Monday, October 01, 2007

Losing My Palmolive Hands - Barkeater Cliffs

This weekend's trip consisted of me, "Chuck" and "Jello" finding ways to brutalize our bodies in ways we never planned and didn't expect. Our mission was to hit Barkeater Cliffs on Saturday and Poke-O-Moonshine Sunday, if time and weather allowed. We accomplished both to varying degrees.

The ride to Barkeater Cliffs from Willsboro was about an hour long in a chilly, low-hanging fog that did a nice job of cleaning the one-inch thick layer of dirt off the exterior of my car. We arrived at the parking lot and hiked in with the chill lingering in the air. We had paid attention to the weather forecast, and it was supposed to be sunny and warm all day. But lost somewhere in the radar and doppler signals was the real forecast: that of a biting wind that grabbed the cool air and whipped it through the dark valley where I was saving "Jello", once again, from a lack of proper clothing by offering my pullover even though I was shivering without it.

Big Bertha (5.6) - 1 pitch - trad - chains at the top

This was a nice route, but with the cold air stripping the heat that was generated in our hike up, the rock felt as brutal under my fingertips as a cheese grater feels on a raw day. Start this climb to the left of where the path emerges from the forest below. There will be large boulders all around, and a tree right at the base of the climb. Work up the first notch, and then layback the left-arching crack even though it feels as if it would be better to jam and use the left-hand face for feet. After that, get up the next notch and finish at the chains just below the roof.

Mr. Clean (5.8) - 1 pitch - trad - chains at the top

"Jello" had a story to go with this route. That morning at breakfast he recalled how he had been climbing at this cliff with two friends when one decided to take a run up this route. The kid didn't have enough large cams, so he ran it out a bit to the crux. Finally, he got just below the crux, about 15 feet off the ground, placed the best pieces he had and, just as he was about to clip...slipped off and found the hard ground beneath him. The poor kid refused to be carried out and instead crabwalked all the way back to the car. This time, "Jello" wanted to make sure he had enough proper-sized cams to make this work. We had mine, and he borrowed a couple of a co-worker. The result? Battle-scarred glory.

This route is to around the corner and to the right of Big Bertha. It's the beautiful crack in a wide dihedral that makes the obvious right-facing corner irrelevant. Head up the crack (jamming is hard work, but it'll get one up without pumping out) to the crux, which is a transition from the vertical crack to the left-arching flake. Then head up the notch to the chains below the roof. Don't forget to use the features on the left face to get through the crux. It'll feel exposed in the sense that one has to move away from the gear, but this move is actually pretty easy to make if one's head is in the game.

"Jello" went up the first crack to the crux (about 15 feet off the ground) four times and downclimbed each time. Not once did he fall or rest on the rope. Each time he downclimbed, stiffly, awkwardly and with a lot of pumped veins shooting adrenaline through his arms. He wanted the onsight. He didn't want to fall, and he was driven to get this route clean the first time after working all autumn on learning to climb cracks. Finally, on the fifth time, he found the holds on the left face and cranked through them. Three moves later through the arching flake, he was playing with jugs to the top. The ride down was one filled with shouts and fist-pumping. It was then my turn.

Let's be clear, I don't like cracks. Why? Because I'm a face climber who likes his hands to be no closer or further apart than shoulder distance width. I like my feet underneath my hands in such a way that allows me to control every move with grace. Punching my hands into the unknown where my feet are directly below my hands, and directly above my knees is not the secure feeling I enjoy. But with "Jello"'s obsession to learn to climb crack better, they, too, became my obsession. I wasn't going to lay this back, not like I had done to every other crack I couldn't face climb. I admit it. I was really afraid. I knew I didn't have the pain management that he did, and I most certainly didn't have the technical skill that he had learned through hard work and meticulous attention to detail. I got four moves up and peeled. I worked and worked and worked and worked. The whole thing seemed a nightmare made just for me. I could get into the crack and secure myself. That wasn't a problem at all. It was moving that stalled me. Because the crack was so close to the left face, I couldn't move about freely without feeling claustrophobic. In fact, despite having learned to torque my feet in cracks a long time ago, I couldn't help but leave my left ankle exposed enough for balance to constantly rub against the left face all the way up. When I finally came down, after a couple of rests, I felt the raw air nip at the exposed blood. It hurt, and so did my hands.

"Chuck" was up next, and after a long layoff from climbing, she did pretty well on this route. In fact, she run up the entire first crack with a layback that looked as gentle and smooth as a child swinging on the perfect push. When she came down, it was my turn to go back for the redpoint.

There isn't much to say except that I think I finally learned something the first time up. That's the way I work; in nearly all aspects of life. I fail at most things the first time around, but I always learn. I may even fail the second, third and fourth times around, but I'll always learn someting. At some point, something will snap inside me and I'll get it. Sometimes I won't even know that I got it, or what it is that I had just learned. But it'll come to me'll all come together and I won't even have to think about it. This is what happened: one hand after the other, one foot after the other, reach out to the features on the left face, layback up, drop the heel behind me, mantle, grab the arch and fly to the top. It feels almost as good now telling it as it did on the way up.

Fun City (5.7) - 1 pitch - trad - chains at the top

At times while I and "Jello" were working our way up the crack, "Chuck" was off looking for the next route. I tried a footless 5.8 that looked scarier than any footless 5.10 I'd ever done. I backed off that route after going up four times, and cleaned it the final time down. "Jello" didn't want to try it, and so we turned to the book.

While we were choosing Fun City as our next route, "Chuck" was walking back from finding that route with all smiles on her face.

"Chuck": Guess what guys?
Us: What?
"Chuck": Not only did I find more routes to the right, but I also found sunshine.
Everyone: Thank. You. Lord!!!!

We picked up the gear and headed to two of the finest looking cracks we'd seen (and we'd seen a lot of fine looking cracks the past few weeks). A short, 20-foot scramble to a small ledge led us to the base of Fun City and its 5.9+ variation. I was on lead for the first one and got up it with relative ease. There was one, notable exception, however. At this point, and because I have terrible circulation going to the far reaches of my body (sic - fingers and toes), my hands were in a lot of pain. Each time I cranked a hand-jam into the crack I grunted, groaned and generally complained enough to get "Jello" and "Chuck" to tease me and my wussiness. What was my response?

Me: Hey guys, leave me alone. I'm losing my Palmolive hands.

Ordinarily, a joke like that would get me a few more barbs, but not this time. This time, they just looked at me with stunned looks on their faces. It was as if they looked up and asked, "What did he just say? Did he just admit to have Palmolive hands? Do we even play off that?" The joke didn't go over as well as I expected it to go, but I do feel that it won't be as forgetable as I'd like it to be.

Anyway, the 5.7 is the the left-hand crack that follows the steps midway up to the upper crack just below the chains. You'll need larger cams at the top if you don't want to run it out.

We also did the 5.9+ variation, on toprope. This was the right-hand crack and, I've gotta tell you, this was a hard-on-the-hands crack with a serious move to get over the bulge at the top. If anyone plans on doing this variation, find the crimps inside the flaring cracks and get the feet up. The holds are better once over the top, but not much.

"Jello" worked his way up to the bulge, tried it several times and came down. "Chuck" got up there and found a nifty little undercling that allowed her to get just a little higher up than "Jello" had, but she, too, couldn't get over the bulge. Because I had to clean to gear at the top ("Jello" had set a directional anchor to keep us swinging into the right-facing corner), I yarded up to the top.

Yakapodu (5.6+) - 1 pitch - trad - build your own anchors at the top

It was dark, but we wanted to get another climb in before leaving. "Jello" led this route (follow the crack to the right of the bushy gully, step over the gully at the top and follow the easiest line straight to the top). I seconded the route just so we could get out of there. We hiked off, but, naturally, lost the trail mid-way down. Guess what we did instead? Yup, you guessed it. Bushwhacked.

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