Monday, July 18, 2016

Rock the Blocs 2016!

Last June, driven by curiosity about the bouldering in the Okanagan, Kyle and I travelled to The Boulderfields in the mountains above Kelowna for ten days of climbing.  We had planned our trip such that our final days in the area would coincide with the 2015 Rock the Blocs, perhaps Canada's greatest outdoor bouldering festival.  We were blown away not only by how amazing the solid gneiss blocks of the area were, but also by how much fun we had at RtB (check out my previous posts about the Boulderfields here and here). 

This June, now thoroughly convinced that The Boulderfields are one of Canada's greatest bouldering areas, I was keen to head back to the Okanagan for another week of climbing on quality gneiss.  The boulders there are big, steep, and feature amazing beautifully-textured holds.  Once again, my plan was to participate in Rock the Blocs at the end of the trip, and this year I had convinced Andy White (RtB's eternally-energetic organizer and all-round great guy) to add a Master's Category to this year's event.  Though I had been very pleased with my performance in the Men's Open category last year, I assumed that I must not be the only climber of 40+ years who couldn't quite keep up with all the lads in the Open category (it turns out that knees, fingers, and elbows don't last forever...).

Not exactly an action shot... one of the new problems I added during my trip, The Golden Rule (V4ish) starts sitting at the arete, reaches up into and traverses left through the slot, then heads up again via the positive sloper on the arete.  Always great to find new fun lines!

None of the usual suspects of the Lethbridge climbing community could be convinced to join me for a weeklong trip to Kelowna, so I packed up the van and headed west.  I generally don't like to drive (or go on trips) by myself, but I managed to survive the drive west, stopping overnight in Canmore before heading west through Golden, Revelstoke, and then down through lake country to Kelowna.  I grabbed a coffee and pastry at The Bread Company Cafe on Pandosy Street, bought some groceries, and headed up to the Boulderfields.  The rutted and worn logging road that allows climbers to reach The Boulderfields isn't a pleasure to drive, and was just as rough as I remembered.  I knew that the Frank Slide locals Stephan and Aletha were also making the trip out, and as such I wasn't surprised to find them already setting up camp at the Boulderfields when I finally eked my van down the last few meters into the parking lot.

Stephan on the soon-to-be-classic Memento (V0/1).

Knowing that I would likely be climbing alone for some of the trip, I had come armed with brushes, chalk, rope, and harness to put up some new problems. Perhaps more than most climbers, the hunt for new lines keeps me motivated, and I had my heart set on opening several new problems.  On my first morning in the area, after some work to remove some dead branches on a downed tree, I cleaned and sent a brilliant new slopers-to-arete line near the Nerf Boulder that I called The Golden Rule (V4ish).  I'm certain it will be a classic in the area, being a somewhat similar to Squamish's Easy in an Easy Chair (V4).  I then set to cleaning the TALL featured slab on the far end of the Nerf Boulder (the end opposite Terry Paholek's testpiece Nerf Roof (V12); check out video of that send here).  I had to spend a lot of time on a toprope to get it ready, but it was definitely worth it; the line that emerged was amazing; a 21 foot tall beautifully-featured slab with a few tricky moves and a lot of great holds. A moderately tricky move off the ground leads to better holds, which permit a relatively easy route up the face.  Edges on the first half of the problem lead to two positive horizontal slots and an interesting mantle. I called it Memento (V0), as I am certain that it provide a memorable experience for aspiring highball boulderers. Noting that the were interesting start holds much lower - a beautiful right-hand letterbox slot and a funky left-hand sidepull/knob - I set about to adding a low sit-start to the problem.  I had adjust my beta a bit, but I quickly sent Memento Low (V3/4) as well, a start which adds two stout moves to the line. 

During my trip to the Boulderfields, I did Memento many times.  Many times.  An amazing line, and a great way to get high off the ground!  Stephan spotting, and Sam W. spectating.  Thanks for the photos Aletha!

As I sat and ate lunch, however, I studied the arete and face to the right of Memento.  It appeared that if I started on the opening holds of Memento Low, I could take the arete with my left hand, while using a series of widely-spaced but good holds right of the arete to maintain compression. I quickly scrubbed these holds as well, and set to work deciphering the line.  It seemed apparent that the problem would reach a huge arete-jug two-thirds of the way up the boulder; from here a climber could roll over the arete to join the last moves of Memento.  Chalking up, I found that the first seven moves that led to the juggy hold demanded a fair bit of subtlety and power.  After 45 minutes of trying the line I could do all the moves, but couldn't quite link the moves from the start to the jug. Slightly disappointed but not discouraged, I packed up my gear and headed up out of the basin to find dinner.

The following morning I made the hike down into the basin, once again determined to send the arete.  I warmed up with Aletha and Stephan, feeling strong with flashes of Hit the Lights (V4) and Four Horsemen (V5).  A little nervous, I walked back over to arete, laced up my shoes, and pulled on to the starting moves of the project. I floated right past my highpoint, only to fall unexpectedly on the last hard move.  The line would not fall that easily!  I sat on my mat in the sunshine for a few minutes, then tried again, only to fall on the last hard moves of the problem. Not particularly worried, I rested few more minutes, moved my mats around, chalked up, and smoothly compressed my way up the arete, grabbing the jug.  Elated, I rolled over the arete, and kept climbing until I was standing on top of the Nerf Boulder.

The amazing compression line Bushido (V7ish).  The top photo shows the bottom of the line, while the bottom photo is of some of the key sloping 'ball' holds on the arete.  Hard to take action shots on a solo trip...

It is strange how completing a project (especially a first ascent) fills me with such a sense of happiness, success, and reward.  I'm never certain if all climbers feel the same emotions when they finally stand atop a problem they've put a lot of effort into, but I can't help but suspect that this is the case. From one point of view, it seems strange (pointless?) to drive across western Canada, then hike up into the mountains, find a big rock, spend time scrubbing off moss and lichen, then spend hours trying to climb seven hard moves.  From another point of view, though, it doesn't seem strange at all, given the enormous emotional, spiritual, (and undoubtedly chemical) rewards to be had!  As I reflected on the 'code' that drives the itinerant first ascentionist (and in part because I had cleaned and climbed the line by myself), I decided to call the problem Bushido (V7ish).

I spent the next few days climbing and hiking around the boulderfields, enjoying the quality problems to be found there.  I took a half rest day down in the city of Kelowna, swimming, visiting the fine cafes the city offers, and enjoying the art galleries and public art in the downtown area. By Friday afternoon, dozens of climbers began arriving at the Boulderfields, pitching tents, setting up portable kitchens beside their vans, and waxing poetic in conversation well-lubricated by beer and the glow of a bonfire.

The morning of Rock the Blocs 2016 dawned warm and sunny, but everyone was aware that the weather forecast called for a rainy afternoon.  To accommodate this, the organisers had made the decision to move up the start time by a few hours, to give everyone as much time as possible to climb before the rain started.

Morning of RtB 2016!  Photo courtesy of Caillum Smith, Preserved Light Photography (check out their website for more amazing photography!)

The morning of Rock the Blocs is, in many ways, as exciting as the competition itself.  It is always great to see climbers streaming in from across North America.  This year, there were strong contingents from Mexico and the USA, giving the event a great international vibe.  While RtB does attract many strong climbers seeking to test themselves against their peers, it has perhaps even greater appeal to climbers who simply want to come to the area, enjoy the fantastic lines the Boulderfields has to offer, and to have fun spending time climbing with their friends.  I was excited to see several climbers I had met previously or knew from Alberta or the west coast, including the Fraser Valley bouldering legend (and old friend) Marco Lefebvre. 

Air horn in hand, Andy White went over the rules for the event, and with a blast of the horn climbers started streaming down into the basin, scorecards in hand.  Men and women in the Open categories would count only their three hardest problems toward their scores (a 2016 rule change that would encourage the top climbers to try harder problems), while the remainder of the categories would tally their five hardest problems to come up with a score. 

The morning of RtB 2016 went beautifully.  While everyone had seen the forecast, it was difficult to believe that rain was on its way as hundreds of climbers settled down to the business of bouldering in the warm sunshine.  Marco was more keen to see the area than to win the competition, so we spent some time working projects rather than trying problems on the scorecard.  Eventually, we wandered over to the Dark Prince Boulder where I quickly repeated Dark Prince (V5), then we headed down to the Serenity Sector where we tried (and came very close to doing) a new V7 roof line called Pumping Iron.  After several attempts, we clambered over to the Serenity Boulder itself, where I managed to do Firefly (V5) in a handful of tries. Marco wanted to head up the hill to check out the amazing Driven face, so I headed over and tried Out of the Shadows (V7), again coming close but failing to finish the problem.  By this time, it was raining lightly, and I found Loic Markley (Kelowna local and RtB guide) to ask him exactly where I could find the rising traverse Blue Pill (V6), in hopes of doing one more line before the rain started in earnest. Locating the problem, I was just settling in to try it (despite the drizzle) when I heard the air horn blast - the organisers had called a finish to the event on account of the rain. 

 (top) The amazing Tie My Rope (V1) on the Dominator Boulder, and (below) the legend Marco L. and I putting some chalk on some rocks. Photos by Caillum Smith, Preserved Light Photography.

Despite the rain, everyone had an amazingly social time clustered under the tarps provided, waiting for the scorecards to be tallied.  Climbers joked and laughed, shared stories and umbrellas, and discussed what problems they had climbed and plans they were making for the summer ahead.  After a short while, Andy blew the air horn again to pull names for all the generous draw prizes provided by sponsors (including Outside All Day, Flashed, Redpoint Holds, and Friction Labs, among others), and to announce the winners of the event.  At the beginning of the day, I had bought raffle tickets to support the event, and was (very!) happy to win two sets of Redpoint Holds.  Everyone cheered as the winners were announced, with Eric Sethna (Toronto) and Alannah Yip (Vancouver) winning the Men's and Women's Open categories (go here to see all the results).  Mark Derksen (from Lethbridge, and a Frank Slide 'local') won third in Men's Open, while Staci White (defending champion and Boulderfields local) took the bronze in Women's Open. I was happy to win the Men's Masters category (!), and was glad to have had the chance to participate in such a social, fun, and well-organised event.  Huge thanks to Andy and the rest of the organisational team and guides, including Jay, Loic, Garret, Braden, and everyone else involved!

After the event, the rain continued for several hours.  The next morning I headed back into the basin, humping three mats all way down to the Serenity Sector to try some problems I wanted to try, only to find that a disappointingly large number of the holds in the area seep after a  heavy rain.  It seemed that while most of the holds were dry, many problems had one or two wet holds. I headed back to up the Surf Boulder, where I did some (thankfully dry!) moderates including the amazing arete The Chipper (V1).  I sessioned on the rails-through-a-roof classic No Guts No Glory (V7/8), but found the flexing lip hold too spooky for a solo session, especially since a fall at that point high on the problem would almost certainly result in a fairly serious injury.  By this point in the trip, my fingers were completely thrashed (I had climbed every day since I had arrived, with only a half rest-day on Friday). Knowing it would take at least a full day to recover - a day I didn't really have the luxury of spending away from home - I decided to pack it in, and begin the long drive back to Lethbridge. 

Once again, The Boulderfields (and Rock the Blocs) did not fail to produce a great climbing experience!  Not only does the area hold over 1000 problems on absolutely amazing gneiss blocks, it holds vast potential for thousands more.  Already, I can't wait to return to the Okanagan!  Maybe a fall trip is in order...?

Back in Lethbridge, the hot and dry summer weather has arrived, which means sunny days bouldering in Frank Slide!  Lots on the go in the Slide, including new projects, work on my loop trail project (trail work!), and planning for the 2016 Tour de Frank!  

No comments: