fitness · hiking

The sort of person who…? (Guest post)

During a recent sabbatical, I spent a few months in Birmingham, walking (as the British call hiking) on weekends in the hills of Shropshire.

I had a reaction one day I wanted to describe as “falling in love with a hill.” The hill was Caer Caradoc, and the experience was great fodder for rumination the rest of the day. What could it possibly mean to fall in love with a hill?

A fine view of Caer Caradoc

 

Walking is like that—lots of time for rumination.

My sabbatical host, Angus Dawson, later told me that the Long Mynd area has a surprisingly alpine quality for hills of 300m—“Little Italy,” they call it.

More rumination: 15 years ago, I walked on top a dead volcano, face to face with a live one, and wondered that day why I didn’t spend every weekend of my life on top of mountains. At every hilltop in Shropshire, I started looking eagerly for the mountains of Wales on the horizon and learning their names.

But every time I got excited about mountains, I reminded myself that I’m not the sort of person who climbs mountains. I’m the person who was laughed at by my fellow 7-year-olds for coming in last on track and field day. I put my nose in a book and ended up with chronic arm pain from the final dissertation run 21 years ago. Most definitely not a mountain climber.

I went back to hiking the coastal barrens around Halifax just like before sabbatical, wondering how I could make my hiking more intense—without carrying a tent on my back and sleeping in it, which is how Canadians ramp up the hiking. Orienteering? Snow-shoeing? Trail running? Bush-whacking? It dawned on me that I might try editing out the thought that I’m not the sort of person who climbs mountains. But where to start?

bouldering gym and coffee shop opened in Halifax. After a few months of watching people climb while I was drinking coffee, I asked the staff, do you have to be under 30 to boulder? (I wasn’t seeing many people my age.) They were friendly and encouraging. I did an intro morning and found to my surprise that it didn’t bother my old arm pain too much.

You can’t keep me away now. I find the bouldering gyms when travelling for work and I’m getting muscles for the first time in my life. It feels great. And it’s from a non-repetitive, highly entertaining, intellectually challenging, indoor-outdoor activity—even better. I don’t have to make myself go to the gym. I’m counting the hours until the next time I get to go.

I went back to the UK in the summer and went for those Welsh mountains. The peaks are only 1000m, but again very alpine in form. That, plus colonialism, means North Wales is important in mountaineering history. The pattern of claiming “first ascents” for people from London who speak English and write about it goes back to 1639 on Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa in Welsh). At that stage, mountaineering was about collecting alpine plant species, connecting the activity to another obsession of mine—plants of the coastal barrens. (The same plants like harsh environments at many altitudes.)

On that trip, I scrambled Crib Goch and the North Ridge of Tryfan. Easier than the easiest bouldering problem, but with 450m to fall if you let go. I didn’t find myself ruminating while scrambling Crib Goch. I knew where my hands were and where my feet were, and if calm enough, just for a moment, I took in the astonishing view. (The British skip along Crib Goch in sneakers, no hands, in their 70s.)

The Crib Goch ridge safely behind me, from the summit of Snowdon.

Back home I had some awesome climbing lessons with Heather Reynolds, a local treasure. “She’s climbed with Lynn Hill,” I say to people when I want to demonstrate that I know that name, and impress on them how lucky we are to have Heather here. (Lynn Hill was the first person of whatever gender identity to free climb the Nose on the iconic El Capitan.)

In November, I took part in a bouldering competition—competing for last, just like when I was 7. I succeeded in this ambition, with half the points of my nearest rival. Instead of laughing at me, as 7-year-olds do, some spectators formed a cheering section. A young woman told me I was an inspiration for not caring whether I made a fool of myself. She put it much more kindly than that, I’m sure—boulderers are the nicest people. All they ever do is ignore you when you want to be ignored, and then magically appear behind you and cheer you on when you need it. You’re precariously standing on a tiny chip of plastic on the wall 3m from the floor, about to give up on reaching that one last hold, and suddenly a voice behind you says, “nice,” or “you got this.” So you decide not to give up after all. But if you do give up, they say, “good call,” and “you’ll get it next time.”

I’ve set my mind on a new goal: to drop the act that I’m climbing to set up the punchline in a joke about a 52-year-old woman who takes up climbing.

A few weeks after the competition, I was back in North Wales, on my first multi-pitch trad climb at Tremadog, with an expert, enthusiastic, and thoughtful guide—Sabrina Paniccia. Freezing temperatures, snow squalls blowing through, numb fingers, aching toes—these peeled off a few layers of habitual self-doubt. When footholds in the rock of less than a centimetre were the only path to my warm wool socks at the top of the crag, I edited out the thought that it was unlikely I could ascend them.

Photo credits: Sabrina Paniccia

 

What kinds of activities would you do if you edited out the thought that you are not the sort of person who does them? Check out #unlikelyhikers and #indigenouswomxnclimb on instagram (thanks @shortworksproduction for the tips)—a whole world of people challenging the idea that people like them don’t explore the outdoors.

fitness · hiking · injury

Regaining confidence after an injury: one climber’s story (Guest post)

I’ve had some degree of pain almost every day for the past 9 months.

For the first few weeks after I injured my back, I could barely stand, sit or walk. I couldn’t go to work. I couldn’t take care of anything at home.

Before this, I had only experienced minor athletic injuries. A sore knee from hiking too far. An aching finger tendon from pulling too hard on small climbing holds. These all resolved quickly with a little rest.

This time was different. I was warming up doing an unweighted squat in the gym. Then out of nowhere, I felt the spasms of pain shoot through my back. This exercise was usually easy for me. I had learned how to do it safely with a trainer.

I used to hesitate to tell people how my back injury happened. I was embarrassed that I did this to myself in a part of the gym where I often felt like I didn’t belong. I had worked so hard to convince myself that I could take up space among the muscular men, bench pressing and deadlifting what seemed like so much more weight than me.

And it made no sense how such an easy movement could have caused so much destruction.

I now know that I was overtraining. That one squat probably wasn’t to blame. I was exercising too hard, too often and my body had broken down.

My goal had been to get stronger to keep up with others on climbing and mountaineering trips.

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Me climbing in the North Cascades before my injury. Photo: Tony Lu

My favourite sports involve carrying a lot of stuff uphill for long distances. This poses some unique challenges for petite people, such as myself.

All the gear all adds up quickly: a warm sleeping bag, a down jacket and rain coat, food, water, climbing harness, crampons, ice axe.

On one long trip, my backpack weighed just over 40 pounds. At 35% of my body weight, I was carrying what many consider the upper limit for a well-conditioned hiker. This meant I relied on other people to carry all the gear shared by our group, like a tent and climbing rope.

Distributing gear proportionally according to a person’s size is fair and a widely accepted practice.

However, it always bothered me to be the smallest person who carried the least. I also often worried that I’d be the slowest person who held everyone back. Being one of the only women on some trips meant I felt even more sensitive to any physical differences.

After several months of treatment and physical therapy, my back pain began to decrease.

I slowly began to take up the things I loved again in new and different ways.

Instead of an all-day hike, I went on a short walk to the beach with a friend. Instead of trying to climb the hardest routes, I meandered up some of the easiest walls I could find.

Returning to the backcountry was harder.

Despite training and testing my limits close to home,  I was still so afraid of re-injuring myself in the middle of nowhere.

My first trip into the wilderness was on a multi-day canoe trip with my sister. An hour into paddling, I broke down into tears. I was so afraid. We stopped and set up camp at the first spot we found. We carried on that way all week: paddling short distances with long rests. It was not the trip we had planned, but I was grateful just to be out there and for my sister’s patience.

A canoe on a calm river surrounded by trees.
My view from our canoe in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota.

The following month, I spent time in the wilderness again on a week-long trip in the mountains. While my friends hiked and climbed, I earned the nickname “Base Camp Babe.” I spent a lot of time reading books, swimming, napping and enjoying the beautiful alpine views. As the week went on, I ventured out on increasingly more adventerous hikes and climbs too.

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One hour of scrambling equals one hour of resting. Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

This injury has forced me to deal with my fear of being the slowest and smallest person in the group.

This year, I’ve had to turn around before reaching the summit far more times than I’ve made it to any desired destination. My friends carry even more of the gear than before. I often have had to lay down for long rests in inconvenient (but beautiful) spaces.

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The view from a rest spot on one of the many mountains I did not get to the top of this year. Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

What’s surprised me the most is that despite being up front about my limitations, people still want to climb and hike with me. People whose company I enjoy and judgement I trust. My climbing network has continued to expand and become more diverse, especially in terms of gender and age.

While I am never going to carry a 70-pound pack up a mountain, I have other things going for me. Things like an eagerness to explore new areas, technical climbing skills and knowledge of local areas. I need to work on my limitations while focusing on my strengths.

For the most part, we are roughly stuck with the bodies we are born with. I’ve learned that trying to overcome my fears and challenges by trying to change my body is not going to work.

 Jes loves rock climbing, hiking and outdoor photography. Ten years ago, she moved from a big east coast city to Vancouver Island, Canada. She writes about her outdoor adventures at jescott.ca.

 

athletes

Ain’t no mountain high enough: Philosophy and climbing

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The year my department was hiring in philosophy of science, and I chaired the search committee, I learned a lot about contemporary trends and hot topics in philosophy of science but I also learned lots about climbing. I learned about bouldering and free climbing and ice climbing and sport climbing and indoor climbing. (For a quick taxonomy of the distinctions between different kinds of climbing, see here and here.) I also confirmed something I knew already as a cyclist, it’s pretty flat here in Ontario. No mountains to be found. Our local, artificial ski hill is dubbed the Boler Bump. It’s where we take our children to learn to ski and learn to mountain bike.

As academics reading this know, the last stage of hiring is the campus visit and the candidate spends a lot of time with department members at meals, visiting the city, and inevitably talking about his or her interests outside of work.

Of the three short listed candidates two were serious climbers. Enough philosophers of science are serious climbers that I don’t think there’s any confidentiality issues here. By the end of the search I found myself noticing forearms and thinking about mountains differently.

Climbing has always fascinated me. I like the outdoors, rugged landscapes appeal, and the technical challenges speak to me. But heights aren’t my thing, falling is even less my thing, and my lower body weight to upper body strength ratio isn’t where it would need to be to be a strong climber.

But I can certainly see the appeal–problem solving, physicality, and the beautiful landscape all speak to me. One philosopher of science puts the attraction this way: “I think some forms of climbing are like vertical dance combined with chess. Other forms pit you against the weather and the mountain in some kind of harrowing but lovely struggle.”

He’s not alone. A Google search for philosophy of science and climbing turns up dozens of web pages of academic philosophers whose passion outside of work is climbing. I’ve started to wonder about academics and our preferred sports and whether our preferences reveal anything about our disciplinary orientations. I mused about road cycling and analytic philosophy here.

Whether my suspicion is right, it sure seems there are lots of philosophy of science-climbers.

A list of Bas van Fraassen’s favourite climbs, and pictures, is here.

Bill Ramsey is a very well known and respected climber but he’s also a philosopher and you can read an interview with him here. He puts the connection between climbing and philosophy this way:

When I’m working on a philosophy paper, the process is very similar to working on a hard climb. I tinker with different parts of the problem, trying to see what works, figuring it out in stages, eventually trying to piece it all together. I find it very rewarding in both worlds. It is not surprising that so many climbers are mathematicians, physicists, engineers — analytically-minded people who really enjoy problem-solving. I like to say that a lot of climbers are nerdy intellectuals trapped in an athlete’s body.

He’s also written a piece on the ethics of climbing called Making the Grade. It’s excerpted here. He’s a bit of a legend, I gather, and is still setting records past the age of 50. You can watch him in action too. See Video: 51-year-old Bill Ramsey redpoints 5.14b .

I’m not the first person to have wondered about the connection between climbing and philosophy.

Here’s another blog post on the topic, Climbing and Philosophy

And of course there’s a Wiley-Blackwell Philosophy for Everyone book on the subject, Climbing: Because it’s There .