I encounter in my American Alpine Journal editorial job, refinement ascents are all the rage. By refinement, I mean something other than bona fide first ascents and new routes. Things like fastest ascent, new enchainment, first alpine-style ascent, first one-day ascent and first free ascent with its endless sub-denominations (onsight, redpoint, continuous free, team free, individual free, and so many that I can’t keep them straight – and, notably, as with everything that is a work in progress, the standards keep shifting).

I don’t mean for “refinement” to sound derogatory. You can’t fault today’s climbers for the reality that fewer obvious virgin lines exist. But we’ve got so many more advantages now, why not make the extra effort? Why aren’t the young whipper snappers doing like the royal “we” did? Uphill both ways with frostbitten toes and an 80-pound pack, baby? (80?! Hell, we had 100!) Well, for one, it’s probably true that the young whipper snappers aren’t as inclined to trudge to the middle of nowhere – they’re too busy climbing hard.

It’s just a shift. Things evolve. And who’s to say that a first free isn’t an adventure? (Though there can be little dispute that, all else equal, heading onto previously untouched terrain presents a much greater element of the unknown.)

It’s pretty freakin’ amazing how hard some of today’s younger climbers climb.

And still, I’ve wondered if the younger generation is more or less inclined to adventuresome expeditions.

Not that we have any way of knowing. Sure, fewer of today’s climbers go on far-flung adventures when viewed in proportion to the total climbing population, but that’s because the total number of climbers has grown by a shitton (spell-check always flags that word, but I’m pretty sure it’s one word, not two). Yet in absolute numbers, I know from my AAJ work that plenty of young climbers still head off the beaten path to chase windmills, and I love it. Maybe they just don’t make the headlines so much, and most of climbing’s surging popularity naturally comes from those drawn to the more accessible realms. Whether or not this reflects shifts in our increasingly modernized and comfortable lives, the fact remains that it’s relatively easy and enjoyable to safely dabble in bouldering, cragging and gym climbing. Type I fun – what a concept. And some of those “dabblers” get damned good. It feels good to be good.

Kelly roadside cragging on Redneck Hero, at the River Wall, Lyons, CO. Photo: Tommy Caldwell

So maybe climbers are just getting smarter. I mean, is there value in suffering for the hell of it, or in adventure for adventure’s sake?

I don’t know. But I know that some people prefer the blue tape route, and I like it, too. Along with my Facebook, quick access to climbing, and high-speed internet. Yet I still squeeze my limes by hand.

We all choose our battles.

If true that today’s generation is less inclined to go remote, that’s OK. Think of the bright side: You know how most people who visit national parks never leave their vehicles or go farther than like 200 yards from their SUV? Unreal, right? Absolutely. And a damn good thing if, instead of pontificating about the old days, you want to get away from the masses and have yourself an adventure.

Homemade podcast test

I’ve started messing around with audio — cutting edge stuff, and one of these days I’ll bet people will even use video cameras for storytelling — and recorded my “Like the Old Bull” post. I think this means I turned it into a podcast. Something like that. Might help you get to sleep, or even entertain while driving somewhere. Especially if you hate to read (“Reading is stoooopid.”).

Language warning, of course: rated R. Length: 5min, 18sec.

Audio Player:

Download (let it load, save it, put it on your phone or mp3 player and listen later):

Cordes podcast 1-8-11 (Old Bull)

Like the Old Bull

OK, the joke I linked to. Here goes:

There’s this wise old bull and an eager young bull standing atop a gorgeous hillside, looking down at a herd of pretty cows, and the young bull goes, “Hey-hey Dad, let’s run down and fuck one of them cows!”

“No, Son,” the old bull says, “Let us walk down, and enjoy them all.”

Confused? Well, you see the old bull was telling the young bull that… Oh, wait, confused on what I linked from. It’s linked on my next post on Patagonia’s blog (on Monday, I think), where I mostly write these days and where, in spite of me, they have standards. In respect for those standards, I figured that joke might be a bit inappropriate (subbing-in “make sweet love to” didn’t have the same effect). The post is my latest in a multi-part series on this aging bullshit. I hate how everyone uses it as such an excuse – yeah, stand around the water cooler and say “Well, you did hit [insert your most recent decade]” and every time you or someone else says it, it reinforces itself and, well, just shovel-down another bag o’ Cheetos.

My recent spate of injuries prompted the aging series. I haven’t written much about it here (been lazy with the blog), but in mid-October I destroyed my shoulder. Here’s the initial injury post. It’s hard for me to reconcile – I mean, the broken leg was a total fluke; my smashed face and head this summer the same (sure I should have worn a helmet, but I’d have still ended up with the stitches in my face, and who the hell does that to themselves on a wildly overhanging sport climb, anyway?); and my shoulder? Well, initially Dr. Hackett – a phenomenal surgeon in all regards, from taking his time and explaining, to his world-renowned skills, to his & his staff’s emphasis on rehab – called it a “perfect storm.” After being in there, however, and seeing the carnage that had to have come from years and years, he called it a “time bomb.”

Damn, I’ve been in denial for a long time. It’s true that parts wear out, and I’m an idiot because I’ve often ignored the fact that with each passing year of my hammerhead mentality I reinforce bad habits, improper movement patterns, strength and flexibility imbalances, and lead myself closer to injury. Harsh realities later – with perhaps some bad luck – I’m catching on, refocusing on total body maintenance. Gotta milk as many miles as I can, and I’m grateful for the memories and experiences those years of wear and destruction brought me; far better than having let my dreams pass me by, sporting a beer gut and bitching about my age.

I suppose we all bring some things upon ourselves.

A month has passed since surgery, and this week I got out of my shoulder sling and began PT – very gently. PT hurts like a bitch but I’m psyched on it, and I’m finally feeling non-psychotic again. I’ve had enough of this, it’s gotten way old, even with the injury cliché people tell you, and that I’ve told to others: “You can use this time to focus on things you don’t normally do.”

Fuck that, I want to climb.

It strikes me more than ever how climbing and physical activity outdoors keeps me sane and keeps me happy (damn, with my leg I can’t run; with my shoulder I can’t ski or bike). This round has been rough, and I haven’t had nearly the positive attitude I had when I shattered my leg. Besides, the major repair with my shoulder – rotator cuff, labrum, and joint capsule surgery all together – worked me hard. Not just the pain and immobility, but this last month of constantly disrupted sleep, the “night pain” phenomenon, and those motherfucking evil opiate painkiller drugs, I’m done with them. No mas. They seem to work for me at first, and then after awhile they just make me dark and psychotic, inducing nightmares and hallucinations, making me think I’m losing my mind. I stopped taking them during daytime hours maybe two weeks post-op, but the pain-induced sleep deprivation made me like a zombie, so I’d take one or two at night, but I think it created a double-whammy – still lousy sleep (which makes you crazy) and then some sort of opioid build-up (which makes you crazy). I felt poisoned. Earlier this week I decided that a little night pain is the lesser of the evils, and finally I’m clear-headed again, and even starting to get some decent sleep.

Anyway, time for another round of shoulder exercises. Slowly, gently, rehabbing the shoulder, thinking ahead toward spring and those delicious days of walking into the hills, maybe now with a little bit more wisdom. Maybe a little bit more like that old bull.

Baby Jesus and the Gimpy Heathens

Thank Jesus and the Baby Jesus, it’s over. No more of that shitty music playing everywhere, the retarded decorations, bah humbug, and no more tacky Santa and Baby Jesus manger yard sets. Best of all, an end to what the holiday has come to mean to most Americans: unabashed and mindless consumerism.

As an aside, the whole virgin birth thing (not to mention parting the Red Sea, walking on water, and a host of other magic tricks) never added-up for me – the dots simply don’t connect, and I don’t believe it any more than I believe in the Easter Bunny. I do, however, give props to the creative storytelling.

“You stay,” Craig said, shutting the dogs inside. I was at his place in Fort Collins to take him to the hospital. Tally looked at us with sad eyes and perky ears, and Charlie, Tally’s brother and absolutely the sweetest dog in the world, thumped his Santa Claus cast against the floor – every time he goes in for a cast change, the vet school students paint a new design. “Man, Tally’s got the worst farts,” Craig said. “Afraid she’ll drive away all the hot nurses.”

Profess piety? Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Give to the needy. Help someone – even if they believe in a different fairytale than yours. Be grateful. It’s weird how, on an individual level, an overwhelming majority of people seem good and without malice. Yet about half the population (or more, based on recent elections) support policies and politicians that ensure the richest get richer while the needy suffer. An overwhelming percentage of these people claim to be Christian (most Americans claim Christianity, and more so on the conservative right). I’m no Bible expert, so correct me if I’m wrong here, but I’m pretty sure it goes, “Love thy neighbor” – not “Fuck ‘em.”

I’m convinced that, as a collective people, our greed and hubris will consume us. Yes, Merry Christmas, reality.

Anyway, Charlie’s leg cast comes victim of an idiotic chick’s unleashed Pitbull-mix’s (yes, he, like your Pit mix, had never done this before…) completely unprovoked attack on him in a city park this fall. For the rest of Charlie’s life, he won’t run, and Craig made him a trailer for his bike so Charlie could again feel the wind in his face.

Before Charlie’s leg, as Tally suffered mysterious health problems that included loss of vision, they’d still chase the ball in the yard. Craig describes Tally chasing around, but sometimes running into things, unable to find the ball. After a few rounds, Charlie stopped going for the ball himself and would lead his sister to it, until she was so close she could see it, pick it up, and together they’d run back to Craig in a double bundle of unchecked happiness.

I feel sad for them, but they don’t seem to feel sorry for themselves. I look at Craig and his dogs and remind myself that I’ve been a whiney bitch about this shoulder thing, and my pissy Christmas attitude isn’t helping.

“Maybe we could’ve brought Charlie, tell ‘em he’s your service dog,” Craig mumbled as we hobbled toward the hospital doors. “Huhuhuh.” Yeah, funny guy. Like that gimpy bastard should talk. He’s the only one of my friends more fucked-up than me. I was driving him to his third neck surgery – he’s probably had a dozen overall – and around to help with recovery. As to his wisecrack, OK, sure, I still limp a little, with those three plates and 20 screws in my right leg, and my left arm hangs in a sling from a massive shoulder surgery three weeks ago. As we walked I stopped and bent over, twisted to the side, popped my back a bit like I do – remnants from my 2005 spinal reconstruction – while Craig tried to turn without moving his head and neck. I caught a glimpse of myself in the hospital doors, and saw that the strands of gray hair added a nice touch to my five-day scruff and mullet, which had overgrown the remnants of the stripes I shaved in the side of my head. OK, maybe I could use a service dog.

The people at check-in asked Craig if he had a helper and driver. He tried not to laugh and kind of nodded in my direction. Long silence behind the desk.

“OK, sir,” the cheery old woman suddenly said, “We’ll just need you to sign here, and here’s your guest pass.”

“Is there a bar in this hospital?” I asked, just for effect. She smiled and laughed – a holiday-induced nicety? – if so, cool, I can get behind anything that gives us an excuse, or reason, to be nicer to one another, or to connect with those we care about. (Which begs the requisite question: What have we become that we need a reason for that?)

A few days later, back at Craig’s house, he struggled to walk though excruciating pain as the dogs bounced around, tongues flopping, wiggling their butts – neither have tails – completely unaware or unconcerned about their conditions. Craig tried to herd them together and I set the timer for our Gimpy Christmas photo. Charlie smiled, his Santa Claus leg cast tapping on the floor, and Tally wiggled with joy, her latest round of chemo helping her feel normal again, completely unaware or unconcerned with the incurable bone cancer that’s not only giving her nasty farts, but that will take her life in a few months.

I had to smile, because at least someone had the spirit, and those little rascals didn’t even know it was Christmas.

Braggadocio

What’s a blog for, if not to brag? Well, a lot of little people have helped along the way and Big Daddy Cordes want to thank to all of them, but most importantly I am famous: type “mullet stripes” into Google images and see what you get. Very first image. Numero Uno. Little did I know that searching for ideas would lead to such sudden, complete fulfillment. God bless the interwebs. Here’s a screen shot:

We just re-did my stripes this morning, and the mullet is coming in nicely. Since my recently fucked-up shoulder (which is actually doing well, at least it feels good, though I’ll know more when I get the MRI results back) has me almost assuredly delaying my trip to Patagonia, the silver lining might be that I can better grow-in the mullet (to say nothing of the creepy mustache). It’s a sign of cultural respect, that’s all: every dude in Argentina rocks the mullet.

I was to leave for Patagonia in a week, and was going to climb with Tommy, as I’m quite certain I can jug anything he can lead. Man, the guy is inspiring, and I just wrote about his and Kevin Jorgeson’s current project here. For those who don’t know, they’re trying to free-climb a line up El Cap’s Dawn Wall — crazy steep and blank, stacked with 5.13 & 5.14 pitches, about seven of each in the line’s 30 pitches. They’ve been working on it for three seasons, trained their asses off, and Tommy told me he’s sure that it goes — just not sure if they can do it yet. But they’re trying, which is way more impressive than coming up first on the interwebs for having a shitty haircut.

Yeah, in the words of Kenny Powers, fuck this noise — it’s time to go train.