Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Start of a Grand Adventure-Day 6, The Final Day

One moment I'm clinging to this crumbling rock face and the next I'm falling. I'd fallen before but I knew this was different. I wasn't stopping. I hear a crunch, metal deformation at high speed, then a startled, "Fuck!” "Busterman" flashes into view, but only briefly. We're both falling, accelerating, visions of the world flashing around while we tumble through the air. The talus comes into view right before I crash into it. I can almost hear it, that sickening crunch of a softer body hitting that ever present, harder, more immovable object, the ground . . .

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Start of a Grand Adventure-Day 5, Disappointment Peak

We slept in today. There was no reason to rush. We'd tagged our goal (Grand Teton), the summit we'd been dreaming about since the trip was conceived, so we slept in a little bit, had an unhurried breakfast, and started breaking down camp to move down hill to the Meadows camping zone. Our goal for today was Irene's Arete 5.8 III, A nice six pitch climb that with a little scrambling and hiking would bring us to the summit of Disappointment Peak. After our gear was packed we made our way toward our new home. My knee was actually starting to feel better for some reason. Despite this "Busterman" was still out pacing me on the approaches and descents.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Reconnaissance in South America

The flight from Toronto to Santiago was a cold, restless twelve hours of tossing and turning in my seat.

Click here for the rest of the story over on This post is about my recent trip to Chile and Argentina, and the obstacles and opportunities I found about and within the climbing community.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Start of a Grand Adventure-Day 4, Full Exum Ridge

The alarm went off early, too early. I usually don't feel sleepy, but at four in the morning all I could think about was skipping the climbing and taking a rest day. It seemed like "Busterman" was in similar condition and so we lay there for a few minutes before we convinced ourselves to crawl out into the cold morning air. I stepped out into the darkness and couldn't see the stars. That was a bad sign.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Start of A Grand Adventure Day 3, the Approach From Hell

My "on again, off again" sleep pattern held true until right before my alarm went off. I looked at the watch and it was almost 5:30am. We wanted to get an early start for permits but I wanted to get an even earlier start so I could catch the sunrise on the mountains. So I crawled out of my nylon cocoon and quietly exited the cabin with camera in hand. It wasn't ridiculously cold but I was just sitting in a quiet field, moon at the crest of the mountains, waiting for the sun to rise. I had read the sunrise chart on the caretaker's door the night before and it said 6:55. The ranger's station opened at 7:30 so I figured I'd get a few photos, eat breakfast and be at the ranger's station in plenty of time. I had volunteered to set the alarm and get "Busterman" up since I'd be wake up earlier than him. The sun didn't really rise until almost 7:15, so I was then in a rush to get things going. After waking "Busterman" we hopped in the car, ate some frozen bagels and headed to the Jenny Lake Ranger Station to get our backcountry permits.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Start of a Grand Adventure - Day 2, The Drive

My eyes blinked open at the white, popcorn ceiling. I reached down and grabbed my phone off the wood floor; it was still half an hour before we'd agreed to wake up and start getting ready. The tiny screen flickered while I surfed the Internet. After checking my e-mail and browsing for a little while, I played some phone games until my bladder forced me to empty it. A little bit later I heard "Busterman's" alarm. I went back to the phone games till he came to make sure I was awake. I had sort of expected we'd be leaving fairly soon so I was surprised when "Busterman's" mom warmed some breakfast burritos for us and we had sort of a slow start.

Eventually though we got on the road. It's a long drive from Loveland to the south entrance of Grand Teton National Park, a little over eight hours. "Busterman" started us off and I fell asleep sometime between Vedauwoo and Rock Springs. Outside of Rock Springs I woke up and searched for my wallet, because it was my turn to pay for gas. I groggily pumped gas as someone pulled in behind us. I watched as they failed to turn off their vehicle and all occupants piled out of the car. I'd finished filling up and got into the driver's side of the car waiting for "Busterman". As I watched the vehicle behind I noted the tall pretty girl who had stepped out of the vehicle. I then watched her lean against the tan SUV and light a cigarette while standing there next to the no smoking sign. "Busterman" opened the door on the passenger side.

- Me: Look at these idiots behind us.
- "Busterman": Hmm, we should leave.
- Me: I agree, I'd hate for us to get blown up before we get a chance to plummet to our death.

It's always interesting how incredibly dumb people can be and how that lack of intelligence may drastically effect the lives of others. I started the car and we were back on the road again. The winding hills blended together as we passed car after car and small town after small town. Eventually we caught a glimpse of the Wind Rivers, with both of us expressing interest in sampling the mountains of another range. Soon after the scenery started to change from sagebrush flatlands to pinyon and juniper forest. The hills became bigger till we were driving through a dark valley. We were so close I started imagining it would be around the next corner but even as we drove into Jackson Hole we had yet to catch a glimpse.

Jackson Hole is a nice tourist town that reminds me a lot of Estes Park only with that distinctly Wyoming flair. Traffic was intolerable as RV's and trailers bumbled through town at a pace suggesting far less urgency than our own. Finally, we were out of Jackson Hole and we still hadn't seen any mountains. Did this place even exist?, I wondered. All of a sudden I saw it, just a short glimpse. I wondered if it was just me wishing for a place that I had yet to actually see but then we drove past another large hill and there it was sticking out stolidly from the landscape. I nudged "Busterman" awake and we both uttered expletives of amazement. The Teton's really jump out from the landscape. With about seven thousand feet of elevation gain in less than seven miles it's one hell of a stairmaster. By the end of the trip my ass was worthy of GQ. Besides that, there are not really any foothills. One minute you're driving, the next minute their is a huge mountain range staring you in the face. I was a little surprised at how sharp it looked. I'd seen pictures of the Grand and it didn't seem so needle-like, but there it was sticking into the sky, steep and imposing.We paid for entrance to the park and quickly headed toward the Jenny Lake Ranger Station. It wasn't quite five and I figured we could maybe get a permit and head up to the Lower Saddle that night. Unfortunately, we found out the permit office closed an hour before so, on the advice of the souvenir shop person, we went to the ranger station at the park entrance to see if we could get a permit there. Don't do this, they cannot issue backcountry permits for the zones in the main Teton climbing areas. After figuring out that the nearest campsites were full we decided to head to the American Alpine Club (AAC) Climber's Ranch. As far as sleeping accommodations went this was our cheapest, closest option.

Rolling into the parking lot we read the sign on the door. The caretaker was climbing and wouldn't be back till later tonight, paying for showers was on the honor system. It didn't say we had to pay for the cabin so we might as well figure that out later. Wandering around the ranch we finally found a cabin. A horrible smelling one, but at least we wouldn't have to stealth camp. After unpacking our camping gear we decided to get the climbing gear together. Gear logistics are always a leap of faith for me. If you leave something behind there's always a chance you'll be sorely missing it at some point. Our rope system for alpine climbing had become pretty standard since our last winter in Rocky Mountain National Park. We climb on one half of a half rope set and drag along a seven mil tag line. Not UIAA approved but it's alpine climbing. The rules of safety are a lot more flexible. We brought a slim rack of cams and a single set of nuts. There'd be no sewing it up this week. When we got to ice and snow gear we had a hard time deciding. We knew there had been snow but we weren't sure how much. There were no major storms in the forecast but the mountains are always unpredictable. In the end we decided against crampons and ice axes because the forecast and info we gathered from other climbers led us to believe we would be able to circumnavigate any ice or snow.

After we sorted the gear we decided to explore for a little while. I gotta say, the AAC Climber's Ranch is pretty cool. People leave their extra food there so we had a nice selection of snacks before dinner while we relaxed in the library, which had a good selection of guidebooks, instructional books, and mountain narratives. There are pay showers, indoor bathrooms, and a nice kitchen area to clean your dishes. If one is still looking for some exercise there's a nice woody on the outside of the bathroom/kitchen building to get a good pump. Given all the accommodations it's relatively cheap, only $20 for non-AAC members.

After exploring a little bit we started making dinner. I'm not gonna lie, I make a pretty damn good meal for something that just gets boiled in a pot. We had southwest chicken with some green beans and quionoa. There were a few other denizens roaming about eating steak with wine. They were all on a guided trip with Exum, one of the local guide services. It was interesting to hear that they all had very different backgrounds and experience levels. After a little more conversation and food we cleaned up our cooking gear and retired to the library where I looked over maps for a little while until I became bored and decided to go to bed. It was only about nine but the moon was coming out bright to light the mountains as I walked to our cabin.

The door slammed into the bunk as I walked into the cabin, and an overpowering odor filled my nostrils. It wasn't the type of odor that comes from climbers. I started trying to find the cause of the odor as it seemed stronger towards the door than anywhere else. I moved the bunks and there it was; a dead mouse. The source identified, I sought a way to get rid of the awful thing. I went outside and found a stick and like a curious child went inside and tried to prod the minute carcass from the floor to it's final resting place outside. I retched a little as I flipped it towards the door. The overpowering odor and the bug crawling out of the small body were a little much. Scary runouts I can generally handle, nasty smells and crawling beetles covered in bloody goo, not so much.

The odor dispatched, I climbed up into my bunk and turned my sleeping bag so my head was far away from the former spot of the dead body. "Busterman" came in soon after. He hadn't really noticed the smell and remained unfazed about the entire dead mouse incident. After deciding to get up with the sun around six I pushed images of the gooey mouse out of my head and tried to sleep. Once again I didn't sleep very well. The moon was intensely bright. So much so that I woke up a few times thinking we'd overslept. That anxiousness combined with my excitement and lingering odor made for a restless night.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Start of a Grand Adventure - Day One

"I'm going to climb the Grand!" I practically screamed into the phone. "Iowa" was not as happy that I was going to be gone but she was happy that I was finally happy. It had not been a sure thing. "Busterman" was good with his time away from home but I was worried things would fall apart with people covering for me at my jobs. The time of departure was getting closer and things came together and fell apart with each setting sun. The plan was to leave Thursday night after I got done work and to come back Wednesday night or Thursday morning. A full week of climbing in Grand Teton National Park! Unfortunately, the person planning to cover my shift had a problem with his internship and the night before I was going to leave I was still unsure if he would show up for me or not. I stopped calling people. I didn't want to know whether things went to hell in a handbasket after I left. I wanted to go climbing.

By Wednesday night all my gear was packed. I put myself in charge of food and as I lifted that bag I lamented my need of tasty food and snacks. The food alone felt like twenty pounds and I hadn't even added in my personal camping and climbing gear. Thursday afternoon saw my seventy liter pack full to the brim and me tottering underneath it. The gear explosion was now finally cleaned up from the spare bedroom. We both decided to pack for early winter conditions since the Tetons had experienced what sounded like a pretty large snowstorm just a few weeks before our arrival. It is Thursday just before ten 'o' clock and I'm rushing through work. Deposit is done, e-mails are done, phone messages forwarded, floor cleaned, ropes tied up, and finally I walked out the door with minutes to spare before the clock struck ten. I called "Busterman" to let him know I was on my way. He wasn't quite finished packing but he had a little more than an hour before I met him in Loveland. I wanted to get the driving done with. "Busterman" was content to wake up early in the morning. When I arrived he was still packing. While I thumbed through the guidebook we decided to stay the night and leave in the morning.

I tossed and turned in the foreign bed, too excited to fall asleep. Our main goal was to summit the Grand Teton via the Exum Ridge (5.7 IV). We were going to simul-climb from top to bottom. When I'd first called "Busterman" I had illusions of doing the Grand Traverse (5.8 V) in a day; my eyes are always bigger than my stomach. After both agreeing on the Exum we decided we didn't care what else we did. Our main concern was weather since it was late in the season and the Tetons had already received some snow. My own main concern was my knee. I hadn't gone to a doctor because I didn't feel like paying a specialist hundreds of dollars to tell me what I already knew: It had to be a meniscus tear. The dull pain on the outside of my knee increased in intensity whenever I went to kneel or step up. The dull ache that would go away if only I would stop pushing so hard. That's what I get for trying to set speed records in the dark. If two hours car-to-car up Otto's Route on Independence Monument isn't a speed record then I don't need to know. Ignorance is bliss.

I lay there for hours with so many thoughts running through my head. What if it was too cold? Could my legs handle all that vertical? Who'd lead the crux pitches? How much gear should I place? Where would we stay? Would we be able to get a backcountry permit? Eventually the thoughts died down and I drifted into restless sleep with thoughts of climbing occasionally awaking me. We had made a small amount of progress on our Grand adventure.

A Weekend of Debauchery

It was to be a one-day assault on the 'Gunks. Saturday called for beautiful sun and Sunday called for rain. There was a hint of flirtation in the air and enough childish innocence amongst the gathering of thirty somethings to make gizzard blush. But we weren't there for anything but the climbing...or were we?

- "Caboose": So "Blow"'s at a bachelor party down at Foxwoods.
- "Ratherbe": Is he going to blow your collective fortune?
- "Caboose": I hope not. I told him not to drink or gamble too much, but it is a bachelor party.
- "Ratherbe": At least there isn't a strip club there.
- Me: Oh, don't worry, they'll just hire the strippers for the room.
- Both Girls: GREG!!!!!

I had never slept with two women. Once we set up the tent it was obvious it was going to be longer still. I had managed to talk "Caboose" back off the edge by convincing her that her husband was as good a man as I've ever met. I convinced her that the guys I went to a bachelor party with last year in Manhattan were men I wouldn't trust to do anything but get me through my first real strip club adventure. She hinted that the guys he was with might have been hatched from the same egg. I countered with, "but he's not one of those guys." She stepped back but never took her eye off the running start she'd need to clear the cliff's edge. "Ratherbe" duct-taped my mouth shut and I mumbled, "mm mmmm, mmm mmm mmmmmm mmmm" trying to get "Caboose" to turn around completely and walk back to sanity. She did, and I was happy to have stepped away from trouble, until I later on, in the tent and under the cover of complete darkness, with me on one side, "Caboose" in the middle, and "Ratherbe" on the far side, I heard "Caboose" utter the words - "so that's my boob."

Apparently "Caboose" had more to worry about "Ratherbe" than she did "Blow", and there I was without my night vision goggles.

(side note: I've only been to three strip clubs my entire life. I'm really not a strip club kind of guy. I've got nothing against naked women, per se, but these places just don't get me up like the real deal does. The first two times I went was the same night in Atlantic City when a college friend of mine and I flew to visit his parents in Cape May, NJ. His father, a NJ Cop, picked us up in Philly, learned that I had never had fun in my life, and drove us first to one of those peepshow places where everyone sits in a private booth with a window that opens up to the circular stage on the inside.

I had no clue what I was doing, and my friend and I were still both 18 years old. They both told me to not look the manager in the eye, pop a quarter in the slot, open the door, and get in the booth before he could ask for I.D.. "OK," I said and we went in. The father went to the right, drawing the front desk worker's eye with him. My friend took advantage of the lack of security and went straight ahead to the first open booth. I couldn't see an open booth. So I started to the left, away from the front desk, and just as I saw an open booth, the manager came around the corner and glared at me. He saw my deer-in-headlights eyes and he pointed at me: "You," he said, "I need an I.D.." I didn't have one that would get me in, so I told the truth and went outside on my own. I sat with my chin buried in my palms on the front steps of the club. I'm from small town Maine and I was alone, in the dark, at a sketchy building in a dodgy part of Atlantic City, and I was practically crapping my pants every time someone walked by. It was ten minutes later when my friend and his father came out and said, "don't worry, there's a reason why it was only a quarter to get in. You didn't miss much."

We then went to a classier place. It had a $50 cover and my buddy's father paid the law enforcement discount to get us in. Now, these girls were something to adore, but I had no clue what to do. One of the girls, who was probably the one who started my affection for baldness, managed to squeeze herself in between my knees. "What the hell does she want?" I thought to myself. "I thought they just danced on stage."

I looked at my friend and his father for help. They smiled and said, "pay her, dude." I asked how much (which, in hindsight, was probably a tip off to the girl that I was a complete moron), and they said, "give her a twenty."

I thought for a moment and realized I only had forty bucks on me for the entire weekend. That was going to have to get me through the weekend AND the drive back to Maine. "No way," I said. "I need that money for food!"

My friend and his father grabbed me and we exited the club before they had a chance to throw us out. Too bad, too, because that experience affected the third time I went to a club, which was several years later for the bachelor party noted above. I thought I knew what I was doing this time, and I dropped twenties like I had an ATM in my pocket (no one actually asked me if that was an ATM in my pocket or if I was happy to see them - kind of a bummer actually). My problem, though, was that I didn't know that I COULD say no. Honestly, I thought if I did I was going to get thrown out. It took several of the guys who did know what they were doing to hijack me and drag me to the bar (not that the bar was any cheaper) before I blew my cash before 9pm.

I think it can be safely said that I have no clue how to be dirty strip club kind of guy, and I think it is even safer to say that "Blow" is far beyond me as a stand-up guy (though he may very well have more strip club capabilities than me). I wasn't worried about him and I felt that "Caboose" needed to understand that. Of course, she did in the end, but it sure was fun going through the process.)

Arrow (5.8) - Two Pitches - Trad - Bolted Anchors (<-- Click here for guidebook info)

Pretty much everyone knows about my ankle problems this year. I was still recovering after falling on Moby Grape on Cannon and on the corner of a tarred path heading in to Quincy Quarry. I'd been to the doctor twice, worn the braces I was supposed to wear, and generally felt fine. The ligament I tore didn't cause any pain while walking or using stairs, but it did when I was in bed with heavy covers preventing my foot from remaining in an upright and normal position. The season was running late and I was worried about not climbing outside in the northeast for a long time into the future. If I was going to get out then I was going to climb hurt. That was my decision. I figured that if things went well I could stay on easy stuff. If not, then I could sit by the water at Split Rock and read or write while the others got their rocks off in the beautiful autumn air.

It was supposed to be the three of us meeting two others: "Shadow" and "Onions". "There was something amiss between "Ratherbe" and "Shadow" that I just couldn't put my finger on. "Onions" was late to the show, so "Caboose" and I paired off to tackle Arrow while the other two ran up a couple of climbs to the left. My hope was that the first pitch of Arrow, which is 5.6, would give me a good feel for where I was at. If I felt good then we'd do the second pitch. If not, then we'd rap down and "Caboose" would join the other two, who, as it seemed, were having a rather mysterious and fun time with each other. I felt good and gave the second pitch a go. It was touchy-feely for a bit, but I finally sacked up and made the smearing moves midway up the upper face that were making me nervous. The climb went down clean and "Caboose" came up behind me and we rapped off.

Double Crack (5.8) - Two Pitches (recommended) - Trad - Gear / Sling Anchor (<-- Click here for guidebook info)

Next up was Double Crack. This is a bit of a test-piece at the grade and it was something "Ratherbe" had wanted to do for a while. I was nervous about it because while I discovered I could smear, I was worried about foot jams. The goal was for "Ratherbe" to lead it and determine if there were any jams at all ("Caboose" was also suffering from a sprained wrist). If there weren't we'd go up behind her. If there were then she'd rap down and clean along the way. "Shadow" and "Onions" had finally met up, and they followed us like puppy dogs to the area around Double Crack. I wasn't sure why they insisted on climbing near us, there they were regardless. They went off to do a nearby route while "Caboose" and I watched "Ratherbe" climb.

The start was a struggle for her. In fact, we all thought she was going to spit off a couple of times. One was from a moment when she clearly slipped and the other time(s) was from sheer fatigue. It looked like hard climbing, particularly when she went head first into the wide crack above before sliding her hips into place so that her whole body sat awkwardly in the final opening before the top. But she got the onsight, pulled the rope tight for me follow her lead, and I got about 12 feet off the deck when my good foot slipped and all my weight landed on my bad foot, and what had earlier been fine was suddenly sore to the point where I didn't want to continue. Because of rope stretch and because a second-climber had broken an ankle on this route sometime in the recent past, I asked for a spot before I let go. When I did, I slowly dangled in the air until I gently caressed the ground with my feet; there was enough stretch in the rope that I went all the way to the ground without "Ratherbe" lowering me an inch. I gave myself some slack by walking uphill and unbonded myself so that "Caboose" could tie in and give the route a go. She made it to the wide crack before her bad hand got stuck in a hand jam. She fell but was able to finish the route without an other issues.

"Shadow" and "Onions" had finished their climb and we all decided to head back toward the City Lights (5.8-) and Maria (5.6+) area. "Caboose", "Onions", and I walked slowly behind "Shadow" and "Ratherbe" while they suspiciously chatted away in front. "What could be going on?" we wondered from behind. "Two single people walking happily together away from the pack?" It just didn't seem right, particularly since "Ratherbe" had managed to feel "Caboose" up the night before. I was skeptical, but I suspected the two in front of us wanted to climb together.

Maria (5.6+) - Three Pitches - Trad - Gear Anchors (<-- Click here for guidebook info)

But even though we all had our suspicions, "Ratherbe" wanted to give Maria Direct (5.9) a go. She had seconded it once before and felt strong enough to get up through it on this day. So "Onions" and "Shadow" went off to do a roof climb called Genie (5.9) while "Caboose" and I gave a spot to "Ratherbe" on her attempt to get up a somewhat dangerous climb.

Maria Direct avoids the long traversing first pitch that is a part of the 5.6 version of Maria. In instead goes straight up past a horizontal crack before going past a hard bulge. The landing below the difficult moves is rocky and there's a serious potential to get hurt if the belay isn't excellent and the climber falls at the bulge before getting good gear in (getting gear is also tough due to the pumpy nature of the bulge).

"Ratherbe" initially had trouble getting up to the horizontal (where the first piece of gear is) without using some sort of dynamic move. She tried several times and each time we literally caught her before she touched the ground. Each time our hands ventured to strange places and each time we spit out odd phrases such as:

- "Push the gopher back."
- "Nice ass."
- "My finger stinks."
- "I didn't get enough the first time, can we do it again?"

At one point "Caboose"'s wrist was hurting from all the action so she bailed and "Shadow", who was now finished bagging Genie, excitedly joined in for two more catches. "Ratherbe" eventually got her fingers firmly into the crack where she was happy to plug some protection, but the bulge above proved to be too hard for her to take. So she lowered and decided that she'd rather climb Genie instead. That left "Caboose" and I to head up Maria the traditional way. And despite the fact that "Ratherbe" was giving me a hard time for taking the "tall" route on the traverse (I was supposedly not taking into account that my second, "Caboose" is much shorter than me), "Caboose" made it fine to the bottom of the long corner that makes Maria such a great climb (well, the roof on the third pitch does, too, but I don't think people really think about the roof when they think about this climb). I then racked up for the second pitch.

First things first: "Greggiepoo" as a nickname was not something I condoned, but there it was, stuck in the cool evening air and lingering like a regrettable three-day old glass of milk left on the counter for an unknowing victim to drink. It stuck for the rest of the weekend and for that I have "Caboose" to thank. After all, it is somewhat better than my original nickname of "The Old Man Burns" (or, T.O.M.B. for short). I'm not sure who it is better for, but I hear that it is, in fact, better.

Second: I had forgotten how sparse the gear is on the second pitch of Maria. The gear that's there is bomber, but I found myself run out 20 to 30 feet at times. That might have been a result of my rustiness from inactivity, but I admit that I looked down several times only to look up and mutter, "where's the fucking gear?"

Now, I wasn't worried about the runouts. My lead head has been powerful all year, but I was more afraid on this pitch than I was at any other time this summer, and that included the Tyrolean Traverse 250 feet in the air on scary choss on River Tower in Moab. It wasn't because I was afraid of the distance or was worried about the gear; it was more that I was afraid my ankle was going to give at any moment. Where it was fine earlier in the day, I was still nervous about its performance. I felt fine climbing, but it could have been shot at any moment without notice and I would have little to no control over it if it did.

But I made it up to the GT Ledge without incident and brought "Caboose" up. She was eager to wrestle the roof on the third pitch, but I didn't have it anymore. I just knew that I was taking too much of a risk by climbing the next pitch. So we rapped down and waited for "Ratherbe" and "Shadow" to finish City Lights. They decided to simul-rap only to find each end of the rope tangled into a straight overhand knot with the other end of the rope. Ordinarily this would piss partners off, but they were oddly giggling at their predicament. It was as if hanging side-by-side in mid-air was fun to them. I just couldn't place my finger on why.

That was the end of our day. We packed up and headed to the Brauhaus for the famous 'Gunks burger and were there from about 6pm to 10pm because it took them that long to seat us, take our order, bring the food out (which was wrong all around), and give us the check. That was OK because it gave us ample time to learn that "Onions" doesn't do onions well, that "Shadow" is a drinking lightweight, that "Caboose" knows when she's about to become a stumbling drunk after a goblet of raspberry beer, that "Ratherbe" really, really, really, wanted "Caboose" to get drunk, and I'm willing to send my only meal of the day back because it was cooked well instead of medium ("Shadow" saved the day by giving me his medium burger and taking my well burger, so I offer a round of thanks for that).

We then headed back. "Onions" took off for home. "Caboose" and I beat it to the tent before the rain set in, and "Shadow" and "Ratherbe" stayed behind to chat. We were all suspicious of why they did that, but I knew this gave me the perfect opportunity to re-address the female boob-grabbing that I had missed the night before. You see, "Caboose" was in between "Ratherbe" and I in the tent the previous night. When "Caboose" and I made it back to the tent I subtly recommended that she switch tent positions with "Ratherbe". This would put "Caboose" on the end and "Ratherbe" in the middle, but if "Ratherbe" didn't know that, and if she was drunk off her rocker when she finally arrived back at the tent, I knew I was going to get two drunk chicks unexpectedly tangled with each other in the darkness (until I got my headlamp on, that is). It was a plan that was well conceived but terribly delivered. Simply put, it didn't work out the way I hoped it would. My evil plan was foiled and my hopes and dreams of witnessing spontaneous hot lesbian sex by two straight women continue to appear cursed to the very end.

It was raining the next morning and the art gallery that "Onion"'s father contributes to was closed (we were planning on going there if it rained). So we grabbed breakfast in town instead. It was a good breakfast even though a couple of folks had slight headaches. My french toast had nuts in it, but I ate it anyway. "Ratherbe" and "Shadow" seemed in good spirits and "Caboose" and I couldn't figure out why. It wasn't until we paid our bill and headed to the car when we saw "Ratherbe" walking him back to his car with her arm around his back and his around hers and then we knew something was up.

Click here for all 2009 'Gunks pics

Guidebook: Gunks - Double Crack

Double Crack (5.8) - Two Pitches (recommended) - Trad - Mixed Anchors

: Take the fifth trail up to the left after the overhanging, roof-like Andrew Boulder (about a 10-min walk down the Carriage Trail after the Uberfall area). At the top, head right and up hill to an arrete that has a low roof on the left and an obvious vertical crack system on the right face.

Pitch One (5.8) - 75 feet - Gear Anchor: Most guidebooks will say this is a one-pitch climb that runs 150 from the ground to the ledge. However, if your second falls even from about 15 feet up then it is possible for the second to deck as a result of rope stretch. There is a popular story out there where a second did just that and she managed to break an ankle, even though the leader (belaying from the tree at the top) had pulled the rope as tight as he could (he was apparently using the autolock belay technique that can be done with popular devices such as the Black Diamond Guide). Rope stretch can be eliminated simply by breaking this out into two pitches. Of course, using a thicker rope (with less stretch) or setting up a sling-shot belay at the top will also help. In any case, climb the pumpy start (crux) up the crack to the rest about 25 feet up. Fade left toward the pod and exit the pod to the right on a couple of good ledges for the optional belay.

Pitch Two (5.7) - 75 feet - Tree Anchor: Climb the off-width to the left of the belay and exit it (crux) to the face, following the path of least resistance to the top.

Descent: Rap off the tree at the top all the way to the ground with two 60m ropes. Otherwise, rap twice with one rope using the intermediate rap station that you'll pass while climbing the off-width (not recommended).

The First Time

Well, I've been injured much of the past few weeks, so I thought I'd give you guys something to read. Sorry for the delay, but I can't write much about climbing when I'm strapped into a boot that's meant to keep my ankle from twisting. I am hoping to get out this weekend if only to remember what rock feels like again. In the meantime, here is a short fiction story that I wrote last week...

He looked to the top of the dome and said, "Wow." It stood so tall and grand, and its wildness excited him. The granite was hard and grey and pink in spots, but mostly it was grey. It was cool to the touch in the shade and his fingertips dragged across the rough bumps through the warm sun and back to the shade again as he walked along the base. There was a wide, arching flake that spit off from the middle to the left and it rounded into a ledge where the gap narrowed two hundred feet off the deck. He wanted to climb to the ledge not because he could see the whole valley from the top, but because it looked so climbable; it looked easy and pure and safe and fun.

I remember watching him that first day. He'd never climbed before and yet felt the allure, and I felt that he felt it. He looked at me and asked, "Can I go up?" "Sure," I said and went back to the car for the gear.

When I got back he was already thirty feet up. His legs were stiff against the dome and his back pressed against the flake. He moved up the empty space perfectly, as if he'd done this a thousand times before and knew every move, every rest, and every grain of friction. An offwidth for me was a chimney for him, but I knew it would turn to an offwidth for him before he reached the top. His mother would kill me if she knew I had let him climb this without gear, and I was startled when I first saw him so high. But then I saw how he loved it and how free and graceful he looked from below. I tossed the rope around my back, put on my harness, clipped his to mine and stepped up.

He saw me climbing behind him and he waited a while. It wasn't long before I caught up to him. The climbing was harder here. He was still in the chimney, but now his knees replaced his feet and the rough rock made his knees bleed through his jeans.

I stayed below him, but I was close enough to talk him through the narrow section. Then we came to the narrowest part where the crack suddenly pinched down to nothing, and I thought he'd be stumped just ten feet from the ledge. There was a small ledge I knew he could climb to and I wanted him to go there to put on his harness. But without looking he said to me, "Papa, look at this." I looked up and saw him swing his legs out from the chimney to above the land below us. There was my son, thirteen years old and his feet and legs were flying away from the rock and his body only connected to the flake by the fingers on his hand that wrapped over a ledge and, after he'd had his fun, they pulled him back into the rock into a solid stance on the face below the larger ledge.

My heart skipped a beat and I shouted, "Be careful!" and he was. He recomposed himself, looked around, and stepped up to higher ground. Within seconds he was standing on the ledge and watching his old man top out.

We sat there on the ledge a long time watching the trees below us sway in the wind. It was fun to be above the birds.

We moved on when it was time. I got him into his harness and we simul-rapped to the ground with ease. He loved the exposure. While he was careful to listen to me and pay attention to what I told him, he bounced joyfully in the air while he let the rope slip through his fingers and his belay device. The wind pushed our hair around during the descent, and it was fresh and we were free, together, and happy.

I contemplated telling him to not tell his mother, but I was so impressed with him that day that I decided to see what else he had in him.

When we got him his mother asked, "how was it?"

"It was great, Mom. We climbed to the top and then we rappelled down." He went to his room and I kissed my wife, thankful for the day he and I had and grateful that there would be more to come.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ankles Galore!

E'ffn' hell.

For various reasons, I haven't been climbing the past few weeks. Mostly it is because my ankle still hasn't healed well from my fall on Cannon in the middle of August. That's helped me to justify not climbing while "Ratherbe" went off to the Tetons on a backpacking trip for two weekends and then again no climbing over Labor Day weekend (because of how my vacation / holiday time works at work, I am choosing to work on Labor Day in order to save that day for a free day when my Mom comes to visit in a couple of weeks. Consequently, I couldn't find anyone who only wanted to climb for Sat / Sun on a typical three-day weekend).

So, I find a newbie who wants to learn how to climb. There's a decent quarry just outside of Boston that is perfect for top-roping and teaching beginners. I figure this is a good chance to teach him the ropes and so on. I figure it's also a chance to test out my ankle climbing for the first time in weeks. The ankle has been a little sore still, but hell, "it ought to be getting somewhat better," I assume.

We're walking in on the tarred path toward the meadow-like field that we have to cross to get to the main walls. We're talking. It's a beautiful day. There's hardly anyone here. A few folks learning rescue on the easy near wall. There's a single rope already set up off in the distance but no one is around it. That's OK because that route is too hard for a beginner anyway. A party of three is walking ahead of us. I'll offer to share ropes if they're interested. That'll save me some set up time and double the number of routes we can do. I'm thinking it's such a nice day. I wish I had brought a hat for my bald head. I didn't even bring sunscreen. "Such a stupid thing to forget," I tell myself. There's really nothing to worry about except for possible sunburn, until I accidentally step on the edge of the path and go down, hard. My right ankle (the bad one) feels as if gets folded in half. My left knee goes straight down to the tar and it feels as if it's been cracked open. I've got blood from six different points running down my left shin and I can barely stand on either leg let alone walk.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. It hurts. It hurts bad. As bad as It's hurt in months when I first sprained it while walking on ice on the way to work. It hurts more than when I fell at the Triangle Roof on Moby Grape a few weeks ago. I'm limping and hobbling all over the place, looking for a safe place to sit down after I stupidly stood up after hitting the ground. Except that I know I have so little support from either leg that if I sit down I'm going to have to fall down and I'm still standing on the tar. I have no desire to fall on the tar again. The gash(es) on my left knee explained in very clear terms the first time how hard the ground is.

It takes a few minute before I'm able to walk again, but I'm favoring both legs in my no-support sandals. I'm still gonna teach this guy how to climb, so we walk to the cliff and we go up to the top and I show him how to set up a top rope. His feet don't fit into my climbing shoes, so he decides to climb barefoot. For a guy who has never climbed before, he's a natural and understands the value of body position without any instruction: he just does what he needs to do and climbs up. The route is kind of hard for him as he moves up, but he gets up to the crux and tries it several times before his feet start to hurt. I'm happy that he trusts the rope and is willing to fall without giving me notice. He's done well, but it's the crux and he'll need to learn how to layback on slick rock before he can get this route clean.

I lower him and decide that its time for him to practice belaying. This means I have to climb a bit, but it works out OK. The ankle hurts, but I find ways of mitigating the pain. He does a good job of belaying, catching, understanding the various terminology and doing the right thing when a certain term is used. I'm happy. I've climbed this route a hundred times, but I'm not interested in pushing it. He lowers me and we talk about what we're going to do next.

There's an easier climb around the corner that I think he can climb with his sneakers on, so I head to the top and reset the rope. I rappel down and feel the strain on my ankle. The angle of my foot on the rock isn't conducive to resting sprains. I'm supposed to climb in the 'Gunks with "Ratherbe" after Labor Day weekend, and there are a lot of raps there. I'm worried that my climbing season may be over. It's frustrating as hell, but what am I going to do? I have to get better. It's frustrating, but I figure I'll go to the 'Gunks just to get another week in. I'll climb hurt now and rest when the season is over. But then there's my two-week reconnaissance trip to Chile in November. I'm going to be doing a lot of walking. "Shoot, do I rest up for that or not?" I can't tell what to do. I can't make that decision now.

My friend runs up the first 15 feet of the route and finds his shoulder hurting. He's coming back from an injury, too, so we call it quits. I decide I'm going to climb up to retrieve the gear. No time like now to test the ankle on a climb, particularly on easy terrain. Where there are three jugs (two hands and one foot, for example), things are good. But at the top there's a hand traverse of sorts that has jugs for hands but requires smearing with the feet. Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! I get to the top, but this isn't good. Maybe it's time to practice jugging all over again.

We walk slowly out of the quarry and decide on where to grab food. It's such a nice day. I wish I was climbing, but I can only do so much with what I have. It's September in New England, and climbing season will end in a few weeks when it gets too cold for weekend jaunts to 'Gunks. It may already be getting too cold for North Conway and Cannon. I'm bummed. "Jello" is supposed to come out for a week in October. I'm really looking forward to that. Just like "Ratherbe", he's turned out to be a damn good partner and friend. But he's struggling to find the time to take off from work, so maybe it's a good thing we're playing his trip by ear. If my ankle hasn't healed then that would put a damper on the plans I have for him. If I can't climb the stuff I want to get him on then that would be a wasted trip. This almost happened when I went to Moab with him this past spring; I was at the end of my healing period from the first ankle sprain during that trip. I did more belaying than climbing. It was a fun trip, but it's not something I want to make a habit of. Now this. I keep thinking that my season is going to have to start all over again in Chile in February. Maybe this is a good thing. Life certainly is a mystery. I wonder what life has in store for me next.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Ratherbe's Return

This wasn't looking good. We were at the base of Cannon, ready to tick off Moby Grape (5.8 III), the last great classic on Cannon that we really wanted, when we boldly declared there would be no rescue that day. We then struggled up Reppy's Crack on the first pitch, cruised the second pitch, and I, just under a half second away from pulling away from the Triangle Roof on the third pitch, slipped and fell downward to the slab below; landing awkwardly on my right ankle; feeling the same pain I had felt a few months earlier when I slipped on the ice and sprained my ankle requiring three months of rest; and causing our painful retreat. There would be no repeat of that - we swore - so we spoke of "hoping" to get all the climbs we wanted in North Conway instead of bragging that the climb would go. After we agreed on our attitude for the day, "Ratherbe", upon opening the trunk of her car after pulling into the climbers' lot near the base of Whitehorse Ledge, pulled out her gear and started getting ready for the hike in. I pulled my pack out, looked at her single rope in the trunk and said, "so where are the doubles?"

- "Ratherbe"(with eyes wider than her sunglasses and indignation painted across her face): Are you kidding me?
- Me: No, really, where are the ropes?
- "Ratherbe": Um, when you said on the phone we were using my gear and your ropes, I assumed you'd actually bring them.
- Me: Oh shit.

I was embarrassed. There was so much going on the evening I packed that I had completely forgot to bring the ropes. It was a minor miracle that she even had her single rope. I was still suffering from my turned ankle and I asked her to bring her single rope just in case we decided to aid something if I couldn't climb. So she did her duty and chucked her rope into the back of her car. I, being stressed out and rushed when I was packing, made sure to remember my aid gear, the stuff that I don't normally bring with me, but had left my doubles resting up against the wall in my bedroom, across from the right side of the bed and next to the mirror.

- Me: Well, that's OK, we'll just make the extra rap.
- "Ratherbe": Um, no. The first pitch of Children's Crusade is over 100 feet. My single isn't long enough for a rap that long. Remember, it's thirteen feet shorter than it used to be?
- Me: OK, let's do Lost Souls then. We can make the extra rap off Hotter Than Hell.
- "Ratherbe": I don't think that will work. Do we even know if we can do that?
- Me: We can figure something out I'm sure.
- "Ratherbe" (looking at the climbers racking up at the car to our left): Do you know the route?
- Climbers: Yeah, you need two ropes. There's no way around it.
- Me (sighing): Oh damn. Sorry. I really am. Crap. What are we going to do?
- "Ratherbe" (getting out her phone): Let me call a friend. He may have a tag line we can use.

It was at that point when the climbers racking up from the car to our right overheard our conversation.

- "Savior": What's up?
- Me (feeling like crap): I forgot the doubles, and the routes we're doing require two to get down.
- "Savior": You need a rope?
- Me: Yeah, if we can get her friend to lend -
- "Savior" (before I could finish my sentence): Here dude. Use this.

He tossed me an old, thick, red single rope. I was shocked. Who was this guy?

- Me: Oh thanks man, but are you sure?
- "Savior": I wouldn't have offered if I wasn't.
- "Ratherbe": Holy crap! That's awesome! Thanks a lot.
- "Savior": No problem. Glad to help. It's heavy, so you might want to use it as the tag line.

It was heavy, but I wasn't worried about it. I was just glad to have been saved from a late start (we would have had to driven back to "Ratherbe"'s friend's house), and from being completely castrated for forgetting the ropes. "Savior" and "Ratherbe" exchanged numbers and we figured out how to get his rope back to him at the end of the day. It was a great moment in climbing, I think. It certainly doesn't rank as high as Lynn Hill freeing The Nose, but hey, what other community sees acts of good faith such as this? A spare rope - a lifeline - given by a complete stranger to a pair of complete strangers, saved our day.

Children's Crusade (5.9) - Three pitches - Mixed trad and sport - Bolted anchors (<-- Click here for guidebook info)

Unlike the last time we climbed on Whitehorse the approach was easy this time. We knew exactly where to go because we had seen it three weekends before when we got lost looking for Inferno (5.8). The route looked pretty straight forward once we scoped it out, so I flaked out the ropes and "Ratherbe" racked up. This was going to be a good weekend for her. I was still limping about and I wasn't sure I would be able to lead anything above 5.7. Simply put, I needed jugs to climb on and the 5.9 and 5.10 (Lost souls) we chose for Saturday seemed as if they'd be too hard on my ankle for climbing clean. I also didn't want to take another fall and risk injuring my ankle even more. As a result, she was going to be able to pick and lead most, if not all, the pitches.

Once we were ready, "Ratherbe" headed up the blocky dike at the start and clipped the pin that helps to protect the initial traverse to the right. She then reached over and clipped the first bolt on the route, which is to the right of the pin, and started to move her way up to the second bolt. She gained the rest at the second bolt and looked around.

- "Ratherbe": There's a bail biner here on the second bolt.
- Me: Huh.
- "Ratherbe": And that third bolt is a long way away.

I didn't think much about it because the ledges leading up to the third bolt looked solid from below. Plus, while I knew it might have looked a long way away to her, she had been climbing well all season. It just didn't occur to me that she wouldn't be able to do it. It was only 5.9 after all, and this was essentially a sport climb at this point.

But she was worried about the fall. The math seemed different for us. To me, the distance between the second and third bolt was long but not so much that she'd hit the dike below if she fell. But to her, hitting the dike was almost imminent.

She moved up through the ledges and got to a point where her knot was about two feet above the second bolt, but the third bolt was still a foot or so beyond her reach. The next small ledge up was the last one before the wall turned blank just below the third bolt. There were more ledges after the bolt, but getting to those upper ledges would likely shift the math toward her hitting dike if she fell from so high up. Still, if she could have moved up just another foot or so then maybe she would have been able to reach and clip the bolt from below.

She stayed two feet above the second bolt for what seemed a long time. I was surprised by this because of how well she had been climbing this year, so I wanted to wave it off as route-finding and patience. But she kept talking about how far away the bolt looked, and each time she opened her mouth I heard her hesitancy grow. I soon began to realize that her head wasn't there. She down-climbed to the rest at the second bolt and thought things through. Then she went back up and felt around on the upper-most ledge below the third bolt. Where all the other ledges had nice crimps on them, this last one proved to be a sloper that was best used from below; in other words, it didn't get her up high enough to reach the third bolt, at least not easily or confidently. She was going to have to move up higher off the sloper to a position where she wasn't sure if the sloper would be good enough to clip from, and the math was starting to get on the fringe of her hitting the dike if she couldn't hold on from that position. She down-climbed again to the rest at the second bolt and I could see that she was rattled by the move.

- "Ratherbe": I don't know, dude. This looks hard.
- Me: I think you're fine. I think you can do it.
- "Ratherbe": I'm really worried about that dike though. I can see bad things happening if I fall.
- Me: I've got you, don't worry about it.
- "Ratherbe": It's not you I'm worried about. I'm worried about the ledge.

I still wasn't convinced she'd hit the ledge. For one, I was sure I'd be able to get some of the slack pulled in before the rope pulled taught. Two, I just didn't think she was going to be high enough for that to even matter. I was more worried about some of the small bulges in the rock a few feet above the dike than I was the dike itself. But this didn't matter to her. She was rattled now and I could see that. All I could do was offer confidence from below. She was going to have to make the decision on to proceed on her own. In the end, she decided to use the bail biner and to lower.

I asked if she was sure and she said "yes." So I lowered her. When she touched down she untied and sat down on the rock near where I had taken a seat. Tears swelled in her eyes and she wondered aloud whether our weekend was shot. North Conway doesn't have very many easy routes, and I'm pretty sure we've done many times over all the easy routes worth doing. I couldn't lead anything difficult due to my ankle, so everything either depended on us doing boring routes that we'd already done (and were guaranteed to be busy), her gaining her confidence back or, as she calmly noted, us renting a couple of tubes and floating down the Saco River.

I sat there and looked up. I wanted to get a little bit of climbing in and the moves up to the second bolt looked fun, so I asked her to give me a catch while I worked my way up to, and maybe a bit beyond, the second bolt. I noticed as soon as I got off the dike, however, that my ankle couldn't handle much smearing. I was able to put some pressure on it and make moves but not without a fair amount of grimacing. I hung several times at what I felt was the crux, which was moving from the first bolt up to the jugs below the second bolt, but was finally able to pull the moves to get to the rest where "Ratherbe" had decided to bail. I stood there and looked up: the moves looked fun and I wanted to do them. The thought of me taking this lead had actually crossed my mind before I roped up. I figured that I'd rest at the bolts if I needed to in order to rest my ankle, but I was worried about falling. If I fell and landed awkwardly then that could possibly put both of us in a position of having to get me out of the woods and back to the car - it didn't seem to be an good way to end the weekend so early on Saturday morning. Except for the other parties on the slabs down the path, there was no one else around to help carry me out if it came to that. Still, I wanted to go up to see what the moves were like. I was confident I could down-climb, so I went up and felt around.

While I wasn't as worried about the dike as "Ratherbe" was, I could see why she felt the third bolt was so far away. It was a committing move for sure. Down-climbing was going to be difficult once I committed to the sloper, so I decided not to move up any higher. I was kind of pissed, too, because I felt confident enough to make the moves. As it has been with my head all year, I've felt fine pushing myself. But this was different. I was hurt and hurting myself more was going to cause more problems than if I simply retreated. "Ratherbe" lowered me once I down climbed and we thought about what to do next.

- Me: You know, I saw a foot hold up there that I'm not sure you saw. It's off to the left a bit, and wouldn't be good for a handhold.
- "Ratherbe" (after realizing where I was pointing to): That's already past the point of commitment though. I want something easier that is lower.
- Me: Yeah, I agree, but I don't think that if you fall you'll hit the dike. I really don't.
- "Ratherbe" (the tears came back): I know. I'm mad at myself. I'm mad that I'm worried about it. It's just a stupid bolt. I shouldn't have anything to worry about.
- Me: Well, maybe you just go up there and take a small fall, on purpose. Make sure you clip the first bolt just in case anything happens, but you're right, it's a bolt. You really should be fine.
- "Ratherbe": It's funny because I told someone recently that all of my big trad falls have all come on bolts.
- Both of us: laugh.

We tossed around our options for a few minutes. Lost Souls (5.10a) was out of the question now. We could drive back to Cathedral and play in the North End on some of the easier one-pitch routes that she hadn't climbed yet. Or we could go tubing. It was all up in the air until she stood up and said she was going to give it another go.

She tied in and I put her on belay. She was on toprope to the second bolt, so the climbing was quicker than it was last time. After clipping the first bolt and switching the second bolt from the bail biner to a draw, she paused, chalked up, and move up to the easier ledges below the slopers. I put myself in a position where I wouldn't have to use my right ankle much if she fell, and I waited for her to move. She stayed on the good ledges for what seemed an eternity. When she had gone back up I thought for sure she had removed the panic from her soul and was ready to send. But her arms and legs went tense. Her whole body stiffened up, and then she let go. She let out a little squeak at the moment she began to descend downward but her breathing had slowed down by the time she rested at the end of the fall.

- Me: How do you feel?
- "Ratherbe": Fine.
- Me: See where you landed? You're a good several feet or so above the dike. No problem.
- "Ratherbe": Yeah, OK. I feel better about that now.

She then moved back up to the good ledges and I prepared for a second practice fall. But instead of falling, which she later told me she wanted to do a second time (and I had told her before she started back up that if all we got out of the entire weekend was her feeling good about taking safe falls then it would be a satisfying weekend), she got the urge to keep going. I saw her grab the slopers, hesitate, then move her feet up high with one foot up on the hold I had pointed out earlier. It was a bit of a struggle, and I was completely ready for her to peel at any moment, but after a few seconds of grasping for gear and desperately reaching for the bolt, she clipped it, then she clipped the rope, and she then moved up to easier holds above for a rest.

The distance between the third and fourth bolts was even greater than the second and third, but she found the climbing easier when she focused on making one move at a time. Before long, she had me on belay and I was working my way up.

I really struggled on the climb. My ankle was sore, but I was still able to make the moves. It was odd because it felt more sore when I lifted it off the rock compared to when I weighted it. The traverse at the top made us both nervous due to my instability, but I made it OK and anchored in.

- "Ratherbe": You know, I'm not so sure I want to continue.
- Me: OK, that's fine. But why not?
- "Ratherbe": Well, I just don't know if I'm feeling it. That pitch scared me more than any other pitch I've ever been on, and it was bolted.
- Me: OK, what does this pitch look like. Let's take a look at it and think for a moment.

We looked up and saw that the first moves appeared to be the crux. They were protected by a bolt a few feet and left of the anchor. From there was a series of overlaps. There were no bolts and there was no clear sign of where to go. We hadn't brought the guidebook up with us, but we both remembered that the book said the climb wandered over the overlaps. We felt good that we knew where to go at the very least.

- Me: Well, to be honest, it doesn't look that bad. I mean, there's a bolt here to start off with. That has to help.
- "Ratherbe": Yeah, but the rest looks to be trad. What do you think, particularly with your ankle?
- Me: I can do whatever. I brought my stuff to jug if need be. It hurts, but I'm OK. I can get up if that's what we need to do. I think it's up to you really. I wouldn't worry about me.
- "Ratherbe": OK, but I'm still nervous.
- Me: Honestly, I don't think your nearly as nervous as you were down there.

I'm sure people get to know their partners well if they've climbed with them enough. "Ratherbe" faces self-doubt a fair bit, but I can often see past that by looking at her body language. Sometimes she says things just to get positive feedback, in case she's missing something when she is actually feeling OK. In fact, I was confident she'd do fine as I watched her pick her way up the ledges between the third and fourth bolts. She just looked better and the hesitancy in her voice wasn't the same as it was when she bailed.

- Me: It's your decision. We can do it or go down, but, really, you did well once you got going. I say we keep going. I mean, as you said, you don't really want to have to come back do you?
- "Ratherbe": No, I don't.

She was fine, but I knew that first pitch was still in her head. We had climbed past the scariness, so it was if the demon had already been slayed. Having to conquer that demon a second time was not something she wanted to do again. In fact,it was a pretty powerful motivator, so we switched out the gear, flaked the rope, and she went up. It turned out that the crux was right at the bolt off the anchor, so the rest, despite being somewhat of a route-finding adventure, was pretty easy for her. I followed her up when she got top and again we discussed continuing.

- "Ratherbe": OK, so, this time I'm less scared and more concerned about the lack of pro at the top.
- Me: What do you mean? It's a crack up to that bulge. It looks fine.
- "Ratherbe": Look above that.

I looked up and realized why she was concerned. It was true that there was good protection for the first twenty feet or so, but once that ended there was a blank section that would have resulted in a nasty fall for the leader if she had fallen making the moves on that upper section. Any fall from the upper section would send the leader a decent distance (maybe about twenty feet in total) back into a low-angle slab with a swing into a corner. I certainly didn't want her to take that fall, but the question came up, did we really want to come back up here again? After all, this was the 5.8 pitch, so it wasn't going to be as hard as the other two. We discussed the merits of going back down when she decided it was probably OK to climb up to the blank section and then down-climb if it seemed too sketchy. After all, as we had discussed before, she did not want to have to come back and do this again and this seemed to be a good plan.

She started off and climbed up the first bit in the crack. When she was about half-way up I realized that she was jamming her toes in the crack. "Fuck," I said. "I actually forgot this was a crack." She looked back at me and asked if she wanted me to continue. I thought about it and wondered if my ankle would be able to take the tweaking, but I figured I'd be able to get around it and said she could continue.

She did fine through the crack and the blocky section above the crack. It was the upper section that we had discussed at the belay that made her nervous. There was no pro nor any bolts, and this blank section had a few moves that required her to stretch so that she was just able to grab the upper holds. I really didn't want her to fall and asked if she wanted to climb down. "No," she said, "I think I can do it. Besides, I'm here and it's only 5.8."

She was at a point where she had to be committed. Falling really wasn't much of an option and giving a soft catch was going to be difficult. Either way, if she fell she was going to hit hard on something. I just hoped I was able to keep her from swinging out of control into something after the impact. At first she stretched up and was just able to reach the upper holds, but she was so stretched out that she didn't have much room to move. This meant she was going to have to use intermediate holds when they weren't that good. One slip and she was going to scream back down to the low-angle crack below, possibly swinging into the blocky corner, too. She swore when she realized that one of the holds she had decided to trust didn't turn out to be as good as she thought it would be. "I wouldn't have used it if I had known it was going to be this bad," she said. I didn't say much because I figured she was really talking just to get the nervousness out. She had committed to the hold and now had to move off it.

I admit that I was nervous. We had talked things through all the way up, and I hadn't felt nervous until now. Oddly, I think she looked less nervous at this moment than at any other crux on the climb: she was confident in her ability now, but was unsure about the actual climbing. Still, I had confidence that she was going to pull through. I'd seen her too many times back down only when she knew she could and send when she knew falling wasn't an option. She was smart about the whole thing, and I trusted that.

Finally, after a few tense moments, she grabbed the good holds that she had when she was fully stretched out. She pulled up and mantled to the top (this was the third mantle she had to do, and she was not happy to have done any of them). The climbing wasn't over yet, but she was in a much more stable position now and we both felt better (particularly after she finally placed a cam that was about 15 feet above her last piece).

It was my turn when she got to the top and I basically hauled myself up the crack with one foot. This was the kind of crack that I actually enjoy; it was the kind where I could lock my knuckles and know I wasn't going anywhere. But I couldn't jam my right foot without it hurting, so I smeared off it while I jammed my left foot instead. God that hurt. As it had all the way up, my ankle felt worse when I lifted it up as opposed to when I pressed my weight on it. Still, I was able to get up with ease through the section "Ratherbe" had to commit to, mainly because I could reach the upper holds where she could not.

We agreed that was the end of the day. She was fairly emotionally spent and I was aching for some ibuprofin and the cold-water in the Saco River. We packed up and made the slow hike out. After we cooked dinner and swam in the river, we found "Savior" and returned his rope. We were thankful for his generosity and hope he gets some good karma rewards in return.

The Saigons (5.8+) - Sport / trad - Two pitches - Bolted anchors (<--Click here for guidebook info)

Bird's Nest (5.9-) - Trad - One pitch - Tree Anchor (<--Click here for guidebook info)

Sunday was a slow day. I wasn't feeling ambitious about climbing, so "Ratherbe" ran up The Saigons (5.8+) while I jugged them (NOT an easy thing to do, by the way. I might have found it easier to actually climb the damn thing). We remembered that we couldn't rap down because we didn't have two ropes anymore, so we belayed each other across the sketchy traverse back to the Thin Air ledge and hitched a ride back to the bottom. "Ratherbe" still wanted one more climbing before we headed up, so we went up to the North End wall and she ran up Bird's Nest (5.9-). I taught her how jug after that and we packed up and went home before the rain hit later that afternoon. It was an interesting weekend, and I think we were both glad that it was both over and had turned out the way it did. Yeah, Children's Crusade was scary, but we got through it. Yeah, I was limping all weekend long, but we got through that, too. She knocked off three climbs that were on her tick list and we each got the crap scared out of us. It's funny because when I look back on this weekend I don't see a lot of climbing, but I do see a lot of living life, and that's what is most important in the end.

Click here for all 2009 North Conway photos.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Guidebook: North Conway - The Saigons (5.8), Bird's Nest (5.9-), Children's Crusade (5.9)

Click here for the Cathedral Ledge index and here for the Whitehorse Ledge index.
Click here for all Guidebook posts
Click here for all Cathedral posts and here for all Whitehorse posts.

Whitehorse Ledge
Children's Crusade (5.9) - Three pitches - Mixed trad and sport - Bolted anchors

- Approach
: From the lower parking lot, walk up the road past the hotel and find the path at the bend in the road. Turn left and go straight up toward the base of the slabs. From there, walk left along the base for about five minutes, occasionally following the path as it moves away from the cliff for a few moments. Pass a wooden ladder that leads up to the right and find a left-leading dike about 30 feet past a left-facing corner. There is a small overhang right above the start.

- Pitch One (5.9) - Sport - Bolted anchor - 130 Feet: Climb the dike about 12 feet to the pin, traverse right past the pin and first bolt and head straight up to the second bolt. From there, climb the ledges up to the obvious traverse left to the anchor.
- Pitch Two (5.9) - Trad - Bolted anchor - 100 Feet: Start left of the anchor and head straight up to the first ledge. From there, weave back and forth on the path of least resistance until you find the anchor, which will be to the right of a low-angle crack.
- Pitch Three (5.8) - Trad - Tree anchor - 60 Feet: Climb the crack on the left up through the blocky section. Step left to the top of the blocks and mantle up on good hands. Step right to the sketchy block and finish straight up and to the left at the tree anchor.

- Descent: Rap with two ropes in two raps straight down to the ground. There is no need to rap down to the right to the anchors at the top of the second pitch of Children's Crusade. Rapping straight down will bring you to another set of anchors that are left of the bolts at the top of the first pitch.

Cathedral Ledge

The Saigons (5.8) - Two pitches - Mixed sport and trad - Bolted anchors

I've named these "The Saigons" out of ease's sake. They are actually two separate routes called Miss Saigon and Still in Saigon.

- Approach
: There are two ways to get to these climbs, either by the Recompense Trail or the Thin Air Trail. Both trails can be found from the same main parking area. The Recompense Trail is several yards to the left of the Thin Air Trail.

From the Thin Air Trail, follow it to the Mordor Wall and then follow the steep path all the way to the top to a large tree that makes for a nice belay seat.

From the Recompense Trail, follow it up until you get to where the path splits. Head up right, following the wooden ladder / stairs to the top where the large tree is.

- Still in Saigon - Pitch One (5.8) - Mostly sport (with a few trad placements) - Bolted anchor - 155 feet: Basically, follow the bolts straight up, stepping left to the flake near the top and then traversing right just below the ledge to where it is easy to pull up and find the anchor.
- Miss Saigon - Pitch Two (5.8) - Mostly sport (with a few trad placements) - Bolted anchor - 75 feet: Climb straight up, trending right a bit as you head toward the anchors at the large ledge above.

- Descent: It is best to rap once with two 60m ropes all the way back to the base. It is possible to traverse right along the slab over to the Thin Air Ledge if you only have one rope (and can then walk off the road that can be followed to the right). However, this slab is often wet and slick, and it presents a potentially dangerous traverse for the second.

Bird's Nest (5.9-) - One pitch - Trad - Tree anchor

- Approach
: The approach to the North End starts about 50 feet away from the gate on the road (opposite from where the hill begins to go up). Follow the path up 75 yards to the base.

- Bird's Nest - 90 feet: The thin single crack that steps right on a ledge midway up to another pair of cracks. It is about midway between a short left-facing corner on the right and another crack on the left.

Finger jam the crack and use better-than-they-look foot holds up to the rest at a small ledge. Move right and follow the two cracks up to the bulge. Head right once over the bulge to the tree anchor.

- Descent: Lower or rap off the tree at the top. A 60m rope will get you back to the ground. The tree is to the right of the route, so be prepared for a bit of a swing if you choose to clean on the way down.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Wrath of Cannon

I've now been on Cannon four times, and can officially state that there is a pattern of some sort of failure. Jeremiah and I were lucky enough to have a guide and client climbing below us the first time we tackled the great alpine mountain of the northeast. Route finding was an issue that day, and the guide was instrumental in getting us up the proper pitches even though we hadn't hired him. When we got to the top we confidently asked him how long it would take for us to hike to the summit.

Click here for the rest of the story.

Click here for all 2009 Cannon pics.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Today, I need to climb

It’s no use. There’s so much turmoil in my life at the moment that it almost isn’t worth dealing with it all until something settles down. But then there’s the pressure knowing that if I don’t buckle down and deal with it all, all at once, that there will be missed opportunities that could affect me for years to come.

See the rest here.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Brotherhood of the Rope

"I am immensely happy, for I have felt the rope between us. We are linked for life. We have approached the stars together and at such heights, the air has a special savor...Together we have known apprehension, uncertainty and fear; but of what importance is all that? For it was only up there that we discovered many things of which we had previously known nothing: a joy that was new to us, happiness that was doubled because it was shared."

I recently read this in Gaston Rebuffat's book Starlight and Storm, which for the most part I found to be a mildly interesting communication of his climbing of the great north faces of the Alps. Where I found the book overwhelmingly good and entirely worth reading was at the very end, as if the seminal knowledge was a reward for people who stuck through entirety of his work describing his climbs.

As I have developed as a climber and also as a guide, my reasons for climbing and my thoughts about climbing ethics have changed. When I first started climbing I was immature, reckless, and stupid. I clipped bolts and took big falls, built scary anchors, tempted fate with the first traditional leads during which my legs quivered while I dropped my nuts when I was only five feet off the ground. There was always the element of adventure and unknown. I would get on climbs and I didn't know if I would make it. I didn't know if I would get hurt, what would hold or was safe. The "apprehension, uncertainty, and fear" brought forth characteristics that have played out in my life to make me a better person, in facing considerable hardship never in everyday life do those hardships approach the difficulties I've felt climbing. One cannot look at work projects with anything but boredom having flirted with death on high.

I have always been attracted to adventure and the outdoors. I would often wander for hours in the woods until a parent had to come looking for me. I always want to go further, to find out what was behind the next bend. I still have this problem when I hike. I simply like exploring but with every corner of the globe categorized, graphed, mapped, and steralized it is difficult to find places not trodden by the masses. Vertical rock has always had enough of the unknown that I could deal with the many hands and feet that came before mine, which is why I am more of a climber than a hiker. As I have grown, though, I feel I have grown onto a distinctly different branch than the vast majority of climbers as well as normal human beings. As I go to almost any crag in the United States I see this proliferation of morally deteriorated climbers. They don't care about the adventure or the exploration, they simply want to climb that hard move, to tick that hard climb, adventure a byproduct that must be eliminated through the use of technology. In order to focus simply on the difficulty, climbs have been bolted into submission.

In his 1972 Catalog Yvon Chouinard emplores climbers to remember the rock and other climbers, employing restraint and good judgment in the use of his products and to climb clean. Early on he describes the moral deterioration: "Armed with ever more advanced gadgetry and techniques the style of technical climbing is gradually becoming so degraded that elements vital to the climbing experience-adventure and appreciation of the mountain environment itself-are being submerged. Siege tactics, bolt ladders, bat hooks, bash chocks, detailed topos and equipment lists, plus a guaranteed rescue diminish rather than enhance a climb. Even now existing techniques and technology are so powerfult that almost any climb imaginable can be realized, and the fear of the unknown reduced to rote excercise." This is extremely common today amongst climbers. They train in the gym and most of them learn in that sterile, plastic environment. This in itself is not so bad in that it gives fledgling climbers a few skills so they don't injure themselves or others. The problem is that the sterile environment does not provide new climbers with any direction or real knowledge for when they do get outside. What we have then are climbers barely interested in adventure or the outdoors.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Silver Lining

I've wanted to taste the adventure of climbing for a long time. But just as in life, I've also always kept things as well mapped out as possible. After all, what's the point of attempting success if you aren't going to actually succeed? Advanced planning is probably the most important tool that I have with regards to success. Whenever I've succeeded easily or even spectacularly I can always look back and point to my preparation: the harder I worked preparing the easier success was. And this begs the question, where is the adventure in that?

I'm not a very good climber, yet I dream of doing first ascents. In fact, "Jello" and I nearly had an Epiphanous moment when we first rolled into Moab a few months ago. We looked up at the towering buttress and for a few seconds we were both convinced we were going to bag one of the corners that rose high above the highway below. But then we realized that we didn't have the best gear, and so we drove off with a mixture of somber and relief flowing through our hearts and brains. "Jello"'s part wanted the route adventurously, and my part wanted the route intelligently. We both understood each other's position, and I can't speak for him anymore, but since that moment I've wanted to answer the question, "why did I want it intelligently?"

I've said before that I don't climb for the adventure. Instead, I climb for the escape. But what is the escape if there isn't a bit of the unknown? According to my use of the word "escape" in this context, isn't escaping about getting away from the familiar? If so, then isn't getting away from the familiar adventurous by definition?

I've been saved by my partners more than once. This is partially because I generally climb with stronger climbers. But this is also partially because I know that I climb with stronger partners. I'm not afraid of heading up a route that is too difficult for me because I know that my partner is likely able to clean up my mess if I fail. Look, I know this isn't a good attitude. It certainly isn't one that I consciously take with me. I'm both a budding and enthusiastic individualist, so I want to both make and stand by my own decisions. But deep down I know that I can make certain decisions because I have someone to bail me out. This is why I've always played it safe in life: because I'm not sure who will bail me out if I make risky decisions in life. It is why I plan ahead so much: because if I'm going to live by a decision then I might as well see it through, and planning in advance, for me, is the easiest way to ensure I complete the task successfully. It's also why I don't mind beta on climbs: because I don't care about the surprise as much as I care about completing the task. But alas, without rapping down to see the route first, how can I ever be so prepared for a first ascent if I'm so stuck on planning the damn thing first? I'm not sure the answer is "I can't" because I feel as if it is more complicated than that, and I also feel as if I have a long way to go before understanding enough to answer that question outright. But this weekend I unexpectedly got a taste of what the answer might look like, even if it was on a route that not only was definitely not a first ascent, but it was also a route that I have been on before as a second. It was only a taste. I don't know what the full flavor is yet, but I have enough information now to think hard about what the answer might look like.

Easy Baby Link-up (5.6) - Trad - Two pitches - Gear and tree anchors (<-- Click here for guidebook info)

It poured Friday night, the night we arrived, to the point where "Ratherbe" and I felt the water rushing underneath my tent. It felt as if we were on a water bed, but thanks to the footprint under the tent most of our stuff was dry. "Blow" and "Caboose" were just as lucky, and even though the downpours lasted for hours over night, and even though the rain hadn't stopped until relatively late in the morning, the rock was surprisingly dry at 830am when we all awoke. Still, it made sense to grab breakfast first, so after we ate in town, and when we arrived in the West Trapps parking lot, the rock was even drier and ready to be climbed then.

Probably the most amazing aspect of that Saturday was that the 'Gunks were nearly completely empty. It was supposed to have been a beautiful day in New Paltz, with the sun shining all day and temps in the mid-70s, but it seems that there are a lot of visitors who don't understand how the rock dries there. We didn't care though because that meant more rock for us. There's definitely nothing wrong with that.

"Blow" had the duty of leading our first two pitches. We were worried that there would be a crowd on either "Easy Overhang" or "Baby", the two climbs we were going to link up in two pitches, respectively, but we were happy to see that only one group was on the first pitch and that they were continuing onto the second pitch. We would be doing the second pitch of "Baby", so all was working out as planned.

The first pitch went fine; it was a very easy chimney that took "Blow" no more than a few minutes to climb. I came up behind him, we exchanged gear, and he went straight up for the roof above.

He cruised most of the second pitch, stopping only once before getting to the roof due to an initially unseen high-step midway up. And then he hit the roof. This stumped him for several minutes and he went up and down to the base of the roof several times before noticing there were a couple of climbers ready to rap down the line he was on. There are a lot of loose stones, many about palm-sized, right on the lip of the ledge at the top, so he stepped aside to a good place where he could rest and let the other climbers rap through. It was sunny out, so I turned myself around to face the green valley that lain below the blue sky. It was so warm, and dry, and the air around us was peaceful and quiet. I felt as if this is what it must feel like during the week in the 'Gunks when the crowds are sitting in their cubicles at work.

I looked up to see if the final rappeller had passed and noticed that the rope was being pulled. "Blow" was also three feet higher than he had been before and closing in on the finishing moves of the roof. Within seconds he easily brought his lowest foot above the roof and was calling off-belay. I was impressed because it wasn't his climbing ability that had limited him before, but more his route-reading. Once he read the route it became easy, and it turned out to be a praiseworthy moment: it was his first 'Gunks 5.6, and he did it on only his second pitch of the day. I was happy for this accomplishment because I was with him when he backed off the first pitch of "Shockley's" the year before.

Bonnie's Roof (5.9) - Trad - Two pitches - Gear anchors (<-- Click here for guidebook info)

My confidence was the same as it was before "Ant's Line" (5.9); it was nervous, unsure, and completely convinced that I was not going to fall. I remember walking to "Ant's Line" that day and thinking about not being another Francis Macomber, about not quitting, and about showing up to do the job I had set out to do. I climbed OK that day, but I also climbed with courage. It was probably one of the most courageous days I've ever had. We walked to "Bonnie's Roof" with a spring in our steps. "Blow" was excited to finally get on such a classic and I was running the moves of the crux through my head.

As always, when we arrived I immediately noticed that the crux moves I had imagined in my head were different in real life. The committing section of the corner below the roof was longer than I remembered, and the roof itself was also longer and higher above the committing corner. There were at least six more moves than I remembered and imagined. I wondered how many of those six were actually harder, too.

We stopped and snacked before I racked up and "Blow" flaked out the ropes. I then tied in and headed up the first 12 feet to the ledge above the ground. Now the climbing started, and I moved up another 10 feet or so and plugged my first piece of gear. It was a bomber nut, and I felt good about it.

Two nuts and a cam later and I was standing at the last decent rest before the committing section of the corner. I was pumped and sweating despite the fact that the entire pitch was in the shade. "Blow" had given me some of his loose chalk before I went up, but my hands sweat from the the back of my hand and then through the knuckles and spaces in between my fingers. I can chalk my palms and the front of my fingers multiple times but if I don't move immediately after then the pores on the back of my hand wet the front all over again. I tried to chalk the back of my hands, and that worked for a while, but I was too pumped to move quickly from my stance so the sweat formed again, and I'd chalk again, and before too long I was chalking just to hang on during the rest.

I made two moves off the rest stance and quickly realized I was at the most difficult section of the climb for me. It was the slick and pumpy layback up to a thicker section of the crack where I could arm-bar easily, except that the feet were terrible there, and of course I was going to be too pumped to hang on one arm long enough to place gear and clip in once I got up there. I backed down and rested some more. I tried maybe twice more before I realized this was going to require complete commitment on my part. I finally went up, made it to just below the thick part of the crack, and threw in the first piece of gear that I felt comfortable with in a while (the two pieces below me at that point probably would have held, but if they hadn't then I would have likely hit that rest stance on the fall if the gear ripped). My breathing was heavy and my hands were soaked. The crack was unforgiving with such wet hands, so I chalked again only to realize that my hands became wet just as soon as the other one was chalked up. Resting on two hands seemed easy enough for a while until both hands needed chalking again. I wiped the rolling streams of sweat off my brow and that eliminated any and all advantage I had from chalking up multiple times. I knew I could do this. I just had to try. This the easy part to the roof, right? I wondered.

I stuck my hand up to where the crack continued and tried to jam, but I quickly discovered that there was no hand jam here. Instead it was a shallow section of rock deep and wide enough only for a couple of fingers. I bumped higher to what seemed a better hold, but it was not. It was worse, and I could see that the feet were slick all around me. I knew I was done and that I had no chance of getting "Bonnie's" clean. The cam in front of me seemed solid, so I cautiously asked "Blow" to take and lower me back to the rest stance.

He lowered me and I sat down on the flat section to gather my thoughts. A few minutes of rest would probably do the trick, but I had been battling endurance problems all season due to two injuries and a lack of good climbing weather. I rested for about 10 minutes and headed back up.

The initial moves were easy enough. I had rested after all. I also had the the energy to pull past the shallow holds that had just sent me downward a few minutes before, but then I was pumped again with still the most pumpy moves yet to come on the roof. The climbing past the roof is not that technical, but it does require a bit of stamina to pull through the five (or so) moves to the semi-rest above. I plugged a nut in the wide crack and tried to move up to the undercling crack in the roof. It was further than I thought it would be, so I backed off again to the base of the wide crack. Again, my hands were soaked, so I chalked up multiple times. I wanted to clip the tattered sling on a fixed, old cam jammed up high, but I didn't trust it. Still, I didn't trust the nut I had placed either. The crack above seemed to be a good size for a #3.5 Camalot, so I plugged it. I was worried because the crack was uneven and the lobes weren't sitting nice and pretty liked I'd want them to, but it was what it was and I had to rest once again because I was too pumped to hold on.

The cam held just fine, but it was still too low. I was now looking at hang-dogging my way up this route. There was a good chance that I'd be able to climb up the rest of the corner after the main roof, but I was too damn pumped to get through the next several moves without resting on each piece. However, this was only part of the solution; it was only the end goal. Getting through the roof was another problem altogether. It was so close and yet so far away. Every time I tried to pull myself up to place the next piece of gear I found myself too tired to get myself close enough to reach the upper crack. I wanted to get through this, but I wasn't sure I had it.

It was then that I started to think about the anchors that were about 25 feet to my right. I'm not sure which climb they are on, but I began to convince myself that I could traverse on the huge hands all the way from my position to the anchors, except that while there were great hands there were also no feet for the first 10 feet. Did I mention that I was pumped at this point? How on earth was I going to hand traverse without feet for ten feet when I could barely pull myself upward five feet? The traverse was also largely unprotected, too. If I fell then I was going to swing right back into the hard rock that made up the corner, with the entire swing being caught by the cam that was good for a downward pull but still questionable on a swing. To top it off, there was another corner to the right of me, so if I made it across OK and "Blow" fell then he'd be the one slamming into a corner. It wasn't ideal, but it seemed to be the best solution. At this point I didn't care about getting to the top. All I cared about was getting down without anyone getting hurt and without leaving any expensive gear behind.

Of course, the thought of first ascents was now playing in my head. I was ready to give up, and yet there I was wondering just how I was ever going to get good enough to bag a first ascent. It was completely ridiculous and I felt a fool for thinking such thoughts. I had always figured that if the climbing on a first ascent got too rough then I'd aid it. I didn't care about getting first free ascents, per se. I just wanted the adventure. And there it was, stuck in my head as a beetle in a spider's web - why was I climbing? Was it for the escape or for the adventure? It was even more frustrating when two women walked up the path behind "Blow" and I shouted down "any interest in climbing Bonnie's?" They looked up at me and I was instantly disappointed to learn that the women weren't "Ratherbe" and "Caboose", which I had assumed when I first saw them. Yes, I had even inquired about two other climbers on "Ant's Line" if they wanted to climb "Bonnie's", too, but the turned the opportunity down. At this point I was actively looking for someone to bail me out. I was ashamed. I had reached a point where I knew that first ascents were not in my future. I knew that if I didn't climb with someone stronger than me that I shouldn't push the grade, and I knew that I needed to climb harder routes with someone who could bail me out: "Ratherbe", "Jello", etc. This was nothing against "Blow". This had nothing to do with him at all. It was all about me and my lack of courage and my wealth of incompetence. Just like Francis Macomber would have understood all to unfortunately, I had injured the lion and was willing to let it slowly bleed to death despite it's willingness to fight back. I was being cruel, and everyone who was paying attention knew it. Unlike Francis, however, I knew it more than anyone else.

"Blow" and I conversed several times about what I was going to do. He felt more than confident than I did that he'd be able to do the foot-less traverse to the right, as long as there were large hand holds then he'd be fine. I wasn't sure I could do it, and I wasn't sure I wanted to put him in a position to test himself in that way. I was also sure he could do it, too, but if he fell then it wouldn't have been his fault. In fact, him merely climbing the traverse wouldn't have been his decision because he would have been doing his duty as the second. I thought again about aiding the roof, but I couldn't even get to where the next piece needed to go, how was I going to aid it if I couldn't place the gear?

I thought and thought and thought for a long time. I was at least 20 minutes at the wide crack below the roof when I finally made the decision that it was too dangerous for me to try the traverse and too unfair to expect "Blow" to risk himself on the traverse as well. I had to make it up. Three tries later and I finally plugged my first cam in the upper crack, and I rested. I then moved out left, horizontally to the end of the roof, where the crack also ended and where one exits past the roof, and placed a red Link-cam. "Blow" took in the rope and I rested on that. This was working. I was getting somewhere. I knew that if I just rested a little while longer then I could pull the final moves to the rest stance above. I dangled and shook out my arms. The tide was turning. I had actually managed to pull through a difficult section when I had nothing left in my arms. I was happy, and then -


- Me: What the fuck?
- "Blow" (about 100 feet below me): What the hell was that?
- Me: The Link-cam.
- "Blow": What?
- Me: Holy shit, I gotta go, NOW!

I threw my hands to the jugs above and hauled myself up. Pain surged in my biceps as I ignored technique and pulled myself higher. There was no falling now. I was not going to fall. My breaths were shallow and quick and I felt my nose and the muscles around my mouth go numb. One jug led to another and before I knew it I was at the rest stance trying to slow down my hyperventilation. I had swore the cam was good. There was no reason whatsoever for it to crack like that. The mere thought that a cam had possibly broken shook me inside. I climbed the rest of the route clean because it was easy and because the adrenaline was shooting through my body and mind. "Blow" came up and commented how stiff that section was and that I shouldn't be embarrassed. But I was, and it wasn't because of the climbing but more because of my attitude. There was a question as to whether we were going to head down because the second pitch is a no-fall pitch in certain sections (lack of decent gear and the fixed pins are a bit sketchy). But I had just gone through one of the more difficult periods of my climbing life and I wasn't going down without leading the easier money pitch.

Just to be clear, though, there was nothing wrong with the Link-cam. It merely moved a little bit as I hung on it. The sound was much worse than it really was. I was relieved to hear that, but it was difficult to get past the fear that the sound had invoked.

Horseman (5.5) - Trad - One pitch - Gear anchor (<-- Click here for guidebook info)

I was completely toast by the time we got down from the top of "Bonnie's" but "Blow" still had a bit more in him. He had already knocked off one of his goals (his first 5.6 lead in the 'Gunks) and wanted to knock off another. "Horseman" is one of those classic climbs that only certain people have ever climbed: those who climb at the 'Gunks when it is not busy, those who are lucky enough to have jumped on the route when it is busy, and those who are lucky enough to remember when the 'Gunks weren't so busy. The rest of the climbers are like me: those who climb at the 'Gunks on weekends and easily resist the urge to climb in the sickeningly busy and loud Uberfall area. But because Saturday was such a shockingly unbusy day, this classic was open and "Blow" took the lead.

Because "Horseman" is so sustained "Blow" took his time working through the traverse and upper face. There were a few moments when he called down to me but we couldn't hear each other due to the road noise down below. Still, I never once thought he was going to peel off the route, and I was impressed at his stamina when I finally climbed up.

By the time we walked down the walkoff, the girls had met us at the base. It was time for swimming and dinner at Split Rock, so we packed up and headed down for some refreshing, cold water and campstove vittles.

Hans Puss (5.7) - Trad - Three pitches - Mixed anchors (<-- Click here for guidebook info)

"Hans Puss" is one of the wildest climbs at the grade that I've ever been on. Each pitch has fun and interesting moves with a unique flair that makes one wonder which one is the money pitch. Add in the fact that the gear isn't always great and the moves aren't always the most predictable, and you've got a climb that gets the blood flowing from the ground to the top.

Because it was "Blow" and "Caboose"'s anniversary, the plan was to climb until 2pm so they could get out of town early. At that point, "Ratherbe" and I would decided what we wanted to climb in the afternoon while the other two ran off to a secret, romantic hiding place somewhere in the Berkshires. And we knew it was going to be hot on Sunday, but just how hot was not something we fully understood.

The walk in was warm, and "Blow" and I hoped the route would be in the shade. We were discouraged to find that the entirety of the first two pitches were in direct sunlight, and it was going to be particularly bad for "Blow" because he was going to lead the first pitch while I was going to lead the second pitch. This meant that he'd be hanging at the bolts at the top of the first pitch the entire time I climbed both pitches. But he racked up and cruised through his second 5.6 lead in the 'Gunks in as many days. He hesitated a little bit at the physical crux where a high step was required to clear some slick rock, but once he found the high step he was fine. He's a much stronger climber than he gives himself credit for, and I felt that on each of the past two 5.6 leads that he did, in each instance where he was a bit wigged out at the crux, he ended up climbing through it easily once he discovered how to climb it. In other words, it was more about route finding for him than it was actually making the move. It was funny, though, because the mental crux is over an exposed, traversing step that doesn't appear to have many holds at first. He looked down at me and asked me to read the route description a couple of times because he couldn't believe that what he was about to do was still at the grade. But he hesitated much less this second time because I think he read the route confidently enough to make that exposed step. Once he did, he was at the anchors in no time. Now, to be completely fair, even though I lead a couple of grades harder than he does, when I got to that same exposed spot I said, "holy crap!" and I saw instantly what he was seeing when he was on lead. The moves were definitely easy, but you have to commit before you see that the holds are good all the way across the gap and around the arrete. It was a bold lead for him, and I hope that he gets more comfortable at the grade as the season progresses.

It was hot at the bolts. The rock was hot to touch and "Blow" was sweating profusely. He had also been on some medications lately and had to stay away from sunburns moreso as a result. I looked up at the roof above me and the left-facing corner seemed harder than 5.7, but I figured that it would be easier once I got up there and checked it out. But the book said to traverse right. I looked right of the corner directly above us and saw another left-facing corner with chalk directly below it. "Well," I said, "if it has chalk then that must be where the route goes." The only problem was that I couldn't see chalk in the corner itself (only below it), and there was a lot of lichen around were I figured the climbing would be. Neither option looked good.

I was a bit nervous because all this year I've been short on endurance, particularly the day after pumping myself on a hard climb. "Bonnie's" had taken the energy out of me completely, or so it seemed. I was still able to climb the 5.7 final pitch and a sustained 5.5 at the end of the day after that, and I felt fine so far on Sunday despite the heat slowly sapping me of my energy. Did I really want to do this harder-than-5.7 corner above me? Did I really want to take a pass on that and risk heading up through the lichen and chalk? I told "Blow" that I was going to head up and check out each corner before committing to one of them. I figured that once I got closer I'd be able to see which one was the right corner to take. So I headed up and took a look.

The first corner looked much harder up close than I expected. I figured that once I got closer I'd see better holds, but there were none to be found so I followed the chalk right to the lichen and took a peak at that corner instead. This, too, had no decent holds, and the lichen was everywhere. There was no clear path up through this corner, at least one that had been climbed in 2009 (or else it would have been a bit cleaner than it was).

I traversed back left to the first corner and rested on better holds. I asked "Blow" to read the description again, and this time we interpreted it differently. Instead of traversing right and heading up 50 feet, we read it as if it was saying traverse right 50 feet and then head up. I couldn't see a corner that far to the right from my vantage point, but "Blow" could see a very shallow corner way off and I decided to head there.

This was a good decision because it turned out to be correct. I later learned that the original corner was actually the second pitch of "Feast of Fools", a 5.10a pitch that "Ratherbe" had actually led a couple of weeks before with another partner. It was her first 'Gunks 5.10 lead, and I felt a little foolish for not remembering her description of the pitch (and where this pitch was located). I also felt a little foolish for not realizing that the reason why there was chalk below the second corner and not up in it was because that chalk was used on the traverse farther out right. It all made sense once I saw how the route went. I shook my head at myself for wasting so much time hanging on in the sapping sun.

Anyway, once I got to the proper corner, I started to play around and realized that the climbing here was harder than I expected. I told "Blow" that I had found the crux, and he confirmed that he had me if I fell (not that he needed to say that, but it's always a nice conversation to have before you crap your pants). After meddling on the rock for a few minutes, all the while that "Blow" remained hanging at the bolted belay directly in the sunshine, I found an easier way around the difficult climbing and reached the next stance. I played around there for a few minutes and once again told "Blow" that I had found the actual crux this time. Again he confirmed his attention to my climbing, and again I found an easier way around the awkward moves. A third stance brought me to the final moves below the ledge. I could clearly see where to go, but it was going to require using a semi-sloper to move up. This was the guaranteed crux, and I made a dynamic move up to the sloper, switched my feet around and shifted my body position so that I could free my other hand to grab the jug that was higher up. It was an exciting move that really got my blood pumping because my hands were sweating enough that I wasn't sure I'd be able to hold on to the sloper for very long. I was exilerated to have done that pitch, and I rushed up to the ledge to build and anchor so that "Blow" could get out of the sun.

He did fine through the entire pitch including the long, semi-unprotected traverse, the three "crux" moves, and searing heat. While the climb seemed fun and challenging enough, we knew that we had little energy to do another climb after this one. Despite what the girls wanted to do, "Blow" and I were ready to jump in the water at Split Rock. We were dehydrated, tired, and the back of his neck was redder than a fire truck. The plan was for him to lead the next pitch, a 5.5, but he was too sapped to do so. I took it on and had another wild experience.

The start of the third pitch is an awkward, yet fun offwidth that is much more comfortable for shorter people than taller people. I had to scrunch myself into the offwidth below a small roof and really commit to leaning way out away from the crack to get up and over the roof. It was only 5.5, but it felt pretty exposed despite being only about 10 feet above the ledge.

Once I pulled past the crack / roof, I stepped up onto a larger ledge and took a look at the right-facing corner above me. It looked pretty straight forward, so I headed up and immediately noticed there was some route-finding that I had to do. Things were a bit awkward for a few minutes while I figured out which of the non-lichen paths I should take, but I eventually found my way up to the blank slabs that lead away from the corner and to the right.

The slabs looked interesting. They weren't as slick as one would expect them to when looking at them from below, but the pins that protected them certainly didn't inspire confidence. I climbed up to the start of the hand traverse that led back left to the top of the corner and the belay ledge. The traverse looked wild with good hands down low and good feet up high. The two didn't match each other well without scrunching uncomfortably, so I tried to go with the good feet and use the crappy hands up higher. That was too pumpy, so I looked at using the lower hands with crappy feet on the slab below. I was surprised at how sticky the seemingly slick rock was, and within a few seconds I had my shoes off and an anchor built.

After "Blow" came up we determined that we were done. "Ratherbe" probably wanted to climb some more, but I was ready to jump in the water. "Blow" agreed, so we rapped off, packed up the gear, and headed up the carriage trail to meet the girls. "Ratherbe" still had her harness and gear on when we met her, but I was relieved to find that she had little to no motivation to climb the rest of the day. Split Rock was our destination, and we all were happy to feel the cold water rinse away the day's sticky heat. We parted ways after that and I felt better about the weekend. "Bonnie's" had still kicked my butt, but I was able to come back and climb a solid 5.7 with committing moves the next day, which was something I was worried about heading into Sunday. The biggest relief, though, wasn't that my endurance might have started to work it's way back, but more that I was able to work my way through a difficult situation without any help. Sure, it came with a lot of second guessing and some embarrassing whining, but I was still able to pull through. Am I ready for first ascents? Not by a long shot, but I'm slightly closer than I used to be, and I know that now, which may mean I'm a lot closer than I think I am.

Click here for all 2009 'Gunks photos (newest are first)