Monday, November 21, 2011

Koskenkorva Martini

"I've climbed with some of the best climbers in the world, more importantly, to me, they are some of the best people in the world. That's another reason why I climb."
~Jim Wickwire

I really like to climb.

No, really. I do.

And why I like it so much - love it, in fact - is hard to distill down into a single statement. I've tried. But each time I think I have it quantified and pinned down, I realise I've left one or two or a hundred things out. Every climbing experience is unique and holds its own magical treasures. There are certainly things which top the list of why I love climbing and some ever-present themes - the zen-like quality; the control; the mindfulness; the freedom; the challenge; the dance-like movements - but I can have as rich and rewarding an experience playing around on 5.8s teaching new climbers as I have puzzling out the pieces of a rapturous - and torturous - 5.12 that draws sweat, blood and tears. How is it that I enjoy climbing as much on a perfect blue-sky day as on a miserable, rain-soaked and frozen-to-the-bones day? Why is a top-belay in too-small shoes in the blazing sun just as enjoyable as a sit-belay from a grassy field in the shade?

There has to be something, right?

A recent weekend adventure of climbing brought that something out of the shadows and into sharp focus. As variable as the situation, the weather, the location, the temperature, the comfort of the gear, the quality of the rock, there actually is a constant: the people. I get to climb with awesome people. And a day climbing, 'suffering' up an unknown 5.14 in Golden or in agony 50 feet up a cliff in Diablo Canyon because I brought the wrong shoes for multi-pitch or freezing my ass off in El Rito because a summer storm moved in to dump rain and hail while halfway up a 90 foot route, with people I truly like is better than most anything I can think of.

I turned 40 this year. I viewed turning 40 in the same way I viewed turning 20: a non-milestone. It held no more fear or excitement than turning 39 did. Or 12. Or 26. However, 40 is a nice, round number and it did elicit a good party and a wealth of presents (Yay presents!). Among the gifts was a climbing route. Really.

Two fellow climbers, Vaino and Doni, had scoped out a possible new route and had earmarked it for me to develop. I got a card. And a photo of the cliff. With a note: This is your route.

I don't squeal. But if I did? Big squeal.

To say I was excited is a bit of an understatement. I've rode shotgun on bolting before. I have some first ascents. My name is attached to a few routes. But I had never developed a route from start to FA.

And setting the route? Bolting it? Climbing it for the very first time ever? PERFECT.

Yes, it was a beautiful day for climbing. Yes the weather was incredibly cooperative. Even the burrito from Sofia's Kitchen  - chicharones and red chile for me, thanks! - was remarkably tasty on the way to the crag.

But it was the company that was truly perfect.

Every climbing adventure I have had revolves around the shared experiences. And this was no exception. I am honored and quite flattered that Doni and Vaino entrusted me with such a gift. They have developed entire walls and Vaino has set some of my favorite routes both in New Mexico and Colorado. But what truly made the experience memorable was that they were with me and I got to climb with them.

So if you want to climb something I've set, head down to Socorro in southern New Mexico. Maybe you'll feel some of the joy I experienced - especially if you climb it with good friends.

It is in The Box. On Alcohol Wall, which is part of the Major Wall Area. It's a short 5.10a. But it is mine and I'm pretty proud of it.

Koskenkorva Martini (5.10a)
A short, fun route. Easy standing first clip. Start on some generous incut holds, moving left, making the second clip and up to the feature (a little cave with a large tooth that looks like the silhouette of a bat). Pull up on a solid match on the 'tooth' and reach for a juggy side pocket to the left for the clip. High feet will get you a decent hold on the right and higher feet will get you up to the great ledge on the left - definitely the crux. Pull up to a short scramble for another clip and up to the finish at the anchors.

Koskenkorva Martini

Vaino & Doni
 Setting and bolting the route.

Safety first.

Drilling a bolt hole.

Drilling a bolt hole.

Hammering in a bolt.

Cleaning the route.
First ascent of Koskenkorva Martini.

The "bat" feature.

Moving past the crux.

At the bolts.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Why I Buy? The Shiny and the Solid

"And I am a weapon of massive consumption
And its not my fault it's how I'm programmed to function"
~Lily Allen

Gear is almost indescribably wonderful.
I am a confessed gear whore.
gear whore n. someone who has to have the best, most expensive, coolest gear, useful or not.
Yes, I like the shiny and the new. And there are times when I look over my rack and I realise I am just one or two colour-coordinated draws away from being one of those sport climbers.

But really, why do I buy what I buy? Such a simple question does not have a simple answer.

I have worked in marketing and advertising for the past 20 years and have a pretty good grasp on how the artifice and casuistry of product pimping works. But that doesn’t mean I am immune. In fact, I have a high appreciation for a well-crafted advertisement and am more likely to invest at least my time into researching a product that is packaged well and peddled in just the right way to highlight its particular je ne sais quoi. Black and white sketches or flat product photos might be enough to pique some consumers’ interest, but many people really do prefer the glossy, full-colour splash of gear-in-action (me included). It’s a world of embodying the brand.

Not an actual product. Sorry.
Companies like Black Diamond Equipment and Petzl know this. They don’t casually spend their advertising dollars. And retailers know what they are doing when they put those pretty products in the hands and on the backs of pretty people.

But as much as the beautiful people and shiny colours get my attention, it is not the reason I buy. Getting the customer into the store or to your website might be half the battle, but half does not make a sale.

The performance of a piece of gear - be it a rope, draw, cam or headlamp - is crucial to any buying decision I make. I may like shiny, but that shiny needs to be backed up by solid and functional. When it comes to climbing gear, I’m trusting my life to its performance; if the lobes on a cam fall off, a rope fails in a fall or the stitching on a belay loop comes undone, the prettiness of any gear is moot. Taking a look outside of the sphere of neon advertising is important. And for that I love reviews.

Katanas = awesomeness!
To glean the information I need about gear, I love reading reviews. From the slick editorials in industry magazines to the postings on Internet forums and retailer web pages, the views of actual end-users is invaluable. Knowing the good and the bad and how they balance is key to get me from “Oh! Shiny! Want!!” to actually purchasing a product. No piece of gear is perfect (OK, maybe my lovely Katanas...) and knowing about the less-than-perfect aspects of it helps me weigh the actual value to me, myself and I.

But reviews can still be a bit remote or removed. It’s great to read what Sharma thinks about the new Sterling ropes (OK maybe we’ll file that one under ‘embodying the brand’ and walk away) or what badgirlclimber873 thinks about the Grigri 2. But it is even better to be able to relate those experiences to your own use of gear. And that’s where one of the most important elements of why I buy gear comes into play: personal recommendations.

I trust the people with whom I choose to surround myself. And a thumbs-up from a friend is worth more than all the glossy-pages any advertising budget can buy. The breadth of use of gear by my fellows may not be as far reaching as the pros nor even as broad as many other people out there, but it is immediately relevant to me and my use. Our abilities and interests run, if not entirely parallel, at least in the same spheres.

If I am looking to get a new piece of equipment, my most valuable resources are the people around me. Have they used it? Do they like it or not? Why? Does the x-factor of a particular piece of gear really matter in the end? No one is paying them - outright or under-the-table - to give me an opinion.

The final piece in my decision to buy is personal experience. I like to try out equipment before I buy it. On the trail, at the crag or in the store, being able to see how a piece of gear and I work together is important. It can be something as simple as knowing if my hand fits nicely into a chalk bag or as crucial as knowing if a pair of new climbing shoes (Don’t worry Katanas, I’m not replacing you!) cuts in at the ankles or has a toe-box that doesn’t suit my feet. That’s why I am so often a repeat customer; when I am familiar with and trust gear I will keep going back to it again and again.

Perhaps characterising myself as a gear whore is unfair and, in fact, untrue. I am actually very cautious and judicious in my decision to buy. A company might get my attention with flashing lights and sirens, but it is quality, dependability and reputation that will get me to cross that line and become an actual consumer. I do like to have pretty gear. And yes, some of my gear goes unused for long stretches. But I don’t have it just for the sake of having it. Make a quality product that is useful and innovative. Wrap it up in a pretty package. Let me use it and put it to the test and talk to others about it. I might buy it. And if I do, I'll tell others about how much I like it.

This post can also be read on the fabulous PembaServes website: Why I Buy? The Shiny and The Solid.