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.


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 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.

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.

Pulleys and Prussiks: Rope rescue practice day at the Uni.

Yesterday was rope rescue practice day at the University climbing wall. I’ve done a rope rescue course in the past, but rescue systems are one of those things you need to practice at. The individual aspects of a rescue system aren’t overly complex, but it’s the sort of thing that needs to be done with a careful order and the rescuer needs to remain methodical under stress. Having time in a controlled setting to go over the process of setting up systems, transferring loads and working through various scenarios is very helpful.

We did a bit of work with pulleys to start, and my friend Mara was patient enough to let me haul her up the wall. It’s been years since I’ve last set up a pulley system, so it took a rather long time to find the more effective way to begin hauling.  In the end, I found that the 5:1 was too slow, and little vertical gain was made for each pull. I ended up using a 3:1 with a Petzl Oscillante. Being a fairly light person, I attached a prussic from my harness to the pull end and used my body weight to pull the rope through the system. Once I figured out the 3:1 with the body weight prussic, it worked pretty well.

This was the first time I’ve ever used a commercially made pulley, and I was surprised at what a difference it made over a simple carabineer pulley. I bought my over pulley today at MEC (Cheap-y McCheaperson’s $10 Stubai pulley) which will be coming with me on all further alpine adventures.

We also did some practice tandem rappelling. The biggest problem I had with tandem rappelling was escaping the belay at the top. The mental process of working through transferring the load off the ATC, moving it to a prussik, and finally counter weighting the system with your own body weight took a while but I eventually worked it out.  While I was able to do it unassisted and without having to look up the sequence, it took quite a bit of hard thinking to work through the steps. Load transfer is definitely something I will be spending more time on in the future.

None of this stuff is particularly complex on it’s own, it’s just a matter of working through it slowly and carefully. With more practice, I know it will come along smoother and quicker.  There are tentative plans to do some more rope work in the coming weeks, so I should be able to get in a decent amount of practice before the outdoor season kicks off.

I’ve also realized that almost half of my locking biners have gone missing, and I do not have nearly as many slings as I thought I did. the MEC trip ended with a small mountain of new biners, slings and various other small bits of gear. If nothing else, I have enough gear to rescue a small village, and I suppose that’s some sort of accomplishment.

2011 Ski supplement

After too many late nights and hours spend organizing and editing, The 2011 Gauntlet ski supplement is out (ok, it was out a couple weeks ago…i’m a little behind)I helped edit last year’s supplement, and I picked it up again this year.

Despite the amount of work, it’s a lot of fun, with the added bonus of copping some free ski days. I got out to fernie on comped tickets this year.

Ski Supp is one of teh few opportunities I get to use really big photos, so my inner photo nerd really enjoys making the photos the focus of the page. Words are great, but when it comes right down to it, I’m a pictures sort of person. Even though I was given most of the colour pages in the paper, I still had an unfortunate amount of Black and white. Nevertheless, I think it looks pretty good.

I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out. It would have been nice to get a few more pages of content, but when you have to rely on volunteers, I’ll take what I can get. The supp pdf can be found here. Enjoy! A lot of people put a lot of time and effort into this.

Back on the Wall

It’s nice to be back in classes if only for the easy access to climbing. I slacked off pretty serious over the Christmas break climbing-wise, so it’s been a bit of a pain fest getting back into it. I went to the gym once, which was a bit of a flail-fest. It’s been ages since I’ve done anything except boulder, and it’s taken a very serious toll on my endurance. I’m hoping to get on the proper wall on a more regular basis over winter semester. My plans for the summer don’t allow for a lack of endurance.  The Bouldering wall at the Uni has  started to gather a good sized crowd. It’s nice to see so many people enjoying the wall, it’s a great resource to have from a training standpoint, and it’s a good social environment to meet climbing partners.

One of the courses I’m taking this semester is a training theory class with an emphasis on resistance training. I think it will be a good resource for my training. I have some big plans, and I wan tot make sure that I’ll be in good enough shape come summer that I can pull them off.

I’m hoping head out the bugaboos this summer and get up some of the classic trad routes in the area. I have a potential job opportunity in the Invermere area, and one of my friends/climbing partners also works out there in the summer. If things go my way, it’ll be a summer of serious rock.