I left work on Friday with the sun shining high above Kenmore Square in Boston and looped through the early Labor Day traffic to Storrow Drive and then Route 2 West. I decided to take Route 2 because when I had taken it back from my Memorial Day trip, I was shocked at how easy and quick it was. The route's mainly two-lane, two-way traffic defied this logic, but somehow, with the same reckoning that leaves the hottest girl in the bar alone at the end of the night, Route 2 was empty of traffic and it saved many miles on my gas tank that I-90 would have stolen. It was a long trip, nearly six hours, but I made it on less than a tank of gas and arrived just after 9pm that night.
"Jello", having been unceremoniously relieved of his duties at his last job in Saranac Lake, stumbled upon the Pok-O-MacCready Education Center as a new opportunity that really seems to fit his skills and personality just right. It's a center where kids come to learn about all sorts of outdoor activities from climbing, to paddling and from horseback riding to tennis. There's a lot going on. In any case, like the rest of the staff, "Jello" lives in one of the farm houses on the property and, as luck would have it, had a spare room for me to crash in while I was visiting. It wasn't much of a room, but when the room is free and the food available, I was not one to complain. That, and the fact that it had a rope swing and water trampoline, I was in out-of-Boston heaven.
When I arrived, "Jello" was there waiting. We hit an end-of-training staff party and decided, thanks to a wonderful recommendation, to hit Gamesmanship (5.8) the next day as our first big route of the day. "Jello" informed me that we'd be climbing in a team of three and that we should get up extra early (7am) in order to be the first team on the ever-popular route. Due to the proximity of the cliffs from the camp, we were racked up and ready to go by 830am. There was no one else around (well, except for the fact that this is the second trip to the 'Dacks when I've bumped into people I know from the gym: this weekend it was Curt, and Memorial Day it was Lars and AJ), and I took the lead of the first pitch. It was a decision that would later come back to haunt me.
Gamesmanship (5.8) - 5 pitches - Trad - Switched Leads between Greg and "Jello"
Pitch #1 (5.8) - Vertical Crack - 140 feet - Greg Led
We bumped into Curt on our way to Gamesmanship and he warned us to be cautious with the first couple of moves. "They're tricky," he said, "and not to be taken for granted." We took his advice and on the way there I wondered if the first moves on a climb ever defined the grade of the climb. I know that the start of Child's Play (5.6 - Cathedral Ledge) had a non-5.6 move, but the rest of the route was absolutely stellar. I also know that Ladder Line (5.10a - Quincy Quarry) has the mother of all 5.12 starts, but the rest of that route also runs clean to the grade. This would be the third route I've come across like this, and became a but unsettled knowing that, firstly, it was a crack and, secondly, that I hate cracks. Well, Curt was not wrong in his assessment. The first three moves were of a pumpy, lay-back variety well into the 5.9 grade before the route settled into one of the best face climbs I've ever done. I know. I said that about Toe Crack (5.7 - Cathedral Ledge) too, and I'm not wrong about that route either. But you have to understand, if the holds on the face around the crack are better than climbing the crack itself, man, use the freaking face! That's what I did, and took a load of crap from "Jello" and his friend all the way up. But here's the real kicker...they did the same thing on SECOND AND THIRD! By the time we settled into the somewhat hanging belay (there are anchors), there was a line of folks waiting to get on the route behind us. We smiled at the fact that we had arrived first. "Jello" then took the second lead.
Pitch #2 (5.7) - Left-Facing Corner - 120 feet - "Jello" led
This was a quick run-up for "Jello" that led to a large belay stance below the choss-looking dike on pitch #3. There wasn't much excitement on this pitch, except we think we saw our fair share of death stares from the folks waiting for the first belay station to empty up. Oh well, suckers. Next time get out of bed earlier.
Pitch #3 (5.4) - Right-Leading Dike to Trees - 100 feet - "Jello" led
Another not-so-spectacular pitch, but it did provide some good views of the valley below and me a chance to spring one of my bad jokes on "Jello"'s friend. I won't tell the joke, but let's just say it took him the third time to realize that the cars that were "tailgating" the RV's on I-87 below us were actually being towed. This is also a chance to point out that, thus far, I have led the best sections, and "Jello" has led the least desirable pitches. Remember that.
Pitches #4 and #5 (5.7 / 5.1R) - Vertical Hand Crack to Run out Slab - 140 feet and 150 feet - Greg led
First things first, pitch #4 is supposedly a short crack that ends at an "obvious" birch tree just below the slabs. Secondly, this was the first crack since Bombardment (5.8 - Cathedral Ledge) time that actually forced me to climb in the crack, with my hands jammed into wide fists, my knuckles screaming for relief, my feet directly below my hands, and my body tensely trying to stay in a linear line from top to bottom. I felt off-balance the entire way up. I wanted crimps. I wanted stems. I wanted to stop thinking of busting my biceps on laybacks. When "Jello" reads this, I'm sure he'll say something about me wanting my Mommy too. OK, so I used the face and the parallel crack when they became useful, but I slipped above my gear and was lucky to have caught myself on the way down. It was a bugger of a problem for me, and I'm not sure if I'm ever going to learn how to climb cracks comfortably...ever.
I was glad when the crack was over and reached the bottom of the slab. I looked around for the birch tree and saw nothing but a couple of very young cedars and a few bushes hovering around the base of the slab. "OK," I thought, "Maybe the birch is higher up." So I went higher up on to the slab. I knew the slabs were the next pitch, but considering I couldn't see the "obvious" birch tree, I figured there was a slight slab section below the birch and that if I just went up a little more then I'd find it. No birch. I was now about 20 feet above my last piece. It was easy smearing on the low-angle face, but I was starting to worry a bit about getting to the top. Still, no birch. Another 30 feet without pro, and still no birch. I was definitely on the slabs now (pitch #5), but I couldn't see where I was going to belay from. I could have down climbed to the cedars, but these were no more than a few inches thick. I could have wrapped both hands around their trunks. They weren't good belay anchors (just to be clear, there weren't any cracks either above the hand-crack I had just climbed). I saw what I thought was the top of the cliff and wondered if there was another section of slabs above where I was at that moment. "It's possible," I thought, "that I just can't see the next pitch due to the rounding of the top of the slab." I climbed another 20 feet, and then another. I found one, sliver of a crack to dump a #5 nut into and climbed another thirty feet to a three-foot-tall left-facing corner from whence I could see the top of the climb. I stepped up and pulled the rope...ugghhhh...another pull...nnnnggghhh...a third pull...arrrrghhhh - WHAT THE FUCK AM I PULLING UP WITH ME?
There shouldn't have been any rope drag because I hadn't felt any until this point. I wondered if maybe the rope had become stuck in the crack below and jammed. I waited a few moments to see if "Jello" could pull it out. I pulled again and felt the same tenseness as before. "God dammit," I muttered. "I must have run out of rope. Holy mother of..." At that point I realized that I had to build an anchor on that three-foot left-facing corner I standing next to. There was no down climbing, not when the entire slab was friction on the way up. The crack in the corner was tight, but I managed a #.5 nut, a #.4 microcam and a #1 nut in three different spots. I set my anchor and tugged the rope hard, twice so that "Jello" and his friend knew to climb. When they came up, they confirmed I had run out of rope and that I was not crazy for missing the birch tree, because it was not there. I let "Jello" and his friend run out above me the remaining 20 feet to the top (something his friend was not thrilled about doing) and we rapped off. Our adventure wasn't over yet, however, as "Jello" managed to toss the rope into a bunch of trees on the second rap pitch. We made it down alive, but not without a few smiles on our faces.
Snake Slide (5.8) - 1 pitch - Trad - "Jello" Trad led and Greg Sport led
"Jello"'s friend had left to meet his parents and "Jello" and I were looking to finish off with something easy and / or single pitch. We chose Snake Slide; a shallow, left-facing corner that was best used as an under cling flake before topping out at a set of anchors above Libido (5.11). The moves are easy, but the feet were really sketchy where one doesn't want them to be sketchy. "Jello" has his best Elvis-leg going on this pitch.
Libido (5.11) - 1 pitch - TR
This was a great, great project route that I would absolutely love to climb with my Katanas (btw - thanks so much to La Sportiva for not having size 39.5 available before this trip. I had to climb all weekend in loose, bought-for-route-setting-only Mad Rocks that do nothing on crimpy, edgy climbs). It starts with a hornet-nest infested crack (seriously, there were five of the meanest hornets guarding the comb - DON'T USE THE LOWER CRACK), and then moves up to a series of opposing side pulls before ending on a series of ledges and smears at the same anchor as Snake Slide. These are serious crimps, and I loved every damned one of them, even if I flailed up the thing. It was such a relief, I almost led it (but didn't).
Paralysis (5.8) - 6 pitches - Trad - Switched Leads between Greg and "Jello"
Pitches #1 and #2 (4th class / 5.8) - Scramble / Vertical Crack - 50 feet and 140 feet - "Jello" Led
So, because I had the choicest routes on Saturday, "Jello" took the choicest routes on Sunday, and the first pitch of Paralysis is every bit as good as the first pitches of Toe Crack and Gamesmanship. There were a few scary moments for the boy wonder, but he powered through each move and managed to protect the scariest sections with relative ease. I highly recommend this pitch. However if one does it, one must face pitches #2 and #3 in order to get down.
Pitch #3 (5.6) - Straight Traverse - 75 feet - Greg Led
This, despite it's odd lack of good pro, was a rather easy climb. I wasn't sure what each move was going to be like, so I protected it was well as I could considering the plethora of flaring rifts between lower face and upper roof. Cams would have gone, but I didn't have enough large cams. It wasn't as well-protected as I would have liked, but it worked.
The problem came when I got to the left-facing corner where I was supposed to belay from. All I could see was an incredibly wet corner (which I've been told is always wet - wanna bet this climb doesn't last forever?), an old coradlette that I should have take out with me (it was stiffer than bike frame) but forgot, and three, amazingly rusted pitons that looked as if they had been there since the glaciers receded. All the cracks around me were flaring and wet, I had just left all my cams of that size in the traverse for "Jello", and I was started to think this was not going to be one of my best days. For a brief moment I thought, "Next time, save the
best routes for the second day." Well, I slung the same rock that the stiff cordalette was slung around and clipped into the pitons (what the hell else was I going to do - at least they're still there) to build and anchor and just started to pull the rope in when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of something silvery below me. I leaned out and swore profusely. There were the fucking bolts. Great, that took another 20 minutes just to down climb and set up a new anchor. All the while, "Jello" was baking in the sun at the top of pitch #1. That was mistake #1.
"Jello" finally made it across in much faster time than I had taken to just set up the stupid anchor, and we began to exchange gear so that he could lead pitch #3. Just as I was about to put him on belay, I pulled my Reverso off my biner and...
"Jello": Grab it.
Greg and "Jello" together: ROCK!
Ping...Ping...Ping... ... ...Ping...THUNK!
"Jello": That's OK. You have your other one, right?
That was mistake #2. Neither of us had brought a spare belay device, but thankfully "Jello" knew how to belay with a munter. He jumped into pitch #4 and I swore angrily at myself that this was not my day.
Pitch #4 (5.7) - Awesome but heady Cave Traverse- 75 feet - "Jello" Led
This pitch was unbelievable. When one climbs a chimney, the idea is to use body tension by pushing one's back against the vertical side of the chimney with one's legs, which are pushing from the other side of the chimney. This cave was a chimney rotated 180-degrees. Instead of pushing against a sidewall, one has to push upward against a low-angle slab with one's back pressed firmly against the roof. There are no great holds (though there are some to assist in the traverse), but these holds are only good with good feet, and there are no good feet. Just imagine walking into that closet space underneath your stairs in your old house. That's what this was like, and if one looked between one's legs, one would see the whole 150 feet of open air leading to the ground below. If I ever were one to crap my pants on a climb, this would be the cleanest place to do it.
Pitch #5 (5.8-) - Over a Bulge - No Length Given- Greg Led
Remember when I told you to remember how I got the best routes on Saturday and Sunday was "Jello"'s turn? Well, this was the defining moment of that decision. From the proper belay stance, when one looks up, there are various bulges / roofs that one can see. There's the one slightly to the left over the cave we just climbed, one directly above the belay stance, and two roofs to the right, above where "Jello" was belaying me from (note: he belayed here because people were using the belay station to belay climbers coming up another route). The two bulges I noted before were covered with lichen and did not look as if they were the next pitch on what was supposed to be a very popular route. The two roofs above our belay stance were not covered in lichen, and thus it seemed to us, one of them must be the route. After all, the book said that the route went directly above the belay. (note: read that again).
I looked the line over for a good twenty minutes and placed three, solid pieces in in the lower part of the first section: I don't know what to call this, but if it were rotated 180 degrees then it would be a dike; otherwise it was a series of nasty, whole-hand pinches / grabs with a stiff and slick, unprotected (repeat: UNPROTECTED) layback near the top. I climbed up into the start of the layback three or four times, and just couldn't find the 5.8- sequence. This was really bothering me because, while I've been told the 'Dacks are sandbagged, I have yet to find any route in the 'Dacks that is sandbagged above the first move. This didn't seem right to me, but maybe there was something I couldn't see. Maybe there was something I was missing. Maybe, just maybe, this was slightly harder than the grade suggested and I'd be able to pull out fine if I just committed to it.
The first move out of the crack (where the gear was) required the use of a two-finger, shallow, finger pocket that led to an opposing side-pull just above the pocket. That required a very dicey body-weight switch that soon led me into a solid, but stiff layback at the top of the section. I didn't like the feet because I was completely smearing, but as long as I could keep my body tense in the layback, the holds were jugs for the next three feet or so. But as I moved upward, the layback went flat, and there was nothing above that except another, incredibly insane grab that I thought (nay: hoped) was a jug. It wasn't, so I backed off, but because of the awkward body-weigh switch below, I stayed in the layback. I was getting tired, but I was about seven feet above my last piece (remember, I said unprotected), and that was more than the distance between my last piece and the small, two-foot square ledge just above "Jello"'s head whence I started from. I looked behind me for a please-please-please foot ledge and saw nothing. I looked below me to see if I missed anything there, but my body and gear were in the way. I looked at the arrete in front of me. I studied and figured that I could dyno for the ledge. I just needed to know if there was something to grab. I pulled myself deeper into the layback again and upward toward the arrete. Imagine now that before doing this, my hands were above my feet, but my butt was not over my feet. Thus, my weight was being driven into the rock through my legs, like a layback is supposed to do. By pulling my body up, I was completely depending on my arms to hold my onto the route, because my butt was now above my smearing feet, and not driving my weight into my feet.
I looked the arrete over, but couldn't see anything worth jumping for. Knowing the large grab above the layback wasn't as juggy as I had hoped it would be, I assumed the arrete was going to be as crappy. I was in a precarious position. I just couldn't trust that by going up, I was going to find more solid ground. If I was wrong, then that meant falling even farther than I was already going to fall.
I backed off (and I'm shivering just typing this), tried to pull into the layback a little more. My hand searched for something good, something positive that would allow me to reclaim my vertical self. Nothing. Nothing at all. I remembered the awkward move from the two-finger pocket and the opposite-balance side-pull. "Too hard," I thought. I then thought of jumping out. I knew I was too high above my gear to be caught by it. Jumping would at least give me a shot at not decking out. But then I thought that if I did that, I'd slam right into "Jello", and, as he put it later, possibly lose all three pieces I had placed, rip him out of his anchor and send us both down 150 feet below. I had to downclimb. I couldn't hold this forever. My biceps were burning. I had been there for about five minutes, holding a no-longer easy dead-arm. I just couldn't go beyond this section. I stepped down into the lower layback. No problem. I stepped down, still smearing, into the beginning of the layback and felt the jug disappear. I had all of two seconds, I thought, as I felt my feet giving way, to grab the side-pull and find new feet without losing my body tension. I grabbed the side-pull, let my right foot dangle in order to find the next hol -SLIP!
"Jello" furiously checking ankles: That hurt?
Me: I'm fine. I'm fine.
"Jello" cautiously checking my ribs, spleen and kidneys: That hurt?
Me: I'm OK. I'm OK.
"Jello": You sure?
Me: Yeah. Let me rest a minute.
"Jello": OK. Take your time.
Me: If that's the line, I'm not leading that again. That's not 5.8-. We missed something. That's not even sandbagged 5.8-. That's 5.10 somethingorother. That's fucking hard.
The gentleman who was belaying another climber below us (on the proper belay anchor) said that the climber on his way up knew the climb we were on and could tell us the correct line. But when he came up, it had been 30 years since he had climbed that route and couldn't remember where it went. Not knowing where the actual line went, we decided to rap off and finish our day. After the two other climbers below us rapped off, we got down to the proper belay station and determined that the route was where the first two bulges were, but even then, we couldn't figure out which bulge it was. Because the book said that, despite the bulge looking harder than it is from below, the bulge was the way to go, and because both bulges looked impossible, we figured that we could't find the remainder of the route. It was a disappointment for both of us, but the correct choice. Especially since we didn't have two belay - OH FUCK!
As it turned out, niether one of us knew how to rap using oval biners. That was OK, however, because "Jello" could rap off and tie the belay device on the rope for me to pull up again. That's what he did, and I began my rap. But as I did, I looked at the rap anchors and saw that there were six slings / cordalettes wrapped around a large chockstone. Before I headed down, I remembered what happened to Mat, took a deep breath, remembered that this was my second time decking on lead, turned around and let out my breath when I was firmly on the ground. Even though I had a prussic on my rap, I was thankful that "Jello" was also giving me a Fireman's Belay at the bottom. In all, however, I'm fine.
I got up this morning at 7am and took "Jello"'s suggested route home: take the ferry from Plattsburg Bay ($9 per car and driver with $3.50 for each passenger) to Grande Isle Ferry (24-hours it runs, with trips every half hour). It cost me more than the Route 2 direction, but it saved me about 45 minutes on my trip (I-89 to I-93). I think I'm going back. It was just too damned good.