Europe by car

6500 Km/4000 miles

colorful umbrellas

One of many colorful and unique sites along my travels.

Even though traveling through Europe is a breeze with trains and public transport, I knew with my schedule and the places I wanted to see that renting a car would be easiest this trip. I was spending up to 2 months and traveling between northern Germany and southern France.  For the price of a rental, it may have been worth it to buy a car, but the hassle of finding a reliable one and then selling it in the end, did not appeal to me. I preferred the convenience and reliability that a rental provides and was willing to pay that extra price.

IMG_2096It’s quite the experience country hopping by car. Quite a bit different from taking a train. And, the biggest bonus was that I didn’t have to worry about dumping food each time I moved locations. With a car, it was easy to transport all my luggage and surplus items. Another perk was the ability to go anywhere on a whim, and stop at any point at any time, for any reason. Combine my trains, planes and automobile experience of different countries and I start to get a real picture for how a country works.

My arrival into Frankfurt, Germany was simple. I have come to appreciate this airport despite its initial dark and scary impression when I first came through back in year 2000.  That was the first time I saw airport officers with machine guns. It was simply a forced layover so I didn’t tour the city, but that was my first time stepping foot in Germany–a country with a dark past, clouded, in my mind, by historical impressions. Contrast that with my impression today and Germany is becoming one of my favorite countries to visit.

Mediterranean Sea

From Frankfurt to the Mediterranean Sea. Travel by car makes impromptu site seeing a breeze.

Having spent quite a bit of time in Germany last year, and having rented a car from time to time, I learned how to drive and navigate on German roads, including the Autobahn. The first time I drove on the autobahn, I was intimidated, cautious, and a little apprehensive. Aside from the no speed limit zones, I had to learn the many road signs and get comfortable navigating. There is a lot going on when you are driving on the Autobahn and I quickly learned that I must always be alert and never get complacent, even when driving in the slow lane. Driving is always on the defensive. Stay right, except to pass and pass only when it is safe to do so. Pass quickly, especially when there is no speed limit, then get back right and get out of the way! Someone faster is probably coming. Landing in Frankfurt and immediately getting my rental car brought these memories back. I quickly acclimated to the driving style and honestly was relieved to finally open it up and really drive.

Mont Blanc

Katy pointing out the clouds clearing on the Aiguille du Midi.

Because you don’t need to rent a car to get around Europe, I thought I would outline some of the things that stood out for me as I took on this challenge. Some of them are fascinating differences and some are things you simply need to know or can expect should you wish to take on this type of adventure for yourself. Enjoy and drive safe!

  1. Endless construction.
    • Reminds me of my years driving in Ohio where there are 4 seasons for driving: fall, winter, spring, and construction. 😊Watch for extreme changes in speeds, e.g. 100 kph to 80 kph. There is no “grace period” to reach these speeds. You must brake and get to the speed immediately. Naturally, you do so in advance of the sign, which means you must learn to spot these situations and always stay alert!

      Hiking

      The infamous Ceuse hike. It was every bit I heard it was and HOT!

  2. Vignette’s and tolls.
    • I had to buy an annual pass, called a vignette, to drive through Switzerland. Cost nearly 50 Euro. ☹ But, I could drive on any highway in the country during the year for that cost so it really pays off if you are spending a long time in the country. There is no discount for those simply passing through. 😊
    • Not all countries have this kind of toll, but many do. France is a country that doesn’t make you buy a pass as soon as you enter. However, you end up paying tolls depending on the roads you choose to drive. The main roads typically have toll stations throughout the country making driving a bit more expensive and slow—you must stop to pay these tolls. Tolls can vary from several Euros and up. Occasionally the toll booths only take cash or may have a cashier option. Most have credit card options, but a word of caution about credit card readers, including ATM readers, they can sometimes be tampered with and your card information stripped from you. I’ve had this happen to a friend who had is ATM card read by a tampered machine. The culprits copied his card and then proceeded to use it to empty his account, all unbeknownst to him until it was too late. ☹

      Portal to climbs on the Aiguille du midi

      Katy holding an ice axe at a climbers portal on the Aiguille du midi in Chamonix, France. Almost like a real climber! 🙂

    • Paying cash for tolls are best and they make change. Sometimes you get a ticket at a toll station and pay when you exit. Make sure you look for the visual depicting cash (money with coins) above the toll station, otherwise, you may end up in a lane that is for regular users who have a special pass.
    • If you find yourself in the wrong lane, it is not uncommon to back up—even if there are cars behind you. People want to get where they are going and chances are there are multiple lanes for everyone to choose from. Simply put your car into revers and slowly the cars behind will get the hint and all will start reversing and picking different lanes. This may take a little while, but it is possible to do. Likewise, if you find yourself behind someone who doesn’t know what they are doing or is having problems with the machine, unless you think you can help, you can repeat this process to get out of the jam and into another lane yourself.
  3. Cash is king, except in Sweden.
    • Be prepared to pay cash for many, many things. Tolls, food, gas, medical etc. Sometimes credit cards are accepted but it’s still more common to find yourself paying with cash, especially when visiting smaller towns or going further from the major cities.
  4. When you enter a new country, there is typically a big sign with pictures on it and speed limits and possibly some words.
    • Pay attention to the sign. This is important and a challenge to absorb if you aren’t used to them or expecting them.
      • They usually contain these main 4 elements: Highway (e.g. indicated by an image of a green road), a major road (e.g. indicated by an image of a blue road), Cityscape (e.g. an image depicting a city), and a Town (e.g. an image depicting a small village).
      • Next to each image is a speed limit annotation. This is the maximum speed for each zone.
      • There may be words that indicate something specific or further instructs you about speed limits.

        Climbing Mont Blanc in background

        Katy taking on one of her first outdoor leads in Chamonix.

  5. Whatever you thought you knew about speed limits prior to entering this new country, is now obsolete. These rules are the new enforceable rules.
    • For example, in Germany, their green roads could have no speed limit, but in France, those green roads have a maximum of 130 kph.
  6. Fueling your car
    • When fueling the car, you typically fuel first, pay second.
    • This feels very old school to me. I recall having to do that in my very early days of driving. Nowadays, this is a very rare occurrence in America. I’m not sure why it’s this way in Europe, but it is.

      Mont Blanc

      Mont Blanc

    • Paying at the pump.
      • Sometimes there is a machine in the fueling area where you can pay. This can be confusing. Not all pay machines would take my credit card so there were times when I did not know how to get fuel at that station. (these machines tended to coincide with no attendant on duty)
      • A few times, I learned that these machines will request information in the native language with no English option, before I could pump. (e.g. Enter your pump number). After successfully answering the questions, I could pump fuel. Then I had to return to the pump to pay. Be aware that it will request information again (most likely starting with “Enter your pump number”.
      • The best thing to do here, if you don’t know what it’s asking because of the strange format, is to guess what it could want. Of course, if that fails (and it failed me) then you may have to find a local to translate. 😊

        Mont Blanc

        Mont Blanc

  7. The roads are smaller/narrower.
    • Construction zones are horrifying at times. I remember being white knuckled in a 2 lane, barriered zone attempting to pass a truck. The lanes were so narrow, I thought I would scrape the barrier as I went past. Sometimes passing a truck or getting caught beside a truck is unavoidable. This trip was the first time I saw a van scrape the barrier as he tried to pass one. I always wondered if that happened.
    • I had to get comfortable with the dimensions of my vehicle. Pulling in mirrors when parked and squeezing in and out of spaces was not unusual.

Since I’m a climber, I spend time in the countryside, which means I had the pleasure to drive on very petite roads. These roads are meant for 2-way traffic, but barely allow, if it allows at all, 2 cars to pass at the same time.

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Ceuse

Driving at night is the most problematic because these same roads do not have good visibility. Blind corners abound and the locals scream down these roads. In my case, one such road had a nice drop off at the edge of the road making it nerve wrecking to find myself in a passing situation at times.

Typically, and especially in the day time, one of the cars pulls to the side to allow the other to pass. What I learned is that, on some of these roads, you must back up to a passing area to make the pass safe for both vehicles. I had to learn these petite roads to know where the potential turn offs could be so that should an oncoming vehicle appear, I would know if I should make them pull off or if I needed to find a way to pull off.

My mistake one night was in being nice and trying to let the other car pass. I wasn’t in a good passing zone and the other car should have pulled off because there was a pull off closer to them, but they saw me slow down and make room so they sped through.

I was knowingly very close to the drop off edge but when I went to drive away, my back tire slid into the ditch. The whole ordeal was anticlimactic. The car was just suddenly stuck in the ditch. Once I realized this, it became an epic night in the middle of nowhere France trying to get my car out.

Roadside assistance is amazing! Slow, but awesome. And, they were free! I used them to get my vehicle out of the ditch. Once they arrived, it took 5 minutes to get the car unstuck. No damage. I was lucky!

These types of roads can be found all over Europe so be prepared.

Bug Patrol

Country living. Here, my friend Katy is on bug patrol. Brought back memories of a time with me and my sister.

  1. Parking
    • Parallel parking is super handy in the city.
    • Most parking in the city has pay stations and signs or notations on the pay stations that tell you the hours you must pay. Sometimes 1 hour is free. Most drivers have a placard in their car with a clock that you can adjust the hour. This is used for those situations. Essentially, you place the placard on your dash with the time that you parked and you leave. The attendant can see that you are parked within the free time, based on that. After this time, you must pay the meter and put the receipt in the vehicle.
  2. In Germany, you can drive with a beer in your hand.
    • Of course, the police have the right to ask for a blood alcohol screen at any time. And, they have a strict 0.05 mg of alcohol per mm of blood limit. But, so long as you aren’t drunk driving, you are legal to drive and drink. In my experience, the people who do this aren’t abusing it. They have a beer on the way home from climbing or to the restaurant for food. Open containers aren’t an issue for passengers either, so long as no one was driving over the limit.
    • This is a great article to more information and a comparison of Germany’s drinking laws and Americas.
      cycling Chamonix, France

      You don’t need a car all of the time. Cycling is a great alternative!

       

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Why compete in climbing?

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Holding the Flag before the presentation of athletes at IFSC World Cup (Lead) Briancon

There is always something on my mind, an endless stream of thoughts and things to ponder. Traveling gives me the time and space to process these thoughts but I don’t often get the time to put it down on “paper” to share with anyone. I hope to kick off some posts now that I’m back “home” before I lose touch with the nuances of this time away. The first is a look at what it’s like to be competing in a world cup with some of our most talented climbers from around the world.

The first question I get is Why? Why compete? Isn’t it better to focus on climbing outside? And, why try to compete with today’s youth who are seasoned competitors, some competing for most of their lives?

It does seem logical to focus more on the outdoors especially since there are no local lead competitions for adults. There are a couple fun ones that crop up from time to time, like the Summer Slam at Vertical World here in Seattle. However, as an adult, if you want to compete at the World Cup level, you simply show up at USA Climbing Sport Nationals and try hard to get a ranked spot to get an invite. For me, that means there is no real competition training. An adult that doesn’t come from a youth circuit will have to wing it at Nationals. Still, despite this distinct disadvantage, competing is nothing like climbing outdoors.

Competition climbing is really it’s own sport and it brings different challenges: performance on demand and under pressure, the ability to read routes and execute sequences, the mental challenge of performing on a stage and amongst some of the strongest climbers from around the world, as well as the confidence and belief in my ability. Of course, I think the outdoors are more fun and I want to be out climbing as much as possible, but having a chance to compete at this level, doesn’t last. The training, focus, diet, discipline, etc. it takes to consider this opportunity takes a toll and as an adult, that can have major consequences on ones job, family, mental acuity, social life, and finances, to name a few. Yet, for me, I think it’s worth it for this period in my life. Any training I do for competitions will directly translate to my outdoor goals. Therefore, for me, I think I have nothing to lose by trying.

I won’t be doing any more bouldering competitions, and I don’t have Olympic aspirations. Bouldering is good for training or for fun, but my days of competing in bouldering are over. In this regard, I think this is where age really does matter. I’m sure there are other people around my age who will still kill it out there, but I don’t want the risk. Injuries at this age are big setbacks and something major could take me out of climbing for good. It could happen in other scenarios, but signing up to consciously take on such a risk, isn’t worth it for me anymore.

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Making some moves in the IFSC World Cup (Lead) Briancon

While I’m psyched to have the opportunity to compete at the World Cups this year, I know I’m at a significant disadvantage. The youth I am competing against have years of competition experience (Kai Lightner at 17 already has 13 years under his belt). It’s what they do on a regular basis, year to year. I definitely don’t have that and there is no way I’ll gain that kind of experience in the time I’ll be competing. But, I do have ~25 years of outdoor climbing experience and I have excelled at sport climbing so that’s got to count for something. 🙂

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Brooke Raboutou making moves in Semis in Chamonix

Despite my significant disadvantage when it comes to competition experience for sport climbing, I’m still doing ok. My first 2 comps I ended up about the same placement though my mental attitude changed with the second one. If it wasn’t for this recent hip strain, I would have been amped to compete at Arco.

Chamonix was hard for me because I was anxious. It was my first international lead World Cup in Europe and it meant a lot to me to be there. I wasn’t sure I would even be able to clip the first draw. I seriously had a real fear of falling at the start or slipping off the first foot hold.

Briancon was interesting because although I was less anxious, I hit a wall on my first route and still wonder what I could have done differently. The second route, my head cleared exactly the way I would have hoped. I was “in the zone” climbing. I didn’t execute exactly what was in the video (qualifiers are flash format so there is always video footage of the routes competitors can watch prior to climbing), but I did climb the way I climb–leveraging information from the video. The only startling thing was my flub during a clip. I had a pause that took my ability to clip from clippable to “oh shoot” in a split second. I dropped the rope and tried readjusting but it didn’t help. I tried to back down to shake and realized that was a mistake, then tried to make forward/upward progress but it was too late. I wasted energy and I was no longer in the “zone” so I wasn’t relaxed and all of that tension zapped my ability to think and climb. Lesson learned.

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Meeting a competition legend: Jain Kim from Korea

Both of these competitions taught me a lot. Meeting competitors I’ve heard of for years, some I’d seen in competition before but never shared a stage. To have my name in a lineup like that, to be on stage proving myself against a lineup like that…this challenge, pursuit of my fullest potential in climbing, the determination to get a world ranking and make a semi final round, to know that I was at least good enough to hold my own against people significantly younger than I, well, all of it is priceless to me.

Those competitors may have 10 or more years of competition in them, I certainly don’t. But, while I have the ability and psyche, then I’m determined to make the most of it. I’ve got nothing to lose and only gains to be had. I’m having fun being out there, taking on the training, being the best athlete I can be. In my opinion, there is nothing that demands so much of me than climbing competitions and I really enjoy that pressure! If that ever changes, I’ll stop, but in the meantime, my sights are on Kranj. Wish me luck!

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Europe bound, T-4 days

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This crew = good times! Psyched to have had a long weekend of climbing and camping.

Holy cow. Time is flying by! I’m working and climbing (finally!) and getting psyched to head out to Europe. I did my best at Nationals and despite my placement, I was selected to compete in a few world cups starting in Chamonix and finishing in Kranj.

The recap from Nationals was disappointing. The highlights were that I had fun, I watched some amazing athletes compete, I witnessed two local “kids” make finals and Drew Ruana take 2nd by a narrow margin. Ashima was in true form and Margo and Brooke put on a great show. The routes were well set but for me the angles were a bit intimidating since I don’t have access to those types of walls near me. Still, my first route was good. I had a few hiccups where I pushed through but was unsure if I was going to pull it off, and unfortunately, rushed the upper headwall and flashed pumped off the route.

That highpoint was a good one but not good enough to offset my performance on the 2nd route. I was seeded first, which meant I climbed first for the initial qualifiers route, then I am middle of the pack for the 2nd qualifying route. That alone was enough to make me anxious, something for some reason I wasn’t able to control for the entire competition.

You can watch Route A, here.

The 2nd route was harder, in my opinion, than the first route. I had a lot of energy going into this route; like I said, I was anxious. Unfortunately, I struggled with a move low on the route, too low to make semis. I was very disappointed in that performance.

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Ashima walking the first route. Women’s second route can be seen to her right.

I volunteered for the rest of the competition to take my mind off it and stay focused on learning something and having fun. It worked. I went home, double checked the results and buried my head in my pillow to sleep it off.

I was about to write off any hope of a world cup this year, but our team was lacking participants and opened up applications for a spot to compete. I wouldn’t be an official US Team member, but I didn’t care about that. I have wanted an opportunity to compete internationally for lead climbing since my first and only lead competition back in 2011 where I did represent the US National team and competed in the first World Cup in the US for sport climbing in 20 years! But, that year, despite having signed up for Spain to compete internationally, I would end up having shoulder surgery instead.

To have a chance to get this experience now, after 6 years of not competing? I am beyond excited! I put in my application and was granted a spot to compete in 3 world cups: Chamonix, Briancon and Kranj.

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Back in my old stomping grounds,  Rude Boys goes down. Photo by Brett Johnston

With my Nationals training and my disappointment in my Nationals performance, I set my training regiment a bit differently for these comps. First, I knew my head needed to catch up to my ability and my ability needed to get to the stage I wanted. So, I continued my training to finish it out and then tabled it as I set my sights on climbing outdoors as much as possible. The combination has been great for my confidence and my overall psyche for climbing.

I know that these first 2 comps are about experience. There are going to be many unknowns and variables and having a chance to go through the process will give me more insight into how to improve and where to focus for the next one. I have no goals right now. Just show up, have fun and do my best! This is the only time I can have this mindset because after you get some experience and know what you are in for, then you also know what you are capable of and therefore have more ambitious expectations.

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4th day on, 2nd 5.13 of the day: Jesus Save the Pushers, Photo by Tony Chan.

No matter the outcome, I know I will have a blast because I’ve never competed on an international stage for sport climbing outside of the US and it’s Southern France! I’ll be experiencing Ceuse and all the fine things France has to offer. And, I have a friend coming to cheer me on and share part of the experience. I can’t wait to reunite with friends and take some time to climb freely while there. It’s less than a week before I leave. I can’t believe it’s time to go already!!

After 1 year of waiting on a split ankle tendon to heal and 1 year of rehabilitation, I’m finally back! In this short time I’ve come back into climbing, I’ve had a pretty good run of ticking climbs I have wanted to climb for 10 years! A brief look:

March 12, right after Nationals, I flash 5.13a at Golden Cliffs/East Quarry just outside Denver, Colorado.

April 15, I onsight Kings of Raps (5.12d) at Smith Rocks, a route I have wanted to do since I heard my friend, Mandoline, had done it 10 years ago.

April 28, I send Darkness at Noon (5.13a), 3rd go. This was a route I remember hearing my friend Kim had done years ago and one I had thought “wow, if I could ever do that….”

April 30, Another climb on my ticklist: Rude Boys (5.13c). I snag this thing within 3 tries, making up the crux as I went because I did not have it rehearsed nor had I linked through the entire thing when I did it.

June 21, I send Devil’s note (5.13a) after trying to climb it while it was wet, I had to wait for it to dry and then I sent, 3rd go, though I hardly count the 2nd attempt!

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Climbing at Boss Wall. Photo by Julie Busby

June 28, I send Moment of Silence (5.13c) and fall at the redpoint crux on Jesus Save the Pushers (5.13a)…wished I had beta for the top! I didn’t see where to go and was too tired to think straight so blew the 2nd go.

June 30, I send Feed Your Monkey (5.13a) and Jesus Save the Pushers (5.13a), 4th day on first attempts on each. Feed Your Monkey 2nd go (one attempt 2 days prior, just before the sun hit the wall) and Jesus Save the Pushers 3rd attempt, with unrehearsed beta at the redpoint crux to the top. This goes down as one of my proudest send days.

July 2, I send Baby on Board. Again, unrehearsed beta, changed mid-climb but I pull it off and get the send. Psyched to end this mini-project there. That place gets over crowded.

I’m excited for how the season is shaping. I’m ready to experience the challenges in Europe and aiming to meet some long standing goal of mine, in addition to competing in Europe.  I am eager to see what I can do from here and am doing everything I can to stay injury free and keep the psyche up.

There is only one thing I know, when it stops being fun, walk away and do something different. There’s no walking away for me just now. Just upward and forward climbing progression. I’ll post the link to the comps when I have them. Meanwhile, celebrate these little successes with me and send me good vibes for Europe. And, if you are out and about, hit me up and maybe we can climb!

As always, stay safe out there.

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