Matt Wilder - Gambling

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Two-Week Gamble

By Matt Wilder

“Wow, you’re only here for two weeks?” This was the response I got from most migrant American climbers during my recent trip to Europe. Having done many extended climbing trips in the past, I can understand their point of view. A two-week trip barely gives enough time to get used to a climbing area, pick out a few projects, and have some success on them. Still, I found this sentiment amusing in juxtaposition to the responses I was getting from non-climbers before the trip. Most people viewed my “short” trip to Europe as a nice long getaway. This is probably due to the fact that most people only get two weeks of vacation a year. As a student, I was also limited in the time I could take off—skipping a week before spring break to get a 16 day chunk, two of which would be lost to travel.

 The perspective that two weeks is a short time has deeper roots than just the simple explanation that more is better. There are a lot of factors that contribute to making a climbing trip successful and the shorter the trip is, the less likely it is that all these factors will align. Probably the most significant factor is weather. There are some places like Hueco Tanks where you can count on the weather being great, but most places have less predictable weather and you can easily be shut down by a week of rain. Another factor that can detract from a trip is the pressure of time. When you have a short time in a place, you are constantly battling the clock ticking down to the end of the trip. If you are projecting something or have a big list of cool climbs you want to do before the end, you better well get it done in time or the whole trip can feel incomplete.

I just returned from a two-week trip to Europe during which I battled these issues. The plan was to spend the time in the Ticino region of Switzerland repeating classic boulder problems I’d seen in various videos. I was also hoping to potentially add a few new lines. As the days counted down to the start of the trip, I found myself obsessively checking the weather forecast for the region. A week before I was due to leave, the long-range forecast looked clear and I was psyched for a killer stretch of weather. Then things started to go wrong. The forecast became grimmer each day and eventually, as I was ready to depart, it predicted about 10 straight days of rain with perhaps one or two periods where it might clear for a moment. I started fearing the worst—that my Switzerland experience would consist only of sitting inside a house for two weeks watching rain streak down the windows.

What could I do? I knew this was part of the risk so I hopped on the plane hoping things would improve. I arrived in Zurich to relative clear skies and cruised down to Ticino. The weather was perfect and I got a great afternoon of climbing. However, the next morning the story had changed. Clouds filled the deep valley and it was raining hard. After three more days of on and off rain during which I only climbed a bit on barely dry rock, I checked the forecast again and it showed another week straight of rain.

It was time to make a decision. The gamble I was making on Switzerland was going south and I desperately wanted to climb on dry rock. I checked the weather in other regions of Europe and found to my surprise that Fontainebleau was showing consistently good weather. I asked myself: “Is it worth it to drive 8 hours to Font?” “Will the weather really be good there or is it just another gamble?” My twitching forearms helped me decide to get in the car and head to France.

As luck had it, the weather was great in Font and remained good for the rest of my trip. However, I began encountering the second risk of the trip—too little time to accomplish anything. My first days were spent getting shut down on hard problems trying to find one that I might be psyched to try more. I climbed a few easier classics in the process but was really driven to find something difficult that I could complete in the time I had. Days rolled by with little success. I began to feel more comfortable with the unique Font style of climbing, but none of the problems I tried gave themselves up easily. With just 3 days left on my trip, I still hadn’t done a climb that required serious work. I was beginning to think that I wouldn’t climb anything on the trip.

I knew that I was starting to feel better on the problems I was climbing on and decided to change my perspective on success. I rationalized my way through several of the hard problems that had shut me down early on the trip and convinced myself that I was capable of doing them. On my second to last day of climbing, I completed one of the climbs I had failed on earlier and put in more work on a really cool slopey 8a+ (V12) called the Gecko. I was much more successful on the Gecko and managed to complete all of the moves. This was much better than my first day when I only did one of the moves. I was confident that I could do the problem but was nervous too. With only one climbing day left, would all the factors align to allow me to complete this project? Would the weather be clear, would the conditions be good enough for the bad slopers, would my body feel strong, would I be in the right state of mind? The final day came around and I warmed up slowly to make sure my muscles were well primed and that my body control was precise. Then I headed back out to the Gecko. I had two warm-up burns on it that felt good and then I climbed it on my 3rd try of the day. All the necessary factors had aligned and I found myself on the top of the boulder. This gamble was certainly a close one but in the end it paid off.

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