Monday, September 10, 2007

Now I Know Why They Call It "Cannon"

I'm going to cut right to the chase here and leave out the drive from home to the campsite. It wasn't that interesting, but what was interesting was when I bumped into "Jello" (he drove into the campground literally seconds after I had secured us a place to stay) and his first words were, "Guess how much of an idiot I am?"

I admit, I froze for a few seconds because I wasn't sure exactly what he was going to say. One has to understand the difficulty we have had to endure just to get together for a weekend of climbing. For one, we're travelling from different places (me from Boston and him from the Adirondacks). Two, his cellphone doesn't work where he lives, and mine doesn't work anyone outside of where I live. Three, he can check his e-mail, but only once per day if the one, single satellite-internet-cable available to all those who work at the education center is not being used. Finally, there's this thing about us not knowing the place where we're supposed to meet, what time we're supposed to meet, and how the hell we're going to get in touch with each other if certain things don't work out.

Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about:

- We want to climb at Cannon, but we're not sure of where to stay, how far away it is from campgrounds, what the approach is like, how early we need to get there to ensure that we get on a climb, etc, etc, etc.

- We have decided that it may be best to stay at Rumney the first night just in case we can't find a place at Cannon, especially since we know that bandit camping is not ethical at Cannon and we know our way around Rumney.

- I call the Rumney campground we're to stay at. They don't want us showing up too late.

- I call "Jello" to tell him that, but he doesn't get the message until late that night.

- My cell phone rings at work, we talk and decide to try the campground in the Notch.

- I call the campground at Cannon, leave a message, they don't call back.

- I call "Jello" and leave a message telling him that there's no luck as of yet.

- He leaves a message on my phone saying where he bandit camps at an undisclosed location (I'm not giving that up - sorry) when he can't get a proper site in Rumney. Though we haven't figured this out yet, it assumed that we are to meet at this place.

- I call the campground at Cannon again. This time they answer and say it is first-come-first serve, but there are 34 campsites left.

- I call "Jello" and leave a message that we should go for the campground at Cannon. We set a time to actually talk on the phone (thurs at 1030pm).

- We talk Thursday and decide that whoever gets there first should get a site and leave a message for the other. If there are no sites, they should meet in the parking lot of the campground. If we aren't allowed to park there (I'm not sure why we wouldn't, but maybe there are loitering laws. One never knows) then we will meet at the "Old Man Viewing" lot and go from there. What we will we do? We don't know, but at least we have a plan in case our plan doesn't work, and then another plan in case that one doesn't work. Can you see the difficulty here?

Anyway, I wondered what it was that "Jello" had left and thought the worst:

ME: Harness?
HIM: No, got that.
ME: Shoes?
HIM: Nope.
ME: Gear?
HIM: Never left the car from last week.
ME: Helmet?
HIM: Got it.
ME: What did you forget then?
HIM: Sleeping bag and pad.
ME: PHEW! That's OK. We can work that out.

I lent him my sleeping pad and a small belay carpet in the trunk of my car, and he used the rope bags for blankets and a rope for a pillow. But before we went to bed, as we were racking up that night for an early-morning wake-up call, he turned to me and said, "You ever get the feeling that bad omens happen?" I looked him square in the eye and said, "After last weekend, I think we're safe." Famous last words (btw - this has become a bit of a slogan for us). I then closed the passenger side door in my car and heard a SMASH behind me. Dangling there was "Jello"'s car battery charger for his cellphone and camera. Oops.

We arose the next morning before sunrise and found ourselves the first people on the trail up to Lakeview (5.6). Our goals for the weekend were Lakeview on Saturday and the Whitney-Gilman Ridge (5.7) on Sunday. Our additional goal was to finish Lakeview by late afternoon and hike from the top of the cliff to the summit of Cannon before heading down. It was an aggressive goal, but we figured that we could do it.

Lakeview (5.6) - 8 pitches - mixture of face, corner, slab and crack climbing - For the most part, build your own anchors.

Pitch #1 - 5.3 - corner / face - build your own anchors - 140 feet - Greg led

This pitch starts pretty much as far to the right of the main, uninterupted face as you can get. There is a nice, small (one or two person) belay stance, and the climb starts on a series of steps going up a face to a good anchor spot below and on the right of the first over-hanging arch. Don't listen to the book when it says "step right". I'm not sure what it is talking about. Just climb straight up, keeping the left-facing corner on your right, until you get to about 10 feet from the bottom of the right edge of the arch. Anchor there and you'll be fine.

I should say that this is where we met a kind group of folks from the Rhode Island AMC. They arrived just after we did, and planned on climbing the same route. I should thank them here because as I was up on the first pitch, I was told several times that I was fading too far to the right and would end up way off route if I kept going to the right (note: I was trying to find the stupid "step right" that was in the book). The gentleman who kept shouting the route directions to me (and "Jello" on his leads) really kept us on-route several times throughout the day. Without his incredibly accurate help, we never would have finished the climb as we were supposed to.

Pitch #2 - 5.4 - horizontal crack - build your own anchors - 140 feet - Greg led
Again, I needed help finding the route here because the book says to step over the arch and follow the wide crack left. Well, there are about six different arches. I stepped over the first arch and didn't see the wide crack, but did find a crack that I could have protected underneath the second arch, so I assumed that was what I was supposed to climb. Again, the AMC shouted from below and told me to go over the next arch as well. OHHHHH! Yup, there was the wide crack, and as I high-stepped to get up to that crack, guess what fell out of my pocket. The guide book. Thankfully it fell near where the AMC folks were climbing, and they returned it "Jello" before he started climbing this pitch.

This was a fantastic lead that is easily protected. It traverses almost the entire 140 feet. I took a couple of pictures of "Jello" as he came up, but then the battery died. That's one of the reasons why I don't have photos on this post.

Pitch #3 - 5.5(R) - unprotected face / slab - build your own anchors - 160 feet - Greg led

Again, there was a bit of route finding here, but I did manage to find a way to get across the run out section of the slab. Depending on where one sets the anchor, one will have to step up above yet another arch and delicately step across loose rock and pebbles (the pebbles were by far more dangerous than the loose blocks) on the way to yet another long traverse to a left-facing corner at the start of... ... ...yup, another arch. Kudos again to the AMC folks for convincing me that I was climbing too high and would miss the anchor. They were dead on yet again (btw - if you can't tell, I'm building something here with the AMC. Read on).

Pitch #4 - 5.2 - face / slab - build your own anchors (though, if one has 60m ropes, one might be able to climb the next 30 feet to a larger, more comfortable ledge where there are two, brand new fixed anchors on the wall. These anchors are basically in between the belay I describe below (with the sling) and Lunch Ledge - 150 feet - Greg led

Another stupid traverse. Yawn. And yet another bit of route finding from the AMC folks. You know what? We just wanted to go up at some point, but, alas, that is not where the route went. Anyway, continue traversing across until you come across a small slab (about 10 feet tall) to the right of a right-facing corner / flake. There is a sling there, but I recommend not using it. I'd also recommend not relying on the chockstone there as the only anchor points.

Pitch #5 - 5.3 - face / slab - use the bolts - 110 feet - "Jello" led

"Jello" took over the lead at this point because he was going to get the best pitches on Saturday while I got the best ones on Sunday. It seemed like a good trade since I wanted to avoid being too tired to lead the crappy routes on the second day. In short, I didn't want a repeat of pitch #5 on Paralysis at Poke-O-Moonshine. We found more route finding difficulty, but ended up at the bolts, on a ledge and decided to have lunch. I should say that, at this point, we had no problems communicating with each other because we could see each other the entire way up. That changed on the next pitch. (note: we thought the bolted ledge was Lunch Ledge. It is not. Lunch Ledge is the top of the next pitch).

Pitches #5 and #6 - 5.3(R) - slab / gulley - Belay at Lunch Ledge (small, two-to-three person belay station with a dead birch tree that one should not use as an anchor) build your own anchor as the bolt is too old to trust - 140 feet - "Jello" led

"Jello" climbed this entire pitch with one piece of gear placed. This is somewhat due to the fact that he misread the route and went up a bit too early instead of continuing to traverse left. If he had just traversed another 10 feet or so, he would have found the "dirty gully" that the books talks about. Instead, he climbed up into what I consider to be a dangerous, slabby alcove with a large, exfoliating boulder the size of an SUV offering the only available anchor opportunities. Oh yeah, the cracks were wet too. Gulp.

This was the only pitch where we didn't have any guidance from our AMC friends, and we managed to screw it up enough to bring me closer to crapping my pants while belaying him than I've ever come before. It was essentially a hanging belay on two cams stuck in a horizontal, wet crack. If one of them slipped, we were both goners. Thankfully, after doing some searching, "Jello" found Lunch Ledge on his own (it was up to our left about 20 feet, and hidden around what turned out to be a left-facing corner. Because we were now having problems communicating (and our rope signalling hasn't been perfected yet), we dug out my radios so that we could talk to each other. I was somewhat concerned at the fact that the clips on the radios weren't that strong, but I decided to take "Jello"'s advice and buy shoestrings to tie around them in order to keep them from falling accidentally off the cliff. Besides, he needed to buy a sleeping bag and pad for that night anyway. We could make an easy trip to Walmart up the road and kill two bird's with one stone's throw. The radios, by the way, turned out to be an amazing luxury on the next pitch.

Pitch #7 - 5.5 - crack - build own anchors at the large ledge below pitch #8- 90 feet - "Jello" led

At this point, due to our frustrating reliance on the party below us to guide us up the damn route, we were insanely glad to finally find decent climbing. I mean, pitches #1 through #4 were OK, but #5 and #6 were crappy and boring. Nearly the entire climb up to this point was one, long traverse with the only excitement coming from the foot-management side of things. In other words, one slip and you're gone. But the climbing was so easy that it felt more like walking. Pitch #7 changed that, but it also became another pitch of disaster.

The climb itself is a short crack climb that is fantastically protectable. Top out on a large ledge just to the left of where the Old Man used to be (you can see the cables clearly from the parking lot). There are several belay spots on this ledge. We used the large crack to the right of the ledge, below the actual face that the Old Man was connected to. There is another spot called "Two-Butt Belay" right at the top. This spot allows the belayor to belay and watch the climber come up the crack. "Jello" initially chose the smaller belay spot, but he didn't like it and thus unclipped the first piece of the anchor he was building and... ...oops, dropped one of my nuts into the crack (God, I love / hate climbing terminology). That was mistake #1.

Realizing that his original anchor was probably going to create more problems than it was going to help (and knowing that he didn't want to lose any more of my gear), he moved to the larger crack along the face to the right. There were plenty of places to set gear, but because the area where he was setting up the anchor was sort of in a small cave, he was having a hard time keeping the antannae on the radio from jabbing him in the thigh while he scrunched up enough to reach the crack. He pulled it out of his pocket and clipped it on a sling and went to work. Soon after, I heard him yell "ROCK". I ducked and listened for the rock to tumble over me. I never saw nor heard it, and figured all was well. About ten minutes later, I felt three, strong tugs on the rope telling me that my belay was on and could climb. Knowing that we were practicing our rope signals as well as using the radios, I tugged three times back to tell him I was climbing, and then confirmed that fact by telling him on the radio. Up I went, smiling all the way on the best pitch of the day thus far.

When I got to the top, "Jello" looked at me disarmingly as asked how the route was. I smiled and said "best so far."

"Jello": It gets better.
Me: The next pitch? Yea, that's what the AMC folks said.
"Jello": No, I mean, I lost some of your gear over there.
Me: Really? What did you lose?
"Jello": Small nut. It fell into the crack when I went to take it out and move the anchor.
Me: That's OK. It happens. We should work on a protocol for losing gear.
"Jello": I agree, but it gets even better.
Me: Why?
"Jello": You know when I yelled "Rock"?
Me: Yeah.
"Jello": Guess what it was?
Me: A rock?
"Jello": Something not quite as natural. Think more...mmm...electronic.
Me: [silence] ... [silence] ... [silen - YOU DROPPED THE FUCKING RADIO?
"Jello": Hey, at least if it's found you don't have to worry about someone using an unsafe piece of gear like the Reverso you dropped last week.

In short, when I radioed back up that I was climbing, he never it, and he wasn't practicing his rope signals.

Pitch #8 - 5.6 - flake / crack - use the Old Man anchors - 90 feet - "Jello" led

Best pitch of the climb. Walk up from the edge of the ledge to the obvious flake on the very large, left-facing face. Either dig into the flake and hump your way up, or smear the outside and highstep. I did the latter and it turns into a bit of a stiff mantle, but the jugs are all there. Stem and climb the face to the top. It's a great way to finish the day.

The entire route was a struggle in a route-finding manner, but we had the AMC folks to help us along, and when they topped out behind us, we asked them how long the hike was to the summit. They told us that while there was not a path (it would be a quick scramble), the hike would only take about 30 minutes; 45 minutes tops. We thanked them as they took off down the cliff, and we began our scramble to the top.

Scramble to the Summit

OK, so a 30-minute hike shouldn't be too bad. Even if it is a scramble and not on an actual path. We'll just leave our gear on the edge of the cliff near the gutter / path going down to the parking lot so we can see it if we get lost. No need to take any gear with us, right? Besides, as we started up, we could see cairns all over the place. So there had to be somewhat of a path, right? Let me lay out the scenery for you: from the edge of the cliff, one can look up to the top of what appears to be the summit not too far off (a slight, rolling hill on top of the cliff), and patches of unconnected granite slabs separated by thick, stiff spruce trees that have grown short due to the wind that rips over the top of the mountain. There is no real path, but that is OK. The granite was nice and sticky under our approach shoes and we found ways of walking around the patches of brush. We got to the top of the hill in about 20 minutes, only to see what we expected to see, another rolling hill going upward. To be honest, that's fairly common around New England (seeing what you think is the top only to find out that it isn't the top once you get there), and we were not dismayed to see that we had not reached our final goal of the day.

However, as we were going up the second hill, the weather coming from the west became significantly more visible to us. I pointed north and noted that there was rain falling from the clouds. We climbed a little higher and saw that the clouds weren't just coming from the north, but the west as well. We thought about retreating, but we figured that we were halfway there (based on the time estimate given to us by our previously incredibly accurate AMC friends) and could beat the rain. Besides, we were making good time scrambling on the nice, sticky, granite slabs. It wasn't going to be a problem.

When we got to the top of that hill, however, foul language spewed from my lips at a rate I hadn't spoken since stubbing my toe against the door two weeks prior to that when I specifically warned myself not to step in that direction when I turned off the light. "Jello" looked at me and asked, "What's your problem." I pointed. He looked and couldn't see what I was pointing at (we were in bushy section). He came back to where I was standing, stood on a rock and joined me in my foul mood. There, about a mile off, was a large structure otherwise known as a ski lift, at the top of Cannon Mountain. Mother fucker.

We looked around and saw the clouds moving in faster than we expected them to move. If we only had to go as far as we had come, then we would have made it (no shit, right?). But we knew we couldn't make the summit in time now, and decided to turn back. Well, despite our disappointment, at least we knew the way back: just stick to the slabs, avoid the bushes and fade left toward the avalanche gully on the mountain across the street from Cannon Cliff. Easy, right? Not so fast.

No sooner than we had to turn around did we feel the first few drops of water pelting our heads. "OK, it's only sprinkling," we said and carried on. But then came the fog. "Hmm..." we said, "better stay away from the cliff's edge in case we can't see it" (an unfortunate consequence considering our bags were still on the edge of the cliff, somewhat - we stuck them on the path so we could find them if we got lost, but they were within 20 feet of the edge). Knowing we had to stay away from the edge took away some of the easier paths. This meant that we had to bushwhack our way through a few of the stiff trees in order to stay as much on the slabs as we could. Still, while our legs, arms and chests were getting scratched to hell from the unforgiving branches, we were minimizing our bushwhacking somewhat and could stay on the sticky slabs for fast moving. But then it rained. And I'm not saying that it "rained". I'm saying that it rained. The rain fell out of the skies so fast that within seconds the slabs became useless waterfalls and slides. We were only halfway back to where our bags were (or so we assumed), but our strategy of moving quickly along the easy granite had to change. Now, we had to stay off the slabs as much as possible. This meant we had to bushwhack, jump from rocky edges into unknown patches of trees, sometimes more than 10 feet down. We had to crawl under the tallest trees (never more than 10 feet tall, and usually only about five feet tall), pray that the branches we were stepping on for balance didn't break under our weight (thus sending us down into deeper, unknown depths) and sincerely hope that we weren't stepping on snake beds or disturbing otherwise unfriendly wildlife in our blind, mad dash to get back to our gear. It was dark now, the fog and rendered our position points (the gully on the other mountain in particular) invisible, and every time we reached a slab that we had to cross, we sat on our butts and slid over as carefully as we could. We were soaked, hungry, tired (not yet cold) and the thrill of adventure was waning inside. While we never heard thunder, we did see the clouds light up a couple of times and wondered if we should just find a spot in the bushes to hide under until the rain passed; if the rain passed. Fortunately, we stumbled upon a landmark that we had noted on the way up. We breathed a collective sigh of relief and realized that we were close. Believing it was better to go move the final 100 yards or so and get under the cover of the retreat path (and on our way back to dry clothes and a warm car) than it was to get wetter and possibly cold, we dashed (carefully) back to where we thought our stuff was. "Jello" saw the bags first. We smiled, we sang, we rejoiced, and then we headed the fuck downhill.

It was a long hike down and muddy, slippery and downright unpleasant. We were wet, climbing over slick rocks, wet roots and doing so carefully with only headlamps for light. An hour later and we were back in the parking lot. "Jello" signed us out (there is a sign-in / sign-out form climbers must fill out before heading up) three-and-a-half hours after we said we'd be down (good thing the forestry service checks those logs). I walked to my car (the only one in the lot) opened the trunk and proceeded to take off all my clothes to put on dry ones. Stupid me. Just as I was about to drop my underwear, a car drives into the lot. Well, two strangers got a show. What can I say?

When "Jello" came over to the car, he did the same, except he needed my spare dry clothes because (guess what, the bad omens continue), not only did he forget his sleeping bag and pad, also a spare change of clothes. That's right, he was going to wear the same clothes Saturday as Sunday (because he forgot).

We then drove to Littleton for dinner, went back to the tent to sleep and decided not to do the Whitney-Gilman Ridge the next day (good thing, too, because it didn't stop raining until I got back to Boston).

- "Jello" forgets bag and tent

- "Jello" fears bad omens, but Greg calms him and is not worried

- Greg smashes "Jello"'s battery charger

- Greg and "Jello" need a lot of help route finding

- Greg drops the guidebook

- "Jello"'s camera dies

- Greg and "Jello" need help communicating and dig out the radios

- "Jello" drops radio off cliff

- "Jello" loses nut in a crack

- Greg and "Jello" get bad advice on the hike to the summit

- Greg and "Jello" get caught in fog, rain and darkness on wet slabs

- All of our gear is soaking wet, including "Jello"'s camera

- Greg is seen naked in public

- "Jello" has to wear Greg's clothes

- Whitney-Gilman must wait another day.

- Greg loses out on his choice of the best pitches

And why does it matter that Cannon is named as such? Because it loads one up and shoots one out into unforeseen places; most notably, a country called "Epic".

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