Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Climb Along Memory Lane

Since I'm unable to get into the gym or out to a rock and climb I like to take little trips down what I call "Memory Lane." Don't we all?
If you've read my bio on Team Sight Unseen's website then you know how Erik inspired me to go rock climbing and how I competed in climbing competitions and so on a so forth. But what about those climbing comps? And what about all the climbing trips that I took before I met the Team Sight Unseen family? Teammate Joseph Mayfield once said to me "kyle, I actually think you're legit now, since i've got more than one person saying you actually exist." I just laughed and said "Yeah, I'm legit...I think." So I guess here is where i'll try to back up my claim to being a climber before I became a member of Team Sight Unseen.

I went climbing for the first time with a family friend and his son. Erik might have inspired me to climb, but it was David Bernhardt that actually put me on the wall for the first time. We went to the local climbing gym and David talked to me about how we might get me up the wall. David asked me whether or not I knew the positions on a clockface. Since I did he suggested a system that we called the "Clock System." David used the wall as though it were the face of a clock and my hands and feet were the hands of a clock. David directed me up the wall--right hand 12:00, left foot out to about 8:30--and I slowly made my way up the wall. Getting to the top I was extremely excited. But there was one question I had in my mind, 'How am I going to get down?" David instructed me to sit in my harness and stick my feet straight out in front of me. I did so and then he told me to jump. I thought, "David you're crazy." He told me to trust the rope. So I jumped. I swung out from the wall and my legs felt kind of heavy. So I did the only natural thing a rooky eight year old climber wwould do. I let them drop. Big mistake!
I slammed into the wall and felt a great deal of pain in my scraped knees. Determined to get down though I tried again. I jumped and had similar results. So then David just told me to sit in the harness and let my feet drag along the wall as he lowered me on the rope. This worked much better.
That first climbing outing I only had time for two climbs. I reached the top of my first climb but lost my nerve halfway up the second climb. For some reason I was just too tired to go any higher on that second climb and my hands were just too sweaty to hold onto the holds any longer. But a whole new world opened up before me.
My Dad got our family a membership to the YMCA (which was the climbing gym) and we started going regularly. Sometimes we would go as much as once a week. It became our family thing to do. Dad was easily the best climber in the family and bought himself all kinds of fancy climbing gear. For a nith birthday/Christmas present my parents got me a Misty harness, chalkbag and chalk. It definitely made up for the cancelled birthday party. Then because my birthday party had been cancelled the climbing director at the gym gave my parents a great deal. I could have private climbing lessons with one of the best young climbers in the gym. Without hesitation my parents accepted this offer. and so that's how we came in contact with the Karst family.
Thomas Karst was a 17 year old climbing maniac. He taught me everything he knew and guessed about climbing. How to tie a figure eight knot; how the climbs were rated; how to get over tricky little sections of climbs using different body positions; and all the climbing lingo he could think of. It was also Thomas who later taught me how to lead climb, and how to do a form of aid climbing.
Thomas's 15 year old brother Matt was also an avid climber and so was their Father, Tom. Tom and Dad got along great and became regular climbing partners on trips up to Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia on outdoor climbing trips.
I took climbing lesons from Thomas for about a year, then I participated in a program called Rock lizards for a few months. Then the climbing gym put together a team of young up and coming climbers to be a part of the JCCA (Junior Climbing Competition Association) a branch of the USCCA (United States Climbing Competition Association). Both of my sisters also joined along with the Karst brothers, and anumber of other young climbers that we'd become friendly with. We had climbing practice several days a week for about two hours at a time. But most of us were ther an hour or so before and stayed afterwords. Occasionally we had "lock ins" where we'd spend the night in the gym and do nothing but climb all night. I go to the point where i could climb 5.9s with ease and I was working on 5.10s.
My first competition was in Melbourne, Florida and i wound up placing fifth. The USCCa refused to let a team member or coach be the one to call out to me where the holds were on the route claiming that it gave me a "Competitive advantage." Although Coach Tom and Dad argued this, the USCCA stood firm and instead assigned a kid from the age division above me (12-13) from another team to be the one to call out holds to me. His name was Chris and he was a nice guy. He did his best to get me up each route by using the "clock system."
We traveled all over Florida going to comps. i placed as high as second and as low as second to last with a handful of top five and top three finishes. The state comp was my downfall though. It was what we called an "Onsight" comp meaning that no-one could see the climb before they climbed it. we were all kept in a small clocked off bouldering area while each age group went out and climbed the designated routes they were to climb. This comp was possibly my worst ever due to the fact that the USCCA again stuck by a decision that my climbing coaches and parents vehemently disagreed with. The USCCA said that Chris would not be allowed to call out the holds to me, and no-one else could call out holds to me. They argued again that it gave me too much of an advantage. They also pointed out that none of the routes crossed each other at this particular comp so every hold on the wall would be on route. We begrudginly complied and I suffered my worst humiliation in a comp ever.
I made it to the top of my first climb in less than four minutes (which was good because it gave me more than a full minute's rest to prepare for my next climb). onsight comps were strange in that they were also speed climbing comps. Normally we got five tries at each climb and we could take all the time we needed on each climb. But at Onsight comps we had to complete the climb in five minutes or less or we were lowered to the ground and given a certain number of points based on how far up we got on the climb. But if we fell on the climb we were not allowed a second shot at it. This was a problem on my second and third climb. My second climb started with a traverse up and to the right. Once I reached the end of the traverse I had to swing my arm up and out way to the left in a mini dyno to get to the next hold. However I didn't know this and wpent several desperate seconds searching everywhere in reach for that hold that would allow me to keep going. Finally I decided to go for it and lunged upward in an attempt to grab any kind of hold. Nothing. i swung on the rope back to the left and dropped off the climb. My third and final climb was similar and much harder. The belayer/judge of that climb gave me some advice even though she technically wasn't supposed to. She told me the general layout of the climb, that it was a long traverse left, then a climb up, finishing with a traverse back right. i got halfway along the traverse to the left, but wasn't able to reach another foot hold and dropped off. I received fifth place--out of five in my age division at state. But although my state finish wasn't good, my overall ranking in the state of Florida was outstanding. I placed third overall in the state for my body of work as a climber. my teammate and friend Danny placed second because he had placed higher than me at state. I was invited, along with my older sister Cassandra, to Nationals. But because it was so expensive to fly out to Oregon, we decided instead to take an outdoor climbing trip as a family. I'm glad we did because I flashed my first 5.11 at one of my favorite climbing sights in Georgia.
My Dad had a tough time leading the climb and took more than an hour to claw his way up the face. But finally he came down after setting a top rope. He was frustrated because it was more than 100 degrees outside, he was hot, and it had taken him so long to climb something he could normally flash in 20 minutes or less on a lead. He thought that since he could hardly get up it, none of us would be able to climb it. Nevertheless he said I could have a shot since the top rope was set up.
The first 10 feet were a breeze on a nice easy sloping slab wall up to a large overhanging roof. i had never pulled a roof outside of a gym in competition. It was nerve racking, but I reached up grabbed a hold on the roof and scooted out onto it. At the lip of the roof I paused for what seemed like five minutes (but when I went back and watched the video tape of me climbing, it was really only a couple of seconds) and reached up over the top of the roof. i had to pull off a move where I had to get my right foot up almost level with my chin, then dyno up over the roof to a big fat jug hold. I got my foot up and sprang for the hold. I seized it and kept on going. I raced up the climb like I was fleeing a hoard of demons as I ran from hell. Below I could hear my Dad screaming "Holy shit! Holy Shit! You're kicking its ass dude! You're kicking its ass!" I heard my Mom and sisters cheering as well as our climbing friends the Hendersons urging me on. Suddenly there was nowhere else to go. I had the biggest grin plastered across my face. I rappelled down and my younger sister Kelsey zoomed up the climb just like I had done. When we went back and timed the climbs that each of us had done, we found out that each of us had flashed a 5.11 over 100 feet tall in around five minutes. Granted we were on a top rope, but to an eleven year old boy and a 10 year old girl, we felt like we were the best speed climbers in the world.
I was amazed when I got back to the climbing gym at how easy all of the 5.10s seemed. i was working 5.11s and even gave a 5.12 or two a shot. But middle school started and my age division changed from 11 and under to 12-13. I had trained hard, but everyone seemed to have trained harder. Fortunately though the USCCa allowed Coach Tom to call out the holds to me during competitions. But school was getting in the way of climbing practice. Homework was eating up my time and my performance on the wall was falling fast and furious. Cassandra was becoming disenchanted with climbing and turning into more of a girl rather than the tomboy she had been up until eighth grade. I still remember my last very serious climb.
I had missed the state competition to go to a cancer survivor camp that i attended annually. I was back in the gym shortly before my seventh grade year was to start and it was near the end of a hard day of climbing. I was leading up a 5.10. I made it halfway up where the crux was. The crux required you to pull over the lip of an overhang one handed, while reaching up with the other hand (which would be holding a quickdraw) and clip into the next bolt. Then you'd hald to hold yourself on a bent arm as you reached back down to grab the rope and pull it up back over the top of the overhang and clip it through the bent gate of the quickdraw.
I clipped the quickdraw to the bolt with no problem. But my left arm (bent arm holding onto the wall) gave out and I lost my balance and footing. All I could think about was that my last bolt was more than seven or eight feet below me. I screamed for my Dad to take up the slack in the rope. But either I was too late in telling him or it was just too much slack to take up. Somehow the rope came across the inside of my thigh as i fell and jerked tight as I passed the last point of attachment. I felt the rope bite into my thigh, but it was brief. The fall however was not. I fell a little more than 10 feet, and with rope stretch about 12 or 13 feet. A good whipper to end the day and my competitive climbing career.
I got in on occasion to the gym over the next several years to climb, but my performance went from being able to climb 5.11s to climbing 5.9s, to climbing 5.7s and so on. I was disappointed and frustrated. But then i found a family in Team Sight Unseen and the climbing virus which is in every climber is raging as strong as ever. Now I just need to get into the gym and fuel the fire. It's hard to satify the climbing bug. And it's impossible to get rid of it. Once you've got it, it stays with you until the very end whether you are old and lying on a bed surrounded by medicines and machinery trying to keep you alive, or your life is cut short by a falling rock, a fall on a free climb, or an avalanh or some other accident while climbing. No matter what you do, you'll never get rid of that climbing virus, bug, fever, whatever you wanna call it.

Until next time.

Climb High

Friday, August 28, 2009

Has Climbing Blind Lost Its Luster?

Often I ponder over what peak to climb, what seems feasible and attainable. I run through the list of must climbs in my head, the ones everyone has heard of. Denali, Elbrus, kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Vinson Massif, Kosciuszko, Everest etc. They've all ben climbed, and all by a blind guy no less (no disrespect meant to Erik weihenmayer who is a fantastic climber). But i do have to complain a little bit. erik couldn't you have left a couple of the well knowns alone for the future generation to climb?
I recently submitted an article to a magazine to be considered for publication about our trip to Mt Kilimanjaro and the editor informed me that even though it was a decent article and he thanked me for submitting it, that blind climbers summitting well known peaks has become rather old news, although inspirational. in exchanging a few emails in the past with Team Sight Unseen friend and mentor, Erik Weihenmayer, and a few members of his climbing team, Eric Alexander and Jeff evans, they seem to share a similar opinion. Erik did all the well known peaks, the ones people thought a blind guy couldn't do. Well Erik proved them wrong. Now there are still a few climbs out there that are reasonably well known, but would be absolutely suicidal to attempt at the present time do to Team Sight Unseen's experience level in the mountains. But it begs the question. Is it time to step up a notch and become a better climbing team than the ones that Erik was apart of? is it time to attempt something that seems even more crazy?
For me, I have dreams. i know in my head what i want to do but i also know that it's going to take a lot of training, sacrifice, effort and most of all teamwork to get there.

Climb High

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Team in the Media

Several team members have been featured in various media outlets.

1) Justin Grant is the feature of a video put together by the Star-Telegram. See the video here:

2) Kyle Coon wrote an article for the Florida Council for the Blind. It is divided into two parts. The first is featured in their July-August newsletter. See it here:

Monday, August 24, 2009

Team Sight Unseen Blog is Live!

Welcome to the live blog of Team Sight Unseen. Here you will find thoughts, trip reports, experiences, etc. from all members of the team. Check back often for updates!!