Monday, August 15, 2016

Lead Climbing

Climbing at the gym where there are dozens upon dozens of top rope routes and boulder problems gives me no real urgency in learning to lead. However, climbing outside does. For this reason, I took the Learn to Lead class at Vertical Endeavors in the fall of 2015. There are several options in the Chicagoland area for lead classes, including but not limited to:

  • Vertical Endeavors - Sport Lead ($45 non-members/$30 members)This class is offered on Mondays from 7-10 pm. Call the gym to register. You must be able to climb at least a 5.9 and be belay certified before taking the class. Bring your own belay device. We used our ATC.
    • Pros: Large (free) parking lot, inexpensive, shortest amount of time
    • Cons: Located in the suburbs (car required), late on a school night
  • Brooklyn Boulders - Learn to Lead ($149)This is a set of two classes, 3 hours per class. You must be able to climb at least a 5.9 and be belay certified before taking the class. I have never taken the course myself, but I believe you do not have to bring your own belay device. BKB uses Grigri 2s on their ropes. Once you are lead certified, you can check out a rope for free but must use your own belay device.
    • Pros: In the city, accessible by CTA
    • Cons: Expensive, no parking lot (pay to park or limited free street parking), time commitment, tends to be crowded
  • First Ascent (Avondale) - Learn to Lead ($120 non-members/$85 members)Classes either meet for two three-hour sessions on weekdays or one intensive four-hour session (with a half hour break) on weekends. You must be able to climb at least a 5.9 and be belay certified before taking the class. I have never taken the course myself, but based on the price alone, I would venture to say it is a better value than BKB.
    • Pros: Accessible by CTA, large (free) parking lot,
    • Cons: Expensive, time commitment

REI has plenty of gear, but I am partial to Moosejaw with it's quirky sales ads and frequent promotions. Also, BKB members get 15% off certain items, so remember to tell the associate before paying for your purchase. 


It is important to note that most, if not all, stores will not let you return a rope after purchase. This is for safety reasons. So, be sure that you know what type you want: static v. dynamic; single v. half v. twin; non-dry v. dry core... The list goes on. REI does a great job at explaining your options here


Most gyms already have quickdraws on their lead routes. However, if you're leading outside, you will want to have your own set. We played around with a few at Moosejaw and were instantly drawn to the smoothness of the Petzl Spirit Express.

You just want to squeeze it!
We watched lots of YouTube videos comparing solid gate versus wire gate biners. The decision came down to how it felt. I would recommend touching and handling any sort of climbing gear, especially carabiners on quickdraws, before making a purchase.


Is your climbing shirt full of holes or pit stains? Get a new one. Check out the link below for the shirt I designed. 

For outdoor climbing or hiking in the warmer months, I highly recommend Marmot's PCT pant. They are stretchy, fitted and well constructed. I love the zippered pocket and the button/velcro combination at the waist. 

Marmot PCT Pants - Women's
There is a Men's version. I assume it is just as good, but don't take my word for it!


I am still rocking my La Sportiva Katana Laces. If you have any favorites, please comment below! 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Money, Money, Money

The Good News

Virtually every established business in Iceland takes credit cards. This influenced our decision not to immediately exchange our US dollars (USD) for Icelandic Krona (ISK).

Servers and bartenders bring card machines right to you - so there's little wait when paying.

The Bad News

It's easy to overspend while using plastic. It's also easy to forget about exchange rates and the true price of goods and services. However, there is some more good news.

More Good News

Download a currency converter app on your phone and forget about trying to do the math. I downloaded a free app called Easy Currency Converter which worked well. I imagine they are all pretty much the same.

Easy Currency Converter
This Needs to be Said Because...

While at a cafe, we overhead some fellow tourists talking about how much money they had exchanged. The lady said she'd gotten 10,000 ISK and was hoping that would be enough. Her friend said he had gotten 500,000 ISK "to be safe" but wasn't quite sure how much that was. 

Must be funny...
At this point, Mike and I looked at each other with worrisome expressions. Mike politely inserted himself in the conversation by saying, "1,000 krona is about eight US dollars." To which the man incorrectly echoed, "Eighty?" Mike: "EIGHT". Man: "Oh..."

Moral of the story: Google stuff before you ask for a half mil in some other country. Or just spend that half mil on a couple Icelandic sweaters and some Blue Lagoon lotion (that is about the going rate for those items). 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Sunlight in Reykjavik

According to the internet, Reykjavik is the northernmost capital city of an independent nation. And with great northernness comes great days or nights (depending on the season). Take a look at how crazy long the days were:

Daylight 20+ hours a day...
I can't say that I ever saw it get dark, even past midnight. The only comparison I can make is that point at which the park district starts the Movie in the Park before they really should because it's getting late and no one can stay in the park past 11 pm... that sort of "dark".

The cool part was not having to drive in pitch black conditions. The not-so-cool part was that is was extremely difficult for the mind and body to feel ready for sleep. And, once you are in bed, if you don't have blackout curtains in the room... forget about it. 

Almost every AirBnB claimed having blackout curtains. Most of them were not wide enough to cover every angle of light that could possibly laser into the room. If you're going to Iceland during summer, do yourself the favor of buying a sleep mask or blindfold. 

Amazon folks seem to like ALASKA BEAR blindfolds...

I did not have the foresight in buying these. One night, the brightness was so much so that I tried being resourceful by covering my eyes with my black bra. It didn't quite work because the bra has a hole in the middle (why does it have a hole in the middle?). Plus, the cups were not sized to my eyeballs. Anyway, just trust me on this purchase. Do it.

While it is quite bright, it can still be a bit chilly in Reykjavik. What was refreshing about the weather was how practical folks were about their dress. Everyone was wearing hiking boots, a puffy jacket and about 2/3 of people had a knapsack. Even when we went out on the town on the weekend, I did not see cleavage whatsoever. The closest I got to seeing that was when I wore that bra on my face.

Alright, so there's perpetual sunlight and everyone looks like they walked out of a Patagonia catalog. Next...

Let's talk about the business hours around this place. 

Open 11 am to 6:30 pm M-Th; 10 am to 7:30 pm Fri; 10 am to 6:30 pm Sat; 12 pm to 6:30 pm Sun

Bonus, which deserves its very own post, is Iceland's version of Aldi. It's an odd econobuy type grocery store. Just look at the mascot. I can't get over the unevenness of its eyeballs.

The morning after our first night in Iceland, we decided to go to Bonus to buy some yogurt, fruit and other things for a light breakfast. Little did we know that 8 am was entirely too early for Icelandic grocery stores to be open. Then, we saw the hours. C'mon, man! I know Chicago Public Swimming Pools that have better hours than these. We made sure to stock up on snacks for days once we were able to stroll in 3 hours later.

This pharmacy is open when you're least likely to get/be sick.
Luckily, no one got sick on this trip. However, we did need sunblock after getting a bit sunburnt on the first day of hiking. We tried stopping at several gas stations since none of the Bonuses were open yet. To our (not) surprise, neither was Lyfja. 

We ended up getting some weird Nivea sunblock from a random Bonus a day later. It was terrible. Don't buy it. Just get Banana Boat. Anyway, another tip is to bring your own over the counter stuff in case you come down with a case of the sniffles or runs. There is not much aid you can get late at night.

It is no wonder that Iceland has an amazing literacy rate (99% of the population over 15 years can read - according to the internet). What else are you going to do if you can't run over to the store to get some pizza rolls past 7:31 pm? 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Icelandair and Keflavik International Airport

Some of the selling factors for choosing Iceland were the fact(s) that: a) we could get a direct flight from Chicago; b) it was only about 6 hours each way; and c) it wasn't crazy expensive.

The cherry on top was that Icelandair was a pretty legit airline. Upon boarding, they give you a bottle of Icelandic bottled water (no need to wait 40 minutes for them to come around with a cart), the seats were comfy, they had foot rests (!), a USB port to charge your phone and free in-flight entertainment which included a variety of movies, TV shows and some weird commercials. 

They are so fly.

One thing I didn't expect was that we would be deplaning directly outside and taking a shuttle to the airport. I was kind of wearing flip flops (because it was hot in Chicago) and KEF was pretty chilly and windy when we arrived. Luckily, we weren't outside very long, but it was definitely brisk out there.

Keflavik International Airport itself was decent. Passport control was like a herd of cows. PRO TIP: If there is a crowd of people lined up to hand over their passports to the agents, go all the way down to the right (furthest from the entrance). It was clear the first several windows suffered from a traffic jam. Don't get caught in it.

The first thing we did was wait for our bags. That took a little while and people didn't know how to get out of the way. If I had to do it again, I would go to that market which is right next to baggage claim to get the ever important prepaid SIM card. Go straight to a cashier and ask for one. They will offer you at least two options. I think we went with the one that was around 1999 ISK (approx. $16). It ended up being a perfect amount of data. Don't forget to bring a paperclip with you if you have one of those phones where you need a pin to eject the SIM card slot.

Get the prepaid SIM card from the cashier, yo!

Once we got our bags and phone situation settled, it was time to get the car. We rented from Avis. Do not rent from Avis. I kid you not: we waited at least 45 minutes in a line where there were 4 people in front of us and there were 3 agents. I have no idea how it took that long. One customer - a very elderly fellow - was at the counter the entire time we were there. I was actually concerned that he was going to be on the same road at we were. 

Not so fly.
Avis tried to get us to buy their full insurance package for an extra $50 a day. We booed that. We did spring for the "sand storm and some other lava bullshit" protection (I can't recall the exact name). Turns out there weren't any sand storms, but I guess it's better to have insurance and not need it than to need it and not have it. 

Warning: Inspect the vehicle before getting in. Our guy said the car was in mint condition as he handed us the car inspection sheet. When we circled the car, it had some pretty gnarly gashes on the rear bumper. We took some photos, went back inside and had him initial the areas on the form. Don't want to get dinged for something we didn't do.

Rental car was not fully fueled up!

Warning: They claimed that the car had a full tank of gas. It didn't. We realized this about 5 km after we pulled out. I guess we felt accomplished after having discovered those gashes on the body of the car that we forgot to double-check that it was all gassed up. We snapped a picture of the fuel gauge + mileage and brought it up when returning the car. They hemmed and hawed about not being able to refund us any money because we had already pre-paid, but after some vigorous typing and consulting with his fellow agent, the dude gave us a slight refund. 

GPS is pretty worth it.
Now, if you know anything about Iceland, it's that there's one main road that goes around the entire island (Route 1 or "the Ring Road"). So, how can you possibly get lost in Iceland? It's pretty hard to do unless you're venturing into the wilderness (which we didn't do). We mainly depended on the GPS whenever the road got super winding (especially on the sides of cliffs). Another added feature was that our GPS warned us when there was a speed trap and we were going over the limit. Bring you GPS - or rent one. It was definitely useful.

Anywho... that was about all the fun we had landing into Iceland and getting ready to make our way into the "big" city of Reykjavik. But that is a story for another time.

Monday, June 27, 2016

June in Iceland

Iceland is a pretty hot destination right now. According to the Icelandic Tourist Board report dated April 2015, tourism’s share of foreign exchange earnings on the island has grown from 18.8% to 27.9% between 2010–2014. Mike and I are glad we spent our honeymoon there before Iceland becomes too cool for its own good!

Iceland is so not over (yet)

During our planning stage, we got tons of helpful hints from family (Lauren) and friends (Tiffany and Alex) who had visited Iceland in the recent past. We also used the hell out of Lonely Planet's guidebook. Pretty much every other tourist had a copy with them, too. Highly, highly recommended.

Buy this book - even if you aren't going to Iceland!

We embarked on a 10-day tour around the entire island. At the urging of other bloggers, we booked our lodging ahead of time (a mix of AirBnBs and hotels). It worked rather well. 

Our travels around Iceland

We landed in Keflavik and drove to Reyjavik where we spent the first few nights exploring the city. Then, we made our way around the island counterclockwise (or as some people call it: "anticlockwise"), staying in the following towns:

  • Kirkjubaejarklaustur
  • Höfn
  • Seyðisfjörður
  • Laugar
  • Akureyri
  • Borgarnes
  • Reykjavik
We made many, many stops along the way. Stay tuned (not literally) for more updates on each location. We've got lots of pictures and memories to share.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

First Ascent vs Brooklyn Boulders Chicago

First Ascent is convenient in many ways: it is right off the Addison highway exit, has a parking lot and sells a good array of merch including shoes, harness and various snacks and drinks. It is well staffed with safety conscious people who know about climbing.

The facilities are top notch. Top rope and lead walls reach about 60 feet and are textured. While this is great for smearing, I noticed that I did quite a bit of scuffing to the toes of my new shoes. Bouldering area upstairs has several top out sections and a very difficult cave.

The rating system is a bit of a conundrum for me. While I feel that 5.8 and 5.9 is more difficult at First Ascent than at Brooklyn Boulders Chicago, once you get into 5.10 - 5.11, First Ascent seems to scale on the soft side. Why is that? Over the weekend, I completed a 5.10 D and got about 4/5ths up a 5.11 C at First Ascent. Normally, I am happy with 5.10 A and 5.10 B.

But... maybe I'm just getting better. Today, at BKB, I completed a 5.10 C. While, I did not finish it cleanly, I felt accomplished that I was able to get through some tough parts after many tries and many falls. It's the only way to get better.

Bouldering at First Ascent kicks my ass. I can barely finish V1-V2, while at BKB, I am generally in the V3-V4 range. Just have to work harder to move up.

All in all, I really enjoy First Ascent. I do not plan on becoming a member, but I will be buying some passes. Having BKB across the street is entirely too convenient to pass up.

Polar M400

My Garmin FR60 running watch all but died a few years ago. The wrist strap broke and the battery had to be replaced about twice a year. While I loved the comfort of the heart rate monitor chest strap, I did not love the buttons on the watch. I had been scouring the market for a new watch and was considering Suunto. However, their watches are humongous. 

After comparing reviews, I thought the Polar M400 seemed like a good fit. I finally bought one tonight. The watch and heart rate monitor cost about $250 after tax. So, I'm hoping this watch performs a lot better than my previous Garmin. It's comfortable and sleek. The face is pretty readable. I have just customized my settings and will be testing it out tomorrow. 

Polar M400