Offwidth climbing in Seattle

Posted by on February 26th, 2024  •  0 Comments  •  Full Article

I recently discovered the Vertical World North climbing gym because we were looking to practice offwidth crack climbing. We used to go to their southerly location back before our local gym expanded. It was a fun way to get out of town and climb taller walls. Plus the South gym did have some nice cracks, though nothing was true offwidth.

This new North location has all the normal stuff as far as bouldering, toproping and leading steep sport routes. Plus it has the usual well equipped exercise area with free weights and aerobic machines like stair steppers and ellipticals. 

And unlike many gyms they still have the (semi) dangerous auto-belays. These seat belt retractor style devices aren’t dangerous in and of themselves, they’re well engineered. But complacent, some might say spacey climbers, and the lack of buddy checks have led to many tragic auto belay accidents.  If you’re smart, focused and constantly vigilant, auto belays are awesome due to the fact that you don’t need to bring a partner. 

But what really makes this gym special, and worth the trip, even if you don’t live in Seattle…is the cracks. To our great surprise, we were the only ones climbing the cracks. Everyone else was pulling on plastic. 

Starting with the smallest, they have a ring lock crack that varies in width from half an inch to three quarters of an inch. That means rattly fingers if you have small hands, and lockers if you have extra large hands like me. 

Next is a standard yellow number 2 camalot sized crack. This is perfect hands for most people. If  you like Classic Crack in Leavenworth, you’ll like this crack. And it has an auto-belay, so you can cruise up and down it without a partner. 

Next up are two variations on a blue number 3 camalot crack. With my XL sized hands, I was able to get easy steeples or tight fists in both of them. My friend with small hands really struggled with these two number 3 cracks. She had to do elbow jams or shaky butterfly jams to make progress.

But the best crack of all, especially if you are training for Moab’s  Indian Creek is the number 5 crack. Even my huge fists didn’t fit. I stuck them in hoping for at least a marginal fist jam…but it was nothing but air on both sides of my hand. It was the proverbial hotdog in a hallway scenario.  This crack is also in a corner, with one of the fist cracks nearby if you need to cheat. Anyway, it’s a fantastic size for learning your worst case off-width skills. It wasn’t big enough for double fists for either of us. It was hand fist stacking. 

But the crack is too wide to get any kind of heel toe jam. Initially neither of us could make uphill progress. We were completely shut down. After much struggle we found that we could get a secure no hands jam by sticking our left leg in up to the thigh. Then by contorting our hips we jammed our right leg in up to the knee doing a toe-knee bar. With both legs deep in the crack and sort of opposing each other, we could let go with our hand fist stacks long enough to slide them up. Once my hands were secure, I’d pull my legs out, do an insecure right leg heel toe to step up, then jam my left thigh back in and lock my lower body in place with some knee to toe opposition on my right leg. With my lower body locked into the crack, the only way to reach my hands higher was a sit up. We need to shoot video of this.

This was a full body, heart pounding workout. I couldn’t climb more than about 15 feet before hanging on the toprope to rest. But wow, such good practice! This comes very close to some of the 5.11 offwidth nightmares at Indian Creek. 

Beyond that, they had the usual wide selection of cubbies and lockers. They also had some really cool free electronic lockers for phones, keys and wallets. You stick your things in the little 7 inch steel cubes, press a button, program your personal code and shut the door. That was so cool to know that my valuables were safe without having to bring a lock.

Vertical World was the first climbing gym in America. I remember going there in 1988. I’m really glad to see they are still running a tight ship!

At Thanksgiving I stepped on the scale and was shocked to see my highest number ever: 176. This is partly because of the prednisone I’m taking to treat PMR (Polymyalgia Rheumatica). That started in April, 2023 with my last (second) bout of Covid. I got really stiff joints during my week of Covid symptoms. But the stiff joints, and a cough stayed for months. In my mind it was just Long Covid. But by August I was concerned enough to bail on a Squamish trip and drop into our local clinic. I could barely climb, and some days barely get out of bed because my knees, shoulders, neck, hips and elbows were locked up.

The PA, for lack of a better idea, prescribed a 9 day dose of Prednisone, which cured my symptoms overnight. She sent me to a Rheumatologist a month later who prescribed a smaller dose of prednisone in a year long declining dose called a taper. I’m six months in and have the dose down to 4mg a day. Some people online are saying that you shouldn’t lower your dose below your pain level. But I’m willing to accept some pain because this drug is all kinds of bad.

After my yearly physical a couple weeks ago I was warned about high Cholesterol. She advised another drug for that. But I didn’t want to add more pharmaceuticals. I’ve been down this road before. You go to a physical feeling great, and all you get is gloom and doom. That’s why I waited 3 years since my last one.

Years ago I found I could lower my cholesterol and improve other numbers by going on what is basically a vegan diet. No red meat, flour or sugar. And especially stay away from the delicious $9 a pound hot bar at Metro Market. That had become a regular thing. I’d load up on mac and cheese, cheesy lasagna, meatballs, basically anything that looked delicious. And this was typically after Sue and I had exercised on the hills. We had a “we earned it” attitude. And the pounds packed on.

One of the reasons I don’t get too worked up about Cholesterol reports is because of my grandma. When she was 97 she was still living alone, with her dog, in her old house on the West Side. This would have been around 1990. Dad was doing for grandma what Sue is now doing for her mom, taking her groceries, helping out whenever needed. Anyway, dad took her for her yearly physical. They told grandma that her cholesterol was high and she should change her diet, or maybe even get on some pills to reduce her cholesterol.

Grandma asked the doctor what cholesterol was. The doctor told her it was something they had just invented. It was a way to measure, or predict your predisposition towards heart attacks and strokes. Grandma just laughed and told the doctor that she had got to 97 just fine and wasn’t about to make any changes. She lived another 2 years before old age finally got her.

She used to tell me that she wasn’t having very much fun anymore. She had out lived all of her friends and siblings. She had her vinyl talking books, church every Sunday, and the occasional visits from family on holidays. But other than that it was a lonely life. I went down and drew her portrait once. She loved that and we talked a lot about art and getting older.

Huh. I just looked and I don’t seem to have any photos online of my two drawings of Grandma. I’ll have to look into that.

I do have friends who have died from heart attacks though. I mean, I’m not oblivious of the dangers of clogged arteries. A couple weeks ago I combined intermittent fasting with the vegan diet. I have the occasional slab of salmon or chicken, but only between 5pm and 10pm. Sometimes I breakdown at 3pm if I’m really hungry. My motto is: “Hunger is not a problem I need to fix.” I know it sounds elitist, very first world…but this is where I live. I also like the clarity that comes with fasting. It’s like my body is on high alert, constantly looking for food. I’ll catch a whiff of someone eating food and my senses light up. That doesn’t happen when you eat normally.

So anyway, I was very pleased to see 166 pounds on the scale this morning, down from 176 at Thanksgiving. Now to go get some exercise, and skip the reward afterward. I was just perusing some old journal entries and I found one from May 21, 1999. In it, I complain about 165 being fat. Jeez, I’ve really slipped up in the last 30 years.

Big Blue to Josh

Posted by on February 19th, 2024  •  0 Comments  •  Full Article

Avalanche on Panorama Pt.

Sorry for the disjointed out of order chaos of this entry. I’m covering about 3 months here, and to be honest my mind has been a jumble lately. It hasn’t helped that I decided to cancel my Photoshop subscription. That means I had to switch to Gimp and Darktable to be able to use HEIF and CR3 image files from my iPhone and Canon, respectively.

I took the avalanche photo a couple days ago. I was skinning up, heard a whoop, and saw the hundred foot wide slab avalanche sliding down at speed. The snowboarder who triggered it was skiing beside it. I watched as it slowed down and stopped. The boarders buddies came skiing down through the people skinning up, but to skiers left of the slide. Everyone acted like nothing had happened. The skinners kept going up, despite the obvious danger. It had blown hard from the East the night before when it snowed 12 inches. They were on a wide open West facing avalanche slope, and the conditions were clearly extremely dangerous. Worst of all, the snowboarder, who should have been changing his underwear, was instead putting his skins on to go back up for another run. Reminds me of this old saying: “God watches out for children, drunks and fools”

Avalanche on Panorama Pt.
Avalanche on Panorama Pt.

I passed on the yearly membership sale at the climbing gym. Instead I let my last membership play out to the last day. The December 10, 2022 purchase lasted until January 28. I bought a monthly membership for $86. The desk lady said I could freeze it an unlimited number of times. So now, when I head out on a trip I won’t be paying for a gym while I’m out of state. 

I’ve been hitting it every few days thanks to Chris and Gina. I also sometimes climb with Alex and Ethan though they are into twelves. I’m building some plastic power after a month of this and can now get up all the ten minus climbs. They aren’t a cake walk, but I can usually cleanly figure them out, though there may be whining. Last night the place was humming as they were having a “queer mountaineers” event. There was a big welcome sign on a table where you could grab a rainbow wristband. It was nice of them to put that on. Even Tod, the owner was there, climbing with Justin and friends.  I love that the owner of our gym is not just a bean counter. He’s a real climber and genuinely nice.

I’ve been riding my bike up the hills in old town. Yesterday I pedaled straight up cobblestoned Carr street without my usual zig zag switchbacking. Granted I was going very slow, but it was a steady slow…suitable for a white haired guy.

Lisa and her kids
Lisa and her kids

Both Clint and Lisa took their three year olds skiing for the first time. Rose even got on a chair lift. Clint told us he carried her off the first time, but the second time she exited on her skis, with help from dad. The look on her face as he holds her on the chair is epic.

Clint and Rose
Clint and Rose on chair lift

Sue and I spent a night at Lisa’s. We did our usual afternoon walk with her two kids, then in the morning Sue and I skinny skied down the road to the bridge. There was one inch of fresh over ice, with just 8 cars in the parking lot. Clearly everyone else also new the snow sucked. If the kids had been there I would have taken a run up the hill, but we felt bad for Lisa babysitting all alone and decided to drive back to her house.

I sewed a nice fanny pack out of medium thickness leather. It was my second try.  I recycled the leather and zipper from the first one. I’m a pro at ripping out stitches…seems to be the price of being a seamstress. The first one turned out too small, so naturally I made this one too big.  Still, bigger is better if you want to squeeze in things like a wind breaker and a water bottle, plus phone, keys and wallet.

I wanted to add extra zippered compartments. But the complexity, and fragility of zippers led me towards a simple padded divider. I also wanted to be able to attach various items vertically, and have them be removable, such as a Mace in a velcro lined sleeve. So one side of the inside is lined with soft velcro. That gives me flexibility going forward.

I sewed a fanny pack
I sewed a fanny pack
I sewed a fanny pack
I sewed a fanny pack

It’s maiden voyage was painful. The darn thing was too loaded down and kept  pulling my pants off on my bike ride. I’ve since added a supplemental shoulder strap to take the weight off the waist belt.

A friend asked me to sew a holster for their Glock 19. If you don’t know guns, Glocks are striker fired pistols, as opposed to hammer fired. They have no safety, other than a little moving bump on the trigger. Supposedly the trigger can’t be pulled accidentally due to that little bump. But Glocks are famous for ND’s. (Negligent Discharges). Some of the gun nuts on youtube even say that the holster is the safety.

There are youtube videos of cops shooting themselves. It’s called a “Glock Leg”. As in: my damn gun shot my leg, or my junk, or my stomach. This usually happens because keys, or a drawstring wanders into the holster and pulls the trigger. A good holster, and careful usage, protects the trigger from being accidentally pulled. All rifles have safeties, I have no idea why these safety less handguns have become so popular. They are the standard for police departments. Anyway, my friend wanted a holster that would accommodate the laser.

There was a lot of prep work to get the pistol ready for molding in the holster press. I had to fill in the ejection port with a custom carved chunk of wood. And the whole point of the holster was to protect the stupid trigger. You pull it, it goes bang. I had to cut two aluminum plates that sandwiched the trigger. Then I had to screw them together, anchoring them around the trigger. This way the molding process would have a blank where the trigger was. You can actually buy plastic replica guns that already have the molding prep work done. They come naked, and prepped at around $45 each. Holster making is big business. If I was younger and needed a side job it might be fun. Certainly easier than selling paintings. Anyway, I like making things, especially from leather, so that was a fun project.

I made a holster for a friend
I made a holster for a friend
holster press
holster press, yeah I made that too.

Big Blue and Josh

Regarding my Xmas Day trip to Jtree…it’s been almost a month and I’ve forgotten most of the details. Here is what I remember.

I had just been to Josh at Thanksgiving with Sue and didn’t want to incur another $1000 gas bill. JH offered to drive his Taurus (Big Blue) which gets almost twice the MPG.

My first clue that Big Blue was going to be a mistake was when we got on the freeway and it gave a violent lurch. 

“What was that? It felt like slippage in a bad transmission.”

JH: “I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of that. I had the code read at Schucks and it said EGR valve, which I replaced. But it might also be the back sparkplugs which are old. I was able to replace the front 3 but I couldn’t access the back 3.”

His 2002 Taurus also had a scary tendency to die at idle in traffic jams. This is not in itself dangerous, but it is very frustrating and stressfull…especially if you don’t know the secret series of key turns and shift lever manipulations required to restart it…over and over.

To my great surprise, we did make it 1000 miles to the park gate. In the usual traffic jam to enter, I pulled over and let him take over for the stop and go traffic. No way was I driving that chronically stalling junker through a mile long traffic jam.

But I must acknowledge, it did get us down and back. I mean, kudos to JH for knowing his car.  But considering the scary driving I sat through with both JH and T, it might be one of those things where you simply live longer by spending more money. JH has a tendency to tail end at speed which is unnerving to someone used to defensive driving. Lisa commented that I should just drive next time. She was like: “Your life is worth $1000!” Actually, it would have cost me around 700, since he does chip in. But splitting his gas in Big Blue cost maybe $250. 

Regarding the climbing: I was able to redeem my honor on the 5.6 Double Dip route. That thing is so run out! At the move where I backed off last time, I forced myself, against my better judgement…to keep climbing up. I got up into a dead end and started freaking. I was too far right and there was nothing but slippery slopers. No hands at all. I considered stepping up on the slopers, but happened to look left…which was technically the wrong direction….the bolt was off to the right….and saw a decent dip for my foot. I stepped left, and found a sequence that got me up to the 1 inch horizontal ledge. 

Once there, I saw I could clip the bolt if I could do a no hands traverse about 12 feet right. At that point I was looking down the throat of a 30 foot slab fall. It was one of those defining moments where you question your life choices. No one was going to rescue me. It was two choices: 1. take the fall; or 2. climb and hope you don’t fall. I went with door number 2. 

JH and Tim led Penny Lane. I was still burned out on runnouts so I followed it. Tim and I climbed Eff Four, the mellow 5.6 multipitch right of Heart and Sole. Tim has a habit of walking off barefoot. He does great so he must have thick skin.

Barefoot Tim
Barefoot Tim

When we arrived at the crowded first come first served campground the day after Xmas we knew that Dennis, Cam and Carmen were in 34, and Craig was in 10. But as soon as we drove past Toe Jam I saw Handsome Dave and his little black Pontiac hatchback in site 30. We figured we could make that work, but it was great to also have our other friends in the campground for back up options.

Handsome Dave
Handsome Dave

JH and I climbed the easy warm up to the left of the Flake. As we were descending we saw Cam and Carmen walking back from Illusion Dweller. I hadn’t seen them in a couple years. They invited us to camp in Dennis’s spot, since he was in town for a night catching up on work. I slept out in my bivy sack, which was very warm despite the 30 degree night.

While JH was cooking breakfast I did the dawn patrol. We really needed the ham radios as there is no cell service down on the road. But we thought we didn’t have room in his tiny car. If we had them, I could have called him to bring the car over when I found an empty site.

Dave belaying
Dave belaying

As it played out, I found site 27 empty. I laid out my sleeping pad on the table and sat down in the site to establish our claim. I glanced over at Craig and Daves sites, hoping for reinforcement, but everyone was asleep. I was glad to be in my expedition puffy. It was an hour’s wait before anyone woke up. 

Finally I saw Handsome Dave moving around 3 campsites away.  Dave immediately recognized the dilemma and interrupted his breakfast plans to drive his Pontiac over to 27 which anchored the site.  

Me and JH in site 27
Me and JH in site 27

I did climb a couple routes with Craig and Vladimir. Craig and I did Geronimo Finish, traversing in from the right. It was great to have a 5 up there. I’m pretty sure I could lead it by approaching via Dogleg.

One night I was on my second Mikes Hard when Craig appeared out of the darkness at our campfire.

“How’s it going Mark?”

“Ah, great, just finished dinner, hitting a Mikes.”

“You want to go do Hobbit Roof in the moonlight?”

“What? Didn’t you get enough climbing during the daylight?”

“No, we were hanging out with the kids, scrambling around the campsite.”

“Ah Jeez! I was just getting comfortable. But it’s not like we haven’t done this before (6 years back). I can’t say no…it would mean I’m getting old”

“Yupp, can’t have that.”

Vladimir and Cole also walked over with us. Vlad brought his big Canon and a remote flash. Craig led the 10+ face move by red headlamp, cleanly, in the dark. Neither Vlad nor I could follow it cleanly, not the face move or the overhung roof.

Hobbit Roof, PC: Vladimir Bobov
Me following Hobbit Roof, PC: Vladimir Bobov

Diane and Joan showed up on Thursday and we got them a campsite by the second night. Dave, JH, Joan, Diane and I all walked over to Sports Challenge rock where I led a stiff and awkward 5.8.

The next day Dave led the 10+ Exorcist at Hall of Horrors while I led a 5.8 to the left. Mine had a flaring start but good otherwise. We all followed the Exorcist but that crux is hard! You have to layback the side of the crack on tips.

Bat tent and a storm approaching
My Bat tent and a storm approaching, Big Blue ready for action

Probably the best climb I did was following Dave up Left Banana Crack. Right Banana looked great also but it’s an eleven, though it looked like solid hands and I was tempted. Perhaps on my next trip when I’ve warmed up and not suffering from Long Covid aches and pains.

I did my usual trips up Mikes Books, Hands Off, Toe Jam and Bat Crack. JH had a bad eye on our trip to Indian Cove so Tim and I did a trip up The Duchess. He chose to combine pitches one and two so I was surprised to get to the belay ledge and see the rope continuing up…though a body slot tunnel! It had been 30 years since I’d done that pitch. As I was crawling up through the wedged washing machine sized boulders I prayed that they wouldn’t move and pin me in place. The walk off was cake, and we did two of the bolted lines on the way out.

On the last day JH led Photog. It’s only 5.6 but that thing is sketchy! The traverse on the vertical bottom 50 feet is incredibly intimidating for both leader and follower. Pro is minimal for both. I hesitated to commit to that move for a long 10 minutes. Didn’t help that it was freezing in the shade. I had to step on shoelace sized flakes with both feet while doing a gaston on a rotten flake. Then I reached up with my frozen fingers to a half inch ledge. It quickly got easier with jugs…but that move! No way that is 5.6, I don’t care what anyone says. This is the same crag with Illusion Dweller on the sunny side. The walk off was a cakewalk.

On the drive home we stopped for the night at Castle Crags. I slept in my 40 year old Early Winters bivy sack. I really need to sew a better, bigger bivy. Just a simple hoop to keep the fabric off my face would be so nice. I’m envisioning two exterior poles with the breathable fabric attached with snap on clips. It’s got to be super quick and pack small.