7 Crag/Drink Pairings for the Thirsty Climber

Clint Eastwood and George Kennedy enjoy an Olympia Beer at the top of the Totem Pole.
Clint Eastwood drinking Olympia Beer at the top of the Totem Pole, in Arizona’s Monument Valley. From The Eiger Sanction.

Traveling to climb is great: it gives us the chance to experience not only new stone and unfamiliar cultures, but also to sample various beverages full of local flavor. Below is a tiny slice of the many, many fine crag/drink pairings to be found at famous climbing areas around the world.

What libations should visitors be sure to sample when visiting your local climbing area? Add your crag/drink pairing in the comments…

1. Rifle, Colorado / Avery Beer

Home to blocky limestone routes and the highest concentration of sticky-rubber kneepads in the United States, Rifle Mountain Park also plays host to a strange initiation ritual involving beer and climbing. Adam Avery, proprietor of Boulder-based Avery Brewing Company, is said to have set a challenge: a climber must down a sixer of Avery beer in three hours and then redpoint “certain routes” in order to earn a Team Avery hoody. Even if you’re not trying out for the team, after spending several hours greasing off Rifle’s notoriously sandbagged sport routes, you might want to try a Redpoint Ale, and Ellie’s Brown Ale, or perhaps a Salvation Belgian Golden Ale… to help sooth the sting of defeat.

2. Céüse, France / Gigondas 

In France’s Haute Provence, Céüse is routinely ranked amongst the wold’s finest climbing spots. The blue-and-white streaked, pocketed limestone there easily makes up for the long approach. Even better, the region in which this Platonic ideal of a climbing spot rests is full of vineyards and wineries. Among the area’s popular appellations is Gigondas, “a little brother of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.” The town of Gigondas, about 60 miles from Céüse, lies at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail, a mountain range with climbing that actually overlooks the area’s vineyards. While in Céüse, you might also catch a glimpse of Chartreuse on local spirits menus. This tasty herbal aperitif produced by monks in the nearby Chartreuse Mountains is well worth a try.

3. New River Gorge, West Virginia / Mountain Moonshine

With thousands of sport routes, trad routes, and boulder problems on the area’s exceptionally high-quality Nuttall Sandstone, it’s no wonder the New River Gorge frequently ranks on climber’s lists as one America’s finest climbing destinations. The region in which the beautiful NRG is found, however, is economically depressed and not particularly known for its beers, wines, or liquors…  except, perhaps, for the famed moonshine that locals have been distilling illegally for well over 100 years. Nowadays, there are numerous legal, tax-paying moonshine distilleries across Appalachia who produce the high-octane, corn-based, unaged white whiskey. One of them, Appalachian Moonshine, can be found in Ripley, West Virginia, about 100 miles from the New River Gorge. Y in liquor stores around the state.

4. Kalymnos, Greece / Mythos Beer

Home to massive, tufa-studded limestone sport routes, the Greek Island of Kalymnos is known as a climber’s paradise. Relatively dry, with year-round climbing possible, many visitors here rent scooters to get around. In keeping with the general holiday mood that Kalymnos inspires, a light, easy drinking lager called Mythos Beer is popular among locals and visitors alike, according to Aris Theodoropoulos. It’s light on alcohol, so it won’t leave you with a hangover to ruin your climbing on the mythic formations the next day. Another popular Greek liquor you can find on the island is Ouzo. It’s a strong, clear booze flavored with anise, lending it an aromatic licorice taste. Add some water and it turns cloudy white… typically served with small plates of food called mezedes.

5. Red River Gorge, Kentucky / Bourbon (various local labels)

Miguel’s Pizza, the prime hangout and campground for Kentucky’s sandstone climbing paradise, is in a dry county. Still, one has only to drive an hour or two to access over a dozen bourbon distilleries. From Maker’s Mark to Woodford Reserve to Evan Williams, there’s no shortage of Kentucky’s famous barrel-aged distilled spirit in these parts. If you choose to tour these distilleries, be sure to assign a designated driver… or better yet, just pick up a bottle on your way into the Red and enjoy it around the campfire. (If you want to blend in with the locals, you might do better to hit the beer trailer just over the country line and grab a case of Budweiser or Miller Lite.)

6. Blue Mountains, Australia / Victorian Bitter

A few hours east of Sydney, the Blue Mountains (aka “the Blueys”) area in New South Wales is a massive red sandstone canyon chock full of amazing climbs. While perhaps not as popular among international visitors as the Grampians, the Blueys is worth a visit, both for the climbing and for the scenery. The small towns of Katoomba, Blackheath, and Mount Victoria offer coffee shops for morning fuel-ups and pubs to entertain in the evening and on rest days. Here, says Australian crush Chris Webb Parson, “The bogan drink—or cliché drink—is a beer called Victorian Bitter. We just call it VB. It’s funny though… If you’re from Queensland, you drink a brand called XXXX (four X).”

7. Frankenjura / Beer (various local brews)

This massive limestone climbing area comprises over 1500 crags spread over hundreds of miles and hundreds of little villages. Home to one of the largest collections of hard climbs in the world, as well as the first 9a ever climbed (Action Directe), visitors and locals looking to unwind after a day of pocket pulling will typically hoist one of the many hundreds of local brews. In fact, Frankenjura is in the Oberfranken region, described in the Huffington Post as “quite possibly the pinnacle of beer awesomeness in Bavaria,” which easily puts it near the top of beer awesomeness pretty much anywhere. Prost!

But wait! Before you click off to that cat video compilation your cousin sent you last week, don’t forget to add your favorite crag/drink pairings in the comments!

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.

*   *   *

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.

Spotting: You’re Doing It Wrong

So this weekend I headed back to the Valley that is Joe’s, to do some practice climbing on the small cliff chunks there. More importantly, I wanted to meet up with my dear friends Nick and Robin, of Boulder, Colorado. Climbing with these two is always a great time, plus Nick promised to bring me some Avery beers, which I cannot find here in Disneyland – Wild West Edition, aka Salt Lake City.

While climbing with these two go-getters, I noticed Nick had a strange habit of climbing up to the top of the boulder and spotting from above. I don’t think this is the recommended technique, but as Robin is super strong and never falls, I guess it doesn’t matter. Maybe it was some sort of early April Fools gag. Regardless…

I’d also like to give a big shout out to the future Mrs. Blockhead Lord, as she broke the V1 barrier with ease this weekend. She’s a Couch Crusher in embryonic form, if I’ve ever seen one.

The Anti-Tourist: LA Recommended

Growing up as only child, my parents kindly took me with them on their many travels. Without fail, the most exciting thing about our destinations was the food. France, Greece, Northern California, New York City… before our trips, I recall mom and dad clipping reviews from papers and magazines (pre-Google! pre-Urban Spoon!), plotting out our culinary itinerary to the meal. It’s only logical though — nothing gives more intimate connection to a place and a people than food.

This past weekend, my fiancée and I headed to Los Angeles to meet up with my folks and enjoy a brief vacation. Again, meals provided the anchors around which the rest of the trip would flow. Admittedly, three nights in LA are not enough to scratch the city’s strange, smoggy surface, but my special lady and I certainly came away from the trip with a few food and entertainment recommendations. If you’re heading to LA for a day or a week, or (I suppose, if you live in LA and just need an excuse to try something new) consider adding these to your list. They’re places worthy of planning a trip around.

Check out a photo gallery from my LA trip, here

The main dining room of Gjelina, on Abbot Kinney
The main dining room of Gjelina, on Abbot Kinney

Gjelina – Located amongst the pricey eclectic boutiques of tragically hip Abbot Kenny Road, Gjelina offers a high-end rustic setting with fresh, well-thought-out food: raw wood planks and beams, bare light bulbs with bright orange filaments aglow, rusted metal fixtures, a monumental steel I-beam exposed on the ceiling. We sat in the back patio, where patina-colored tables rested on antique bricks. Every dish we tried was superb: grilled brussels sprouts with bacon, dates, and vinegar; a mixed cheese plate with goat, cow, and sheep’s milk cheeses; a flatiron steak sandwich on a baguette with chili peppers, arugula, and a sinus-infiltrating (in a good way) horseradish aioli; a fried egg sandwich with roasted pepper, mozzarella, prosciutto, arugula, and harissa aioli; and a lamb burger with the same harissa aioli, roasted tomato, and arugula. Next door is Gjelina GTA, a take-out specific space for those looking to save a little money and a lot of time – gjelina.com.

Mixed cheese plate at Gjelina
Mixed cheese plate at Gjelina

Intelligentsia Coffee – Also on Abbot Kinney, this spot takes coffee dorkery to its logical extreme. The first and most noticeable trait of the large, airy café is the layout. Instead of the typical straight block of forward-facing counter space, Intelligentsia features a circular counter, penning in the four or five tragically hip knowledgable baristas working the gleaming coffee machinery. The theory behind the counter circle, our barista informed us, was to reduce the distance between barista and customer. In the rear of the shop was an area labeled “slow bar.” Here, a coffee expert will take you through the origin story of the particular coffee you order. Whether you enjoy Intelligentsia’s ambience or not (I did), it’s hard to argue that the high-quality, fresh coffee was expertly prepared. The cappuccinos and lattes were artful blends of well-pulled espresso and what I can only presume was local, organic milk. A small, moist red velvet mini cake sported a layer of raspberry cream and a delicate chocolate coating. While enjoying our Intelligentsia experience, we were also stoked to see our favorite ex-IRA weapons expert, Fiona, from the TV series Burn Notice (her real name is Gabrielle Anwar). Our LA experience felt somehow more complete for the television-star sighting – intelligentsiacoffee.com.

Note: Our barista at Intelligentsia was practiced in the art of latte “leaf” creation (see below). For a very cool piece on this frothy medium, check out The Art of Judging Latte Art on Slate.com

 cacA barista pouring a near-perfect latte at Intelligentsia
A barista pouring a near-perfect cappuccino at Intelligentsia
A barista at Intelligentsia Coffee
A barista at Intelligentsia Coffee

The Lazy Ox Canteen – Located in one of my favorite downtown LA neighborhoods, Little Tokyo, the Lazy Ox isn’t a Japanese restaurant. The owner, Michael Hide Cardenas, however, was raised in Japan, and Japanese notes definitely infiltrate many of the eclectic dishes. Our party of four waited a solid hour to be seated sans reservation, but luckily a walk through Little Tokyo burned most of that. At one point, we came across an awkward outdoor karaoke session in a little plaza full of bakeries, noodle shops, and fashion boutiques. We spent the final twenty minutes of our wait sipping sake and big bottles of Kirin at the Japanese restaurant next door to the Lazy Ox. Once seated, we ordered four small and four medium-sized plates, not of a single one of which was less than amazing. Still, some standouts included barbecued short ribs, polenta with mushrooms, the tempura artichoke hearts with a citrus mayonnaise, and the ricotta fritters with honey. I can only assume the rest of the items on the ever-changing menu would have been as exceptional, too. For desert, a seasonal fruit crumble, and butterscotch pudding were among the party favorites, but again, nothing was disappointing. The Lazy Ox philosophy is “to bring exceptional ingredients prepared artistically at an approachable price.” The first two items I can see, but the approachable price thing seems like a bit of a stretch. Maybe I’ve forgotten how much things cost in the big city… – lazyoxcanteen.com

Also highly recommended are LA’s many food trucks. We only ate at one, which served killer Bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches on baguettes),  so you’ll have to experiment to find your style. Totally worth it. Find them at findlafoodtrucks.com

A food truck in LA
"Cool Haus," one of many food trucks in LA. This one was parked across the street from the LA Country Museum of Art, which has a great show on California modernist design from the 1930s-60s.

And here are a few places we didn’t get to go but that were highly recommended by trustworthy sources: