Climbing Gyms are There for Me but I Cannot Be There for Them

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Pulling Plastic. (All rights reserved)

After three days of wrestling with the question, I realized that it was over. You see, when the pandemic started, and we all shut ourselves inside our homes, I thought, okay, this will be like one prolonged snow day with out the fun of snow. I’m an introvert. I live with my favorite three people in the world. I have plenty of fulfilling hobbies. I can make this work! I even received a polite email from my climbing gym saying that they won’t be charging me, which freed up some of my cash to renew my subscription to Alpinist Magazine right away.

But after several weeks of reading the news and making business decisions for the safety and health of the employees and volunteers of Habitat for Humanity I run, I the complications of the novel coronavirus made clear that this was not a prolonged snow day. And my climbing gym, which I recently bought a membership, was even more complicated than building homes and reopening our ReStore. I might not be returning to my gym until there’s improved treatment or a proven and widely used vaccine. The bottom line, as this article from Gripped Magazine explains, climbing gyms cannot be fully sanitized, and with my family and responsibilities to my employees, I can’t risk spreading the virus or getting sick and being incapacitated for weeks.

While climbing gyms are reopening across the country, here in Pennsylvania, they’re going to be closed for a while. The Governor has a three-phase plan for reopening by region, that works like a traffic light with Red, Yellow, and Green phases based on the number of reported COVID-19 cases per capita. Climbing gyms may only open in the Green phase, and our region is still in Red and has a long ways to go. My gym hasn’t even been posting updates, partly, I think because they don’t have staff to do so, and we can just watch the general news.

GYMS ARE ADAPTING

Climbing Business Journal reported on how gyms are reopening. Face masks and removing your street shoes prior to entry are mandatory at a gym in Knoxville, Tennessee. Another gym is limiting the number of climbers according to the square footage. But the key question for me is about all of the surfaces; one gym is making sure the holds are cleaner by ensuring the climbers are cleaner with hand sanitizer readily available. But one gym is focusing only on the climber, not the holds or ropes, admitting that it is just to difficult to manage. Oh, and rental gear…? That’s a thing of the past at a gym. Some gyms renting out harnesses will be putting returned harnesses on a “time out” while any virus riders die off.

A set of survey questions from Vertical Life, the app, shed some light into what gym owners are thinking. However, as they explain in the survey introduction, “…these proposed measures have not been tested, nor do they have to necessarily be implemented at your gym in the way described, or at all.”  Here is a link to the Vertical Life Survey.

  • Limiting your time at the gym.
  • Scheduling climbers to visit throughout the day. (The survey asks specifically about our tolerance for alternative hours, such as early morning, lunch hour, weekends late.)
  • Using an app or other scheduling tool to check the current number of people checked in at the gym, booking visits in advance, paying fees online, contactless check-in, and being notified about new routes.
  • Limiting routes and boulder problems in order to promote social distancing.
  • Limiting area and choices of routes or problems.
  • Wear a mask.

LIQUID CHALK

Ph.D. Chemist Andrew Abeleira on GymClimber.com says, “The short answer is maybe, but not in the way you’d expect.” Abeleira goes on to explain that the liquid chalk won’t prevent the virus from lingering on your hands, but it would reduce the airborne matter in the gym, thus providing less surface area for the dreaded organism to ride to its next victim. I suppose that I’ll be retiring my chalk bag to the shelf as another relic.

I’m not giving up on my — albeit modest — climbing goal of bouldering V6, but I have extended the timeline by a year or more. I am 41 and need to work out hard now to keep from aging poorly, keep up with my kids, and keep hiking the Adirondacks and the Presidential Mountains well into my 80s and 90s. I still have some time to keep climbing, but now the circumstances of climbing at the gym five minutes from my house, just are not right for me.

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Original K2 Photos May Have Been Sold to Cover Costs

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Mystery K2. (All rights reserved)

We are in the seventh week of a stay-at-home order during the coronavirus pandemic, and Natalie, the kids, and I are still healthy and haven’t gone totally stir crazy. We’re pretty self-disciplined with lots of healthy habits, so I think that’s keeping us buoyant.

I am very concerned about the future of my climbing gym. When this whole thing started, I thought I would just return whenever it reopened, but I know now that this won’t be the case. Until a adequate testing is available in the states and, hopefully, a vaccine, climbing gyms will have a lot of challenges with social distancing and cleanliness. It’s making me seriously consider building my own 40-degree training wall in my garage, which I had planned to do when we relocated here.

Work has been the greatest source of stress, as usual, so I have been going through old TSM files. I thought you might appreciate this brief follow-up: Last fall (on September 6, 2019 to be precise), I received a reply to an email I sent to Anne-Christine Clottu Vogel on February 21, 2013. I know; it came quite late, but TSM is still active and my interest in this inquiry hasn’t waned. A.C. Clottu is one of Jules Jacot-Guillarmod’s granddaughters, and the thorough and well-written reply came from A.C. Clottu’s first cousin’s husband, Jean L. Des Arts. If Jules Jacot-Guillarmod rings a bell about K2, well, it should…

WESTERN EYES ON K2

In 2013, I wrote a three-piece series on the cover photo of Alpinist 37, which was not in high resolution, wasn’t in color, and was not suitable for Instagram. The image, however, was one of the first photographs and proper representations of the second-highest peak in the world. K2 was always difficult to see and was remote, even for people that lived in the Karakorum, which is part of the reason why the designation by T.G. Montgomerie stuck; names like Chogori or Dapsang only somewhat recently became known. The view wasn’t artistically drawn, it was tangibly real. What I wanted to know was how did that photo become lost and suddenly resurface only now?

My inquiry, initially only to Alpinist Magazine editor-in-chief Katie Ives lead to a series of introductions. I already knew Greg Glade at Top of the World Books in Vermont and Beth Heller who was then the librarian at the American Alpine Club. But she also pointed me to the owner of the image, the mysterious Bob Schelfhout-Aubertijn and A.C. Clottu. Bob and I started a friendship where we bonded over mountaineering, parenthood, beer, and dealing with assholes on the Internet. Later, I wrote a “Local Hero” piece for Alpinist Magazine about Bob. A.C. Clottu, however, never replied.

Des Arts did not recall how the email came to his inbox. However, he read my blog posts and gave me a very informed response. In fact, he commented how he was, “[A]lways somewhat irritated that Crowley’s name is mentioned together with Eckenstein who, to my knowledge, was the leader of the expedition and a thorough organiser.” He was correct; I had mentioned them both together. Des Arts went on to say, “On that expedition, by the accounts of both the British members and [Jules Jacot-Guillarmods], Crowley’s role was a minor one, not the least because he was ill for most of the time. I think one is vastly overstating Crowley’s capacity as a leader and organiser, probably because he was a pretty big mouth and well known for his character and later for his ancillary activities… The main reason for the expedition’s failure was the bad weather, not the conflicts of personality.”

PHOTOGRAPHERS AND PHOTOS

How, after all, did that early image of K2 get lost only to resurface decades later? According to Des Art’s reply, the family seemed to understand this very clearly: “[Jacot-Guillarmods] was an ardent photographer and besides exchanging photographs with other photographers, he sometimes both gave them away and even sold them to cover his costs (more important at the time than today.) So, there may be copies or plates in circulation.”

Sometime between when Jacot-Guillarmods passed on the plate, and when Bob acquired at auction about a decade ago, the plate was mislabeled, miss-associated, and became a time capsule-treasure that Bob excavated and Alpinist Magazine celebrated.

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Life in the Mountains and Modern World through the Eyes of Bree Loewen

Avalanche risk. (All rights reserved)

Natalie, the kids, and I have been cooped up on our suburban homestead for a month now, trying to do our part to beat a pandemic with everyone else. Other than my bouldering pad being used as a crash pad next to the rope swing, we haven’t taken to staging climbing the house, kitchen cabinets, or even the fireplace.
Sticking to our routine has been our key to sanity. For us, it isn’t too much different than a normal day, except we’re eating out less, I don’t have a commute (which I really like,) and I moved my office to our cellar for more privacy during phone and video calls. Plus I can close the office door and officially “leave work” at the end of the day.
I still workout every morning and read and write, though most of my writing is about housing issues these days. We’re working on ways to prevent evictions with landlords and foreclosures with lenders, especially after the 90 day forbearance periods end. Reading time has been my favorite part. It was before this self-isolating and quarantine period too. And I finished the next book on my tick list: Found: A Life in Mountain Rescue by Bree Loewen (2017).
(First off — and I am not being paid to tell you this — Found is published by The Mountaineers Books and they are still shipping and even offering 25% off right now; use discount code TIMETOREAD at checkout.)
Found by Bree Loewen
Loewen’s book won Gold in the Heroic Journeys category of the 2017 Nautilus Book Awards, but it came on my radar when Paula Wright interviewed Loewen on the Alpinist Podcast. Loewen said she used to conduct her rescues and be so affected by the passing of an adventurer, another person like her, that she used write down the story — the story of the other person — and then burn them or make paper boats and sail them out on Puget Sound, because they weren’t after all, her story. Or were they her story too? And that was enough to intrigue me. One of my friends even confessed to have read this book twice already, and it just came out three years ago at the end of last month.
Found is about juggling the crazy life we have today: A foot in the mountains and a foot in our own hectic, modern world, while finding purpose and meaning in the modern world. Loewen is a dirtbag climber that became a volunteer member of Seattle Mountain Rescue (SMR) and retells, after years of reluctance to share, the stories from the rescues and the recoveries of someone’s loved one. She explains and contemplates how she is a bystander to someone’s life, whether its an accident or a tragedy. She and her teammates take charge in the backcountry by helping the patient focus on their job to trust the rescuers to lift them back to care and shelter. And sometimes she is collecting pieces of teeth and someone’s jaw, which Loewen feels is an incredibly intimate act; perhaps their mother should be doing this, but their mother can’t be there, so Loewen fills in.
Loewen’s narrative covers several rescues and she blends in her real life seamlessly, showing the tension and trade-offs of having a foot in each world. Loewen is a wife, to another SMR volunteer named Russell, and a mother of a preschooler with big blue eyes and pigtails named Vivian. Vivian gets accustomed to her mother getting paged to join the park rangers and fire department with other SMR volunteers on a moments notice and never leaves anywhere without her bag of the most important things, including a stuffed animal and a pink polka dot security blanket. Loewen drops off her daughter at grandma’s or leaves her with Russ, if he isn’t at work, and heads to her mission in her compact car.
Unfair Judgment
Generally, Loewen and Russ don’t go on rescues together. They try to take turns, going one at a time, but Loewen is the full-time mom and always committed volunteer to SMR. Why is she so committed?
When they both go on a mission together, leaving Vivian at grandma’s, the question is especially complex for Loewen. Russ is the bread winner and the life-insurance policy holder, filling the traditional role as head of the household. When they are the most qualified volunteers on site and look to rappel down to the injured, should Vivian’s mom go too? Is she risking making Vivian an orphan? Who gets blamed in this situation? Was Loewen short-sighted and irresponsible?
Loewen examines this and calls it a Catch-22 because she is a woman and a mother. Because Loewen considers the alternative: What message is she sending Vivian if she backs off and does not go help? Is she telling Vivian that women are too conservative and can’t be committed enough to do good work? She concedes that no matter what, what people think of you has real consequences.
What We Want Most
Throughout the story, Loewen is trying to find what the next step in her career will be as she finishes her era as a stay-at-home mom. She investigates being a full-time fire fighter and settles, the reader is slowly revealed, in nursing school. But why is she so committed with SMR, answering the calls, and letting grandma care for Vivian while Loewen goes on all-nighters in the snowy woods without food. During these forays she usually isn’t even thanked by anyone, and abruptly gets back into her compact car to race home and pour the breakfast cereal for herself and Vivian.
Loewen says she believes that hardship increases camaraderie. And that is what she wants most out of this world. Everything she does is about a human relationship of proving character and trust to her teammates, daughter, husband, and the people she meets on her search-and-rescue-missions. They are all people and human beings like herself, trying to find purpose, belonging, and an expression of human affection, even though it’s rarely ever a hug. The affection is delivered in competence, in coming at the call, and being there for teammates and the person that placed the call.
I highly recommend this story and hope that you read every word, maybe sometimes twice, like I did. It was enriching.
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Our Chance at Courage from Home

Mountains of mystery. (All rights reserved)

I like to work from home; jeans, no shoes, and a baseball cap all the time. I like to to see my wife and kids often; I don’t get tired of them. And if the reason I was at home were more like a snow or ice storm, while self-isolating at home, would have been a pretty nice week.

On the other hand, I’ve been home working longer days to run our local Habitat for Humanity affiliate, We reluctantly made the very painful decision to furlough most of the staff because all non-essential businesses closed in Pennsylvania and even all residential construction (Habitat’s specialty) was ordered to stop. I’ve been busy handling financial options, considering the future’s permutations, and setting communications strategies that adapt.

Related, I also made a discovery about my eczema flair ups, thanks to my more efficient nutrition plan: One beer over several days won’t spur a flair up, but one beer every day for three days will! The stress of cost cutting probably egged it along. I won’t be having a beer a day any longer; it was probably a frivolous craving in this time regardless.

As comes with self-isolating, the kids are home with us all the time too, sometimes plodding through work from their teachers. I wonder if this is what homeschooling is like. Natalie and I are still figuring out how to juggle work and parenting. Both of our gyms closed, which affected Natalie more than me because she likes the sophisticated gym equipment and the amenities; I can’t blame her. I workout in the basement with just a yoga mat, a couple of free weights, and a hangboard; I put all my gym allowance to belong to a gym with ever changing puzzles arranged from plastic holds. And despite my general dislike for running, I am jogging more often, especially after weighty conference calls.

I paused from reading Found by Bree Loewen for a moment to get through a library book. I am reading a book on baseball, which I borrowed on my birthday, the day Major League Baseball announced that the season would be delayed. So it’s filling a void and a different escape. I’ll be back to Found later this week. Since I last posted I added two books to my list: 1) Troll Wall by Tony Howard (2011,) and 2) My Life in Climbing by Ueli Steck (2018.) Troll Wall was recommended to me by David Price and I am glad that he mentioned it. Steck’s autobiography is actually for a question that I have been pondering for over a year and instead of just diving in and writing about it, I am doing more research (and really looking forward to read it after I finish Loewen’s book.)

Soon I’ll get restless, I suppose. Normally, when we deal with crises or natural disasters, I am donating money or directing some of our gifts at Habitat to tsunami relief or a post-earthquake home build project in Nepal, and my kids make care packages. But this crisis asks us to be inactive, stay at home, and stay away. I never imagined or could have imagined this happening throughout America two weeks ago, even as I read the stories from Wuhan or Italy.

It’s also odd in that we are not looking to rebuild homes or defeat a moral enemy, like the Nazis. We’re dealing with existential challenges to our freedom and our ability to roam freely. I can wait a little longer to go to the gym and visit Mt. Gretna again. I can dash into a grocery story just to get what will feed my family of four. Heck, I don’t need beer or coffee like I used to. Maybe God was preparing Natalie and I for this? This takes a fortitude of a different kind, and it hasn’t gone long enough for me to know what it is supposed to look like.

Although I put on a strong face for my staff, board, family, and parents, I am pretty scared deep down about the short term. I don’t want to get sick and don’t want anyone to get sick. I don’t want to die and I don’t want anyone to die from this virus either. I pray daily (I always have) and have faith, but, like so many things, there is a lot out of our direct control. I am self-isolating with compliance but I miss the climbing gym, and getting in the car for fun destinations on the weekend, dropping into my favorite burrito shop, and hugging colleagues in greeting and slapping high fives when we solve a problem or help improve someone’s life.

I’ll keep doing what I always do, but from home instead, with a little more courage than usual. Stay safe and healthy, my friends.

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The Short Long List of Books

Winter in the Adirondacks. (All rights reserved)

So here is my list of books.

It started as a mere 36 titles in December which grew to about 60 in January, and now, a month later, it stands at 98 books. It’s no longer a list of just classics, but books that could be modern classics, and ones that are trendy or influential, and those that simply interest me. The goal, as I mentioned in my previous post, is to help me be more intentional and satisfied in my reading.

I reviewed all of my clippings in Evernote and my notebooks with book recommendations, names of authors, and then looked over Banff Mountain Book Competition winners in the Mountain Literature category, and winners of the Boardman Tasker Award. Then I removed books that didn’t interest me and I did not think, from what I knew about it, would be a classic or modern classic. I could always change my mind.

To get myself started, I then looked over the list at what excited me most and decided to focus on those. I will either obtain them from a library, my local bookstore (not a chain,) or Top of the World Books in Vermont. My short list — the start of a tick list — was supposed to be 10 titles, but I decided to include both of Nick Bullock’s books and Andy Kirkpatrick’s books, so it came to a rounded list of 10:

  1. Annapurna South Face by Chris Bonnington (1971)
  2. Tides by Nick Bullock (2019)
  3. Echoes by Nick Bullock (2012)
  4. Minus 148 Degrees by Art Davidson (1969)
  5. The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer (1959)
  6. Espresso Lessons by Arno Iglner and Jeff Achey (2009)
  7. Psychovertical by Andy Kirkpatrick (2008)
  8. Cold Wars by Andy Kirkpatrick (2011)
  9. Found by Bree Loewen (2017)
  10. The Bond by Simon McCartney (2016)
  11. The Villain by Jim Perrin (2005)

While I was developing the list I have been reading Found by Bree Loewen (2017) as I knew it would make my list and I already owned a copy.

If you look at the spreadsheet I included, I have a handful of obscure titles about Alaska. I love Alaska, so my list has another bias regarding the state’s mountain adventures.

During this project, which will take years, I am still going to read Alpinist Magazine, books on fundraising, management, social issues, and fiction but the books on this list are part of a different quest. I am seeking their insight about climbing, humanity, and drawing on the power they felt among the mountains. And it is not romantic bullshit. As Amrita Dhar, professor in English at the Ohio State University at Newark, said, “Mountaineering is the most literary of all sports.” We go, we come back, we write and the best writing is the introspective that borders on the metaphysical. It’s a theme that has been done by hundreds of climbing writers and it makes the best climbing stories. And most interestingly, it’s unprompted. We haven’t been taught how to write about climbing, but those of us that have been brave enough to go into the mountains have come back talking deeply about our humanity.

One day I hope to make a list of what would be the must-reads, having read many of them. I will probably add to my list of 98 and maybe even remove a few to keep the list manageable. But regardless, I hope to learn from the writers and apply it to my own more modest mountain adventures. I will keep you posted on how it goes.

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My Strategy for Fulfilling Reading in the Year of the Rat

Annapurna 1952 Color-Gravure of Lionel Terray at fixed rope above Camp II.

While I am considering better ways to satisfy my climbing reading interests this year, it’s a funny coincidence that we are in the year of the rat. The year of the rat is about demonstrating inquisitiveness, shrewdness, and resourcefulness. I read a lot in 2019, but I don’t think it was entirely fulfilling; perhaps some rat characteristics will help me.

In 2019, I read 18 books and all four Alpinist issues, which is a book unto itself. That was more books than I read in 2018 or 2017. However, I read far fewer climbing-related books last year, which saddens me because there are a lot of climbing books on my “short list.” In fact, you won’t be surprised that one of my ambitions is to become extremely well-versed in climbing literature.

So isn’t this as simple as just reading more climbing books in 2020? Well, no. Reading more has been my strategy for years, but I rarely look back and feel that the books I read helped me make progress toward my goal. And at times the book, while germane in scope, was not especially moving, though it was unique in its story. In fact, the long-form articles in Alpinist Magazine are more consistently stirring. So now, at the beginning of 2020, I realize that my standards and hopes have risen.

I have read 80 to 100 books (I think) about mountaineering, climbing, the mountains, and skills. However, the quality and enjoyment has been mixed. My strategy has, however, been haphazard. Whatever books I find I acquire for my shelf. I like the process of discovery at used book sales, which can mean many used book sales before finding a gem or even a popular or semi-popular title I do not own or haven’t read.

So what do I need to do in 2020 in order to read more climbing books?

First, I need to make a plan. Or perhaps it’s a list of books. I now have a list of 60 or so titles about climbing subjects along with their authors, and the year the book was first published. I have to consider the books on that list and whittle what I haven’t read and do not own.

Second, I need to change some habits. In previous years, I would read in the evenings, weekend mornings, and several pages scattered during the week after lunch, sitting in waiting rooms, on subways, or while I waited in the car with Wunderking and Schnickelfritz while Natalie ran into the market. Now that I drive (I in Lancaster, PA now sans-subway,) my work is a little more all-encompassing, and the kids are older and less likely to leave me to sit quietly by their side to read a few pages. I think evenings and an occasional weekend morning might be my best steady time slots.

Third, and lastly, I have restructured some of my overall priorities. I have asked after my responsibilities as dad and a housing nonprofit leader, what is the best use of my time? Well, I’ve narrowed it down to nutrition and fitness for overall health followed by my hobbies, and climbing literature is at the top of my list. I grow miserable without my hobbies, and I decline in energy and health if don’t focus on nutrition and fitness. So I will be reading more and training four days a week to be a V6 boulderer that isn’t sloppy or scrappy, rather I want to climb with deliberate movements, and transfer that to some walls.

So here goes with inquisitiveness, shrewdness, and resourcefulness. I am going to share some of the book lists I used to inform my list of classics-plus. I have interests that also extend into Alaska, Western Canada, Baffin Island, Patagonia, and New England and the Adirondacks. And there are also newer books, like Barry Blanchard’s The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains that could be called a modern classic. But we’ll see.

Of course, it’s also ironic that I am thinking of reading and rats. Unless we’re talking about Templeton from Charlotte’s Web, rats don’t read. Of course, Templeton may have only recognized words. Would Templeton have found me a scrap of Climbing Magazine had I asked him, “Mountains, Templeton, mountains!”

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