"Not all those who wander are lost"

Archive for January, 2015

The Hunt for the Mountain Pine Beetle

Houses are full of things that gather dust.

-Jack Kerouac


Some people wonder why I don’t make plans, but it’s really just my reaction to the unpredictable nature of my life.  If I make plans, then I expect them to happen, I work toward them and I have a harder time changing things if I need to.  If I don’t make plans, I do whatever comes naturally.  Plus, even if I do make plans, they usually don’t happen.

Before leaving Lander, I bought a flight to Spain.  I was psyched.  I had been training all summer, and then I would have a few weeks to climb in September before heading to Spain, Turkey, and France for 9 months.  I barely had enough money to even consider such a crazy trip, and not nearly enough to actually do it without a lot of free camping and free meals.  None the less, I was going for it and figured I would make it work somehow.

If you can’t guess by the tenses I used and the first paragraph, none of that actually happened.

Just as I was leaving Lander I got a message from a friend I had climbed with in Ten Sleep asking if I wanted to work in eastern Wyoming spotting for Mountain Pine Beetle the following day.  I like the fact that I can pick up and change my life on a moment’s notice.  Unfortunately I don’t have any magical powers so I wasn’t able to start work Friday when I got the message late Friday morning.  We talked though and the only thing I came away with was that I could make better money than swinging hammer or serving for a couple months if I headed to Spearfish.

I had missed the first training so I headed to Ten Sleep for a few days.  I battled on Supermama for a couple days and got really close to a send, but figured out that I was grabbing a hold wrong too late in the day to pull it off.  Snow and cold temps were coming in so I headed out.

I showed up in Spearfish with no idea what was going on, but with the idea that if things fell through, Spearfish Canyon is a cool climbing spot I wanted to check out anyway.  A couple snowy days hanging out in my van later and the sun finally returned.  I headed into the canyon and spent three days exploring a great new limestone summer crag.  Spearfish has some great climbs and tends to be a bit of a different style from Ten Sleep, Wild Iris, Sinks, VRG, or Wailing Wall.  That’s one of the things I love about limestone; it feels like every limestone crag has a very unique feel and style.

The county run training started and my climbing ended.  I learned how to spot beetles, check to be sure, and then was working 6-7 days a week.  I had expected to climb most days I wasn’t working, but soon realized that, on the occasional days I didn’t work, it was hard to drive an hour and a half just to show up at the crag hoping to find a partner.

Work was a lot of hiking up hills, across steep hills, down steep hills, swimming though scrub oak, and hoping crazy rednecks don’t shoot me for being on their neighbors property.  Working in a group would often involve a lot of standing around since the group went slower than the slowest person once you factor in communication.  Once I was able to work alone, it became relatively serene.  I would spend days listen to books, podcasts, and music as I tromped through the woods looking for beetles.  I ran into lots of deer and turkeys, and had a few glimpses of a big herd of Elk.

Osage, WY was without a doubt the worst place I have lived.  It’s a dingy former oil town that has more empty buildings than inhabited ones.  Newcastle, the next town over, has all the charming appeal of living on an oil rig; it’s far from everything, nothing to do, and nobody there.  The one tiny haven I found was T & A Brewery.  I noticed their sign a few days after they opened and soon it was a regular hang out.  After realizing that none of the other smoky dives in town had anything good (one bar tender asked me if the IPA I requested was a brand of beer or a mixed drink), it was awe-inspiring to walk into a renovated brick building and see 20 shining taps on the back wall.  They have internet, comfortable couches, TVs to watch football, and Andrew (one of the owners) is even a Patriots fan.  It was a little piece of Newcastle that didn’t suck.

Work was always uncertain, never quite knowing if we would have more work once we finished the current plot.  At the beginning of November, I was told that we would have to wait almost a week to get the next and probably last plot.  I was done.  I packed up and headed east the next day.  My plan was to head to Spain and if I had to drive to Kansas to leave my car, I might as well go climb in the Red and go home for Thanksgiving.  Sometimes my own logic stupefies me, because, despite each place being 10-20 hours apart, that made some kind of crazy sense.

I had a great time hanging out with some friends and my brother as I headed east.  Unfortunately my few days in the Red were frigid and frustrating (as a result of essentially not climbing for 2 months).  Still, it’s hard not have fun when you’re life costs ~$5 a day and you have friends around, not to mention a plentiful supply of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups.  I climbed a bit, hung out, and continued toward Maine.  The real bummer came my second day after leaving the Red when my elbow began hurting while doing pull-ups in a gym.

My constant debate about what to do between Thanksgiving and Christmas was finally put to an end when I accidentally searched for flight prices to Turkey on December 6th instead of January 6th.  A hundred dollars cheaper, no need to figure out a plan, and no good reason I could see to stay all added up to one decision; I was going to Turkey in less than 2 weeks!

Thanksgiving was fun hanging out with family and friends, hectic trying to get everything ready before I left for Turkey, and gone way too quickly.  Then it was time to begin the grand adventure.

A Windy Western Climbing Town

These fleeting charms of earth
Farewell, your springs of joy are dry
My soul now seeks another home
A brighter world on high

-Wailing Jennys


My second attempt to live in Lander for the summer was a success on at least two counts.  I made it to Lander without breaking down and I got a job.  I arrived in town just in time to start work at Sego; a new, fancy dinner restaurant.  I had my summer plan worked out: I would live in my van in city park, work at the restaurant, and have a membership at the gym with 24 hour access to shower and, for the first time in my life, actually train for climbing.

I had a cold welcome in Lander.  Literally.  I went from sunny and warm in St George, to freezing cold and raging winds in Lander.  Soon after arriving in Lander we got ~6” of heavy wet snow while I was camped in Sinks Canyon.  My bald tired, 2 wheel drive, 18 year old mini-van barely made it out of the campsite.  The beauty of Lander is that even after that snow; I hiked up with some new friends and climbed that day in a T-shirt.

Life in Lander settled into a rhythm.  Work never started before 3pm so my climbing was only ever limited by finding partners.  I worked a bit, climbed a bunch, and spent many restless days training in the gym.  I started climbing with Chris, who was a cook at Sego, a bunch.  It was easy to make plans for the next day while work was slow and being one of the most psyched guys I’ve met meant he was almost always keen to grab some rocks.

The Wild Iris classic When I Was a Young Girl, I Had Me A Cowboy was high on my list of things I wanted to do.  It’s classic Iris style, a short steep route with powerful moves on small pockets.  I put it some time figuring it out, but eventually I found a sequence that worked for me.

Wolf Point was also a new a great experience for me.  The only way I can really give you a feel for this place is by saying that if you get passed the hour hike (1500 ft down, then 1000 ft back up), don’t get bit by a rattlesnake, and don’t encounter a grizzly than it will be the most fun you’ve ever had on choss.  It’s not all choss, but pockets are often dirty and rocks break as with any other low traffic area.  The climbing and the position are great though.  Steep lines, with several climbs over 30m and into the 40+m range in a huge cave make, make most of the climbs in the 13/14 range.  Unfortunately, since you have to cross the mountain and it’s in the sun in the summer, the season can be quite short.  I managed to send just one project there, Full Moon Rising, before the heat ended the season there.

I spent the summer climbing whenever I could find a partner, bolting when I could borrow a drill, and training when I couldn’t.  With a pretty consistent training schedule I was really excited when I noticed improvements in my climbing.  I even sent my first 13c…if you can really call Hellion a 13c.

Several friends came through town throughout the summer as well.  It was great to catch up,  hang out, and climb with Travis, Lindsey, Weston, and Vian while they were in town.  Having some friends without a schedule enabled me to venture up to Ten Sleep for a couple long weekends too.  On the first weekend I set to work on Hellion, but didn’t finish it off until the return visit.  Of course, I got it on the first day that trip and picked up a new project on the second day; Supermama.

As the summer went on I found it increasingly difficult to find climbing partners.  While welcoming to outsiders, I found it hard to actually become a part of the local Lander community.  Saddened by feeling like my favorite climbing town had rejected me, by August I was ready to move on.  I had four un-sent projects which I wanted to finish and nobody I could get to go with me.  As work finished up at the end of the month a friend, Vian, came through town and I climbed with a fury as I tried to finish my projects before time ran out.  I managed to send three of the four.

First was a line I bolted at Fossil Hill next to the amazing, but fairly unknown Milkbone, which I called Burley but Sensitive (12c).  It took me a surprising number of attempts between forgetting beta, breaking a foothold after the crux, and the reachy balance move which kept spitting me off.

Next I roped Vian into heading up to the Strawberry Road area.  It doesn’t even have a definitive name for the crag, but it’s along the Little Popo Agie River, about a mile upstream of Wolf Point.  There I had bolted a couple lines in a beautiful blue streak reminiscent of Euro pockets.  Blue Diamond and Criminal Mind (yes, I named these routes after Blue Streak, the awesome and cheesy 90’s movie with Martin Lawrence) both went down fairly quickly and I was on to my finally and hardest project.

The route is in your face the moment you pull onto the rock and stays in your face for 4 bolts of climbing.  After working out the moves and trying my hardest, I made it through the crux only to have a foot slip going for a jug. On my last day I pushed again only for the same heartbreaking foot slip.  I pushed on with my headlamp, but after the amount of try-hard I had expended in the previous days, I just couldn’t pull the moves anymore.  Aguish.  I was so close to sending it, but I could feel myself losing power and energy.

One of the things that had interested me in the line is that I knew it would be a challenge.  At first I hadn’t been able to do most of the moves at the bottom, but I worked them out, found new holds, and continued trying.  Based on the fact that I was in the best climbing shape I have ever been in and it was the hardest thing I think I’ve ever been close to trying, I think it would be 13a at least, if not b, but that will be determined another day.

My mixed emotions about my last days and about Lander itself made for an awkward ending, so I just packed up and left as quickly as I could.  After all, I still had Supermama waiting for me in Ten Sleep.

Back in the Desert

This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.

-Alan Watts


Christmas at home was a nice change from cold, wet nights in my van.  I had a great time hanging out with family and friends, but as quickly as the holidays came, they were gone again and the reality set in that I was stuck in Maine after most friends had left, and I had no money, no job, and no car.  I knew I needed to do something so I started by re-flooring and re-painting my brothers old room for my mom.  I spent a week cleaning it out, ripping faded photos, posters and collages off the wall, ripping up carpet, installing a new hardwood floor, re-finishing, and re-painting the walls.  The worst part was that I was constantly waiting for one thing or another, so most days I wasn’t able to actually put in much work.

My sanity on the other hand felt like it was deteriorating daily.  Without climbing or much human contact I go crazy.  The addition of not even leaving the house made it even worse.  Finally I finished the floor and got a friend to give me a job doing carpentry for a bit.  Working long days outside in windy sub-zero weather actually turned out to feel great.  It was miserable, but when you’re busy making sure a foundation is level and you don’t get frost bite, you don’t have time to care about other things.

By mid January I had enough money to pay for my car being fixed so I made the trek back to Montreal to pick it up and head back to Maine.  In the end it cost me the same to get home and back to my car as it did to fix the car itself.  With wheels again, the world opened up with possibility.  I worked for another week so I knew I would have enough gas to make it out west and was ready to bounce.  Unfortunately I threw out my back and got sick as I was packing to leave.  With my back in spasms, a sore throat, feeling like death, front seat filled with anything that might help, and tea in hand I headed west to preserve what sanity I still possessed. I hop scotched my way across the country transporting items from Craigslist ads to get gas money and visiting friends until I made it to Saint George.  I met up with a couple friends and finally, gloriously, fell into the dirtbag life again; living in the van, camping for free wherever I could, and climbing, climbing, climbing.

I bounced back and forth between Saint George and Vegas, climbing some great routes in each.  My intention was to spend some time pushing myself on gear and doing some of the longer hard routes in Red Rock.  That hope quickly faded as the reality of my lack of psyched partners became apparent.  I did; however, have friends psyched to sport climb, so as usual I continued to try pushing myself on bolts.  My trad intentions were finished when Ambushed became my goal.  I didn’t get to try many times, but managed to make it through two of the three hard sections before falling while resting because a foot slip.  So close, but close just doesn’t cut it.

As the weather warmed up my venue changed from Vegas to VRG to Wailing Wall.  At the VRG I was keen to get back on Joe Six Pack after trying it the year before.  It’s every bit as amazing as I remembered and this time felt more possible.

For anyone who has not been to the VRG or tried Joe Six pack, they both tend to be love-hate deals.  The VRG is bomber limestone with a 300ft approach.  The downside is that 300ft approach is from I-15 so the sounds of cars, RVs, and semi trucks are incessant.  Joe Six Pack climbs a section of great rock on the left side of Planet Earth Wall with several very different and cruxy sections.  The start is thin and awkward, but some hard moves and good technique get you to a nice jug rest.  From there you have another couple bolts of good pockets with big and powerful moves between them.  After another jug rest at the horizontal break in the middle you fire into the nearly non-existent dihedral pulling desperately on crimps while trying not to breathe so you don’t lose your balance.  This finishes with a long move to a thumbdercling and using it to stand up onto a high foot.  It short, this route needs it all: power, technique, crimping, recovery, endurance, and some cojones to push through the big runouts at the top.

If you couldn’t tell by my overly detailed description, I love this route.  I immediately set to work on it and was really happy to tick it after a couple days of work and more than a few big whips.  I climbed a few more days at the VRG then finally gave in to going back to Wailing Wall.

I thought I had done everything I was interested in at Wailing Wall, but I was dead wrong.  I sampled around a little bit and did Infidels and Gone Stealing as well as putting in some work on Resurrection and Indulgence.  Infidels and Gone Stealing share a vicious opening boulder problem before Infidels goes up left through some crimping and Gone Stealing breaks right through some sustained crimps to a difficult boulder problem on underclings guarding the anchor.  Frustratingly for me, Infidels went down quickly, but then it took me a lot of work to repeat the boulder problem when I was trying Gone Stealing.

While the other two are good, Resurrection and Indulgence are in a class of awesome reserved for the best of the best.  Resurrection can be described with one word: mega-crimp-power-endurance.  Yeah, I know, I cheated.  On the other hand, Indulgence is big holds, and big moves for the first half then some techy climbing to get to the chains.  Naturally, I gravitated to crimps over big moves to start, but once Resurrection had jacked up my finger I tried Indulgence with some better beta and it may now be the coolest thing I’ve ever tried.

I love climbing for the unique moves and crazy things you have to do to get up the rock.  This is what makes Indulgence shine.  Yes, you can be tall or strong and use boring beta that will work.  I can’t do that.  I’m weak and always want to find the easiest possible way for me or I probably can’t do it.  I’ll forgo the move for move beta, but say that my sequence involves a full span move, heal-toe above my head, and a knee bar.  For me, that is the definition of winning.

I also ventured to the Grail for the first time.  Stunning rock, vertical climbing, and not many people made it a new favorite.  In the week or so of climbing there I ticked most of the easier routes at the crag, which for many, didn’t feel very close to the grade suggested.  As with any new crag, the grades are a bit scattered, but it was interesting struggling more on the 12c than the 13a’s and then having a 13a/b that felt impossible and certainly harder than the 13b.  Regardless of the grades, the climbing is amazing and it has some immaculate rock.  Vesper, for one, stood out for the stunning rock quality: bullet hard, grey-blue limestone with a perfect diagonal crack leading to runnels at the top.

My attempts to find a job around Flagstaff or Saint George for a few months didn’t succeed, but managed to get one in Lander for the summer. That meant that my time in the desert was running out.  I had one last day of trying Indulgence and managed a new high point, but just didn’t have the opportunity to come back fresh to take it down.  A little frustrated by leaving it unfinished and quite excited to live in a climbing down for the summer I headed back to I-15 and turned northward.