Monday, July 28, 2008

A Near Miss

There are days when I want to climb for the fun of it, and there are days when I just go with the flow. I rarely feel the need to push myself these days, though I admit that sometimes these moments flare up. Often times, however, I just want to do something, and that is what I decided to do at the 'Gunks on Saturday.

Friday afternoon was restless for me. I had taken the previous afternoon off and felt the pressure of staying late in order to show that I wasn't working the summertime office schedule to an obvious advantage. I had a presentation to propose to my boss on Monday, and only had a moderate amount finished. But sitting on the back of my mind was the sparse number of campsites at Camp Slime. With only a dozen or so spots at the fantastic price of first-come-first-serve free, I've always been stressed about how it would fill up with New Yorkers with less than a two-hour drive during my four-hour drive from Boston. I try to leave early when going to the 'Gunks, but I just couldn't bring myself to go this time. It was then that the phone rang:

- "Ratherbe": Hey, my appointment this afternoon cancelled. Can you leave early?
- Me: I don't know. I left early yesterday. I kind of feel the need to stay until 5pm anyway.
- "Ratherbe": You know there's the bouldering cleanup tomorrow?
- Me: Yeah. I can just imagine what the camping is going to be like. You get in touch with your ranger friend?
- "Ratherbe": I did, but he can't promise anything. He has spots for about four tents, and has eight people coming for the cleanup.
- Me: How many tents is that for eight people?
- "Ratherbe": I asked and he didn't know.
- Me: sigh So what about everyone else? Seems like half of Boston is going.
- "Ratherbe": "Cracklover" and "Ellsworth" are heading down early, probably around 4pm.
- Me: So they'll be on the road before I even get home, and that's if I left now.
- "Ratherbe": Right. I know "Firefly" will likely show up later, so that's good.
- Me: Saves us a spot.
- "Ratherbe": "Sensei" and "Burrito" will probably leave later, too, since he doesn't ordinarily get out of work until 6pm.
- Me: That helps, too. I don't know. I have to ride my bike back and take a shower.
- "Ratherbe": You're driving, so I can meet you whenever. Can I pick you up at work to save time?
- Me: No. The Yankees are in town, and it's already a madhouse here. I'll probably have a difficult time just riding past the Sox player's parked cars.
- "Ratherbe": OK, but you know what leaving late means...
- Me (tapping my foot and squirming in my seat in silence for a few moments with gritted teeth): OK, I'm out of here. See you in an hour. - Click, Buzzzzz

I'm not sure how this happened, but the bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-95 that "Ratherbe" had seen 30 minutes before had all but vanished by the time we exited Rt 2. It didn't seem right that there'd be no traffic at 530pm on a beautiful Friday evening, but there it was, an open lane in front of me all the way to I-90 to I-87, and then to Exit 18. We actually passed "Sensei" and "Burrito" on the way before we had to make a pit stop. We never caught up with them again, but we did pass "Cracklover" and "Ellsworth" with about 20 miles to spare. I'm not one who ordinarily deals with going with the flow well, so I was actually happy to see that we were going to beat at least one tent to Slime. In the end, however, that didn't matter. "Cracklover" had once expressed his belief that getting a spot at Slime late on a Friday night was never an issue, and I've never taken that sentiment to heart despite never being shut out (although I've been close twice). By the time we got there, "Sensei" and "Burrito" had just set up camp in what was an incredibly empty patch of woods. In fact, despite all the people from Boston arriving that night, and despite all the people showing up for the cleanup the next day, there were only four spots taken when we arrived. It was a nice luxury to actually be able to walk around and pick the best remaining site.


Nearly all of our routes done on Saturday were at the far end of the Near Trapps. We chose these routes for a couple of reasons: 1) we hadn't really explored this area and; 2) we knew the Trapps were going to be busy and we wanted to get away from the crowds. Luck was on our side as we spent nearly the entire day at the far end and saw only two other parties the whole time.

Near Trapps Approach:

To get to the Near Trapps you'll need to find the Overlook parking lot. While you're not supposed to park here for more than 30 minuets, people park all day anyway. If you park here, park at your own risk as it can get packed, probably more than you'd imagine, as folks will make an annoying third line of cars that nearly blocks everyone else in. From this parking lot, head uphill toward the bridge. At the Route 44/55 sign turn left onto the trail. From the West Trapps parking lot, head to the end of the parking lot and follow that trail to the bridge. Either cross the street under the bridge, or climb the steps and go over the bridge. If going under the bridge, walk left to the route sign. If going over, walk into the dirt parking lot on the other side and turn right out of that lot.

Short and Sassy (5.5) - 60 feet - Trad - Tree Anchor for Rappel - Greg and "Ratherbe" led

Approach: Once on the trail, follow it for about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on your pace. This path is not as easy or wide as the Trapps carriage trail is, but it is still fairly innocuous. Short and Sassy is a zig-zag crack on a face that juts out about 40 feet from the rest of the cliff. You'll know when you're close when you see a large roof with fixed gear up to your right. This roof is an A3 climb that has never gone free called Spinal Traction (5.6 A3). Short and Sassy is just down the path to the left of this route. If you get to the end of the cliff then you've obviously gone too far.

Short and Sassy: Climb the left-fading crack until it lurches right under a small roof. For easier climbing, go to the left of the roof. For harder but still-within-the-grade climbing, go to the right. From there, head straight up to the tree with a rap anchor attached.

We did this climb as a warm-up, and I was a bit disappointed when I first saw it. It didn't look like much, and I was looking for something that was going to get my blood flowing. This route certainly didn't look as if it would do that, but we were there and had committed to it, so "Ratherbe" racked up and took the first lead. Her initial impression of it was similar to mine, so when she got up into the crack and at the crux (where the crack goes right), she became a bit more impressed with what she was on. I still didn't see it, but when it was my turn, my opinion of it changed quite a bit. This route is aptly named. It may be a 5.5, but it certainly has some spice to it.

Lean and Mean (5.8) - Two Pitches - Trad - Varied Anchors

Approach: Located right around the corner from Short and Sassy (to the right - back toward the parking lot), Lean and Mean starts on a very large boulder that is leaning against the cliff. Start about mid-way up the hill.

Pitch One (5.7) - 70 feet - Tree Anchor - Greg led

Before talking about this route, I want to make a couple of points about the routes in the Near Trapps. Firstly, the only readily available guidebook as of July 2008 that has these routes is the Swain guide. While it is nice to have the Swain guide for reference, it leaves a significant amount of information out that is otherwise useful. For instance, it leaves out not only the grade of each pitch (listing only the overall grade), but also the length per pitch. Secondly, there are some routes where the photos don't match the description and the number associated with the route doesn't match the photo (or the number isn't even in the photo). This route did have an accurate photo, but it did not have the rope length or grade. Therefore, it is important to note that I am estimating the grades and lengths on my own.

The first pitch is definitely the "lean" part of the climb. It is thin and the holds appear to be facing the wrong direction, but that's only from the bottom. Once you're on the route things become clearer. I essentially took the path of least resistance up to a point where the route clearly goes left and around the arrete. The climbing is much easier around the arrete, and the rap anchors can be found on a tree up to the left.

Pitch Two (5.8) - 70 feet - Gear Anchor - "Ratherbe" led

I thought I was getting the money pitch on pitch one, but nothing could be further from the truth. The "mean" pitch is one of high quality that not only includes committing moves, but excellent exposure throughout, and a tantalizingly fearful line from the first belay. This thing looks intimidating until you get on it, and then you realize that you're in for a pretty good ride.

For starters, step left to the edge of the boulder where there is a wide gap between the boulder and the rock face. It's an easy step over open air, but there's no protecting the first move. From there, traverse right along the face toward the steep and menacing overhang. It looks thin, and it is a little, but all the holds are there and the traverse is well-protected. But this isn't even the fun part. The fun part is the overhang itself because even when one approaches it, the overhang looks void of holds and protection. Not only that, but the traverse doesn't feel overly exposed (after the initial step across, of course) because it runs along side the large boulder until about 10 feet before the start of the overhang. Once at the section where the holds seem to disappear, the boulder ceases to below you, and you're faced with steep, pumpy climbing with no gear and a long fall to the bottom. But hey, this is a 5.8, remember?

All I can say is that there are some really cool moves on the overhang that makes this fun. It is well-protected on the left-hand face, and there are a couple of somewhat hidden jugs on the right (on the overhang), too. What makes this 5.8 is that there are really good feet all the way up. You may have to make a few foot adjustments here and there while using the same hand holds, but even someone like me who got turned around in the wrong direction on the most difficult section can get out of trouble. This climb is well worth the long walk in.

Descent: From the top, head up through the trees and bushes to the left. You should find a path that goes to the left and soon joins a very easy walk-off. The walk-off has signs posting a no-trespassing zone, but there is plenty of room to maneuver downhill and back to the base without becoming a criminal. There is a rap anchor at the top of this route. However, when you see it, you will smartly forget that it's there (think: dead tree).

Hold the Mayo (5.9) - 110 feet - Trad - Gear Anchor - Greg and "Ratherbe" led different sections

Approach: To the right of the large, A3 roof with fixed gear is a prow that is called Muriel's Nose (5.10a). To the right of the nose is a gully with a tree and a five-foot tall block behind the tree. You should see the traverse roof that is the bottom of the prow slightly to your left if standing at the tree.

Hold the Mayo: As noted at the start, some days all I want to do is get away, some days are days to just climb whatever I feel like climbing, and some days are days like Saturday, when I feel OK, relatively without fear and with confidence, and as if I'm finally OK to start pushing my 'Gunks grades. The Swain guide calls this a G-rated climb, and so I figure that if I fall, and if my gear holds, then I'm OK.

"Hey," I said, "Let's do Hold the Mayo. It'll be my first 'Gunks 5.9." Those could have been my famous last words.

This climb has two cruxes: the early traverse and fighting the pump at the top. The first crux wasn't so bad once I figured it out, but the second was what took me off the lead. From the tree, scramble up the block in front of you and on to the slab that is to the right of the traverse roof. Despite the fact that you'll see chalk on the thin crack on the face below and mid-way across the roof, I doubt that this is the path for the 5.9, as there is a 5.10 climb that Hold the Mayo traverses across that has a couple of thin cracks on it. You'll want to head up to the right-hand side of the roof and find the left-leaning, right-hand side pull that will be about five feet above the bush (there's also a huge side pull that is farther to the right and deeper into the bush that is lower than the upper one, but the upper one is the key). Snag that side pull, lean left, and step onto the slab directly below the roof. Carefully walk across the slab and exit to the left. From there, head up the shallow corner until it becomes obvious that you'll need to step right out onto the face. Climb straight up to the top (and I literally mean straight up through the lichen. The chalk that is just left of the large roof on your right may be a way to get to the top, but it's harder than 5.9, in my opinion).

My initial thought when climbing this was to avoid the right-hand side of the traverse and to climb the thin crack below the roof instead. I searched for several minutes for the moves, and even scouted them out a bit before I decided that it was too tough without a lot of pro to protect me on what would have been a nasty fall onto awkward and somewhat jagged rocks below. I even tried the traverse several times and felt my feet begin to slip out from underneath me each time. By this point, I was kind of tired because the moves I was trying were a bit pumpy, and because "Ratherbe" had been belaying me at the start for about 15 minutes, I decided that my next attempt would be my final attempt. As it so often happens, whenever I say this, I figure out a way to get past the crux. It was then that I discovered the seemingly useless side pull and used it to my easy advantage. The traverse is not so difficult, but it does require maintaining a bit of a pump through this section. The hands are good, but not as good as you'd like them to be. And the feet are nice, too, but not as nice as you'd like them to be, and then everything is just a little more scrunched up than preferred. It's easy to miss the juggy undercling near the far left of the roof. This is key to gaining the far-left side pull that will allow you to finally exit the roof / traverse once and for all. Just be careful of the final foot hold as you exit the roof. It's a big hold, but for some stupid reason I slipped on it twice despite there being absolutely no reason for me to slip on it.

Upon exiting the traverse, I made the assumption that the crux was near the beginning, and that if there were any 5.9 moves the rest of the way that they'd be singular and not strung together. There is a good rest spot at the end of the traverse, and so I rested for a minute, but not for very long. The corner was right above me and the face climbs out right of the corner seemed solid enough from below. So I headed up into what, at first, seemed to be just a couple of tough moves that turned into a series of sustained 5.9 moves into a cramped corner below a roof. I managed to plug a small Camalot on the inside to protect "Ratherbe" and then a tri-cam on the outside on the face to the right to protect me. There was a fairly large rest for my feet, but the foot hold was steeply angled and I had to keep switching feet just to keep each calf from exhausting itself. By the time I was ready to move out onto the face, I was really feeling pumped both in my legs and my arms. The move out onto the face itself was no picnic, either. It required making a dynamic move straight up off a tiny foot job to a horizontal crack that I wasn't so sure was deep enough to handle this kind of move. After trying the move out from several different directions, I finally gave it a go and snagged what turned out to be a fairly sizable jug. The only problem was that I was pretty much wasted at this point. I looked up and saw another horizontal crack similar to the one I was holding onto. It, too, required a bit of a dynamic move, but more with a high-step-and-go than a balancy lunge. This time, however, I was convinced that the horizontal above the next one was a sloper and not an actual ledge. I knew this because of how the rock behind the second horizontal was fading away from the edge. I couldn't stomach lunging for that, and so I had to find a new way up. Feeling even more wiped at this point, I hurriedly plugged a #1 Camalot, clipped the red rope, and asked "Ratherbe" to take. When I felt the rope pull tight against my harness, I slowly transferred my weight from my arms and legs to the cam. However, as soon as the cam started to take the weight, the rock all around it started to flake away.

- Me: Whoa! Whoa! Shit, shit, shit!
- "Ratherbe": What happened?
- Me: The rocks breaking away. It's crap rock.
- "Ratherbe": So what do you want me to do?
- Me: Fuck. Um. Uh. Jesus. Oh God. Hold on! Just get ready, OK?
- "Ratherbe": OK.

I really didn't want to fall, but I figured I had no choice if I didn't rectify the situation soon. Having little or no juice left, I frantically searched my rack for another cam. After about 30 seconds of swearing and sweating, I finally found a spot for a yellow Alien about six inches to the Camalot's left. I inserted, yanked, clipped and had "Ratherbe" take on the blue rope. I leaned back slowly, hesitantly, and gently felt the strength of the cam take my weight. I breathed a sigh of relief and looked for a backup for the #1 just in case the Alien didn't hold up later on. After a bit of searching, I plugged another cam (one of her Metolius cams) and clipped that to the red rope as well. I then rested for a good 15 to 20 minutes, seemingly with my weight equally dispersed on both cams.

While resting, I scouted out the moves both above me (where the lichen was) and to my right. I already figured that straight up was not the way to go due to the lichen and sloper, so I started to focus my attention to my right, just left of the roof. There was a lot of chalk on what looked like huge jugs on a hand-traverse without great feet. I tested out the direct line to these jugs and decided that going straight up to an intermediate hold would then allow me to easily traverse right. I really liked the fact that the hand traverse was full of jugs, but I was mostly happy because above the traverse, once I got my feet up, were more jugs that would allow me to pull up and over the roof. This was fantastic. I was tired, but I knew that I could eke out enough strength to get up. Finally, after shaking out completely, I went for it.

The first move upward was dynamic and difficult for me, as it took nearly all I had in that one burst just to stand up. I figured that I was tired still, but I didn't figure that my strength had been sapped as much as it had been. But once I got up and grabbed the first jug in the traverse, I felt much better. Still, I wasn't strong enough to stick around and fiddle with gear, so I moved right so long as the hands and feet were good (and they were for a good six feet). At this point, my hands were about seven feet about the cams below me, and six feet to the right. I was now at what I figured was the final crux; I had to move right about three feet more, campus about a foot up to the next level of jugs, and swing my feet up before mantling / jugging up to the next level above that. I did nearly all of this, except for getting my right foot up and over the lip. Once I campused up to the higher set of jugs, and once I got my left foot up over the lip, I made an effort to get into a high mantle twice before I realized that I just didn't have enough in me to go any further.

- Me to myself: Fuck. What am I doing? I just don't have the strength to mantle. I'm going to have to fall. I can't move up, and I can't hold on forever. I have to fall.
- Me: "Ratherbe", get ready. I'm about to take a big whipper.

I felt the rope loosen when she apparently stood up straight. I then felt a slight pull on my tie-ins when she pulled in just a bit. It's funny, but I was about to take at least a 15-foot fall and that tiny pull on the rope gave me the confidence to accept that a fall was imminent. I was actually OK with falling despite knowing full well that this was going to be the biggest fall I had ever taken outside, on trad gear or otherwise. I held on for about four seconds more because I didn't really want to fall despite my comfort in doing so. My left hand greased up a little, and I readjusted it trying to grab a better hold. I was able to do just that, but that little movement caused my sweaty right hand to lose it's own traction and I went...

- Me to myself: Fuck here I GOOOOO! Shit, shit, shit. When's it going to take? Take dammit! Take!

I saw the anchors flash by my face and I breathed, somehow, a sigh of relief. But as soon as I figured I was going to be caught soon, I realized that I had much farther still to go.

- Me to myself: OOOOH SHIIITTTTT!!! Where's the ledge? Oh FUCK! Ledge! Ledge! LEDGE! SHITTT!!!

I saw the ledge below me coming on quickly and thought that I was either going to pull "Ratherbe" too far up or all three cams out and deck. And if it were the cams that popped, I was going for another ride down onto the jagged rocks below. That ledge came closer by the milisecond and I can tell you the God's honest truth that it is possible to rationally think and prepare a dozen thoughts in a moment of stress that lasted less than a couple of seconds, because just as soon as I prepared to deck, the rope caught me and I thought - light feet, light feet, light feet - tap, tap, tap on the rock, save the knees; shit it's a swing! BOOM! I recoiled off the corner and swung back out to my right, directly below all three cams that held tight.

At this point, I wasn't as shaken by the fall as I thought I would be. Though I have to say that I nearly vomited when I first tried to speak to "Ratherbe" to ask if she was OK. The nausea was simply from trying to speak while catching my breath. Once I collected myself, I asked "Ratherbe" to lower me. I was now about 12 feet below the cams and too tired to even yank myself back up on the rope. I didn't matter what kind of fall I had taken, I was just too pumped to go on.

Unfortunately, that still left a sizable chunk of "Ratherbe"'s rack still on the route. We discussed our options for a bit and finally agreed that "Ratherbe" would TR up to my last piece and give the last few moves a go. If worse came to worst, we could always walk up the walk-off to the left and rap-clean it later. The only concerns we had about her climbing the route were which end of the rope she needed to use. She didn't want to lead anything but the upper moves, but that meant either she topropped it unprotected at the bottom (with a potentially nasty and huge swing on the early crux if she blew that), she TR'd it by unclipping as she went by and re-clipping to protect me, or she just unclipped everything (leaving me, the exhausted one, with the potential swing). She finally decided to TR the route and risk the swing herself. She just didn't think that she had the strength to get through the early traverse and re-clip everything on the way through. So up she went, and through the traverse cleanly she went, too. She commented after getting through it that she wouldn't have wanted to lead it, as it was really pumpy on TR, let alone the lead. She then went up the corner and stepped out on the face and hung at the cams. I talked her through what I had seen, and she decided that she did not want to take the same fall that I took.

- "Ratherbe": I'm going to risk it and head straight up for the lichen. It just looks easier.
- Me: OK, but watch out for the sloper. I just don't think there's much there. That's why there's all that lichen.
- "Ratherbe": I know. Just watch me.

She stepped up from the cams and managed to grab a solid enough stance to plug another cam up high. From there, she went straight up through the lichen and, after a blink, she was up and over and at the top.

- Me: Holy cow. I can't believe that wasn't a sloper.
- "Ratherbe": Yeah, it's a total jug.
- Me: Fuck. Me.

"Ratherbe" put me on TR as the second and I made my way up through the traverse, naturally slipping on the same large foothold as before. I then came up through the corner and stepped out onto the face, and hung. And then I made one move, and hung. And then another move, and hung. I made about 10 moves from the cams to the top and hung at nearly every single one. I was pissed to have trusted the chalk, but glad that "Ratherbe" was able to get us up to the top. For certain, one element of a good partner is someone who can clean up someone else's mess, and she did just that. One thing to note here that I didn't discover until I got to the top is that the upper level of jugs on the traverse that I was on turned out to be nothing substantial at all. Had I made it high enough to depend on jugs that weren't there, I would have had an even bigger fall. It's funny how the rock plays tricks on your eyes sometimes. I swear that the horizontals on the upper face were slopers diguised as jugs, and they turned out to be solid holds. On the other hand, those jugs I was going to depend on were nothing but tiny crimps and pinches. That's the nature of the game, I guess.

Descent: From the top, either walk left toward the walk-off path, or walk right until you hit the path heading right a little farther up from the top of the cliff. Follow that path until it fades down right toward the edge. You won't be able to see the anchors until you've walked into a small, dirty, bushy belay ledge, but there are rap anchors on a tree to the route The Main Line (5.8). We rapped on another party's rope in two raps (there are bolted anchors below), but I think you might be able to rap on two 60m ropes in one go. We were prepared to do that, but had another option and took that instead.

Outsiders (5.8) - 90 feet - Trad - Chockstone Anchor - "Ratherbe" led

Approach: Come to a large, right-facing corner that is actually a massive boulder leaning against the cliff (the entire route is on the right side of the boulder). Look for a crack fading diagonally up to the right in line with the leaning direction of the boulder. The crack actually starts in the roof that is about seven feet off the ground. There is a medium-sized boulder to the right of the crack, and the bottom of this boulder is about the same height as the top of the lower roof. If you look up, you should see a large roof well above the top of the boulder. About mid-way up the climb, on the left near the arrete, is a small bush.

Outsiders: Step up onto the boulder to the right and step left into the crack. Follow the crack all the way up to easier but exposed climbing at the top. For easier climbing, once at the bush, step left onto the face and climb back right once above it. However, "Ratherbe", upon advice given by Dick Williams a couple of weekends prior to this one, climbed straight through the bush and found that to be fun, too.

I don't have much to say about this route other that I think it would be a nice route. I didn't fall or hang, but I was really too tired to judge this at all. I'll say that it seemed nice, and that "Ratherbe" enjoyed her lead. At that point, however, I was just a second and belay slave. Whatever it was she wanted to do, she had to lead and / or rap clean on her own. This turned out to be her final route, too, as she was pretty tired from the day as well. It was late, and we were hungry and not looking forward to the 30-minute hike back to the road, 15-minute hike back to the car, and 20-minute hike from there to the swimming hole, with, obviously, a 20-minute hike back to the car and 10-minute hike to the tent. We were tired and just couldn't do any more. So much so that "Ratherbe" finally convinced me, after oodles and oodles of begging, to drive to the swimming hole instead of hiking there. I reluctantly gave in, but was all the happier for it in the end. We took a quick dive in the swimming hole, ate, and rested for a while as the sun slowly set. Before darkness set in, however, we were warned by a ranger friend of hers that there was a 60% chance of thunder showers the next day after 2pm. When we finally got back to the tent, we relaxed in such a way that our morale was going to be better for Sunday's climbing.


Disneyland (5.6) - Two Pitches - Trad - Gear Anchors - Greg led in one pitch

Approach: Disneyland is fairly close to the beginning of the crag from the path, and it is both easy and difficult to miss. It's difficult to miss because it is an obvious, large, left-facing corner that climbs over a ground-level roof and below an upper roof. There is a tree in the corner of the dihedral start. It is easy to miss because, unless you turn around, you'll walk right past it as you come out from under the roof.

Disneyland: As I noted, I climbed this in one go, but I had doubles to help with the rope drag. If you don't have doubles, then make a belay after clearing the initial traverse and roof. This fun climb starts at the tree in the corner and traverses right across the face to toward the edge of the roof and the arrete. There are a couple of different ways to climb the face (high or low), but the crux is definitely the mantle that gains the upper corner where the roof and arrete turn into another corner and roof above. After the mantle, head left to the next roof, go past that to another roof, and then completely ignore the Swain guide.

While it is a nice feature of the Swain guide to have the Near Trapps in it, it is not always a well-advised guide to own. It is affectionately known as the "Swain Death Guide" because of its frequent misdirection. This route is a case in point. The Swain guide notes that after the mantle, one should "climb the dihedral on the left above, to a large roof. Move right (V2) and over the ceiling to the summit." Then the photo shows the route staying left of the third roof on the route, but let me tell you that at the third roof, you want to traverse right. Look, I've noted my ability to trust a guide and misread a route before. It sort of happened the day before on Hold the Mayo, and again the year before on Paralysis at Poke-O. Because I had just taken a huge whipper not less than 18 hours before, I was hesitant to follow the Swain guide's recommendation of heading up left and then traversing right (according to the picture). Why? Becuase the moves into this dihedral that was left of the third roof was not only void of 5.6-type holds, but it was loaded with lichen. True, clearly there are times when the lichen is clearly not the best tell-tale sign of where to go, but the hand-traverse under the third roof on this route was not only obviously where everyone else went, but it was actually still 5.6! Trust me on this one, traverse right under the third roof and climb the face to the top, keeping the fourth roof (the roof that Swain says to traverse under) to your left all the way to the top.

Descent: Walk off to the right. The path is pretty obvious and will bring you back to your gear in less than five minutes (watch out for bandit campers though, as they do exist in this neck of the woods!).

Alphonse (5.8) - Three pitches - Trad - Gear Anchors - "Ratherbe" led in one pitch

Approach: Not sure how to describe this, except that this route is a long left-facing corner that traverses under a large roof near the top. There is a small, squarish roof about two square feet in size just to the left of a small tree growing out of the rock about 20 feet up.

Alphonse: This route is typically done in three pitches due to rope drag. However, with doubles, Alphonse can be climbed in one push. Climb the corner about 60 feet and belay on the face if you want to break this up into three pitches. About 15 feet below the roof, traverse left to the edge of the large roof, and belay here. Otherwise, gain the roof (crux) and fade right to the top. I found myself so tired from the day before (a feeling I noticed on Disneyland, too), that I was having a difficult time focusing on keeping myself close to the wall. And this wasn't happening during moves, but during rests instead. By the time I made it to the top, I told "Ratherbe" that I was going to be her slave, and she could do whatever she wanted. I was too tired to even lead another 5.6, and she might have to rap-clean whatever route she decided upon.

Descent: We rapped from the top in one go on two 60m ropes.

Up Yours (5.7) - 90 feet - Trad - Tree Anchor - "Ratherbe" led

Approach: This route is sort of in a no-man's land, where the path seems to walk past the routes at this section without a head's glance or notice. Walk until you come to a face that has a longish boulder at the beginning. This boulder is somewhat the start of Elder Cleavage (5.10a) if one does the upper traverse instead of the direct start. Up Yours starts about 15 feet right of the boulder, and directly below a small roof and right-fading crack that leads to a left-facing corner / dihedral. To the left of the corner is a slab with a left-arching flake that is the continuation of Elder Cleavage. There is a small tree above the flake, and a large tree above that and to the right at the top of the corner.

Up Yours: Climb straight up to the crack and bump right (crux - about 10 feet off the ground but well-protected) until the corner. Then follow the corner and then the crack straight up to the larger tree. Watch out for the loose boulders at the belay station. "Ratherbe" led this with relative ease (some difficulty at the crux), and then I hopped on for what would be our last climb of the day. Despite my fatigue, I actually had a bit of a second wind on this route and felt as if I could have led it. I had more problems with the upper crack than the lower one, but that might have simply been my fatigue coming back by the time I reached the top.

Descent: Rap off the rap anchor on the tree.

This ended our day, as it was fast approaching 2pm, and we knew the rain and thunder was coming. We hurried back to the lot where we bumped into "Firefly" and "Burrito", who were both waiting for "PBR" and "Sensei" to get out of the rain. Within minutes of us hitting the car, the skies opened up and, for once, we were spared.

Click here for all Gunks Photos (newest photos are first)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Alpine Solitude

In the end of our lives we must all travel alone. We travel a well worn path without guidebook or map to a place that nobody knows. Left behind are the many connections we have made like spun silk cast out into space to those who knew us. The web is cut with amazing speed and finality as the rest of us try ineffectually to re-establish the connection.

Recently a friend of mine was killed when he was run over by a car while riding his bike one night. Having someone suddenly die like this is difficult due to the timeliness. There is no time to say goodbye and all the thoughts of things one would have done with more time are immediately brought to the forefront as guilt sets in. After a little while of dwelling on death we all remember that we must continue our lives and for me I must rejuvinate my commitment to a fulfilling life by doing something that lets me know that I am not simply going through the motions. This usually involves a great deal of physical and mental pain. If it hurts, you know you're not dead.

I drove from Mason City, IA to Colorado Springs, CO in a speedy ten hours. Then I had to drive to Moab, UT for work the next day which was another six hours. After driving back I had three days without work. I didn't really have anything I needed to do so I decided I would spend that time hiking and scrambling on Pikes Peak. As usual no one was too interested in a long arduous hike to a beautiful place and so after packing I set out alone for what would be some of the most awe inspiring days I've ever had in the mountains.

I once again decided to start from the Barr Trail and as I drove down the highway I looked at the long gash that loomed over Manitou Springs marking the path of The Incline. When I pulled into the crowded parking lot I asked which was faster. The answer came that The Incline was faster and saved about three miles off the Barr Trail. Since I had a long way to go I decided it would probably be worth it. After an hour I was at the top, gasping, and sweating. Surely, I thought, I must be punishing myself for something. The Incline gains more than 2,000 vertical feet in one mile. The slope probably varies from between fifteen degrees to at least forty-five. After sitting for several minutes and feeling mentally pressed to continue I intersected with the Barr Trail and started the long miles uphill.

I was amazingly alone for such a popular trail but so alone with those thoughts my mind had little conversation for me. I started thinking about my legs, which I've decided are the greatest two pistons on Earth. Someone told me that if you focus on pain it goes away or becomes numb. So I tried to think about the pain which was fairly easy because besides the pain in my legs the only other sensations were the dull ache in my shoulders and the heat of the sun. After thinking about how my legs hurt and how they continued to hurt I became bored with the fact that my legs hurt. Since then I've decided it's not focus on pain that alleviates it, but acceptance. When I started to look around at the trees and flowers I realized I hadn't been bothered much by the pain in my legs because I stopped wishing the pain to go away.

After hiking for several miles I got to what is generally considered the second section of the trail as the trees become more Aspen and Pine. It's also noticeably shadier which is nice. Wandering along not paying much attention I look ahead on the trail and notice a small figure trotting towards me, the sun is at it's back and it's face is masked. I first wonder where the owner of this big dog has gone off to and quickly realize that it is in fact a Mountain Lion. It quickly notices me and no sooner than I thought of getting my camera it darted into the woods with stealth and grace unparalled by the greatest dancer.

When I finally decided to walk again I couldn't help but have a much higher awareness. All cylinders were firing and I continuously turned to see what might be following me. I'd always been told that if a Mountain Lion was stalking you, you wouldn't know till it was too late. Despite this I kept thinking that I might smash it in the face with my water bottles or that my neck and skull would be protected by my pack. As I walked into Barr Camp the caretaker greeted me and asked how I was doing and when I told him of my encounter he was astonished and excited. He had never seen one while working there or in all his time hiking in Colorado. After indulging his questions and cooking some dinner I put thoughts of being mauled behind me and made for Bottomless Pit.

Making my way through the dark pine forest I realized the sun was setting behind the mountain and pushed myself faster. As I turned the ridge I came out of the trees and soon lost the trail but saw a gigantic granite face which made me wish for someone to go climbing with. Keeping to my current contour I soon found myself at what appeared to be fairly low angle slabs. My stomach churned as darkness fell. As I inched my way across the low angle slabs slowly became high angle slabs. Looking into the abysmal darkness which I had earlier noted as about 300 feet I turned on my headlamp and looked ahead. I cursed aloud as I looked at the wet, polished slab. I turned and slowly made my way back and carefully made my way back to the talus field where I picked my way over boulders and through scree while listening to a serene stream. I finally came to a flat spot and set up my sleeping arrangements. As I looked up to the infinite sky set against the silhouette of the surrounding alpine walls I felt a familiar comfort. The surrounding environment was indifferent to my presence. If I was crushed by a falling rock or simply failed to wake up there was no malice in it, I simply would cease to exist. With that thought I slid into my bivy sack and rested my weary muscles.

I rarely sleep past sunrise when I'm in the backcountry. Something about falling asleep early and the sunshine just gets me up early. For some reason I didn't awake till past nine. Despite my late rise I felt no pressure. I had no time constraints and simply needed to beat the afternoon storm. So I ate some oatmeal and packed everything up and headed for what I thought was Rumdoodle Ridge. Unfortunately, I had not really taken a close view of a topo before I left. Once again I felt myself on unfriendly territory as I made my way into fifth class terrain. Deciding to traverse farther to the north I found entry to a minor ridgeline headed towards the summit. Despite a few minor difficulties with loose rock the ascent was pleasant and noteworthy.

For quite some time I had been reading about ice climbs located near Corinthian Column but had never seen it. Now that I was looking down the northern cirque I could see it quite well. As I ascended I inhaled the smells of rock and dirt. I looked down on the clean pink slabs and across to the green ledges of mountain grass and flowers. As I looked up I saw mountain goats climbing fearlessly up ahead of me and so they led me all the way to the top. As I reached the top of the ridge I noticed the cars on the road to my right. Walking into the summit house it started to rain. My solitude broken, I felt somewhat angry at the hypoxic masses. What do they know of tired? What does she mean she can't breath? What a bunch of weaklings. I slowly calmed down and laughed at myself. People experience excitment in different ways, who am I to judge those who only wish to indulge in the summit and not the beautiful journey to get there. I sat and talked for a short while with the few people who asked about my hike up. While they all seemed impressed I saw no hint in their eyes they wished to try the same thing.

For several agonizing hours I wandered through the summit house. Without money I was only able to salivate at the donut eating throngs. After several hours the rain subsided and I headed down the Barr Trail. Halfway down to the Timberline Shelter I stopped to peer into The Cirque on the southern side of the East Face. Peering down to where I would later sleep tonight I felt a short burst of adrenaline as the steep bowl opened underneath me. I continued on and after a while I became lost in the trembling of my weary legs until I heard a squeak and looked up to see a marmot staring back at me. It simply sat still hoping I would go away, but instead I took a picture and it scurried away as I continued toward it on the trail. A few thousand feet of descent later I came to the Timberline Shelter where I decided to cook dinner. Inside an older gentleman offered me some hot choclate and pita bread. Having little to offer myself I simply thanked him and enjoyed the company.

After bidding farewell I set out for the bottom of The Cirque which required I go uphill. Casually making my way through the alpine meadows I eventually saw some rock cairns, evidence of previous travelers. A twinge of mild dissapointment soon faded. I might not be the first to walk there but perhaps I will later be the first to climb some new routes in there. As I entered along the trail it was obvious one of very infrequent use. The squeaking of marmots became almost too much as I searched for a flat spot to lay down for the night. With the clouds I could not see the stars but the silhouette was still there letting me know my place. As I lay there I slowly drifted off to sleep only to be awoken a few hours later by an odd sound by my pack. I quickly opened my bivy sack and turned on my headlamp. Nothing there, maybe the weight was just settling. I lay back down and carefully listen. Something is chewing on my pack. I sit up quickly and I see a Pika looking back at me. It quickly runs off and I decide my pack might be safer in the sack with me. While a little cramped I soon find the Pika not interested in trying to come inside with me. As I slowly start to drift off to sleep I hear the crack and rumble of rock fall. Instinctually I try to get closer to the wall but being stuffed in a fabric sack I move mere inches. Upon realizing this I curl into a ball and wait what seems like several minutes, while probably only being seconds. It's difficult to hear where rock would be coming from because of the echoes in The Cirque and I doubt I was actually in any danger but I'm slightly shaken nonetheless. After a while I finally fall asleep.

In the morning I awake before the sun. I bring my thoughts down to the level of what is before me, soft clouds and the advancing red and orange light. As the sun is about to peak above the horizon I look at the wall behind me as it alights in bright alpenglow as if on fire for a brief moment and then fades to a more neutral gray. I watch the clouds go by as the sun rises unabated and continuous. As the clouds burn off I urge myself to rise and after some internal cajoling I pack my things and head out.

My solitude is quickly broken as I reach Barr Trail. The few people I saw while ascending have been replaced by a hoard. After several small parties an entire football team passes by, all asking how far, missing the point of the endeavor entirely. With little interest in trying to explain the task ahead of them I descend quickly to Barr Camp where I trade my trash hauling services for a bag of Skittles, which I'd be craving for a while.

The remainder of the descent is lost in tired pain. I went from abou 11,500 feet to 7,200 feet over the course of eight miles in three hours. I wasn't in a hurry but gravity rushed me a long and who am I to resist the will of nature? As I finally reached the car I slumped into the drivers seat soaked in sweat. The change in altitude also meant a change in temperature of nearly thirty degrees. Hot, tired, and exhausted I drove home to once again join the burgeoning masses in that ever present parade of life.
One might ask why I chose to do something dangerous at all, let alone by myself. Sometimes we must enjoy an experience with others. To share the fear and the joy is to spread the burden or gift amongst friends. In solitude we bring the whole of the experience upon ourselves. Our decision making is not influenced or anchored by that of our cohorts because of their anxiety or skill. The inner turmoil of risking ones life is the essence of life itself becuase if one never chooses to risk a fall, how can they be sure they cherish life at all?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Beached Whale

Why do I have epics on Cannon every time I go? The first epic was due to poor advice and an inability to understand the weather dangers. The second was due an overreaction of the first experience and a poor understanding of the descent. The third was my inability to tap into my Piscean observation talents.

Our goal was to climb Moby Grape (5.8): a musical line of eight to nine pitches of mostly crack with a few slabs at the top. In fact, had we actually climbed this route then I was going to have what I think would have been one of my best posts (we're still climbing it someday, so stay tuned). But as has been the 2008 New England summer weather, this past weekend was every bit as predictably unpredictable. It seems that this summer is the summer of heavenly discontent. Let it be clear, for history may want to look back on these past few months in particular, that there is no threat of drought in the Northeast, and, in oddly such precious times of energy scarcity, there has been no shortage of the biggest godly hint of where to find naturally occurring electricity: the sky. It seems as if every day for the past two months have had the same weather pattern of mild temps, high humidity, and a plethora of "scattered showers with pockets of severe lightening possibly mixed in." This isn't the Midwest, people. This is New England, and we simply don't get the same weather forecast for two months straight, let alone days with above-the-normal-amount lightening strikes, water funnels, and tornadoes! Well, it wasn't really supposed to happen at Cannon on Saturday either (finally).

"Ratherbe" and I made a straight shot up from Boston to Franconia Notch after work on Friday in search of the famed free campsites just north of the cliff. We kind of knew where they were, but didn't know what to expect when we got there. When we did arrive, we found all twelve or so taken, and, according to one camper tucked nicely in his tent with his growling dog close by, the sites weren't shared-use. As far as Franconia Notch goes, there aren't many campgrounds. Lafayette, the only public campground in the area, is often full even a few days in advance, and this is probably owed to its proximity to a lot of world class hiking (the famed and weather prolific Franconia Ridge meets the AT en route). It was also several miles back in the opposite direction from our current location, and just, by a mile, on the other side of Cannon on what sort of amounts to a one-way stretch of road. Even if we got lucky and found a spot there, we'd still have to drive south to get there, south again in the morning in order to turn north, just so we could turn south again to get back to Cannon. Since it was late, and because we knew Moby Grape was as classic of a climb as a classic can get and, as a result, have a conga line on any given day, we wanted to get up extra early to beat the crowd. While I'm not a bandit camper (my super-secret campsite at Cathedral isn't really illegal, as I could easily find an appropriate site away from the water), "Ratherbe" noted that it wasn't unusual for cars to be left overnight at trail heads, and the fact that we'd likely be up early both lent the idea of finding a spot about 20 feet into the bushes just to crash. With a little luck and searching, we finally found a place that was somewhat flat and close to the appropriate size for my tent. We probably killed a fern, but I think that death balances out by the bizarre dream I had that night of a stream of drunk campers walking past our tent on the animal trail that led back to the parking lot. I remember specifically how they all had headlamps and were saying things like, "what the fuck are these guys doing here?" I even awoke partially convinced that the bar around the corner would serve breakfast if we wanted it, but was quickly swayed to understand that, no, there hadn't been any campers with headlamps walking past our tent and, no, there definitely were not any bars in the immediate area (with immediate probably being roughly defined as within the nearest 10 miles or so, let alone just around the corner on the animal path). I guess it must have been the mushroom I slept on. Anyway, sleeping a few feet off the trail apparently wasn't much of an issue, because as we packed our stuff the next morning, we decided to walk around the parking lot in search of other options for the future (just in case the legal ones were taken again). The first thing we noticed was that there was one camper, an apparent proud Scotsman as "Ratherbe" and I are (at least in heritage or name) had set up his tent, ahem, right in front of his car. "OK," we said to each other. Apparently being less obvious isn't so much of an issue. The second thing we noticed was that there was, in fact, another nice spot to pitch a tent just off the parking lot in the woods. We know this because we saw another tent already there. Having stored this valuable information, we hopped in the car and drove south to the Profile Lake parking lot (why this lot is only signed with a "Trailhead Parking" sign I'll never know. Echo Lake even has a sign that says "Echo Lake". Why does Profile Lake not get the same respect?).

Well, we knew were in a bit of trouble with our goal of climbing Moby because, as we awoke very early in the morning, we noticed that the rain that wasn't supposed to hit until 8am and last only an hour had begun somewhere around 4am and hadn't let up by 8am. Hmmmm... we thought, this doesn't seem right. I guess what was ringing in my ears was an e-mail conversation I had with another climbing friend about climbing Moby the same day. He wrote back and stated, and I'm paraphrasing here, "There's no way in hell you'd get me on that cliff during the summer!" I didn't really understand why he was saying that, but I figured as the heavy mist settled on the car in small, but noticeable beads, that he had probably chosen correctly and enjoyed his day at Rumney instead. As it were, there were two cars in the parking lot while "Ratherbe" and I ate butternut rum muffins and hemmed and hawed about what we were going to do. Rumney? Naw, the sharpness of the rock hurts "Ratherbe"'s finger. Cathedral? Too far. The Kang area? No clue of what's even available to climb? Echo? Definitely too wet. Artist's Bluff? Not likely worth it. Shit! What were we going to do? Not knowing what to do, we turned our attention to our comrades who were all racking up to see what they were doing. We didn't know one of the parties, but we did know one of the guys in the other party. I will call him "PhotoSR" because his son is kind of famous photographer in the climbing world.

- Us: So what are you guys doing?
- Random guys: VMC Direct. If not, then maybe Moby. You?
- Us: We were thinking of Moby, but since a lot of it is crack we figure it'll be wet a while.
- Random guys: Huh. Well, I guess we'll find out.
- "PhotoSR": What are you guys doing?
- Us: Well, we were thinking of Moby, but we'll probably pass. You?
- "PhotoSR": Yeah, those slabs up top will get tough with this rain
- Greg (in my head): oh yeah, the wet slabs. Gee, where have I experienced that before? Oh yeah, Epic #1 at the top.
- "PhotoSR": We're heading up WG. That'll be just fine. Were you planning on doing Reppy's? If so, and if it doesn't rain the next couple of hours, you'll be fine on that later on. What did you guys say you were doing?
- Random guys: VMC Direct?
- "PhotoSr" (with a shitty grin on his face): Have fun.

"PhotoSR" and his partner headed off, and "Ratherbe" and I were left contemplating what to do. The weather had stated no rain again after 8am until the late afternoon. That still left us with plenty of time to climb something, but what we couldn't decide upon. Since the mountain was still pretty fogged in, and because the fog was heavy and wet enough to keep my head from staying dry, we decided to go for a drive until either the weather cleared up or we found something to do somewhere else. My first thought was to go check out Artist's Bluff and Echo Crag because I had never been to either.

Artist's Bluff, Echo Crag, and Profile Cliff

We didn't climb at either location, so I don't have any climb-specific information for you. But I can tell you how to get to each one and what to expect once you're there.

The parking for both places is in the same parking lot, the Gov Gallen Memorial lot, which is, during the summer, partially and RV campground and, during the winter, an overflow lot to the Cannon ski area. To get there, I-93 turns into the Franconia Notch Parkway (they are the same road for a few miles through the notch). Regardless of driving direction, take Exit 3 for Echo Lake Beach. Turn left off the exit onto Rt 18 if driving north, and right if driving south. If driving north, continue over I-93 and find the dirt parking lot on the left.

To get to Artist's Bluff, turn right out of the parking lot and cross the street. Once near a guardrail you should find a path heading up to the left. Follow the path up for a few minutes to the base of the 200 foot Artist's Bluff. This cliff, along with another, smaller cliff higher up called Monalisa Cliff, is primarily a beginner's crag. However, there are a handful of 10s and an 11 and 12 here as well.

To get to Echo Crag, take a right out of the parking lot but don't cross the street. Head back over the bridge over I-93 and cross over the north-bound exit ramp. Just as you hit the other side of the exit, look right for what might be a partially hidden and small trail. Follow the trail for several minutes, and don't head left until after you go past the info sign and head up the obvious, man-made stone steps to the base of the cliff. We didn't go very far along the base, but Echo Crag apparently has several dozen climbs, with a good variety of moderate to difficult choices.

There is another crag in this area called Profile Cliff, but we didn't go there. This crag can be accessed, I believe (again, we didn't do this approach), heads up left before the signs on the Echo Crag trail. According to the Sykes guidebook (Secrets of the Notch), this trail spits you out on the left-most edge of the cliff. This guidebook also notes about a dozen moderate-to-difficult routes are at this cliff, as well as nice views of the notch and Vermont.

After a brief scouting trip, we drove around for a bit more, particularly to a town called Sugar Hill, mainly because "Ratherbe" has a wedding to attend there sometime in August and she wanted to know where it was. It was a fun drive, and I think it was highlighted by my note that the kids in this neighbor, the gang, so to speak, were certainly a rough bunch but had a groundbreaking poetic talent that kind of made them cuddly in the end.

When we finally returned to the parking lot a few hours later, we decided that since the fog and wetness had persisted since that morning, and because there was an apparent line heading up to Moby regardless of the conditions, it was best to get on Whitney-Gilman (5.7), the classic, exposed ridge route on Cannon's south end. We had both done this route before, we knew what to expect regarding anchors, gear, and climbing, and we had a fair amount of confidence of the condition of the climb thanks to "PhotoSR"'s comments earlier in the day.

Whitney-Gilman (5.7) - Six Pitches - Trad - Greg and "Ratherbe" led

Approach: With the cliff to your right, head down the path on the south end of the parking lot. Walk for several minutes past a bridge until you see what appears to be a turnout (widened section of the path) on the left with a medium, flat boulder. Directly across the path, on the right, is a small path that will take you to the base of the large talus field below Cannon. To be clear, this path will get you to WG, but it is a long and difficult hike up what seems to be a never-ending talus field with all sorts of large to medium and small loose rock. Be very careful about walking below anyone else on the talus field. Essentially, take this path up to the talus field and fade up and left to the obvious, thin ridge to your left. The ridge is directly to the left of a dark gully called The Black Dike. Once at the base of the ridge, head up left on what is probably easy 5.5 climbing to what is actually a fairly spacious ledge on the front of the outer face of the ridge. The climb starts here, not at the base of the ridge where the rockfall is.

Now, I have taken this approach twice, each time I've climbed WG. However, I've only come down the descent once (see Epic #2 at the top), and that was after this particular day. Upon meeting the tarred path again at the bottom of the descent trail later in the day, and during the walk back north to the car (to the left), we noticed another obvious path heading up in the direction of WG. This path was marked with a fairly large cairn. It is without a doubt, in my opinion, that this is the actual approach trail for WG. But I must warn you that I have not taken this trail, so I can't be sure. The risk in taking this second trail is two-fold: 1) it is much farther down the tarred path than the approach trail I took and; 2) the talus field is a bitch to navigate as it is without screwing up the actual approach. If you take this trail, and if I'm wrong, you may just very well have added a significant amount of time to your day. The approach I took probably took us a slow 45 minutes from car to the first pitch. Add on another 15-20 minutes from the base of that trail to the cairns, and then the talus field itself. However, if this other trail is indeed the correct trail, then you likely save yourself a seriously annoying approach traverse.

Pitch One (5.5 - we did the 5.6 variation) - 90 feet - Gear Anchor - Greg Led

There are two starts to this route: Normal Start) up the face near the right of the belay ledge and traverse across to the right-facing corner / crack or; 5.6 Variation) head up the lieback crack on the left. Beware of the crack without large gear (a 3.5 cam isn't big enough - we didn't have anything larger, so I can't say what to use). It is a ground fall if you fall in this wider section about 10 feet up. Also beware of loose rock after the lieback where it appears to get easier (it does get easier, but so does the rock become looser). In general, be very aware of loose rock at Cannon, and WG is no different.

After moving through the crack and about mid-way up the corner, step right and fade up right to an obvious belay ledge.

As anyone could have guessed, we weren't the only party on WG. There was another party above us (just getting to the top of P1 as we started) and apparently another party on its way across the talus field behind us. We knew it was going to be busy, so we didn't worry about that, but it was interesting to note the presence of so many other parties and not very much blueness in the sky above. There were patches of periodic blue sky by this point, and patches is an appropriate word to use especially if combine with the word "consistent."

Pitch Two (5.5 - we did the 5.7 variation) - 80 feet - Gear Anchor - "Ratherbe" led

At this point we had to wait a bit because the party ahead of us was struggling to make it up. After the second made a few tries on the 5.7 crack on the left, they decided to bail. I'm not so sure they realized how lucky they were to have bailed at that moment. Once the leader rapped down, "Ratherbe" climbed up and tossed down their rope for them, and they rapped down to the base. It was then that we realized there was another party coming up right behind us.

The 5.5 version climbs the right-hand lieback crack. The 5.7 version climbs the left-hand crack, and that is what "Ratherbe" climbed. At the top of this crack, move left and head up to another ledge. The Sykes guide notes that with 60m ropes, the first two pitches can be combined. We split these up because of the party ahead of us and because "Ratherbe" had led the odd pitches on her previous ascent and wanted to climb the even ones this time around (since I had already led the two most difficult pitches on a previous attempt, which were at the top, this was an agreeable solution to deciding who would lead each pitch).

Pitch Three (5.6) - 130 feet - Gear Anchor (with two pins and an additional fixed nut if you prefer) - Greg led

This is a bit of a tricky pitch with some route-finding skills required. Head straight up above the belay to an obvious slab on the left. Cross the slab to a short but awkward chimney (it has a couple of fixed pins, and the upper one is key if you manage to see it; it does blend into the rock a bit). Near the top of the chimney, step left (this may require a high-step and a mantle) and walk around the corner. I don't recommend climbing the right-hand face at the top of the chimney. You'll see why when you get there (hint: it's kind of blank). From there, head up the left side of the arrete / corner and be careful to test nearly all weight-bearing holds. There are a lot of loose blocks on this particular section. The top is the large ledge with two wide cracks to the left of a left-facing corner.

To this point, the weather was holding up fairly well. We could see dark clouds to the south, but directly above us was intermittent blue sky with patches of light-grey clouds. However, Cannon is an east-facing mountain, and it is also a kind of ridge in itself considering it is the highest point on the west side of the notch. Just to clarify again, we were on Whitney-Gilman Ridge, or, to put it another way, we were on the most exposed ridge on an exposed, east-facing cliff where one can't see the approaching weather (again, see Epic #1 above). We knew the party behind us was closing in fast (this guy and "PBR" would've become climbing buddies real quickly), and we decided that if they made it up before we started off, that we might let them pass. It was then that we heard one of the most terrifying noises one could hear on an exposed ridge, again, on an already exposed mountain: grrrrumble, rumble, rumbleumbleumeble. We looked below to see if it was just motorcycles cruising through on the parkway, but there were no such machines on the road at that time. We then heard it again: grrrumble, rumble, rumbleumbleumble. At this point, the leader of the other party was at the same ledge, and obviously concerned about what he could more easily see on his way up: that those dark clouds to the south were larger than we thought, and were unfortunately extending much farther north than anyone would have preferred. Then it started to rain.

All three of us knew we had to get off, but how to do that safely was a concern. In my mind, there really weren't any safe rap opportunities where one could leave no gear (I know, my life is worth more than a couple of cams - I've already been tormented on this, so spare me!). But another concern of mine was the fact that if we rapped, because of the nature of the exposure where the rap would take place, we would actually be the highest points on the ridge. I don't mean high as in elevation, but high as in perpendicular (or, to put it more succinctly, kind of like a sattelite dish or flag would be exposed if hung on the side of a house). I wasn't too keen on exposing myself (not that kind you gutterhead) on the way down without knowing what else above me could or could not possibly be struck first. That and the talus field certainly offered no protection. I can see rapping off without gear (you lower it first to be safe, right?), but how are you going to cross an empty talus field where you're likely the tallest point again without carrying your gear directly on your person? Still, we looked for ways to rap off and really didn't find anything. That was until the leader of the party asked if there was anything above us. "Ratherbe" looked up and saw a possible spire just above the cracks that might have allowed us to rap directly into the Black Dike. This would have been productive as we could have rapped fairly unexposed with a lot of taller rock surrounding us, and with 60m ropes we might have been able to rap in one go. The down side to this was that if the spire wasn't all that good, then "Ratherbe", who had the next lead, was going to be on one of the most exposed sections of the climb without an easy way to retreat. Just to throw a little more fire on the situation, the belay ledge for the start of pitch four can kind of be a sort of cave. It really isn't a cave, but the way the blocks that form the cracks meet the ledge, there is a way someone could crawl under the blocks to seek shelter. Well, what is nearly as bad as being on an exposed ridge on an exposed mountain during an electrical storm? Being in a cave.

Pitch Four (5.6) - 110 feet - Gear Anchor - "Ratherbe" led

I have two things to note about this climb. Firstly, this is the money pitch on this route because of the apparent exposed move that is above the crack. This is often called the "Pipe Pitch" because, you guessed it, there's a metal pipe in the rock. How or why that pipe is there, I don't know, but there it is at your feet just below the crux. Did I mention it was metal and at the top of the cracks where, below the cracks, there is a small cave? Yep.

The second point is this: this is climbing. There are times when a leader chooses to do a route or pitch and for whatever reason can't finish it. It is then up the other climber to attempt the route if one doesn't want to leave gear. This happens all the time, but it isn't always an expectation. The expectation is that if you want to climb a route then you should be willing to lead that route, unless of course your partner wants to lead it and you don't mind following (so long as that arrangement is clear from the start). I say this now because I took some crap for "Ratherbe" leading this pitch instead of me taking it. I think this crap is bullshit because we had agreed to swap leads at the bottom and it was her lead. Just because she's a girl, that doesn't mean I have to die. If she wants to go up and check out the spire, then that's her call. She wasn't going to claim the lead and then chicken out and send me up just because there was potential for lightening. To be absolutely clear, "Ratherbe" NEVER ONCE suggested that I take the climb. She knew the deal and did this on her own. I took the crap from other people who felt that a certain level of chivalry should have been exhibited. Hey, if I'm opening the door for her, sure. If it's her climb and her decision to fight the gods, no freaking way. Of course, if were the significantly better climber or with more experience that would have made any kind of difference in the retreat, then that is a different matter. In that case, I probably would have taken the lead. However, I would say my skills and experience pretty much match hers.

To climb this pitch, climb the two cracks to the top (I find stemming the corner makes this way easier than climbing the crack itself). Step out toward the edge on the right (you should see the pipe below you), and step up (probably a high step / reach for some - it was for "Ratherbe" but not really for me). After this crux move, climb the face and fade with the corner back toward the edge on the right. Climb this second crux and step left around the corner to the belay ledge.

Well, the idea was to test the spire, and when "Ratherbe" got to that spire, it was apparent that it wasn't attached to anything, and probably not large enough to hold a lot of weight. That left her with the option of finding another way down from there, or heading straight up. Luckily, the rain had just started to pass and we could see blue sky again coming over the mountain. At this point, we decided that a quick ascent was probably going to be our best bet. However, as expected, it started to rain yet again just as I had to go over the high-step and the steep rock at the end of the pitch.

At this point, the other party had decided to head up with us, but because the belay ledges weren't large enough for multiple parties at this point in the climb (the bottom pitches would have been large enough), we had to leapfrog each other until the very last pitch. This was OK to all involved, though we got to use the intended belay stations while they had to find alternate spots due to us being slightly ahead of them.

Pitch Five (5.5) - 110 feet - Gear Anchor (though there are pins that should be backed up) - Greg led

This is another slightly tricky-to-read pitch, and I apologize for only have an above picture (I try to have pics from the start so that people can see where they are going), but it was raining and our first priority was to get to the top.

This was actually kind of a funny / scary lead for me. It was scary because, despite the grade only being 5.5, everything was slick, even the jugs. And to be clear, the jugs weren't the grab-on-top type, but the grab-on-the-side-and-lean-back type instead. That and the first section requires traversing across a slab with a thin crack for feet. This traverse is not that difficult ordinarily because the feet are really solid. Add running water into the mix, however, and you get a different story.

The funny part was that the other party had leapfrogged us already and I was about to cross over their ropes in order to leapfrog them. Well, I had to climb up a wet slab and then step over their rope in what was probably the wettest and most unprotected spot on the traverse. Not only that, but because of the angle of the rope, the rope was just at crotch level, and he was belaying his second up already. So yeah, imagine stepping over a rope that is rubbing against your crotch while trying not to slip on wet slab when you're about ten feet above your belayor, and the only pro you have would send you swinging back down toward your belayor, and she has no place to go to get out of the way of the rope, which would surely give her rope burn as I passed by. Sigh. The good thing was that this party was really nice, and we all understood that we just wanted to get the hell up and off the ridge. So there was no complaining. The bad thing was actually navigating this without showing fear in the midst of everyone else's laughter.

This pitch goes straight up from the belay to a short, left-facing corner. Then walk left across the slab to a ledge at the base of a corner / dihedral. Climb that to an incredibly exposed belay station right on the edge of the ridge. If you belay from here properly, you'll likely stand on two small platforms with a gap between your legs that goes all the way down to the bottom (probably over 300 feet down). It's an interesting belay for sure (see my pics at the bottom link for a pic of this belay stance - look for the pic of my shoe). Again, these two pitons should be backed up.

Pitch Six (5.7) - 110 feet - Gear Anchor - "Ratherbe" led

First things first, I have never found the 5.7 move on this route, and you know you're not offroute when you get to the crux because you can see the old pin on the face above. This is a committing and scary crux section. The pro isn't great, and it likely won't keep you from hitting a shallow ledge if you fall at the crux. I've seen a lot of people struggle here, so beware (struggles: the leader of the other party was a strong leader and he not-so-jokingly said, "5.7 my ass," His partner had to be hauled up, "Ratherbe" took several minutes and several scounting attempts trying to get her head ready, I don't know how I led this before, but I did get it cleanly, and "Jello" - see Epic #2 - had to have our bag hauled up before he could make the moves).

Climb up just left of the belayor over a loose blocky section to another, low-angle slab. Climb the left-side dihedral up right to the pin (crux) and follow the easiest route to the top from there. I may have actually climbed the thin cracks to the right instead of the corner, but neither were easy in comparison.

The unfortunate part of this part of the climb was that once we were leapfrogged, we had to wait for both members of the other party to climb past us. There just wasn't enough room to get past the second without causing personal-space anxiety. So we waited, and while we waited it started to rain again. And then it stopped. And then it rained again. And then it stopped. "Ratherbe" finally made it up over the crux without a problem (in the end), and I did as well, though I struggled like everyone else, and it was also raining a bit at that point, too. The nice thing was that it was sunny when I gained the top, and the other party had left some pepperoni for us to snack on (I told you they were nice people). We then racked up and headed back for the dreaded descent.

Descent: This descent is a pain the ass for many reasons, but I hadn't actually done this particular descent (and to be clear, there is only one descent - see Epic #2 above). Head up the ridge and fade left - DO NOT HEAD RIGHT, EVEN IF THE PATH LOOKS AS IF IT GOES THAT WAY AS THERE IS A SUDDEN DROP-OFF THAT GOES STRAIGHT TO THE BOTTOM!!! You'll have to be creative and be sure not to step too far off the trail, as there are some hidden dropoffs in the bushes to the left, too. Climb up what is probably 5.2 climbing to the top (this is not easy when wet and unroped - and DON'T SLIP!). Then find the very small and bushy trail that eventually heads up left before heading straight down.

Adventures on a Cannon descent? Me? Noooo! (what is that coughing sound? bullshit...). Firstly, I tweaked my left knee (the healthy one) on the 5.2 section and that made standing and lowering on either leg very painful for the first 20 minutes of the descent (it loosend up over time). Secondly, I have bad knees anyway (I've dislocated my right-knee cap twice), and that means I have to make slow, controlled, and deliberate turns on switchbacks (no dynamic twists that could separate the knee cap again). Thirdly, about a third of the way down, it started to absolutely freaking pour. Great, now an hour's descent was going to be two hours, and normally solid slabs, roots and steep dirt were going to be anything but. It was the insult to the end of the day. It poured nearly all the way down, and whenever I noticed the rain was lightening up, my optimism clearly was a signal to God that we weren't suffering enough, and so he made it rain harder. Also, this is the path that just never ends. Even when it appears to be leveling off, it just gets thin and steep and messy all over again. There was one moment where we both thought broken bones were coming. "Ratherbe" had just stepped down to a blocky section and I was not far behind her (about six feet or so). I slipped, and instead of going down butt-first, I started to go head-first, and right into her. Had I not caught myself on a branch, I would have toppled onto her with all my weight slamming her body onto sharp rocks directly below her. That and it would have been a 10-foot fall for me at least. That was a scary moment.

Well, about an hour-and-a-half after we started down, we finally made it to the tarred path. Of course, by that time we were completely exhausted, and a great deal of the pat back to the lot is uphill (Epic #2 clearly shows how I feel about the architect of the bike path through the notch). It was wet, too. We were wet. We were soaked, and it was at least another 30 minutes back to the car. The rain let up once or twice, but it picked right back up again as expected. It was at this point where we discovered the altnernate trail that may head to WG. When we finally got back to the car, we racked up and headed to the lake to wash off. It had stopped raining at this point, but, naturally, just as we headed back to the car...drip...drip...drip, drip, drip, drip,drip,dripdripdripdripDROPS! As we ran back to the car, I remembered my friend's comment on not climbing on Cannon during the summer. It was obvious now what he was reffering to, and I kind of wish I had picked up on that sooner rather than later.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Lover's Leap Day Three: Chasing Osman

The unfortunately irrevocable Dan Osman climbed the 400ft Bear's Reach at Lover's Leap in four minutes and 25 seconds. Let that settle for just a few minutes.

Bear's Reach (5.7 with a 5.9 variation finish) - Three Pitches - Trad Gear Anchors - All three led


Turn of Highway 50 onto Strawberry Drive next to the Strawberry Lodge. Drive up the road and turn left onto Strawberry Court. Follow the signs to the parking lot. If camping, park in the assigned spot and pay for camping. If not, park in the extra parking and pay for daily parking.

Head up the steps as if going to Campsites 19 or 20 and bear left. Follow the ankle-breaking, rocky path for several minutes. Lover's Leap will be on your right and the back side of Hogsback will be on your left. You'll go past a large boulder with a gurney leaning against it (there's also a sign describing the history of the boulder nearby). After a few minutes of walking past that, start looking for a large, low-angle, slabby boulder on your left. The path is directly across from that boulder, and it goes up toward the left side of Lover's Leap. Watch out for rattlesnakes in the bushes and on the path. We didn't see any, but they are apparently there. Head right and walk along the narrow path for a few minutes until you come to a couple of disconnected right-facing corners. The first one you come to will be about 12 feet off the ground. The second one is the start of the route and about eight feet to the right. There is a blank-looking gap of about eight feet between the top of the lower, right-hand corner and the bottom of the upper corner on the left.

Pitch One (5.7) - 120 feet - Gear Anchor - Greg Led

Is it possible to even come close to the heights of adventure and imagination that Dano reached? Maybe, but only if you're a pro with a mind bent on doing the unthinkable. I'm not sure many people have tried, and I'm even less sure that's because his heights were unreachable. He left behind a legacy that seems to be untouchable if only because the climbing world is still in mourning; it's as if no one tries to emulate him simply because he already existed and, as a result, there is no need to replace him. He was irreplaceable, and my climbing style in no way threatens his mystique. I think anyone who has ever climbed with me can assert without a doubt that I tell the truth uninhibitedly.

To climb the first pitch, one must climb the lower corner, ensuring to protect this well as near the top as you can, then traverse left across the blank face (not as bad as it looks, but if you fall here then there is ground-fall potential). Protect the upper corner as soon as you can and move up it and past the juggy left-facing corner / flakes to a small belay stance. Use the upper, right-hand, diagonal crack as an anchor (beware of the loose flake the left). Large gear will be needed at the top. I had a 3.5 and 3.0 Camalot with me, and both were used. I could have used more than the one each that I had on me at the time.

Like any climb that requires complete confidence in my abdominal strength, or at least the ability to commit to a move that isn't totally secure, I bounced up and down on a few of the moves each time things got a little heady for me. Let's be clear, unless it's a crack, I don't feel heady on 5.7s, but this route had some interesting rock that made me think twice more than once. For one, the rock seemed eerily brittle. Two, one really can't climb this without completely committing to this brittle rock. Three, the guidebook warns folks about this choss by noting how an unlucky chap trusted his belay anchor a bit too much and fell to his death. Yeah, and Dano climbed this free-solo in 4.5 minutes. Let that sink in again, especially as I note that it probably took me a good 4.5 minutes just to get past the upper right-facing corner and into the flakes. I admit, I was afraid of ground fall, and despite the grades on each pitch, I almost never felt secure on this route. It wasn't until the very end at the 5.9 variation finish where I felt OK committing to a move that felt hard, and that's because the 5.9 finish was on a solid chunk of rock that I didn't foresee going anywhere anytime soon.

Pitch Two (5.7) - 120 feet - Gear Anchor - "Ratherbe" led

Climb straight up the crack where the anchor is, and avoid the flake directly to the left. Climb the short left-facing corner / flake and step left into the blank section below the right-facing flakes. Make the bear's reach move up and left to the base of the flake, and then follow that to a ledge near the top. Note that there is a smaller ledge below the actual, larger belay ledge. I actually think the crux is the move that gains the upper ledge.

Despite the fact that "PBR" led the final, 5.9 variation, I think this was not only the money-pitch, but also the headiest of all three pitches. I give major kudos to "Ratherbe" for pulling this pitch off, and it's not even because of the "Bear's Reach" move, which seemed mild in relation to it's reputation. If I felt insecure on the lower flakes, then I would have freaked out leading the flakes on the second pitch. Nothing felt attached to the rock here. It was a serious challenge for me, and I was the third for this pitch. Neither "Ratherbe" nor "PBR" felt as uncomfortable as I did, so it may have just been the status of my head that morning, but I wouldn't have fallen on this section to save my life. And to note Dan Osman's feat even more, there is an outtake of the above video that shows him falling and catching himself at some point on the route. The fall looks a bit contrived and controlled, but to even fake a fall here is pretty damn ballsy.

Pitch Three (5.9 - alternate finish) - 120 feet - Gear Anchor - "PBR" led

Head straight up the corner and cracks to the top, looking for hidden jugs most of the way up. The easier finish is to the right with the 5.9 finish being the layback / beached whale crack high-step at the very top. Both "Ratherbe" and "PBR" managed to high-step and mantle this. I, on the other hand, looked like the fatty I am and slid my way up more like a slug than a whale. I'm glad "PBR" finished here, as it made for a nice final move.

Descent: Head straight back from the cliff's edge and fade left a bit, heading downhill into a clearing of the taller trees. Follow the path down to the left, keeping the small creek (if it's flowing) to your right without crossing over it. The path will bring you back down to the original, ankle-breaker approach trail at the bottom.

Knapsack Crack (5.5) - Three Pitches - 320 feet - Trad - Simul Climb on "PBR"'s lead

Well, just because we didn't match Dano on Bear's Reach that didn't mean we weren't out to topple his legacy once and for all. I mean, how much talent does it really take to get speed climb a route over 400 feet tall? We thought and thought about this for a while until "PBR" spoke up about a possible route on the left side of Hogsback. He noted that it was only 300 feet or so, but it was tall enough for us to take our swings at Osman's amazing achievement. Since speed was "PBR"'s forte, we followed him to the base of this wondrous climb and racked up.

Approach: This climb is on the far left of Hogsback. Hike out the trail across from parking spot #19 (turn left at the top of the stairs) and follow the ankle-breaker trail with the back of Hogwild and Hogsback to your left and Lover's Leap to your right. You'll follow this path for several minutes, looking for a small path that leads uphill and off to the left before turning right. This path is nearly as far down as the path to the left side of Lover's Leap, and it is not marked well. In fact, there is a smaller path on the left that you'll probably see first and wonder if this is the the correct one to take. It likely is not the correct path. I guess the easiest way to know this path is if you see the large, slabby boulder across from the right-hand path leading to Lover's Leap, then you've gone too far, by about 50 feet or so. Once on the path, follow it as it starts left and turns right and eventually to the slabs around Hogsback to the talus field. Look for a tree that is about a third of the way up the cliff.

All three pitches

Start at the right-facing corner and head to the tree that would likely make the first belay station if you stop there. From there, head straight up to the wide crack and then to the top.

"PBR" took the lead, I tied in the middle, and "Ratherbe" brought up the rear. Within minutes, before I could remember to snap a picture of the route we were about to smash all speed records on, "PBR" was a half rope length up and I was not far from being dragged up behind him. Within minutes, nay seconds, "Ratherbe" was running and cleaning all at the same time. I did all I could to keep the rope slack above me and tight below me, but they were each too fast for me to even think about the consequences of stopping to catch my breath. Hand over hand, and foot over foot, I labored just to keep myself from falling off. Ever run up a wall as fast as you could just to see how high you could get? Well all that teenage training from hanging out in the parking lot of Don's Shop N Save in downtown Bar Harbor was finally paying off. It was if I were an old drunkard who would die if he tried to dry out; once I stopped, I wasn't starting back up. The momentum was too great to regenerate, especially when "PBR" reached the top. At that point I realized that the rest of the climb was straight enough for me to clean the remaining gear, leaving "Ratherbe" with nothing to do but fly to the top. Finally, when we all reached the top, when we were all dying of an extreme shortage of breath, when our muscles no longer flexed to reach upward and instead twitched in anticipation of the collision that would halt all movement, we looked upon our watches and noted our time:

- "PBR": It took me about 13 minutes
- "Ratherbe": When did you start?
- "PBR": I forget
- Greg: When did you start, "Ratherbe"?
- "Ratherbe": Seventeen minutes ago.
- "PBR": So what is that then, 20 minutes, 25 minutes?
- "Ratherbe": Uh, so you climbed for 13 minutes, and I climbed for 17 minutes and -
- Greg: We need to know how long he was climbing when you started, right?
- "PBR": Uhhh...
- "Ratherbe": Uhhh...
- Greg: So take the difference between the two and add them together, 21 minutes?
- "PBR": Huh?
- "Ratherbe": Whaaaa?
- Greg: Yeah, yeah, no, wait, add the two together, so that's 30 minutes and subtract the difference. Yeah, so that's 26 minutes?
- "PBR": Uhhh...
- "Ratherbe": Uhh...
- Greg: Uhhh...
- "PBR": Errr...
- "Ratherbe": Thirteen and 17 and you started when again?
- "PBR": Thirteen minutes before I stopped.
- Greg: Yeah, that's 26 minutes.
- "PBR" and "Ratherbe" (looking at Greg strangely): Huh?
- Greg: Yeah, so, just add -
- "PBR": Huh?
- "Ratherbe": OK, whatever.
- Greg: Yeah, divide our time by three, take the standard deviation under the variance to get the zscore, add the two together and multiply by the circumfr - no the radius...
- "PBR": It's hot up here, let's go.


It was hot, and so our day was finished, except for the wonderful egg noodles and canned salmon that awaited us back at the campsite. We headed down the slabs on the backside, fading left until we met the path we had taken up, and walked slowly back to camp. Our day included a slow climb on a famous speed route, and a speed climb on a route that could have been climbed even faster than our actual time, whatever that was (either way, we were no match for a legend). The next day was our last day, and as we sat around the campfire, I began formulating my thoughts on the entire trip and how I was going to summarize my experience. I'll leave you with a hint of my thoughts, even if I don't make the precise comparison later on when I actually write it: there are rules, and there is adventure, and they cannot exist in their purest forms together.

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