Laps on the tennis court

Ping pong started up again at the community center. Sue and I have been having a lot of fun there. We know many of them going back 3 years now. Most of them are our age, not because it’s for seniors, but because it’s in the mornings on a weekday. It’s doubles ping pong so not only do you play the game, but you also have to avoid your partner as you dance in and out of play.

I’ve also been to the climbing gym about once a week with Chris and or Alex. It’s good to keep up some gym power for pulling on plastic. The skills do transfer over to outdoor climbing a bit. But my main sport, and the most exciting one is still the unicycle. I practice about 2 hours a day.

It must seem odd to an outsider why a bicycle with only one wheel would catch my fancy. They took a perfectly good, stable transportation device and cut it in half. What were they thinking? And why would anyone want to learn to ride something so difficult? These are questions that I ponder.

Maybe it’s just for the challenge? Initially I thought it would be a cool and compact way to bring a bike in the car. It’s so small it doesn’t have to ride on top. And the guy I saw riding around the campground at Joshua Tree looked really cool. He made it look so fun and easy.

The price of entry was very low. We found one second hand locally for $60. But it almost put me in the hospital. I did a backwards fall onto concrete landing on my elbow and tailbone. This was before I learned to armor up. My elbow hurt for a month, and Sue gave the sport up on the spot.

But bone headed me…that just upped the ante. I kept at it. For some bizarre reason I thought the sport was worth the risk. Anyway I’m almost 6 weeks in and it’s finally getting easier. My old 1980 broken ankle is not happy with the sport. It’s not liking all the jumping off that occurs when I crash. So far it’s just stiff, and loosens up with time. Hopefully I’m not damaging it.

Tennis court zero, Unicycle one

Does not require a push

I’m on my 6th day of riding my new 29 inch unicycle. I had my 19 inch dialed in to where I could reliably ride 120 feet. But this new bigger wheel is very different. I’m only 10 inches higher in the air, but it feels so much more dangerous. Surprisingly, the falls feel about the same. I’m not hitting any harder. In uni jargon falls are called UPD’s. (Un Planned Dismounts). As one gets more graceful, the UPD becomes a simple stop where you gently step off, like stepping down off the last stair on the porch.

There is a certain ponderous momentum that has to follow through before I get spit off onto the tarmac. So even though I’m falling from higher up, I don’t seem be hitting harder. It’s still just a light jump down onto the pavement / tennis court. I’ve learned to tighten the top lacing hole on my high top loggers to give me more ankle support.

But today the space aliens had stolen my brain. I spent at least an hour falling off repeatedly and immediately. Thoughts of selling the damn thing passed through my mind. Like, what happened to all my skill and knowledge? How could I be so terrible when just two days before I’d been pedaling 60 feet? Over and over I’d pull myself upright on the tennis court fence, only to fall off after pedaling a yard. To the neighbors around the park I must have looked like a madman: getting on, falling off, over and over.

I could picture them looking out into the drizzle at this crazy person beating themselves up at a sport in which they clearly have zero talent…so pathetic. I found myself falling into that loop of self doubt…the one where you know you’re going to be bad, so of course, you’re bad, as expected, and repeat.

But after an hour of being a total sap, and as the June rain started to soak the court, I made a little discovery. Well, several actually.

  1. The fence is not your friend. Everything you need to learn happens away from the fence.
  2. You must be in perfect balance before you launch away from the fence. DO NOT push off the fence…because that push ruins your balance.
  3. Once you find that still moment of perfect 360 degree balance, cock your hips and shoulders forward and start to fall to the front. As you fall, pedal out of the fall, steadily. Not too fast or too slow, but plan on at least a few rotations.
  4. That momentum will give you a gyroscopic stability side to side. And that stability is maintained as long as you keep pedaling.
  5. Today, of all days, considering the bad first hour…today I pedaled the new 29er all the way across the tennis court: 3 courts, from fence to fence.

That was yesterday: Saturday. Today I did it again. I started at Jefferson park and got 30 feet on my second launch. I made it across a few times before tennis players showed up and I diverted to Whittier park. I did full transits at least 5 times in a row. It started to feel much more natural. I had more weight on the seat.

With more seated weight, it takes less effort to pedal and you can get into a rhythm that feels very stable. Falling off is less of a concern and you can start to think about the process of steering, which is also new. In general it was less thinking, more solid launches with error free stability. Almost like I knew what I was doing.

In other news, today I completed 4 repair projects on my sewing machines, i have the industrial Juki, and an old 1950’s home machine: (1.) added new leather lacing strips to my worn out red rock shoes; (2.) re-sewed the detaching neoprene wear panels on my black and green rock pack; (3.) repaired a rip in my ultra light 3 oz climbing wind shirt; (4.) Fixed my skate boarding wrist guard gloves. I opened the glove side seam and replaced the ripped one mm leather with full grain 3 mm leather.

And two days later (today) I ended up at Ruston point on the bike path overpass. My first launch was a 60 footer…that has never happened. Ruston is a fun place to ride because there are no tennis players to compete with. On a weekday it’s pretty quiet, just the occasional joggers and walkers. Often there is a long line of cars waiting to board the ferry. I wonder what they think about the wacky guy on the unicycle.

I was doing quite well, riding halfway along the bridge…about 100 feet. I still find this sport exhausting. It reminds me of skiing early in the season when I get that thigh burning sensation. It’s also extremely aerobic. I literally have to stop and lean on the railing to catch my breath.

As I was waiting for my heart to slow down, two gray haired bicyclists pedaled up and stopped. They were fascinated by my unicycle. Never mind that they were riding $4000 top of the line carbon fiber road bikes. They wanted to know all about my uni. One of them had ridden a uni in grade school but not far and not since. They knew how hard it was and we talked about the challenges of one wheel. I joked that I “should have spent more and got one with two wheels!”

They kept egging me on to ride it, they wanted to watch…like I was a tight rope walker or something. Talk about pressure! But I manned up and wobbled off, riding my usual 100 feet. As I was rolling away I heard him holler: “Good on ya, mate!”

I kept at it and finally managed to ride the entire span, or at least the first span to the turn. Which looks to be 60 meters…200 feet. My longest ride yet. Still a lot of arm flinging and wobble…but by golly I’m riding.

First attempt at a turn, filmed by Sue and Jamie, with Rose

Unicycle

For 15 hours of the 30 hour learning curve I could not pedal farther than 3 feet. Some days I’d barely go 10 inches. But after doing it for at least half an hour for two weeks I made some progress. Four days of that two weeks I wasn’t riding. I’d broken our cheap second hand uni and was waiting for a new one to arrive from Unicycle.com. In hour 16 I suddenly started putting a lot of things together.

You can watch all the youtube tutorials you want, and you can fill your mind with do’s and dont’s, but at a certain point you have to turn off all the noise and just pedal. It’s called launching in uni world. It means to leave the fence you’ve been leaning on and head out into the open, pedaling this impossible contraption called a unicycle.

Due to a disease I got in my ear in 1999, I only have one working ear…which of course contains the balance organ. Normal people have two, I’ve only got one. I thought that might impact my riding…but it hasn’t. From 3 feet at hour 15, I progressed over 4 days to 120 feet. I look like I’m really riding. In reality, I’m barely hanging on and have zero steerage. But I’ve learned to not fear the launch. There is safety and grace out there pedaling into the wind. I can stay up just fine. Not every time…but maybe 70 percent of my launches go at least 40 feet now.

Looking back, I’m amazed I stuck with it. I was so bad and so hopeless for so long! It’s really true that you just have to keep trying. I’ve heard people say that your body needs time to get used to the process. You have to strengthen critical muscles. Learning to fall safely and reliably is extremely important. No one wants to break bones. I’ve almost mastered the simple “step off” maneuver…from every possible angle. Forward, backward, to the side, at speed. I’ve done them all soooo many times, it’s automatic. I’ll be pedaling along, feel a crash coming and simply step onto the ground, easy peasy.

I did a big run today across three tennis courts in a row…about 120 feet. Never, ever thought I’d get there. I’m too old to remember how excited I was to learn to ride a bicycle….but it must be comparable. Maybe even better since the uni is much harder. I mean, a bike pretty much rides itself once it’s going. It’s totally stable. A uni must be ridden every inch. I was dripping sweat today after a couple hours of riding.

And just yesterday I nailed my first free start. This means I wasn’t holding onto a wall for balance as I started pedaling. My friends are laughing at me for entering this bizarre sport. I seem to have a knack for picking activities that are completely out there on the fringes of normality. Ping pong, climbing, painting, blues harmonica, inventing, metal working, and now Uni. One wonders what will be next?

Broke my artist block

I’ve been sort of down in the dumps lately. I’ve been cranky around the house…just generally off my feed a bit. I think it might have started back in March when we got shut down by weather at Indian Creek. When I’m not painting (or working) I guess I rely on climbing as a source of…what is the right word…satisfaction? But life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

Anyway, I’ve also been fighting off a bad case of artist block going way back to last fall. I don’t feel at all like painting. Not even a flicker of interest for sketching around the house. Which is weird because I’ve got sketchbooks going back to my teens in 1971 where I’m drawing something every other day. It might just be a sketch of my hand, or a car in a parking lot. Point is, there was something driving me to make art.

And I know it is totally normal for that to come and go. Grandma saw this in me back in 1989. I was driving her home from a family dinner at dad’s house. I had shown the family some recent paintings and I’d also mentioned that I was blocked again…didn’t feel inspired.

She looked at me with those 94 year old eyes and said: “Mark, promise me you’ll never stop painting.”

“Okay”, I said, not really meaning it.

Grandma had an aunt who was a famous painter. She took grandma on a tour through Europe when grandma was a teenager…which would have been 1910?. She is listed in a book entitled American Women Artists of the 19 century. I checked it out once from the local library and there she was. I have one of her paintings, as does my sister.

A few days ago I had to repair a painting a collector had broken. I was really surprised that I was able to get inspired standing on a strangers back deck, painting a mountain that wasn’t there. I didn’t even have a photo, just a few other similar paintings from my “unsold” box. And yet, there I was, living in the moment, happy as a clam. I had my tunes on, she was coming and going but it was just like painting at the mountain. Nothing mattered but the magic flowing from my hands. I was happy. Go figure.

So with that recent history I finally followed through on my promise to Grandma. TBH it was also on my todo list. I brought a few monotone paintings of Josh out to the garage, set up my easel and painted Chimney Rock in full, glowing color. Just stood there and created from thin air. It was so good I was busting some moves to my iPhone playlist. Even more impressive is that I’ve been afraid of using full color in Josh. I could never color rock with oil. Always did it in monotone. Like, twenty in a row. Now that I’ve popped that cherry, I’m going to do one of Rainier. Watch out Grandma, Unky Mark is back.

Solar Power in Tundra

On my last long trip we were car camping for two weeks in Josh. Because we weren’t driving the car, I was unable to use my inverter to charge my camera battery. The easy solution would have been to buy a new battery, but Canon is backordered. I’ve also dreamed about a 12 volt fridge for a while…buying ice is frustrating.

When my dividend arrived from REI it was enough to pay for a 100 watt Goal Zero solar panel. In my last post I talked about building a DIY solar generator. I have since upgraded that to a real car sized LifePo4 battery in a bigger, stronger milk crate. Today I finally put the solar panels on the top of the Tundra and hooked them up to the milk crate. I have 4 amps coming in to the battery with one amp going out to the strip lights inside the canopy.

The solar charge controller is managing everything and will supposedly shut down the power if the battery gets overcharged, or undercharged. I’m running the canopy lights off the Load terminal on the solar charge controller.

In other news, we broke the pedal off our beater secondhand unicycle taking so many falls. I have a new one on order from unicycle.com. I got what is called a “Trials” uni. They are built for mountain biking trails and lots of hard falls.

I had one of my collectors buy a pastel painting 30 years ago. She saw some dust on the matt and decided to re-frame it. The frame maker told her she could avoid more dust by spraying it with fix. The fix ruined the painting. It looked like it was under 2 layers of wax paper. All the vibrant color of the raw pastel was totally killed. You could sort of see the old painting but it was awful.

She found me online and I drove up there yesterday with some unsold paintings from that era. I used those as a reference to re-paint her painting, bringing it back to life. I’ve never done that before. It was actually quite fun seeing the painting start to breath again. I’m not sure it’s as good as it was before…but it’s definitely quite pretty. I know that darn mountain so well I can paint it when it isn’t even there.

March Road Trip

Pictures first, I’ll write the narrative later. This is taking a long time to write…lot of things to do at home after a month long road trip.

A week ago when I got home I started working on Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car. The first two weeks of practicing it focused exclusively on guitar. Singing along with it was absolutely hopeless. The timing of the picking is so precise that is has to become automatic. And for my aging train wreck of a mind that took a loooong time. Two weeks to be precise, playing it for an hour a day.

But today, I listened to her sing it on this tutorial and started singing along…badly. I had to simplify the chords initially to give me the spare brain bandwidth for voice and guitar together, all while listening and playing along with them. But finally, something clicked and the flood gates opened. I stopped the video and started actually playing it all by myself. So fun!

I’ve been playing Fast Car for a couple weeks now and it’s starting to smooth out. I’m into the polishing process now. This is where I’m relaxed enough playing it that I can start to think about what the words mean, and how to add emotion to the verses.

This is the longest I’ve ever taken to write a trip report. It was also my longest trip. I’ve been diverted by two problems I noticed on the journey. One was the roof top solar heated shower pipe. All the shower places closed down due to covid. Our shower does work, but it’s slow and cold. I looked into instant water heaters but the cheap ones had bad reviews and I don’t want to spend big dollars on something you can do perfectly will with a pot of warm water…pioneer style.

So I built a heat exchanger coil from 35 feet of one quarter inch copper refrigerator tubing. I coiled it up small enough to fit in one of our camping cook pots. I dropped that coil into a large pot of boiling water and it heated the water up nicely. When I did a smaller coil (started with 10 feet) in a smaller pot the water didn’t stay warm. The cold shower water coming through the line cooled the boiling water.

I needed the larger pot to offset the reverse cooling of the heat exchanger. My problem now is that water is scarce while dry camping in the desert. So I need to try heating the coil in a campfire bread maker stove…which I don’t own.

After that I started working on solar. We were climbing in one place so long that we couldn’t charge my camera batteries. They run on 110 and take up to four hours…and we weren’t doing more than 20 minute shopping trips. I’ve always resisted solar, but my REI dividend covered a goal zero panel and I thought: why not?

But storing the electricity led me down a rabbit hole of information I was unaware of. Initially I was tempted by the goal zero ecosystem. Its plug and play but extremely pricey for what you get. I ended up building this with a small battery and some other components I had on hand from ham radio.

It was a huge learning curve…and now I’m rebuilding it with a much better battery and some other improved circuitry…so we’ll see.

And then for some dumb reason I dropped everything and bought a used unicycle. I’m all over the place these days.

My most recent diversion was jury duty. As a working stiff, I’ve always been excused from jury duty. This time I had no excuse. We spent 4 days working through the process with 60 people for one trial, whittling it down to just enough for a jury. I had a bad attitude at first…but gradually came to realize that, at least in some trials, it can be an honor to serve.

I told them early on that I have an intense dislike for lawyers, thinking them too rich and often dishonest. And that I thought there was far too much litigation in this country. I could get much deeper into the experience but we were warned not to talk about the case.

I was surprised at how nice the judge and lawyers were. They asked us over and over if we needed to be excused. “We totally understand if you don’t want to serve…for any reason at all. Just let us know, it’s OK, we get it.” They totally understand how taking time away from an important job…or maybe your only job…is a huge financial burden. I was not expecting that amount of kindness and humanity from people wrapped up in the murky world of legal proceedings.

Q: Why won’t sharks attack lawyers?
A: Professional courtesy

Towards the end I was actually hoping they’d pick me. In a way, it meant I had integrity, and I could be an impartial juror. I was starting to make friends in the crew…there were some really nice people there. But I’m guessing my initial attitude towards the case (which I can’t disclose) showed I might not be impartial.

After getting out of jury duty today Sue and I walked the unicycle down to the park where there was a narrow fenced walkway where we could practice. At 14, I couldn’t ride my brothers unicycle. But now at 68, Sue and I are making some progress. It seems…not impossible. Still extremely hard and scary…but maybe, maybe if we keep trying, we might just get it.

I saw a guy riding one around Josh last trip. It would fit in the truck better than a bicycle. Oh, and Clint finally replaced Jamies wrecked car. Nothing like a car problem to wreck a household budget.

In our family, we’ve wrecked 4 cars, including my Tacoma which was hit and run by a sideswiper right in front of our house. One of the others was Dan hitting an elk, while the other two were Jamie and Dan sitting in traffic and getting rear ended. All 4 cars were totaled at a time when car prices and availability is awful due to covid.

We really are so lucky to all have good jobs, and or retirement, so that we can recover from financial disasters like car accidents. Many people seem to whiz around in their cars thinking it’s no big thing. But for me and Sue, driving feels like a big responsibility. Maybe it’s just that we’ve been driving so long, over a million miles, that it feels like the odds are against us. No one is perfect forever. On the other hand, we have some serious skills after all those miles. So who knows.

January in Joshua Tree

Dave and I headed south mid January towards St. George.  I’m putting the photos gallery first,  while the more narrative storytelling is below the gallery.

Along the way we met Fletch, Sam, Garret, Anni and Brian. I’m of the ‘more is merrier’ way of thinking. As long as everyone can lead and is vaccinated, it usually works out. It’ll be funny to read this in ten years when we’ve all forgotten about Covid.

Our first stop after the 26 hour drive was a 10 minute walk to a cliff in downtown St. George, right above a soccer field. We were so close we could hear the children kicking the balls. Dave led Wide Boy  and Deface Crack. The rock quality was surprisingly close to Indian Creek. We felt lucky to have nailed the warm weather after that long drive. I struggled from jet lag, but it would be fun to go back when I’m warmed up.

Fresh off the drive from Seattle in St. George, Utah

We crashed on BLM land near Prophesy Wall for the next few nights. It was deserted up there with only a herd of cows wandering around. I was woken at dawn by an odd rhythmic sound, realizing later it was cows grazing next to our truck. We only saw one other van and Dave left his tent up with no problem.

Snow Canyon is shady in the morning so we climbed a 5.8 crack on the sunny side then at noon followed the sun to the three pitch 5.8  Just Deserts and a couple other harder lines. Pictured below is me rapping off Dave’s sketchy 5.10a. The route went up the left arete above the huge cave. The moves felt like stepping on air. By the third morning the sun was gone and the weather was overcast. We woke up, looked around and bailed for Vegas.

Me rapping off Daves 5.10 at St. George, Snow Canyon, Photo by Dave

When we got to Vegas we had enough of an afternoon left to climb Physical Graffiti and the first pitch of the 5.9 sport route Big Bad Wolf. Someday I want to lead the top two pitches on that one, they look great.

We slept at Skid Row and rose at dawn to climb the 5.8 six pitch Purblind Pillar. Dave really stepped up to the plate to cover my weak leading skills. I only led two of the six pitches this time.  For some weird reason I was ‘off my feed’ for the first week of this almost 3 week trip. With a few exceptions, I was climbing so badly I didn’t even recognize myself. I knew there was a real climber inside my head somewhere…but I couldn’t  make him come out to play. It was only after we got to Jtree that I started to climb normally.

Dave saw Elvis!
Dave pitch 5 Purblind Pillar, Vegas

After finishing Purblind in the dark we decided I was too slow for long alpine routes in winter. Dave had wanted to do another long one the next day…but after thinking it over we decided to bail for Joshua Tree. It was a good excuse to do some night driving instead of sitting around the propane campfire. Simultaneously I had heard that our Indian Creek friend Sam was in Red Rocks. I regretted not calling her because she told me later that she had been climbing with boulderers and would have enjoyed some multipitch trad. If you don’t know bouldering…it’s rock climbing, but without ropes. And yes, it’s as dangerous as it sounds.

We crashed in the desert on the way to Josh. There is  a ton of BLM land coming into 29 Bombs from the North. In the early morning we parked at Intersection Rock and did “the walk” around the full campground, making friends and admiring all the fancy rigs. Not finding a campspot, we decided to cook breakfast.

Dave (hereafter called Chef) appointed me sous-chef and began teaching me how to prepare Egg McMuffins. He denies ever working at McDonalds.

  • Chef starts by toasting the English muffins
  • Once brown, set those aside in a warming pan
  • Crack 4 eggs and drop them separately in the skillet
  • Break open the yokes so the yellow spreads a bit for flavor
  • Peel off 4 double slices of salami and put them in the pan on the sides
  • Slice half an onion and put the onion rings next to the salami
  • Once the eggs are ready to flip, cut them apart into four separate eggs
  • Flip the eggs (this was my job…as sous-chef)
  • Put the pre-sliced cheese on the eggs, cover pan
  • While all this is going on, keep flipping the muffin halves
  • When cheese is almost soft, lift eggs onto muffin bottom – sous chef assists
  • Add fried salami and onions to egg, which melts the cheese to perfection
  • Add the top muffin and…Bob’s Your Uncle!

By the end of the trip…I was almost ready to cook these alone. Chef kept promising a promotion…but the budget was tight…I’m still hoping. With full bellys we climbed a few easy things like Toe Jam, Double Cross and Mikes Books. Dave top roped the crux on Watershute and got it third try.

After Dave led Sexy Grandma we noticed a guy having trouble on Double Cross. He froze on the upper half after running out of big gear. I quietly asked his belayer if he would be able to finish the route, and when he said no, we hung around, watching in case he needed help. Either Dave or I could have easily led it to get his gear off.

Finally we left, knowing there would likely be people around if they really needed a rescue. While we were hanging out he mentioned that they were leaving site 27 in the morning…and we said we’d stop by since we were staying in BLM and needed a campsite.

Fletch showed up that night around 8 from Santa Barbara with a guitar and some Mikes and we played our usual set under the desert stars. We’ve been jamming together for 14 years, he is one of my oldest friends. In the morning we drove up and checked in on our friends in 27. Sure enough they were packing up and seemed thankful that we had offered to help the previous night when things were going south. Dave asked if he could put his tent up while they were getting ready to leave. They concurred and we became the lucky owner of a rare campsite.

In case you don’t know, getting a site at this first come first served campground can seem impossible. Each site gets two parking spots and there are often two or more cars in. every. single. site. The rangers never take down the FULL sign. Oddly though, if you know how to play the game, getting a site only takes a couple days.

I love Joshua Tree for many reasons, but the most important thing is the quantity of easy climbs on good rock. Doesn’t matter how rusty you are, you can find climbs to lead comfortably. Many people prefer to top rope until they warm up. This is actually the norm. But I’ve observed over the decades that this TR practice leads to overcrowding on popular routes.

I’m in the minority on this opinion, but I feel that if a climb is too hard to lead, I’ll hike farther until I find something easier that I *can* lead. This frustrates some of my stronger partners, but, we’ve all got our little quirks. I like to say: “I’ve never met an easy climb I didn’t like.”

My first good lead of the trip was the 5.8 Hands Off. It’s a lovely stem box problem that eats gear the whole way up. Any time there is a crux you can place a cam above you. It’s basically top roping…but without the top rope. Because of the stem you get lots of rests to reflect on your poor life choices. There is also a great belay stance at the top that allows you to photograph your followers. Dave scrambled up to the top to get this photo:

Me leading Hands Off
Me leading Hands Off – Photo by Dave

We roamed far and wide over the next two weeks, climbing all the classics plus a few new ones. We were in true hidden valley for Fisticuffs, Tumbling Rainbow and Illusion Dweller; at Echo for Tim’s Valentine, F8, Popes Crack, Penny Lane and Touch & Go; up Steve Canyon for Deflowered, Grand Theft Avacado; up in the Wonderland for High Strung and Hex Marks the Poot; plus all the standard campground climbs like Toe Jam, Overhang Bypass, Damper and Dandelion.

Our hardest climbs were Illusion Dweller, Loose Lady, Bird on a Wire, Dandelion and Fistifuffs. I was surprised how hard Loose Lady seemed. It’s a mix of face and slab on thin edges. Sue and I used to love it, but pulling hard on those crimpers seems to aggravate my 68 year old hands. Even my feet were complaining. Maybe it was just near the end of the trip and I was getting tired? I hope it isn’t one of those climbs that I have to cross off the list ’cause I got too old. While we were packing up a young couple came up and sent it effortlessly…just like we used to do in our twenties. We all get our chance to be young, strong and pretty.

Chilean girl on Loose Lady
Chilean girl cruising up Loose Lady 10a

Nights at Joshua Tree in the winter are long and cold. Once the sun goes down you have three choices: (1.) Go to bed early, (2.) shiver around a campfire, or (3.) go night hiking. For those in the know, there is a classic series of night hikes around Hidden Valley. I met the legendary aid climber Ammon McNeely thru a mutual friend in 2011. He taught me how to navigate through the park using landmarks that are visible even without moonlight. One of his guiding principles is that you can’t do it sober…simply not allowed. This led to some interesting shenanigans the first night he took us out, but that is another story.

Ammon McNeely at Iron Door cave in 2011

No one at our site had done the night tour so I volunteered to lead. We visited the Iron Door cave and the Hobbit Hole, a grand time was had by all. It’s fun to bring a good camera out there for night exposures. I had my full frame Canon 6D.

Iron Door cave
Friends in the Iron Door cave, lit by headlamps

Eventually all our friends left and it was just me and Dave breaking into the third week of steady climbing. I had done a good painting and led Fistifcuffs, while he had led Illusion Dweller. Those are both proud sends so we’d kind of accomplished everything we’d come down for. I followed him up Overhang Bypass, which has a scary traverse for both the leader and follower. It’s only 5.7 but it’s one of those climbs that seems to never feel easy or safe. On the summit, I broached the subject of heading for home. Sue was getting lonely…and I sort of needed another rest day…maybe we should head North? Dave concurred and we packed up.

He taught me a cool trick on the road trip home. I was ready to crash in my usual noisy rest area or truck stop. He suggested taking an exit where there was a long stretch of blackness…as in, no houses or towns. His working theory is to take the exit, then look at a map. Look for roads that fork out like the roots of a tree…getting smaller and smaller…with no houses at the ends. Typically this may mean an open farm field, or old logging road. It worked great, and was far quieter than a parking lot full of rumbling diesel trucks.

BLM sunrise
Stealth camping sunrise on the drive home

I love going on these climbing trips, but it’s equally fun to come home and see my family. Absence doth makes the heart grow fonder.

Sue and Rose, our grandchild.

Forums about climbing

I’ve been off Facebook for a few months now. My account isn’t dead, it’s suspended…like a leave of absence. I shut it down after they were called before congress by a whistleblower. She said they were choosing profit over kindness.

In addition to this blog I’ve long been a fan of online forums about climbing. It used to be, and still can be, a way to meet climbing partners. We also share stories about our trips, discuss what gear is good or bad, read news stories of concern to climbers.

There have been many forums over the years. The first one I hung out at was cascadeclimbers.com, and that was back at the start of this century. There have been others, but the most current one is mountainproject.com. It has turned into a multipurpose website. You can also download it onto your phone and it functions as a gps enabled guidebook, no cell service required.

It’s a very robust app. You can make comments on a route while you are climbing that later get uploaded to the cloud. There is a tick list function for how well and when you have climbed something, and all that gets uploaded and shared.

As with most online forums there are a lot of angry keyboard warriors, but there are also kind and generous souls looking for like minded people to have a discussion about matters of consequence.

Recently there was a 12 page thread where the original poster (OP) asked a sincere question about whether climbing wrecked marriages. His marriage was failing so the post was written from the heart and many people responded in kind. I read about 8 pages before deciding to offer my viewpoint.

Before I get into my online response, I do sometimes wonder how rare it is that we both come from families where divorce is so rare. All 4 children of my grandma had lifetime marriages, as did she, and her parents. Of my 13 cousins, there have been 3 that have been divorced. The rest have lifetime marriages…well, at least so far, but we are all in our 60s. My brothers kids, and my kids seem normal and happily married. My sister’s kids have just started getting married.

So what is it? Is there a thread of relationship integrity that flows down through the family? Some super gene that makes us kinder than the average Joe? I’m certainly not perfect. I can get moody and mean for no reason whatsoever. Sue is usually the only one that sees it. I think/hope she has learned to live with my occasional bursts of rudeness.

I guess you could say, like any married couple, we have arguments occasionally…probably mostly because I’m being a d$ck. Like I say, not a perfect human being. Still, 90 percent of the time we get a long quite well and see eye to eye. We have different passions, but also many in common. I don’t want to hex myself by saying this…but at times it even seems the romance is still alive…well, maybe that’s going too far.

I could link to the post directly…but you can find it easily enough if you are curious.

I put a couple hours into crafting a carefully worded response. I’m posting it here to be sure it gets preserved. I have total control over this website…whereas mountainproject may or may not stand the test of time. Here  are the words from my post:

//////*****//////

Sorry to hear about the relationship challenges. I’m no marriage counselor, but I did marry my best climbing partner in 1979…and we’re still climbing together…with two grandkids now.

Having a significant other who climbs is the gold standard. Nothing beats seeing those warm eyes looking at you from the other side of the ledge. I’ve got some great climbing buddies, but it’s not the same as ‘friends with benefits’.

I remember a time about 7 years in when I was not real happy in our marriage. She was perfect: smart,  fit, strong, funny, a perfect climber babe…but something was off kilter in my head. For some dumb reason I was ready to bail. But Thursday rolled around and I was like: “Dang, I need a partner this weekend. Maybe I can put up with her for a few more days.”

On Saturday we were half way up a multipitch route, sitting on a fat ledge and not saying much. I was racking for the next pitch and happened to look over at her. Something clicked into place in my brain and I realized I was on a ledge with a very beautiful woman…and she was my woman. Climbing basically saved my marriage, over and over.

Things got harder for us when we had kids. But we were lucky to have my mom and dad nearby. They’d come on our climbing trips to babysit in the campsite. Both sets of parents were always happy to babysit for day trips. She and I would climb all day…then come back to the kids.

We had a few partners (team of 3) who could tolerate children and  managed to still take our long climbing road trips together. I knew one guy who paid his 17 year old baby sitter to come to Yosemite for a week in the station wagon so he and his wife could still climb together.

When the kids were toddlers I cut back on climbing and did a lot of windsurfing. It was almost as fun, and didn’t require a partner. The kids liked playing on the beach…and she and I could take turns sailing.

When the kids were older, we would do compromise trips where we would climb at Smith for 4 days. The kids would play at the base of the cliff, chasing lizards and stuff. Then we’d  head out to the coast. She and the kids hiked or played in the surf while I painted landscapes. We each got what we wanted…and we were together as a family.

Now that we are in our sixties, she’s cut back on hard climbing due to some back and hand problems. Poor old body is wearing out. But she still cruises 5.9 friction and loves jtree.

I still love the dirtbag life style and take several 3 week road trips each year, plus a lot of weekends. She often flies in to join me for the last week. Again, it seems that marriage is about compromise.

She loves puttering around the yard, doing her fitness walks, and helping to babysit our two grandkids. That’s sort of a family tradition at this point. But she starts to miss me after a few weeks…as I do her.

So that’s my story. I have no easy answers…other than that climbing didn’t hurt my marriage, it saved it.

/////*** A few people thanked me for writing, they were very kind. I responded as shown below **//////

To those who commented, thanks. I’ve been incredibly lucky. I sometimes wonder if it helped that my parents, and grandparents all had lifetime marriages. My wife’s family is the same way. We may have absorbed some relationship skills growing up?

Not to say you can’t learn that stuff elsewhere, from books, therapy, life…hell, I don’t know. It’s been sad watching so many marriages fall apart around us. We often know both people. And they’re usually both super smart and kind…good climbers too. Divorce seems to be the norm, and often for the best. We’ve seen many people hook up with new partners and be stronger than ever.

I didn’t mention that we also backcountry ski together, since day one. So we have both a summer and a winter sport we love to do together. She loves to hike, which I find pointless, but she’ll lure me with the promise of a good view, so I bring my easel. It’s something else we can do together.

See you out there climbing!

Playing guitar

My Martin and I in 1979

I learned to read music in seventh grade band class: fourth chair trumpet. My brother played the clarinet and my sister the flute. Carrying instruments to school was the norm. Around that time dad bought me a Hohner 64 reed chromatic harmonica…which I still have. He played a little and taught me a few songs.

With the harmonica I was able to join the holiday sing alongs where we’d often have a crowd of aunts and uncles singing Christmas carols around the piano. My grandma and my sister-in-law were both piano teachers, and mom was a decent player as well. Dad was the choir director at our church, and his siblings: my aunts and uncles, had great voices.

No one cared if you were a little out of tune, or forgot the song halfway through and had to restart from the beginning. It was all part of the fun. Though my family was very religious, they were never pushy and  tolerated us non-believers with a quiet confidence that eventually we’d see the light.

One memorable afternoon mom had the piano tuner in. Grandma was there, along with the normal relatives that gathered for holidays. The tuner guy was a blind man of color from somewhere way down South in the Bible Belt. Think Stevie Wonder.  Olympia at that time was very white…but everyone in town knew this guy was the best piano tuner in the county. The way he manipulated the insides of our piano, you would never know he was blind. He had an “aw shucks” humbleness I remember to this day.

After he finished tuning the piano he said he needed to play a song to be sure it was right. To our families’ astonishment he began playing some of the best boogie woogie blues I’d ever heard. The man could play and he was rocking our tight laced Presbyterian world. It was just nuts watching the room go from shock to foot tapping appreciation.

In my own small way I’ve tried to carry on the tradition of amateur musicianship. Not just because it’s a family tradition but because making music is fun.  I have a collection of sheet music going back to the 1960’s. But I always keep my eye out for new songs, or old songs I’ve forgotten about.  My latest is  Take My Breath Away, made popular by a group called Berlin.

If I know the melody and I have some clean chords in my vocal range I can often play a song right from the website on the first try. Finding a new song is like having a new toy…super fun and exciting.

Many times I’ll find chords online but they are presented in a way that won’t fit on one sheet of paper. When you are playing around a campfire there’s very little room. Typically I’ll adjust the key to fit my low voice, copy the pre-formated text from the website and paste it into Word. Or, since I’m retired and don’t like their prices I use the free Libre Office. Then I work the song over for a couple days, fixing the typical flaws that come down with free stuff on the internet.

This is the first time I’ve been home for Christmas in 10 years. I’m surprised how much I’m enjoying playing the old Christmas carols. Those are some mighty fine melodies. I used to just play them with mom. She’d play the piano, with me on the harmonica, but this year I’m learning them on guitar. They have some challenging jazzy style chords…but my oh my they sound nice.

Here are some of my recent favorites songs in PDF form:

The root folder is here, if you want to see everything I’ve got up there:

All my uploaded songs.

At some point I wouldn’t mind putting these all on a big iPad…but for now I print them out and keep them in a ring binder. I keep 4 copies of each song for handing out at jam sessions.

Tutorial on how to fingerpick Shallow:

 

Take my breath away

Turkey Climbing

I drove to Smith Wednesday. Traffic was horrible passing Fort Lewis and I getting tired by the time I reached Mt. Hood. I pulled in at a snowy trail head with a single Sprinter van parked in the quiet moonlight thinking it would be a nice calm nights sleep. I was wrong.

I drink coffee and Red Bulls to keep awake. I know it’s not wise…but it seems to be the only way to do long solo drives. Problems come when I push late into the night, trying to reach a destination…in this case, a crash spot down out of the snow…or even Smith itself.

I’d just had my last Red Bull half an hour before realizing it wasn’t helping anymore. My tiredness had overcome the caffeine. At that point I encounter something I joke about called: “Managing your pharmaceuticals”.  The situation is this: You finally pull over, too tired to drive safely anymore. Sometimes I can sleep despite the caffeine. But this night I decided a shot of whiskey as a nite cap might help me sleep.

Now, I could have left that parking lot and driven further…but the tiredness and the shot of whiskey made it unwise. I was stuck. The only solution I can see is to leave in the morning. That was my original plan, but we had family over at noon and I like hanging out with the kids.

Anyway, there I was, sitting in the back of my cozy truck until 2 in the morning watching a constant stream of jacked up 4 wheel drive’s  drifting donuts in the 8 inches of un-plowed snow. When that got boring, they’d plow thru the two foot berm and hotdog around on the snow covered lawn back by the cement outhouse. There was also a snowed in road out to a campground for the more adventurous.

There were so many of them that it must be a thing. I can imagine these self centered idiots gathering in a nearby tavern talking excitedly about this one plowed trailhead up by Mt. Hood where there is an open outhouse, lots of snow and no law enforcement.

That was a lesson learned. Earlier, on the way up past Sandy, before the snow I had driven past at least 3 normal campgrounds…all dark, calm and quiet looking. I’d hoped I could get over the snowy pass down to some quiet pull outs before Warm Springs…but it was not to be.

I met Dave and Danni at the Overflow Lot at Smith the next morning. We hiked down and climbed the red arête to the right of Purple Headed Warrior…which we also climbed. Then we “did the walk” along the base and got lucky with 5 Gallon Buckets. Someone had led it, top roped a few friends and walked away from the rope, leaving it hanging. It’s typical behavior these days at Smith.

But, to their credit, they kindly offered to pull their rope if I would rescue their draws…since their only leader in the party of 6 was leading a hard ten nearby. That worked out great for us. Danni and I both led it while Dave followed in street shoes. He has a new rule: Everything I lead he follows in street shoes. What’s ironic is I did that with Kena on some trips this summer. Street shoes are more comfortable…and what goes around comes around.

I don’t remember all the routes we did but a few stand out. We did Fridays Jinx, rapping down Pack Animal in the dark. I led the second pitch…feeling tentative but solid. I tried to hand it off to Dave, who had led the more dangerous first pitch.

“Dave, I know you haven’t led this before. If you really want the lead I will happily hand it off. You’re a good partner and I wanna’ keep you happy.”

Danni observed this little exchange: “I call that BS. Uncle Mark is scared of the pitch!”

“I’m 70 percent sure I can lead it…but the 30 percent that says I can’t  is making a lot of noise. Alright, I’ll lead it…but you’ll rescue me if I chicken out, right Dave?”

A little of my skill from Indian Creek was still in play, helping me stay focused on the excellent layback and stem moves that keep the grade at 7+.  When Dave topped out in the twilight I was surprised to see he wasn’t towing a rope for Danni. She had wisely decided to bail. Dave and I put on our headlamps and walked over to the Pack Animal rappel where Danni was waiting at the bottom to make sure we got off ok.

Dave was interested in multipitch so on the next day we took a trip up White Satin. I’ve done it with Richard and Marty (may he rest in peace), so this was my third trip up. I’ve never got it clean but it’s always exciting with enough exposure  to make your knees weak. The hardest move comes right at the end of the third pitch which is an overhanging 5.9 open book. You can get up it with good stem technique but I’m usually so terrified by that point that I’ve forgotten how to climb. The stem foot holds are often on completely vertical smears that don’t look like they’d stick.

But stepping on these vertical smears in the overhanging open book is the only way up. The jams at the crux vanish for a 3 foot section. There is a blue #3 handjam…and a rattly finger jam, but those are out of reach. I think I had to layback on a flaring pod, stembox off to the left then step up on the concealed rail off to the right. That gained me a couple crucial feet.

I pulled Dave’s blue cam out of the hand jam, stuck my left hand in there and underclinged the rattly fingers to gain access to the sandy grapefruit sized knob off to the right. I pulled on the knob and lunged up for a flaring handjam on the left…which ended the crux just as all my power drained away and Dave came into view at the belay…grinning like a banshee. What a climb!

I hate to say it but the best climb of the trip was the newish sport climb: Voyage of the Cow Dog. It starts level with the top of the 600 foot tall Ship Rock and it’s a long approach. By the time you get to the third pitch you are climbing above the massive Picnic Lunch Wall.

I led the first pitch. It  got increasingly steep on some of the most uninspiring frozen mud climbing I’ve ever seen. It looked like a vertical wall of cow sh$t got dried out and petrified.  Every bolt I checked seemed solid…despite the ugly rock. Even for Smith it’s odd because there are very few embedded stones. It’s not conglomerate like Bunny Face. And despite just being an eight, some of the moves are thin, I had to hang once because stepping on a half inch edge of frozen mud seemed so improbable. After a rest I was able to “commit to the fall”. The bolt was just below my feet…assuming it was good.

This is why I’m not a huge fan of sport climbing. You have to put your life in the hands of the kind strangers who drill the bolts. Obviously we all owe a huge debt to the climbers who put up routes. But this doesn’t mean you should put complete faith in bolts found out in the wild.

Imagine if amusement park rides were put up by average Joe’s who taught themselves welding and engineering. There is no training of the workers, no government inspections, no guarantee it’s safe. Your only comfort is that lots of people have gone before you and found the bolts to be good.

The last pitch on Cow Dog takes you to the rim on an arete with 600 feet of exposure above Picnic Lunch wall. Dave had led it and made it look easy. Following it I found the moves were all there, but you had to move right at both bulges…and right meant moving out to the edge where the exposure was unnerving. I think I can lead it next time…just have to exercise some serious mind control. But you need to get up early for Cow Dog…it’s super popular.

You can often get on trad lines when the sport is crowded. One of my Smith favorites is Lions Jaw 5.7.   I told Dave and Danni that it used to be the second route past the bridge. You’d turn left after the foot bridge and the first route you came to was Zebra Zion. Lions Jaw was second. There was nothing else. Now there are at least 40 sport routes before you get to Lion’s Jaw. It’s all ancient history now…but it’s weird to have all those memories…like ghosts in my mind of past trips down there when we were young and pretty. Lions Jaw is a super fun route. You can still lead it with all passive gear.

Twas another super fun weekend at Smiffey!