Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Not Running in Place: Chasing Demons in the Gunks - Part One

We all have demons. They live not just among us but within us, and they torture us from the inside and out such that when we're so outwardly mean and cruel that failure as punishment is merely a destination on the way to destiny itself. This was the first day to tackle those demons that had haunted me for over a year, and I firmly grasped the opportunity knowing that the cold weather would soon set in, ultimately forcing me to retire to the gym for months of thinking "what if" if I didn't seize the moment otherwise.

I've climbed much more frequently the past two years than I had since I first started climbing a decade ago. I had many successes and many more failures along the way. The successes were great to have in my back pocket. But when the jeans were worn and not well taken care of, the fabric of life, so to speak, those successes began to harden and crumble, as if they were shreds of paper that had carelessly gone through the wash, and fall through the rips in the seams so that the true story of what happened on those days could never be fully pieced together again.

The failures didn't bother me at first. They were just there, sitting on a dusty shelf as artifacts of things I had never bothered to finish. But then my life started to change. My marriage broke down, money became tight, work was less inspiring, my writing was terrible, and I had no time for myself despite the fact that I was finally learning who it was I wanted to be. So then I started going climbing, just to get away. And that's all it was at first; a moment spent with friends out and away from the hectic obligations of city life. I'm a small town guy by origin, and the personal space made me feel calm and relaxed, just as I was as a child walking along the Shore Path in Bar Harbor, Maine. I became more focused, and when each grain of static was turned into clarity, both my happiness and frustrations magnified. It was a painful period for me, and I'm not entirely sure that I've fought my way out of it yet.

I began to think about this weekend as it approached. So many mistakes had to be corrected. I was honestly scientific when I thought about tackling these routes that I had failed so miserably on in so many ways. There was my emotional breakdown on CCK (5.7), my 20-foot whipper on Hold the Mayo (5.9), my lack of courage on Shockley's Ceiling (5.6) and Son of Easy Overhang (5.8), my lack of ability on Birdland (5.8+) and Recompense (5.9), and a complete lack of route finding ability on Paralysis (5.8), which led to a deck-fall, and Oscar and Charlie's Linkup (5.7). If I just approached these climbs as I would my approach to work (in a get up and go face the day kind of way), then I could tackle these routes and be done with them for good with no emotion attached to the experience. I felt as I had the day I stepped on to the Old Course in Saint Andrews, Scotland for the first time: my friend suggested I not take a picture because that would replace the memory of being there. I wanted to have been there by the end of the weekend, and that is what drove me.
The Trapps

Something Interesting (5.7+) - Two Pitches - Trad - Mixed Anchors

Approach: Take the second trail on the left after the East Trapps Connector Trail. Head right and uphill at the top, and find the right-leaning crack that starts in a right-facing corner between two trees, with the right-hand tree on the ground and the left one growing out of the cliff above.

Pitch One (5.7+) - 140 feet - Gear Anchor - "Ratherbe" led

Just because this was a demon-slaying weekend that doesn't mean the warriors didn't need a warm-up to get the blood flowing first thing that cool morning. While I've never been diagnosed, and I doubt that I do, in fact, suffer, my fingers and toes often numb beyond the point practical use in cool weather. This is often blamed as Raynaud's Phenomenon, and I am particularly affected by any temps below 60F, especially when climbing. Simply put, I can't even grab and hold onto 5.3 jugs effectively, and retrieving gear can be the most painful event of the climb. The temps this weekend were supposed to be in the mid to upper 60s, but with temps hovering in the mid 40s overnight, I knew it was going to take some time before the temps, and thus my fingers, warmed up enough for me to be able to conquer any climb, regardless of fire-breathing dragons waiting for me nearby. As is customary for me under such conditions, I urged "Ratherbe" to take the first lead, and this is the route she decided to warm up on.

This was a good start to the day. The climbing was fairly easy and route-finding a breeze: just follow the crack as it fades up to the right to the GT Ledge. If one wants to rap from here, there is apparently a rap station to the left. But to head to the top, be sure to belay from the small, left-facing corner so as to allow better access to the second pitch.

Pitch Two (5.7+) - 90 feet - Bolted Anchor - Greg Led

This felt much easier than the first pitch to me, despite the grades being the same. "Ratherbe" didn't feel the same as I did, but that may be how we each approached the start. This pitch starts in the left-facing corner and goes up a bit to a roof, steps right around the roof, then traverses up and left to the massive right-facing corner above. It is the first few moves up to the roof that supposedly makes the grade, but I found that doing a more direct start (the right side of the corner) versus starting deeper in the corner to the left made the transition out on to the face rather simple. Now, to be fair, the moves off the ledge on the direct line may look a bit dynamic without any pro to protect the first six feet or so. The left-hand start allows for easier movement early on and gives one a good stance to place gear before moving right and out from under the roof, so I can see why someone would want to climb the deeper start. I didn't do that, though, and found the route to be more 5.7-, particularly with the very easy climbing after that.

Descent: We rapped off the bolted anchors at the top all the way down with two 60m ropes. You can probably get down with two raps with a 60m rope but will likely need three raps with a 50m rope.

Cascading Crysal Kaleidoscope (5.7+) - Three Pitches - Trad - Gear Anchors

Approach: Walk quite a ways down the carriage road to the Andrew Boulder (the boulder that overhangs the path and provides a nice, shady roof and often has boulders swarming it). Take the first path after the boulder and, at the top of the path, go right and up to a massive right-facing corner.

Pitch One (5.5) - 140 feet - "Ratherbe" led

And it was time. I was scared out of my wits. I knew exactly what had happened that day last year with "Jello" and "Obvious" and I wasn't convinced that the crux pitch, the third pitch, had changed over the course of the year. Had I changed? Very likely, but what had changed in me was not yet determined, and if I hadn't changed enough to be able to get through this, well, then I was about to have another meltdown.

The first pitch is rather easy, but it is a bit runout at the start. Be prepared to make some committing moves at the grade without good pro if you're leading this pitch. Start at the short, left-facing corner / ramp that is about 10 feet right of the corner (probably at the peak of the small hill that the path follows). Once up a bit higher, you'll find another left-facing corner that is to the right of a shallow roof, and you'll probably look at the face directly above and see no opportunity for gear. Well, even if you head into the corner, there's little or no gear there, too. I will say that I think the climbing is actually easier going straight up the face to the roof than it is to go up the corner and stepping left to the roof. One can then place a small cam just below the roof to protect the next couple of moves. From there, climb past the bulge (crux) to a rust-colored roof before finishing at the GT Ledge.

As with the time before, this pitch offered no problems for me. "Ratherbe" had a bit of difficulty finding gear, but I didn't feel as if she struggled at all with regards to climbing. While she was climbing, however, a group of three guys told us that there was a crowd of about six people at the GT Ledge, and there was a log jam trying to get on both the last pitch of CCK and Updraft (5.5). This is because the second pitch of CCK and Updraft are the same pitch, with CCK stopping at some ratty slings midway up. It is very difficult for anyone to climb past the CCK anchor if on Updraft, so it wasn't as if there were multiple parties climbing over each other. We figured that there was going to be a wait.

Pitch Two - (5.5) - 60 feet - "Ratherbe" led

I want to be clear that this description and grade is different from the Dick Williams guidebook, The Climber's Guide to Shawangunks: The Trapps. The Williams guide states that this is 5.7, and that the route starts up quite a bit more to the right and traverses left across the face back to midway up Updraft. I tried finding this the last time, and was completely pumped and psyched out after trying to pull the roof that is just up right of the large rappel tree on the ledge. Maybe we just read the route wrong, but on that day last year we were advised by folks who had climbed in the 'Gunks their entire life (and even knew Dick Williams) that they were confused why he wrote the second pitch the way he did. They told us that nobody did that variation and instead climbed up Updraft itself in the corner to the slings. So this is what "Ratherbe" did, but not until we waited over two hours for a third person on a party of three to clean gear out of Updraft (took him about 30 minutes), and another party of three to go up to the anchors of the second pitch and then take pictures on the third pitch of CCK. Two hours! Sure, we could have bailed, but at this point, this was a goal climb and I was ready to take it on. I felt badly for "Ratherbe" because her morale was declining by the minute, but I was glad that she was willing to stick it out. Naturally, this put more pressure on me to actually do the pitch. I looked up at the pitch from the ledge and gulped. My vantage point provided me with the same information that I already had: that the third pitch was thin, and had no feet that I could see whatsoever.

Pitch Three (5.7+) - 50 feet - Greg Led

From the slings, step down to a small ledge to your right, then work across the thin feet and hands to the flake / crack (clip the pin and plug a small cam - I think I used a yellow Alien). Move up to the base of the roof and then traverse right on hands to the ledge around the corner. Bring some large gear (#3 Camalot if I remember correctly) for the sparse anchor (there's really no need for there not to be bolts here. I mean really, you're building an anchor by slinging a chockstone and plugging a loose flake. The trees are too far away to make a decent anchor without rope drag, and if anyone rapped off then he or she would only marginally be in the way of climbers doing the finish. They certainly wouldn't be in the way of anyone on the crux).

I got up to the anchor and refused to look at the climb. I wanted to focus on getting the rest of the gear off "Ratherbe"'s harness first so that I could just turn around and go. No thinking. No strategizing. Just grab and go, or at least that's how I wanted to happen. The good thing was that I wasn't feeling any anxiety as I worked my way up the juggy corner that caused me to not enjoy this pitch. In fact, I think any anxiety that I was feeling was causing me to overly enjoy the climbing up to the anchor. I tried to block out the fear of watching the party before us while on the ledge below. They looked like such beginners who were taking each move step-by-step, as if they weren't aware of the danger they faced, as if they were just told to go and they trusted that nothing bad could come from leading this pitch. There was nothing smooth about how they bumped each hand and foot over without ever gracefully crossing limbs. In fact, every move over to the flake looked to be a crux. And when they got to the flake, the real crux, they sailed right up what appeared to be nothing. Is that a crack? I thought to myself? Thin moves to a crack?

As I approached the anchor, an odd thing happened to me. The song I Ran by A Flock of Seagulls popped into my head and it made me happy. This isn't so bizarre because I've been known to get songs stuck in my head while climbing, and this is well known because I can't sing worth a lick and am constantly reminded of this. Usually, though, the songs that get stuck in my head are songs like: Lost Cause by Beck, Heaven by Warrant, or Darker by the Day by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. They're all songs about, well, being out of control, death, a great loss, and there's no reason why these songs pop into my head when they do. They're just there, and I sing them to myself while belaying, walking from climb to climb, or waiting for other parties ahead of me to move on. But to sing a song while climbing, and to sing one that was making me happy to the point that I almost burst out laughing, was just so odd. And the song was about running away!

I walked along the avenue.
I never thought I'd meet a girl like you;
Meet a girl like you.
With auburn hair and tawny eyes;
The kind of eyes that hypnotize me through;
Hypnotize me through.

I arrived at the anchor and immediately turned away from the traverse. I situated myself below where "Ratherbe" was anchored and started to mindlessly rack up. I picked out all 12 of her draws and slings and threw them onto my chest sling without really organizing them like I normally do. I noticed my hand was shaking, and so I moved it away from the gear on my sling to the gear on "Ratherbe"'s sling quickly to ground it from vibrating anymore.

And I ran, I ran so far away.
I just ran, I ran all night and day.
I couldn't get away.

Moving to rack up quickly was exactly the opposite of what I wanted at this point. I know that I said I wanted to rack and go, but the closer I got to the moment of truth the more I wanted to just relax. Well, that's not entirely honest. I didn't want to relax so that I could breathe easily. I wanted to relax because I was afraid, and I wanted to put off the moment of truth forever; I wanted to just sit there in Purgatory, waiting for my soul to ready me for the ascent to the top so that I didn't have to make the difficult choice to do so myself.

A cloud appears above your head;
A beam of light comes shining down on you,
Shining down on you.
The cloud is moving nearer still.
Aurora borealis comes in view;
Aurora comes in view.

And then I went. My nerves were shaking my insides to the point of soulful epilepsy. I felt out of control. I've backed off climbs before, but it is rarely out of fear exclusively. There also tends to be an ability factor rolled in at the same time. I'll try the crux moves of a route and go and go until I come to the conclusion that I just don't have it in me on that day to go up. I'm afraid of falling, there's no disputing that, but I'm rarely afraid of making forward movement, and this time I was petrified.

And I ran, I ran so far away.
I just ran, I ran all night and day.
I couldnt get away.

I've always said that I was a crimps climber. I've always noted that I love thin face moves and prefer the feeling of being on my fingers versus jammed with my fists. I've always said this, and I'm wrong. Well, I'm partially wrong. I really don't enjoy cracks that much, even though, thanks to "Jello"'s tutorials, I've started to become more confident in my jamming ability, so I'm not wrong in saying that I prefer face climbs over cracks. But I've never really been honest when saying this, because I've come across routes the past year or so where I longed to be on something more solid than the thin fingers and toes that I was moving from. I've even found myself practically paralyzed by the puzzle set out above me on routes that I really shouldn't have been anything less than gung-ho for. The truth is that I don't like anything hard. OK. There. I admit it. I don't like anything hard, and what is particularly difficult for me to handle are routes without good feet. I really rely on good feet, and I never felt solid on the traverse to the crack. Sure, the holds were there. Everything was there, but I wanted to get the hell off that route as fast as I could. I could just sense something bad was about to happen, and the fact that I had nothing to hold onto if tragedy struck me or "Ratherbe" caused my neck and jaw to choke up. No, I wasn't about to cry (I wasn't even close), but I felt a certain sense of hopelessness that told me there was nothing I could do - "Just walk across and have the courage to meet your destiny," a voice said to me as I approached the crack.

Reached out a hand to touch your face;
Youre slowly disappearing from my view;
Disappearing from my view.
Reached out a hand to try again;
Im floating in a beam of light with you;
A beam of light with you.

I should also note that I've had the firm belief that I'm going die a young, dramatic, and completely uncontrollable death. I've dreamt this a million times over to the point where I sometimes noticeably shudder and cringe. I've been in a completely calm conversation as I've walked down a sidewalk before when, let's say, the image of an approaching car suddenly swerves out of control and careens into me such that I've only got a split second to react flashes in front of my eyes. I'm serious. I've jumped six feet in the air with what's left of my hair standing on end for what appears to be no reason whatsoever. Often times this has scared my current companions to the point where they feel threatened by some unknown action that I noticed and they hadn't. Is it too obvious to then say that I've dreamt a million times of falling wildly into open air with only the slighest chance of saving myself? It's why I don't like falling into mid air, the softest and safest of falls (but it's also odd that I don't mind exposure either. In fact, I normally really like exposure. It's just the lack of control when facing a fall that I don't like). But notice the hint not so subtly buried in there: the courage to trust, to have faith, to not have to rely on just me holding on, because there's always a split chance that I could save myself in these dreams. Sometimes I do save myself, and sometimes I don't. Often times its those moments when I don't save myself that I feel as if God is testing me to always be prepared for the unexpected. It's as if He's taking me at my weakest moment and flashing me with an image of doom and disaster just to see how I'll react. I swear, one of these days I won't just jump with raised hair; I'll actually react by ducking away from the speeding bullet that's flying toward my head. And then will I really be saving myself or merely the sidewalk laughingstock?

And I ran, I ran so far away.
I just ran, I ran all night and day.
I couldnt get away.

I hit the flake and noticed that while it offered huge holds, the tiny ledges I had just traversed my feet across had faded away into a blank, mirror-like darkness before me. The pro was a couple of feet below me with my next piece uncomfortably one move above me. And that one move required trusting no feet on a committing throw to a nice hold at the pin above. I prayed to myself (yes, I do this sometimes. I know how weird that sounds, but it really helps to calm me) and figured I had two options: quit and die, or go up and face God's death. Which would it be: "Fuck you I'm doing it my way?" or "Well, If I'm going to die and you control Heaven, then I might as well do it your way until I get there myself?" I chose the second option, stepped up, clipped the pin, scurried right across the thin face, reached up to a jug under the roof with my left hand, squared up, shot up to the ledge, and yelled, "YEAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" The whole valley must have stood still upon my shout as if it were waiting for me to be judged, and then I was. The valley's silence then ceased, a swell of confidence filled my chest, and I plugged my anchor to bring "Ratherbe" up.

Descent: Walk right about 40 feet to a faint notch in the path on the right. Scramble down two levels and find the bolts on the right. Two 60m ropes will get you down in one rap. Anything less requires rapping down to the GT Ledge and rap off the anchors on the left.

Lichen 40 Winks (5.7+) - Two Pitches - Tree Anchor - "Ratherbe" led

Approach: Take the third path on the left after the Andrew Boulder (about a 15min walk after the Rescue Box). At the top of the path, find the roof that should be straight in front of you.

Lichen 40 Winks: Climb the face left of the roof to the GT Ledge. It was now "Ratherbe"'s choice of route considering we had waited for so long on the GT Ledge of CCK. She had initially chosen Directissima (5.9) but slipped at the start and didn't feel comfortable enough to continue on. Because we were in the High Exposure (5.6) area, the place was as crowded as expected, and so she chose Lichen 40 Winks as the final climb for the day. I can't say much about this route, though, because I don't think we did this correctly. Instead of heading up to the pine tree that was off to the left, "Ratherbe" continued past that to a tree with a hanging belay / rap station off to the right. In all, it was a nice climb and regardless of the variation, I really enjoyed the moves. I was told by some passersby that this route often needs to be cleaned each year because no one ever gets on it. I think that's too bad because the movement and line both felt fluid and comfortable (I guess it's these kinds of crimps that I prefer), even if it was a variation of the actual route not listed in the guidebook.

Descent: We were able to rap off our variation anchor with two 60m ropes. I am sure that one could rap twice with a shorter rope because I believe Ant's Line (5.9), which was right below us, finishes on a bolted anchor midway down.

That was the end of the first day of the weekend of chasing demons. We then proceeded to meet up with some friends to watch the Red Sox get pounded in Game Two of the ALCS against the Tampa Bay Rays. While this day wasn't as kind to "Ratherbe"'s morale, it was very kind to me, and I couldn't wait to tackle two more of my demons the next day along with one of "Ratherbe"'s.

Click here for Gunks photos from 2008 (newest are first).


Eric said...

Way to go on CCK!
We did (among others) V-3 and Bloody Bush - both with committing cruxes. Love your writing and portrayal of what goes through the mind when you're on the Sharp End!

GB said...

Thanks Eric,

It was nice to finally meet you as well. Sorry the intro couldn't have been longer, but I was kind of in a rush to get back to that building with the pit in the middle, if you know what I mean. ;-)

Bloody Bush is a favorite route of mine. It's harder if you're taller, too. From what I can imagine, you must have had a helluva time!