Monday, September 12, 2011

Climbing the Wu Wei

"... at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance."
~T. S. Eliot

"The natural is sufficient. If one strives, he fails."
~Wang Pi

I had an interesting exchange on Twitter about climbing. 

tweep1: Gnarly bruise and knot, plus a sore elbow, from fighting my way up a crazy 11c yesterday. :) #climb
@Paukku: Tsk tsk. You shouldn't be fighting. Flow with the route. Become the route.
tweep2: I'm a big proponent of having the ability to both flow and fight, then you can get thru whatever the route dictates

@Paukku: I find that if I think a route dictates 'fighting' I am climbing it wrong. I am very wu wei when it comes to it.
tweep2: but there are routes out there that require full extension lunges and low lock-offs, which many would call "fighting"
@Paukku: Semantics. Fighting is purposeful violent conflict meant to establish dominance over something. Not how I climb.

Semantics indeed. One could argue that I could just accept that "fight" in this context was being used to indicate "conscious exertion of power" and move on. Some routes are 'harder' and require different movements and more effort, right? But to me that is not the point. To me, climbing is not about power or winning or conquering. And it is certainly not about fighting.

Wu Wei
One of the seeming paradoxes of Taoism, a school of thought I greatly admire, is the concept of Wu Wei. It is a concept of effortless action or action without doing. Non-doing. Put another way, it is action in which there is no division between the object and the action that is done. It is action that is both spontaneous and effortless without being passive.

Got that?

From a climbing perspective, this translates to graceful climbing. And I admire graceful climbers. I love watching the flow - another key for understanding Wu Wei - of a climber who does not fight against a route. Each move is the right action, appropriate to its time and place, and creates greater harmony and balance within the climb. Capturing that beauty of form and movement is how I approach climbing.

This is key to the mental character of climbing - a constituent element of climbing that is sadly overlooked by many, especially as this sport becomes more and more popular.

Climbing in the Wu Wei is not the absence of action, but rather the absence of conflict. It is climbing without combative or egotistical effort. This kind of climbing is like water that flows over and around the rocks in its path; it does not try to force a path, but works with the natural rhythm of its surroundings. Water is yielding and soft, yet it is powerful and shapes the world.

Rather than seeing a particular move within a climb - a lunge or a lockoff - as an obstacle, I see it instead as an opportunity to understand the flow of the route. Those moments of clarity - those wonderful aha moments - when a route seems impossible and then suddenly becomes possible are never about how I can fight harder; they are about realising the flow of the route and then matching it. They are about accord.

Am I just splitting hairs?

I don't think so.

To characterize climbing, even a very challenging and difficult climb, as fighting is contradictory to the very essence of why I love climbing. I am not getting into the arena with an adversary who must be subjugated or defeated; I am journeying with a friend.

As Benjamin Hoff states in The Tao of Pooh:

When you work with Wu Wei, you put the round peg in the round hole and the square peg in the square hole. No stress, no struggle. Egotistical Desire tries to force the round peg into the square hole and the square peg into the round hole. Cleverness tries to devise craftier ways of making pegs fit where they don’t belong. Knowledge tries to figure out why round pegs fit into round holes, but not square holes. Wu Wei doesn't try. It doesn't think about it. It just does it. And when it does, it doesn't appear to do much of anything. But Things Get Done.

That is how I approach climbing. And that feeling, when I am in the moment of a climb, when I am following the lines a route reveals to me, letting them lead me so that I flow, is one of the best feelings in the world. It makes me peaceful and present. I am the point, the still point.

One of the nicest compliments I have ever received is when someone told me that I make climbing look effortless. I could not do that if I was fighting.


Thursday, September 01, 2011

Gear Review: PETZL Xion Rope & Ange Finesse Quickdraws

A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving. 
~Lao Tzu

Sometimes things don’t go as planned. And sometimes that is just what you need.

The plan was straight forward enough. A day-trip to Castlewood Canyon for some rope climbing, specifically to Grocery Store Wall. It’s a crag I have climbed at before and it offers a good variety of routes. My climbing partner, Tali of Cupcake Mafia, was interested in some solid TR and I was excited about getting back on “Bozo No No”, a 5.11a sport that I was itching to climb again, and use my new, shiny gear.

Bozo No No, August 2009

I am funny when it comes to gear. On the one hand I like the familiar, the predictable and the comfortable. New gear tends to stay new on my rack because when I am comfortable with a piece of gear, I rely on it without thinking, reaching for it instinctively. It becomes an extension of me. I almost always turn to the old gear, favouring it over new gear which is untested in my own hands and can be, and often is, decidedly different in feel and operation. On the other hand, new gear is sexy and pretty and I’ somewhat of a gear whore.

When some new Petzl Ange Finesse Quickdraws and a lovely 10.1 XION rope came into my possession, those two facets of my personality collided. What to do with the new gear? I had been getting rather anxious to go climbing. As most every crag in New Mexico was closed due to the fire danger and actual fires, climbing in my home state was pretty much out. But with a trip up to Colorado planned and the gear being so shiny, it seemed like this was a sign. Synchronicity!

So here we were, driving through Franktown on the way to Castlewood Canyon and some outside routes at long last.

Grocery Store Wall is easy to get to from Denver. That’s both good and bad. Good, because who doesn’t like a quick drive from Denver and an easy five-minute approach? Bad, because who doesn’t like a quick drive from Denver and an easy five-minute approach? It can get crazy crowded. But when we parked the lot was not even close to full. However, the two 16-passenger vans did make us a bit nervous.

There’s nothing more disheartening to find when you head out to the crag than ropes as far as the eye can see. It’s like finding a crowded indoor gym outside somehow. The vans apparently supplied the kids to complete that gym-feel.

Maybe “Bozo No No” would be open. But no, a sizable group was gathered around the route and there didn’t seem to be any open TR routes to set up on to wait it out. My new gear was making noises from inside my pack. It sounded a lot like “Climb!” So what to do?

Grocery Store Wall is the only wall I’ve climbed at in Castlewood, but it is by no means the only wall in the canyon. There’s rumoured to be more than 600 routes in there. And Tali and I had looked at some of the other areas in the canyon. The night before we had discussed options if we encountered this very scenario. The Dungeon had stood out as a good possibility because it is not as easily accessible and therefore might not appeal to the washed masses of hobby-climbers. The routes are harder, but there’s still a good supply of TR and I’d have a large selection of sport routes to choose from.

Of course we had not counted on the cat.

Each of the crags we had selected as options had been dutifully looked up on the ever-helpful Mountain Project and printed out as mini-guides. This was especially important as a) we had experienced a “wandering around Castlewood Canyon kind of lost” experience before and b) the other possible crags were unfamiliar to either of us. So we leafed through the guides to The Dungeon and found we had only the cover page. Because the cat likes to play with the printer. (Thank you, Finn!)

What the heck, we thought. We’ve got the directions to the crag. And a whole day to play on routes. Off we went along Cherry Creek River. As anyone knows who has set off to find something with only an indistinct idea of where it is and only vague directions on how to get there can attest, a moderate hike can become one of unusually great scope. But Castlewood Canyon is simply gorgeous and despite the humidity and heat the walk was beautiful.

(A word of advice here. Always, always read through the comments on Mountain Project. If you don’t you might miss important advice. For example, when the directions state that the area is “Located at the N end of West Rim” and you do not read the comments, you might miss where it states: “The Dungeon is not located on the north end of the west rim...[it] is located just north of the western-most projection of the east rim.” And if you are not wanting an epic approach, this is good stuff to know.)

Neither of us had planned on the long (long) hike, but the vistas were incredible and really, it was just what I needed. Great company and good adventure are a salve for the soul. (Thank you, cat!)

When we arrived at last at The Dungeon, it became immediately clear why it holds that name. We approached from the top, and looking down on it it really does look like a dungeon.

We were tired, over-heated and sweaty. But we were here. It was time to unpack the gear and climb. Wally, my ever present climbing charm, was ready to go.

The Dungeon offers sport climbs from 5.9 to 5.12d. Of course, not having a guide of any kind and not being familiar with the area, it was down to just playing on routes and seeing what felt good. We rappelled down into the shade (yay!) and started to climb.

The first thing I can say about the Ange Finesse Quickdraws is that they are light. Really light. The Ange S biners weigh in at only 28 g. That’s 9 g less than my usual biners weigh. The weight is not really an issue for day climbing on short sport routes (unless your approach goes from five minutes to several hours), but it is definitely appealing when putting together a rack for multipitch adventures. Twelve Finesse draws can save you up to half a pound.

The Ange S biners look different. They use a single wire gate system that quite honestly looks puny. But the design is pretty ingenious. The gate is remarkably smooth and despite its svelte appearance locks solidly into a hole in the nose. The hole, incidentally, prevents debris, like the flour-y dirt of Castlewood Canyon, from becoming trapped in the biner.

Another nice feature of the Ange is that the S biners sport nifty little grooves on the top and bottom on the inside of the biner. These act as guides that aligns the biner on both the sling and the rope, keeping the axis just right.

But along with the reduction in weight comes a significant reduction in size. The Ange S biners are smaller. A lot smaller. This is my only real gripe against the Ange. A smaller biner means a smaller gate which means a smaller opening. In the case of the Ange S it is 0.9-inches . I’m used to the 1.125-inches opening on my usual biners. That doesn’t look like much on paper, but this smaller opening made me fumble my clipping every so often. Kind of big deal as I (perhaps unwisely) warmed up on “The Rack”, a 5.11a. The last thing I wanted was to be groping awkwardly to get a clip.

I put the draws through the paces. I fell. A lot. And I hung on the draws quite a bit as well. Despite calling the Anges “Barbie biners” all day, they did what a draw is supposed to do. I was timid at first, the diminutive size making me think these were light-weight in the strength department as well, but I came to trust them. With a rating of 20 kN (4,496 lbf), gate closed - most of my draws have a 24 kN (5,395 lbf) rating, gate closed - they caught me just fine and I have no complaints when it comes to that.

Along with the Anges draws I brought along a pretty green Petzl 10.1 XION rope. I know. 10.1. Tiny little draws and a big rope. But the great thing about the XION is that it doesn’t feel like a big rope. The rope is smooth and supple and remarkably easy to handle. It glided through the ATCs without any problem. The weight was not an issue on the short sport climbs in The Dungeon. And it was a great rope for TR. And it’s green. You can’t go wrong with green.

(Quite happily we were unable to test out the Duratec Dry treatment that is a feature of the XION.)

After a day of playing in The Dungeon, we decided it would be wise to try to beat the setting of the sun and get back to the car. We could practically see the car from The Dungeon. Ok, it was across the canyon and across Cherry Creek River, but the hike in had been a little too epic. We decided to bushwhack. And that’s another story.

You can also find this review on the excellent Pemba Serves website: Gear Review: PETZL Xion Rope & Ange Finesse Quickdraws.