Groundhog Day

by Jonathan Barrett

It is Groundhog Day ... again. In honor of the movie (and the holiday), I have five suggestions for how to break out of your climbing and hiking deja vu. From the gear that we use, to the goals that we set for ourselves, a repeated outing is given context by these things. Although we are to some degree trapped by the fact that the Gorge is only so large and that there are a limited number of crags within an hour or two of home, we don’t need to feel like Bill Murray’s character waking up every day to the same bars of Sonny and Cher: “Then put your little hand in mine/There ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb.” It is possible to expand the universe without leaving the confines of its boundaries.
The author considers the merits of eating ice cream on a saddle
during a summer climbing road trip. Photo: Andrew Barnes. 

Use someone else’s gear

We all get used to the gear that we employ: our cams, our pack, our tent. This breeds familiarity, and frankly it makes our lives easier. Setting up your personal tent in a downpour takes only moments because you have done it a thousand times before. Plugging your gold Camalot into the hand-jam-sized crack becomes second nature. Every so often, I get the opportunity to climb on a partner’s gear such as during my most recent ice trip to Hyalite. I have climbed on Petzl Nomics since they were first introduced; my partner had brought a pair of Trango Raptors. Midway up The Dribbles, right before the WI4 headwall pitch, I asked to use his tools. The first couple of swings were awkward. The ice axes felt weirdly imbalanced. To compensate, I turned to using better footwork and looked down instead of up. The features of the ice curtain were transformed. Blobs appeared that I might not have noticed before, and I stepped on them gently, like they were features on a rock climb. In the minutes that followed, I climbed a completely new route with improved technique.
John Sharp investigates up-close the elusive (and viviparous)
rubber boa on the approach to Goode Mountain.
Photo: Jonathan Barrett. 

Climb at an odd time of day (or year)

“You know what I want to do?” Jarred asked me. Frankly I couldn’t guess, given his proclivity for provocative ideas. “Climb Dod’s Jam in the dark,” he said. In the dark? Why? When pressed, he didn’t have an answer really, something about the moonrise over the Bonneville Dam. Because I acquiesced, two weeks later I found myself face to face with a bushy-tailed woodrat, otherwise known as the infamous snafflehound. It’s eyes were glowing spheres under the light of my headlamp. He (or maybe she) tried to squeeze its shivering body into the fissure at the back of the “bird’s nest” belay stance. The moon had not yet risen over the cliffs of the Gorge, so beyond the wan circle of light, it was exceedingly dark: a hold-your-hand-two-inches- from-your-face-and-not-see-anything dark. Typically when I stem up the off-width corner on that climb, the exposure rattles my nerves a little. The climbing isn’t very hard relative to some of the sequences on the rest of the route, but there is something about the way that feature pitches ever so slightly towards the river that normally makes me sweat. That night, though, I didn’t feel any trepidation. I could turn my light towards the Oregon side of the Columbia and view only a wall of black. I carefully pasted the rubber of my shoes against the wrinkled edges and moved upwards with uncommon confidence because I could not see. Three months later, Jarred and I found ourselves finishing Young Warriors in the dark after attempting a multi-route link-up. As I belayed him up onto the final ridgeline, I turned my headlamp toward the remaining slabs and cracks. A familiar set of glowing eyes looked back at me in what must have been disbelief. Or perhaps it was annoyance. What was the little bugger thinking? Maybe: Oh! Not this guy again!

Bring different food

Knowing that a little levity can ease a tedious activity,
Andrew Ault takes the time to posedown mid-slog up
Mt. Adams. Photo: Jonathan Barrett.
Food is fuel, but also culture. As anyone who has traveled internationally knows, cuisine defines an experience, even if it is just Le Big Mac consumed on the streets of Paris. As such, the meals that we bring color our experiences in the outdoors. For better or worse, freeze-dried options have transformed backcountry dining and the way that people move through wild spaces. I have both a Jetboil and a Whisperlite. The choice between the two affects the culture of the trip. Typically, I bring the former for many of the obvious reasons: weight, fuel efficiency, and speed of eating. Consider the impact that this kind of choice has on a trip up the Emmons Glacier. With a night before and potentially after the climb at Camp Sherman, the instinct is to go as light as possible. However, a pot of tortellini smothered in pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, and sausage is worth the weight. As a matter of fact, it would be difficult to suppress a smug smile as you watched other parties scarf so-called “Chicken and Rice” from a plasticized foil pouch knowing that the only GI distress you will suffer will be altitude-related and not a function of the food. This is true in other ways as well. Last summer I brought with me the makings for a no-bake cheesecake when climbing in the Bugaboos. A bank of snow served as a refrigerator. Dinner that night felt Michelin five-star luxurious as I spooned out servings for my partner and I.

Find a new partner

Who one climbs with determines the vibe as much as what one climbs. With established partnerships, it is easy to warm up on the same routes, eat breakfast at the same joints, and pack in a matter of minutes, which is generally preferable. A new partner can breathe life into stale routines and jolt one out of tunnel vision. For years, my goal when traveling to distant climbing destinations was to climb as much as possible. This seemed to me like the logical thing to do given the financial outlay involved. Once, on an overseas trip, I was stunned to learn that my partner wanted to take the train into a neighboring country just to have lunch. I argued that it wasn’t raining that hard and would probably stop soon. He chuckled at my stupidity and pointed out that there was more to do than climb from sunrise to sunset. Through that new partnership, I have recalibrated and reconsidered my goals when traveling for climbing. This can be just as true for a local spot as well. Who knows how many times I drove past the Beacon Rock Cafe before a new partner once pointed out that we could climb all morning, drive a short distance down the road for a burger, and then head back for more laps. Suddenly that Clif bar in my pocket seemed slightly moronic.

Set completely different goals

I tend to want to hike fast and climb as many pitches as possible. My regular partners give me a hard time for always setting my watch to see how long it took from belay to belay. My goal is efficiency, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, per se. However, it does flavor the outing with a sense of urgency. Consider instead the influence that other goals might lend. Photography is not a hobby of mine, and in the attempt to move quickly, I don’t take many pictures. When I return to share my adventures with friends, the sloppy and ill-framed images are nearly useless. This is not to say that I should be asking my partner to reclimb a pitch multiple times to allow me the benefit of having a perfectly captured and Instagram-worthy photo. I do however envy the care and effort that folks like Steph Abegg have taken to thoughtfully and completely document a trip. This goal-setting philosophy can be applied in other ways as well. Out for a hike on a familiar trail? Maybe try to engage others in conversation or at least friendly banter. How many new acquaintances could you make over a dozen miles? Bring a bird, flower, or tree guidebook and stop to actually investigate that glorious flora that you have seen so many times. Use familiar terrain as an opportunity to try out a new piece of technology. What better place to learn the mapping software than in an area where you can double-check your work?

Some final thoughts

What benefits do these changes have for us as climbers and human beings? If Groundhog Day can teach us anything, it is that being stuck in a loop is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. How we respond to the conditions of our confinement is the question. In reflection, I can honestly say that making these kinds of changes myself have made me a better and more thoughtful climber. As someone who looks at my life and actions through the lens of climbing, they have also reframed the way that I travel, engage with people, and consider the possessions in my life. In doing so, I am equipped so that there is no hill or mountain I can’t climb.

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