Running Away from Scary Avalanches

My friends and I took up backcountry skiing at the same time. A few years ago, as broke students we all simultaneously realized that we couldn’t afford resorts anymore. The burden of rent, tuition and the need to eat overpowered our desire to shell out a hundred plus dollars per day on a lift ticket.

When we took up backcountry skiing we were terrified. Fresh out of avalanche safety training, we made our way to the slopes and realized that the strongest lesson we had learned, is that we knew nothing. Nothing.

We have since grown as backcountry skiers, and along with this growth came the development of a risk-reward balance. The more we began to understand.  We have grown more accustomed to the risks and developed our own balances between risk and reward. The group I have chosen to ski with though varied in our skill level and personalities have on thing in common. We are big mountain chickens. We run away more often then we reach the top. We jump ship at the first sign of trouble. Quite frankly I feel no shame in doing this.

A few weeks ago our party of 4 had tentatively skinned up into a heavily treed area. The sounds the snow was making were sounds I had never heard before. The amount of cracking and whumping, the sheer size of the settling areas was something I had never experienced before. We ran the hell away. We ran away from some amazing terrain and a *literal* foot of fresh because our risk reward balance was WAY off.

We ended up having an awesome couple of days hiding from avalanches. We convinced my (totally rad) parents to tow us up a fire road behind their SUV, skied down some mountain bike trails and had the best resort day in recent memory. We had a hell of a lot of fun and managed to stay out of any sort of avi terrain.

Backcountry sports require a serious re-adjustment of expectations on a regular basis. You have to be flexible, and willing to make last minute plans. Beyond all of that, you can’t take it too seriously (unless you’re somehow managing to pull a paycheck off of it). We can all get wrapped up in our plans, and lose sight of what is really important. Maintaining perspective is something that we all have to work on.

This season has been a particularly bad one. Conditions have flip flopped between “ungodly cold” and “trying to kill me”. It’s so easy to get cabin fever and head out in conditions that are less than prime and potentially dangerous. For me and my group, it’s a matter of keeping each others egos in check and coming up with safe places/activities to keep us busy until the hazard subsides.

Personally, my risk reward balance means that I run away a lot, and that’s fine. Other people may have continued up when we turned back and that’s fine too, provided there is an understanding of what risks are being accepted.

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Remember the risks we take.

Over the last two weeks in my local climbing area, there have been two serious accidents, resulting in two deaths and a climber left in critical condition. I did not personally know any of the three involved in the recent accidents, but we had mutual friends. Events like this shake the whole community and serves as a grim reminder to us all that the sport we choose to spend so much time doing, carries inherent risks.

The loss of life in this community hits close to home, for all climbers. We’ve all made bad decisions, neglected to do safety checks, assumed everything was all right, and many of us get lucky. These incidents serve as a grim reminder that we are not invincible, that even experienced individuals slip up, and the consequences are very real.

Climbing is about controlling variables, minimizing risk and finding ways to move safely through otherwise dangerous terrain.  Maintaining controlling, creating checks and balances, and working to maintain our own safety and the safety of those around us is paramount. It doesn’t matter how many times you have done something, how hard you can send, what peaks you’ve scaled, maintaining vigilance in our safety systems is so important.

With these accidents making national news, and having had my own recent close call at the forefront of my mind, it’s caused me to do some reflection. Why do I continue to take part in an activity that carries such a high risk?

I climb because it pushes me. I climb because it lets me explore my physical and mental limitations. I climb because it takes me places I would never otherwise see. I climb for the sense of gratifying fatigue, for the sense of accomplishment, for the challenge.

Each climber has their own reasons, and these should inspire us to reach new heights, but let us not forget that our lives are in the hands of ourselves and the partners we choose to share the mountains with. Safety Checks only take a minute. Triple check your anchors and knots. Stay safe in the mountains friends.

For those who knew the two climbers who died in last week’s accident, you have my profound condolences.

Internal Focus and Mountain Sports

Due to the combination of awkward-shoulder-season and a recently borked knee the top three choices of ways to spend my weekend (trad alpine, cragging and scrambling) were out of the question.  I really do like biking. It’s a great way to cover a lot of country in a day and while it has distinct limitations (particularly within the national parks where I live in the summer.) It’s a perfectly pleasant way to spend a day and serves as a very different sort of adventure.

This weekend, I went on the first lengthy trail ride of the season. All in it ran somewhere in the 60 km vicinity and circumnavigated the Rundle Range. It’s an easy trail by any standards, but there was a section about 8km in length that can best be described as “all of the tree roots ever.”

Despite being bumpy, and difficult to navigate, I really enjoyed the rooted section. It required a level of concentration much akin to climbing. While most of the ride was a very straightforward peddle up and down some hills, the single track treed section required a connection to one’s actions that was not present during the rest of the ride.

The connection to motion is what I get the most out of during any adventure. Climbing forces me to concentrate on a single thing at once, blocking out any exterior stressors to focus, maintain control, and successfully complete whatever small goal I am trying to achieve. Being able to achieve an internal point of focus, and working through the motions towards a successful hill climb, or climbing sequence is challenging and rewarding.

It’s about small victories, which is refreshing in a world of long term plans and lofty goals. I guess this is my version of living in the moment.

Distance running: What to do when your hip flexors try to abandon ship.

Yesterday, I had the first big trail run of the year. It ended up being around 26 km, over rolling hills. I don’t consider myself a running. Running has always been more of a cross training method to make my other outdoor pursuits less painful (or at least painful at a slightly faster rate.)

26 km is the furthest I have ever run. The first 21 km were great! I felt strong, I kept up a decent tempo, walked when there were steep uphills and ran pretty much everything else. However, at the 21 km mark, both hip flexors seized up and my left knee developed a stabbing pain on the lateral side. Bending and unbending my knee became a serious issue and the last 5 km of the trail were something of a test in pain endurance. Suffice to say, I was quite happy I had my hiking poles to use as crutches. Not a fun way to end a run.

After hobbling home and lying around on the couch in pain with an ice pack, I got an encouraging email from my favorite Ultra marathon runner (read: my Dad.) He had a few tips to make my next epic run a little less painful.

  1. Break up the run differently, try running 5 min on, 1 min off: This recruits different muscle fibre types. In this case, 5 on 1 off would recruit mainly fast oxidative-glycolytic fibres which have a mid range endurance capacity but are stronger than the slow oxidative fibres that are used for long endurance activities. Being able to recruit these midrange oxidative-glycolytic fibres means that you will have more fibres to work from giving you a longer period ofgood strong running before your muscles are fatigued.
  2. Use the couch stretch to free up hip flexors forever: For those unfamiliar with the couch stretch, it’s the number one tool for loosening up tight hip flexors. This should be done for about 2 mins on each side, held at the angle where you are tighest. Remember, humans are escape artists. Do not let your body escape the stretch. It should hurt
  3. See what Kstar has to say about knee and hip mobility. Kelly Starrett is a physiotherapist that runs a phenomenal blog at www.mobilitywod.com which posts information and demonstrations of how to perform basic maintenance on yourself. His videos have some really good information about most common problems that athletes run into. Just be forewarned: it will hurt (and it should, if you’re that tight, you probably deserve it.) This video in particular was quite helpful for my hip/knee issue.
  4. Full range of motion air squats: Learn to love them. They are a stretch as much as they are a strength exercise. I was told that “caveman squats” (full ROM squats) were a lifesaver for ultra runners. It makes a lot of sense, as a full ROM squat stretches out the lower quads, hip extensors, and calves, all areas that have a tendency to tighten up during long runs.

Don’t let injury get the best of you. Stay on top of your body maintenance and take charge of your physical wellbeing.  As Kstar says, don’t hide in the pain cave.

Keep on running.

Conversations with a Chiropractor

“Well, the symptoms you’re describing to me are definitely in line with whiplash associated disorder, but they should have subsided within about 4 weeks. Since you’re injury was 6 weeks ago, that tells me there are other factors at play.”

6 weeks ago I took a really lame fall skiing and cranked my neck around enough to give me a bit of whiplash. A couple of visits to the physio and my Chiropractor in the city and I figured I was sorted. The pain and tightness subsided during the aforementioned 4-week period and I was back on my way.

Last week however, my neck flared back up and throughout the day, pain and tightness wrapped its way around my neck. I’ve recently moved out into a small town, and have started seeing a nearby chiropractor (“nearby” here defined as: in the town and hour and a half away, which is still closer than the city) who treats a lot of other climbers and mountain athletes.

After a full assessment, it was determined that being a climber has predisposed me to certain strength imbalances that are lending to aggravation of my injured neck muscles. If you are a climber, maybe this sounds familiar. I know I’ve written about this before, but balance is so important to maintain in the body, I don’t feel it can be said enough.

A common issue in the climbing athletes treated by my chiro is winging scapula, formed by a strength imbalance in the trapezius muscle. Upper and mid fibre traps are over developed giving the “Helga the shot putter” look as my chiro put it. Upper fibre traps, those highly developed shoulder muscles seen on climbers, are not supposed to develop like that.  Weak lower fibre traps cause the scapula to wing away from the body when you are hanging on one arm, and instead of carrying body weight through the scapula and into the ribs (strong ring structure) force is transferred into the upper traps and into the clavicle (weak structure). This is why separated clavicles are a common injury in the climbing community.

Weak lower fibre traps combined with weak serratus anterior (another scapular stabilizer) also cause a hyper-khyphosis (exaggerated curvature of the upper spine) which means that in order to look straight forward, it’s necessary to gut the chin forward, causing a cervical hyper-lordosis (exaggerated curvature of the neck). This means that the weight of the head is forward of the neck causing strain on the small stabilizing muscle of the neck.

It’s not as easy as simply correcting posture though. After years of strength imbalance, the brain forgets how to fire the lower traps, and they must re-learn their job. Exercises that isolate the lower traps are important to correct the issues.

Once Lower traps have increased in strength, the scapula will move along the rib cage instead of winging out, meaning that the force placed on the scapula from hanging on an arm will be transferred into the strong rib cage structure instead of into smaller, weaker joints and structures.

Battling strength imbalances is a tough job, but it’s important if one wants to maintain their body for years to come. Good posture, efficient motions and maintaining proper balance in the body will help to keep joints and muscles moving the way they should.

Climb on, but try to use your lower traps properly.

Injury recovery and the importance of mental training

 I had the unfortunate experience of suffering a rather serious climbing fall last year which put me out of commission for most of the summer season and into the fall. Having recently been able to resume outdoor climbing, I’ve found that my biggest barrier has been dealing with a paralyzing fear of falling. Once I recovered physically (thanks in no small part to my wonderful Chiropractor) I worked hard to regain and surpass the strength I had lost in my time off the wall.

Mental training however has been far more powerful than any level of physical work I have done. Mental training is an often understated component of any athlete’s training regime, but it is paramount to creating a well rounded, capable athlete, no matter what the sport. The key components in mental training include developing confidence while being cognizant of the overconfidence line, developing an understanding of one’s physical limitations and barriers, developing an understanding of how one’s body interplays with the elements around it and learning to create a state of mental calm during times of stress.

Each person is different when it comes to developing mental strength, and it is important that each individual determine what method works best for them. The important thing is that athletes learn how to assess where they are physically and mental, begin to harness their thoughts and direct them in meaningful directions and work to push the boundaries of their confidence without overstepping them.

The importance of measureable, attainable goals cannot be stressed enough. Being able to have definitive marker points to gauge ones progress is a key element to any training program and setting mental goals is no different. Personally, I am working to build back my leading confidence. Before my injury, I was leading 4 grades higher than when I started back leading. My strength has increased greatly over the last several months, and in fact I am top roping 2 grades higher than last summer, but the lack of confidence in my ability,and fear of failing to complete a move still cause me to freeze up on the wall. My goal is to be back leading confidently at my pre-fall grade by the end of the season.

Personally I’ve found visualization techniques to be very helpful. Similar to when projecting a route, visualizing the successful completion of a hard move, or visualizing clipping into a piece of pro helps to focus my energy and keeps me from over thinking my situation. It’s when I let myself flashback to the pain of impact that I end up in trouble. I’ve been able to use visualization technique both on and off the wall.

Creating controlled fall situations can also help with confidence recovery. Knowing that falling and injury and not always paired in an important realization. I know it seems pretty basic, but having the experience of falling safely can do wonders for one’s leading confidence. Using a belayer you trust, taking falls is a good exercise to prove to the climber that falling In my opinion, mental training is just as important as strength or technical training.

The human body has an incredible capacity for performance. So often it is our mental faculties that hold us back. Learning to control your state of mind, knowing your limitations and pushing them is the only way to perform at the level you as an athlete want to be at.

Climbing and the imminence of strength imbalances

At its core, climbing is essentially a functional movement body weight exercise. Every movement you make in during a climb is relying on your muscles to deal with the way your body moves in space, controlling the internal forces to produce efficient and effective strength.

While climbing does promote a total body strength increase, including important areas such as the core and lower back, there is a tendency to favor strength development in certain muscle groups over others. While a degree of total body strength is needed to perform at a high level, the fact of the matter is that the upper back and shoulders do the brunt of the work on any given climb.

This is an issue that I myself have problems with, and the vast majority of my back problems stem from a strength imbalance in my upper body. Climbing favor the upper and mid fiber traps which is the major muscle group the runs from the base of the skull, connects to the scapula, and runs down the spine to T-12. The lower fiber traps have a tendency to be thrown off balance by the overdevelopment of the upper/middle traps which can be seen as the lower corner of the scapula, sticking out from the back.   This can result in pain in the mid back, through the area of the lower traps.

Overdevelopment of the back and shoulder also has the effect of forcing the shoulder into a position of internal rotation. Take a look at the resting position of your shoulder in the mirror. If from the side, it appears that your shoulder is shifted forward, there is a good likelihood that the overdevelopment of the shoulder muscles is not being properly offset by the pectorals in the chest. This would once again put strain through the mid back and potentially cause pain or tightness.

Exercises that isolate the lower fiber traps and the chest are an important part of any climbing regime to keep the body balanced. Extreme strength imbalances can cause serious back problems. Resistance exercises that isolate the lower traps, pushups, isometric chest press holds and flexibility/mobility training directed at the shoulders are important to maintain a strength balance in the body.

Your body is a machine, it needs to have all of the parts in the right place to work properly.