9 Things I Want My Daughter to Learn from Climbing

Daddy and daughter rock climbing shoes. (Szalay 2014)

My Wunderkind starts preschool today. She’s going to learn to write, spell her name, cut with scissors and gain more confidence.

Natalie and I have been asking her to not grow up too quickly. Her baby qualities passed too fast and her toddler period was truly beautiful and ephemeral. Soon she will be too big to ride on my shoulders and too heavy for me to pick up and carry in my arms.

In a few more years from now she will probably go with me to the climbing gym — the same one where Sasha DiGiulian got started. I might even take her to Great Falls on a weekend or a New England crag during one of our vacations. I’m sure that she will climb better than me right from the start. I have no idea whether she’ll latch onto the sport the way I have, but there are a few things I hope that she will take with her, even if she only climbs a little. They’re things I want her to learn in general, but I think climbing will help:

9. Fear is only as tangible as we let it be. Being afraid of something can dissuade us from doing things and being unnecessarily fearful can close doors and opportunities, whether it’s reaching the top or going for an audition. Identify why you’re fearful and consider whether it’s worth being scared about.

8. Know the value of communication. Too many climbers have been dropped or stopped being belayed because of poor communication with their belayer. We have to be clear with the people in our lives about our needs — whether it’s about slack or just about what we expect from our friends or colleagues. So being forthright and outspoken can help, but you also have to listen. You need to know where your friends and colleagues stand too; hopefully you’ll surround yourself with other honest and outspoken people too.

7. Who you tie your rope to matters. Before you’re in college, this phrase will become cliched to you: Your life is in your climbing partner’s hands. The thing is, cliches ring true. Choose wisely who you spend time with, particularly important events, whether it’s your tennis partner or the friend you want to take your first road trip with. The friend will be a significant factor in your experience and a critical link in your success and safety.

6. Comfort zones are about your current limit, not your potential. Climbing at the same grade can get stale and the difficulty of climbing at the next level isn’t about it being too hard or impossible, but rather a matter of horizons. Sometimes you won’t find out how much better you can perform — at anything — until you keep trying. You might even look clumsy for a bit, but that’s because you haven’t reached that view beyond your vision.

5. If you think it’s too risky, then it is.  Only you can determine what your comfort zone is when it comes to dangers. Dangers are real and shouldn’t be ignored. Know your limits. But limits are relative based on what you deem as risky. I certainly do not want you to free climb like Alex Honnold, but as an example, he doesn’t think his free climb of Half Dome was too risky for him. But it is for me.

4. The joy of finding your way without a map or guide. While the map shows you where you are, it’s a unique experience to chart a new path without a map or regardless of the map. Please start your climbs from the ground up. Some of those routes may be dead ends, but you won’t know what’s up there until to you go.

3. You get out what you put in to it. I must confess that I have put more time into being an armchair mountaineer than a real climber since becoming your dad (you probably know that from my footwork.) But I have learned from other examples that the rewards of dedication to an activity or cause are equal to the effort. Dive in and enjoy!

2. Looking at the world from the ground is only part of the picture. I think your perspective is already somewhat unique and creative compared to your peers. Still, most people see the world from the flat plain of everyday Earth. But there are a few of us that go to those anomalies on the plant where rock juts up from the surface. The perspective might provide insight on the world and ourselves, but you can’t understand until you travel there for yourself.

1. You’re capable of a great deal. You have so much potential right now. I can’t wait to see where you choose to take it.

I don’t think I need to say comparing Wunderkind to the boys; we’re fortunate live in a community where its assumed that the girls can do as much as the boys if not more. Still, I think that even now she is learning to be confident in who she is as a girl and a person. I hope that for every little girl growing up into a woman.

Regardless, if any little girl can learn these nine things, they’ll be okay.

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Do We Need A National Dirtbag Day?


Lifelong climber and guide Bill Simes. He said "Climbing is a very personal thing." (Szalay 2001)

Our pioneers’ ways are indeed dead.

Cedar Wright recently made a documentary on the the end of the dirtbag climber. Dirtbags are either the most obsessed or dedicated climbers; I believe they are in the latter category where they’re dedicated to climbing and depriving themselves of all societal comforts to devote themselves to climbing. They’re often misunderstood by most people as unkempt and dangerously obsessed.

Our pioneering climbers were dirtbags and they sacrificed a great deal. Several legendary climbers from the 1960s through 1980s like Chuck Pratt, Tom Frost, and John Long left everything to perfect their climbing skills and accomplish amazing human feats. They climbed walls that people said would never be climbed and often did it faster that ever imagined. Their sacrifice was more akin to depravity than the risk of death; they left all comforts of society, from steady income to personal relationships.

However, as Wright explained, the cheap living at campsites near popular climbing destinations that supported dirtbag ways in the US have raised rates and shortened stay lengths; the result is that dirtbags have a tougher time living “homeless” on prime real estate. There are numerous other factors, but that’s just one example.

I think Wright is correct when he said that it’s harder to be a dirtbag today. After all, it’s harder now to be a pioneer in climbing. Climbing’s most significant climbs today are not usually about first ascents but how he route was climbed (though there are still virgin summits and unclimbed walls). Climbing has always been about pushing the envelope with what the conventional thinking said was possible whether it was about speed or making the most direct line passed overhanging ice.

Dirtbags made a path for other climbers to follow. And climbers today are less likely to go on a dirtbag pilgrimage. That’s not all bad news for climbing culture: First, the modern climber, it seems to me, is more likely to travel to multiple climbing destinations during their own personal pioneering days. Second, climbing gyms have taken our sport in a new age, which has produced stronger climbers than ever before.

However, we need a way to tell more people about pioneering climbers from the 1960s, 70s and 80s and their dirtbag devotion. We need a national day in their honor where we tell stories and inspire a few new dirtbags. The American Alpine Club, Access Fund, Sierra Club, local organizations like the Mountaineering Section of the
Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, and retailers like REI, Erehon, and Hudson Trail could promote to members and customers.

Here is how you can help: If you like this idea, please share this post with your friends on Facebook, Twitter and anywhere else you visit. With your help, maybe soon, dirtbags won’t be so misunderstood and they’re passion will be better appreciated.

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5 Reasons Why PaceMaker Trekking Poles Might Be Right for You

This post is a sponsored post, but my words express my own opinion, as always.

Atop Mt. Colden in the Adirondacks, June 2004.

I had finished a 30-mile hike which included a scramble up one of those beautiful, bald summits of the Adirondacks. I came downhill much faster than I had gone up and was carrying a 35-pound overnight pack. My hamstrings and calves were holding up and my trekking poles kept me balanced as I descended — which was more like a controlled stumble — seemingly bouncing from foothold to foothold.

I arrived back at the trailhead, exhausted but in a euphoric state. I leaned my poles against my old coupe, put my pack in the trunk, hydrated with a warm sports drink, started the engine and turned on some punk rock music and drove away down the long narrow dirt road with a triumphant feeling.

Unfortunately, I didn’t realize until three days later that I left my poles in the parking lot. That was 10 years ago this month. I haven’t had my own pair since.

Just last month  I was approached by PaceMaker Stix about reviewing their trekking poles. I hadn’t heard of them before and decided to check them out and see where they stood. After a quick Internet search I counted 18 different brands of trekking and walking poles. It seems only three or four brands are the most recognizable and widely accessible, however, PaceMaker consistently received the highest customer reviews online. I accepted the invitation from PaceMaker Stix to review a set of their sticks and I received a pair of their Expedition Poles.

I worked out a time with Natalie for us to take kids on a hike so I could test them out. The big hike in Shenandoah NP or the Monongahela NF I wanted became unrealistic with our commitments, but a semi-urban hike in the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Habitat along the Potomac was feasible.

Trying ascending with the PaceMaker Stix (Natalie Stern 2014)

This was also Schnickelfritz’s first time riding in the child carrier backpack. Wunderkind, who rode on my back down Mount Mansfield in Vermont in 2012, was now helping me test the poles.

After some long strides, a couple of leaps from one beached driftwood log to another, and finding some unlevel and occasionally unstable terrain to test ascending and descending, I have five reasons why PaceMaker Expedition trekking poles might be right for you:

1. Sturdy and Durable – They held up to my walking and leaning with all my weight with Schnickelfritz on my back. They are also light weight and appropriately rigid; the tips at the far end of the poles went right where I wanted them — there was no unwanted flexing.

2. Easy Extending and Holding – The flick locks are easy to open, close and adjust them. Even when Schnicklefritz and I bounced from log to log and leaned hard on them, there wasn’t any give. The same was true regardless of what length you choose to set them at.

PaceMaker Stix adjustable flick locks. (Szalay 2014)

3. Cork Grips and Comfortable Leashes -- The grips on my original poles several years ago were rubber with deep grooves for ventilation. They are great in the winter at keeping moisture out, but clammy. Cork is indeed better and I’m doubtful that they would perform poorly if I were using the poles snowshoeing in Vermont this winter. For most trekking pole aficionados, cork is the only way to go.

4. Affordable Prices – For their quality, these poles are truly affordable. They might even be “cheap” in price but not in performance. My old poles cost $110 for the pair. The PaceMaker Stix Expedition Trekking Poles cost $59.99 and I am just as happy with them. As a parent on a parent’s budget, I’d go with the PaceMakers everytime.

Schnickelfritz on the move, with Dad (Natalie Stern 2014)

5. Consistently Excellent Reviews -- Go online and look on Amazon or Google. PaceMaker fans are vocal. These poles are consistently given higher customer reviews.

By the way, since starting this blog in 2010 I have gotten several requests to review climbing and hiking books and various outdoor products. I haven’t turned down a request to review a book yet, but have turned down all the requests for product reviews. That was until I was approached by PaceMaker Stix. I felt it was something that you might enjoy too. My whole family did…

Sharing my PaceMaker Stix with Wunderkind (Natalie Stern 2014)

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Peter Boardman and The Shining Mountain

An icy belay (Vern 2012)

He doesn’t have a household name, but it comes up in mountaineering discussions periodically and in general literature too.

Today, Peter Boardman is best associated with the Boardman Tasker Prize in Mountaineering Literature, an award that was made to honor their memory. He was a pioneering alpinist that pushed boundaries and is still a hero to some climbers that are familiar with his legacy.

His most notable ascents were made with fellow Brit Joe Tasker. Their first together was chronicled in Boardman’s book, The Shining Mountain (1978), when they attempted the blank West Face of Changabang in the Garhwal Himalaya. Ken Wilson, a British climbing magazine editor, commented that their planned line, which Chris Bonnington announced to the public, “didn’t look like a married man’s route.” (Which makes me chuckle every time I read it.)

For some of us, his climbs were done before we were born. The mountains he climbed are recognizable, though the routes were firsts ascents or attempts: Petit Dru, Denali, Everest twice, Kanchenjunga, Carstenz Pyramid, K2 twice, and obscure destinations like Kongur in China, Gauri Sankar’s South Summit in Nepal, and, of course, Changabang’ West Wall.

One of the reasons there is a climbing literature award that bears his name is because of his quality writing and storytelling. The Shining Mountain is not only inspiring but covers the self doubt with honesty. It’s also leads by example: While it acknowledges not everything is easy or possible, it’s rarely dipping into the dark depravity of despair because he was objective inbhis analysis but confident with tempered optimism. The establishment of the Boardman Tasker Prize keeps his memory and his many accomplishments alive and relevant.

As part of another project, I recently reached out to Dougald MacDonald, the Executive Editor at the American Alpine Club and the fearless leader of Climbing magazine. I asked him about some of the best mountaineering books ever written by sharing my preliminary list. He looked at the titles and sent me only one title that he said sprung immediately to mind: Boardman’s The Shining Mountain.

He was right that it belonged on my short list. I included The Shining Mountain on a best-of list in a recent guest post on Desk to Dirtbag: Be sure to check out Ten Must Read Mountaineering Books. I hope that the list might have your next book for vacation or some escapist reading.

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What I am Reading Now

Rock Climbing Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland (Szalay 2014)

Have you ever flown over big snow capped mountains someplace? Do you remember being glued to that foggy airplane window?

I had the rare opportunity to enjoy a beer the other night with a friend after Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz went to bed. After we talked about our kids we talked about travel and adventure. His brother flies from Alabama to Alaska for work periodically. He said the first time he went, when it was clear enough to see outside the plane’s window, he saw a mountain goat on a cliff side. That goat, except for its own abilities, it would have otherwise been stranded. Remote and unreachable.

His brother feels that this is illustrative of what Alaska’s wilderness was: A frontier with places that no man could go.

As for other frontiers — those of the mind and page — let me share with you what is on my current reading list:

John Quillen’s self-published book, Tempting the Throne Room: Surviving Pakistan’s Deadliest Climbing Season 2013, (2013). John Quillen has crossed my radar tangentially last year after the terrorist attack at Nanga Parbat Basecamp. You might have already read some of the quotes or information he provided in the aftermath; Quillen was in the region and provided media some on-the-ground information and has since written this book about the summer of 2013 in the Karakorum.

I just started reading it thanks to a direct invitation from Quillen to review his book here on TSM (which I will do later this summer.) So far, it reads like a great deal like a traditional travelogue with a little inspiration from Annapurna. The format isn’t uncommon, but he manages to draw you in bringing you on his trip rather than telling you about his trip. The result is that you feel like you’ve landed in Pakistan. More to come…

Eric J. Hörst’s regional guide, Rock Climbing Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland, 2nd Ed. (2013). I’ve lived in the Mid-Atlantic for a dozen years now and have only gone back to my home park, the Adirondack Mountains, a few times and Alaska only once in that span. So I decided to take an active interest in my “immediate” surroundings. After reading portions of this book with its rich illustrations by Stewart Green, I suddenly want to spend some time in Fayetteville, West Virginia and hang out with Pat Goodman at the New.

Also, possibly toward the end of summer or early fall, I’ll read through all of my copy of this book:

John Long and Peter Croft’s Trad Climber’s Bible, signed by John Long. I received this copy as a thank you for some work I did this past winter in promoting the late Michael Ybarra’s book about the McCarthy Era in Washington, Washington Gone Crazy. Long knew Michael and they even climbed together once. Michael’s sister was very generous in thanking me this way. I’ve read random snippets and feel as filled as reading from a gentle religious devotional: comforted and empowered. I wonder what will happen after I take it in in full.

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Where is Your Mystery Mountain?

“River to the Maelstrom” (Trey Ratcliff 2010)

In the 1900s, the topography of Western Canada was wilderness — the kind that was left to the imagination. It was largely unmapped. Yet, taking in the view from the other side of Queen Charlotte Strait, the conventional wisdom said that the Coast Range Mountains that skirted mainland British Columbia were no higher than 8,000 to 10,000 feet, and there was no room for surprises.

One day, in 1925, across the Strait, Don and Phylis Munday were on the shore looking through binoculars at the Coast Mountains. Their attempt to climb a peak on Vancouver Island had just been thwarted by poor conditions. But the skies now provided wide visibility. Beyond the sea and over the Coast Range peaks something glimmered. Something obscured the skyline.

The giant would be named Mount Waddington (13,186 ft./4,019 m.) but for years the Mundays called it Mystery Mountain. When they first took in the peak in that day in 1925, the mountain was in alignment with other summits based on their compass bearings but it was clearly farther away where the map was blank. The Mundays were great explorers and they had to go to the mountain themselves.

In multiple attempts over several years, they pushed their way through the dense vegetation of the Pacific rim, around the Coast Mountains and began exploring the blank on the map inching closer to their Mystery Mountain, making the map as they went.

Pioneering adventures like the Mundays’ are charming. But for you and me, the blanks on the map are long gone. We’re not going to go to uncharted territory; we’re going to specific, known contour lines on a finished map. But this is no reason to get stuck reminiscing about the past.

The Mystery Mountain of Sichuan, China (Utpala 2008)

Exploration has evolved. Today your Mystery Mountain may have been climbed, photographed, catalogued, uploaded, downloaded, and shared. But what makes it yours is how it strikes you and how passionate you last over it. Let me explain…

Your quest starts in innocence and naivety. When we get a climbing magazine in the mail or an issue of National Geographic, or read a post on social media and find someplace alluring, we might have an image of a mountain or a dramatic, lush valley or a forbidding frozen landscape etched or even seared into our minds. Sometimes, we don’t even know where it is or what it’s called.

You start learning more about the destination. Turns out it’s in Ecuador. You have never even thought of Ecuador, but now you’re pinning it on Pinterest and checking out library books, and talking to your friends about it in hopes of finding new photos and maps that lead you to your fabled peak. If you give in to the dream, you go, sometimes at great financial or personal expense.

In some ways, it’s best if the destination is obscure. It makes it more interesting; the less information there is, the more pioneering you become. The sincerity of the effort is what makes it pure and life giving. You go because you want to experience something nobody else has, and by virtue of the process you will. The search for your Mystery Mountain takes on a dimension larger than the peak itself.

Still, success will be in the journey rather than the final destination. The Mundays were fortunate to pursue an untrampled mountain as well as uncharted territory. But even they did not achieve the pinnacle; the main summit was far more technically demanding than their climbing skills could provide. The first ascent was later, included an all-star cast, and was for another quest.

Wherever your Mystery Mountain may be, I hope the journey gives you a pioneering adventure.

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