Jello: Guess what I forgot this time?
Me: Sleeping bag?
Me: Can't be important then.
Jello: Not really. Just my headlamp.
Me: Eh, that's OK. We've both walked down this path in the dark before. That shouldn't a problem.
Our goal for the weekend was singular: to onsight They Died Laughing (5.9+) in the North End. We had already tackled Bird's Nest (5.9) during our previous stay in the land of sandbagged 5.9s, and had drooled over the seemingly easier-to-protect crack to the left before moving on to Toe Crack (5.7) later in the day. We vowed then to return, but we didn't know when. Saturday was to be that day, until...pitter, pitter, patter, pitter, patter, patter, patter, patter.
Me: Is that rain?
Jello: That's rain.
Me: Upper Left Wall tomorrow?
Jello: I imagine. The North End doesn't dry that well.
When we finally rose (a good two hours after we had wanted to get up), it was obvious that the damage had been done. The rain had fallen hard enough that we knew that the tree-covered North End Wall would have to wait until Sunday. Our plans had changed, and we decided to see if Thin Air (5.6) was available. At 10am, it was clear that it wasn't. That's when I mentioned Recompense (5.9). "Jello" was instantly hesitant. He had heard my story of the last time I had been up there, and, even if that wasn't his only reason for being hesitant, he was cautious and steered me to Funhouse (5.7) instead. If he couldn't get on They Died Laughing, then he wanted to finish Upper Refuse (5.5) because he hadn't been all the way up. But first, we had to get up Funhouse.
Funhouse (5.7) - 2 pitches - trad - make your own anchors - "Jello" and Greg each led
There isn't much to say about this route, except that it's damn hard with a heavy pack on one's back. But hey, what route isn't? And what kind of story exists that doesn't tell about mine and "Jello"'s exploits without some kind of stupid inconvenience? Not much of one, to be sure. So, even though the pack didn't really make a difference this time around, I'll still say it was heavy and a serious pain in my ass. The good thing is that we both share the pain. That's why this partnership has worked so well.
Follow the crack / corner / dihedral (whatever you want to call it) up to the ledge, build an anchor and wait for the "uhhh"s and "arrgghhh"s of the second with the heavy pack as he brings up the rear.
Start the second pitch in the crack and follow that up until the trees at the large ledge come into view. Pick a tree and belay. Whatever you do, don't go to the same spot where "Jello" dropped a load a few weeks back at the top of Bombardment. Why? Let's just say that there are two loads there now.
As a side story, we were still deciding on which route to do - Funhouse or Pooh (5.8) - when a group of three folks came up from below and wanted to know what route we were getting on. We told them we hadn't decided yet, but also asked what they wanted to do. They said Pooh, so we took Funhouse instead. This, I believe, was the first moment of good karma we displayed that weekend. I have to say, it feels nice to do good things and not worry about ego.
Anyway, that group of three had one climber who was practicing for the day on his rescues. As it turns out, he was a guy from Seattle who was going to take his week-long IMGA (or is it AMGA?) climbing instructor's exam. Because we were on parallel runs, we chatted a bit and got to know them some. They were a nice group of folks, and fun to talk to.
Upper Refuse (5.5) - 2 pitches (3 if you want to break it out) - trad - 2 piton anchor at the top of pitch #1 and trees at various spots above that - Greg and "Jello" each led.
"Jello" hadn't done the top two pitches, so I led the first pitch. This route is on the large ledge that is a short hike and small boulder problem to the right of the top of Funhouse. Look for the obvious right-facing corner that is to the left of a crack and another, smaller dihedral that has a smaller roof about midway up. Upper Refuse is essentially the low angle face on the left of that ledge.
There are a lot of variations to this route, but basically follow the crack on the left until one gets about a third of the way up to the ledge with the tree about mid-way up the cliff. At that point, fade right onto the easy face and climb up to the start of a block system that could also be called a short notch. There will be two pitons here, and you can use those as an anchor.
I led this pitch, and while I was belaying "Jello", I was leaning out on my anchor and checking out the route below: Book of Solemnity (5.9+), which is the other, smaller-looking dihedral to the right of Upper Refuse. I don't know why this is so, but for some reason I was feeling strong on Saturday, and wasn't intimidated by my history on climbs such as Recompense or potentially difficult climbs such as Book of Solemnity. I kind of wanted my first 5.10, which some books call this route, and felt strong enough to get on it. But our first goal was to get up Upper Refuse and find a way to rap back down because we had left our gear with the kind folks from Seattle who had just come up Pooh to the same ledge we were on.
For the second pitch, go up the notch and either belay at the tree just above, or continue past it onto the easy face / crack before turning left to the next ledge at the top of Cathedral Ledge. If one wants to walk off, then just hike up from there and get to the road that cars use to get to the top (wimps). If one wants to rap off, then, at the top of the crack, turn right and scramble down to a somewhat hidden ledge. There are chains here that lead back down to the top of the first pitch of Book of Solemnity.
We decided to rap, but not without some difficulty. Because we couldn't see the climbers below us, we guessed at the mid-point of the rope and shuffled it down. I went first, and got about ten feet from the ledge when I noticed that the right end of the rope extended about ten feet below the ledge, and the left end was short about ten feet. Gulp. It was OK, however, because I had set myself up with a kleimheist as a back up knot. I simply then took the right end of the rope out of my belay device (I was backed up, remember), and tied that into my belay loop. What did that do? It essentially put me on self-belay. All I had to do then was lower myself on the left rope. Tadaaaa!
"Jello" came down once I equalized the rope, which was, by the way, just long enough to get to the ledge. At that point, we had our second and third good karma moments: 1) if we had pulled the rope then we would have dropped the rope onto two climbers below us on Women in Love (5.12); and 2) the folks from Seattle were on Book of Solemnity practicing rescues. Most people would have complained about #2 considering the route's popularity, but we're two easy-going guys, and we understand that life doesn't revolve around us. We waited patiently until the two climbers on Women in Love were out of the way and then rapped off from there. However, I need to point out that if one raps off from this ledge DO NOT RAP DIRECTLY BELOW THE LEDGE. Why? Because there's really nothing there at the bottom. Sure, I found a ledge, but that ledge is just above a wide chimney that leads all the way down to the bottom of the cliff. One misstep and you're a goner. Take my advice and angle left back toward the main ledge.
Black Lung (5.8) - 1 pitch variation to start Upper Refuse that finishes on the upper sections of Upper Refuse - trad - Climb to the two pitons noted above - Greg Led
I know two guys who are going to ring some alarms when I say this, but Black Lung isn't a 5.8. It's a 5.7 in disguise. The crux really isn't that tough. It is heady, but the move isn't that tough. Anyway, this the right-fading crack directly in between Upper Refuse and Book of Solemnity. Simply put, climb the crack to the pitons and finish on Upper Refuse.
I started this route with droplets of rain spitting from the heavens. There were a lot of people on the Upper Refuse bottom ledge, and we wanted to get up ahead of folks so we didn't get caught in the rain. However, karma number four developed as I approached the pitons. About five feet below me was a climber coming up Upper Refuse. I had the option staying at the pitons or heading to the tree above. I asked the kid what he wanted to do and he chose the tree, so I chose the pitons. He went up and "Jello" followed me. As it was, there was already another party on the ledge with the tree, so it was OK because we wouldn't have to deal with other people - a thought that had crossed my mind as I asked the kid what he wanted to do. It wasn't really raining yet, so we were OK hanging in that spot until they moved on. But then it started to rain. We looked up and saw the two teams still here. It started to rain a bit more. We looked up again, and they were still there. It started to rain harder. We didn't bother to look up because he heard the belayor yell three times, "Are you at the top yet? Have you stopped climbing? Are you off belay?". Hey, I was a noob at one point, too, so I hope they learned from this. If not, may they never leave a team in the rain again, the bastards!
Finally, they got off the ledge and we went up. The final pitch was a waterfall, but an easy one. It didn't take long for us to hike down and decide that it was too wet to cook outside. We went to the Moat for a beer and soup instead.
The Moat is a bar that is to the left of downtown North Conway if one is driving on River Road back toward NoCo. It will be about a mile down on the left, after the hospital. It is a popular place, and I recommend the burger and chili. Damn, that stuff was good. But this isn't why I mention this. We were to maybe meet two gentleman from RockClimbing.com, which we didn't until later, and instead started talking to this guy who happened to be sitting next to us. BTW - good karma #4 was when we put our names on the wait list (45 minutes) and then got a seat at the bar. I went back and told the host to take our names off because we didn't need to wait anymore.
Why is this casual, random conversation important? Well, because we ended up climbing with the guy the next day. Why else it worth noting? Because he, too, was in NoCo for the instructor's exam. In fact, he was supposed to meet the guy from Seattle that night. Small world. I'll call this new guy "Random".
"Random" camped out in his car in the lot where we parked our cars. We didn't see the two guys from RR.com at the Moat that night, but I was so paranoid about the sound of the light rain on the tent and accompanying rushing water of the stream below us that I swore I heard footsteps. It turned out that I did. The two gents we were to meet found us and our camping spot. The next morning we woke up to more wet ground (so no They Died Laughing), and the chit chat of the two men we were looking for Saturday night under a tarp with their stove and coffee all ready to go (I don't drink coffee, but they offered and that should be noted). "Random" awoke soon after, and the five of us hung out for the better part of the morning until it seemed warm and dry enough to try to get on a decent climb. What was considered decent? Something easy and something that seemed as if it would dry easily. That meant it was going to be my first venture to NoCo's other famous cliff, Whitehorse.
Standard Route (5.5) - 7 pitches - trad - make your own anchors, for the most part - very runout in sections - "Jello", Greg and "Random" switched leads
I had never been to Whitehorse before, and didn't know what to expect. I knew it was all slabs and run out, but I wasn't sure what that meant exactly. Did that mean there simply weren't any cracks up there to place gear? Did it mean that the runouts would produce hairy fall potential? Was I going to die? I have run out my fair share of routes, some of which were not intentional runouts, but that doesn't mean I'm willing to put myself in a position where the elements could take my life. After all, I want to go out either on my own terms or through an event that is totally out of my control. Climbing runout slabs fits neither of those options, so when "Random" said that the approach to the first belay station went up what looked like a slab of wet, 5.8 granite, I tucked in my sack, took a deep breath and "trusted" that everything was going to be alright.
"Random" made it up to the belay ledge fine, though he did it with some trepidation in his otherwise sure feet. "Jello", having gone up five feet and slipped off only to catch himself from sliding another ten feet to the bottom by one handedly snatching out of thin air a dead tree that was conveniently resting where we were climbing, decided to take my approach and put his climbing shoes on first. While he did that, I carefully and swiftly worked my way up the slick rock to a steeper section when, as luck would have it, "Random" shouted down from the belay ledge, "I led you guys astray. The approach is to the left. Go back down. It's a lot easier that way."
If it's one thing I hate more than psyching myself out, it's down climbing a wet slab. How does one do this without looking like Porky Pig talks? Well, the answer is one does so very carefully. It took me about ten minutes, but I finally worked my way back to the tree where I could place my hands and feet on something solid. There I was, ten feet from the bottom. This was easy. I had just worked my way through the hard part. Now all I had to do was walk down while holding the equivalent of a staircase railing. Naturally, when I was two feet from solid ground...I slipped. It wasn't much of a slip; kind of like slipping on an icy set of front steps but catching oneself before one sends one's back into spasms by landing awkwardly on the crooked ground (raise your hands if you speak from experience: now picture Greg not just raising his hand but waving vigorously for attention just to make sure that you know that he does speak from experience as well). The problem with the slip, and the reason I mention it? Remember that gash on my ankle I got from climbing Mr. Clean at Barkeater Cliffs? I'll be damned if that thing wasn't opened up like a tomato dropped from the top of a third-story building. I'm telling you, that's pain, and not just from the open wound, but from the knowledge that I could have slipped where it was more likely and instead slipped where I shouldn't have. Stupidity hurts, too.
Anyway, we switched leads all the way up. I know I usually break out my routes by pitch, but this post is ridiculously late and I'm just going to say that we did the direct route. Basically, this goes straight up to a set of bolts both below and to the right of the large, obvious, exfoliating, arching roof that dominates the right side of the cliff. We could have then traversed left to follow the crack, by why do that when there's beautiful pockets leading the way up the next anchor (slings with rap rings)? We then followed the crack right until it ended and went up over the face to the upper slabs, which, by the way, one cannot see from below. From there, we found out that the wasn't enough rope to make it to the top with 60m ropes. So we simul-climbed from the large fir tree that is to the left of the next crack line and an easy, obvious dike leading upward like a true stairway to heaven (or, in my case, hell. Hey, no one said you had to go straight down first. I firmly believe St. Peter will be giving me my marching orders, just not through the pearly gates). I've since learned that most people untie here, but that's OK. This last pitch is probably no more than fourth class. Seriously, I was breathing heavy from the "walk" up. It was more of a cardio workout than a climb.
Anyway, we hiked down after that and decided that we'd take on Inferno (5.8). "Random" climbed the first pitch, and, while "Jello" was climbing the second pitch, "Random" wondered aloud what time his exam meeting was that evening. No sooner than the words had come out of his mouth did his phone ring:
"Random": Hello? Hey, yeah, I am coming to the meeting, what time is it? It's at 6pm? OK, what time is it now? Uh, it's 6pm? Huh. Well, I, uh, I'm going to be a bit late. Yeah, you see, I'm belaying the leader and, uh, well, I can't retreat until I get up. Uh huh. I'll see you then. Bye.
As soon as "Jello" got up the route, "Random" raced to the top of the second pitch. By the time I got up, "Random" was gone. That was OK, because it was really starting to get dark. We saw that there were some folks rapping off another route on the other side of the ledge, so we walked over and asked if we could catch a ride. The group happily let us through, but not without them having to shine their headlamps on our rap devices to ensure we were properly locked in. Go back and read that sentence again. Uh huh. Now go all the way to the top of this post and read the initial conversation.
You got it.
Now imagine walking through your bedroom at night without any light whatsoever. Now imagine that it's not your room, but someone else's. Now imagine that feeling you get when you wake up in a strange room and forget, just for a few moments, where you are, except in the dark, with wet roots under your feet and a windy trail to the bathroom and back to the bedroom. For the love of God, I don't think we'll have an adventureless, perfect weekend. I'm starting to think that maybe, just maybe, our climbing weekends aren't about the climbing after all. Instead, it's about survival. At some point, and I hope this isn't true, we may become eligible for the Darwin Awards.
Still, we had our final good karma moment when "Random" trusted us to take his rope and remaining gear back with us to the campsite. He picked it up the next morning before going off to start his week-long test. I hope he did well.
Monday was a rainout, so we headed home without so much as a whimper (well, the stupid girl at Dunkin Donuts complained that my money was wet, but what the hell does she know?). They Died Laughing remained conqueredless and so did Recompense. That's OK. There will always be a time for beating back the demons. It just wasn't our time this time around. I'm off to the 'Gunks this weekend. Wish me luck.