A Tale of Two Boulder Problems

Bouldering at Hueco Tanks means experiencing climbing history. While it is certainly not the birthplace of bouldering, it has played a critical role in the development of the spot for a very long time, from the early hard ascents done by Bob Murray and John Sherman, to the cutting edge problems established by Fred Nicole and others. To fondle the holds on problems like Crown of Aragorn, Diapaheous Sea, Shaken Not Stirred, and Better Eat Your Wheaties is to touch a bit of climbing history.

Few problems at Hueco are as iconic as See Spot Run, a tall, clean line sitting high on North Mountain on the Big Time boulder, visible from main parking area. Initially established on toprope by Bob Murray (who often roped up for his hardest ascents), it was later properly done without a rope by John Sherman, and has stood as one of Hueco’s best problems since. Its clean, flat landing, and low crux (more on that) make it a popular introduction to the world of Hueco Tanks highballing.

In two previous trips to Hueco, I had avoided See Spot. I knew I could do it (a funky cross-through move opens the difficulties, then the problems follows a series nicely spaced, positive iron-rock edges to a reasonable, though long, move to the lip of the boulder at 30 feet), but I struggled with the confidence to pull on. At V6, it was something that I should be able to do first try, but what of the height? Could I focus enough to ignore the distance between the top of the boulder and the ground? I never thought so.

This year, we found ourselves warming up at Small Potatoes, a collection of satellite blocks around See Spot Run. The trip had gone reasonably well for me to this point, having done V8 second try, and V9 in an hour or so. I watched a few people try See Spot as I warmed up, and it was at that point that I decided that, yeah, I could do that problem. After watching several folks try (and do) the problem, we dragged our pads to the base, and I booted up.

After climbing up and down through the opening moves (the technical crux), I committed to the moves and began to move up the face. The holds felt big, and I moved casually between edges, even cutting my feet at one point. I never looked down, and didn’t feel any hesitation. I paused about halfway up the wall, at two good edges, to chalk up. Two easy crimp moves would lead to the final, large move to the lip. My fingers were cold, bordering on numb, thanks to the shade and breeze, and over-gripping the holds a bit. I moved into position for the last move, and didn’t quite like the final crimp. It was positive, but small. For a moment, I paused, and began to rethink the final move, considering skipping the edge. Quickly deciding that would be a bad idea, I switched feet, and fired for the jug at the lip. After slowly moving through the slab moves at the top, it was over. I had flashed an iconic problem, and it felt great.

About a week later, we found ourselves at the East Spur Maze. Prior to the trip, I was idly considering doing Jingus Bells, a “modern” V5 highball first done by Dean Potter in the late 1990s (I think). Unlike See Spot, Jingus Bells has it’s hardest move at the very top, a jump to the lip from a good edge. Adding a bit of spice to the problem is the boulder that across from the problem. It is still relatively “safe,” as a controlled fall from the crux will simply deposit the climber on the top of the other boulder, where a spotter can guide them to a pad. The lower moves are more “dangerous,” as you could fall into the side of the adjacent boulder, but they are also relatively easy. After flashing a few handfuls of other classic Hueco problems, I felt mostly confident enough to try Jingus Bells.


I wasn’t 100% confident. Maybe I was forcing this problem. It was only V5, but, boy, that last move is long, and the crimps aren’t that good. But, still, V5. I could do that. So, we dragged pads over from Better Eat Your Wheaties, and I put on my shoes. I wasn’t nervous, but just felt off. I cast off, and wobbled my way up the problem. Unlike the controlled nature of See Spot Run, this problem felt out of control, like driving a car on ice. I got to the final crimps, took one look at the jump to the lip, said “nope” and hopped on to the adjacent boulder.

I apologized to everyone for the work of dragging the pads for an aborted effort, and we moved on. I was disappointed (and I guess I still am), but I couldn’t wrap my mind around the problem. I’ve learned that climbing is very much a mental game for me. If I’m “on” mentally, focused, I climb very well. But if I’m not, oh boy, look out. I’d be lucky to climb a ladder. That day didn’t ruin the trip (I slugged out a hard-fought ascent of McBain on our last day, and flashed two East Mountain classics, Hector in a Blender and Ides of March). Climbing is truly a mental game, and that is my biggest weakness. At least I have something to work on for next year.

Texas, At the Moment

We are roughly three-quarters of the way through our road trip to Hueco Tanks. As Jen has pointed out, we’ve had some rough, wintry weather. The trip opened with a winter storm across Texas, followed by a long weekend in a Microtel waiting for sunshine and temperatures above freezing. Finally, we made it to the park and actually did some bouldering in the sunshine. The weather has been generally okay, with a few cold days, and a few warm days, with a chilly Thanksgiving celebration thrown in for good measure. We are currently waiting for the sun to burn off some cold fog, but I have hope we’ll get out at some point.

The climbing has been good. I sorta/kinda trained for this trip, and I’ve been pleased with my tick list thus far. Some notable problems:

  • 1969 (V9) – Done in a couple of hours.
  • S.A.D. (V8) – Second try…should have flashed it.
  • Crash Dummy (V7) – Skin of the teeth ascent after doing 1969 and working Scream (V10).
  • See Spot Run (V6) – Flash…I’d been putting off this classic, high problem, and finally felt that my head was together enough to do it. Probably the highlight of the trip so far.
  • That Hi-Pro Glow (V6) – Flash…a nice problem to close out an East Spur tour day.

I have two open projects: Tequila Sunrise (V11) and El Chubacabra Left (V10). Tequila Sunrise just might go down today, but I’m not so sure about El Chubacabra–it is quite burly. I’ve done all the moves, and even linked some sections, but putting it together just seems out there. Tomorrow, we’ll head to Tuscon for a few days of rest, then return to Hueco Tanks for a few days next weekend before starting the drive home.

Kids at the Wheel Mill

From The Wheel Mill

So I heard that the Wheel Mill was running a campaign to raise funds to expand their facility, and the price for winter passes for the kids was too hard to pass up.

Through my first few years of high school, I basically spent all of my time on a BMX or freestyle bike. At some point, I even managed to convince my dad to build a quarter pipe (my greatest success there came a skateboard rather than my bike, though). I absolutely loved riding, and was always a bit disappointed that we lived so far away from a BMX track. So, needless to say, I am particularly excited, in a living-vicariously-through-my-kids sort of way, that the kids can ride here, and, more importantly, that they absolutely love it. I had to drag them away last night. I was impressed at what they were willing to try, and that Seb, particularly, was willing to fail, too. We were limited to the warm-up room there (the kids area was closed because of construction), but they had a blast zooming around the course. By the end, they both understood that speed and momentum were good things, and I felt comfortable enough, particularly with Oren, to just let them ride without shadowing them on some of the obstacles.

And, of course, the best news is that we managed to not go to the emergency room.

Now, the looming question is whether I dust off the DB cruiser in the basement and get a pass for myself.

Winter on the Horizon



I never grow tired of this song.

Back in the Saddle

After a bit of a long hiatus, I’ve finally decided to be serious about rock climbing again. I haven’t trained since, well, last fall, and my attention had been focused on trail running since last December. Over the last months since the Glacier Ridge race, I’ve realized several things:

  1. I generally enjoy running, but I am far less focused on getting out the door without a goal (that is, a race).
  2. Running in Colorado was a bit of climax in my running this year. Thanks to the hot weather, it’s been really, really hard to get out the door, particularly to hit the trails near our house.
  3. I am not terribly motivated to train for more races this year.
  4. Since we are headed to Hueco Tanks in the late fall, I’d really like to be in shape for that.

So, I’m not finished with running (indeed, I feel as fit as I ever have), but I am ready to turn my attention to climbing again. My current thinking is that I will do the Glacier Ridge race next spring (perhaps trying the 50k), but for now, my focus is on getting strong again for bouldering. Our rain forest-like weather may put a damper on my motivation, but at least we have a better training facility in our cellar these days.

So, in that spirit, let’s roll some motivation….

Daniel Woods – Monkey Wedding 8C from Bearcam Media on Vimeo.

In the (Almost) High Country

We are currently in Kearney, NE, not camping, because it is ridiculously hot outside. We are returning east from a brief sortie to Colorado for a family reunion. Most of the time was spent in a palatial chalet tucked on the hill above Steamboat Springs. As there was no rock climbing nearby, Jen and I turned our energies to running, putting together four consecutive days of trail work above 8,000 feet. Not bad for a couple of eastern low-landers.

Above LaramieWe arrived in Laramie, WY after two days on the road. Our family there showed us a short trail that led to a ridge above town, so before anyone stirred on Sunday morning, we went out for a short run. It was nothing special, but with the Snowy Mountains in the distance, and cool weather, it was a fine start to the trip.

SteamboatA day later, we were in Steamboat Springs and Jen and I went out to explore the trails that criss-crossed the ski slopes. We spent most of the time on a service road that gradually climbed the mountain, alternating between hiking and running (most of the singletrack was limited to bicycles only). We did find one hiking trail that gradually wound its way toward the lodge, but after realizing that trail would leave us several miles from home (and many hundreds of feet lower than home) without water, we turned around and hiked and ran back to the service road, which was then bombed back to the chalet.

The next day, we decided to head to Mad Creek, and hike/run up to the barn with the rest of the family. We hiked and ran up the initial climb from the valley, then ran the buffed out trail to lovely open meadow along Mad Creek. After much lollygagging with the family in the creek, I bombed back down the trail solo and took a nice dip in the creek while waiting for everyone else.

Finally, we finished the trip with a hike toward Long Lake. With 2500 feet of elevation gain over about 3.5 miles, this was most definitely a hike. We kept a fairly strong pace through the opening 1.75 miles, spending some time at Upper Fish Creek Falls. A few us ventured further up the valley, stopping about a mile and half short of the lake itself, due a lack of time and forbidding clouds pouring over the ridge. Jen and I took off ahead of the rest of the gang, and despite our promises “not to run at all” we picked up speed on the descent and blew out of quads on the steep trail. Good fun, and we made it back to the van just as the rain started.

And now, we’re headed home, being a bit more leisurely this time instead of pushing the pace. More photos will be forthcoming.

Glacier Ridge 30k Trail Race (or, A Race in Two Parts)

I am not one to believe in omens, but it hard not to when I looked out the window of the inn in Portersville where we spent the night, I watched six vultures circling just above our van. The skies were cloudy, and it was windy and chilly. Good weather for running, I suppose, but it certainly chilly as I scrambled around the start area on Lake Arthur signing in and pinning my number on the front of my shorts. As we lined up in the start grid, I went over my plan–don’t go out quickly, don’t do something stupid like trying to follow Jason and Drew. Just run my race, and remember that I needed to cover 19 miles. Time wasn’t important; finishing was. I needed to take care of my knees on the descents, and make up my time on the climbs. Easy enough.

Then the horn blew, and we were off. I settled in behind Drew and Cynthia, and it didn’t feel like we were moving too quickly along the mile or so of bike path that lead to the Glacier Ridge Trail. Then someone said we were hitting around 8:30 a mile. Not ideal, though it feel reasonable. Reasonable at mile one, however, is not likely sustainable over 19. I did not, however, slow down, feeling like I should stay on Drew’s heels. Soon enough, we hit the single track, and the first bit of climbing. There had some speculation at the end of the week as to how muddy the course might be after several days of (sometimes heavy) rain. Roughly 300 yards into the woods, we found the answer–it was muddy. We slipped up the hill, passing a few folks, and then settled into a good rhythm on the single track. The trail continued to rise gently, and we hit a nice section of gently rolling trail on generally dry dirt.

We reached the crest of the ridge, and the trail headed down, down down. The first bit wasn’t terribly steep, but I slowed down and kept my stride under control, hoping to keep my knees happy for as long as possible. We turned a corner, and the muddy trail began in earnest. Calling it muddy may actually be a bit generous–at one point, a stream was flowing down the middle of the single track. After about a hundred yards, I realized attempting to keep my feet out of the muddy was folly, and I embraced the ankle-deep mud and water. Drew and I splashed along, followed by a two other fellows. The flow of the course readily became apparent–a 300 or 400 foot climb to a ridge, followed by a descent, followed by yet another ridge climb. Nearly every section of trail had a stretch of rather deep, nasty mud, some worse than others. My knees felt relatively good–a bit sore, but no sharp pain–but, thanks to the copious mud, my hips were quite sore.

At this point, we passed through one of the nicest sections of trail–a brief, perhaps quarter mile stretch through a stand of pines. The trail was mercifully dry, and covered with pine needles. It was pleasant to be under the cover of trees that were not barren, the trail was smooth. I even managed to enjoy this on the return leg, when all else was lost. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Drew and I hit the shore of Lake Arthur, and there, in the distance, was the 528 bridge where the turnaround (and main aid) was located. We were hopeful for a moment, then remembered that a rather large climb protected the aid, and soon enough, the trail twisted up the hill, climbing steadily to the ridge. This section of trail was dry, and as we hit the top, we found a long stretch of flat-ish, dry trail. It was however, rocky and technical, and at this point, my hips were really sore, and affecting my pace on the rocks. At this point, I knew things were heading south a bit, but I also held on to some small hope that I could turn things around at the aid. As we approached the descent into the aid, we were passed by the leaders coming the other direction, and this helped my pace for a bit, but as we hit the final steep bit before the aid, the elastic snapped a bit and Drew scampered ahead. I shuffled into the aid, stuffed a handful of Pringles into my mouth, and filled my bottle. I told Drew I was going to head out, knowing full well that stopping for any length of time might cause my legs to seize up.

At this point, I was happy to have the lengthy climb out of the aid simply to walk and, hopefully, get my legs back. I maintained a decent power hike, and soon enough I was on the ridge, watching a rather large collection of runners come the other direction, heading into the aid. Fortunately for my legs, the course looped to the right, avoiding the worst of the rocks, but still, it didn’t take long for Drew to catch me, and on the descent to the lake shore, drop me. At this point, I was okay with development, feeling that I needed to manage my own pace to reach the finish. Settling in behind me were two other runners, and both seemed mostly content to follow my pace. The older fellow even suggested we had a good pace, and, after all, we were just trying to make the finish cut-off.

Up and down we went, and with several hundred runners passing over these trails, the mud was even worse. There were long, long stretches of alternately thick muck and water, cold flowing water. Over my ankles. I’m not sure how I didn’t fall on my face . At this point, we hiked quite a bit of the trail, including several flat stretches. I was mostly happy about this, because my hips were really, really sore, and running, well, it wasn’t fun. At all. Early in the race, Drew asked if I wanted to do a marathon at some point, and, being only a few miles into the course, said “sure, yeah.” At this point, I never wanted to run more than a few miles, and wanted to the race to be over. The mud and climbs gave me ample opportunity to hike, but as we hit a long descent approaching the climb to the final aid, the elastic fully snapped, and my erstwhile running partners ran off into the distance, and I was alone. I shuffled down the hill, cursing the thick, deep mud and wishing I was back at the van. I gamely trotted along the flatter, drier bits, but the descents or climbs were always welcome excuses to walk. Heck, at this point, I was even walking some of the flatter bits. What a mess.

As I was approaching the last long climb before the finish, a runner zoomed by on my left. I didn’t see his number, but I hoped he wasn’t in the 30k, because given his speed, he must have gotten lost, otherwise he should be winning the race. Later, I realized he was in the 50k. I really can’t comprehend how quickly he climbed that rise. After 30 miles of running.

I took heart, however, in two things. First, I still had a good shot at finishing around four hours, which was my target. Second, despite my utter lack of anything resembling actual running, there was no one in sight behind me. Apparently going out far too quickly has some benefits. I hit the final aid, filled my bottle, and sucked down a gel. I continued by hike a bit, run a bit routine. Through one flat bit, I pulled over the trail to water the bushes. For roughly a mile or so, I was debating whether I should I even pull over–at this late point in the race, the chances of my right knee stiffening up were high, so there was a risk I would stop my forward movement never to start again. I decided to take my chances, and, sure enough, when I hopped back on the trail, my right knee didn’t want to bend much at all. I limped along the trail for a bit, convinced that now it would be hard to even make the time cut-off (even though I had roughly two hours in pocket). I stopped for a moment, bent over, and tried to loosen up my leg. A runner trotted by and asked if I was okay. “Yep, just stiff.” After a few more minutes, I could bend my knee again, and I broke into an on-again, off-again shuffle.

I figured I was approaching the last bit of trail, as I slipped down the initial hill. At this point, someone finally caught and passed me, but why did I care? I was almost finished. I turned on the road, and at this point figured I had roughly a mile or so to go. The last mile, however, seemed to go on forever. A few folks from the 50k race passed me, going rather quickly for having run over 30 miles. Another 30k runner caught me, and as we hit a small rise on the pavement, I had to walk, again, and he trotted off. Another runner trotted by just after. At this point, really I didn’t care, I smelled the barn and just wanted to finish. I didn’t even care if I walked across the finish line. The last section of gravel trail was interminable, looping in and out of the woods. Was it really this long at the start of the race? Seriously? As the trail flattened out, I broke yet again into a jog, and perhaps even sped up a bit as I saw the parking area, knowing the finish line was just around corner. I looked at my watch and realized I probably wouldn’t make it under four hours, but I’d be just over, and I was okay with that. In fact, I was okay with anything as long as it meant I didn’t have to run any more. As I approached the line, it never even occurred to me to look at the clock, but I was finished. Finished. No more running.

A day later and I’m reasonably sore. My hips are still quite unhappy. I’m looking forward to taking a week or two (or three) off, and riding my bike to work again. As for doing another long trail race, well, we’ll see. I’m sure by the summer I will have forgotten the misery, and I’ll sign up for something. Whether I’ll do this race next year is a different question. I had high hopes for good conditions, but this is spring in western Pennsylvania, so expecting good conditions is simply folly. I’m not sure I want to suffer through another mudfest next year, though, from what I’ve heard, according to recent history, the race is due dry conditions next year. The course, aside from the mud, was really great. We ran nearly 16 miles of pure single track. The climbs were reasonable, but they were many. Race direction was top notch, and the course was well-marked. The mud? Not so much fun.

Ups and Downs

I’ve started and stopped several posts with training updates and whatnot, but they tended to be rambling affairs that I lost interest in, so perhaps I can be more concise and actually post something.

So, knees and running. In a bit of last ditch effort, I made an appointment to meet with an Active Release therapist. In some corners of the internet, runners claimed ART allowed them to move beyond various IT band issues and continue their training. I thought it would be worth at least talking to a therapist to see what he could do. Worst case, he would tell me to stop running, and best case, I would be able to continue to train for the Glacier Ridge Trail race. After six sessions (some of which were slightly painful), I am closer to best case than worst case. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Despite the overall improvements in my knees and IT bands, pain still rears its ugly head sometimes, and each week brings its own set of mental challenges. A brief overview of the last three weeks:

Three weeks ago, I had a fairly average week of training during the weekdays–mostly shorter runs that would include either hill work or speed work (“speed” being a relative term in my case). I made plans to run with a few friends in Raccoon Creek State Park for Saturday, and that run was mostly pretty good. We covered a little over 11 miles in a reasonable amount of time, and aside from some long descents in the closing miles, my knees felt good. More importantly, I recovered quickly, and didn’t need to stump around for a day with sore knees.

Two weeks ago, I decided to squeeze in my long Thursday run by simply running home from work. This was, in short, terrible. My knees felt bad, and the long, flat stretches of pavement crushed me mentally. We were traveling to Blacksburg, VA that weekend, and I was supposed to a long trail run in the ridges above town, but I was pessimistic that I could even manage half my allotted distance given how bad I felt. The Saturday run, despite being a mental train wreck (I forgot nearly all my food, and spent most of the run in a hypoglycemic daze) was generally pleasant physically. Yes, I dealt with the usual pain on a long descent, but I fought through my mid-run pangs and felt strong through the finish.

Last week, I decided to do yet another run home from work, and this felt good. Really good. No soreness. Reasonable speed. Mentally on top of the monotony of the roads. Then the next day brought sore hamstrings and glutes, with only one day before what was supposed to be a three hour run. As expected, this run was disaster. After only about 90 minutes, my knees were very unhappy, and once I reached the edge of Frick Park, I decided to cut the run short and head home. Of course, without the van, this meant running, and within a few blocks, this turned into a long walk. A very long walk. It was, though, good, because it gave me plenty of time to put the run into perspective. Yes, it was my last long effort before my taper (yay!), but last weekend felt good enough that I was (mostly) confident that I could tack another 45 minutes of running in the race without too much of a problem.

So, here I am, with two weeks to go. I am tapering, hard, over the next two weeks. I think my body needs it (and, really, deserves it). I’ve often had trouble with resting in other athletic pursuits, but I think this time, it will be a bit easier. I suppose I still sometimes have doubts about my ability to cover 30k, but I figure if I can cover 15 miles in a reasonable amount of time (say, three or so hours), I would still have nearly 90 minutes to stagger the last four or so.

Not Dead Yet (But Close, Perhaps)

I came across this essay by Anton Krupicka, and it’s rather appropriate, given how things have been going with my running. We went to Florida early in February, and given the relative lack of elevation changes and fine weather, we both ran, a lot, including a 14 miler at a local regional park (more on that in a bit). I think I managed a little over 30 miles for the seven days we were there. Most of the time, my left knee hurt, but given that none of the runs were more than 6 miles, I could generally deal with the ache. That all changed, however, when we did the 14 miler. The trails were nice, built primarily for mountain bikers (though there is an annual trail race there, too. Like the rest of Florida, the trails are generally flat, but there were a few sections of contour trail, some of it rather severe in its ups and downs.

I managed just fine through the first 8 miles or so, but when we hit the worst of the rollers, my right knee and shin started giving me trouble (likely because my gait was trying to compensate for my gimpy left knee). We stopped briefly for a gel and some water after the rollers (about 10 miles in), and that was it–both my knees called it quits. While Jen finished out the run, I limped (literally) back to the car on horse trails (adding another mile and half), wanting, as usual, to throw my shoes to the top of the highest palm tree and be done with this stupid running thing.

But, I am too stubborn to do that. I like running, for crying out loud. I tried a short run once we returned to Pittsburgh, and my knees hurt, still. So I took a few more days off, tried another short run, and managed to survive. Jen suggested I bit the bullet and get some sort of training plan to both deal with the IT band issues and continue my training for the race. So, that’s what I did–I talked to Jason at Stretgh Running, and he gave me a program that would hopefully deal with both my IT band (and the muscle imbalances that caused the problem) and prepare me to run a good race in April. Yay! I was saved!

After five days of just strength exercises, I did my first two mile run. That was fine. My left knee was still a bit sore, but my right knee felt alright. Yay! Progress. Two days later, I did a 4.5 miler, on the contour trail in Highland Park. This felt okay. After about 3.5 miles, my knees started feeling a bit gimpy, but I got home without any sharp pain, and aside from some tightness in my hamstrings (likely from stacking wood the day before), I felt pretty good. Yay! More progress.

Then I ran my 8 miler this morning in Frick. After a couple of miles, the familiar aches set in, and I would feel a sharp pain in my left knee every so often. I resigned myself to walking the longer descents to preserve my knees, but even this wasn’t helping. By the time I was back in the Hollow, both knees were pretty sore, with moments of sharper pain. After a few profanities (the park was empty, at least), I slumped into a mix of walking and grandpa shuffling and made it back to the van. This was hardly the result I was expecting.

So, here I am, stuck. I’m ready to take a few weeks off, perhaps find someone to do some Active Release massage (apparently a boon for IT band issues), and hope that I can build up enough of a base in a few weeks to actually complete the GRT 30k without dying, or giving myself a permanent limp. Resting will be hard. I know tomorrow my knees will feel fine, and I’ll want to test them out, but I have to resist that temptation, because I know what the result will be. I’ll follow Anton’s advice, I think (well, except for perhaps breaking a bone), and see where it leads me. At this point, it can’t get much worse, can it.