Tuesday, July 21, 2015

This Old Rope

I’ve owned many over the years—climbing ropes, cords, lines, klettertau auf Deutsch.  As a teenager, I was perversely proud of my first real climbing rope, an 11mm in bright yellow.  With that thick snake coiled fat and heavy over my shoulder, I was a climber, by God.  Ignore the tall, gangly, mettle-mouthed kid awash in insecurity.  See this rope?  Yeah, I’m a climber.  I had knickers, too, for a while, obsessed as I was with the world of classical European alpine climbing.  I even shook Riccardo Cassin’s hand once, so sit down and shut up.  But it was the rope more than anything that symbolized my new-found identity.  Once, while waiting for a friend to get out of class, I walked the halls of my high school with that first rope over my shoulder, showing it off, basking in its reflected glow.  It made me exotic, staked out a small patch of adolescent turf that helped me navigate that difficult time, even if I now cringe at the memory.  I couldn’t talk to girls, but I could begin my training in the vertical arts, and those fifty meters of golden nylon were my path out of the emotional mud pit of high school.  My first climbing friend, Jim, admired my new rope, too.  And his mother was Swiss, and he’d done guided climbs in the Alps.  It just didn’t get much better than that.  For a long time that rope hung off the end of my bed as I drew pictures of big mountains and read through every climbing book I could find, the stylish moves of Gaston Rébuffat playing across my youthful dreams.
The Northwest Tooth in the Matterhorn Peak range of northern Yosemite became my first alpine ascent.  I’d been bouldering and climbing obsessively that year.  This was in the 1970’s, before climbing gyms, sport climbing, and endless Youtube clips of superstars flashing the gnar.  At sixteen I was almost always the youngest climber in any gathering, hanging out around the intimidating older men, but Jim and I resolved to do this expedition on our own.  He piloted a fine old Mustang over the Sierras, through Bridgeport, and up to the Twin Lakes trailhead where we shouldered huge frame packs and pounded the dusty miles up to the shining granite of our ambitions.  With virtual alpen stocks, we climbed the steep snow slopes, bridged the moat, tied in to that beloved rope, and clambered up the mid-fifth class rock in clunky mountain boots heavy with steel eyelets and stout Vibram soles.  It’s what Rébuffat wore, so that’s what we used.  We were real mountaineers at last.  On the descent, we even had to rappel, trusting our lives to that symbol and fact of our connection to the mountain, to ourselves, to each other.
I don’t remember what happened to that first rope, but I’ve loved and left many.  There was that stout length of purple steel cable my friend used for a while, a Chouinard rope of fearsome handling qualities.  I’ve cursed an old-school Maxim with a mantle slipping inches, the tip dangling like a flaccid miniature elephant trunk.  I’ve fought devilish kinky knots as I hung from overhangs, the brake side of the rappel line wrapped around my thigh going numb as I worked diligently to clear the entanglement.  My life improved dramatically when I learned the butterfly coil for carrying and throwing.  Like a fool in a hot blacksmith shop, I quickly dropped Satan’s method of sitting on the ground and throwing the rope in quick loops around my knees and thereby inserting a twist into the line with each stylish toss.
There are few experiences with gear as sensual as taking a new rope into your hands for the first time, that slippery silky promise of adventure.  Of course, the old hemp and goldlines of yore were hard, unforgiving, and dangerous, but the modern kernmantle cord is a sexy beast first developed in 1953 by the German company, Edelrid, a brand I’ve used more than once.  I’m no fundamentalist prude when it comes to rope ownership.  Indeed, polyamory is encouraged.  Sample many and find your true loves: Edelrid, Edelweis, Mammut, New England, Maxim, blond, brunette, redhead.  You’ll need a time machine to latch onto one of those steely Chouinard cables, however, since Yvon dropped his climbing gear company long ago.  While you’re back there, check out the foam-back storm gear, too, for some old timey sweating.
A reliable belayer and a trusty rope have saved my bacon more than once, helping me rappel off stormy peaks and arresting unanticipated circus tricks at the crag.  On a recent outing to a small lump of crusty quartz monzonite, my wife, Jodi, fed out the new favorite, a Mammut 9.5mm, as I scampered up the edges and slopers of a route we discovered on the grimly named Tombstone.  Perhaps forty feet off the deck, I stepped gingerly to my left and latched onto a comfortable but gritty finger rail—nice.  More ascents should clean this right up.  A few feet shy of the anchor, I saw a perfectly shaped knob that would allow an easy hang while clipping.  I quickly glanced down the rope as it now led some distance down and to the right, passing through three bolts and into Jodi’s capable hands.  Hmmm, I thought, that would make an interesting fall.  I pulled in and up on the rail and slipped the fingers of my left hand over the knob—oh, this was a good one—a perfect lip and texture to accept my eager grip.  Curl, lock, hoist—snap!  With most of my weight committed to the knob, there was no fighting gravity this time. I pitched off and accelerated hard, a 185 lb. meathead arcing towards the deck.  With a loud “Oomph!” I hit the end of my swing, winched Jodi’s hundred pounds into the sky, and together we bounced about ten feet off the ground.  Bug-eyed, both of us looked at each other.  “Should I lower us?” she asked.  “I guess so,” I replied, and the excitement was over.  We lowered, I saved the hold for the menagerie at home, and we climbed the route without further drama.  The rope worked, and Jodi saved her husband from actually needing a Tombstone instead of climbing one.
Ropes have always worked for me, but of course that is not the case for everyone.  The most famous rope failure of all time was the broken hemp of the Whymper party on the fateful descent from the first climb of the Matterhorn in 1865.  Ironically, the weak rope saved Whymper and some of the party because it failed.  Unanchored to the mountain, had the rope held, the entire party would have zippered off the mountain to their deaths.  A hundred and thirty three years later, Dan Osman would fall to his death when a weathered and worn roped freefall line broke and sent him to the ground.  He’d left it up for weeks, and the park service demanded he take it down.  One more jump couldn’t hurt. 
And then there was the case of a rope working too well.
For pitch after pitch, Simon Yates had lowered his injured companion, Joe Simpson, down the snowy face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes.  Whiteout conditions blanketed the wall, and Yates couldn’t see that Simpson had slipped over an ice cliff and out into space with insufficient rope to reach the bottom.  Holding the full weight of his companion, Yates was slowly being pulled from his unanchored seat in the snow.  Simpson dangled in the icy gloom, too injured to ascend the rope and unable to communicate with the increasingly desperate Yates, who knew that little time remained before he, too, would be pitched off the mountain.  Yates did the only thing he could.  He took out his knife, made sure all the loops of rope were clear, and cut loose his friend, certainly killing him.  We can hardly imagine the grief and horror of such an act.  As chronicled in Touching the Void, Simpson survived his deadly fall.  Perhaps, in this case, cutting the rope saved both their lives.
The rope from my Tombstone fall has been retired now.  It sits in two pieces and a partially constructed rug on our living room floor, a summertime project for Jodi.  The ends were getting puffy and worn, frizzed and frazzled.  When you start to have doubts, it’s time to let them go.  Sorry, old friend, but we had to part ways.  No hard feelings, eh?  It was good while it lasted.  We’ve got your mate in the rope bag now.  She’s new, shiny and slim, 9.5mm across, 70 meters long, dry treated, knows how to take a knot, over $300 worth of kernmantle glory.  Like you, I know she’ll treat us right.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Horror: Real Estate

We sit in the comfort of an air conditioned room at the Trees Motel, an old school joint with--you guessed it--some trees out front.  We are in Bishop, California, with the terrifying plan of buying a new home.  The day is hot, muggy, threatening rain but not delivering more than a drop or two.  We've done a nice hike in the mountains, and now we wait to meet some new friends for dinner. This situation, sitting in a motel room, is so familiar from the long tours we've done, but there are no trikes or bikes clogging the space between bed and wall, no jerseys drying in the closet, no take-out spread across the table.  No, we're on a mission to change our lives.

Jodi has had a few health challenges lately, some adrenal and thyroid issues, and when we came home from a recent doctor's visit, she said, "Scott, you have to retire in two years."  I didn't argue, but when calmer minds reflected on the finances, the idea of a full retirement at 55 was pushing the edge too far.  Technically, we could make it work, but there would not be enough padding for things like out of control gas prices, exploding cars, alien invasions, that sort of thing.  No, I couldn't unhook so early from the community college that has dominated my life for the last two decades.  The retirement structure is such that they really encourage senior faculty to hang in there.  That's okay.  They win.  I'm not digging ditches.  The main issue is burnout--with certain kinds of students, with the administrative duties that kill the soul.  What we did resolve to do was go to our original plan:  Work full time (for teachers, that is), for the next two years then go to half time for as long as I can take it, probably until I'm sixty, maybe sixty-two.  So, that's the plan.

The problem is that now is a good time in the real estate market, and while we had considered buying a house and moving to Bishop fulltime, that would be leaving a great home and good friends.  But there was no doubt about the draw of the East Side, so a second home plan was hatched, a place to escape to, a base of operations, a getaway for getting to what satisfies our souls.  With my academic schedule and then going half-time in two years, we'd have ample opportunity to use a place.  But what would that look like?

Housing in Bishop is, well, insane.  Between Los Angeles Water and Power and the BLM, there is precious little real estate for anyone.  This state of affairs keeps housing prices very high.   We found that decent homes in the 1,300 sq. ft. range start at about $300k, and such places will likely need some work.  That's right:  $300k buys you a "fixer upper"!  Of course, with such high prices come high taxes.  No go, Joe.  So we immediately turned to mobile homes, of which there are quite a few in the Bishop area. 

After scrapping the idea of a full move, I kept scanning the real estate listings.  Then, one morning: Uh, oh.  Jodi, we have to look at this one.  Tiny park, end unit, big trees, a creek.  A lightning drive up and back in a day to check it out, and now we find ourselves in escrow.  The horror.  Endless expensive inspections, worry about whether or not we're making the right decision.  Ugh.  It's a big investment, about $60k, but when all is said and done, we can make the monthly nut.  We're excited to have a tiny piece of the East Side, even if we do have to rent the tiny patch of land from the Piute tribe, which is fine by us.  The tribe is mellow about dogs, and Django quickly made a couple of good buddies in our short time there.  Actually, our end unit comes with about 1/4 acre private land--almost unheard of in mobile parks.  We don't get the expansive views, but the huge willows and the north fork of Bishop Creek are sweet compensations.

Now the long, drawn-out escrow process grinds along like a glacier.  I don't think we'll have access to the place until sometime mid- or late August, just in time for me to get back into the classroom.  Oh well.  Below are pics of our latest adventure:

So that's it for now.  My adventures these days are financial!  Oh, I'm slowly recovering from my rib injury, and we hike or bike every day, but I don't know when I'll be back in the great outdoors.  Below are a couple of photos from hikes we did during out quick trips to find and purchase the mobile.  Trailheads for these hikes are about 20 minutes from our new place.  You get the draw?

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Gear Talk: East Side Tour notes

This is just a quick post to review some gear selections and issues from the recent tour.  Above are the two totally new pieces of gear used on their first tour: a Thermarest Neoair Trekker and the super fantastic Instaflator!

The Trekker, while not the lightest of the Neoair series, is a bit thicker and a good deal more durable--perfect for my needs.  The large model featured is a full 72 X 20 inches, so when I pile up rain gear/sweater/etc. for a pillow, my 6'4" frame fits just fine.  With 3" of thickness, I can dial in the softness for side-sleeping, too.  This is the best back packing/cycle touring pad I've ever used.  It's a good deal lighter and more compact than the Exped or the Camprest I've used in the past.  And it works well with a Big Agnes camp chair, which I can't recommend enough.  My back can't take sitting on the ground without support for long periods, and the chair kit makes rest days especially restful.

One drawback to non-foam filled air mattress, such as a conventional Thermarest, is the dizzy-inducing need to pump them up.  At the end of a had day's riding, the last thing you want to do is blow into a big pad and fall over like a drunk.  Enter the Instaflator.  This is an ingenious device that weighs only a couple of ounces and allows one to pump the bulk of the air into the mattress very quickly.  And it will break your bank at $3.95.  Below, I'm giving the tube a quick puff to open it, then one simply rolls the tube like a giant tube of toothpaste (see above).  Presto, you've got a pumped up pad.  To get the pad firm only takes another breath or two at the valve.  Be careful not to push it too hard as I did first time out.  I busted the light plastic, which I easily fixed with some clear packing tape.  The whole pump rolls up into a small handful when you're done.

The grey tent in the photos is my trusty Light Year by Sierra Designs.  If I were in the market for a single person tent, I'd go with the Eureka equivalent: Spitfire I.  It's lighter, somewhat better price, and seems to garner excellent reviews.  Both of these work well for tall guys.

Blogging was accomplished with my Dell Windows Tablet and Fintie keyboard--great gear!

I was able to keep things charged up with an Instapark Mercury 10 USB solar charger, which I highly recommend.

More my next tour on the Haluzak, I'll be ditching the yellow panniers.  They work, but hassling with the zippers gets old after a while with the way the bags fall open like a slacker's mouth.  I'll get an underseat rack and use the LLoonngg panniers we purchased for out desert trike trip last Dec.:

I'm not sure these are still available from ERRC (Easy Riders Recumbet Club).  I'll check and report back.  These are big, waterproof, and just the best recumbent panniers around.  Pretty light, too, checking in at under 3 lbs. for the pair.

Ride on, brothers and sisters...

East Side Tour: Days eight and nine

Day eight: June 15th

What is wrong with me?  Why do I strain at the pedals, fight gravity in the burning sun on a bike with load tipping the scales at 80 lbs. or more?  Why do these miles slip by in slow, sweaty effort?  Why do I smile and think that I am astoundingly lucky to be here?  Clearly, there is something wrong with me, an extra chromosome kinking my helix, an infection of the brain, a flaw in my character.  God help me, but I love this shit.

We awake to a stillness that was missing for the first part of the night when a mighty wind came down off the mountains and thrashed everything in town.  We fill our guts with Whoa Nellie Deli goodness in the midst of a fevered rush, crowds crowding, a slick band called String Theory busting out jazzy, bluesy, Celtic and blue grass tunes.  We have to crank hard downhill to get back to the RV park.  But now, at 5AM, all is still, the earliest possible light knifing into our camp with little to block the sun on the horizon, many dozens of miles away.  Danny is way ahead of me, almost fully packed, then fully packed as I’m still shoveling cereal and slurping coffee from his cup, mine having vanished somewhere in the gale, a coin for the ferryman.  Dang, that was one of our best backpacking cups, too.  I’ll have to order another one when I get home.

We start slapping blacktop shortly after 7AM, rolling into a 40+ mile day of rolling climbs, although Deadman’s Summit will work its magic for over 1,000 ft. of elevation gain.  There is no question that we could make it to Bishop and home today, but dropping into that caldron of molten lead in the afternoon sounds crazy even for us.  Dawn patrol for the last day makes much more sense, so it’s Tom’s Place today and a long afternoon curled up in the shade of a Jeffery pine, where I write these words.

The day is brilliant, not a whiff of cloud nor a single contrail in the dry atmosphere.  Danny and I leapfrog across the landscape, slicing through tall pines, gaping at mountains with lingering snow, too soon to be gone for the year.  But there are the Whites, hanging on still to the big dump they received in May.  We feel like we’re cycling within view of the Himalayas, those peaks in white so remote and inaccessible. 

The traffic is light on 395; sometimes there isn’t a car in sight, and when a vehicle does zoom by, the usually wide shoulder makes it a non-event.  I think of my and Jodi’s ride down the Icefields’ Parkway in Alberta back in 2012.  The riding here in the eastern Sierras is almost as spectacular but with better road conditions and far less traffic. This route, from Lone Pine to Carson City, needs to be recognized as a national treasure with some significant improvements put into sections of the route to make it more bicycle friendly.  WAY more people should be riding this country.  With the exception of roadie day-riders, we only see three other long-distance human powered travelers:  Two loaded cyclists on different days and German Jesus with dog and a dolly, who makes a plodding appearance in Lee Vining as Danny and I are hanging out at the RV park.  “Hey!” cried Danny, “There’s that Jesus dude!” That’s one determined evangelist, ja.

Eventually, we peel off the main highway and take a nearly deserted route to Hilton Creek, Crowley Lake, and the last significant climbing of the day.  This is where I strain and grin like a fool.  At least it keeps me in shape.  There’s utility in that.  I do think the UN would freak out if we made Gitmo prisoners ride up mountains like this for which mental patients such as we eagerly volunteer.  I can hear tin-hearted Dick Cheney smacking his lips in pleasure: Yeah, that’s it.  Forget the water board—too easy on ‘em.  Let’s make ‘em pedal Monitor Pass on a fully loaded recumbent!  They’ll be begging us to talk after five minutes.  But I do this by choice, by preference.  This sick puppy dreams of such struggles.  So it goes.

About noon, I turn into the shade of Tom’s Place, grab an orange juice, and revel in the shade. It’s good to pedal, but it’s also good to stop.  Danny arrives and we celebrate with burgers in the restaurant.  Later, we crank up to the campground and this delectable shade, the breeze singing in the pine needles. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Tomorrow, we rise before the sun and plunge into the valley ahead of the rising mercury.  This tour is almost over.

Day nine: June 16th

Four thirty AM, and somehow I emerge from the clutches of the Sandman to see the faintest light on the horizon.  I struggle to sit up, grab my headlamp, and start packing.  It always seems to take over an hour between first wakeup and first push of the pedals, so I fight the urge to go back to sleep.  By 5:50AM, we’re zipping down from the campground, sun on the high peaks and now pouring in golden intensity into the valley.  Oh, how I hate to leave.

In moments, we’ve tipped over the edge, gravity’s claws hooking deep, the wheels spinning furiously.  I pull ahead, loosen my shoulders, and nervously finger the brakes.  No time for mistakes, no room for error.  A crash at 40 mph would be gruesome.  Therefore, I will not crash.  The bike and I are old friends, comfortable with our moods, responsive to each other’s movements.  I know what she can do; she knows I’ll keep the speed below ludicrous.  I’m grateful for the dual discs slicing the chill air in the canyon, the trees blurring.  I channel the late great Dean Potter for a few seconds.  I don’t have a wingsuit, but I’m flying just the same. 

I bottom out in the darkly shaded canyon and begin a short but serious climb to the last summit of the tour.  It’s a bear, full-on granny gear spinning.  Above, a band of sun ignites the volcanic rocks.  Bring. It. On.  Danny pulls up behind and starts to gain on me, but at the top we discover one reason for his failure to overtake:  a flat on the trailer.  He can usually beat me on the climbs—but not with a dead tire.  We patch it in a trice and throw ourselves into the wild curving deliciousness beyond.  Mt. Tom’s outrageous bulk commands substantial visual real estate, but the sinuous curves bring us views of the Whites, the dark gash of Owen’s Gorge, the broad flat valley and the inviting square of green denoting Bishop over a dozen miles away.  Bank, brake, accelerate, for a couple of minutes, I have no motorcycle envy.  We are children cut free on a 2,000 ft. super slide.

Except for a gentle bump on 395, virtually all of the remaining miles are very gently downhill or dead flat.  When a sign indicates Bishop, 9 miles, we know they have a very short life expectancy.  Massive cottonwoods overhang the road at broad intervals.  Mostly, we are engulfed in brilliant light, the morning still cool as we’d planned.  It’s the best of all possible endings.  By 7:30AM we pull the brake levers for the last time and dismount next to the truck in a quiet neighborhood.  Danny and I grin, shake hands, a little stunned that our adventure has ended.

Time to plan for another one.  Next!