Friday, June 15, 2007

Adirondacks - Saturday: Part Four: Midnight Bouldering

There's always one in every group. It's not a bad thing. In fact, it can be a good thing, but it is always both predictable and unpredictable at the same time: extra energy in youth will always have to find a way out of the body and into some adventure that makes one scratch his head. "Jello" is "that guy" in our group.

He got his nickname by wearing a Dead Kennedy's shirt to the gym (Jello Biafra being the energetic lead singer) the second time we climbed with him, and almost had his name changed to "Macchio" after refusing to stop doing the classic Karate Kid kick over and over again (which, by the way, he's so young that he really didn't even remember that there was a movie called "The Karate Kid", let alone know who Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio were - the bastard). Throwing kicks and punches into the air is his modus operandi. Leading whatever is in front of him comes a close second, then throwing large stones into fire pits (I'll get to that in another post) and the like come in third. The kid just does things, and I presume that's because he has so much damn energy that he simply doesn't know what to do with it.

Well, that last sentence isn't exactly true. At one point, at 10:34pm (not to be specific or anything), he decides he wants to go that moment, with headlamps, mattresses stolen from the bunk beds in the house we're staying in, and a suspected mountain lion on the loose near Lake Placid. I, being a humble thirty-two years old, question the kid's sensibility, mainly, also, because I'm thirty-two, and ideas such as this don't make as much sense to me as they might have when I was his age (go on, I can hear the "Old Man Burns" taunts percolating. Just do it and get it over with!). But naturally, what I think is irrelevant. The next thing I know "Jello" is throwing mattresses into the back seat and trunk of my car (need a better lock system, I guess) and "Unity" is searching for an extra headlamp for me to use.

"There's one particular climb," he tells me, "where we'll need the mattresses. I hope they work." I think he also hoped that his boss didn't come home that night to see the empty bunk beds. But whatever. I believe him when he says this and I drag my old bones to the driver's seat before heading off to Mackenzie Boulders in nearby Saranac Lake.

I park on the side of the road and we head into the woods. The path in is obvious and easy; no bushwhacking today. It's a good thing, too, because even with the headlamps, it is difficult to see anything other than what is lit up by the lamps. When we approach the first boulder, a pristine, lemon-shaped chunk of granite that rises about fifteen feet above the clean, pine-needle floor, I am shocked at how enticing the rock looks. This isn't just some random rock sticking out of the trees with moss all over the unclimbable sections. This is what I expect to see in a climbing video somewhere in Fountain Bleu, France: with all the brush meticulously pushed aside (as if it was landscaped), leaving several feet all around the boulder for ease of movement; clear, white marks on the usable holds only; and a perfect canopy of leafy and needled tree branches thirty feet up, which provide the kind of roof you dreamed of as kids whilst looking for a natural tree-house. It's just so perfect here. I'm actually glad that I came.

We walk deeper into the woods with the path never becoming overgrown or difficult the deeper we go. We pass through what seem to be little, intimate rooms of more boulders. Each room seems to have its own decor: the interior decorator choosing to blend the entire house with pines and maples but making each room different enough to fit the personality of the kid living in that room at that given time. There is one, tall boulder right in the middle of one room, and the path circumvents the rock in such a way as to casually deflect the passersby past anyone trying to climb and into the next room a few yards down the path. In tghe next room, the path splits several boulders on each side of the room; allowing the kids to feel hidden from view on the edges as thier parents walk from room to room looking for them. Finally, we stop at one room where nature has built us a jungle-gym of bouldering options. I am both nervous and oddly excited. My arms are shaking and I can feel my breath getting heavier. I say "oddly" because I don't boulder. In fact, until this moment I haven't bouldered more than once in at least three or four years.

I gave bouldering a shot a few weeks before at the gym and did OK, but not great. It was fun, but not as fun as roping up. The truth is, I've always had the this notion that I'll get hurt, and that notion is partially true. Bouldering is just a jerky sport. I obviously don't mean that boulderers are jerks. What I mean is that the moves are jerky; they require either a solid amount of core strength or dynamic moves that snap the joints and tendons upon landing. Naturally, the static moves are the way to go, but dumb people like me, until I bouldered at the at the gym a few weeks ago, tend to jerk our bodies around just so we can show how manly we really aren't. I also weighed an unhealthy twenty pounds more that I do now when I was bouldering, thus making those hard landings even more severe (by the way, by "landing" I mean finishing a move, not falling to the ground. Picture a dynamic, two-point move where the climber is moving through the air toward the next hold, and the he or she "lands" on that hold). It was always that landing that pulled a muscle, strained a joint or seriously pissed off a nerve. Because of this, I've been leery of bouldering since I began climbing.

But these boulders are different. I don't know what it is, but I've never seen such obvious lines and opportunities. Everywhere else I've been outside, and seen bouldering, it's as if the bouldering is some made up route on a mossy, short cliff hidden in the woods. Either that that, or it's a traverse that cuts across the bottom of a series of roped climbs (probably first climbed when some poor chap forgot his harness). This place, Mackenzie Boulders, isn't like that at all. These are boulders. Real boulders. Not the bottom-of-the-cliff kind of stuff you find elsewhere. They look like Hershey's Kisses that have fallen from the sky. On top of that, I think I can climb these!

But then I get on the first climb, a V0 (maybe - even that looks soft). It's a simple crack with a face move out to the right. The first five feet? Easy laybacking. The next three feet? Moderate face climbing. The next five feet (already eight feet in the air, at night, and with mattresses for pads)? A footless dyno off a tiny crimp to an unseen jug at the top. Uh-huh. "What am I doing?" I get through the dyno, however, and feel the adrenaline drain into my swelling chest. Sigh. And that was, as I said, only a V0.

We look around for more opportunities to climb and see a lot of problems, but we're tired and don't feel like doing anything where we actually have to read the route. Remember, it is dark outside, and the only light available to us is the direct beam emanating from our heads.

Finally, we settle on a deep, traversing crack that finishes, or so we think, on a roof with a sketchy move that leaves our backs parallel with the ground...a good ten feet in the air. The book says it is a V3. I'm not sure I feel like doing something this hard, but I have no choice in the matter. "Jello" and "Unity" are already on the route.

We start by working the roof, and jumping on the traverse a little below the roof to do so. It's a juggy start, with a crack so deep I can wrap my knuckles in it. But the crack ends about four feet below the start of the roof, and the roof itself extends outward from the face about three-and-a-half feet. Getting there requires leveraging our bodies with a series of dead-arms against a flat, upward facing panel with only a couple of nubbin slopers to hold onto.

After several tries, we manage to wrap our fingers around the flat edge that is the roof. It requires starting from the juggy crack, and then moving to a controlled barn-door off two or three slopers (depending on how one does it) before the the feet go up into a heel hook that allows for just enough leverage to swing out wide to the edge. If the edge isn't gained, well, a ten foot drop onto bed mattresses covering medium-sized, round rocks below awaits. These round rocks, to be clear, are right under the landing spot and can certainly be felt through the mattresses. I'm worried about sprained ankles. It turns out there's other ways to get hurt, too. But more on that in a moment.

After gaining the roof from the middle of the climb, it's time to link the whole traverse together. We disappear around the corner and discover a sit-start, and immediately avoid it. My old bones don't like moves that jerk the ligaments, and "Jello"'s and "Unity"'s lazy bones don't feel like doing it either. The rest of the route is smooth, however. Each hold is a jug where the hand can get buried deep enough to not be seen. The feet aren't great, but who cares. It's just a jug-fest where the hands and legs jump over each other with every move. I'm beginning to think the name of the route should have been "Crossover Heaven". It's called the "Great Wall of Taiwan" instead. Interesting.

In any case, "Jello" managed to get to the roof first again, and once "Unity" and I each reached the roof, all three of us headed back to figure out the sit-start. With "Jello" and "Unity" being years younger than me, they make the pumpy, dynamic move with little grunting and greater fluidity than I do, but they tire out quickly and come off somewhere in the middle of the route. Me? I can't even do the sit-start they way they are doing it. My feet are too spread out, the hand-hold is too low for me to utilize it well and my center of gravity as I pull and push upward is square on my elbows and chest. The move hurts, and I can already feel the strain on my elbow. As I mentioned before, I bouldered for the first time in years a few weeks before this. I was hesitant then, but my friend, the one who convinced me to go bouldering that night, kept telling me to stop making "big boy" moves and work on making static moves instead. "Static?" I wondered. "Not everything can be done static." But she was correct in the end. I bouldered the entire evening statically (if that's a word), and never felt an instant of potential bodily injury creeping up on me. So as I flew through this sit-start, I kept thinking of her advice. "There has to be a way," I thought. Three tries in and I found a way up.

The starting hand hold is only about three feet off the ground. If one spread-eagles the feet, then one can get four solid points on for nearly the entire start. But that's hard, and it doesn't feel solid while the move is being made. To me, I feel like I want to shift the pressure from my arms to my legs, but with my legs so far out from each other, it is difficult to do this. I look around and spy a long, sloping face to my right, about five feet above the ground and two feet above the starting hand hold. Perfect! It's as good a heel hook as I've ever seen. For an old man like me, getting into it is as ungraceful as carrying a refrigerator up a spiral staircase, but I get my heel up and my arms breathe an immediate sigh of relief. All the weight has now been shifted to my legs, which are holding my drooping buttocks as I chalk up my happy fingers.

Pulling all my upper body parts from my upper hamstrings to my Achilles tendon, I rise from the start hold and snare the second hold with ease. I smile as I realize that I'm not even tired. It's a cruise from that point on: right hand over left, swing the feet, cross left hand over right, right foot over left foot, and so on. By now, even the roof is easy. I gain it will only a minimal amount of god-I'm-old-and-its-fucking-late grunting, swing my feet out to the boulder behind me and drop down. Success...until I hear "Jello" say, "Now we have to link the top." The TOP?!?!?

Sure enough, the roof isn't the finish. As it appears to me, there is a dangling-feet campus move where one has to squeeze the roof hold with the left hand and throw the right hand out about two feet back toward the traverse. From there, it is a near impossible (OK, really fucking scary as I was imagining it) crossover with the left hand to a crimp, all this with no feet. I never got that far, and "Jello" never got that far. Only "Unity" was able to grab the next hold after the roof, and then she fell...into my spotting hands...and never got her feet under her. PHOOOSH! She hits the mattresses on her back, her neck slams the round rocks underneath and she sits still for a few moments while "Jello" and I nervously wait to hear if she's OK. When she stands up, "Jello" and I are relieved that she can actually walk. We were done. She's hurt, we're nervous about her being hurt, and it's way past midnight. A 10am rendezvous back at the campground awaits us. We pack up and leave, and "Unity" seems to be OK.

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