Alli Rainey

Alli

Stats
Height: 5’6”
Birthday: September 14th, 1974
Current Location: Ten Sleep, Wyoming
Day Job: Writer / Climbing Coach
Years in the Game: Since 1992
Personal Blog: http://www.allirainey.com

About Me

I started climbing at the end of my senior year of high school, in 1992. We laughed at my friend, Dave, when he bought one of the first bouldering pads ever made for the mass market, maybe in 1993 or 1994. I think it was called The Spot and made by Black Diamond. Still, I bouldered early on in my climbing at a couple little areas in Rumney, as well as at Hammond Pond in Boston. It just wasn’t a sport unto itself quite yet in the eyes of the climbing community at large.

Years later, I’m still a sport climber at heart, but I spend at least four months almost every winter bouldering. It’s a welcome break mentally, it’s easier to stay warm, its way more social, and it’s a great way to build explosive power and train dynamic movement.

In my other life, I’m a professional writer. I write whatever people pay me to write. It’s not very glamorous, but its fun and a great activity for rest days. I also read a ton, with no particular bias except that it has to be interesting to me and of decent quality. I’m totally okay with putting a book down after 50, 100, or even 200 pages if I lose interest. Life’s too short and precious to fritter it away on self-imposed tedium. I like to cook, and I meditate almost every day. My favorite people to climb with are the ones who laugh the most.

Posts by Alli:

Basic Weight Training for Climbers & Boulderers; Why To Consider Weight Training for Climbing

As Vern Gambetta points out in Athletic Development: The Art and Science of Functional Sports Conditioning, in this day and age, people often come into a new sport with little or no base of adequate muscular and movement training to support their efforts. What’s more, they can advance to a relatively elite level at that sport and still possess fundamental deficits in these areas that can potentially impair performance and promote injuries.

“There is a serious decline in basic physical fitness levels and fundamental movement skills at the developmental level,” explains Gambetta. He continues, “This necessitates a remedial emphasis throughout the athlete’s career because it was not incorporated in the foundation.”

This is why a simple, novice-level weight-training program has the potential to make a huge difference in terms of both athletic performance and injury prevention for many sports participants, including climbers. Not only that, but lifting weights regularly can also potentially improve your quality of life and long-term life skills by helping you maintain a strong and balanced body overall, not just a climbing-strong body with potential areas of imbalance and relative weakness that can make you more prone to injuries and infirmities at a later stage in life.

Certainly, you can spend too much time on strength development instead of technical skills work, and you can definitely also learn to use the strength you have erroneously, as we all know. Just think of the climber that “powers through” everything instead of using his feet wisely as the prime example of this. Sometimes, the more technically proficient climber will outsmart the powerful thrutching beast (I always took great pleasure in this, actually, back in my not-as-powerful days; I loved it when I could out-tech a stronger climber). Sure thing, technique can help you need less power or strength to do certain moves and can help you use the strength and power you have more efficiently and effectively, meaning you might need less of it than a less technically proficient climber does to succeed on the same sequences.

However, sometimes that powerful but sloppy-footed fellow manages to flounder and claw his way up harder climbs than his more technically proficient but weaker counterpart can. It’s happened to me too many times to count. That’s because when power or strength is necessary to do a move and there’s no way around it no matter how great your technique, technique loses out to power and strength every time. If you’re not strong enough, you’re not strong enough – as I know all too well. Point being, anyone can develop poor climbing technique and tactics if they misapply their strength and power, but that’s just being lazy and not bothering to work on molding those strengths to support good technical skills. Yes, novice climbers should spend lots of time honing climbing technique, for sure, and lots more time practicing technical skills and refining tactics than elite climbers do – but this doesn’t mean that adding some strength training into their programs early is a bad or misplaced idea.

Even doing a few basic, multi-joint exercises (such as deadlifts, pull-ups, bench presses, and squats) a couple times per week can potentially change a person’s body for the better, adding strength and stability that have the potential to translate into more precise climbing movements or improved endurance, for example. Before you start lifting, get cleared to do so by a health professional and then enlist the guidance of a weights-savvy professional trainer to check and direct your form the first time you try each lift. Take it slowly and use light weights when you start, focusing more on proper form and letting your body adjust to the new exercise program. Do 2 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps of each exercise once or twice a week, taking a couple days off between lifting sessions. Warm-up before you lift with light cardio and dynamic stretches, and warm down after with the same, along with some static stretches as well. Try to lift after climbing, not before, since climbing is a less-controlled exercise and doing it in a muscularly fatigued state can predispose you to injury.

You can increase the challenge of your weights program and potentially see greater results by incorporating additional climbing-relevant resistance exercises into your resistance-training routine. Start by selecting four or five more exercises to perform on a different day from the four exercises listed above – so you will do each exercise one day per week and have a different list of exercises to run through on each day. You might even make up a list of 10 possible exercises for each day and include two or three for each muscle group, and then rotate the exact exercises from session to session in order to keep your body guessing and constantly adapting while maintaining some overall consistency in training. Online databases such as BodyBuilding.com and MyFIT.ca provide illustrated catalogs of resistance exercises along with information about the muscles used for each exercise. Try to choose multi-joint exercises rather than single-joint exercises, and select exercises that reflect movements/muscle groups used in climbing. The exception for multi-joint lifts for climbers would be incorporating lifts/exercises that work the fingers and forearms in isolation. Since these are used so frequently and extensively in climbing, focusing specific resistance training attention on them can be quite effective.

I cringe when I read or hear people say that weight/resistance training or any training outside of climbing is a waste of time for novice climbers or climbers in general. I think that this flies in the face of sound athletic training principles, seeing that most of the more mainstream sports training books and studies I’ve read all seem to draw the same conclusion: that all athletic skills, including technical skills, agility, balance and endurance, ultimately derive from and depend on a person’s maximal strength levels in areas relevant to their chosen sport. In other words, strengthening your body unlocks a greater potential for developing all areas of sport-related skills, regardless of the sport you play or where you’re at in your career.

A Day of Bouldering in Cody, Wyoming

Yesterday, Kevin and I had to drive over to Cody, Wyoming to meet with our tax professional (it’s that time of year). To make the day completely worth our while, we of course set up a bouldering date with a bunch of friends, some (Mike, Meg and Clint) who call Cody home, plus a couple, Christine and David, who will be calling our house in Ten Sleep home for the next few months. I realized before we left that it’d been two years (!) since I last touched the fine sandstone that Cody has to offer — two years too many, actually.

Despite the colder turn of the weather (it had dropped about 20 degrees from the day before) and the classic nasty-Cody-cold wind, we enjoyed a fine day down at the wind-sheltered Carcass crags. Mike sent an eight-year V8 project of his, which was awesome to see, and despite my continued jet lag and lack of full energy/try-hard (I just got back from a two-month climbing trip to Spain), I sent a Cody classic that I’ve never had the guts to top out before called Learn to Swim (V4).

Training, Travel and Anticipation

Unlike my past few winters, this winter I feel kind of pressed for time, in terms of training and just generally relaxing into what’s usually a lengthy off-season here in Ten Sleep, Wyoming. Part of this change is likely to be somewhat permanent, given the addition of a steep, chossy, south-facing sport climbing area to our local cragging options in the past year. Alas, having this option for sunny days (which we are having an abundance of so far) pulls my attention away from training. However, I’m mostly okay with that, since the climbing style not only contrasts sharply with our summer crag ( which is a vert-tech playground) but also, works my biggest weakness in climbing – climbing like an ape. Good enough reason for me to spend as much time as possible learning from this teaching playground that I can. It’s because the climbing works my weaknesses that I favor it over straight-up training; the climbing itself provides a holistic training approach to cultivating a greater comfort and ability level on severely steep angles.

The other half of the equation this year is that our travel plans ended up leaving us very little time for any lengthy chunk of winter training. We climbed in the Red River Gorge until the end of November, had two weeks at home, spent the holidays vacation climbing for a week and just chilling for a week on Cayman Brac in the Caribbean, and now have a scant month left here at home before we depart for a two-month sport-climbing trip to Spain. No complaints about any of that, either, of course. The Red and the Brac were awesome, and now I can’t wait for the European trip. I’ve never been to Spain before, and I am eagerly anticipating the world of overhanging limestone wonder that awaits me.

I try not to get too attached to routines in my life, instead remaining open to change and new adventures as much as possible, from day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month and even year-to-year. This attitude keeps me from being unwilling to seize opportunities, whether climbing or otherwise, when they arise, instead of doggedly sticking to a plan. The trip to Spain wasn’t even on the radar until late last summer, but it just felt like the right time to go, given that we could coordinate travel and housing with friends pretty easily. Giving up some time I’d planned for training for this trip just makes sense, because what’s the point of all the training if not to go climbing, right? There’s always time to train; there isn’t always a time when a bunch of friends’ schedules and finances will mesh for a trip abroad.

So instead of being a month of unwinding and finding a solid training rhythm, this January feels like a rush to the finish line, getting everything possible done in advance that I can before we depart, from building up my route-climbing fitness to getting a whole bunch of new coaching clients started. I have a new coaching software interface to learn and then pass on to my clientele (TotalCoaching.com), writing projects to complete, and a trip to Outdoor Retailer in Salt Lake City, too – not to mention climbing outside at every opportunity that presents itself. It’s going to be a busy rest of the month, but I’m psyched for it, eagerly anticipating the upcoming international journey as well as my main chunk of training, which will have to come later on in the year.

Weekly Climbing Feasts

Hello again from Ten Sleep! After spending an alternately hot ‘n’ soggy or cold ‘n’ soggy spring in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, we’ve been back here in Wyoming for almost a month now. The summer season started out not-so-promising, with cold temps leaving my numb fingers torn apart. Dry, cold air means zero friction; you need a little bit of moisture to help keep hands tacky enough to stay on small holds, not to mention being able to feel them. Anyhow, the cold days left me with chunks of flesh ripped from my fingertips for a couple weeks, until the true arrival of summer more recently.

That happening prompted some quick sends of early-season projects on my part, allowing me to delve right into my long-term relationship with this summer’s biggest challenge. I’d actually tried this route out last year at the end of the season, and given it some good flails, with not too much success – some of the moves were just at the edge of my power limit, meaning I maybe did a couple of the moves only one time, total. This year, though, I’ve found that regardless of the outcome of the route (Send? No send? I don’t know…), at least I’m stronger, since I can do a bunch of the moves in ways I couldn’t last September (i.e., the right and realistic way a climber would who could actually have a hope of sending the route), and I can do many more moves in sequence already. Psyched about this!

But the real news for this year so far has been this season’s incarnation of après-climbing training days. Quick history: three seasons ago (2008), I tried to maintain training through the summer, failed because I got greedy about sending, and then regretted not training. Two seasons ago (2009), I trained on my own through the summer. Last year (2010), I almost always had company in training, but we stuck to the stuff for training inside the house – exercise bands, pull-up bar, hangboard, and body weight. Not so much for this summer…

This summer, the routine that’s established itself goes something like this: climb all day until everyone’s skin is thrashed (along with some muscles). Return to the casa, where I run off to do my hour/hour-and-a-half of weight training on the Bowflex while everyone else heads into the bouldering gym. After I’m done, I go out to the gym, where people are starting to get tired, and that’s when the real fun begins – CAMPUS TIME.

We spend an hour or two campusing around the gym like little kids in a playground, making up all sorts of footless challenges for one another as we monkey about. The falls are dramatic, the moves are ridiculous, and the fun factor is out of hand. It’s a hilarious time, totally captures what rock climbing and bouldering should pretty much always be about, in an ideal world – just pushing your own machine to do things you’re not sure it can do, and having an absolute and light-hearted blast while doing it.

It’s the start of a new week here in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, and I’m already looking forward to the end of the week’s campusing craziness, wondering who will show up this time to play. In the meantime, though, I’ve got days of good climbing on real rock ahead of me – and that’s pretty exciting, too. 

Adventure Inspired, Winter Training, Etc.

Check out my recent interview posted on Adventure Inspired. I’ve been wondering what to say here for awhile, but it turns out I just needed someone else to ask some questions and direct my focus and get me started.

I’ve been busy in Ten Sleep this winter what with training both using weights and by bouldering in the gym, complete with its high-jumping mats rescued from the town dump last summer that make falling that much easier:

Along with training myself, my schedule has been packed with coaching other climbers, taking a personal trainer certification course, writing (my favorite article I researched and wrote this winter is probably the one on NSAIDs (or “vitamin I”) as they relate to climbing performance. On top of all this, Kevin (my husband) has gone and started developing a new outdoor climbing area that’s like bouldering on a rope for 80 feet or more…and that can be climbable on warm winter days. What’s a girl to do?

What I mean by “bouldering on a rope” here isn’t that the routes are short, but rather, that they’re long, but feature bouldery hucks and throws, over and over and over again, especially if you’re not a tall guy (or gal, I suppose). No complaints here; this is exactly what I need, and now I have it right in my backyard. And, as a bonus, I finally have a practical sport-climbing application for all of my bouldering training in the gym, which often seems to just focus on dynos – I really do need to just let ‘er fly on these routes. It’s nothing like the more measured pace and controlled movement of Ten Sleep Canyon climbing.

I don’t really have any climbing pictures of this stuff yet (sorry, but it’s hard when the days are short and the temps are cold and there’s only two of you out there to get any climbing photos), but I will eventually. In any case, I’m supposed to be training right now since the cold temps today and not-quite-sunny conditions scared me away from heading out to the crags. Some friends from Canada were here earlier this week when the conditions were similar, and I battled through the day with numbed, wooden hands…meanwhile, my Canadian friend declared the conditions “perfect” and proved that they were for him by climbing well and then sharing his warm, sweaty palms with everyone else’s freezing ones. Amazing stuff, that. Not for me, though…that day sent me into my familiar scared-of-cold visage, so I’m choosing indoor training today with the hopes of the warmer climes promised in the next week actually happening. That’s it for now…adios from Ten Sleep.

Learning the Grrr

Yelling to Stick the Move=Part of my Beta (photo by Jody Mayer)

Yelling to Stick the Move=Part of my Beta (photo by Jody Mayer)

“You are one of the quietest climbers I’ve ever seen,” commented another climber to me, some years back. And I was, no doubt about it. The climbing style I’d developed the greatest expertise at—technical face climbing on tiny holds—required such delicate precision yet such relatively little explosive pulling power that I never really moved dynamically. I also simply did not possess the power to unleash, instead always moving slowly, carefully, and in control, balancing and crimpy my way up the slightest little edges. I also thought when people yelled climbing that it was sort of a put-on, a show aimed at making everyone look and see how hard they were trying. I hadn’t realized yet that by limiting myself to a comfortable and familiar style of climbing, I was only experiencing a tiny slice of what climbing has to offer, like a dieter’s meager slice of birthday cake with the icing scraped off. I didn’t know that if I opened up my eyes (and trained my butt off), I might actually learn to appreciate a whole new planet of sport climbing and bouldering that I’d never yet experienced.

Fast-forward to now, two-and-a-half years into a relatively consistent process of training pull power on my part (and the consistency has gotten stronger and stronger since the start). Gradually, I have started dynoing more and more, and much to my astonishment, becoming a much noisier climber. It started with routes where I’d get powered down and not be able to pull smoothly from hold to hold any longer—I would start throwing for the next hold, relying on my stronger hands to compensate for my weaker pulling ability, and letting out an unintentional shout with every toss. Then, inside my head, I’d be like, “Whoa, what’s up? Why am I yelling?” And I admit, I felt embarrassed by it…it just seemed so strange that suddenly I was the climber making all the noise and drawing attention to myself.

This spring, during a trip to Skaha, I realized that I finally had enough power for what I think of as the “single-move grrr.” Before, I only could apparently tap into this need to shout when I was already powered down, and could no longer pull elegantly from hold to hold, locking each move off in turn. But now, I found, I not only could pull off the full-force, one-move, try-hard effort, but also, I couldn’t stifle the yell even if I tried (I tried once as an experiment, and it came out as a strangled half-yell, half-yelp, making me laugh after hitting the hold).

A couple days ago, on my first project of the year in Ten Sleep Canyon, I encountered a pure ‘n’ simple yelling move, no question about it. I hung and contemplated the giant distance between the two holds. I tried the move a couple times with no yell. Then, I observed to my friends—a little tentatively, I admit, because I still feel sort of odd about this sometimes—“You know, I think this may be one of those moves that requires a yell?” I trailed off in a questioning tone, wondering if they’d know what I meant, and received an overwhelming wave of support. I went for the move, with a yell of effort, and found myself completing it for the first time.

With every yell that results in success, my conviction grows that yelling is a climbing technique that everyone should try to master early on, with no self consciousness whatsoever. It really does help, and it really isn’t to get attention. I see much more grrr in my climbing future, and I’m loving every minute of learning to harness and unleash this amazing technique.

Winter Bouldering in Ten Sleep

A Typical Bouldering Sesh in the Ten Sleep Gym

A Typical Bouldering Sesh in the Ten Sleep Gym

10 things you might not realize about Ten Sleep, Wyoming:

1. The official population is 304 people.

2. The town has two bars, a gas station, two restaurants, and no grocery stores.

3. The nearest grocery store is 25 miles away, in the big city of Worland (population 5,250).

4. If you forget something at the grocery store, you forget it.

5. If you forget toilet paper, you buy it at the gas station for four times as much.

6. More than once, I’ve had to abort a walk or run due to cattle being herded down my street.

7. I was also once harassed by three big goats that escaped under a barbed wire fence and decided I was their herd leader. Screaming obscenities and flinging snow at them didn’t help. They just got mad (the boy goat) and crowded closer to me (the girl goats). I had to call back to town for a ride to pick me up.

8. Ten Sleep Canyon starts about 7 miles from the town of Ten Sleep.

9. Ten Sleep Canyon ends about 20 miles from the town of Ten Sleep. You do the math.

10. Ten Sleep Canyon has more than 700 established sport climbing routes ranging from 5.6 to 5.14+.

Now you’re starting to get a real picture of this small town in Wyoming that I call home. Yes, it’s remote, yes, it’s unpopulated, and yes, it’s pure western country. It’s West with all that capital “W” brings with it. We got yer cowboys, we got yer coyotes, we got yer cricks, we got yer rodeos, and we got yer rattlesnakes. We also have a tremendous rock climbing resource—which is why I’m so excited that this winter has brought with it a building up of the local climbing community.

Sure, every summer brings in a good amount of the curious explorers from “out there,” that place in the great beyond, also known as the rest of the country. Not only does it bring our fellow compatriots, meaning other U.S. citizens from other states, but also, even true foreigners from around the globe, all who come to check out the climbing here. I think it’s wonderful; these outsiders bring in a great source of revenue to the local economy, and they tend to be polite and low key, and also, good stewards of the environment.

But what is more exciting for me right now is to see a little community growing up of local people who are bonding together over a shared passion for rock climbing during this winter season. (And in case you don’t realize it, I’m not a true “local,” because even though this next summer in Ten Sleep will mark a decade of summers spend here for me, a local is someone who was born here and has lived here, or at least in Wyoming, their whole life. Alas, I will never be a true local. Oh well.) But these are true locals, these folks, and they’ve been coming out and bouldering in my gym once or twice a week regularly like clockwork so far this winter, and it’s been awesome.

Considering how small this town is and how small the “big city” is, to have a little—but growing—group of climbers of all levels, both men and women, coming together to train for rock climbing during the winter, is quite a feat, really. For me, selfishly, it makes training that much more fun, knowing that I’m going to have the inspiration and good energy of a whole group of people surrounding me when I go out there to train.

As for the gym itself, it’s a home gym, but it’s pretty cool. It’s in a building that used to be in an oilfield, a heated and insulated metal building with a 12-foot ceiling. The door has a sign that says “Danger: Poisonous Gas” on it. The gym has three steep angles, one of which is super-steep, with a cool prow for compression problems. Most of the holds are homemade, either rocks or wooden holds, with a few donated plastic gym holds sprinkled here and there—along with my recent purchase of 100 “real” fake climbing holds. Almost every hold has a name, and that’s how we designate problems, by calling out the names of the holds in sequence. Lots of the names are ridiculous and intended to make us laugh like children.

It’s also a no-climbing-shoes-allowed gym. Before you say, “That’s gross,” just think about this: Think about all of the things and places a person touches with their hands every day, and then, consider what their feet touch in wintertime in Wyoming, when sandals aren’t an option. Hmm. Socks and sweat seem much more sanitary when you really think it through, don’t they? It’s a simpler way of climbing, and it’s good training, too, because it forces more weight onto the hands (without those sticky platforms to hold your weight up), and it strengthens the feet as well. Plus, it’s actually pretty fun.

I look forward to every session in the bouldering gym these days. Every morning before a session, I go out an hour or so in advance and get the heat going to heat the building up to a comfortable 45 or 50. I spend some time putting more holds up (since the gym was stripped this summer; the holds had been in the same places for two years) as I await the others’ arrival. And then, when they do arrive, bliss…that lovely escape into just bouldering, and falling with total abandon onto the well-padded mats, always laughing at ourselves and each other, like little children in a playground, only kinder…the two times each week when my training for climbing is pure fun, and nothing else.

Me, Photo by Jody Mayer

Me, Photo by Jody Mayer

Who Inspires You?

“You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.” ~ George Burns

Ken Climbing at his Home Crag in Lakit, BC, Canada

Ken Climbing at his Home Crag in Lakit, BC, Canada

Who inspires you most in rock climbing? This is a question I’ve been asked many times throughout my nearing two decades as a rock climber. For me, the top answer has always tended toward the obscure, the unobvious, and not the famous climber in the magazine. The reason for this is simple—because the most inspiring moments in rock climbing for me, beyond my own personal breakthroughs and accomplishments, come from witnessing the victories and attitudes of other people in person.

Which brings me to Ken.

Ken is almost 70. He didn’t start rock climbing until he was into his 60s. He decided to check it out because of his son’s growing passion for the lifestyle (I still can’t bring myself to write “sport,” how strange…I had to delete it). A lifelong athlete (tennis, golf, running, cross-country skiing, and many others I can’t recall), Ken took to rock climbing relatively easily. Within a few years, he had redpointed 5.12.

Despite not climbing year-round, Ken has continued to maintain an impressive level of fitness for rock climbing, which he demonstrates every time he shows up at a new crag. On Kalymnos two years ago, he redpointed Feta (5.11c), among other sends. At his local crag in BC, Lakit, he runs laps on 5.11s. In Ten Sleep this summer, he climbed 5.11, even though this area is “not his style,” meaning ultra-crimpy and technical (Ken is an endurance machine). In the Red, he impressed a whole crag full of people with his onsight of a 5.11a on his first day of climbing there.

Redpointing Feta (11c) on Kalymnos, Greece

Redpointing Feta (11c) on Kalymnos, Greece

This made it all that much heartbreaking when, four days into his trip to the Red River Gorge, he broke a hold in the process of onsighting another 5.11a. Because he’d been training finger strength, he managed to hang on with the other hand, but, unfortunately, his bicep couldn’t take the strain, and he tore the muscle. At home, he explained to the doctor that yes, he wanted to be able to climb again, so please do the reattachment surgery to make this possible. He’s currently in the process of rehabbing the muscle.

All of the above is impressive in and of itself, but it’s not all or even the main reason why I find Ken such an inspiration. Yes, it’s amazing that a nearly 70-year man, who looks more like he’s 50, and who started rock climbing in his 60s, can regularly show up at pretty much any crag and throw down 5.11. But what’s really cool about Ken is how much he appreciates and engages everyone at any and every crag he shows up at. He’s about the friendliest person you’ll ever meet, but not in a pushy or annoying way. He’ll pop into the conversation with his British accent (retained after more than 40 years living in Canada) to tell you that, “That’s rubbish,” or “Bloody amazing.”

Even better, Ken is always genuinely and sincerely impressed with pretty much anything anybody does or even fails to do at the crag. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to redpoint a 5.15c or flailing on toprope at the bottom of a 5.10b. Ken will recognize your efforts and tell you that you’re doing an amazing job, totally in earnest. He’ll pick out whatever is best about your performance, even if you’re failing miserably, and he’ll let you know that he saw it and thought it was remarkable. He’s just delighted by what other climbers can do, always. And by being this way, he brings a smile to pretty much everyone’s face he encounters at the crag.

It probably won’t surprise you, then, to find out that when Ken struggles on a climb or can’t do it, he’s the first person to laugh at himself and to tell you all about his epic difficulty with a move, and then how some girl came along and sailed right on through it like it was nothing, and how extraordinary she is, and what a great climber she is and how cool it was to see this. He doesn’t begrudge other climbers their superior ability, just as he never flaunts his own accomplishments when he crushes a route that someone half, or even a third, of his age is attempting with less success. He will only offer helpful suggestions, if they want them, in order to help them succeed.

People love being around Ken because of all of this, and he tends to draw folks together at the crags, even if he doesn’t realize it. I’m expecting that his bicep will heal up soon enough and that he’ll be back in action by next season. Hopefully, you’ll get to meet Ken, or someone like him, at some point in your climbing, too. Not only does Ken put the “age excuse” to shame, which is truly inspirational standing alone, but also, his authentic and heartfelt enthusiasm and pleasure for the successes of other climbers make him a role model for everyone. And I’m guessing he doesn’t even realize it.

A Holiday Sport Climbing Tradition

Yup, Looks Like Perfect Sport Climbing Conditions...

Yup, Looks Like Perfect Sport Climbing Conditions...

Sport climbing and -15 ̊C/5 ̊F go together like, well, like ice climbing and +30 ̊C/95 ̊F. Nonetheless, it has become a tradition—for three years now—to attempt to go sport climbing here in southeastern British Columbia during the holiday season, no matter what the weather brings us.

That’s why, when Jesse texted, “Minus 18 here. Not happening on this end. Finger’s just coming round. Plus we didn’t get back until 3:30 last night,” my way at 9:15 yesterday morning, I completely ignored his message, as did Kevin. Then, when he called to try to bow out, he was met with total rejection on all fronts.

“Okay, we’ll see you soon!” Kevin replied cheerfully to the curse-laden rant on the other end of the phone. “Bring a stick clip!”

We all took bets on how long it would take for him to show up—start time had officially been 9:30, to “try to catch some sun on the rock.” Jesse showed up here, along with his girlfriend, Kelsey, at around 10:20.

On the drive out to Lakit, we discovered that Jesse had wisely decided to not bring his climbing gear, seeing as he does indeed have a lagging finger injury. Oh, well. It’s the commitment level and the whole freezing your bum off experience that builds camaraderie and matters in the end, right?

At the crag, it was grim. Bitterly, bitterly cold, and totally socked in with fog. Being the person who had spearheaded this expedition and mustered up team morale, though, I refused to acknowledge completely how much I absolutely loathe being cold when climbing—I mean, for real, I can’t really pull or even feel my hands on the rock when the temperature is below about 5 ̊C/40 ̊F, not to mention the -15 ̊C/5 ̊F that awaited us at the crag yesterday.

Gamely, Kevin tied in and racked up, but it was quickly decided that changing into climbing shoes wasn’t an option—fantastic for me, since I’d chosen to wear totally clunky snow clogs a size and a half too big for me with thick socks out to the cliff. Bueno. This made for some awesome footwork on my part throughout the day, as I would look down and see nothing that I could possibly place one of these stiff-as-a-board platforms on with any hope of it staying.

Kevin Starting Up Pitch One in Gloves and Boots

Kevin Starting Up Pitch One in Gloves and Boots

Added to this, uncovering the hands seemed insane, too, so both Kevin and I climbed in our Petzl belay gloves. It actually wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be…

Check Out My Precision Foot Placement

Check Out My Precision Foot Placement

 A couple of pitches of flailing about basically doing pull-ups up the rock clad in this excellent gear along with my puffy down jacket and tons more clothing underneath, we were all ready to go. It had actually been a sort of fun challenge, these gloved-and-street-shoed ascents, plus we just looked ridiculous. But just as we were packing up, Gord and Travis showed up, Gord with his ice tools—so now there were six of us stupid or psyched enough (or maybe both) to join in on this adventure.

Go Team...Psyched to Climb in the Cold

Go Team...Psyched to Climb in the Cold

It just added to the hilarity, watching these two guys climb—first Travis, who bravely shed his gloves and put on climbing shoes over his socks, and managed to climb the route, regardless of his absolutely icy hands and frozen feet. Then Gord attempted to dry tool the climb, this despite having spent the last week or so sick in bed with a stomach flu. Now that’s commitment.

Even grumpy, injured Jesse eventually joined in the climbing action, picking up the tools and managing to hit himself in the head with one of them bouldering around close to the ground, right as he said, “These things are sort of scary; you never know when one of them is going to come off.”

Jesse Just Before Clocking Himself in the Cranium

Jesse Just Before Clocking Himself in the Cranium

As for me, I think I shivered for about three hours even after we returned back to a warm house, but I also realized that just being outside and climbing in such a pretty, albeit insanely cold, location had been refreshing and left me in a great mood. And the fact that six of us (in previous years it was only three) rallied to participate in this year’s holiday sport climbing expedition illustrated the truth behind the adage, “The more, the merrier.” Watching other people attempt to do something as silly and stupid as sport climbing in such glacial conditions is just plain good old-fashioned entertainment for everyone present—even if I have to do it myself, too.

Rediscovering a Beginner's Mind

The other Friday night at Rocktoberfest here in the Red River Gorge, I started trying to relearn how to walk a slackline. I first learned how to do this in Mexico probably seven or eight years ago, prompted by the efforts of the camp host. At twice my age and a tad overweight, he started trying to learn to slack wearing cowboy boots. Blast! I had no excuse if he was going to learn, and we began a friendly sort of cooperative competition to see who would make it across the line first. This fun competition also encouraged me to learn some Spanish, as he would inquire every day (in Spanish) as to how many steps I’d managed to take on the line. By the time I left, both of us could walk the arbitrary distance of his slackline—and I don’t think I’ve ever done it since.

Fast forward to Friday, when this incredible slackliner (is that even a word?) named Andy ended up in my cabin at Red River Outdoors on the first night of Rocktoberfest. I felt somewhat obligated to go over and try his setup after hanging out with him. After I put in probably an hour’s worth of thwarted efforts in walking the line, I watched in amazement as he performed back flips and landed them on the line, and also jumped from slackline to slackline, among other tricks. Wow. After Timmy O’Neill, the event emcee, pointed out his antics to everyone and got everybody watching, I felt sort of silly stepping on the line afterward, like, “Om, and now, Alli Rainey will demonstrate how she can walk about four steps on the line before losing her balance and plopping her barefeet back into the mucky grass. Oooh.”

Still, though, I was determined. I soaked in everything everyone around me who was better at slacklining than I was told me to do. Andy said, “Wave your arms in the air like a monkey,” and I did. Kevin said, “Try bending your knees more,” so I did. Andy told me, “Try softening your vision and looking straight ahead toward the end of the line, keeping your feet in your peripheral vision,” so I did. “Breathe and relax,” another person said, and I did (and isn’t that one of the keys to climbing hard, too? Hmmm. Sounds familiar). I persisted and persisted and persisted, probably for about three hours total, focused and determined.

I never did make it all the way across the line that night, but I did improve dramatically, probably making it about three-quarters of the way across before I started getting really tired and ended up heading up for a good night of sleep. As I walked up the hill to my cabin, I started thinking about what it means to have a beginner’s mind, and how much that was helping me in relearning the fine points of how to walk across a slackline…and then, I started thinking about how much this is really the optimal state of mind for any rock climber to maintain, no matter how long he or she has been climbing.

The beginner’s mind is open and nonjudgmental, with no expectations or limitations, but with a strong desire to learn and absorb and retain as much knowledge in a given subject area as possible. The beginner’s mind is willing to try anything at least once, if not more than once, just to see if it will work. The beginner’s mind has no qualms about failing or falling or looking silly or stupid. The beginner’s mind assumes that anyone and everyone has something to teach and that something worthwhile can be gleaned from every experience, whether on the surface it looks like a failure or a success.

Isn’t this the perfect mindset to cultivate in rock climbing, always? Whether a rock climber has been climbing for two days and two decades, they can always learn something new and improve their skills and ability level. That’s the beauty of rock climbing (or any lifelong learning endeavor). It’s only when a person starts to think they have nothing left to learn or no room to grow, or that they’re an “expert” who need not listen to the advice and wisdom that others or the rock has to teach them, that they stop growing and improving at their game.

At a crossroads in my climbing right now, then, after climbing for nearly 18 years, the slackline mindset lesson came at a perfect time for me, as a perfect reminder of all that I strive to achieve with my mental state of being both on and off the rocks, and what I mentally encourage in every climber I work with in a coaching setting. The next days out climbing, I found myself in a genuinely relaxed and open-minded state, ready and willing to just get on the steep routes that have intimidated me for so much of my climbing life. I didn’t know what would happen or how I would feel or how I would do—I just knew I felt totally willing to try and to just open my mind to the possibility that this could actually be fun for me.

With nothing invested and no outcome expected, I quickly found myself reveling in this relatively new discipline as I let my being just experience the steepness and move over the stone with a less fearful and more excited and open perspective than I’ve honestly ever had before. With no tightness or sense of being scared of the results, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I actually LIKE this kind of climbing—I’d even go so far as to say I love it!

I have so much to learn and so much more to gain from climbing on this relatively unfamiliar terrain here in the Red River Gorge, and it’s absolutely exciting, like having a whole new world of rock climbing opened up to me, one that I’m just starting to understand. It’s different from what I’ve focused most of my years of climbing on, and so I have much more to gain here than I do from climbing on the more familiar angles (vert to gently overhanging), holds (little pockets and crimps), and rock (dolomite) that I’m so accustomed to and trained to climb on.

All I want to do now is just seek out the steep classics here at the Red and do as many of them as I possibly can on this trip, learning anything and everything I can from the experience, absorbing as much information as possible, and being always willing to try something new and to learn from those around me. I feel like I’m on the edge of leaping off into a whole new chapter in my climbing world, as though I’ve just read the introduction and am about to discover something fantastic and magical, another dimension of climbing that I didn’t even realize existed. With a beginner’s mind, I embrace the possibility and the potential for my growing love of steep climbing, while enjoying the process in the present, every step of the way.