Thursday, May 31, 2012

Just Another Day On Everest

Jetstream Winds Rip the North side of Mt. Everest
 2012 has been a tough Everest season, with overcrowding contributing to four deaths on a single day on the South Col route.  All three climbers, that I know of, from Singapore; Kumaran Rasappan, Grant Rawlinson and Valerie Boffy, were successful in their bids to climb the highest mountain on earth, and I'm very proud of their achievements.  I know that training to climb Mt. Everest is especially challenging for those living on the tiny island nation of Singapore, where the highest hill is only 105m tall.
Chores at Everest Basecamp
It was just a year ago that I stood on the North Ridge, on my way up to the summit after a night of battling horrendous wind and difficult snow conditions.  We had been moving for 10 hours straight, unable to eat, drink or stop because of the intense cold from the wind.  I plonked myself down, trying to find some shelter, but there was none.  I was parched and hungry, but my water bottles and energy bars had frozen solid inside my downsuit.  Jamling, my Sherpa, checked in with Jaime, our expedition leader.  It turns out that Jaime had earlier recalled all climbers back down because of the weather, but now allowed us to continue, given how close we were to the summit.
Crossing a Crevasse on the way up to North Col 7000m
 We were alone on the mountain.  It was just my team mate Esther, myself and our sherpas.  I was tired beyond belief, but we were so close, just an hour and a half to the summit of Mt. Everest, the highest point on earth.  I asked Jamling who had been to the summit of Everest 6 times previously if he thought we should continue.  He replied, "Ken, for a Sherpa, this is no problem.  It is just another day on Everest."
Jugging up the fixed line to North Col at 7000m
 Those were just the right words.  We pushed on, but Esther would go no further.  Unknown to us at the time, Esther's Sherpa had, for whatever reason, not carried her extra oxygen.  Given the conditions, it had would take us more time than was normal to reach the summit, and I would need all the bottles I had been allocated.
Camp 3 at 8300m the evening before our summit push
There was nothing heroic about my final steps to the top of the world.  I was effectively blind, I had stupidly removed my goggles to see better, and during the final tricky traverse, had my corneas burned by the intensely cold wind.  I confessed my condition to Jamling, but as it was only 15 minutes to the top, he hooked me up to a short-rope, and I stumbled up, giddy from the altitude and short of breath as I struggled to keep pace with the powerful Sherpa.
Traversing the North Ridge of Everest at about 8700m
Through my frosted vision, the summit appeared.  First, a ring of pray flags, then the actual summit, about the size of two large dining tables, decorated with more pray flags, and littered with discarded oxygen bottles.  It seemed we were alone on the mountain.  There were no other climbers, either from the South, or the North.  I sat on the summit for about 20 minutes, worried about how I was going to descend, while Jamling excitedly took video and photographs to capture the moment.
Jamling, me and Pujung very near the summit
I can only describe my feelings as relief.  Relief that I would not have to come back next year: I had seen death close-up on the mountain and was repulsed by the callous manner in which I had to ignore them; repulsed by the amount of trash left on the hill; repulsed by my own selfish attitude in my drive to reach the top of the highest mountain on earth.  Nope, I would not be back.
Top of the world:  8848m on the summit of Mt. Everest
Fixed ropes exist on both the normal North and South routes, which lures climbers into thinking that the climbing is easy, but Everest has not been beaten into submission.  Everest is still Everest, the highest, most inhospitable, isolated place on earth.  No one conquers Everest.  For a short period each year when the jetstream winds die down, a few lucky climbers will reach the top, stay for a few minutes, and escape with their lives.
Looking shit-faced near the Exit Cracks on decent back to Camp 3

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Return to Drak

We made a short trip back to Drak Bike Park on Batam, Indonesia, a couple of weeks ago and made this short video.  Given the limited riding space in Singapore, and the close proximity of Batam to Singapore, Drak has a lot to offer.  Here's a sampling of what a day's ride could look like:

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Next Adventure Bike

About three and a half years ago, I wrote a piece on the Surly Long Haul Trucker titled The Ideal Adventure Bike.
The Surly Troll.  Image from the Surly website.
We'll, my wife Laura, and I have decided that long distance road touring really isn't our thing.  We'll ride road, but prefer it leads out to some dirt.  She prefers a mountain bike setup as well.  This means we could tour on our mountain bikes (Giant Anthem X), or outfit her LHT with front suspension, flat bars, V or disc brakes, and rapid-fire shifters.  Touring with our Anthems is possible, however, since we've built up the Anthems to race, and they are somewhat precious (not to mention fussy).  Rebuilding the LHT into a mountain bike will cost us more than the stock bike, and so we began the search for our next adventure bike.
Take a few moments to get your head round this mind-boggling slot dropout, and you’ll see how clever it is. I love a bike with versatility. The Troll can run derailleurs, a Rohloff Speedhub – a third bolt anchors the OEM2 plate in place - or slim down to singlespeed. The position of the disc brake tab allows a conventional rack to be teamed with Avid’s mechanical BB7s.  Image and caption © Cass Gilbert
The search lead us back to one of Surly's strong, low cost, steel frames: The Troll.  In short, the Troll is a 26" steel mountain bike that is disc and rack compatible.  But that's not why it's cool.  The Troll can take any brake setup - disc, V or cantis; it's clever dropout design can take a Rohloff, derailleur, or single speed; build it up rigid or front suspension; and fit up to 2.7" fat tires, or big wheels like 650b (or even 29er?).
Unleash the Troll. Take it across a continent… Image and Caption © Cass Gilbert
I've never ridden a Troll, so I set out to find out more information from others who have.

Troll vs. LHT
Cass Gilbert (whileoutriding.com) has allowed me to reprint some of his thoughts on the Troll:

'So which is best for what? If paved roads and good quality gravel tracks are your staple diet on tour, you’re probably better off with a Trucker. It’s built for the heaviest of loads and from what I’ve seen, has become to go-to bike for those tackling the Panamerican Highway. But if you hanker after more challenging trails, envisage battling through muck and mud, and ride singletrack on your days off before visiting the local museum, then Troll is where it’s at. The fact that it isn’t designed to handle as much cargo shouldn’t be an issue, as by default, those heading offroad tend to pare down their kitlist.'

Read the rest of Cass Gilbert's extensive review on the Troll here.

Joe Cruz, my bike guru from the original LHT Ideal Adventure Bike post, adds the following to the Troll vs. LHT discussion:

"Where there's a mix of asphalt and dirt roads with the occasional mountain bikey singletrack (but not weeks of it), I stand by everything I've ever thought about the LHT. In a different sense, it can do anything, too. If you told me I had 600k of asphalt to cover in three days, great, can do on LHT. If you said I then had to ride 40k of mountain bike trail, yeah, LHT can do that, too. When both of those are going to show up on a single tour, that's the bike I'd bring."

Conclusion
Both the LHT and Troll are valid choices, and the bike you choose will very much depend on the type of riding you want to do (dirt or tarmac), and how long you will be out for (will you need racks/panniers).

Oddly enough, what we've taken back from this discussion is that all we really need is just a hardtail mountain bike.  We don't need eyelets for a rack/pannier setup as we travel really light, and although steel is nice, we would rather have a lighter frame that we may also race with.  So we are now looking at getting a 29er aluminum hardtail, build it up with some rugged parts, strap on some bags (like the bags from Revelate Designs) and just go ride.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

It's Not All About Flipping Tires

There's a lot of Crossfit bashing going on, most of it directed at the elitist cult that Crossfit is perceived to have grown into.  I'm not going into that.  For me, it's about the training method and principles.  Forgive me, I'm a Crossfit Zealot.  Nevertheless, I shall do my best to break it down into what I see as the good and the bad, and how I've adapted it to enhance the enjoyment and competitiveness of my sport, activities and life.

Crossfit is a community developed, empirically driven, clinically tested strength and conditioning program.  I've been using Crossfit as my primary strength and conditioning training for more than two years, training both with an affiliate (that would be a gym with instructors), as well as on my own.  Prior to that, I used a conventional bodybuilding-based gym training approach.
Mmm... Prowlers... My favorite workout!  Photo © Laura Liong
Constantly Varied
You don't get to choose your workout.  In essence, your Crossfit workout is 'randomly' selected out of a hopper and could range from heavy weightlifting, to fast sprints with gymnastic movements, and could last from a few minutes to over an hour. 

The Good:
We tend to choose to do what we like to do and avoid doing what we don't like to do.  This leads us down the dangerous path of training our strengths and avoiding our weaknesses.  A varied, randomized workout avoids this.  It's training for any and all contingencies, the unknown and unknowable.  This type of training works well for the person who needs to be a generalist: Soldiers, firefighters, law enforcement officers, and some athletes (like mountain climbers, rugby players, mixed martial arts fighters). 

The Bad:
If you are a specialist, for example an athlete involved in a sport requiring high skill, in a known environment for a fixed time (like an indoor track cyclist), then you may need more than the generalized training that a pure Crossfit program provides.  If you have a coach who can identify your strengths and weaknesses, you would benefit more by targeting your specific weaknesses, than from a generalized program.

My Take:
These days, I train Crossfit on my own, usually twice a week.  I choose my workouts based on the longer term goals of my training program, a race or event.  I'm at risk of falling into the trap of training my strengths, but it's a compromise given the time I have.
A broken foot is no reason not to workout.
Functional Movements
This is the current buzz word at fitness centers worldwide.  What does it mean?  Functional movements are how your body naturally does real-life work, like lifting things.  Your body knows to move that way because the movements are naturally efficient, powerful and safe.  For example, lifting a heavy sack of potatoes efficiently to your shoulder would be a movement called a 'Clean'.  The clean is naturally the most powerful, and hence efficient, way to lift a load from the ground up to shoulders.  Executed at a high skill level, it is part of an Olympic lifting movement. Examples of other functional movements are squats, running, and pull ups.  Functional movements are proven to illicit a high neuroendocrine response which in turn does a whole lot of good things to your body, like increasing bone density and human growth hormone.

The Good:
Form follows function, and unlike some other workout programs that focus purely on cosmetics, Crossfit uses functional movements almost exclusively because their goal is making you stronger, faster and more durable.  Most workouts can be done with simple equipment: a barbell with weights, medicine ball, kettlebell, jump rope, pull-up bar and some space to run. 

The Bad:
Although natural, some complex functional movement patterns need to be taught, because our bodies haven't learned the coordination and sequencing needed to do those movements.  For example, the Clean.  Crossfit is one of the few training programs that still teaches the Olympic lifts - The Snatch and The Clean and Jerk.  Both of which are excellent power builders that induce a profound neuroendocrine response.

My Take:
I haven't stepped into a conventional gym in years.  Years of spending time on machines doing isolation movements like leg extensions and leg curls haven't done much for me.  The proof is not in looking at yourself in the mirror, it's in living your life, now and in the future.  If you lose the ability to squat (a functional movement), you lose the ability to walk up stairs or lift yourself up off the ground.  In short, you lose the ability to live life independently.  No amount of leg extensions or leg curls will give it back to you. 
Someone to Watch Over Me.  Supervision plus motivation: another reason to workout at an affiliate.
High Intensity
The heart of the Crossfit program is that the workout, ie. the constantly varied, functional movements, is executed at a high intensity.  Why?
To answer that question, we have to get scientific:

(force x distance / time) = Power

That is the definition of power.  The less time it takes to do a given amount of work, the more power.  In simple terms, Power = Intensity.  The more intense the workout, the more power you are putting out.  Training for more power will improve just about any sport.

The Good:
There is increasing evidence that shorter, high intensity workouts are far more beneficial than long, slow workouts.  They are also very time efficient.

The Bad:
High intensity workouts hurt.  A lot of beginners are turned off by this sort of training.  The loss of form as fatigue sets in is one of the bones of contention that Crossfit objectors raise.  Functional movements are inherently safe, however, it's best to work out at an affiliate where others can watch and correct your form.

My Take:
High intensity training works. However, it is strong medicine and I have to be careful about doing too much, which can quickly lead to overtraining.  I scale down both the load (weight) and number of sets as required.  If I feel the need, I'll even substitute a functional strength training session instead of Crossfit by removing the intensity.

Bottom Line:
It's not for everyone.  Check it out and decide for yourself.  Learn more at Crossfit.com

If you are in Singapore, try one of the affiliates:
Crossfit Singapore; or
Reebok Crossfit Enduro