I’ve been following kayaker Erik Boomer since he carried out a human-powered circumnavigation of Ellesmere with legendary adventurer Jon Turk in 2011 (see story here on Nat Geo). Anyone who’s read Jon’s book ‘Cold Oceans’ knows that signing up for any trip with Jon is like signing up for a trip with Ernest Shackleton, that trip living its epic expectations (Jon had also kayaked from Japan to Alaska!). Since then Erik kept cropping up on my radar, with his film ‘Into Twin Galaxies’: the crossing of Greenland via skis, kites and kayaks, winning many awards in 2016. It seemed to me that Erik was not a one-trick pony, but someone who, having become a master of one sport (white water kayaking), was seeking out the kinds of adventures in which he was anything but masterful, the aim to be off-balance, in-deep, to rediscover that beginners mind. When I got a message from Erik about hand bolting I guessed that climbing was now on his radar, not a bad idea when he lives on Baffin Island with his partner Sarah McNair-Landry (another badass adventurer). And so I thought I’d be cheeky and ask Erik if he’d share his experiences in going from grade 5 rivers to 5.7 rock, to go from God to man.
A Paddler learning to climb. What skills transfer?
I have been paddling whitewater since I was 9 years old. By the time I was 12, I owned my first kayak and could roll it back up in whitewater confidently and consistently. Whitewater became my first love, and for 10 years I focused my life completely on paddling over waterfalls and down rapids, with a focus on setting new standards for difficulty at the time. I have been fortunate to paddle remote and complex first descents all around the world.
Around age 26, I began looking for ways to add more adventure into my life without constantly pushing the envelope further in dangerous kayaking. I’ve been close to the edge for a long time and would rather not discover the other side too soon. I love kayaking so much I needed to find a way to keep it challenging and fun, but without increasing the consequences.
This began with more expeditionary kayaking and complex missions requiring an amount of suffering and hard work that most others aren't willing to put in. Skiing and paddling for 104 days around Ellesmere Island with Jon Turk taught me the value and reward of long-term expeditions. Coming back from this trip I started eyeing up rivers that would be considered too far out, and too remote. Usually, they required trekking for miles with an awkward and heavy kayak on my back to find a truly remote special river or dropping into gorges with lots of extra food so we could take our time to work out the problems.
Naturally, I began adding other sports into the mix like snowkiting and polar travel. I found that this gives me more bang for my buck from each trip. Why not use my kayak as a gear sled and kite ski across the Greenland icecap to access an amazing un-run river? We named this expedition the Greenland kitekayak 5000.
Living on Baffin Island for half of the year, I got the opportunity to kayak below iconic rock features like Mount Asgard, and Mount Thor. When I realized there was a moderate route that even mortals could climb to the top of Asgard, that became my first climbing goal (one that covid has paused). I've dedicated as much time climbing and learning as possible for the past 2+ years and just now am starting to identify as a climber, not just a kayaker who is learning to climb.
Learning a new sport can be intimidating. Here are some skills that I think transferred and helped my learning curve, plus some that certainly haven't.
What doesn't transfer?
Language. Hand jam, jug, crimp, RP, piton, TCU, dihedral, corner, splitter, roof, deadpoint, redpoint, onsight, aiding. The language was completely foreign to me. Just understanding the lingo and terms was square one in my learning. I didn't expect learning the language and the terminology to be so critical, but it really is. Without fully understanding the Terms I couldn't properly learn from other’s stories, topo’s, or instructions.
Technique. If you saw the past 4 pairs of climbing shoes with my worn-out toes you would probably say “you really need to work on your footwork” and it’s true. The point is the technical aspect of climbing, the footwork, body positioning, hand jams, finger locks and all these skills are very foreign to me and are taking time to learn.
Dangers. The dangers are all different than in whitewater.
Ropework and systems. This takes time, patience and an open mind. There seems to be no one size fit all for each situation. The first thing people usually teach is a system- they say this is how you do it. However, the more you learn and experience different situations it is clear there is no one size fits all, there are just better ways given the circumstances (things like weather, exposure, gear available,) and when in doubt if there is a way to make any given system safer without compromising any other risk, always do it. I recommend practising, asking questions and investing in instructional books, I know of one very good author who has written heaps on these subjects I could recommend :-)
What does transfer?
Risk management. Even though I’ve been climbing a short while I have noticed that my mindset and understanding of risk management can be one of my greatest assets. The big waterfalls and crazy stunt drops of paddling are stunning and evoke fear; but, usually, when these are paddled they are so well thought out that all the risks besides a hard impact (which could break your back, or knock you unconscious) have been heavily mitigated by proper safety setup.
In climbing, this is similar to taking a huge whipper onto a quality bolt-on a huge roof hundreds of feet off the ground, in a way the bigger the whipper and the higher off the ground the safer the fall becomes even though it is likely to scare the shit out of you and the viewer. It seems to me the true dangerous sharp edge is just as present and often hidden in easy-moderate zones as much as extreme zones.
Perceived fears vs real fears. Progressing and pushing yourself in either sport is really the same formula. For me, the key is understanding the difference between the feeling of fear and actually being in true danger. Sometimes you feel fear in dangerous situations, but usually, I think we all have a tendency to feel fear when there really is no danger at all. Once you understand that you are actually going to be safe even though you feel the fear, you free up brainpower that was overstimulated with anxiety to learn, grow and either paddle out of a sticky situation or climb through an exposed crux above a piece of protection.
Don’t ignore fear. This does not mean you should eradicate fear or completely ignore it, I have seen firsthand that ignoring fear can lead to bad accidents in climbing and kayaking. What this does mean is the fear is more like a checkpoint, ask yourself what happens if I fuckup? Is there any way to protect me if the worst-case scenario happens? In paddling, this is usually having someone ready with a throw bag to pull you out of a sticky situation. In easy whitewater or easy climbing terrain, we can get so accustomed to the fear that we stop noticing it and that’s not terrible, its actually fun. I just try to remind myself just because I am not feeling the fear does it does not change the consequences, which are often just as dangerous on easy whitewater or easy climbs and to stay aware and in the moment.
How to navigate fear. How to work through the fear? For me, it’s the same process as in kayaking, I create a safe space and then try things that are difficult or scare me. Specific examples of this in kayaking is I make class 2 or 3 rapids into V+ moves by purposely flipping, tossing my paddle and just using hands, forcing myself to make very difficult moves in low consequence water or having friends nearby to help if I need it. The climbing equivalent is this taking calculated lead falls onto bomber pieces or bolts (or beginning with top-rope falls). Back these pieces or bolts up with extra protection!
The point is not to create a dangerous situation, quite the opposite you are trying to create the safest situation that you can then play and push yourself. Then I figure out new ways to make it more challenging and difficult, while always doing my best to keep it safe.
This dissolves the physical effects of fear and gives me a greater understanding of my safety systems on rivers and rock.
Conclusion. Being new to climbing I am continually learning things that go against my initial assumptions. Sometimes the best way to mitigate the actual true dangers requires stepping into situations that have even more fear associated with them. For instance, Mr. Kirkpatrick reminded me one of the ways to avoid rockfall is to climb at night. Initially, it sounds scary to me, but after thinking about it, it’s a lot less scary than being involved in rockfall. Maybe I'll try some night climbing soon?