Learning to Climb

This year, I’ve set some non-running goals for myself. It’s a good thing too. Because of some silly over-training on my part, I’ve come down with posterior tibial tendonitis (PTT). PTT is much less frequently experienced by runners than the dreaded plantar fasciitis, which I’ve also had, but PTT has proven to be just as pesky to get rid of. After 6 weeks of physical therapy, I’m still unable to run any distance pain free. I have learned over the years that in order to maintain my mental stability in a demanding workplace, I need to move. I’ve also learned that I do better when I’m moving outside. Last year in the summer, my cousin, her husband and I hiked to the top of Mount Chocorua and it helped to fuel a whole new fire in my belly.

I have some lofty climbing goals for the year. My cousin’s husband invited me to join his three-person group to summit Mont Blanc later in the year. At 4,810 m (15,781 ft), this isn’t exactly a walk in the park. While my fitness should not (at least before my self-inflicted injury) be an issue, it would be good to get more experienced on trails and in wintery conditions since the top of Mont Blanc is glacial ice year round. So, we have planned a couple of tune-up climbs. This coming weekend, we will – weather permitting – climb Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. While the altitude is not stunning at 1,916 m (6,288 ft), the climb is fairly technical and the weather can get downright treacherous. Some 150 people have died on Mt. Washington since record keeping began in the mid-1800s. As such, I’ve been taking a multi-faceted approach to training.

Getting Vertical

That’s me up in the purple zone. And yes, for you experts, it is an easy course.

Growing up in the foothills of the Appalachians, I’m no stranger to hills. I’ve even done a bit of ill-advised, inexperienced bouldering (rope-free rock climbing) in my youth. But on the whole I have very little experience going vertical. So, I’ve recently been going rock wall climbing at a local gym in town. We are very lucky to live in a metropolitan area with these kinds of options, since the tallest natural peak around me can be measured in the tens of feet. I’m finding that I love climbing. Much like running, it gives me a sense of accomplishment. While I’ll do it when I have to, I sincerely detest machine or free weight training for the sake of weight training. It just does not leave me feeling accomplished. Climbing on the other hand has everything I’m looking for: problem-solving, a great muscle work out, and some elements of cardiovascular exercise as well. I’m sure a seasoned climber would tell you that my technique is terrible, but still, I’m pretty reliably going upward and building in confidence. Even better, my wife agreed to join me on my last trip and it appears that this might be something we can do together. While I don’t intend to do any actual vertical climbing on Mt. Washington or Mont Blanc, getting experience well help me remain confident and sure-footed as we take to steep ascents on higher terrain.

Equipment Test

I learned this year that Mountaineering is chocked full of equipment. Extra stiff mountaineering boots, crampons, trekking poles, lightweight layered clothing, eye protection, and on and on. The acquisition of this long list of surprisingly expensive equipment has turned me into bit of a bargain shopper, as I’ve learned the ins and outs of various websites and specialty stores. Now with a tub full of equipment, I figured it was important to get out and try out some of the gear, as the first time I wear this stuff should not be on the mountain. So, I recently packed up and headed out on my local running trail for a 10k hike while completely over-equipped. I’m sure I was a real sight as I strode around a trail essentially designed for running while dutifully using my trekking poles and carrying a pack replete with ice axe. At least it was a little snowy that day so I didn’t completely look like I was off my meds. Here’s what I learned:

  • Super-stiff mountaineering boots are great for keeping your Posterior Tibial Tendon relaxed. These things are not too dissimilar to a medical immobility boot
  • Super-stiff mountaineering boots are, on the other hand, not great for my outer most toes during long-range hikes on mostly flat ground. Mine were both quite red and quite angry at the end.
  • Trekking poles are surprisingly helpful, especially when precariously balancing on rocks while crossing a stream in sub-freezing temps
  • There are many sharp points on an ice axe that, if not carefully positioned on your backpack, will in fact poke you repeatedly
  • Super-stiff mountaineering boots are also not excellent on ice in spite of what appears to be quite aggressive treads on bottom

Strength Training

I know what I said earlier about strength training, but I’m actually happy to weight train if there is a purpose. As I watched YouTube videos about climbing Mount Washington in the winter, I came realize that I’m in for quite a workout. And since I’m not able to run any sort of distance at the moment, I knew I would need to hit the weights. So, three to four days a week I’ve been working the major muscle groups. Squats, deadlifts, bench press, dips and pull ups have become my friends again along with a bunch of core exercises. For years now, I’ve been running at least an hour a day roughly 6 days a week. It hasn’t left a lot of time for weight training. As one might imagine, I have lost a fair amount of strength and muscle mass. But here’s the other thing I forgot. Weight training makes me ravenous. So now I’m gobbling vast quantities of food that I haven’t needed or wanted and my… ahem… waistline is suffering a bit. I’m resisting pulling the fat pants out of the closet, but I know from experience that I’m getting dangerously close to opening an embarrassing stitch line with one ill-timed stoop to pick something up off the ground. Let’s just hope I can keep my pants in one continuous piece until I can get back to running.

Sense of Purpose… and Impending Death

On the whole, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the shift in focus from running as I learn new mountaineering skills. It has given me a sense of purpose in my free time since I’m unable to log the running miles that I’ve grown accustomed to. I still have so much to learn, from knot-tying to belaying, to not having an ice axe come loose and stab me in the face. Yes, that last little number was a tidbit I picked up from reviewing the manual for my recently acquired ice axe harness. Apparently, mountaineering is a bit of a medieval sport.

This is absolutely part of the instructions that came with my recently acquired ice axe leash

Don’t Expect Benevolence When Traveling

Benevolence: 1. disposition to do good 2. a. an act of kindness b. a generous gift.  

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

I’ve recently completed planning an upcoming trip to Spain. I’ve inevitably said it before. I love Spain. Specifically, I love Barcelona and Catalonia. One day, I plan to own property and spend as much time as possible under the Catalan sun. I could drone on and on about it, but I’ll spare you. This post, rather, is a story of lessons learned in the pull-no-punches world of travel.

March 2 or February 3?

It all started with the date. My birthday is March 3. My better half and I tend to travel on or around my birthday. This past year, we opted for other locations rather than our beloved Spain. It has left a hole in our hearts that we aim to fill post haste. So this year, we’re headed back. As a huge football (soccer) fan, and having chosen FC Barcelona in 1978 as my club of clubs, we prioritize games at Camp Nou. We’ve been many times. We’re accustomed to searching the schedule and selecting games. We know, for instance, that European dates are written as Day-Month as opposed to Month-Day. Or are they? Earlier this year we looked on the website and saw the schedule that Valencia will be in town to face our blaugrana on 2/3. Perfect! I haven’t seen Valencia play in person and its a day before my birthday. Except that it isn’t. When we recently logged in to buy tickets, we came to realize that the website had transposed the dates for us American folk and Valencia will in fact be playing not on 2-Mar, but on 3-Feb. Of course, the game has now moved to 2-Feb because of other midweek fixtures, which will highlight my next point. But not so fast. Instead of playing a home game on 2-Mar, the current rendering of my childhood heroes will be on the road playing their bitter rivals Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu on 3-Mar. So if I want to see the game – and of course I do – we now have to travel to Madrid, which we weren’t planning to do.

Moving Targets

Having realized our folly, my wife and I shared a laugh. It really didn’t matter. We weren’t changing the dates of our travel just to see FCB play a home game. And, come on. If we can make the budget work, we’ll get to see another El Clasico, this time in the Bernabeu, which we have never visited. On top of that, we LOVE traveling by train in Europe. We often figure out how to visit another city simply to enjoy the train for a few hours. So, we checked our budgets and figured out how to get the tickets for the big game. Tickets now procured for the big game on 3-Mar (happy birthday to me!), it was time to get train tickets. I dutifully logged into Rail Europe and bought tickets at a great price. I was more than two months out, so tickets are quite manageable. I opted to not double the cost of the tickets with insurance because, come on, how could the date of El Clasico change? I then logged into Airbnb to find us a spot near the stadium for the night. It was a night game and we knew we would want to sleep in Madrid instead of chancing a busy night train back to Barcelona. I found an incredible little place at a great rate within a few blocks of the stadium. I am lucking out! It was available, which Airbnb tells me is a bit rare for game weekends and it auto-books as soon as I hit the go button – no negotiations. That is about the point where it all started to fall apart.

To my utter dismay, we got an alert from the ticket agency. Due to a midweek match in the Champions League, the date of El Clasico was moving from 3-Mar to 2-Mar. For any American readers who don’t appreciate European sports, this is like moving the NFC playoff game from a Sunday to a Saturday. Simply unheard of. Yes, yes, the European club schedules all have the asterisked liner note *subject to change*, but seriously? Who changes El Clasico? LaLiga, that’s who. With one stroke of the pen, my Airbnb reservation and my fast-on-the-draw train tickets were rendered useless. Surely not. There is plenty of time, and I know my way around the negotiation table. I’ll make short work of this. It is a simple change of the date for reservations that are more than a month away. Just a few more conversations to take care of. Minimal complications for an experienced traveler.

Not so fast Mr. Negotiator

First up, the train tickets. I logged into the website to figure out the contact point. Often European travel companies such as the rail system have a US number so you can call and talk to an actual person. But I see they’ve added Live Chat as an option. Perfect. I’ll state my case, strike a fine balance between self-deprecation and skillful logic, and voila, we’ll have new tickets issued, perhaps for a minimal change fee. If I’m on my game, I could even negotiate my way out of those pesky fees. After all, who changes the date of El Clasico? As things would have it, I apparently was not on my game. Not only did I fail to get my reservation moved by a day for a change fee, I had no success whatsoever. I asked what they would do with the now useless tickets we had purchased. Did they need me to at least confirm that they would not be used so someone else could buy them? No, my delightful little chat agent told me, “Simply, don’t show up. We don’t track how many tickets go unfulfilled.” My inner Process Engineer was balking at the waste in this process. But all for nought. My indignation and roughly $150 were able to purchase a new set of tickets at a time when we’d be able to actually see the game. Ok, unlucky at cards, lucky with the bed. I’m certain I’ll do better with Airbnb.

Airbnb is different. It isn’t some cold hotel employee who could care less about your silly needs. Airbnb is run by people – real people like you and me – who will appreciate the scrambling caused by the date change of El Clasico. And besides, this is Spain, where they run the Teleferico for an extra 90 minutes after closing because people are standing in line. I’m sure my Airbnb hosts will have a good laugh with me and we’ll get this all sorted out. Simple date change and we’re good to go. After several back-and-forth messages, here’s the deal that I was offered: “Good morning Troy, March 2 is available but it’s needed booking 2 days or more and it’s more expensive for the match and weekend day so we understand if you don’t want to book.” So instead of simply moving the reservation by one day at the same price, I now needed to book at least two days and pay a higher price per day than the one day I had previously reserved. In this case, I did not take the bait. The Airbnb host and I mutually agreed to cancel the reservation (for a minimal fee, of course) and I did business elsewhere.

The universe does not care about your silly travels

I have to admit that I was feeling a bit daunted by this round of failed negotiations. I’ve been extra busy at work and simply committing the time to make the adjustments was a fairly big effort. Figuring out new days and times, where to be and when, how to coordinate with other plans during the trip were all complications before the matter of money hit the table. A few weeks ago, I observed in Why We Travel that we travel so the uniqueness of the new experiences will pull us out of our routines and to challenge us to think differently about the world around us. I think this is part of that very same message. I’m not special. The world doesn’t owe me anything. If anything, I should thank my lucky stars that I’m privileged to have these complications. My attachment to the way things should be is just unskilled thinking. In the end, it will all work out. So far it has cost more time and money than we wanted, but we’re still going to have a great time. And the uniqueness of this new experience has pulled me out of my routine and challenged me to think differently about the world around me.

Wishing you great travels filled with less folly than mine.

Cheers!