Climbing all up in the Interwebs

What’s in the Internet water these days? People are being nice, even in forums. ‘Tis the season, I suppose.

• Someone started a random thread on Mountain Project thanking Matt Samet:

“Aside from replacing a boatload of bolts for the ARI, putting up a bunch of routes, and writing a lot of funny articles over the years, I just wanted to publicly put it out there that the Climbing Dictionary is *effing hilarious* and deserves to be in a lot of stockings. Well done, man.”

How cool. The thread is one big love-in for Matt, who’s a kind soul while remaining his cynical, dark self (no wonder I like him so much). The thread did, however, confuse me for a moment. Given that Matt edited Climbing and Rock and Ice magazines in the past – you know the requisite over-the-hill grumpy climber statement: “Aw, them damn mags are all the same poseurs and the same crap, I never read ‘em. You see that piece of shit article on page 32?” – and given the odd toxicity that comes from mixing climbers and the Internet, I instinctively scrolled down the page for words like “asshole,” “choad,” or “dickweed,” along with their misspelled variants. What, it hasn’t descended into puerile postings? Wait a second…this ain’t a climbing forum!

I emailed Matt, and he seemed astounded by the praise:

“This must be the first time in world history that a website thread was thanking me and not calling me a loser.

Still, it’s hard to top the post on 9 years ago in which someone said I write like a ‘teenage rimjob princess.’ I mean, you can’t buy that sort of praise!”

• Speaking of those damn mags, there’s another thread, “are the mags passe? Though perhaps a passe thread, it remains a relevant question as mediums shift. Change happens. I still like the mags, though indeed I’m prematurely over the hill (which implies that I once crested the proverbial hill, thus a problematic statement, but I digress). They aren’t The New Yorker, but nobody claimed they were. I think AlpinistClimbing, and Rock and Ice all do an excellent job in a difficult market (I rarely read Deadpoint or Urban Climber, but I’m glad they’re surviving, too).

Regardless, in the holiday season maybe it’s best to “consume” things that enrich us in a way that our materialistic orgy of consumerism does not. The arts are a great example. Read, watch a good movie, take-in some music.

• The November issue of Climbing magazine had a good piece called “The Future,” in which they interviewed four generations of top climbers: Tommy Caldwell, Lynn Hill, George Lowe and Angie Payne. Here’s part of Tommy’s reply when asked about changes he’s seen in his 30 years of climbing (yeah, he started when he was three):

“Well, right off the bat, I feel like the tension has gone away. I feel like people have embraced all the different kinds of climbing as their own independent facets. And then it’s kind of cool how they’ve merged, too. People realize that hard bouldering or hard sport climbing are really good for doing big-wall free climbs.” He added, “The whole scene is a lot more harmonious.”

I like it. And I liked that issue of Climbing (their 300th edition!). Their “Face Off” on the closing page was great, funny, creative – a bracketed tournament of who/what wins against each other. But I’m not sure if I agree with their finalists – I think it should have been Fred Beckey vs. PBR. Yosemite’s pretty good, though. In their “Six Crags that Shaped the Sport” list, I was thrilled that they excluded Rifle, for fuck’s sake. I’ve had enough of Rifle covers, full-page photos, and articles for awhile. Seems to me that, unfortunately, only so much of interest can be written or photographed about single-pitch sport routes in the same marginally scenic canyon. No matter how good they are. I suspect Climbing’s exclusion was strategic, as each publication needs to differentiate themselves, and my friends at Rock and Ice seem to have Rifle pretty well covered. Along the lines of covering the same material over and over, Climbing must have gotten some flack for including three ‘Rado crags in their list of six: Eldorado Canyon, Shelf Road, and Indian Creek.

• Got the first “official” review of my blog (big time, here I come), and my first “A” since college, on a site called A Blog About Blogs. A fun site, even if there’s nothing official about it – all the better. I love how the Interwebs allow people to just go for it with their ideas.

• Putting together a climbing magazine is hard, thankless, low-paid work. People bitch more than they thank. Here’s a shout-out to the folks at the mags: Thank you for your work. Although I sometimes criticize – and I firmly believe that fair criticism is important (speaking of which, how good is Anthony Lane? Always sharp, funny, insightful criticism.) – most of the climbing mag people are butterflies, samurais, and even ninjas. Which reminds me, since the holidays leave plenty of time to surf the web while getting drunk, wading through family tension, and getting surly at parties (growling at the stranger across the table: “I never did like you!”), I’ll close this rambling post with a music video that’s stuck with me like a bad rash, one that strikes the delicate balance between creepy and sweet, the sort of thing that you kinda like but don’t know if you really should. With luck, it will similarly stick to you – after all, the holidays are for sharing.

Free Online Film Showing (self-serving announcement)

Self-serving announcement: You can watch COLD, the climbing film that won the GFP at Banff, for free tonight, online. It’s 19-minutes long, raw, dark, rated R, and my first writing for film (though Cory Richards, climber and videographer, and Anson Fogel, director and editor, did the heavy lifting for sure). Our idea was to tell the story, from inside Cory’s brain, of their his, Simone Moro and Denis Urubko’s viciously cold and dangerous first winter ascent of Gasherbrum II, in Pakistan. It was the first winter ascent of any of Pakistan’s 8,000m peaks, and done without supplementary oxygen or high-altitude porters.

I’m told that you can just click and watch anytime between 7–9 p.m. MST (do the math for your time zone), on Outside Magazine’s website. I have no idea how this came to be, I didn’t have anything to do with it, but it seems great. The only place it had showed previously was at film festivals, and this free showing is a one-time deal. Also, starting at 7:30, there’s a live Q&A session with Anson, Cory, Simone and me. I don’t know if it’ll be moderated, or if you can ask questions about margaritas, mullets and pro wrestling, but give it a try. I’d better figure out how to login before I start swilling margs.

Though I’ve made my modest (sounds better than “meager”) living as a writer and editor for the past 10 years or so (hard to believe, given some of the crap I’ve written), I’d never written for film before. I found it fascinating in ways different than writing for the page. Julie Kennedy, wife of Michael and mother of Hayden, deserves full credit. She’s a connector. Without her idea of bringing us together, it wouldn’t have happened – hell, Cory and I, though we’d hung out before, had never had any contact whatsoever with Anson (who’s an absolutely brilliant independent filmmaker – check out the incredible trailer, below, for his work). But she knows all of us, knows Anson’s award-winning work, and saw Cory’s gripping footage – he’s been working his entire adult life to make his photography career happen, and his devotion to capturing footage in even the grimmest situations amazed us. So Julie wanted us to join forces to make the film, and wanted it to premiere (which it did) at her 5 Point Film Festival, in Carbondale. This was one month before the festival. Uhhhh. But if you know Julie, she’s convincing. “My mom could sell sand to the Arabs,” Hayden told me.

It turned out well enough, as Cold has been cleaning up at film festivals, including winning the Grand Fucking Prize at Banff. Like not just for climbing, but the whole festival. Whoa. Couldn’t believe it when I got the text – yes, text; I’d considered heading to Banff for the fest, since I knew it had been selected, and it all sounded fun, but the airfares were pricey and Yosemite sounded funner (that should totally be a word). So, one day in the Valley I learned of the GFP via text message. Slacker, I know.

Here’s the trailer:

Honestly, we didn’t think Cold would go big like this (even in the relative “big” of the outdoor world – I always think of the movie Waiting for Guffman when talking “big” about climbing). Just figured it too dark and raw for most audiences. For one, it’s laced with profanity – the third word of the film is an f-bomb. (“Do ya have to use many cusswords?” “What the fuck are you talking about?”). We truly did not care if the language turned people off, quite simply because we wanted to communicate Cory’s authentic experience, the distilled essence of what was happening inside his head. So if you’re looking for Brittany Spears, this film is not for you.

By the way, a shortened version of Cold ran with the Reel Rock Tour – I haven’t seen that version, but I heard they tamed it down a little (fewer f-bombs) and trimmed it to 12 minutes (impressive work, don’t know how they did it; most folks, myself included, thought it pretty tight at 19 minutes, but we all get married to our own work). Tonight’s showing will be the full-length version, and I presume it won’t be censored or bleeped-out. The good folks at Sender Films have also made a download, including behind-the-scenes extras, available for sale on their website, despite it not being a Sender production — thanks, guys!

Anyway, enough rambling. If you’ve got nothing better to do for 19 minutes this evening, pour yourself a marg and tune in. I hope you like it.

Here’s the trailer for Anson & crew’s work. Amazing:

An Early Bah Humbug (and other random thoughts)

Random recent thoughts and notes:

• Happy Holidays. “Black Friday” repulses me. Better yet for such days: make a personal statement and don’t buy a goddamned thing. I’ve said it before, in a Dirtbag Diaries podcast about my years of working dead-end jobs and clashing with a heinously materialistic boss: “Shopping” as a stand-alone endeavor is not a valid passion. There’s nothing legitimate about buying scads of worthless crap you don’t need, just for the sake of filling some void. I also reject the notion that celebrating the holidays should have anything to do with the disgusting religion of mindless consumption that’s become a defining American value; never have, it’s a doomed road, there must be a better way. We’re all part of the problem, which, like most things, exists on a continuum. Solutions aren’t easy. But this morally bankrupt “Black Friday” madness represents our very worst. Better: get outside, walk, climb, breathe, spend time alone or with loved ones, give something away.

• Reading the list of Black Friday shopping crimes, including multiple episodes of violence nationwide at Wal-Marts (the same place at which the horrors reached a pinnacle a couple of years ago, when herds of stampeding mouthbreathers trampled one another to death while rushing through the doors), wouldn’t one think it a dangerous place? Surely more dangerous than the Occupy Wall Street camps that were raided and dispersed by authorities. (More dangerous aside from ideology, of course, and notwithstanding the well-documented police brutality against peaceful protesters.) The camps were disassembled due to, ostensibly anyway, filth and unruly behavior. Ironic, considering the filth of corporate greed and corruption that they were protesting. The greed and corruption has led to the biggest disparity in wealth in our country’s history, which, one could reasonably surmise, might contribute to the desperate and even violent search for “deals” on Black Friday. Again, the irony. In the immediate sense, Wal-Mart on Friday was far more dangerous than any Occupy camp.

• A bunch of grants are available for qualified adventurers. Some are due soon.
-Due Dec 1 (tomorrow): The Lyman Spitzer Cutting Edge Award application, made possible by generous contributions from Lyman Spitzer, Jr.
-Due December 15: The Mugs Stump Award application, courtesy of the generous people at Alpinist Magazine, Black Diamond, Mountain Gear, Patagonia, and W.L. Gore.
-Due December 31: The Polartec Challenge Grant application, made possible by the generosity of Polartec.
-Due January 1: the McNeill-Nott Award, thanks to the generosity of Mountain Hardwear.

Get on it.

• Patagonia is, hands-down, the best company I’ve ever been involved with, and my respect for them just grew. Check out the ad in Friday’s New York Times – and before you make a snap-judgment, read the text as well (and for further explanation, read their blog post) – hypocrites? Sure. Just like you. Just like me. Every one ofPatagonia's ad in The New York Times on "Black Friday." us. More importantly, they’ve got the balls and intelligence to examine themselves amid our toxic, mindless, dead-end consumeristic culture. Sure, the ad might also be good marketing, something we’ve come to automatically regard as equating to bullshit in today’s bullshit world. But Patagonia isn’t like most companies. For 30+ years Patagonia has led the way, as they continue to do, in showing that business doesn’t have to be all rape and pillage, greed and short-term dividends. What a concept, eh? The simplistic idea that we shouldn’t even discuss our problems is home of the frontal lobe impaired; pretending the elephant doesn’t exist just gets you trampled in the name of ignorance. Yes, the ad makes you think, elicits a reaction. Intentionally provocative, and they have the track record to back it up. Hell yeah, Patagonia.

• Speaking of which, upon returning home the other day – between Pakistan and other travels, I’ve only been home for about two weeks since mid-August – I was again struck by my wardrobe. (“O-M-G. You have, like(?), the most incredible wardrobe?!”) Beater car, 580 sq ft home, I pretty much wear the same three T-shirts over and over, but have accumulated too much “stuff.” Kinda gross, I know. I’ve accumulated a lot of Patagonia and Polartec clothes over the years, and as a result my size small friends are well outfitted with my hand-me-downs at this point. But I have more that I don’t need – mostly baselayers and midlayer insulation, with some shells and some climbing pants. Some casual wear as well. If you’re size small and need the clothes (meaning, not just if you want “free stuff” (yuk), but that you promise you’ll actually use it for getting out and being active), or if you know someone less fortunate and cold and in-need this winter, drop me a note. And let me know what you’re doing if you want, I’d love to hear it, I get psyched hearing of people doing cool shit. My email is on the bottom-right sidebar of this blog, and I’m on the Facebook. If I have something you could use, and you’ll really use it, I’ll gladly send it to you – on me, for free, merry holidays. Now get out and do something good.

• Like climbing. Which reminds me: here’s a good way to be efficient in acquiring quality memories without wrecking the place. Talking low-impact things, like extra pitches – climbing mileage. One recent afternoon in Yosemite, we started up the classic Serenity-Sons linkup, which I’d never done. We topped out just before dark, in November’s short days, and for once we’d actually bought headlamps. But getting farther down in the daylight beats spending more time in the dark. The route has fixed anchors/raps, so as I belayed-up my partner on the final pitch, I clipped-in to the anchor with a runner, untied myself, and threaded my end of the rope for rappelling as she came up (you need to be using an auto-blocking belay device to safely multi-task like this). As I belayed, I threaded the rope until the middle mark came to the anchors, and then I hitched it off to hold it in place. Since I’d already threaded the rope, within 30 seconds of her reaching me we were on rappel. Not a bad way to do things, as the sooner you’re down, the sooner you’re drinking margaritas.

Serenity Now! Great climbing, Serenity Crack, Yosemite.


Greetings from Pakistan!

Holassalamualaikum! (That’s my fallback foreign language, the hola part, mixed with one of the three Urdu words I know — Spanglishstani?) I’m finishing-up seven weeks in Pakistan, on what started as a climbing trip but became something more. A bunch of stories floating through ol’ duder’s head for once I get around to sharing them. Sorry, by the way, for the unposted comments — I see them sitting in my inbox and will approve ’em pronto.

In brief, the climbing…I spent 30 days in the Charakusa Valley, an immaculate place that I’m psyched to have visited again (I was there in 2007 as well), along with young guns Kyle Dempster and Hayden Kennedy. They’re both beasts, phenomenal all-arounders (man, I’m so impressed with the younger generation!) and great people. They tore it up, while I, well…damn. I thought I was ready, maybe convinced myself of such after six surgeries in just over a year, but I think I took for granted what an enormous step up it is from day climbs back home, and even in Chamonix, to the truly awesome Karakoram.

In between smaller climbs, bouldering, and nursing myself back to health, the simple life in base camp provided a beautiful place to make peace with my disappointment. Maybe I need more time, or maybe this is my new reality; we don’t always get what we want in life, and I haven’t forgotten that I am a fortunate man.

And so I left base camp a week early to explore northern Pakistan on my own, and it gave me some of the coolest experiences of my life, like I was living a different existence in a different place, seeing things and meeting people that expanded my concept of the world and of life and of my own smallness, my utter insignificance in the universe, all while somehow making me feel connected at the same time. That’s some pretty cool shit, and a wonderful, liberating experience.

So, you’re probably wondering the “s” thing: safety. And what would a piece on Pakistan be without addressing safety? Well, it is my pleasure, and considering the people I’ve met, indeed I feel it my responsibility. Nope, no evil-doers. No terrorists (how exactly one defines that…well, I’ll save it, but I god-damned guarantee ya two things: when I fly home, the alert level in the US airports will be orange (meaning…what exactly?); and on my next flight after this trip I will hear these words at airport security, as I always do after Pakistan: “Mr. Cordes, you have been randomly selected for secondary screening.”). Here in Pakistan I found alert level green, just peace and love and kindness at a level unmatched by even the enlightened folk back in Boulder (regardless of what their bumper stickers say). Damn, good stuff.

Seriously, to imply, as our government and media most certainly do, that an entire nation (and/or religious or ethnic group) is to be avoided, and its inhabitants mostly hostile and dangerous, is so fucking absurd that it defies reason. It draws to mind the ugliness of racism, and it is wrong and cruel to the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis and Muslims who are kind, peaceful people. Imagine if after, say, the Arizona shootings (or pick any act of violence that occurs anyplace daily at home), people were going, “Don’t go to the US! Man, you might get shot. Crazy people, I wouldn’t go there.” Of course you could get yourself into trouble as a foreigner in Pakistan, should you be an idiot and do zero research as to where to go, or act like a complete asshole, or just get very unlucky. Duh. Name a place in the world where this is not the case.

Imagine a Pakistani, speaking no English and wearing traditional garb, walking through a neighborhood back home. How many people would cross the street to enthusiastically welcome him to our country, invite him to our homes for tea and food and even to stay the night? In Pakistan I was that foreigner, and I lost count of the times people welcomed me in those very ways.

My experiences, after an accumulated seven months of my life in Pakistan (spread over four trips), completely belie the fear-mongering portrayal of the country. I have not had one negative personal interaction here, not once felt concern for my security or felt even a hint of unwelcoming. Never in my life, nowhere in my world travels — including my daily life back home — have I been treated with the kindness and warmth presented to me at every turn in northern Pakistan, whether traveling solo on a bicycle (that was really freakin’ cool, by the way!); walking around and taking public transportation by myself; being with friends old and new, Pakistani and Western alike; kicking around the cities; or heading through remote villages en route to the mountains. It’s especially profound when you witness daily lives that should seem desperate to us — staggering poverty, unemployment near 50%, and a serious lack of the conveniences and services we take for granted. Talk about a dose of perspective.

Indeed the world is a crazy place and Pakistan faces some complex issues as it develops. Who knows what the future holds? I don’t. But I do know this: I will never forget the overwhelming kindness and warmth shown to me by the people of northern Pakistan. I leave here humbled and grateful.









The Sicktionary

OK, OK, we all know the story by now, Great Trango, blahblah, no water, blahblah Disaster Style yadda yadda.

Young climber at the crag: “Hey old man – nice haircut, by the way – you happen to know what the rack is for this pitch?”

Old man (me): “Well, I seem to recall…I seem to recall that…it was July 2004. Pakistan. Trango Valley. Me and Josh started up, when – BLAM! – on the second pitch we dropped a bunch of our cams. And – hey! Listen-up now, whipper-snapper, it’s time for you to man-up!”

I’ll spare you the rest, as I’m starting to become like Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, blathering on about ‘Nam.

“Ever hear of a little something called Great Trango Tower, Little Larry?”

So I’m in Pakistan right now, trying to relive the past (“Three-thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax, you’re god-damned right I’m livin’ in the fuckin’ past!”) – ha; actually I’m trying to create some new memories – and, thanks to the interwebs I can set this to post while I’m out of contact. Side note: It’s so nice to be unplugged for awhile.

Anyway, around this time, my good friend Matt Samet’s Climbing Dictionary (official title) – a.k.a. the Sicktionary (the better, underground title) – just came out. Matt’s a great writer and editor, and edited several of my features into readable works (no small task) while he was at Rock and Ice and Climbing magazines. So, for one, I’m giving a shameless plug (which I generally avoid, but fuck it, it’s my blog and I like the book): Check out the Sicktionary, it’s fun and informative, with 670 terms and climber-isms, and 130 illustrations by the super-talented Mike Tea to help ring-home the points. I latched onto it in large part because I hear so many fun, funny, absurd and cliché terms in my work with the AAJ – see below, a clip from the online version, where you can submit new terms:

Also, since I blather incessantly (“Just what in god’s holy name are you blathering about?”), Matt picked-up some of my terms for the book. Pasted below are a couple that I helped with. Fun stuff. OK, I’m supposed to be in Pakistan, trying to send the sickgnar. Better get back at it.

From Matt Samet’s new Climbing Dictionary:

Disaster style adv, n : Alpine style taken to a near-lethal extreme, as in going so fast-and-light that you must succeed, lacking the provisions for an extended bivouac or epic retreat.

*Origin: The Colorado climber Kelly Cordes and his friend Brent Armstrong invented the term to mean,says Cordes, “risk-accepted climbing, like going for it, punching it without the 10 Essentials and what-the-fuck-not.” The epitome is Cordes and Josh Wharton’s July 2004 first ascent of Azeem Ridge (VII 5.11 R/X M6 A2), the 7,400-foot Southwest Ridge of Pakistan’s Great Trango Tower: The world’s longest alpine rock climb. Cordes and Wharton took five days, running out of water after day two; they carried only 20 cams (spilling six atop pitch two) and some nuts, a few pitons, a lead and a tag line, lightweight sleeping bags, rock shoes, approach sneakers, aluminum crampons, one ice axe, and a modified (sawed-off) third tool. The parched climbers survived by slurping at drips and snow patches with plastic straws, only coming to a (glacial) water source after epic diagonalling rappels on the descent. As a philosophy, disaster style can also apply to life. See also, safety-fifth climbing.

“Safety-fifth” climbing phr : Versus the “safety-first” mentality, in which every attempt is made to reduce risk, “safety-fifth” (aka “safety-third”) sidesteps considerations of risk in pursuit of the larger goal; that is, you’re not climbing with deliberate recklessness, but also don’t base every decision on personal longevity.

*Origin: The Coloradan Josh Wharton uses this term, though isn’t certain he invented it. Kelly Cordes recalls first hearing it from Wharton in 2004 a week after their disaster style FA of Azeem Ridge. “We were bivied in this nasty gully on Nameless Tower,” says Cordes, “exposed to some rockfall, not well sheltered. In the night all this rockfall comes flying down and scared the f–k out of me.” Though Cordes woke up jittery, wondering if they should relocate, Wharton merely rolled over, mumbled “Safety fifth,” and dropped back to sleep.

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:

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

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