Tuesday, October 8, 2013

On Music and Mountaineering...

A long time ago when I was a music student, my flute teachers had the annoying habit of hammering the phrase "Practice your scales!" into my head. Even though I occasionally did practice them, being a teenager I often wondered "What's the point?" This existential dilemma finally got resolved early 2005 when I started following the Flute Chat board on Sir James Galway's Yahoo group. Sir James had posted some video excerpts from a master class in which he discussed, and...far more importantly...demonstrated why those annoying scales are so crucial. As it turns out, if you can play all of them (major, minor, diminished, whole tone and chromatic), at breakneck speed, accurately through the range of your instrument, for all intents and purposes there won't be a piece of classical music that you won't be able to play on sight. Additionally, your 'muscle memory' will be so well tuned to the appropriate note sequences, that memorizing entire pieces of music will be much easier too. Kind of like predictive text, but far less annoying... To make a long story short, I found a new determination to practice my scales and became a better flute player. Plus, I now had a way of actually showing my own flute students why I kept on torturing them with scale assignments.

Early this spring I was at the bouldering gym in Gent, Belgium where I have taken up my old climbing hobby again. At the gym, the practice 'routes' are color coded, and on this particular day I was proudly practicing an 'orange' route. I had climbed most of the gray routes in the gym and had just graduated from purple. I was feeling pretty good about it, and the memories of climbing to 6200m in the Himalayas as a 16 year old came flooding back. I got talking to an attractive female staff member who was installing a new orange route on one of the boulders. I asked her how difficult it was going to be. The answer was not what I expected. Orange routes are designed "to be easily tackled by a fifteen year old schoolgirl, wearing her book bag and tennis shoes...", she said with a smile.

My ego firmly reigned in, I once again thought back to that afternoon in Ladakh. Yes, I had climbed to 6200m, but it was on a relatively simple scree slope and involved absolutely no hand holds whatsoever. It was the sort of thing that wouldn't even require the climbing technique of a two year old escaping his play pen. The reality dawned on me. Regardless of my Himalayan ambitions, and hopes to one day climb the north face of the Eiger, when it comes to actual climbing technique...I am effectively a beginner. With fresh determination I watched numerous YouTube videos on basic climbing technique, and started memorizing the moves so I could try them out on my next gym visit. Terms like 'drop knee', 'heel hooking', 'open crimps', and 'closed crimps' were becoming part of my vocabulary. With my typical tendency to over think and over analyze things, I eventually arrived at a very nerdy theory...

What if all those individual moves and hand holds were like scales... Practicing each one diligently, and then combining them in the completion of a bouldering route (without falling off) could be the equivalent of mastering a short piece of music. Extrapolating that, mastering a large number of bouldering routes could then mean successfully climbing a much longer route...kind of like playing a long, difficult piece of classical music...kind of like climbing the north face of the Eiger... My thoughts raced to another YouTube video, the one that was my primary motivation to start climbing again after recovering from back surgery. I'm talking about the spectacular footage of Swiss climber Ueli Steck climbing that 1800m near vertical mountain face in a mind boggling 2 hours and 47 minutes... In flute terms, that's like playing Flight of the Bumblebee in 20 seconds flat...without a single mistake (a mistake on an Eigerwand solo climb means...well, let's not go there).

Thinking back to the hypothetical fifteen year old in tennis shoes, my ego took a coffee break once more. Even if I worked my tail off in the climbing gym and managed to get up to the impossible looking 'light green' routes, this was still climbing in a gym... The sort of climbing I have my eyes set on involves mixed terrain on natural rock, as well as snow and ice climbing, which is an entirely different beast altogether. And then there is another slight problem. I am definitely no Ueli Steck, and could never hope to have even a fraction of his natural climbing talent. In any case, my personal best on playing Flight of the Bumblebee on flute is 1 minute and 6 seconds...and it was full! of mistakes... On my next visit to the climbing gym I will be methodically practicing a few moves on an orange route, and will look very silly doing so (something for which I do have a good bit of talent). And perhaps in a month or two I'll be able to climb the whole route. In about a year, I will treat myself to a week in Grindelwald...and I shall wait for good weather with my guide. And I will have a go at the Eiger. However, I will plan on going up its west flank which is arguably more in my skill range. It was climbed in 1871 by a Swiss gentleman...and his pet dog.

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