On May 23, 2016

Altitude Sickness: On the slopes, at the gym, on the rock

Praise the lord and pass the mashed potatoes, this has been one of the best weeks of my life. On Monday, May 9, I hiked Superstar and skied through POWDER!

Leaving my windowless concrete bachelor bunker (free Radon!) for my morning hike-ski, I noticed a dusting of snow on the ground. No palpitations, just some dust. I thought nothing of it. Two miles later, toward the lifts I started to notice that there was an inch or so on the ground.

At the lifts, there were two inches on every non-paved surface. My excitement grew as I noticed that up on the trail, the troughs were full of fresh snow. I shook my head and rubbed my eyes, but there it was…fresh trough powder on May 9!

I put on my crampons and tunes — (Ray Charles “Mess Around”, Timebomb Tim/Rancid/Transplants “Into Action”, “Timebomb,” “Red Hot Moon,” “Diamonds and Guns,” Parov Stellar “Catgroove,” Sound Normaden “the Trumpet,” Scissor Sisters “Filthy Gorgeous,” Realboy “the Ritz,” Tally Hall “Banana Man,” Phish “Back on the Train” — and flew up that trail on the wings of adrenaline.

Gearing up at the top I could barely maintain my composure. I took pictures, I tweeted video, and I skied hard. The headwall was all trough powder from the wind (as was the footwall), and it was great! Sometimes the powder was more than 6 inches deep in those troughs, and it was a welcome break from the (gorgeous smooth) spring bumps.

But the middle of the trail (the lower pitch section between the higher pitch walls) had full coverage of an inch or two of cream cheese on toast snow, slightly deeper in the troughs.

Full disclosure? Real talk? This was maybe my favorite ski day of the year. I would gladly have hiked three laps if I hadn’t had a work appointment that morning.

My legs are back, the crampon hiking is serving me well, and I have hiked Superstar every day that it has not been open to lift-serve. I am now powering up it like stairs, and this gorgeous weather — cool nights, warm days, the occasional rain — is just what my tattered soul needed after the long slog of this odd season.  I have to give it to the snowmakers…they make my life AWESOME!

Off-piste training resumes

Furthermore, I finally joined Green Mountain Rock Climbing. This was originally my idea for rehabbing my knee injury, but now that I am mostly healed, I am doing it just to reconnect with my old self (this winter it was choir singing; this spring I started, albeit slowly, Taekwondo again too), and it’s been great.

I have been working pull-ups, pushups, and pikes with a 40-pound weighted vest, so I am having a much easier time of it than I did the couple of times I went this fall with a friend in Burlington, when I would pump out on even 5.9 climbs.

When I started climbing in 1992, I was a lean young man, 6’4” and 175 lbs.  I was going through a breakup, so all I did was go to West Bolton and climb before my second shift job running a printing press, and I got quite good.  I was a 5.11+ climber (for those of you who don’t know, the numeric rating system is for gauging technical climbs, 5.5 is generally the easiest you will find in a gym, 5.12-5.13 the hardest), and I could work overhangs, underclings, and cracks.

My second year, I decided I wanted to get into leading, and as there were hardly any climbing gyms in Vermont at that time, I went to the local climbing shop and got a bunch of quickdraws (a little sling with a carabiner at both ends, one for a bolt, one for your lead rope) for my favorite route, which was bolted. I talked to a bunch of climbers there so that I would have the right number, and headed out to Lower West Bolton to hit Tea in the Sahara, my favorite route.

The climb was fine, the weight of the quickdraws was negligible, the undercling was fine, but I noticed as I crested the undercling halfway up the 80-foot route that the next bolt seemed awfully far away… I figured it was a visual trick from having my face so close to the rock, so I soldiered on, working my way up an inverted flake toward what turned out to be the final bolt.

When you top rope a route, especially a longer one, you often don’t do the last move or two on a route, because the anchor hangs below the top, to reduce rub on the rope. This was the case with Tea in the Sahara. When I got to the move for the final bolt, I was standing on credit cards clinging to a 5.12d double palmed sloper (slopers are where you grip a curve, kind of like palming a basketball, which I’ve never been good at), and by the time I passed the quick draw by where the bolt should be, the bolt was four feet away.

You may note that I never mentioned another bolt between the undercling halfway up, and the final bolt at the top of the route. That’s because there wasn’t one. I was correct about the distance but hadn’t trusted myself.

None of the lead climbers I talked to mentioned that there was no bolt by the inverted flake because the person who set up the route figured it could be used for natural protection on the climb.  I was blind to this, figuring that a bolted route was a bolted route.

I released from the face with at least 35 feet of line out (so much line that the rope manufacturer told me not to even count it as a fall). I had time to scream twice.

I contacted the overhang on the way down, and inverted.  My belay, who was highly inexperienced, did a significant pro trick, and whipped line out of my fall while I was untensioned, saving me from crushing him like a bug, as I stopped falling with our heads about two feet apart (dynamic line stretch is a big deal with that much rope on the sharp side of the protection).

I had a badly cut leg (still have the scar) and a broken finger (in fact, I dropped blood onto the face of my belay), and when I got my feet on the ground, my belay looked at me mischievously and said “Wanna finish it up?”

I tried to communicate my need to sit down and put my head between my knees, but instead I managed to say “Face on floor” and pass out cold, face first. At the hospital, when I was asked how I injured my finger, I said “I fell 75 feet.”  The radiologist walked into the room saying “Only you, Brady Crain, would fall 75 feet and beak only your finger.”

Turns out the radiologist was the older brother of one of my best friends from Randolph Union High School (go ahead, say it out loud, we were: “small world”). The lesson here is don’t trust other people to do your research for you, trust your instincts, and for Pete’s sake, have a trustworthy belay!

My next climb was on a climbing trip in Wyoming three weeks later with my finger in a splint, and I had been arguing with the girl I was there with. She wiggled all of 100 pounds, and angrily insisted on sitting across the access trail from the route I was climbing, and I told her she should sit under the route, but she wouldn’t listen.

I was climbing a relatively easy route, and took what should have been a 4-foot fall, but my weight picked up my belay, smacked her into the face, and she dropped the line. I fell 25-feet before she caught me, heroically, by grabbing the line above the belay device, and dragging a ways up the face herself.

I would have given her more credit if she had sat under the route where it was safest and not dropped me.  For the most part I put my shoes away until last fall, having had enough of falling long distances.

Now, having a few great days under my belt at Green Mountain, the bug is back. I am climbing 5.9-5.10 effectively, my unweighted pull-ups are explosive, and my muscle-ups on the bar at the gym are strong.  I am excited for what lays ahead! I look forward to seeing you on the slopes, at the gym, and out on the rock!

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