The Secret to Great Tasting Beer

The Taipan Wall at sunset - The Stone Mind

This is the story of the best beer I’ve ever had. It wasn’t a fancy beer, by any means. In fact, I think it was the sort you could buy in any grocery store or gas station in that part of Australia. But in the years since I imbibed this particular brewski, it has remained in my memory while a thousand other beers, many of more prestigious pedigree, have come and gone. You’ve probably had a similar experience—maybe not with beer, but with whatever aprés-climb beverage you prefer—and I guess now there’s even a scientific explanation for the whole phenomenon.

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The hike from the Stapylton Campground to the Taipan Wall starts with a steep climb up a long stone slab. You follow a winding dirt path, dodge a few grazing kangaroos (not really… but possibly), navigate some tightly vegetated corridors, and arrive drenched in sweat 30 minutes later at one of the most epic pieces of stone ever bolted. The boldly streaked orange face rises with steady overhang 200 feet into the air and shrinks horizontally into the distance as if without end. The routes themselves are mostly questing and run-out. As such, they require great technical skill to ascend, or, barring that, preternatural endurance. An iron constitution, common amongst the local climbing populace, is also handy here.

On my visit I had only middling technique and a constitution of a more malleable sort (perhaps copper or tin?), not to mention a boulderer’s endurance. Luckily, my belayer, who I’d met in the campground, was trustworthy, encouraging, and loaned me his No. 2 Camalot that would end up keeping me off the deck on the first of many long falls I’d take during my early encounters with the great wall of Taipan.

All told, my first day was a long one, what with the early morning approach, the sandbagged routes, the many hours of exertion with minimal provisions (thanks to a tight budget and poor planning), and the return to the car at dusk. Back at the parking lot, one of my new Aussie compatriots, glowing from a hard-fought last-go-best-go send, handed me a cold one. I pried it open with a lighter and stood in the dark next to his van with the small crew of down-under rock jocks.

The chilled bottle glass soothed my fingertips, worn raw from the grit of the stone. My exhausted shoulder quivered as I lifted the beer to my lips. But when the malty ambrosia flooded my dehydrated mouth, a radiating warmth cascaded down through my body. I was divided: should I guzzle the whole thing in an effusive paroxysm of gustatory joy? Or would it be better to nurse it, to better savor each effervescent sip? I chose the latter, growing mellower and mellower as the bottle drained into my empty stomach, until finally the world faded into mellow satisfaction and I was left starting up into the shimmering mist of stars, phasing into existence above our heads.

You’ve probably guessed it by now, but it was the exertion, the tribulations, yes even the acute pain of a long day spent grappling with a soaring wall of stone that resulted in a transubstantiation of a lowly beer into a Hero Beer—the type of beer that you taste on a nigh-molecular level rather than just swill down perfunctorily.

Though this phenomenon has been long known to outdoors people, there appears to be some new science to back it up. In a recent study on the effects of pain on the experience of pleasure, a team asked participants to hold their hands in a bucket of ice water for as long as they could, then gave them a cookie (on a side note: where do I sign up for these studies?). Not only did those who held their hand in the bucket indicate enjoying the cookie more, but follow-up studies showed that “pain increases the intensity of a range of different tastes and reduces people’s threshold for detecting different flavours.” Of course, we don’t need a study to tell us that food and drink taste better after a gnarly outing, but it’s interesting to know that there’s more to it than just being hungry and thirsty.

The same study pointed out that the pain of physical exertion can cause our bodies to produce opioids responsible for feelings of euphoria, that pain focuses our attention and “brings us in touch with our immediate sensory experience of the world,” and that pain helps to create bonds between individuals who’ve experienced it together. These findings point to so many of the things we love about climbing (transcendence, immediacy, camaraderie), and remind us that the absence of pain does not, in fact, equal pleasure. Pain, at lest a certain type of it, can actually be a key to pleasure—at least to the deep, resonant pleasure that climbers experience during and after an experience lovingly known as a “sufferfest.”

This study also leads us to reconsider so-called “alpinist’s amnesia,” which leads many a battered, malnourished, and frostbitten mountaineer to return to the peaks that flogged them. Maybe it’s not that they forget the pain, but that they actually crave its side-effects, among them a heightened sense of reality.

Plus, it makes even a cheap beer taste amazing.

Photo Friday: 11 Shots from Oz

Years ago, I took a trip to Australia for my friend’s wedding. I took a month for the trip, so I’d have time to go climbing and exploring the countryside. I rented a Subaru in Sydney, learned to drive stick and drive on the wrong side of the road, and went on a mini-walkabout. It ended up being one of the greatest trips of my life. (Up there with the trip where I proposed to my fiancée in Paris, a trip to Greece with my parents when I was in my teens, and the RocTrip China trip.) I could easily write a five-thousand word travelogue about my time in Oz, but I have neither the time nor the inclination. Instead, I’ll share a few selected photos of the thousands I took. Happy Photo Friday!

A view of Sydney Harbor
So first I flew to Australia and got a hotel in Sydney. I was sure to find one with a nice view of Sydney Harbor and its famous bridge, which offers tours up on top of the arched supports.
Roos on the horizon
Then I drove out to the countryside for my mate's (that's Aussie slang for friend -- "G'doy, moite!") wedding which was at a nice country club. On the way, I passed a lot of roos. That's Aussie shortspeak for Kangaroos. Roo bangers are not people with a kangaroo fetish, but sausages made out of kangaroo meat. (Think: bangers and mash, the British dish... Australians are descended from British stock, you know!)
Wallaby and wallababy
Here's a shot of a roo and its joey (joey means offspring -- love it!). These were plucking around country club. They're as common as deer on the East Coast of the US, but much cooler to watch. I mean seriously, they jump to get around. Crazy!
Taipan wall in the Grampians
This is the Taipan wall, a climbing area in the Grampians, which is a National Park. (If you look closely, you'll find a climber in a red shirt hanging on rope somewhere on the wall.) Taipan may be the single raddest sport climbing crag in the world. The routes are long (150 feet or more), runout (in Aussie fashion), and ascend gorgeous lines on perfect sandstone pockets, edges, and slopers. I traded belays with some locals and a nice Austrian couple who were on an around-the-world climbing trip. Lucky there were there, as I was all flying solo on this trip.
Taipan under moonlight
Taipan under moonlight.
Herpin' at Hollow Mountain
Herpin' at Hollow Mountain. Here, Klaus, one of the Austrians mentioned above, holds one of the Grampians-area lizards, of which there were many. We found this one just around the Hollow Mountain Cave area (see below). No reptiles were harmed in the making of this photo.
Klaus goin' for it in the Hollow Mountain Cave
Here we find Klaus goin' for it in the Hollow Mountain Cave. This V8 sat at the very lip of the 40-foot deep cave and guards the end of the famous Wheel of Life, which is boulder problem / route that was originally graded V16 by Japanese climber Dai Koyomada. I think Klaus sent this rig. I can't remember.
Chris Webb Parsons gunning for Wheel of Life
Here's a shot of one of the locals I climbed with. His name Chris Webb Parsons. While I was in the Grampians, he was very close to sending Wheel of Life (pictured here). When I had to head back to Sydney, he handed me the keys to his house in Sydney and told me I could crash a few days until my flight left. He was going to stay and work on Wheel, he explained. I did, and he did, and then he sent the Wheel, which was, I think, its second ascent. Helluva nice guy and really very strong, too.
Flower field
After a week in a tent at the Grampians, I started to get a little funky. On the way to find some showers in town, I drove past this nice little scene. Australia is full of vistas like this. Because the population density is so low, it's not uncommon to get a view without any man-made structures. Oh wait, there's a barn there in the distance. Never mind.
The climber's life
Another one of the nice locals who made me feel at home. This fellow had a nicely appointed climber's road-trip van and a plucky pup to go along with it.
Syndey Aquarium
Before heading back to the States, I decided to take advantage of my time in Sydney and hit the aquarium there. I haven't been to many aquariums, but this one seemed excellent. Here, the sharks get to watch the people watching them, thanks to a handy glassed-in walkway.