Tender Loving Care


I got our car stuck in the snow. My girlfriend, Jess, our Boston Terrier, Oliver, and I had just finished a short sunset hike through the snow in Colorado’s Eldorado Canyon. It had been a fun stop on our winter road trip through the four corner states. Oliver didn’t mind the snow too much, especially after he figured out that he could eat it. Infact, he ate so much snow that he threw up over and over on the hike. He wouldn’t even break stride.

We were pretty hungry and planned on stopping in Boulder for some dinner before crashing at our friend’s house in Erie. Darkness fell as I drove my girlfriend’s Subaru Forester out on the narrow road. Another car was driving up the road and without really thinking, I politely steered to give them more room. The snow masked a small drainage dish on the cliffside of the road and the Foreseter slid into it. Crap.

I tried backing out, rolling forward and out, everytime we just slid back in. Stuck. I jumped out on my hands and knees and started digging out powder. The driver of the car coming up the road ran up and offered some assistance, he had an avalanche shovel in his truck. Good on you, Colorado. Now with a proper digging tool I got as much snow as I could out from the tires.

Back in the driver’s seat, panting, and sweating with wet gloves, I gave it another go. No dice, slid right back in. We dug some more, talked and decided to try backing out, following the path that I slid in. Now with three people pushing on the hood of the subie, I gunned the engine in reverse. For a split second it seemed like we might make it, but gravity and snow slid me back into the ditch. After a couple more back and forth goes at it, I was still stuck. Did we need a truck with a winch? We have all wheel drive, what’s wrong?

Then out of night stepped a man at least twenty years senior on everyone. We were huffing and puffing from the strain of digging, pushing, and slipping. He calming introduced himself and said, “What you’re doing will probably work eventually. But, let’s try something different.”

We all nodded. He continued: “Your car is facing downslope. Let’s use that. Get in the driver’s seat and point the tires almost straight, just barely turning left. Let the car roll downhill. Gently give it some gas. The rest of us will push from the side.”

With everyone in our places I started the car downhill. A gentle push from everyone on the side and the car climbed out of the ditch like it had never been stuck.

I thanked everyone profusely. Sure I was embarrassed that I’d gotten our car stuck, but I was so happy people were there to help.

Before leaving the man turned to us and said, “Sometimes tender loving care is all it takes. Also, next time. Stay on the fucking road.”

That was the first time I’d gotten a car stuck, but it immediately hit me that I’d forgotten and neglected my favorite lesson from learning to trad climb in Squamish just a few months before. It turns out that when you’re learning the ropes of trad climbing, you place a lot of trad gear. You also clean a lot of trad gear. Inevitably, a stubborn cam or nut will get stuck. Our little group of climbers developed a mantra for dealing with stuck gear. TLC. Tender. Loving. Care.

Somewhere a couple pitches up Angel’s Crest, Ryan and I caught up to two climbers ahead of us. As the follower climbed and cleaned the route he got stuck at a nut that liked the rock a bit too much. He yanked, pulled, twisted, hammered, and swore with his nut tool, but it would not budge. With a curse he unclipped from the nut and climbed on. We shouted that we would try to get it for him.

It was my pitch to lead and Ryan told me he would grab the nut when he followed. Yeah okay, but I wanted it. Something about recovering abandoned gear just feels awesome.

So I led up the pitch and found myself at that tiny, stuck nut. I looked at the crack it was in, and with a tender touch it released itself from the crack. Tender Loving Care, baby. Then I looked down to my last piece of pro and thought, “Man, I should really place a piece.” I looked back to the crack where I had just freed the nut, laughed to myself, and  placed my own tiny nut in the exact spot that I had just removed the stuck nut. I whispered a little prayer for it to not get stuck.

When I set the anchor, the other climbers where having lunch in a little forested spot. I cheerfully handed the nut back with the words, “Tender Loving Care”.

Sometimes things get stuck. Like tires in the snow. Or a cam that walked itself into a crack. Hammering, blasting, pounding, torquing, gunning, and slamming harder works… sometimes. But, I think it’s good to step back from the situation. Think about the physics of the matter because maybe all it takes is a little TLC.

Year End Wrap

Well the year is winding down so I thought I would give a little recap of some highlights.

Jess and I are planning our winter Southwest roadtrip I think I’ll have to let her drive a bit. It might get dangerous with me at the wheel. Are you taking a holiday road trip? Don’t forget to bright a geologist. Remember to be the more accurate, it might be necessary to decelerate:

I was conducting what has been called x-mph geology, where x is the miles per hour one is driving; this time I was doing 70-mph geology. Geology at seventy miles per hour (or 70-mph geology) is generally much less detailed and often less accurate than geology at 20 miles per hour (20-mph geology). And it turns out that if you slow down to about 5 mph or less, you can almost complete a rock report on whatever iron-stained jasperoid or copper-stained porphyry you happen to be driving by, and the speed is almost slow enough for the geo-type in the passenger side of the truck to lean out and grab a sample.

Are you looking for that perfect holiday gift for your geologist friend? We’ll maybe a roadside geology guide for that roadtrip route will do the trick. While we’re on the topic of books, two of the best books I read this year are 52 Things You Should Know About Geology and 52 Things You Should Know About Geophysics. These books are collaborative collections of two page essays. The format is a bit “chose you’re own adventure” and encourages skipping around. Both books should be suggested reading for first time grad students and some specific essays should be required reading. Specifically, “Presenting… your career” by Tony Doré, “The trouble with seeing” by Evan Bianco, “Five things I wish I’d known” by Matt Hall, and “Simplify everything” by John Logel are good places to start. I can’t wait to re-read my dog-eared and underlined copies, but first I need to start the latest edition: 52 Things You Should Know About Paleontology. Also, the layout and cover art of these books are elegantly simple and makes an amateur typography nerd smile.

Another book I really enjoyed was The New American Road Trip Mixtape by Brendan Leonard. Brendan writes the blog Semi-Rad and shares stories, satire, and criticism on outdoor adventure culture. Seriously, it’s one of the funniest blogs out there. There’s everything from flowcharts about what to do if there is a cute girl at the climbing gym to  love letters to helmets to thoughtful introspection on the meaning of adventure. And don’t forget: GO TO THE MOBILE.

This year I started sharing field photos with the #FridayRocks hashtag. Over the years of doing geology, class field trips, fieldwork, conference field trips, etc. I’ve taken a lot of photos. I’ve been posting the particularly awesome ones. If anyone has photos of rocks they’d like to share, please shoot me an email with the photo and description.

Here are some of the most popular #Friday Rocks:

Soft sediment deformation from Point Lobos, California

Soft sediment deformation at Point Lobos, California
Soft sediment deformation at Point Lobos, California

Asbestos in Serpentinite and Blueschist

Asbestos in Serpentine and Blueschits
Asbestos in Serpentine and Blueschits

Reactivated Thrust Faults

Reactivated thrust fault in Niobrara Formation, Colorado
Reactivated thrust fault in Niobrara Formation, Colorado. Photo by Tim Sherry

Fault Core Shale
IMG_20140620_062152Microfaults in Sandstone

Fishmouth Structure

Fishmouth structure
Fishmouth structure

There’s plenty more! Click here to see the rest.




I’d packed up all my gear. Ryan had a phone interview at 11, so I said goodbyes to the rafting adventure crew we’d shared the cook shelter with and walked down the bike path to the Squamish Adventure Center for some coffee. When Ryan rocked up, we piled into his Tacoma and drove for Vancouver. The rain had finally shut down climbing at Squamish.

We rolled into Van famished. Ryan knew a sushi spot, so I yelped it and we made our way there. It was a sushi factory. The place was hustling and turning over. We sat down, I didn’t have much time to oogle at the amazing sushi prices before we ordered. Then bam, the sushi was before us and we gorged. I’d never been so full on sushi for so cheap before. As I forced the last bite of raw salmon into my mouth, the bills slammed down on our table. We paid and were kicked out the door to free our table for the next set of mouths.

When I flew into BC a month before, I’d only briefly been in Vancouver. Really just long enough to get on a bus to Horseshoe Bay to meet my old roommate Charlie and get picked up by Ryan to hit Squamish. So I had missed all the pleasures of the city.

The next day Ryan and I walked all over Van. We made our way to Stanley Park so we could jump in the ocean. It wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be for September. We hiked around and then headed into the city. For dinner we found a sushi spot and ordered take out. The weight of the bags they brought out were surprising. For our dining table we found a park bench. Again, so much excellent sushi for so cheap.  Seriously, I would move to Vancouver just for the delicious sushi. It really is too good.

I snapped the above photo on our walk back to his truck. No parking ticket made the day end well.

Immersed in rock or immersion learning through rock climbing

Wisdom before the traverse on Skywalker (5.8)

“Yeah, we’re definitely not normal,” Mal stated, BC microbrew in hand in the evening light at the Rec Center campground. One of us asked him to elaborate. “Well, what do you say to someone who asks you what you did for vacation?” He continued, “I got really uncomfortable on the side of a cliff, had to shimmy, muscle, and grunt up a big rock, scared the shit out of myself, didn’t shower for a month, got hot, got sweaty, got cold, and got really stoked. Who does that?”

Finger locks and toe jams
Ryan Cerf crushing Crime of the Century (5.11c)

How time off from work is spent is weird. I spent the month of September living in my tent in Squamish, BC. In addition to my sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and backpacking stove I had two pairs of shorts (one climbing for climbing, i.e. get dirty), two pairs of pants, four tshirts (two are destroyed from climbing), rain jacket, down jacket, light fleece sweater, a handful of underwear, and some socks. Most days I found myself roped in, too hot or too cold, belaying my friends up a cliff. I pushed my climbing ability passed what I thought I could do. In fact, I’ve put myself in some personally terrifying situations that could result in injury, probably not death, but “yeah, don’t fall here” kind of places. I don’t think anyone keeping score would call that a relaxing vacation.

I came to Squamish to learn to trad and crack climb. Trad climbing is a style of climbing where you place cams and nuts in cracks in the rock to protect falls. I had done a small amount of trad climbing before, but how does two afternoons compare with a whole month?

I learned to climb indoors on plastic at Allez Up in Montreal over three years ago. It wasn’t until last summer when I took a two week trip to Tuolumne Meadows that I really started climbing outside.

The best way to learn is by doing. So to learn to trad climb, I jumped in and did. Over and over. For the entire month of September, minus off days to work on job applications, I jammed my hands, fingers, feet, and toes into the best granite cracks in the world, placed cams and nuts, pulled up rope, and swapped leads on multi-pitches to complete the longest climbs I’ve ever done.

Angel's Crest
Above “The Acrophobes” on Angel’s Crest.

Do you want to get better at rope management? Yeah, tying knots in your living room on a rainy day helps, but climbing for 10+ hours straight where the only direction to move your body is up, works. I guarantee that by the end of the day there won’t be any more cases of short-roping your leader because you found a way to make a complete bird’s nest of the rope.

The Chief
The Chief

I am making a case for immersion. On this trip, that 10+ hour day (car to car) where my friend Ryan and I climbed Rambles to Over the Rainbow to Boomstick Crack to Ultimate Everything (21 guidebook pitches in 17) was a turning point for me. Climbing started to flow. This was the longest possible route up “The Chief” It was immersive and although the climbing wasn’t particularly hard, we worked to get up and keep moving.

That long day made me faster and safer in every aspect of my climbing and belaying. I’m a better climbing than I was a month ago. The notion that doing and thinking about something every day for a month straight makes you better at it, might not be very surprising.

Somewhere on Ultimate Everything
My sketch of the topo for Ultimate Everything

Geology students in University are lucky because they cap off their training with an immersive field school. I experienced this during UC Santa Cruz’s summer field mapping course. We camped out at Westgard Pass and for over two weeks mapped the Poleta Fold Belt. This immersive experience of mapping and thinking critically about geology everyday made us better field geologists.

Was there a time in your life where you gained expertise in a skill though immersion? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.


Is the career climb really a ladder?

Whoever said that the career climb is a ladder was wrong. Maybe it’s time to rethink the career metaphor.

Gregor Lucic crushing Romania (5.11c). Photo by Tim Sherry

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that this post was inspired by a link that Matt Hall posted mentioning a GeoConvention 2014 session called “On Belay”. From what it sounds like, the career talks fell flat. I will be posting on the topic of careers in the future and have been organizing a young/early career Geoscience podcast. If you’re interested in collaborating or being an interviewee, please drop me a line.


“On belay!” I shouted down to Chris as I finished pulling up the slack through the anchor I’d constructed at the top of Pitch 1 of Bloody Bush in the Gunks. While I sat on the belay ledge and pulled rope through my ATC I thought back through the 100′ climb I’d just finished. It was my second real trad lead. I’d taken my time on the lead, placing (and double checking) way more gear than a veteran trad climber would place.

After finishing a climbing that long where I had to place my own protection, I felt a huge boost. I was more confident, not just in my climbing ability (it was an easy climb), but also in my ability to think through situations and keep a level, controlled thought process when clinging on a steep cliff of quartz conglomerate.

Careers, whether in academia or industry, are often described as a ladder. The Bachelors leads to the Masters leads to the PhD to the Post-Doc to the Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Professor, etc. Every new job or promotion is a move up to the next rung.

But what is at the top? Retirement? Maybe the ladder analogy is too simple.
The ladder implies that every move up is evenly spaced and equally easy.
I’m starting to think about my own career as a rock climb. Some job positions are easier than others, and the transition between the two are easy. Others are more challenging and require finess to stick the “crux” move.
Not every move is up. Sometimes it is necessary to traverse left or right. Perhaps the transition from academia to industry was a traverse.
And what is at the top of the climb? Usually a great view. Maybe I’m naive, and the goal isn’t to retire, but to find a job that is exciting or  least provides financial support for an enjoyable hobby.
I’m very early in my career and maybe my perspective will change in the coming years. Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

What’s your graphic CV?

Graphic Designer, Artist, and Geologist Carissa L. Carter has an unusual CV on her website. A graphical CV with interests on the y-axis and time on the x-axis.

Carissa’s Graphical CV

I like this way of presenting how ideas and interests change over time. Maybe focusing even closer on a specific topic, like geology, to explore changing interests in subtopics. Someone with many publications could even generate a graphic like the one above simply from publication topics. How has what you think about changed over the years?

Check out the Carissa’s graphic CV here: http://goo.gl/AieNGf

Also, wanted to highlight a little Geology-As-Art from Carissa’s site. The shoe stratigraphic column. Explore it here: http://goo.gl/ShsWnt

Her website is http://www.snowflyzone.com/

Shifting Gears and Changing Lanes

I suppose this blog post is long overdue. This summer I was in Houston, Texas working as a geology intern for a major oil corporation. I had a great time working for the company and made a lot of friends. Some of whom I’m looking forward to seeing at the upcoming GSA meeting in Denver.

I also worked with seismic reflection data for the first time. I became fascinated by the data and the large scale structures it allows the interpreter to see. While I was diving in head first I read a short guidebook on seismic interpreting. First Steps in Seismic Interpretation by Donald A. Herron really helped me out as I was getting used to thinking about seismic data. I liked it so much that I was planning on writing a book review, but Thomas Martin wrote one for Agile Geoscience and beat me to the punch. I agree with his review, so writing another would be redundant, check it out!

Although this summer I didn’t work in salt, the exposure to colleagues work got me fascinated with salt tectonics. I hope to be working on salt structures in the future and have plenty of ideas for blog posts.

While in Houston I was working nights and weekends tying together my PhD proposal. Defining my project was a stressful, eye-opening, and educational endeavor. However, after a short rock climbing vacation in California, by the time I returned to Montreal I was feeling the pull of different winds. I’ve decided to switch from a PhD to a MSc. I have enough data that I can go ahead and write up the work I’ve completed. When faced with 1 more year or 3 more years in Montreal, I decided that I was ready for a change of pace and to try the world outside of academia.

Looking forward to the many adventures to come!