Life, Death, and a Missing Pellet

Photo © John Krzesinski, 2013

I love hearing good stories. It’s a waste when they fade and you forget the details, so I’ve started to record the best ones I hear. I recently went on a climbing trip where one of the more experienced climbers had the whole group listening to his every word with a story he told. I’ve tried my best to retell that story here.

Our friend, Berny, was in Yosemite partway up a multi-day climb of the famous Half Dome with his climbing partner when they came across two Swiss climbers. The Swiss climbers seemed to be struggling, and it quickly became obvious that one of them had completely lost his head. At that point they had already passed a few one-way pendulums so there was no way back — they had to go on. Berny and his partner agreed with the other climber to climb as a four and help out.

As they climbed together Berny and his partner put some time and effort into helping the others, so when night came they didn’t quite make the ledge they were planning on sleeping on. They were one pitch (one stretch of rope) below it on a much narrower ledge, and the Swiss climbers another pitch below them.

During the night Berny woke up and needed the toilet. Yosemite protocol dictates that when nature calls and it’s not liquid, you can’t just do it over the edge. You do it in a paper bag, and then throw the paper bag over the edge.

So he leant back over the edge, hanging off his sling, and did his best to aim into the bag. At this point, because of the dehydration, he said that what came out was not very different to rabbit pellets. He counted one… two… three pellets coming out, but when he was about to throw the bag over the edge he could only locate two of the pellets.

Searching frantically for the third yielded no results, and he soon gave up. He decided that if it happened to be in his sleeping bag then so be it, he needed to get to sleep.

A few hours later he was awoken again, this time by movement.

The whole wall was moving.

They were to find out that it was an earthquake of magnitude 5.6. As they climbed on later that day, they saw that the earthquake had caused a severe rockfall, which had buried the entirety of the ledge above them — the ledge on which they had been planning to sleep. In a way, the Swiss climber had saved their lives.

He never told us what happened to the third pellet.

Thanks for reading! Please share, recommend, or leave a comment if you’d like to see more stories like this.

Book Review: High Infatuation by Steph Davis

As I’ve been getting into climbing, I’ve tried to find interesting climbers to learn and draw inspiration from. Steph Davis is one climber whose blog I’ve been reading regularly and whose attitude I admire. I couldn’t get enough of her blog, so I bought her first book: High Infatuation. This is a review of that book.

Often when I enjoy a book I’m reading I’ll try to read it more slowly so I have more time to savour the content. With this book the opposite happened — I couldn’t wait to get to the end so I could read it again.

Steph Davis has an impressive list of credentials: she’s one of the world’s leading climbers and the first woman to complete several milestones of the climbing world: free climbing El Capitan in one day, free soloing The Diamond on Long’s Peak and summiting Torre Egger in Patagonia.

History

The book starts with the story of how Steph first started climbing during her university degree, and went on to spend the seven years after graduating climbing and living out of her car with her dog Fletcher.

Steph, her Oldsmobile home, and her dog Fletcher.

From there the book winds in and out of endless climbing adventures, as chronicled in her journals from the time. As well as endeavours in Moab and Yosemite the book tells of her weeks spent in snow caves in Patagonia waiting in vain for better climbing weather, doing a first ascent of Tahir tower in the military Kondus zone in Kashmir, a spur of the moment trip to Kyrgyzstan, rappelling and falling from Fremont Canyon bridge in Wyoming, and several weeks spent in the Arctic.

Impulse

While these stories are fascinating in themselves, I found Steph’s reactions to the events even more interesting. She provides detailed insight into how she came to be in these situations, and what drives her to keep going. She has a very open-minded approach to life largely driven by kindness, presence, minimalism, and self-improvement.

My pursuit of climbing was initiated by impulse. In reality it was never a choice, but rather a surrender to the inevitable. Even now, supposedly older and wiser, I make my most fundamental life decisions impetuously, based on what feels right inside, and I never look back. It’s the only thing I can do.

Philosophy

While the focus of the book is obviously on climbing, there are times when it touches on philosophy and almost ventures into self-help. Describing her discovery of Sufism and approach to mindfulness, Steph also gives glimpses of her thought process throughout the stories in her book. At one point she spends two days travelling across the Arctic sea ice in a skidoo to get to a climbing site, and can’t stop worrying about encountering polar bears. Until she encounters one.

I am deeply impressed and instantly stop speculating about how to survive a polar bear attack. One look has shown me that if a polar bear wants to eat me, it will, and there’s no point worrying about it.

Humility

Given the magnitude of her achievements, Steph’s humility is refreshing. There isn’t a hint of boasting to be found in the book. She embodies the growth mindset, emphasising determination and persistence over genetics or natural skill. This aspect in particular made for great motivation, as it leaves no excuse not to get out there and give everything.

As a climber, I have always felt like the pesky little sister chasing after the older, faster, bigger kids… For me, it has been hard to let go of attachments, hard to let go of self-doubt… But slowly I’m starting to understand that it’s not just a fluke when I succeed. And I’m starting to realize that in climbing, as in life, determination and a commitment to learning are qualities as invaluable as unusually strong body parts. Persistence and fanatical hard work are powerful assets not to be underestimated.

Motivation

For me, High Infatuation did for climbing what Born To Run did for running — it made me want to get my shoes on (or not) and get out there.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone with even the vaguest interest in climbing or life. I’m happy to lend out my copy — get in touch if you’d like to borrow it.

Steph Davis. Source: www.highinfatuation.com

If you’re interested in climbing, check out some of my other posts:

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Shortcuts to Intermediate Climbing

I’ve been climbing regularly for about a year now. Mostly bouldering (no ropes, just a crash pad), at a great indoor wall in Bermondsey called The Arch. While I’ve still got a long way to go to becoming a good climber, there are a few key things I’ve learnt that let me progress from the beginner stage. As these things seem to be common among climbers but not obvious to beginners, I’ve shared them below to save anyone starting out the trouble of figuring them out for themselves.

Don’t do pull-ups

Overhangs. These climbs, where the wall has a slope of more than 90° (more than vertical), tend to be the hardest for beginners. The key is to expend as little energy as possible by keeping your arms straight and pushing from your legs to move up. Whenever you’re static for more than a second, make sure your arms are straight. Think about doing pull-ups — is it easiest to rest halfway through one, or at the bottom with straight arms?

Twist your body

Most people have their body square to the wall when they start climbing. This feels natural, just like climbing a ladder, but has several disadvantages. Having your body (hips and/or shoulders) twisted will keep you closer to the wall while allowing you to reach further — watch an experienced climber at work on an overhang problem and notice how often they twist their body from left to right depending on which way they have to reach for the next hold.

This was me at The Arch almost a year ago. Arms bent, body square to the wall, standing on the balls of my feet. If only I’d had this article…

Thumbs up

Pushing on a hold with your thumb while pulling with your fingers makes for a much stronger, more stable grip, and is less tiring. Good grip technique will allow you to progress more quickly without having to spend time doing boring finger strength exercises.

Pay attention to your feet

It’s easy to focus on the arms and hands, but if you’re climbing right then your legs will be doing most of the work. Think about where you place your feet, and place them carefully and deliberately. It’s almost always best to use the very tip of your toes rather than the balls of your feet. If there’s only one foothold available, the second leg doesn’t have to dangle. Place it somewhere deliberate on the wall or even in the air for counter balance.

Standard Moves

Flag. Drop knee. Smear. Rock over. Toe hook. Heel hook.


While it took me a while to realise this as a beginner, good climbers largely rely on a combination of standard moves, and knowing what these are gets you a long way. The trick, especially in bouldering, is figuring out how to combine the moves around the available holds. This is why boulder routes are called ‘problems’ — they’re as much a puzzle as an exercise.

Try this book if you like taking a methodical approach to learning. It’s £15 for a used version, but if you ask nicely I’ll lend you mine.

Fail more

As with anything, if you’re not failing regularly then you’re not pushing yourself enough. Once you get comfortable climbing at a certain level, start trying harder problems. If you struggle with specific types of problems (like I do with overhangs), then spend more time trying those.

Get excited

As Einstein said, the best way to learn is by “doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes”. I find climbing enjoyable, but as with anything there are times when other things take over, you become busier, and find it hard to keep making time for it.

To counter this, remember why you want to climb. Watch amazing videos. Read inspiring books. Try different types of climbing. Challenge yourself. Find a group of people to go with. I was lucky enough to have some people in my group of friends happy to go climbing with me, and am making more friends along the way.


I feel like I’ve learnt a lot this past year, mostly about how much there is to learn. This year I’d like to learn more about rope techniques, and climbing outdoors. While I’ll still be bouldering too, I’ll be making time to go on some trips to the Peak District and other UK climbing sites. Get in touch if you’d like to join me.


If you enjoyed this, do share/recommend and check out some of my other posts!

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