Sunday, October 25, 2009

New Beginnings: Surfing

You see the wave swelling the distance. You turn your board to face the shore. You lay down on your board. You start paddling. You look back to make sure the wave is worth paddling for. You look back to make sure the waves isn't going to crash on you. You feel the power of the wave lifting you. Should I stand up now? Am I too late, is it too soon? You try. You get it and you try to stand. You don't and you sit back on the board. Either way, you look back and see the other waves forming. Now, you're too far in to catch the coming waves and you know that they are all going to crash on you. You swim back toward them, duck diving or turtle flipping, each time, to minimize the impact. You swim again toward the next waves, and repeat the motions. Eventually, you're back where you started. Someone asks: " did you catch the wave?". You sit still for a moment, catching your breath, thinking and eventually answer: "Wow, I can't even remember now!"

Surfing is that intense, it's that "in the moment". There is so much to think about all that once, that for the rookie that I am, it felt completely overwhelming. Paddle, paddle, paddle, watch for people around you, put your hands flat on the board, push up, kick your feet forward, but not too far forward or the nose of your board will dip in and you'll go flying, not too far back either or you'll fall backwards, lower your stance, speard your arms, look in the direction of where you want to go (hmmm.... never felt like I had a choice!), never let go of your board. There is so much going on. You go from sitting calmly on your board, your legs floating in the warm Mexican water, to 100% intensity.

I met my friend Sarah in Puerto Vallarta. We had talked a month back about going somewhere together. Climbing, as always, was the first option. Yet, when she mentionned surfing, I was in. I knew nothing about it, I had never done it and I hadn't taken a non climbing trip in as long as I can remember. After so many AMGA courses and exams back to back and guiding, I was excited to have something else to look forward to. I was also excited to postpone the start of winter and the interaction with the cold. I had always wanted to go to Mexico and it happened to be the cheapest destination. Adam was going hunting with his Dad and brother in New Hampshire. The timing couldn't have been any better.

Sarah organized the house rental: a beautiful white Mexican house with two huge bedrooms, an open kitchen with the perfect smoothie blender, and a bean shaped swimming pool
to sunbath at. We quickly settled into the following routine: an A.M. surfing session/breakfast/sunbath my the pool/ a P.M. surfing session/ Margaritas with Chips and Salsa/watching sex and the city/Mexican dinner/sleep. Repeat!

We rented board from Lily and Carlos at Pazport Surfing School (do go there if you are going to Sayulita. The best deal in town). The first day, Sarah helped me get on the board by pushing it to give me momentum. I think I was blessed with some beginner's luck as I was able to stand up pretty much right away at the beginner waves area. But, that didn't last long.

As soon as I headed to the regular break, reality hit hard. Without someone pushing your board, you have to paddle a lot harder and it's really hard to find the perfect timing to get the wave right. I did get a few, but spent a whole day getting owned by the waves. I just couldn't get it right. With my period starting simultaneously, I could have cried. How could I suck so bad? Sarah, in the meantime, was totally crushing it, standing smoothly with her bright turquoise rashguard on her beloved red board, hair in the wind...smooth sailing! That is the great thing about surfing: you can go with people of different levels and still have the time of your life because you're both in it for yourself, yet you can still share in the experience.

Luckly for me, the next day was a full on Tropical day with gigantic waves
and we opted for just watching the pros do what they do. I felt sick to my stomach at the thought of being in those waves: as the crash you can feel the power, the force they carry and getting crushed by them must be horrifying.

We woke up early the next morning to get to surf one last time. We were flying out that afternoon and had to catch the 2$ bus back to Puerto Vallarta. It was still dark out as we hiked down the stairs into the still sleepy town and onto the beach. Lily gave me a longer board - 9.6 - which made it a million times easier to catch the waves. The waves came, I paddled hard. And I got it. I got three in row. I would stand up, and wobble heavily until I would totally loose balance and fall. Yet, although I lacked any style, I felt the desire for more. I knew then that I would have to come back.

There aren't many activities out there that force you into being fully present. Surfing is definitely one of those sports. As Sarah says, it's not like climbing where you can try a move over and over again, lower, start again. With surfing, it's either you catch the wave or you don't. And you will never get to try that wave again. It's gone, for ever. So you really need to get your act together at exactly the right time. It's an amazing thing to be a beginner at a new sport. A new sport that you fall for that is. It felt so good to have no expectations of myself, just be there, learn, do my best and actually enjoy the process.

Now back in SLC, I can still picture the waves swelling, I want to paddle, I want to feel the waves swell below me, I want to push up and stand on the board, and obviously, from the comfort of my chair, I can see myself riding the board all the way into shore... Thank god for the power of visualization! :-) Instead of surfing for real now, I can surf the web in search of the next place to go and get schooled again by the waves. My dream, is to someday, surf a wave while touching the face of the wave with my hand... dreams, dreams, dreams...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Part II: Rock Exam

Part II: Rock Exam in Red Rocks, Nevada

Transitioning from an Alpine Exam to a Rock Exam isn't so hard. No more snow, no more ice, which means no more snow/ice gear to carry around, no more alpine hazards (crevasses, seracs, white out navigation, etc.), no more camping on snow, no more multiple hour long approaches, no more carrying your living quarters and several days worth of food on your back like a turtle. Of course, you're totally out of climbing shape, with big legs and small arms (hmmm, that actually is never my case). But a month between exams felt just like the right amount of time to rest up, remotivate, and train enough to be at or above the minimum standard: 5.10c trad.

The date was set for my friend Jonathon Spitzer and I to leave our respective homes in Salt Lake City and head south on Sept 8th to start our training. The exam was due to start on October 1st and with 22 days at hand, we headed down to Vegas to start the process. One route in 100F shade instantly made us get back in the car and drive on to the coolness of one of California's very hidden treasures: The Needles.

The Needles is a little paradise of splitter, flashy, yellow lichen-covered granite cracks lost in the heart and shade of giant Sequoia trees, miles and miles away from anything. It's an enchanted kingdom given away by the names of the Needles: The Sorcerer, the Witch, the Charlatan, etc. and the routes: Spellbook, Spooky, Spooked Book, to name a few. We spent three days hiking 3 miles in and 3 miles out from the free campground at the trailhead to the base of the climbs, climbing our hearts out. This was the perfect place to get back into rock climbing: all the cracks protect well, the climbing is amazing and we were both motivated to get as much mileage as possible. We totaled 22 pitches in 3 days of climbing.

We used our rest day to drive back to Vegas and get there early enough to get the best spots in the house the 12 exam candidates had rented. Pulling into the driveway reminded me of Wisteria Lane or worse, the Truman Show. I wondered if people really lived in these cookie cutter off-white houses or, like everything else in Vegas, was it all for show? Yet, that's what I love about Vegas the most: the extreme contrast between the fake and flashy, and that intense wilderness found within Red Rocks Canyon, just a few miles to the north of Vegas. After days spent bushwhacking in the scrub oaks, boulder hopping in the washes, running down vast multicolored slab systems, climbing on multipitch red, white or varnished sandstone routes while enduring the blazing sun and the relentless heat - even in the shade, it felt soothing to go back to the bright lights, the tamed cleanliness of our neighboorhood, give into the drastic cold of the A/C and wash off the sweat, the stinging leaves and the invading sand off our bodies, share the days adventure with the other housemates and later rest our heads on a clean pillow all while surfing the web and watching Grey's Anatomy. OK, I may sound spoiled.

Yet, if you've ever spent weeks at a time in Afghanistan - aka, the campground outside Red Rocks - you'll appreciate all the more what I am talking about.

Living with 12 people training for an exam can be overwhelming - beta overload, nonstop talk of climbing - but as well, very stimulating.
For someone like me who suffers from acute case of FOMO - Fear Of Missing Out - it can be a little hard to manage. So, out of 18 days of training, I only took two days off. When I started crying at the sight of gear, and had to hold on to the railing to walk down the stairs because every bone in my body was screaming out for me to take it easy, I decided to head out to Lake Mead to soak in the water. In past years, it was easy to train. The same routes were used over and over again: Community Pillar, Epinephrine, Triassic Sands, Dark Shadows to the top, Black Orpheus, Solar Slabs, Frigid Air Buttress, Ginger Cracks, etc. Obviously, all candidates would go out and do these routes ahead of time, figuring out how to break down the route down - the goal being that you always try to see your client and the guidebook's recommended belay stances don't always fit that goal - , where to extend anchors, when to transition from one rope to two ropes (with two clients), whether to lower clients or do a prerigged rappel, where to short rope, etc. Having these sections dialed alleviates a lot of the stress on an exam. Yet, it takes away from the examiner's ability to test your onsight skills. So, with word on the street that only "new" routes would be used, we ransacked the place climbing just about every other possible option of routes in the 5.8 to 5.10c range.

With 100+F temperatures, it was only possible to climb routes in the shade. Joe Stock, Jonathon Spitzer - for both of whom this was the last exam to get the IFMGA certification, aka, The Pin - and I regrettably ventured one day on a sunny varnished climb. At the end of the day, Joe was showing blisters on all his finger tips from the sizzling black rock. , Not having been able to preview sunny routes, we all started praying that the temperatures would remain high so that we would only climb the shaded route we had previously sussed out during the exam.

Yet, Murphy's law ruled again: as we neared the exam, temperatures dropped from 105F to 75F in a day! Now, we were all granted to do routes in the sun, routes we had not done before: there was no way around onsighting. And indeed, out of 6 days of exam, I only got to do one route I had done before: Epinephrine, a 2000ft long sustained 5.9 route in Black Velvet Canyon, which is renown for what the European that I partially am doesn't do: blank varnished chimneys, well...chimneys alltogether. Ok, they are protectable and thankfully, Jonathon and I had stopped to do this route on our way to the Needles. So I was somewhat ready for them. The crux on these exams is that you climb with two single rated ropes in tow and that adds to the weight and to the rope drag. That, plus managing your back pack that is dangling between your legs and leading runout (I didn't bring enough gear) sections on what might as well be 12a in my book, and still pretend that my examiner and the other candidate are my clients and should be treated as such (haul their packs!) was the crux of my exam. A good crux though, one that makes me want to get better at wider climbing.

Day one of the exam, all the candidates went sport climbing to get tested on our climbing abilities. My group of four - Josh Beckner, Mark Smiley, Chris Werner and myself - headed out with our examiners - Marc Chauvin and Dale Remsberg (the same examiners I had on my alpine exam) to The Gallery at the Second Pullout off the Loop road. The goal was to climb 7 pitches with at least one route at the standard. If we could onsight the classic slightly overrated 5.11d Yaak Crack, we would only have to climb 5 routes. Since we all onsighted the route, our day ended early enough for us to get ready for the following four days. The third day was cancelled due to a huge wind storm that ripped through Vegas with 77mph winds. In exchange for our rest day, we were assigned a bigger day the following day. Mark Chauvin assigned Mark Smiley and Myster Z to Nightcrawler to the Hourglass Diversion, down the Gunsight notch, which awarded us with 13 pitches of climbing, some bushwhacking, lots of walking, some interesting claustrophobic tunnelling and a hike out with my Petzl e+LITE headlamp showing the way. The last day, Mark and I were assigned Cat in the Hat with Dale. Dale is a 5.12/13 climber, who, on that day, was playing the role of a 5.5 climber getting on his first ever multipitch. Upon reaching the base of this very popular climb, we heard voices of several teams gearing up to get on the climb. What to do? We didn't have the whole guidebook with us, we had a "weak" client along, options were really limited. I pulled the "it's our last day on our rock exam, we are all guides" card and thankfully, it worked. Did I mention how grateful we were to these two parties for letting us pass? The alternative would have been a really bad/stressful way to end the last day on this rock exam.

After a quick debrief back at the campground with our examiners, we all got ready to do what Vegas is really known for: partying into the wee hours of the morning. Adam - my husband and I - had rented a cheap - 19$ room right on Fremont - aka Freakmont - street to make sure we could indulge guiltlessly in the Vegas experience. We celebrated the end of our exam, which meant for Joe Stock and Jonathon Spitzer getting their IFMGA certification. But we also celebrated Adam's Pin, which he had just received two weeks earlier after completing his alpine exam in the Cascades.

We drove back to snow in Salt Lake City. Winter is now right around the corner. And it'll soon be time for me to start focusing on my last exam: the ski. With two exams down in a little over a month, I am now secretly hoping that maybe, sometime sooner than later, will come the time for me to celebrate my own IFMGA pin. Sweet dreams are made of these...

Thanks to Joe Stock and Christopher Wright for some of the pictures...

Check out Joe's website for more pictures of the exam and Christopher Wright's blog for a full story of Adventure Punks