Thursday, February 26, 2009

Absolute Freedom

Note: I wrote this post in a haze of jet lag at 4 a.m. a few days after I arrived in Pennsylvania for Christmas, but never posted it. I kind of like it.

I finally made it to Pennsylvania. After four days of solitude in Anchorage, four days of trying not to think about the fact that it was Christmas time, I was alone, it was dark out most of the time, and that I had to take two long plane rides home (I hate to fly), I arrived in the Newark airport late Friday night to the smiling faces of my sister Angie and her fiance Eric.

Since I hate flying so much I always try to find a book that I can really get into in order to distract myself from the painful anxiety that I experience everytime the plane hits the smallest bit of turbulance. I selected “This Game of Ghosts” by Joe Simpson.

Joe Simpson is a mountaineer who’s biggest hit was “Touching the Void”. A book, then a documdrama about the true story of Joe breaking his leg high on top of a remote mountain in Peru and his partner Simon’s brave attempt to rescue him from the mountain.

In this sequel, Simpson gives a very honest account of his life and why he climbs. He talks a lot about fear and about how every climb he struggles with it, but how fear and overcoming it are the reasons that he keeps going back for more.

It got me to thinking about why I like to climb. I have often thought of quitting, because sometimes it just seems too dangerous and pointless. I go up the climb, and then I rappel down the same way I came. What have I accomplished? A day out in the mountains is wonderful, but do I need to take this much risk to enjoy Alaska? It made me wonder, why do I keep going back to an activity that has the power to scare me so much?

Last year I remember leading the climb “Ripple” in Eklutna Canyon for the fourth time. It was amazing to me that even though I had led the climb three times before, it still had the power to put the fear in me. I remember hanging about 100 feet up on the top almost vertical section of the climb. I only had a few more moves to get myself over the hump to where the climb mellowed out and I would be home free. My last screw was 15 feet below me. As I swung my tool hard into the brittle ice, I knocked off a huge chunk about the size of my torso. It hit my foot on the way down and almost knocked me off. I yelled, “ICE!” down to Kim who was belyaing at the bottom and I started to feel a tug at the rope on my harness and prepared to fall 30 feet.

Kim later told me that she thought I was yelling “Take!” which in climbing means take the slack out of the rope and hold me tight because I’m going to come off the wall. It is something that you never hear in ice climbing, because generally people try NOT TO FALL OFF. So at that moment when my fear was bubbling over and threatening to spill out all over the ice, the rope pulling down on my body was more than I thought I could handle.

And I thought to myself, “What am I doing here?” I’m hanging on the side of a frozen waterfall with axes in my hands, a bunch of metal hanging from my waist and points coming out of my boots in every direction one hundred feet over a canyon in the middle of Alaska.

As I felt Kim ease off the rope, I took a deep breath and a second look around. I realized that I wasn’t really in any danger. Falling ice knocking into my boots and the rope tugging on me was all quite frightening, but looking up I could see my tools were now in the ice solid and my boots did not come free despite the ice’s attempt to knock them off.

I breathed in heavily again and then exhaled slowly gathering myself. I managed to quickly put in the next screw and began to climb up towards the trees.

It is precisely that which I have just described, that keeps me coming back for more. Recognizing the real danger and avoiding it, freeing my mind of danger that I have imagined, gathering myself together, controlling my fear and using my tools, my knowledge and my experience to get myself up the climb. It is an extremely rewarding process and as I have found out, it can be leveraged in all aspects of my life.

I am quickly finding out that overcoming fear is not a straight line. Just because I have done something before does not mean that I have now arrived at this level, my fear of this is squashed, and I can keep moving up. There are so many ups and downs. But I think the more I climb the more confidence I gain in my ability and judgment that there is an upward trend. And it is quite satisfying to look back over three years of climibing and see the progress I have made.

The other aspect of climbing that I know I am drawn to is getting back to the basic human instinct of taking care of yourself. In this country we rarely have to worry about how we are going to survive from day to day. We get hungry, we go to the store. We get tired, we sleep. We get cold, we go inside. We get thirsty, we drink water out of a faucet in our kitchen.

These are things we are not even conscious of, which gives us more time to think about everything else. That creates stress. And going to the mountains can relieve it even if it’s just for a little while. Simpson describes this aspect of climbing well in one of the last chapters of his book.

”In a curious way, maybe the climber stops living when he begins to climb. He steps out of the living world of anxiety into a world where there is no room, no time, for such distractions. All that concerns him is surviving the present. Any thoughts of gas bills and mortgages, loved ones and enemies, evaporate under the absolute neccessity for concentration on the task at hand. He leads a separate life of uncomplicated black and white decisions – stay warm, feed yourself, take the proper rest, look after yourself and your partner, be aware. Be aware of everything until there is nothing but the present and there are no corrosive fears to eat away at confidence.

Living for the moment, for nothing but the present, brings with it an unexpected bonus. It seems to me that if you can escape from the need to know the future and free yourself of the constraints of the past, and in so doing act in and only for the present, then you achieve absolute freedom.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Serious Ass Kicking

That is what I was looking for in my ride tonight, and that is exactly what I got. Tim was looking for suggestions on where to ride and I so stupidly mentioned, "Why don't we check out the STA trails?"

"Meh, meh, meh, meh, meh, meh, meh." (That is me imitating my dumb self) So we headed up there and started climbing with no warm-up. My lungs were burning in five minutes and my back tire kept falling off the side of the trail.

I was actually writing this post in my head as I was "riding" up. (I do that a lot now that I have been writing a lot) I say "riding" because I was mostly pushing and falling on my face.

I was thinking, when will riding a bike become fun again? Was it ever fun? Did I get some bike riding memory mixed up in my brain with the time I baked two dozen chocolate chip cookies and ate all of them in one sitting? That was fun. That must be it, because this is miserable.

That picture is not even from last night, but these posts always look better with a picture. And anyway, you probably knew that already because in this picture I AM SMILING. Tim took this picture on last Tuesday's ride.

But, of course, after an hour and forty minutes of miserable riding we found ourselves going back down some awesomely wide, well packed down singletrack and I forgot the whole sordid bit that happened on the way up. I was all, riding a bike is so much fun, this trail is awesome, why don't I do this more often?

I guess that is how we trick ourselves into going back out there.

Alaska Ice Climbing Festival Registration

After working all weekend on this, last night I posted the Alaska Ice Climbing Festival clinic registration live. So, if your interested in learning to ice climb in Alaska on March 6-8, sign up now.

There are ten clinics available. Each clinic will have six students and two instructors, so a pretty good ratio. Four of the clinics are half day Skill Builders which are $20 each. The rest are full day clinics at $40 each.

See the list of available clinics and register here.

If you don't want to climb, but just want to watch, the competition will be held in Hunter Creek (from the Old Glenn Highway in Palmer, turn onto Knik River Rd and follow it to Hunter Creek) on Saturday from 12 - 4pm. All clinics will be held in Hunter Creek as well.(Pictured above)

There will also be parties Friday and Saturday nights, a slideshow and gear auctions. Check out the schedule.

And now I am going to sleep.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Gym climbing and injuries

Every injury that I have acquired due to climbing has happened while climbing indoors. I have never been able to climb higher than 5.10 (with the occasional 5.11) in the gym, because every few months I get injured and then stop climbing for 2 weeks. And I'm wonder if it is really worth it.

For the past two weeks I haven't been able to ice climb due to a sharp pain that shot out of my elbow and down my arm while climbing in the gym. I generally climb two nights a week at the Alaska Rock Gym. This is the third injury I have had at the gym in the past six months.

Maybe taking two weeks off is me being overly cautious. Brian has chronic tendinitis in his elbow and it is not fun. If you ignore elbow pain and climb through it, it is going to get worse. Eventually you will have pain all the time, not only when climbing, but when biking, typing, picking up a coffee mug, and brushing your teeth.

When it gets to that point you have to stop doing everything for a month or more in order to let it heal. I guess I just don't want it to get to that point, so when I feel pain during climbing, I stop. Then I don't climb for two weeks.

Which means I haven't been able to ice climb either. So I'm wondering if climbing in the gym is really worth it. It's fun. I get to hang out with friends and figure out problems. I get extra exercise during the week, and when all of the stars align, I climb with flow and grace and it becomes a form of meditation for me.

But do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? After spending two week mid-February not out on the ice, I'm not sure.

(The picture came from

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Lunch Break

I spent most of Saturday and Sunday finishing up the website for the Alaska Ice Festival which is in two weeks. I set up an online store where students can sign up for clinics and then pay through PayPal. I still have some finishing touches to put on it, but registration should go live sometime tomorrow.

Too bad I put all of this off until this weekend, because Saturday and Sunday were two of the nicest days we've had in Anchorage in awhile. Temperatures were in the 20s and the sun was shining all weekend.

Saturday I watched the beautiful day unfold from behind my laptop at the coffee shop, but today I had to get out for some sun, so Niko and I did some laps around University Lake for about an hour.

Even though I was productive all weekend, I can't help but feel like I missed out on some adventure. It's become hard for me to take a whole weekend to do inside activities. I spend the entire week inside at a computer, so I always feel like I have to take advantage of my two (or three) days off, and feel guilty when I don't. I'm glad I forced myself to get and enjoy at least an hour of sunshine. Niko was happy too.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

That's a fine lookin' goat

I remember the day that I first felt like an Alaskan. Brian, Laura and I had stopped at the Carr's grocery store in Seward to get some food and supplies before we hiked out to Caines Head for the night. Laura was just visiting at the time and was standing behind me in the checkout line.

I was browsing the magazines as the clerk scanned my items. Most of the magazines headlines were screaming about who had cellulite on her legs, who was having who's baby, who was wearing an awful dress to the Oscar's and other trash like that.

But there was one image that sticks in my mind. The front cover of Alaska Magazine had a picture of the most beautiful mountain goat I have ever seen.

That's right, I said goat.

It looked as if someone had given the goat a bath, scrubbed it's fur and blew it dry with a hair dryer. I searched online for this cover image but couldn't find it. Most of the goats you see in the wild in Alaska are yellow and scraggly.

This one was different. At that moment I blurted out, "Now that's a fine lookin' goat." with a sort of southern drawl. Realizing that I had in fact said that out loud, I turned to Laura, blushing, as she burst out in laughter. "Who are you?" she said.

Somehow I had gone from a single girl living in center city Philadelphia, riding the subway, eating at fancy restaurants, drinking martinis, wearing makeup, brushing my hair, going to the symphony... (um, okay I've never actually been to the symphony) to living in Alaska without much warning. Yes, I got out into the country and went camping and hiking occasionally, but I was a city girl of sorts.

Then one day I meet this guy named Monkee and he says, "Hey you wanna go to Alaska?" and I say, "Sure." Now I found myself commenting on the merits of well groomed goat.

Change is good. And, sometimes when the daily grind of life starts to eat away at me, all I have to do is look outside and remember where I live...

Friday, February 20, 2009

Red Shirt Lake

Brian, Laura, Niko, Aly and I skied 8 miles out to a cabin on Red Shirt Lake last weekend. It was fun, but not ideal. If you plan on heading out to the Nancy Lakes area in winter anytime soon, there are a few things you should know:

1. I would say if I'm going to ski with a big pack on 8 miles out to a cabin, next time I would stay more than one night. Especially when my heals are bleeding from bad boots.

2. There are way too many snow machines out there. We were looking for a weekend of solitude in the woods and we found exhaust and loud noise.

3. The scenery is pretty with all of the snow, but not spectacular.

4. The cabins on Red Shirt Lake are kind of creepy, with huge windows with no curtains, where at night you can't see out, but people lurking around in the woods can see in.

5. There is nothing in these cabins. No lanterns, stoves, pots, utensils, nothing! Pack in everything you need.

6. My dog is cute.

7. Don't forget your giant salami.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

I'm no longer trying to look cute

So it wasn't too cold last week, I was just being a wimp. And I missed out on a chance to ride in the snow. Dumbass. Who cares about beards of frost or a bit of frost nip. They make you look tough, which is much more important than looking cute.

I have been riding pretty regularly now. Tuesday night rides are becoming a regular thing, I hope. It gets me out with others and pushes me to ride faster at least once a week. I need that. I really, really need that. Wednesdays and Fridays I take Niko to the dog park and do laps, dodging doggies and poop along the way. Long rides on the weekend will top it off.

I'm back to riding my regular old mountain bike, but with a new rear cassette. Yay! I installed it myself! With the help of Carlos. And mine now has more teeth. Which helps me exert less energy when I pedal. Thus allowing me to go faster and catch up with the rest of you bitches! Look out. I'm talking to you Garcia.

Riding around in the new snow on my Nokian tires (um they are 2.1s not 2.3s like I was saying before) is actually not that difficult in Far North Bicentennial Park. (Man I wish there was a nickname for that park) So many people ride on these trails in winter that it get's packed down pretty quickly, which is good for those of us without fat bikes.

If you stray from the middle of the trail though, you begin to get a lesson in balance. First the front tire sinks into the deep powder to my right side, the entire bike is thrust off the trail, the back tire sinks in as I steer the front tire back onto the 12 inch wide hard-packed singletrack, and (if I'm lucky) the rear tire follows and I keep riding. It's a great ab workout. That's not always the case though and sometimes I end up face first in the snow.

It has only taken a few weeks of regular riding for me to start feeling strong. Now I just need to hold onto this motivation until August.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Who are you and why are you here?

This time, instead of writing about myself, I'm going to write about you. Yes that's right, I can see you. I'm sure anyone who has their own blog with a site meter knows that. So who are you? What brings you here?

I like making lists so here goes:

1. 92% of you live in the US.
2. 60% of you are from Alaska.
3. At least 5 of you are related to me. One of you is my mom, who has admitted that my blog makes her nervous so her visits are infrequent. What's up with that mom?
3. I have one dedicated reader from Germany. Atleast I think it's the same person. Guten Tag!
4. I believe most of you get here intentionally through other Alaskan blogs.
5. 26 of you subscribe through Google Reader.
6. The most searched phrase in Google that leads to my blog actually has nothing to do with my blog. It is always some form of this "Lay off me I'm starving + Chris + Farley + Saturday Night Live" in which they end up with this post. Sorry dudes, I don't think that is what you were looking for. Maybe try YouTube.
7. The funniest Google search that led to this blog was "Fell out of bed dead leg" for which I am deeply sorry that I could not help and somewhat curious if this person found the information he was looking for on the internet.

I originally set up this blog to keep track of pictures and trips I have done in Alaska and to share them with friends and family who are so far far away, but it has become more than that. It has become a creative outlet for me in a world where I don't get to be very creative (read: I am a Software Engineer). So, as little of you that are out there, I wanted to thank you for coming back here every week to read my stories because knowing that people keep coming back motivates me to keep this going.

I would like to know more about you. Who are you and what is it that brings you here?

Friday, February 6, 2009

So... much... fun

I had my first ride on a snow bike on Saturday at the Frigid Bits race. Carlos let me ride his beautiful bike. Well, let me just say that Brian was right when he said that I don't need one.

But man, I want one. Riding in the snow on a bike that was designed for snow might just be the most fun one can have on a bike. Here's why:

1. I can roll over everything. Eve-ry-thing. Rocks, big piles of snow, holes, ice, roots, dogs, babies... you name it.
2. I feel tall. I'm not sure why this is an advantage, but being up there on those fat wheels makes me feel important... like I could win a race. Not true, but a bit of delusion never hurt.
3. I can actually keep up with those other fools, well almost.
4. I figured out pretty quickly that to make fast turns all I have to do is slam on the back break, slide the back wheel out and around the corner I go. No need to really slow down. It's almost like doing a ski turn.
5. I feel as if I'm floating...
6. When I get back to the Frigid Bits burn barrel, people say things like, "Nice bike!" and "Sweet ride, when did you get it?" and "I love the color of your bike." instead of staring in silence or whispering things like, "Why is her light duct taped to her handlebars?" or "Who told this homeless chick she could join us?"

Okay I'm exaggerating a bit. So, now that Christmas is over, I pretty much have everything I need for ice climbing as far as gear goes (wow that only took 3 years) and I have started a fat bike fund of sorts. I should have enough in it by the fall to do something with it. Until then Carlos said I could ride his bike in all of the Saturday night races.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Alaska Ski for Women (who don't watch football)

I love it. The Alaska Ski for Women is held on Superbowl Sunday every year. It's for those women who don't enjoy spending our Sundays watching middle aged men run in the grass and roll around on each other. For those of us who don't pick a team to cheer for based on proximity of our house to where they practice, or based on the fact that they are the underdog and they deserve it, or based on the fact that when I was little I had one of the players trading cards, or based on the fact that the team they are playing beat the team that practices near our house... you get the idea.

Don't get me wrong I'm not judging these people. I grew up in a football family. I went to all the games. I do actually understand how the sport is played. When my brother and cousins were playing it was actually fun to watch. And if I had the chance to play, I'm sure I would have a blast.

But guess what? I'm not allowed to play. So why the hell would I want to just watch from the sidelines if I don't know anyone on the team? Or from my couch for that matter? I wouldn't. I don't.

Laura on skis

And so I love that the ski for women is held on Superbowl Sunday. For all of those people that say, "What are you doing for the Superbowl?" I could say, I'm skiing with 1,000 women. Then come the blank stares. Or the silence over the phone.

So even though I don't really cross country ski that much, Laura and I went out to ski in the Party Wave to show my support for an event that doesn't care about football.

The event was actually over before the game was over, so I went home and cooked while Laura and Brian watched the game. One thing that is good about the Superbowl is that it seems to be an excuse to eat food like nachos and wings. Now that I get.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

I have to admit...

... last night I skipped out on a ride because it was too cold. Yes, I know, the same girl who says she loves when the temperature hovers around zero. The same girl who spends her weekends playing on ice. The same girl who enjoys being buried in the snow after falling on her skis.

Maybe I'm becoming soft. Maybe I'm freaked out by Kim's frostbitten toes. I don't know what happened, but eating popcorn and watching Lord of the Rings with Brian just seemed more appealing. And when Brian told me that he heard it was -16 out there last night, I did not regret my decision.

So when does recreating in the cold cross the line between being tough and being stupid? I'm not sure. There is a temperature at which, when reached, it stops being fun. I'm not sure exactly what that temperature is, but I do know it's somewhere in the ballpark of a temperature that causes sweat to freeze upon hitting the surface and causes women to grow beards of frost. How is a girl supposed to look cute with a beard? Come on people.

Monday, February 2, 2009

On reaching goals

Kim and I set out Saturday morning at 8:30 am to go into Eklutna Canyon so that she could lead Ripple for the first time. Ripple is a climb that seems to inspire new ice climbers. Maybe because it is so beautiful. Maybe because it is so colorful with bulges of blue and green. Maybe because it is a right of passage among new leaders.

I have heard experienced climbers call Ripple "moderate ice" and there are many people that solo it. Ripple to them is a sort of warm up for the season. But for people like me and Kim, who have only recently begun leading ice, it has been a big goal for us.

Two years ago when I started leading (the same year that I started climbing with Kim), I made Ripple my ultimate goal for the season. I reached that goal in March of that year. It felt like an amazing accomplishment to climb almost 60 meters, with my own gear, under my own power.

Now two years later Kim and I arrived at Ripple early Saturday morning. It was zero degrees, so we were slow to get ready. We put on all of our layers including down Chugach pants under our harnesses and got ready to climb. I was amazed at Kim's courage to get started despite the frigid cold temperatures.

I remember the first day she climbed. Her friend had talked her into going to the MCA ice festival. She never imagined herself as a climber and resisted. She finally gave in and ended up having a great time. I remember her cursing and grunting her way up the climbs. She never gave up. Even if she fell off ten times, she kept getting back on and trying harder. I admired this in her. She was hooked, just like me.

Kim started up Ripple her toes and fingers already burning from the cold. She seemed to head up the first section with ease. She had agreed to grab a screw that some guys that climbed it before us had left behind, so had to do a bit of traversing at the top to get it. I stood at the bottom stomping my feet and just trying to stay warm.

She seemed to slow down a bit at the top. I knew she was getting tired. Because of the traverse, I imagine there was quite a bit of rope drag pulling down on her harness. Rope drag is tough. At it's worst it can feel like you are dragging a small child up behind you, constantly threatening to pull you off of the wall.

I saw her roll over the top of the climb and was relieved. She had done it. I knew she was probably feeling pretty good right now. Leading on ice can be a roller coaster of emotions. Before you start you feel anxious. You are never sure if it's gonna go down the way you had planned. During the climb you feel focused, but have moments of question. Rolling over the top of the climb the first time is a moment of elation.

By the time I joined Kim at the top she was freezing. I remembered the first time we had been together at the top of Ripple. It was when I led it two years before. We were both exhausted, because I had really laced up the ice with screws making us both work hard! Kim met me at the top by belly flopping over the lip. Then we treated ourselves to some gummy cherries that Kim had hung from a biner on her harness.

Today I helped her set up the rappel and let her go first so that she could get down and get some food and drink in her. As I watched her disappear down over top of the climb I hung from the anchor worried. She seemed disoriented from the cold.

We talked about goals on the walk out of the canyon. Kim mentioned that when she started ice climbing she had set several goals for herself. Today she had met the last of those goals. She felt that she could now relax when it came to climbing.

Today I found out that Kim got frostbite on her toes. She says she is content though for having done the climb. It's been fun watching her progress over the years. She has come a long way since that first day on the Matanuska glacier. I am proud!