7 Surprising Lessons from My First Climbing Trip “on Assignment”

The lens cap wouldn’t go back on. I was fumbling by the greyscale schist, turning ‘round the plastic piece like a steering wheel.

“Uhh, what the fuck,” I mumbled, confusedly, to myself. The circular pissant had started on the lens, I was sure of that, those two pinchy prongs, when squeezed, clearly released the cover from the concave portal. Then why won’t it go back in? I tried jamming it, clomp, clomp, clack, into the hole. 

Turns out the camera needed to be powered off in order for the lens to recede and the cap to fit in place. 

“Ah, just first day blunders, it’ll all be easy sailing from here!,” I reassured myself.


… 

I was recently commissioned to write about climbing at Rumney in New Hampshire, for—humbly—what is my first paid article, in real dollarspotentially… because the check hasn’t been cut yet. 

In order to complete the research and take photographs for the piece, I spent a few days on location. This article is about lessons learned, and mostly the mishaps, from my first climbing trip “on assignment.”



Rumney is the mecca of sport climbing in New England, a destination crag for rock scalers within a 5-hour drive radius. Québécoise? Sure thing. New Yorkers? No problem. Bostononians? Of course.

On good weather weekends the parking lots are stacked before the first Regular cup of Dunks and “crawlah” has been washed down by BPD.

Luckily, weekdays see lighter attendance, and less people to witness my flailing with the flagellating camera around my neck.


Lesson 1: Know How Your Equipment Works

No amount of editing was going to fix the blurred images.

Sitting at home the photo previewer showed one out of focus shot after another: A close up of rock here, faded climber in the background there; Censored cliff and a verdant tree wearing a liberal application of green blush; Oh this shot of my boot and dirt is crystal! 

Eventually I figured out the settings and how to target the focus. I also learned plenty of settings not to use!


Lesson 2: Get off the Ground

The most interesting shots were ones from non-traditional vantage points, like “soloing” a slab slate to grab some setting sun or tying in to a first bolt on an adjacent route in order to capture a climber up close.

The difficulty in framing climbing shots, aside from knowing how to use the camera, came down to not losing the climber in the frame. A fellow photographer I met there remarked on how easy it is for the climber to get lost, whether from the scale of the wall, the muted colors they are wearing, or from poor lighting. Getting closer and properly structuring the shot made a world of difference.


Lesson 3: Plan out the Shoot and Know What You Want to Capture

The next day my thighs felt leaden. I haven’t done much hiking lately, but in reality I scaled a few thousand feet of vertical over those days, often on steep inclines heading up and down to the different cliffs along Rattlesnake Mountain. Some areas are more than half an hour from the parking lot. 

Simply traveling to each locale took a few hours of the day, and time away from photographing.

At the wall, climbers can take a surprising amount of time “hanging out” on the cliff waiting for their next burn. While I took a few of these convalescent frames, they weren’t the epitome of an action shot. Add up travel time, stop and wheeze time, photographing (waiting around) and this became an all day excursion. 

I planned the types of shots I needed—action shots, lifestyle, and ambiance—and I knew generally the order with which I would go to each location. This helped keep me on target and set a route for the day.


Lesson 4: Pretend to Be Friendly and Nice so People Talk to You and Let You Take Photos of Them

Photos of big hunks of rock can be quite boring, lack scale, and generally leave one uninspired if you don’t showcase people demonstrating what’s possible (on them).

So, I had to try talking to people *groans* to see if I could photograph them while they did interesting things on these big hunks of rock. In the end this was less awkward than sitting there taking pictures and leaving without a word.


Lesson 5: Don’t Listen to Someone When They Say Not to Pay for Parking

This one is self-explanatory. Support the local park.


Lesson 6: Shooting Is One Half the Battle, Editing Makes a World of Difference

Do you need to amplify the purple longsleeve of the climber to make her pop out against the wall? Coming right up, alongside the bleaching backlighting! 

The editing process, thanks to a free online program, was instructive and useful. Turns out you can do quite a bit to manipulate a pic, from tinting people’s skin color to look like the Hulk to sandpapering away all the details to leave an image akin to squinting your eyes.

On the other hand, editing made too dark pictures turn out vibrantly, and things like cropping or manipulating contrast did wonders for highlighting the subject of the image. 


Lesson 7: Beats Working in a Coffee Shop, or Library, or at Home

The main challenge was wanting to climb more, which is really a difficulty I have most days.

It was only due to my herculean grit and vast reservoirs of restraint that I was able to complete the assignment relatively on time. And with that, my first paid piece and on assignment trip are officially in the books with maybe a check in the mail as my reward.

In the end, it was fun, and it was work, and I’d like to do more of it.


Photos by the author

Training Journal: 5/20/19 – 5/26/19

I was “on assignment” this week at Rumney, NH, where I did more hiking about and taking pictures than climbing (unfortunately). But, it was for a paying gig, so I’ll take it.

Monday
Mostly a rest day. Shoulder exercises, bench, arms, foam roller.

Tuesday
1 hour hike with the dogs and a 42# backpack. I didn’t record the hike, but maybe around 2.5-3 miles in total with a few hundred feet of elevation.

Wednesday
Rest day.

Photo taking at Rumney


Thursday
Short bouldering session at Rumney. Got in late, really buggy, and needed to get to other climbing areas to take photos.

Friday
Short sport climbing session (only did 3 climbs) and a lot of hoofing it up and down Rattlesnake Mountain. Again, for taking photos.

Saturday
Shoulder exercises, bench, arms.

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Wasn’t so hot by the saltwater spray.

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Sunday
Bouldering at Rafe’s Chasm in Glouchester, MA. Stunning location, right by the Atlantic. Had it all to myself. Tried a bunch of made-up-ish problems, from traverses to a sketchy jug fest to slabs.

Photo sources: The author

Thoughts on Sport Climbing: Too Many These Days

“The most valuable thoughts which I entertain are anything but what I thought. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if I can only walk with sufficient carelessness I am sure to be filled.”

– Thoreau

“You’re gonna fall…”

Stop. Breathe.

“You’re 31, what are you going to…” 

Breathe. “She’s probably out enj…” 

Fuck. “Kids??… Plans?… Your leg is shaking.”

Breathe in. Out. Stop thinking. Forearms pumped, bad hold. Right leg is jack hammering away on a small ledge.

“God damn it. Why is the crack wet? You’re going to fall…”

I throw the cam in. The placement is good enough and I grab for the leash, desperately, feeling weak-willed.

“Fuck!,” I screech, pissed at myself. The roar ricochets off the cliff walls and surprises me with its pitch. The singular growl is the first audible thing I’ve heard other than my heavy breathing and what sounded like sharp clattering about, a smashing of kitchen pots and pans, in my head.  



This mental turn-around-whirling-this-way-and-that which creeps up on you and can overrun the thought train—is gnarly.

Some days I have my head on, fine tuned, ready to cope. This mostly looks like steady breathing and a present attentiveness. On other days it gets away from me and doubts from life seep into a domain they have no place being. 

Not here, not now.



I climb to create space, to have non-thought. Like a reset button, things become clearer after a good day out. 

Yet, lately I think about leading sport and am met by a gut curling, that twisting up of intestines like the lead in to a break up or the pre-fessing to of a lie; Some Poltergeist worm niggling about in your pit eating it’s way to coring you out (that movie freaked the hell out of me when I was a kid).

Bouldering: Purity in movement. Trad: Deeply satisfying. Sport: Something ain’t right.



It’s a bad association perhaps—like how I can’t do vodka—and I think it’s tied to the last time I did a lot of the sport in Turkey. The juju ain’t good.

There’s all these emotions wrapped up into the discipline that was our catalyst for the trip. Those days spent on a wall, our time buttressed by discomfort. It all seeped together like water coloring on too much wet; bleeding.

I guess what surprises me most is how visceral the aversion is, how much angst is there. 



As a comparison: With writing, for example, I may avoid the work, brimming with inertia as I am, like a hook in my stomach weighted to the bottom of the sea. But when I sit down the anxiety doesn’t amplify, it actually recedes; I’m hauling the anchor up. It feels good, it’s fun.

When sport climbing it seems the discomfort can only be managed. I find myself being pushed into the disquiet more often than not, with the consolation being a reprieve from anxiety more than satisfaction of movement or achievement. Where’s the flow? Where’s the fun? 



I know it’s not all memory-laden, there’s a fear of falling and the simple need for more experience; There are expectations.

Such as it is, something to explore. Something to give space to, something to let play out. 

And as Thoreau says, maybe I’m being all too careFULL about it.




Photo by friend of the author

Training Journal: 5/13/19 – 5/19/19

Big week! Sent my first V8 in the gym, my first V5 outside, and led a 5.8 trad route. Holy cowabunga, spaghetti monster!

Monday
2 hours of bouldering at the gym. Sent my first V8, a slabby balance-fest with a tricky finish. Tried a lot of other crimpy, slabby, pinchy problems. Finished with shoulder exercises, stretching and rice bucket work.

Tuesday
Rest day. Pull-ups, one-armed hangs, foam roller.

Wednesday
Big day! Sent my first V5 outside, and my first project, an arete traverse starting from under a roof, using heel hooks and big reaches to crimps. Real fun.

Thursday
Lower impact day. One hour of bouldering outside on “my” project walls: Cleaning lines, trying variations, did about 5 problems.

Friday
30 minutes of step-ups with 42#. Pull-ups, foam roller.

Intertwine (5.8 trad) at Crow Hill in Leominster, MA


Saturday
Big day! Two trad leads, including a 5.8 classic (highest grade yet)! We did a “multi-pitch” and I practiced setting up an anchor with gear and belaying from top. Easy bouldering in the afternoon.

Sunday
Big day! Sent a fun V4 classic in Lincoln Woods. Took quite a few burns (8 or 9 attempts, maybe?), then tried my hand at a similar styled V3 on the opposite wall.

Photo sources: The author

The Upshot of Migraines: How Juliane Fritz Found Relief in Bouldering and Podcasting

I. 

In May of 2017, Juliane Fritz awoke with a start and a pounding headache. It was like the world was collapsing in on itself, the seismic pressure squeezing her skull from grey matter to diamond.

She’d had migraines all her life, but nothing like this. Her pain killers, the only therapy she’d ever tried, were useless. She couldn’t move, couldn’t think; all she could do was lay in bed to wait out the pain. The attacks came and went over the next three months. 

When Juliane was a child the doctors couldn’t make heads or tails of her migraines. Nothing seemed to work and they had no answers. She had resigned herself to a life of pain. “I just felt that because it had been there all the time, it was a part of my life and there was nothing I could do. It was a feeling of ‘this belongs to me, I have to suffer,’” she explains.

Juliane’s engaging personality shines through the speaker, her steady speech and animated answers rise in a chittering wave that is often punctuated by a self-conscious chuckle. Her upbeat and level-headed persona makes it hard to fathom the dark period she had in her life.

As the months wore on each attack was a new worst. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore. “I needed to do something,” she says, a tone of defeat rings in her voice. 

She decided to seek support from a place she had always been hesitant about.


Day 1: Walk into Berta Block Boulderhalle down the street. Intimidated. Start on the children’s wall. Fail.

Photo source: Juliane Fritz


II. 

Juliane was dedicated to her work. She’d always been good at radio production and took pride in the final product. She was conscientious, dedicated and a perfectionist. At times she would get carried away, feeling stressed and worn down. She never questioned why she worked so hard. Why would she?

Those three months were a wake up call, and out of desperation she started getting new forms of support from psychiatrists to physical therapists to osteopaths. She was uneasy about it, she recalls, “I always thought, psychiatrists, ‘oh I don’t need that, that’s stupid.’” There was a resistance and a harboring of pain, but something began to happen:

“Slowly I started to learn about me, about how my body works, how my mind works, that maybe the way I had been working for all these years I had been doing too much, working too hard. It was always, ‘I am in this world to make other feel good, but not me.’ And I really have to change the way I operate with myself.”

She started to see a connection between her mind and body, and then the osteopath suggested physical movement as a way to help with the headaches. “I have headaches almost all the time,” she says, and she wondered if bouldering would make any difference. 


Day 2: Encouraged to try again, I go back. Try some new routes. Still on the kiddie wall. Fail.

Photo source: Juliane Fritz

III.

The first day Juliane went bouldering she felt weak, nervous, and by her account, failed to get up the VBs on the children’s wall. Yet something about the movement, the way it made her feel, kept her attention. She decided to go back. And then again, and again, and again.

She stayed with it for years, but after her first session with a headache, it became a whole new ball game. 

“I was so happy to find out that after [that session with a headache] I felt pretty good.” She then started to go after migraine attacks had subsided and discovered it offered a mental convalescence as well. “It helped me to own my own body again,” she notes, you can hear the empowered feeling in her voice.

These sessions became a period of freedom from outside concerns, a flow; they were fun, they were cathartic, and taught her about herself in unexpected ways. 

“It made me love the sport even more,” Juliane says.

Down the rabbit hole she went. “I became a bouldering nerd” as she puts it. She began going every other day and consuming all things bouldering in between: Watching comps, reading whatever she could find, and even visiting the world cup in Munich.

Over the weeks the attacks lessened; from a few days in a row with no pain to long stretches of manageable headaches.

Through pain, Juliane had found something that called to her like the work she did in radio. And there was another interesting twist she discovered:
 
“I’ve been working in the media for years, at a radio station in Berlin. And I found out that sometimes I am free of pain when I interview people. [I thought,] ‘just combine the two things you really like, that make you feel really good, and do a podcast, interview people that have the same passion for bouldering and share it.’ That’s why I started the podcast.”


Day 3: Progress. Go back alone, and something special happened! I managed to send problems I couldn’t do the first two times. This is fun!

Photo source: Juliane Fritz


Bin weg bouldern

Juliane started her podcast, Bin weg bouldern in 2018 and is becoming known throughout Germany as the “bouldering podcast lady.”

She interviews pros, local crushers (in Germany, there are a lot), shares event recaps and educational material, and talks with climbers engaged in peripheral activities, such as Zofia Reych who started the first ever Women’s Bouldering Festival in Fontainebleau.

You can listen to her episodes here, though be sure to brush up on your Deutsch! (The links above are to episodes in English.)

For Juliane, bouldering has helped alter her perspective on work, life, and her relationship to herself. What started back in 2013 with three days of climbing — from flailing to her first send — has turned into a life possessed.

“You can learn so much about yourself, the mental aspect, your body,” she says. But most importantly, “You can just be free and have fun.”



Feature photo courtesy of Juliane Fritz.

Training Journal: 5/6/19 – 5/12/19

Kinda going with the flow here and climbing when I feel like it (generally about every other day), focusing on bouldering and trad (when I can). Mostly being pretty lax, but I am sending harder. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Monday
~2 hrs. bouldering. Focused on harder stuff, v5-v10 (v10 was mostly flailing after a few months), with an emphasis on overhang. Shoulder exercises.

Tuesday
Rest day. Pull-ups, one-armed hangs, foam roller.

Wednesday
Rest day. Casual walk in the woods with the dogs, ~3 miles.

I call it, “Nonamenclature” (v2+)


Thursday
Started exploring some boulders/ small cliffs in town. They are dirty but climbable (and probably have been climbed before). Began cleaning and climbing some lines. A little fun hobby.

1.5h of bouldering.

Friday
40 min. of step-ups with 42#.

Map of Lincoln Woods bouldering areas. Photo source: Mountain Project


Saturday
Bouldering at Lincoln Woods. Sent the fun Peace Dove (v3) and the classic The Wave (v2). Really digging bouldering more and more.

Sunday
Rest day. Foam roller, stretching.

Photo sources: The author (unless otherwise noted)

No Third Time Charm

Outside the window, overlooking the pool, cherry blossoms are flowering pink bouquets, bright against the grey, and tulips rise up with slouched shoulders and frumpy bed head. Water percolates, circling back to collect in clouds, weighted vest air compressing, then streams its way into puddles. In the early morning it’s cold enough to chill the tip of my nose. Spring.
 
Last year I missed this.

I had fast forwarded to summer by flying through to acclimatize on another continent. In a matter of hours I advanced the months, April became June, like the the flippant spin of a radio dial. From where I’ve lived, only in New England does spring get it’s fair share of the calendar’s quarter system.

Prague. May 2018.



Last summer there were no lobster rolls. No fish flaked wet sand between my toes. No end-of-the-earth-piering off into the depths of the Atlantic. No heavy-packed days in the Whites. No barbecues (my god!). 

Instead I traipsed about another eastern boarder, cross stitching old lines of Latin and Cyrillic, Capitalism and Communism, place and no place. 

Actually, it has been like this the past four years (where does the time go?): Mountain View (2015), Accra (2016), New Paltz (2017), Budapest, Plovdiv, Lviv (2018). I, a roving settlement, a stick in one hand, a canvas sack with my belongings cantilevered at the protruding end. Leather straps on my feet.

If I had died before last year I may have been discontented. Pardon the macabre. My point is that I had wanted to travel since uni—I’ve since tasted the fruit and can put sense and color to a wanderlust palette, the wine glass has been tipped back. 

That tipping and sipping could have continued while overlooking a wine-dark sea. After all, I should be writing this in Albania. 

I was supposed to fly out last week: to Dublin, Budapest, Tirana. Flight 2233 ended up with an extra seat. Maybe it made the journey more comfortable for some other lone passenger.

Pirin Mountains, Bulgaria. June 2018.


Comfortable. Alone.

Those feelings have two-stepped and shadow boxed together, seesawed and smelted, fusing at odd angles throughout the travels. A short time in new places make good on that urge to keep going, nothing and no one securing you somewhere. Until its not, and until that melts away too.

For the most part I was rootless, and felt increasingly so as the trip continued. No roost, much roaming. That’s what I went for, though.

Alas the tether was wearing, the leather thong frayed to thin bits. It snuck up on me, didn’t notice until I had been walking several miles on without a shoe. The gravel had been running roughshod underfoot, blisters and stubbed toes alighted the mind to pay attention, eventually, then abruptly.

The last few months were a bit of a trudge, then I came back for my brother’s wedding. It was supposed to be a temporary stay.



In a recent conversation, a young, spirited woman offered, “I think we travel to figure out which places are meaningful to us.” She’s settled into her own nest for awhile, to regain and rebuild a sense of place.

Something changed for me too. Something about wanting to feel connected, about shared memories; a return to old grounds and the chance to look at the land with new perspective. While the lure of the ponderosa pine or mediterranean limestone shrills from time to time, it doesn’t feel right to go back, or elsewhere, right now. In my neck of the woods there’s no Poseidon to piss off or siren’s lullabying; Destiny can be my own.

There are wood nymphs and granite gargoyles, though, schist golems and sonorous stream temptresses, wily foxes and three sisters. We’ll have our fun.

High Tatras, Poland. September 2018.



In the end, I had to step back from all the experiences of the past year to see the bigger picture, then step in close to examine the sand grain mosaic for what it is: A lot of little pieces, a collection of days.

For now the grand adventure follows a storyline closer to home, one day at a time.



Photos by the author.