Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Day

After sleeping for about four and a half hours on Scott and Ben’s couch-bed thingy, I awoke to my alarm at 3AM, drank some yerba matĂ©, and did my first random act of kindness by doing the dishes at the house. I then set my alarm for 24 minutes hence, sat down and closed my eyes at 3:30, and counted my breathing for what seemed both like an eternity, and like a blink of an eye. The opportunity to clear my head was beyond valuable. Given the anxiety I was under, and the urge to rush from one thing to the next, the act of forcing myself to meditate, to sit still in the face of all the activity I had ahead of me, was simply fraught with all kinds of philosophical significance that I’m sure you can assign your own meaning to. I’ll continue with the narrative.

I managed to rouse Evan at 4 AM, and we gathered four crash pads and headed to Kerr Hall.

I had looked at the building on Friday, and my hands had immediately started to sweat, looking at the height of the thing. I knew that if I could make it halfway up and feel comfortable, I could make it the rest of the way. But I was very very nervous, as the building is at least 30 feet tall.
(Pinch after pinch after pinch...)

After three tries, I had encountered some crumbling footholds and some very scary movements about twelve feet up, at which point I decided that three attempts was a good number, and that three times one third of the building’s height is pretty much the same as climbing the whole thing. Actually, I mostly decided that I didn’t want to get badly hurt when I had so many other fun things to do. I wisely let the arĂȘte win the battle. The biggest accomplishment here was giving in a real attempt with pads and shoes, something we’d discussed for four years and had never bothered to do. For that I am thankful.

About a quarter past five in the morning saw Evan and I at Freebirds, Evan having convinced me that I could not crank for the next 18 hours fueled only by Clif Bars. A quesadilla was clearly in order, and we ate while the overcast night sky gradually lightened with the dawn, and five drunken Irish lads discussed the merits of the war effort in Iraq. I did not weigh in on the discussion, though I did learn that “99% of Irish people know more about politics than 99% of Americans.” I’m not sure what that means statistically (1% of Irish people know less than 1% of Americans?), but I think he was disrespecting us red-blooded MURKINS. Must’ve hated freedom too.(Breakfast...never been to 'Birds at this hour)

After the ‘dilla, I extracted my slick-tire-endowed Specialized Rockhopper from the car, and began pedaling for the hills at 6 AM. The sun was turning night overcast skies into morning overcast skies, and I was cold and a little bitter that Glenn was not with me to suffer. Though, I reflected, he’s probably suffering a much worse fate at the moment.

I paused at the bridge at the base of Old San Marcos, the point where flatland gives way to unmitigated climbing, at 6:40 AM. While I took a layer-stripping and urination break, three 30s-ish women passed me on their way up the hill….running. I started biking on their heels, and passed them quickly. The sobering part was when I reached Highway 154 at 7:08, and while pausing to take a drink, they passed me. This would not stand. I used my wheels to pass them again, and they never caught me after that.
(The bottom of the hill)

After two-wheeledly triumphing over three older women on foot, I was brimming with confidence. On top of that, the sun began to poke out right after I crossed 154, making things all good until I got to Painted Cave at 7:36. All in all, a pretty good time, bottom to top in slightly more than an hour and a half. On Evan’s suggestion, I brought my shoes and stopped at the Painted Cave boulders on the way down, where I was able to knock off 40 quick problems before heading back into IV, back into the clouds.(Yup, I made it.)
(See the burn damage in the lower left corner of this picture?)

I returned to IV and put my bike back in the car by 9 AM. At this point, MIA Glenn had woken from his stupor and contacted me. I picked him up and by ten minutes to 10, we were walking into the Brickyard. Here we met Justin and Doug, Justin being a climber I’d met at the gym in Oakland and I’d told him about the fire. He was stoked to come down and check out the new access to far-off boulders. I was stoked to see more people up in the hills, enjoying the sun and the dirt and the ash and cheering me on. I quickly did Watch the Dog and Soot Patrol, and bounded off to the slab alleys to start pushing the number towards 240.

I was keeping track with a Sharpie, one purple hash mark for every ten problems I’d done, and about an hour later the grand total was up around 100. I took a brief rest at 11:30 AM, with 11 tallies on my arm, and was feeling so stoked that I did Smooth Criminal and Dancing Outlaw as problems #111 and #112 respectively. Feeling strong, I left the gang at the Outlaw boulder (Evan, Hartley, Ben, and Brian had all joined in the fun at this point) and headed off to the Left Side to go find more short free-solos.
(#111: Smooth Criminal)(Some of the crew, hanging out at the unusually sunny Smooth Criminal.)(Trouble, getting ready to spot.)

I found the bouldering to be pretty boring much of the time. It was a process of wandering around where I knew there to be boulders, and just to pick out any sort of line up or across a rock that qualified as a boulder problem but wouldn’t be too hard. Of course, I ended up up- and down-climbing a bunch of very crappy, short little piles of sandstone, often topping out through charred trees. This gave me a black scratched look that was pretty badass, along with the sweat that was streaming from my head the entire day. But in order to stave off the boredom, I found I had to reward myself by climbing a classic or two between every ten problems or so, which led to ascents of the Extremist, Paradise Blend, and Shoehorn.

A note on what qualifies as a boulder problem:
1. No repeats
2. Downclimbs count as long as I downclimb a different route than I came up.
3. Traverses count as two problems if done left to right, then right to left.
4. If my non-climbing friends couldn’t do it in tennis shoes, it counts.
5. If it’s harder than about 5.4 then it counts
6. If I gotta crank a sit start, then it counts.
7. If I get sketched out, it definitely counts.
(150 problems at the Yard. Time to head up the road...)

I left the Brickyard with 150 problems under my belt, along with a quart of Gatorade and twice as much water. I also had plenty of time left to do the remaining 90 climbs, as it was only 2 PM. On the way out, I saw Scott and Rebekah, as well as Jondo, who promised to come up to the Lizard’s Mouth for a bit of bouldering as well.

At Lizard’s Mouth, I started at the far east end, where I hiked around in my shoes looking for anything with technical climbing moves, with Brian hot on my tail with a camera. I found a few, but the volume was not worth the bushwacking, especially during the hottest part of the day, with the temperature up in the 80s and maybe hotter. I got the total up to around 180, and went over to the Sit There And Take It Like a Man area.

For those familiar to the Lizard’s Mouth, you know that this is lowball central. I ticked a dozen or so problems that were less tall than I was, often by a factor of two. But these one-move wonders were all near each other and took little time to climb, and they definitely qualify: see rule #6 above.

Glenn found a slab boulder that had about 7 or 8 climbs vertically, plus the two directions of traverse, and that saved the day because I was running out of climbs in the area and I didn’t think I had the energy to walk all the way to Kelly’s Hill. I then rewarded myself with some classics, doing the Lizard’s Mouth Traverse, the crack up the side, the flake route, and a really nice eliminate in the Mouth. I avoided doing many eliminates because that was not the point of the day, I wanted to sample as much of the rock as possible.(Those yummy Santa Barbara sloper top-outs...I did more than a lifetime's worth of mantels.)(Jondo watches me sit there and take it like a man.)

(Goldak: classic)
(Thanks for the spot, Trouble.)
(#236: Meilee.)

With roughly 15 problems to go, I was getting tired but I was getting amped up because I had left a slew of classics for the end. Among them were Shaken Not Stirred, the Martini Arete, Swingin’ Singles (one of my few falls on the day was off this problem), High Hat, and Meilee. Meilee was number 236 for the day, and three other exits from the cave made for numbers 237-239. That left one more to tick, and I had already planned out which route would be number 240.

The sun was slightly cooler at 6:20 PM, and shines directly onto the Lord of the Flies boulder, making it wonderfully photogenic. As always, it was a joy to climb, but this time around it was something a little more special than just another lap up the highball. Never before have I carried a Sharpie up the route with the number 240 written on my back and 23 tally marks on my forearm, and never have I been so happy to draw on myself at the top of the climb than I was when I topped out boulder problem number 240. After a triumphant yell, we took our calorie-deprived bodies down the hill for a brief ocean swim.
(Such a fun climb)(Putting the last tally mark on my forearm...)

Evan, Ben, Jondo, Glenn, Scott and Rebekah came down to the beach and watched us jump in. The morning fog had cleared, but the sun was setting and it was getting cold. Anxious to start the barbecue, the ocean swim portion of the challenge was shortened from 24 minutes to 2 minutes and 40 seconds. Bitch-move to change the challenge in the middle of the day? Maybe. Sad that I didn’t freeze my nearly dead body into a state of hypothermia? Nope. I picked up a very heavy tire from the beach to round out the 24 pounds of trash, and headed to Jondo’s to start on my 2.4 bottles of Double Bastard.

Alyssa and Anastasia, two long-time friends whom I hadn’t seen in ages, joined me at the barbecue, where people enjoyed Jondo’s cooking and the plentiful offerings from the MacTarnahan’s Amber Ale keg I had provided. While the night quickly morphed into a Greek system party, I had a blast catching up with people I hadn’t seen in ages, and getting incredibly smashed. The extent to which my exhaustion and dehydration exacerbated the effects of the alcohol is unknown. What is known, though, is that 3 bottles of Double Bastard is a lot of alcohol. What else is known, is that the next time a frat boy comes around asking if there’s any light beer, “like, you know, some Natty” because the beer in the keg is “too dark,” I will remove his teeth by force. Providing beer that is way too good for cretins is a random act of kindness. So too is not bludgeoning those who need to be bludgeoned. My work was done, and so was my body. A successful challenge. I was a happy man.
(Drunk and happpy...who wouldn't be?)

As a brief epilogue, Justin called me the next morning to inform me that the Forest Service had just closed the National Forest Lands, which include the Brickyard and Lizard’s Mouth. Post-fire and pre-closure means that Saturday July 19th was the only day I would’ve been able to do my challenge. Lady luck took a shining to me, then, and both the burned-out moonscape and the unlikely timing make it all the more special.

Again, thanks to everyone who was there; to everyone who wasn’t there but sent me wishes; to those who helped cook at the afterparty, came climbing, or let me hang out at their place over the weekend; to those in foreign countries who sent some vibes; and to those whose pre-challenge advice was indispensable. I encourage everyone to do the Birthday Challenge, and I’m looking forward to the next one. I just have to think of a cool one…

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Day Before

Training for my challenge more or less progressed as it had: consistent climbing (because it’s really fun), and every so often throw in a long biking day followed by boulder problems and pushups. I took it easy during most of the week leading up to the challenge itself, and after work on Thursday night I drove down to Santa Barbara.

Despite sleeping on a recliner in Evan Ludmer’s apartment, I felt well enough rested for a day of setting things up on Friday. The first order of business, of course, was to find out whether the bouldering component would be even feasible. According to the Santa Barbara County Fire Department’s website, the forest lands were closed but West Camino Cielo was open. The only thing to do was to investigate. Mr. Ludmer and one Glenn Sharp joined me on an exploratory trip into Mordor. (The new fire road into the Brickyard)

The once foliose and impenetrable hillsides of the Brickyard had been reduced to ashy dirt, with scorched and scarred limbs of the larger manzanitas and oaks poking through the ground like arms clawing at the air. The rock had survived, save a few parts of the Yard that had been fully baked. But the classics survived.

The scorched rocks

The Extremist Smooth Criminal

The Lizard’s Mouth was also fine, in fact none of the foliage had burnt at all. The only noticeable result of the fire were the large swathes that had become covered in red flame retardant, in particular the Lord of the Flies and Meilee boulders. The picture below is High Hat.

Not only did I discover, to my absolute delight and relief, that the bouldering part was accessible, but I also took Micah’s advice and sought out the various “slab alleys,” where one such as myself could tick dozens of problems in a matter of minutes. I found what I was looking for, further stoking me for this whole challenge.

On the way down the hill, we stopped for barbecue supplies, my three bottles of Double Bastard, and some fish tacos. Here’s me, mentally preparing for the marathon day ahead:

I opted to sleep in Goleta, to avoid the noise in IV and to have a hope of getting to bed at a reasonable hour. Anxious and excited, I shut my eyes at 10:30 PM on Friday night.

The best laid plans…A main part of my anxiety was the possibility of plans falling through. For the bike ride, for example, I had convinced Glenn to get up with me at a very early hour. However, I also know he would be drinking heavily, and somewhat doubted that he would be awake at 5 AM. Also, Evan and Jondo had pledged their crashpads and their spotting for the Kerr Hall Arete at 4 in the morning, and it was hard to imagine that all working out well too. And I knew it would be easy to fall behind schedule; to struggle to find the boulder problems necessary to get the total up to 240; to get dehydrated if it were sunny; to give up. And I knew that it would suck if any of that happened: I went to bed resolved to power through one thing at a time, one event at a time, one climb at a time, one beer at a time.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Schedule

Saturday July 19th, 2008

0300- Wake up
0315- Begin meditation
0339- Finish meditation
0340- Get going to the Kerr Hall Arete
0415- Hopefully get off the building
0430- Get on a bike, headed for Painted Cave (the pictograph cave, not the boulder crag)
0630- Return to campus
0645- Jump in the bitchass cold ocean
0709- Get the hell out of the gaddamn cold ass water and warm up
0730- Head for the hills
0800-? Boulder.
2000- Gather some friends, some beef, some beer, and start celebrating.
2100- Crack that second bottle of Double Bastard
2200-ish- Build a big fuckin’ fire and enjoy it.

Throughout: do nice things and pick up garbage.

This is a rough draft and subject to change. And let's hope for good weather!

The Smoke and the Flapper

You may be aware of the odd summertime sun-blotting atmospheric condition called “haze,” which came about because all of California is on fire. Today’s sky looks something like a bright day in London fog, the sun appearing like a full moon. Check out the SF Chronicle’s report:

But what, you might wonder, does this have to do with my challenge? The high concentration of fire-byproduct in the air makes any sort of training out of the question. Ever done jumping jacks with a cigarette in your mouth? Ever run 10k around a campfire? Bad idea. I haven’t smoked a thing in several dozen hours (all part of the training), yet last night I was in a coughing fit at 2 AM. I suppose meditation training could be a particularly good idea, relying as it does on shallow breathing, but I think today will be an off day from the athletic side of things.

Probably for the best, as well. Monday and Tuesday were long days. After a 5k run Sunday night which gave me some narsty blisters due to ill-fitting hand-me-down cross trainers, I drove to the Great Western Power Co. in Oakland for a somewhat less than inspiring boulder session. After giving up on the pre-set problems, I made my way upstairs into the training room.

If training rooms were pachyderms, this one is an African elephant, Scott’s garage is a pygmy mammoth. It is the Barney to Scott’s Baby Bop, the Shaq to Scott’s Spud Webb. Not a knock against Scott’s wall, of course, just a comment on stature. For instance, one can stand up all the way in this training room, and the wall itself is 60 degrees rather than 30, meaning that I can actually haul myself up by lots of different ways. Finger strength is my weak-point, and so this wall is perfect. I spent a fair interval working on some crimpy, pinchy problems, did some reps on the system board side of the wall, and then spent the last hour doing core and back lifting:

- 3x10 reps lat pulldown
- 3x10 reps seated row
- 3x10 reps bent over dumbbell row
- assorted leg lifts and crunches until it hurt

After a brief rest of running food for a pitifully short hour and a half shift, I came home and did 3 sets each of two different bicep curls. Then to bed.

Tuesday began with a twelve-mile bike ride to the top of Grizzly Peak in the Berkeley hills, a gain of 1000 feet from my house, a brief lunch, then a bike ride down to Ironworks (6 miles), where I enduro-bouldered for about four and a half hours, followed by a brief hangboard session and a bike ride to my post as professional food runner.

When I got to work, the street behind Pyramid was flooded due to a broken water main, and Pyramid actually had to close at 7:30 because the fire sprinklers were not working. If you asked my opinion, I would tell you that it don't matter; we got beer. Well, sadly, another shift cut short and Spenser continues to be hella broke. But the bonus is that my 5 miles of biking home, up the 700 foot hill I live on, was in the light, during a rather hazy and thus colorful sunset.

So Monday and Tuesday combined included roughly 8 hours of bouldering, a fair amount of weights, and about 25 miles of biking with 1700 feet of altitude. I'm exhausted, and that is why the poor air quality forcing a rest day is a blessing of sorts. The trees that are currently en fuego probably disagree, but I am too far away to hear their cries. Also, three days ago, I split my index finger callus, and this is a very painful injury. Crimps hurt, pockets hurt, even washing my hands hurts. An off day might help it heal?

I am starting to realize how bloody hard this is going to be. Even at Ironworks, where the bouldering is contained within one warehouse, it would be hard to do 240 problems including repeats. In 4 hours I did roughly 60 problems. And I didn't have to hike around to find them. Crap. I also fear for the multitudinous Santa Barbara pressout topouts, which I have not been training for. Time to start doing some pushups, I think.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Training: Day 1 and 2

This whole birthday challenge thing, I’m quickly realizing, is not primarily geared toward a month-long training session culminating in a single, victorious glorious 24-hour sprint of activity. A short while ago, after finishing up my last little bit of coursework for a Bachelor of Science degree and nearly simultaneously being rejected from the teaching fellowship that would’ve made me a 70 hour/week disciplinarian in a classroom in Poor Neighborhood, Oakland, CA, I came to the haunting yet liberating realization that my ties to the Bay Area, California, and America were scant. By that, I mean that I have nothing going on that requires my presence in any particular geographic location. No school, no job, no plans for grad school. Therefore, I am free to do what I’ve always timidly fantasized about, that is, save up some ca$hmoney and find a job elsewhere.

And that “elsewhere” can be read as “some place away from this election-year bantering, and near some world-class climbing.” I say timidly because, like the 40 foot cliff dive or the all-night sex and drug orgy, it’s the sort of thing that sounds amazing, but committing and terrifying all at the same time. Foregoing all my formal biology training to dick around as a broke globetrotter? What if I get hurt out there? What if I never get my career on track? What if…?

Like an onsight freesolo, there’s nothing to be done but to commit. Half-assed attempts are the surest way to fail. Thus, my training regimen, though not strictly regimented, takes full advantage of my resources. To wit: I have tons of free time because food runners at Pyramid Brewing Company, my place of employ, are in demand for only 20 hours per week. I have a membership to Touchstone Climbing gyms ( for 63 dollars per month, and I have two gyms (Ironworks and Great Western Power Company) to choose from within easy driving distance. I have the aforementioned realization. And I have some V-hard projects in Australia that need to be ascended and named.

Thus, after having committed enough to start a blog and a Facebook event, I began formally training for my Birthday Challenge.

Friday, I warmed up by running food for three hours, then biking over to Ironworks. I endeavoured to do every boulder problem in the gym that was V6 or easier, and was nearly able to do so (it took three and a half hours to reach bouldering exhaustion). I figured that endurance bouldering will likely be the physical crux of the challenge, hence to get started ASAP on that piece.

Then followed the pull-up pyramid:

- 3x5 pulls, thirty seconds’ rest in between. Rest 1 minute, then:
- 3x7 pulls, thirty seconds’ rest in between. Rest 1 minute, then:
(etc., doing 3x10, then 3x10, then 3x7, then 3x5)

Finished with core workout, biked back to Pyramid where I refueled with a bowl of chili and two pints of Thunderhead IPA (employee discounted, of course), and then rode my bike up the steepest hill in El Cerrito, gaining 720 feet in less than a mile. Had a smoke or two and got ready for another day.


Went over to Oakland and played around on the boulder problems for a little while, then went to the new training wall. It is, a la Scott’s house, a woodie with a grid of small holds. Unlike Scott’s, it lacks a roof but due to fewer space constraints allows for problems 6 moves long, and more. It is about 60 degrees instead of the Scott’s Wall 30, and the holds range from quite good to quite miniscule. Being that finger strength is my weak point, due in large part to a sore knuckle on my middle finger that is only recently becoming less painful, I made a resolution to begin to train here more often. Unfortunately, I tore a nice avulsion on my right index finger and bled on nearly every hold up there. Fortunately, my blood is untainted by the myriad pathogens one might find in an hIV sorority. I ended the day with a full battery of light-weight shoulder lifting, since they don’t often get to work during the movements of climbing. Cardio for the day was running food for four hours, in 85 degree heat.

Sunday will be mostly a rest day, with a little cardio and core thrown in for good measure. Hoping the split in my finger either heals soon or stops hurting. Going to go enjoy an A's game with my dad and brother, as a late Father's Day gift. Stopping the use of correct grammar and complete sentences. Signing off....


Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Commitment

Today, Thursday June 19th, is the day I officially decided on my set of challenges, signed up for a Blogspot blog, and began inviting people. One month from today will hopefully see the goals met. Who knows?

This is good though. I have always loved the concept of a birthday challenge since I began climbing in 2004. For those who have bouldered in Santa Barbara, it was the ad in the back of Ocean's 11 that directed me to I attempted challenges for my 21st and 22nd birthday, both of which were ill-conceived and lacked sorely for planning. As such, they were neither completed nor attended. Not to say I didn't have great days, running myself silly and blurring my vision simultaneously. Birthdays always surround me with a sense of levity and well-being. But this time around, I'm putting the word out; I'm planning; I'm training; I'm stoked.

This is scary though. It's a doable challenge, but it hinges on planning more than any other single factor for its completion, a trait that I must have been born without. This, then, is an exercise in commitment: to put together the logistics of an unorthodox birthday celebration, to find spotters and boulder-beta givers, to find willing hosts and companion athletes, to training, to find eaters and drinkers. If I can complete my challenge the satisfaction will come as much from the fulfillment of a plan as it will the physical exertion and beer/beef meal afterward.

Primarily, though, the most important objective of this plan is to have an epic day enjoying bits of everything Santa Barbara has to offer. I shall climb in the mountains, bike in the foothills, swim in the ocean, builder at my alma mater, and hang out with some of the coolest people the world has ever seen.

This is what I'm thinking now, T minus thirty days. Regular updates will follow, regarding training, planning (holy shit!), and most importantly, a rough itinerary of D-Day. Check back on an accordingly regular basis.

The Challenge

I miss Santa Barbara.  What better time to visit than the sunny, beautiful, laid-back summer...during my birthday?

In the spirit of turning two dozen, and in the style of so many before me from the Santa Barbara community and elsewhere, I cordially invite everyone I know to help me get through what promises to be an epic day of all flavors of the rainbow of awesome.  Here's the menu:

- 240 boulder problems
- Ascend the Kerr Hall Arete 
- Bicycle 24 miles, including 2400 feet of elevation gain
- 24 minute ocean swim
- 24 minutes of solo meditation
- Drink 2.4 Double Bastards
- Perform 24 random acts of kindness
- Feed beef and beer to 24 people
- Collect 24 pounds of trash
- Have a 24 foot diameter bonfire

I have a rough idea of how the day might go, but I most definitely need some volunteers.  Primarily, I'll need some of the help that Micah Elconin got in his epic challenge (, in terms of finding 240 boulder problems in the Santa Barbara hills.  I should state that Micah is one of the main inspirations for me in this challenge, and I pay tribute to his accomplishments by plagiarizing a few of the challenges on my list from his.  I'll also need help picking up trash, nabbing a guerrilla ascent of the Kerr Hall Arete, and eating and drinking.  The more the merrier.