Thursday, December 1, 2016

Skratch Labs cookie mix: 4CA cookie recipe

As temperatures fall and ideal bouldering weather in the Mid-Atlantic arrives, I find myself getting just as excited about the shift in which things I want to cook.  In my mind, summer is grilling season, and winter is baking season.  Yes, I understand that both can be done year round, and I've certainly had my manliness questioned for admitting that I'd rather be next to a warm oven in the winter than out on the deck with tongs in hand and snow in my hair, but if anything that dividing line (albeit blurry) just makes me more excited for the change in season and the arrival of new food options.

It's fitting that ideal bouldering weather is also ideal baking weather, since bouldering and cookies are one of the best pairings I've ever found.  I still don't know nearly as much about the ins and outs of baking as I do about other types of cooking, but Skratch Labs' cookie mix gave me a great jumping off point, and the 4CA (coffee, cinnamon, coconut, chocolate, almond) cookies I make with it are my favorite.  Given the amount of requests I get for the recipe when I've brought them to demos or out climbing, I figured it was time to write it down.

4CA cookies


1 box Skratch Labs cookie mix
1 stick butter
1 egg
1/3 cup mini chocolate chips
1/3 cup unsweetened coconut
1/3 cup almonds
1 tbsp coffee
1 tbsp cinnamon (I prefer Vietnamese cinnamon)


1) Preheat oven to 350F.

2) Crush almonds or grind them in a food processor.

3) Combine all ingredients except butter and egg.  Mix until evenly distributed.

4) Add the butter and egg, and continue mixing until all of the dough sticks together

5) Place rounded teaspoons of dough on baking sheet for individual cookies, or press it into a rectangle on the baking sheet for cookie bars.

6) Bake 10-15 minutes for individual cookies, or 15-25 minutes for bars, depending on desired firmness.

7) Share them with your friends!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Vegas Thanksgiving 2016

A week ago I was settling in to Vegas for our yearly Thanksgiving visit.  Although we've been doing it for years, I rarely post about it here, mostly because each trip seems so similar to the last that I feel like mentioning it would be repetitive.  Then I realized that as new places have opened, and our tastes have changed, this year actually was different enough from my original experiences out there that I wanted to pass along some of my favorite parts of it.

All of our Vegas trips start at Red Rocks, usually driving out to Desert Rock Sports to rent a crash pad (still $15 for regular size and $25 for highball), which we love since we don't have to drag pads through airports in two directions for a few hours of bouldering.  Recently we've been stopping at the Red Rock casino on the way out for a bite to eat, usually just at the food court there, but in the past couple years at Yard House because we've gotten there late enough that the main restaurants are open.  I know it's a chain, but (and teenage me never would have said this) I was craving their brussels sprouts anyway. Maybe not the best thing in my stomach before climbing, but tasty.

Although we usually just head to the Kraft boulders, this year we decided to take a drive on the scenic loop first since we'd never done that, and decided to check out some of the bouldering along the loop. We only made one climbing stop, at the Sandstone Quarry boulder, but we had it to ourselves and got a bit of fun slab movement in to stretch our bodies back out after so much sitting.

Now here's where, as a climber, I'm supposed to say that I hated leaving that perfect serene desert for the unnatural bright light of the strip and the wasteful, capitalistic, and shallow things it embodies. Except I have to admit I kind of love it.  True, I would never want to be there for more than a few days, but there's always something to see and do, no matter your preferences.  My preference is eating and drinking my way through the trip, having good conversations, and watching all of the interesting people go by.  I never get tired of the sights!

This year we stayed at Caesar's Palace, which we'd somehow never stayed at before despite hanging out there every year.  My favorite is still Paris, with painted ceilings making me feel like I'm outside, but Caesar's had a comfort when I was staying there that I'd never felt when just walking through. Not that I'd ever want to spend a whole trip in one casino, but with the good variety of bars and restaurants there, Caesar's was a place where I might be able to do that.  It didn't hurt that we got an upgraded room for my birthday, and the view was beautiful.

All of our breakfasts were at Caesar's, and I'll admit that breakfast was the one meal that surprised me with how expensive it was.  Cafe Americano has always had good food when we've gone there on the past couple trips, and although the prices do seem a bit steep, the servings are pretty big.  For me that's a downside, since I don't want to be too full to look forward to all of the other great food out there, but I think most people would feel better about it.  The veggie benedict I had this year was actually a reasonable size though, and the Brown Derby I washed it down with helped my morning off to a great start.

I actually liked our breakfast at Payard a bit better, though I'll admit I'm partial to pastries, and the pastry basket was one of the cheapest things on the menu.  All three were tasty, and way bigger than I expected considering I got to choose three of them.

Our final breakfast of the trip took a completely different direction, with Emily wanting to go to the 24 hour Beijing Noodle No. 9, since the wait had been too long for dinner the night before.  Again, not cheap, but huge portions of delicious food.  Our stomachs also felt surprisingly good for the flight, considering how much we ate.

We were never really hungry enough for lunch, but we did get some snacks at LVB Burger (Mirage) and China Poblano (Cosmopolitan), which I had been wanting to try for a while.  Everything we tried at China Poblano was decent enough, though I didn't find it as good as at the other Jose Andres restaurants I've visited.

For dinner the first night, I had toyed with requesting our standby favorite Bouchon (Venetian) for my birthday dinner, but we were pretty wiped and didn't feel like leaving our own casino.  Too bad in a way, since I loved the boudin blanc last year and those fries are always incredible.

Instead we ended up staying at Caesar's and going to the Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill, another place I've wanted to try for a while.  We split a bunch of small plates, and the scotch egg was one of the better ones I've had.

Harvest (Bellagio) was our choice for Thanksgiving dinner, and although we've learned that our Friday night meals are almost always better than what we get on Thanksgiving, the mushroom porridge I had was delicious.  Dressing up was fun too.

Our last dinner of the trip was at Mesa Grill, another of our standby spots, and the mushroom quesadilla was as awesome as ever.  Apparently awesome enough that I ate it before grabbing a photo.

We also went to a few good new (to us) cocktail places, on top of our usual stops.  Rhumbar (Mirage) has always been one of our favorites, both for the quality and reasonable cost of the cocktails, and for the outdoor couches with heat lamps.  A perfect compromise when the Black Friday #optoutside thing wasn't going to happen for us.

Public House (Venetian) was a place I knew I wanted to get back to, but I didn't realize exactly how long I'd want to spend there.  Well worth the stop!

Another of our favorites has always been the Chandelier (Cosmopolitan), and we did enjoy our stop there as usual.

We also got a chance to check out Vesper (Cosmopolitan), which had a fun concept of featuring several classic cocktails along with their own take on them.  I was really happy with the Mother Club, a variation on a Bobby Burns.

The one place I hadn't heard about, and certainly didn't expect to be a good cocktail spot, was the Montecristo cigar bar (Caesar's Palace).  We took a look at the cocktail menu in passing, and I wanted to at least stop to try the Rolling Smoke, made with Makers 46, Laphroaig, and a coffee-infused Carpano Antica.  Totally worth it!

A big revelation for me this time out there was how fun it is to run on the Strip.  I usually get up sometime between 5:30-6:00 and take a walk until everyone else wakes up, but on this trip decided to go for runs on two of my three mornings.  With well lit streets, lots to see, and almost flat ground, the miles flew by quickly and I still felt energized when I finished.

So that's that.  Funny how a trip I make every year can seem so different every time, but that's part of what I love about it, and why I'm always looking forward to going back.  For now though, it's good to be home!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Relaxing at Gretna

Sunday was one of my favorite kind of climbing days... one where nobody gave a crap, and was just as happy climbing high quality easy lines as wrecking themselves at their limit.  With bodies still struggling to adjust from our Vegas Thanksgiving, but with weather too good to pass up, Emily and I dragged ourselves out of bed for a fantastic day of Gretna climbing with Rob and Jason.

With travel stiffness on top of my ongoing quest to not pull my back again, I planned even more than usual to stick to slab and vertical.  The only vague plan we had was that Rob and Jason wanted to get on Bashista Yo Sista, and I was excited for the chance to check out some of the less travelled boulders in the Bulge/Shamu areas.

After warming up at Help Meat and Josh in the Box, we walked over to where I figured everyone would get on Divine Wind, but somehow for the first time ever a group of four all decided that Slice looked good.  Having done it a few times, I played with variations while everyone worked out the regular beta, and although they didn't get any sends I was impressed that they all were willing to play on razor crimps for that long.

Deciding that skin conservation was more important than persistence, Rob and Jason went uphill to Bashista, with Rob taking it down before long.

After pulling on and deciding it would destroy my back, I instead ran some laps on the neighboring Pounder and Quarter Pounder, both fun options for any who want to stay on more vertical ground while their friends work the main event.  I'm not sure if the line has a name, but it was also really fun to start on the crimp plate in the center of the boulder and climb into either of the aretes or just straight up.

Just downhill from there, Love Potion was a really cool slabby arete climb, with plenty of feet in the cracked surface for those who don't trust smears, and even enough face hands to do it without the arete for an extra challenge.  After playing on that for a bit, Emily and I made a stop at Altered State before rejoining the boys and moving on.

After that, it was a bit of wandering as we made our way out, just checking out some of the sections we'd never been to.  We did make a quick stop at Stand Fast and Contrasting Impacts, both of which would be excellent for those new to the area, but otherwise didn't get on anything until Overlord. Having never seen Overlord before, once I took a look at it, I couldn't believe it wasn't mobbed.   Pretty sure it's the best V2 in the park, and one of the best I've ever done.  Slightly overhung with huge jugs and really cool movement, and a cool view down the hill behind.  Such a great climb!  I also did a quick run up Choppy, which was fun to do while in the area, but Overlord was the main attraction for sure.

Obviously any trip to Gretna is partly just an excuse for me to have dinner at the Troegs brewery afterward, which I'd highly recommend for the food even if you don't drink.  The duck confit was delicious, and Mad Elf fondue was as awesome as ever.  Not exactly the traditional post-climbing pizza/burrito stop, but sometimes it's good to be different.

Fingers crossed for a few more weeks without snow!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Thanks MAC!

Tis the season to be thankful, and before I go pack to fly out to Vegas in the morning for some sunny Red Rocks routes and a few fun days on the Strip, I wanted to take a moment to thank the Mid Atlantic Climbers for all the incredible work they've done this year.  As our local Access Fund affiliate, they mobilize a strong group of volunteers year after year to tackle a variety of projects throughout the region, but this year has been an especially great one for them.

Probably the biggest MAC accomplishment was their success, alongside the Access Fund, in working with the National Park Service to lift Catoctin Mountain Park's longstanding bouldering ban.  While there's certainly more than enough other rock along that ridge to keep any of us busy for a lifetime, the density of steep bouldering in the park is a huge addition to the diversity of Maryland bouldering.  I've only made it out there once since access was restored, but I'm sure I'll be spending plenty more time there now that temps are dropping!

                                                         Boss Hog                  Photo: John Brunson
MAC volunteers have also been in contact with park staff at Harpers Ferry about raptor closures and other access issues, as well as conducting their usual variety of Adopt-a-Crag events.  Last weekend, their annual cleanup event at Northwest Branch was an even bigger deal than usual, conducted as part of Access Fund and Black Diamond's joint ROCK Project Tour.  Together with the Access Fund's traveling conservation team, and several world class Black Diamond athletes, MAC volunteers put in an incredible morning of work cleaning graffiti and trash, maintaining trails, removing invasive species, and moving tons of rock to build a better landing area under Crimptastic.

MAC has also been running a great series of guest posts from local climbers about their favorite climbing spots around the area, including two (here and here) from the legendary John Kelbel about Patapsco State Park, and this one from my good friend John Brunson about some of the gems of the Sykesville area, including video of Sykesville strongman Will Anglin knocking out hard projects during his recent trip home.  Check them out, and stay tuned for more to come.

The official Mid Atlantic Climber project schedule is done for the year, but they're always looking for more good people to help out with future ones, especially those who are willing to do some of the behind the scenes work.  If you have talents that you think they could use, they'd love to hear from you.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Straight on till morning

Disclaimer: the following is another rambling post of self-analysis.  I'll post more pretty climbing pics again soon!

Middle school is rough on everyone, with bodies and emotions rebelling against us, and the social order we knew in elementary school unexpectedly upended.  Suddenly it mattered what we wore, who we talked to, what shows we watched, what games we played, and it seemed an absolute certainty that our entire social future depended on doing what everyone else did.  I tried for sure, but I was like the world's worst surfer, catching a wave right as it crashed onto shore and then continuing to stand there in the sand wondering where everyone else had gone.  Some of my friends gave up entirely, deciding that the cool crowd was irredeemably stupid and a waste of space, but the less connected I became, the more I wanted to fit in.

With high school looming, my future changed when a good family friend took me to my first wrestling match.  It took me a year to finally suck it up and try out, but it was one of the best things I ever did for myself, especially with a few gifted upperclassmen there to take me under their wings and unlock the athletic potential that I had buried under fifty pounds of excess teenage boy.  Suddenly I was doing something that made sense, that I couldn't stop thinking about, couldn't stop mentally refining the motions and the patterns, and more importantly I connected.  I finally had something that I could talk about and people wanted to hear.  For a while anyway.  It turns out that people don't want to hear about wrestling all the time, but I had some really good five minute conversations.

When I moved on to college, and looked around me at my orientation, I realized that the middle school social order had fallen.  In a room full of strangers, I was who I said I was.  I was as confident and outgoing as I portrayed myself to be.  Was it all an act, a character I was playing, or was it another part of me that was finally allowed to surface?  Maybe it was both.  As I got the best grades of my life and pushed myself athletically during the day, and my friends threw the best parties on weekends, my nights looked much as they always had... sitting at my desk and looking through yearbooks, field guides, and Nintendo instruction manuals, rolling dice for games I never actually played, just because I liked to see the numbers, and drawing countless pictures just to immediately throw them away, as in their moment of creation they had already served their purpose.  The exhilaration of connection and the comfort of isolation, both balanced to create a healthy whole.

Now my life is so amazing that I can't believe it's real, but I don't think much has actually changed. Climbing has replaced wrestling, both in obsession with refining movement and as a means of connection.  Better yet, when I'm out there repping products or organizations, I don't even have to worry about whether people want to hear about what I have to say, because that's why they've come over to my table in the first place.  Again, a character I play, or just an aspect of myself that I channel for the situation at hand?  Does it even matter?  I've also made the best friends of my life, most of whom share that love of climbing, but all of whom have other obsessions of their own, things that the rest of us don't understand but support wholeheartedly because of the joy those pursuits bring to the people we care about.  And yes, I still spend a lot of time alone, and love every moment of it.  While middle school me never would have admitted to doing math for fun, sitting out on my deck under the trees with an old math book is one of my favorite things.  As a slab climber, obviously algebra is my favorite... everything in balance, always balance.

I'm lucky to have a talented and beautiful wife as a mostly willing copilot in my ongoing voyage of self awareness, and sharing music with each other has been a big part of our relationship.  Often we agree, and every once in a while we don't.  Sometimes there's a song that one of us just can't stand, and Ruth B's Lost Boy elicits a loathing from her that I've rarely ever seen.  The first time we heard it, we actually thought it was a joke, but then it just kept going and we couldn't bring ourselves to turn it off.  Now she can't change the station fast enough when it comes on, but I find myself letting it play out when she's not around, not because I like it any better as a song now, but because of what it represents to me.

Neverland.  Where we go to escape, or where we go to find connection?  Or both?  Balance, always balance.  In high school, wrestling was my Neverland.  Now it's climbing, and math, and spring flowers, and a run under the trees, and drawing, and watching leaves blow in the autumn wind, and stair sprints with the music pumping.  It's where I go to lose myself and find myself.  Balance, always balance.

"Neverland is home to lost boys like me, and lost boys like me are free."

To all my freaks and geeks out there, to all my lost boys and girls, especially those of you still struggling to fit into a system that seems like it wants no part of you... hang in there.  Find your Neverland.  They say to look for it second to the right, but it's probably been in front you the whole time.  Find it. Embrace it, and don't look back.  Let it build you, and then use it to build others.  You're more powerful than you know.