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.

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!

Happy Turkey Day!

This Thanksgiving, the Americans stranded at McGill are coming together for a feast. I got charged with turkey duty. Pray for me.

In honor of Thanksgiving, here are some of my favorite songs about thanksgiving/native americans..
I know there’s one more that I’m forgetting. This list is a good start though.

The Lord Weird Slough Feg – Warriors Dawn

Iron Maiden – Run to the Hills

Anthrax – Indians

Testament – Native Blood

Research Group Traditions

What does your research group do when someone publishes a paper? Does the author buy the group beer? Go out to the pub?

Here at [INSERT AWESOME RESEARCH GROUP NAME, tentatively known as McGill Field Rheology], we just started our tradition a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t even for a paper published this year. Us students in the group knew our advisor before coming to McGill to work with her, and some of us have published work with her from previous universities. In this case Nils Backeberg and Christie Rowe published a paper titled: “MEGA-SCALE (~50M) ORDOVICIAN LOAD CASTS AT DE BALIE, SOUTH AFRICA: POSSIBLE SEDIMENT FLUIDIZATION BY THERMAL DESTABILISATION” (That’s a hell of a title) back in 2009 while at University of Cape Town. So, we’re playing catch-up. 
What’s the tradition we’re starting? The first author buys a bottle of champagne for the group, signs the cork with [author] et al. [year], ect. and we hang the cork in our advisor’s office. Our group still has some catching up to do to bring us to 2012, so the lonely cork seen below will have some friends joining it. 
What traditions does your research group have?
First cork and lucky mugs

Fugitive Geologists: The Sheltering Desert

“If war comes, we’ll go to the desert”

With the outbreak of World War II, the wheels of war were turning in Europe. Soon the frenzy would catch up to the colonies. In Windhoek, Namibia two German geologists were seeing more and more Germans being put in internment camps. Determined to not be locked away Henno Martin and Hermann Korn, with their dog, Otto, fled into the harsh Namib desert.

For two years they lived brutal lives as bushmen, killing game for their food, seeking drinking water, and conducting geologic research and studying animal behavior in Kuisib Canyon. 
A graphic autobiographical account of their time in the desert is told in the book “If War Comes, We’ll Go to the Desert” by Henno Martin, and in the English translation “Sheltering Desert”. 
Henno Martin weaves fantastically detailed descriptions of their lives, including brutally honest hardships and the gory violence of living off the land, killing for your food. In one chapter Martin describes how he crippled and decapitated the leader of a baboon troop that was continually fouled their drinking water source. The water source wasn’t fouled again after. The book is incredibly violent at times, and is contrasted with philosophical chapters featuring lengthy discussions with Hermann about topics such as evolution, the human condition, and the behavior of the creatures around them. 
Excerpts can be found here and here
One morning before sunrise I was sitting up as usual when I heard the crunching of gravel followed by a loud smacking of wet chops. A horribly ugly hyena was at the pool. After drinking it licked its forepaws and then trotted off along the game track which led down the river bed. I was following it with my eyes when I noticed a leopard coming along the same track but from the other direction. The two animals came closer and neither gave any indication that it had spotted the other. The leopard’s fur was ruffled and it slunk forward like a big cat towards the hyena, whose high shoulders and great head with its enormous jaws made it the taller. The two animals were quite close to each other but still neither of them made any attempt to give way.
When they were not more than five paces apart they both stopped and looked at each other for the first time, standing motionless for several seconds, apparently weighing each other up. Then the leopard gave a low growl, and at that the hyena turned sideways, backed off the game path and sat down on its haunches like a dog. The leopard then stalked past silently like a great lady after a short and triumphant exchange with a rival, going not towards the water, but up the northern side of the slope. The hyena sat there and watched its rival depart, and when the leopard was about two hundred metres away the hyena gave vent to its wounded feelings in a long drawn-out cackle. The leopard didn’t even bother to look round. The incident was grotesque, a caricature of human behaviour, and it struck me that the »all too human« behaviour of men was in reality »all too animal«.
The 1958 English translation is available in the public domain from Internet-Archive. Get a pdf here. The photos did not scan well. There is also a newer edition available from TwoBooks, a German publishing company. This is the copy I own. I think whoever was doing the translation was also drinking as there are numerous typos here and there. This edition does however have amazing photographs. You can also find used copies of previous editions on Amazon and eBay. 
This is a must-read for any geologist. Henno’s eye for detail and ability to share that detail is inspiring. I’d love to peak at his field notes. 
See another description of this incredible story, along with some great photos of Kuisib Canyon HERE.

All photos in this post are credited to Henno Martin and TwoBooks publishing