22 Apr

Gear Review: Climbing Holds From Rocky Mountain Climbing Gear

Last spring, Rocky Mountain Climbing Gear sent us a sampling of their holds to test and review. After using and abusing them on our basement wall for a year, the results are in. Awesome.

My official rating of awesome takes into account three factors: value, construction/durability, and usability.

Value

As a dad of five kids, I am obsessively frugal. I reuse plastic utensils. I wear shoes until the soles are bald and falling off, and then I salvage the laces, storing them in an old No. 10 can. If you come over to dinner, and we have ribs, and you ask for a napkin, it will come from a stash that I’ve accumulated from random restaurants and complementary airline beverages over many years.

I’m still getting used to throwing away floss after a single use.

That said, the holds from Rocky Mountain are a bargain. I searched and did the math. I couldn’t find a better deal per hold. Their shop on Amazon seems to have the best prices. At the time of writing this, their larger sets of holds boiled down to about $1.50 per hold, including hardware and shipping.

Durability

We haven’t used these outdoors, so I don’t know how they hold up under the elements. Indoors, they’re still going strong. No cracks or chipping, even after cranking them to the wall, both with the included socket head bolts and with hex bolts.

The holds look and feel like old chunks of cement, like debris from a construction site. No fancy company logo stamped in the corner. No bubbly or creative features, like grape clusters, or snail shells, or Buddha bellies. Just angular chunks of stone.

I’m imagining the company was started by a student at UC Boulder who dropped out of college to sell climbing holds out of his garage. He sorts through road work rubble at night, and then chisels and grinds down each piece by hand, while wearing a leather apron and a slouchy beanie. If any climbing holds out there are going to have blood, sweat, and beard hair mixed in, it’s these.

Perusing the company website, it appears the holds are made from over 70% recycled materials. It’s not clear if this includes beard hair, but the materials are said to be non-toxic. The website also says the founder/owner was an aerospace engineer, not a hipster college dropout.

I smacked one around with a hammer, just to see how it behaved. No signs of damage. Granted, I don’t know anyone who climbs with a hammer, so this test isn’t all that relevant.

What really counts is that a hold withstands the pressure of a bolt cranking it to the wall, while also supporting the weight of a climber. So far, so good.

Usability

The only downside to these holds is, so far, the features are limited mainly to jugs and nubs. The lack of interesting shapes makes them less ideal for climbing gyms, but perfect for DIY home walls or jungle gyms, especially with younger climbers who are more interested in going up than in perfecting their technique.

To keep things interesting, we turn the holds sideways or upside down. They double as small ledges and even foot chips when rotated the right way.

11 Apr

Half Dome, Yosemite via Snake Dike: Multi-Pitch Slabbing in Tennis Shoes

IMG_2448

A week or so after climbing Mount Shasta last summer, my brother and I attempted our first multi-pitch climb up Half Dome via the popular Snake Dike route. This seemed like a reasonable alternative to competing with hordes of hikers for unobtainable cable permits. Instead, we would jockey with a horde of climbers for a turn on the dike.

Beta and Preparations

According to Mountain Project, Snake Dike is eight pitches with an overall rating of 5.7 R. That’s a capital R for runout, which means the rope is often just ornamental for the lead climber, because there’s nothing to anchor it to.

The lower friction pitches hover around 5.8 with an occasional bolt or cam placement. The higher pitches crawl along at about 5.5 with little or no protection. The climbing evolves to be pretty laid back, with lots of knobby holds. But, with the continual running out, a fall at the wrong spot would be long and painful, like sliding down 200 feet of cheese grater.

For gear, we brought a 60 meter rope and the recommended handful of small cams, from .5 to 1 inch, six quick draws, plus an assortment of carabiners and slings. No stoppers. Other preparations included a hastily printed copy of the free Snake Dike supertopo, and results on my phone of a Google image search for belay instructions.

For sustenance, we had some random fruit, bread, cheese, a handful of granola bars, and 2 liters of water each. Plus, the dew of a ginko leaf and the energy of the universe.

Lessons Learned

Keep in mind, this was our first multi-pitch climb, and so our first time route finding and setting up belay stations. As kids these days would say, we were total noobs. And we were about to get poned.

Our first mistake was beginning so late. We left the Sacramento area at 8:00 PM the night before and about midnight got to the park entrance, where we “slept” in our car until 5:30 AM. That put us in Curry Village, at the start of the six-mile approach, by about 6:00 AM. When we finally arrived at the base of the climb four hours later, there were three other climbing parties there shuffling through gear while shooting the breeze, waiting for countless other groups mid route.

On a busy summer day, I’m guessing you’d have to depart the valley by 3:00 AM to lead the way.

IMG_2391

Because we left so late, our turn to climb didn’t come until about noon. And at our plodding pace, we leveled out at the top just before sunset, the only ones on the summit. As the sky darkened, we ate what remained of our food and contemplated descending the cables and then eight miles of switchbacks and stairs by the light of our cell phones. No headlamps.

Our second, much stupider mistake was not bringing proper climbing shoes, and then thinking we’d be fine. The stupidity of this became clear as we eavesdropped on a conversation between a weathered Yosemite guide, next in line to climb with father and son clients, and another climber, who looked like he might live in a van by the river. It went something like this.

Climber: So, uh, how many times would you say you’ve climbed this route?

Guide: Oh, I’ve lost count, but probably fifty or more.

Climber: Wow. That’s pretty bad @ that you’re doing it in those tennis shoes.

My brother and I glanced down at the guide’s tattered running shoes, and then, gulping, scrutinized our own. The guide clarified that he would never go without climbing shoes. That would be ridiculous. He just hadn’t changed yet.

The climbing power of a shoe is described in terms of its “aggressiveness.” The more vertical and technical the climb, the more aggressive your shoe needs to be. Aggressive shoes are typically tighter, with pointier heels and toes, a higher arch, and sharper edges. Understandably, they’re also less comfortable.

A climber is more than his shoes.

Our shoes were light and comfy, passive not aggressive. They were timid and shy. When confronted with 800 feet of slabby granite, they cowered in fear.

But a climber is more than her or his shoes. And so, we went for it.

The Climb

Pitch 1, with its friction traverse, almost pushed my shoes to their limit. I scrambled up just fine, placing a cam in the roof with a long sling. But moving down and then left, I was immediately in sketchville. I channeled all my energy into my feet, and tread extremely delicately, my hands and toes searching for the smallest patches of unpolished rock. I made the traverse, and then scampered up to the first belay station, where the last climber in the group ahead was still waiting to go. He supervised my belay setup.

In the photo below, the roof is in the shadows, and the two climbers are at belay one.

Pitch 2 starts with a shorter, easier, traverse right. After a .75 cam placement in a small crack, I moved up to belay station two. The tennis fared well.

Pitch 3 was the crux for my passive kicks. After going up and off route, seeing my error and sliding down ten feet, I confirmed with the topo that the route takes a friction traverse straight left, one that’s void of friction. Over the next thirty minutes, I tried and failed a few dozen times to cross over, my knees and palms taking the brunt of the sliding falls. Poned like a noob. Demoralized, I decided the only solution was to borrow some shoes.

A climber is only as strong as his shoes.

I explained my plight to the leader of the next group. He was reluctant, but took pity on us. Thank goodness. It’s amazing what some aggressive rubber soles can do. I flitted like a butterfly across pitch 3.

I guess a climber is only as strong as her or his shoes.

Pitches 4 through 7 were mainly dike, gradually transitioning to slab in pitch 8. The runouts were nerveracking at times, but manageable.

After an unexpected fontanelle in the aged mountain’s skull, it was a featureless slabfest all the way to the summit.

IMG_2520

Conclusion

Snake Dike is a simple but classic climb, up an iconic mountain, in a legendary place. The approach is substantial, but worth the trouble. Just leave extra early, pack plenty of water, and climbing shoes, and plan for crowds.

All together, the climb lasted roughly sixteen hours, from 5 AM to 10 PM. Ascending from the valley floor took us about four hours. After waiting two more at the base of the route, the climb itself ate up around six. We descended the cables right about sunset, and made it back to the valley by 10 PM, stopping only once to give our remaining water to a climber from the party ahead of us, the one who might live with his buddies in a van. He was sitting in the dirt, head between his knees, as if he’d just rock climbed all day without drinking any water.

The late drive back to Sacramento put us at right around 30 hours total, door to door. Exhausting, but a great alternative to not getting permits. I’m looking forward to doing it right. Stay tuned.

06 Feb

DIY Basement Rock Climbing Wall: On Belay!

diy-indoor-climbing-wall-1

Over the past two years we’ve slowly transformed our basement into a miniature American Ninja Warrior training course. The climbing wall, inspired by the rock climbing bunk bed, is the highlight. It gets the most use, as the kids can easily set their own routes and practice “lead climbing.”

With its modular board panels, this wall is lighter, more versatile, and more attractive, or less unattractive, than the traditional plywood job, but it’s not quite as strong.

The holds are DIY chunks of scrap pine, and some cement composite jugs, a sampling of Bolt on Climbing Holds courtesy of Rocky Mountain Climbing Gear.

Detailed instructions are coming soon. For now, here’s the gist.

  1. Measure out your space, and do the math. Ours is 8 feet wide, taking up most of the wall vertically, with a roughly 8 foot ceiling.
  2. Mark your studs, and hang 2 by 4s using 5/16 by 3 inch lag screws, countersunk at least one per vertical foot.
  3. Cut all your boards to length. Ours are 1 by 10 pine. After a year, they’re still intact, but with some minor splitting. Harder wood is ideal.
  4. Mark your 2 by 4 spacing on the boards, so you aren’t trying to hang holds over them.
  5. Mark and drill your t-nut holes. Ours are spaced at 16 inches, and staggered by board. So, the top board is 16 starting at inch 4, and the next is 16 starting at inch 20, etc. These shifted slightly to avoid the 2 by 4s.
  6. Plug in the t-nuts, and hang your boards with four 2 inch screws at each 2 by 4.
  7. Climb on!
06 Feb

Gear Review: VacuVin Green Banana Guard

banana case

Has a bumpy ride has ever left you with a bruised banana? You’ve got a few options for protecting your elongated fruits when biking, hiking, horseback riding, or just parkouring around town.

Apologies upfront for the phallic innuendos. They’re surprisingly difficult to avoid.

First off, I paid the full price for this gear, around $8, and am reviewing it here out of the goodness of my heart. Second, I haven’t yet tried any of the competitors.

That said, this is a pretty simple review. I’ve been using a VacuVin banana guard for a few years now, and it works. Only minor bruising after eight to ten miles crammed in a backpack on my bike rack. Potholes, curbs, the occasional bunny hop, no problem. I’ve yet to try it on while playing tee-ball.

Vacu Vin Banana Guard – Anti-Bruising Green Carry Case

The guard folds together, forming a sturdy but flexible triangular defense against jostling. It holds any reasonably sized banana, but fits best on average to large ones. Smaller fruit will float around, and end up taking a beating, like this guy.

IMG_2728.JPG

I remember from geometry class, and Zelda, that triangles are pretty strong, as far as polygons go. The only downside to the triforce of banana packages is its size. This thing is voluminous, much larger than a banana, and awkward to pack. It’s probably twice as big as the alternatives. It does fold flat when not in use, but I’ve never bothered to try.

If size is a deal breaker, check out the clam shell cased Banana Saver and the tubular Banana Bunker, which wins for most phallic, and best white elephant gift.

11 Dec

Hiking Mount Shasta, California: Scramblefest Up The Clear Creek Route

At 14,179 feet elevation and 9,822 feet of prominence, Mount Shasta dominates the landscape of northern California, solitary and proud at the southern foot of the Cascade Range. Without neighbors or friends, it protrudes confidently into the horizon, as if it has consumed all its peers and is slowly digesting them in its volcanic belly.

Mount Shasta maintains a far more impressive and commanding individuality than any other mountain within the limits of
California.
John Muir

This summer, my little bro and I crawled up the talus backside of that slumbering beast, like ants through the gigantic crumbling leftovers of its tectonic meals. Here’s a summary of the epic scramblefest.

Base Camp at Clear Creek

Four of us drove up from the Sacramento area on a sunny but mild Sunday afternoon in late July: my dad, brother, oldest son, and I. After Redding, the drive gets more interesting as interstate 5 leaves behind the parched foothills spotted with dusty oak trees and climbs into the coniferous mountains and reservoirs of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. We took highway 89 east at the town of Mt. Shasta, through McCloud, and then followed the signs north and west to the Clear Creek trailhead, which is at about 6,500 feet elevation.

As of 2015, wilderness permits and wag bags are free. Summit passes are $25 per person.

Clear Creek aptly gets its name from an icy spring trickling out of the mountain at around 8,400 feet. After the steep three-mile hike in to base camp, we filled our bottles with the snow melt and pitched our tents in a stand of aged and twisted whitebark pines, whose roots have also tapped into the moisture of that tiny creek.

Sunday evening we watched the sun set into Shasta’s western trapezius, and then stretched out on our frustratingly thin sleeping pads in preparation for an early departure.

The Scramble

My bro and I emerged from our tents just before sunrise, around 6 AM, into cool, silent twilight. Shasta was just beginning to catch the refracted pink sun rays seeping in from the east. Layers on and shoes double knotted, we said a prayer and set off without a trail, trusting that upward would take us in the right direction.

My son and dad would stay back to explore the geography and fauna around camp, and to eventually wonder why it was taking us so long to return.

Our gear was pretty unassuming. I had fashioned a fanny pack from the lid of my hiking backpack, and stuffed it with granola bars, a plastic baggie of first aid, and about 60 oz of water. Plus a knife and headlamp.

I wore old tennis shoes and a scrappy assortment of layers: some cargo shorts under thrift-store warmup pants, a long sleeve t-shirt under a thin rain jacket, and a couple home-sewn fleece ski masks and beanies. Wearing old blue jeans, my bro was even more lacking in hi-techness.

Overall, we were the complete antithesis of an REI add. I’m sure we stood out as the party least likely to actually summit.

IMG_2565

IMG_2111

There are probably a dozen routes up Shasta, some more established than others. After some research, we had decided on Clear Creek because, ultimately, the internet convinced us to. Apparently, because of rockfall danger on the shorter and more popular routes like Avalanche Gulch, a more gradual grade is safer when the stabilizing snow is thin to none.

Thin to no snow exposes the raw surface of the mountain, an endless scramble up loose sand and gravel, interspersed with large cobbles and every other size of stone in between. These first few thousand feet up have earned the enticing name of Misery Hill. Who doesn’t want to hike that, right?

After an eternity of stair-mastering through field after field of scree, les miserables, we began to see clearly the erratic wall of rust colored boulders that had loomed above us for most of the morning. Finally, rock that would push back on, rather than absorb, our plodding footsteps.

These massive boulders demand some pretty technical scrambling, mantling, boosting, and looking before you leap. Their sharp edges and occasional wobble give the impression that they’re still adjusting to a sedimentary life.

A fall in this section could be catastrophic, especially just to the east, where it’s open sky below.

From another perspective, the boulders are less stable than the bits of Misery Hill we just shook out of our shoes; we’re just so much smaller in comparison to a boulder.

After no more than a couple hundred feet, the boulders gave way to the familiar sand and scree, and we were chugging along once again. At least 2,000 feet of climb remained, but I was starting to notice the effects of having carried myself so far above sea level. My body had never experienced 11,000 feet. The pressure of a mild but growing headache increased with each step.

By 13,000 feet or so, I was stopping every twenty steps to catch my breath and my bearings. My brother would scamper ahead, and then wait patiently as I dragged myself along. This soon reduced to ten steps between breaks. I was able to maintain that pace until the summit came into sight, at which point I rallied and made a final push.

The wind chill was in the 20s, so we only stayed on the craggy summit long enough to scrawl our signatures in the registry and then pose for a few pictures.

Without neighboring peaks, the view is spacious and unobstructed, and, as a result, pretty unremarkable. We tried in vain to make out Mount Lassen, a smaller volcano to the south. But there was nothing to make out. The foothills and more distant mountains reflected the clear sky, making the horizon a wash of blue in any direction.

The Descent

The ascent from Clear Creek to summit, 8,400 to 14,180 feet, took us 6.5 hours. On average, that’s 890 feet per hour or 14.8 up per minute. The descent would take 2 hours, or 48.2 feet per minute.

Descending the mountain really accentuates how far up you’ve gone. Going up, gravity was relentless. Coming down, it was on our side. And we were grateful for the deep, sandy gravel of Misery Hill, which absorbed our feet in small pluming avalanches as we slalomed and carved through it.

Overall, Shasta via Clear Creek was a nice introduction to mountaineering. Next time, we’re thinking of going south to Whitney, or east to the Grand Teton. And I’m thinking I’ll budget a full 24 hours for my body to adjust to the elevation.