Monday, April 13, 2009

The Moab Diary: Learning to Aid and "Jello"'s Big Day

"Jello"'s comments in italics

My first night in Moab was a peaceful one. I can't say the same for the morning.

Some of us awoke to the growling of off-road vehicles, while others had their sleep broken by the grunting of several people making last minute adjustments to their bicycles prior to the adventure race that began 100 yards down the road. "Ready, set, GO!" blasted through the cool, desert air as the roar of the crowd pumped the racers on. I pulled myself out of the tent soon after "Jello" did. I hadn't seen the ridge line of the nearby canyons when we pulled in late the previous evening, and so I was disappointed by the alternate scene that greeted me for breakfast: Jeeps of all models, colors, and sizes with their long, white trailers spread open across the rocky parking lot were gathered together and showing off their redneck-raised suspensions. "Great," I thought, "breakfast in peace."

I don't know how I did it, but I slept well for the first time in months. I swear that my recent sleep difficulties can be directly attributed to my job. I've never had a problem sleeping well, let along for weeks on end. In fact, a funny thing happened to me last year. I managed to sleep nowhere near my own bed for about 15 consecutive weekends. I woke up the first day the streak broke, looked at the clock, and freaked out. I was late. I usually left my house at 8am to get to work by 9am, and it was already 830am. I was even more upset with myself because I aways make my lunch and get my work clothes ready the night before. I hadn't done either and this was making me realize that I was probably going to be an hour late to work. I was half-dressed, with my pant's legs folded underneath my feet, and tripping out my bedroom's doorway as I hoisted my pants up in between hops before I realized that it was Saturday, and that I work Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm.

Most people would look at this experience and ask what it had to do with sleeping. My answer is that I need rest. My body shuts down when it doesn't get enough rest, and I get sick. I've had mono before, so I know how dangerous a lack of proper rest can be. To add to this, most people sleep much better in their own beds than they do on one-inch air mattresses. If I could go an entire summer of not feeling worn down both at work during the week and sleeping under the stars every weekend then I should be able to rest during the winter when I'm in my own bed each night. It took me four hours of flying and 10 hours of driving to get far enough away from my cubicle to sleep well. The peace in "peace and quiet" is what rules my world. I had more peace than quiet that morning, and I still felt fine.

Awaking before everyone else I got out of the tent and enjoyed the cold morning stillness, more so the stillness. I smiled at the azure sky and crimson cliffs thinking about lines that might go on the abundant cliffs that surrounded me. A few strawberries and a bagel later Greg woke up and was also commenting on lines that look as if they could go. We seem to have similar eyes for lines. We talk about what we're going to do. It sounds as if I'm going to teach Greg the basics of aid climbing.

I've never aided before. Well, I might have French-freed before, but I can't recall the specifics (I'm just sure that I've done it once or twice). And I've had this odd habit of wanting to do a big wall but not wanting to learn to aid, per se. Aiding to me always seemed easier, as if it is a method of bringing a 5.12 down to my level. I didn't look down on it so much as it didn't seem fun. But with my ankle still smarting from slipping on the ice a couple of months before, and with the up-coming summer season looming, I didn't want to risk doing more damage or slowing down the healing. I also didn't want to get hurt my first day in Moab only to be a belay slave the rest of the time - that wouldn't be fun for anyone.

Aid climbing is a fairly simple game. Shamelessly hang on gear while engineering your way up cliffs that are too difficult for you to climb with your hands and feet. "Texas Flake" was going to stay with his young cohorts until their parents rescued them from the cruel desert, so after we stuffed ourselves with more food, Greg and I packed almost a hundred pounds of gear to learn some aid climbing skills on single pitch cliffs. Probably a little much on the gear but better safe than sorry - until you're carrying it on your back and then you feel it is the other way around. We had no clue where we were on Wall Street, so we stopped several times so I could wander along the cliffs and salivate at cracks that I know little about. This is both a challenge for me to find stuff he can aid and I want to climb. I want to climb everything, but that doesn't mean he should aid it.

Eventually we found ourselves at the second School Room area where I identify "Grama and The Green Suede Shoes" (<-- Click for guidebook info), a nice 5.7 to warm up on. After squirming my way up without carrying adequately large gear, I made it to the end of the difficulties. I looked around and, after a while of searching, I realized the only thing to anchor on was a boulder sitting on a ledge. I pushed on it and, being reasonably satisfied, I fixed the line and rapped it to teach Greg how to jug a fixed line on my single tied off boulder. Not ideal but who's counting?

How hard can this be? Seriously, it's jugging. You stick your foot in the aider and pull the rope attached to the Grigri. The first couple of pulls didn't go as planned, but "Jello" assured me that this is simply the part where I pull the stretch out of the rope. I pulled a few more times and that kind of got me off the ground. I looked down and see my 5'8" frame dangling a foot above the dirt and I'm already worried about weighting the rope. "Jello" groaned. My complaining had already begun. But I continued anyway. I think the hardest part was the fact that I felt I could climb the start blindfolded and with a broken leg, let alone with aiders. And it apparently didn't help that the chimney I was in was more angled like a slab than it was overhung. This didn't go very well, and I wasn't encouraged.

Greg's first jugging experience gets to be on what to me seemed the most awkward experience ever. I've never jugged an offwidth/chimney and after watching him I don't want to. He got stuck in the chimney more than he whimpered, which was quite an accomplishment. I think the hardest part for him was finding his feet below him. At first, he wouldn't let go of the rock and trust the rope. This apparently made it difficult for him to slide his feet into the aiders as he moved upward. Once he started to trust the rope, however, he made it. But then he had to come down.

I don't know how many times I hear people say that coming down is the fun part when they first try rock climbing. Wait until you're down-climbing dirty slabs with all kinds of gear waiting to trip you. Not as fun as going up. Greg and I have had some scary descents before. This was nothing, but he wasn't so confident in his abilities. After a little mental help, he made it down OK and I decided we should try something a little more vertical.

We walked a few yards to our right to the left facing corner called "Top 40", which I decided to lead. It was my first onsite lead in about six months, no reason to worry. Starting up the initial thin moves I noted two things: gear was not easy to come by, and this felt strenuous for 5.8. Persevering through the first few feet, I equalized two micronuts and hoped I would be able to make it to where the crack would gobble better gear. A few layback moves later and I was cruising to the anchors, easy as pie. I came to the anchor and short fixed the rope as I was intending to rope solo on my Grigri to the next anchor so Greg could practice aiding the next crack over. When I told him the line was fixed I decided to watch and make sure he got everything setup. A few minutes later and he was still having trouble figuring out how to set up the Grigri with the ascender. He was able to do it before because he hadn't tied a knot into his harness. Somehow, this was visually easier for him. This time, however, I wanted him to have a knot already tied because I wanted him to learn as if we were en route, three pitches up on a grade IV. I was glad we weren't doing this at the bottom of some classic big wall in Zion. Someone would want to kill us because we'd be so slow. I got a little frustrated - I was trying to explain how to do something that seemed as easy to me as threading my belay device, but he wasn't getting it. I decided to come down to show him. I'd just have to lead the next climb.

I have this little trick I do to people when I'm teaching them to climb. I teach them the knot, and I make them tie it. I then untie it and tell them to spin around. They often look at me as I'm crazy. "Why do you want me to turn around?" they ask. "Because I want you to forget," I say to them. My point is this, it's easy to do something when you're learning it and it's being done right in front of you. But it's better to learn something when your perspective has changed. Getting people to spin around is a simple way to get their mind off the knot for just a few seconds, maybe long enough to get them to forget it (because one must concentrate a little bit to spin around without falling down).

Instead of spinning around, I closed my eyes and asked "Jello" to hand me the rope, biners, and ascender all clipped to each other, as if they were unorganized and I was retrieving them from my harness after being stored earlier in the climb - I wanted to retrieve the gear wrong, so that I had to fix it first. I wanted to solve the puzzle of sorting the gear before learning the set-up properly. Again, all this did was change my perspective and kept me from memorizing the moment when I should have been learning the system. I did this a couple of times and finally had it nailed. I noticed right away that jugging this route was easier than the previous route. It was more vertical, and that allowed me to rest back on the rope easily. I also trusted the gear more this time and found moving to be more efficient. Jugging wasn't that difficult to learn after all.

As I watched Greg ascend the line, "Texas Flake" and his remaining cohorts were dropped off by a random pickup truck they had managed to flag down. They came up asking if they could borrow a rope, some draws, and a harness (they had only packed one harness). I let them borrow my harness, my rope and some of Greg’s draws. They couldn't possibly screw it up too bad. They had used ropes before, but I remained annoyed. Greg came down and we started sorting gear so I could clean aid "Skeletonic", a nice 5.11d corner. By the time we had gear sorted I had my harness back and was explaining to Greg the nuances of clean aid. I freed the first move, an odd mantle stem contortion, and placed my first piece. Explaining the various reasoning behind what I was doing I tried to make it seem safe and interesting as I took the better part of an hour making it to the last bolt, at which point I noticed two things: the crack was now a seam - it had been so ever since I started top-stepping on bolts, and that I noticed the last bolt was about fifteen feet below the anchor. After fiddling with micronuts for about fifteen minutes, I finally slotted the second smallest one, about the size of a fingernail. Slowly easing my weight onto it, I tried not to breath heavily as I stepped higher. The only spot I could find to place another piece of gear was a small pod for the smallest micronut. I managed to wedge this thing into the sliver of a pod slightly bigger than a pinhead. Now, I haven't done a ton of aid climbing, but I've been scared on crappy rock, clipping 1/4 inch star drives that are half pulled out of the crappy rock. This was psychologically different in it's novelty. I didn't want to bounce test the pieces for fear of snapping a tiny wire that was smaller than my piss stream. I stood up as high as I could and still couldn't reach the ledge that would allow me to gain me the anchors. What the hell could I do? There was nothing else. The only thing I could do was possibly lasso the ledge, assuming it had a lip that a sling would catch on. Instead, I half freed a move while standing in my grab loop, held back the crap that was forming in my bowels, and reached for the ledge. I was relieved to find big lip at the back of the ledge, which I probably could have lassoed easily. I guess I'm more brawn than brains. I sighed in relief as I lowered down, no maiming today.

It was now my turn. "Jello" initially thought I was going to lead this sucker, but I knew all along I was going to TR it. We had two ropes, so it didn't make any sense to play with fire. I quite liked my healthy body, even with a bum ankle. I wasn't going to ruin this trip doing something stupid on the first day.

But, to be fair, the first move, which was a free move, did hurt my ankle a bit. I was concerned about that, but once I got going I didn't feel it as much. That might have been because I was taking forever and make all sorts of mistakes: not top-stepping, looking at the piece that I was bounce-testing instead of keeping my head down, bounce-testing the micronuts, wanting to come down, clipping my "lead" rope into my highest piece, crying on the bolt-ladder portion of the route, wanting to come down, taking too long, not extending my easy-daisy before standing up, not pulling my easy-daisy tight before sitting down, wanting to come down, etc.. This was hard for me, but I pressed on.

It wasn't until after I placed the final micronut that I figured I'd had enough. the first micronut was scary enough, but when the second one popped as I stood up in my aider, I was too tired to free climb the rest of the route purely for satisfaction. The goal was to learn to aid on lead, and I felt as if I had somewhat accomplished that. Besides, "Jello" was shivering in the shade below and he needed a chance to climb.

I belayed Greg for an indeterminably long time. He apologized, but I explained that aid climbing was almost always a slow venture. I finally lowered him after his last piece popped on him, causing him to shout obscenities during his six-inch, top-rope fall. He came down and it was time for me to climb.

The group next to us was toproping two climbs off one rope and two Grigris, and when they tired we decided to trade ropes. I knew the climb, Static Cling, was a 5.11, so I didn't feel super confident that I would be able to climb it cleanly, but as I reached the anchors I noted two things: it was a very fun climb, and that it would probably be a good first 5.11 trad lead. My goal for the season was only to bump my trad leading skills into the ten range, so I let the climb slip from my mind and went to toprope Skeletonic, which was solid 5.11 with some hard moves near the top. A few moments after I lowered from Skeletonic "Texas Flake" came over.

- "Texas Flake": You should lead that climb right there and set up a rope for us.
- Maybe, I'll think about it.

Thus the seed was planted like it had been only a few times before. I remember that first time someone challenged me to push myself. It was my first season climbing at Rumney, barely my second season leading. I had met up with some grubby folks at the campground who were meeting their dirtbag friend. As the night wore on I got psyched to climb the next day. Despite the rain, the dirtbag convinced me to hop on a 5.10 which at the time was tantamount to telling me to hop over the Empire State Building. I fell once. That confidence boost really helped me with my confidence and from then on I climbed more things that seemed like they might be at the edge of my ability. Here I was again. Confronted with something that was on the edge of my ability. I've climbed 5.11's the gym. I'd climbed a few obscure bolted elevens outside...enough to count on one hand. There I was, however, racking up at the base of the roof-capped, fingertip dihedral, 5.11 trad climb.

Our small contingent came together to watch. I had Greg put me on belay. I trust Greg, more so than I trust other climbers, and I was going to need to forget about the belay in order to get through this. I moved up the first few broken bits to a good stem and placed my first piece. Another move later and I came to a painful hand jam. Even though I was barely above the previous piece I knew the section ahead was a little thin. My nerves on the back of my hand screamed against the handjam, so I quickly moved through to a layback and then to a good stance. I shook my hand, placed a few more pieces, and moved up closer to the crux roof. It's odd to call a rest strenuous, but that's just what it is below the roof. I realized at this point I'm doing extremely well. Better than I thought. I placed a good piece at the roof and forgot to sling it long for rope drag. My feet became less desirable when I moved out of the roof leftwards and into an OK fingerlock and a decent shelf for my hands. The shelf formed a corner in the back, and I pulled myself up and squished my face into the corner. I felt off-balance and I couldn't bring my feet up underneath me. I was stuck in a sort of limbo, barely balancing over my hands while my feet dangled uselessly. A few minutes of teetering on my hands passed by and I was finally able to bring a foot up. I pushed my body into the face to my right and wiggled my way up. Not the prettiest movement, but I breathed a sigh of relief while the crowd cheered me onward. A few more feet and I'd be at the anchors.

We were scared. Everyone saw that some of his gear had either fallen out completely or was marginal at best. There were several moments when he appeared to just give up, and I braced myself, ready to catch the fall. But those moments when his body went limp were nothing more than regrouping tactics. He was resting whichever body parts he could. We shouted encouragement, but it was staggered in between our quietness and nervousness.

I placed a few more pieces, which was important because, unbeknownst to me, one of my pieces below had popped out already and another was a crappy placement I wouldn't discover until I was lowered. Had I fallen and the crappy piece blown, which it certainly would have, either I would have been hurting from the ground fall or Greg would have been dead from running backward and out into traffic while he took up slack. I reached the final jug and mantled up to the chains. My first confirmed 5.11. Totally on gear.

The cotton mouth faded as I lowered to the ground all smiles. I can't believe I crushed my season goal in the very beginning of the season. Granted I had climbed it clean on toprope and, yes, the climbing suited my style and appendage size but it was such a step up for me that it gave me the confidence to push my climbing to another level beyond what I had hoped for. When I finally lowered "Texas Flake" exclaimed that it was the raddest thing he'd ever seen me do. Well, that's because it was the raddest thing I've ever done. The giddiness didn't fade, either. I suddenly felt as if I could climb anything. But I was tired, so we ended on that high note. I relaxed back at the campsite and thumbed through the guidebook. The list of climbs I feel ready for is now considerably altered.

Click here for all Moab 2009 photos


GB said...

I forgot to mention how I met Sungam - he was walking around in his boxers and was soaking wet from trying to swim down the Colorado River. He thought it would be easier to swim than walk!

Haggizdonny said...

Hey- people we having to jog to keep up with me. That current was rapid, if I had been able to breath I would have made great time to the campsite.

GB said...

Oh, you didn't say that. If I had known it was working then I would have encouraged you to do it more!

amerozz said...

You guys have a fully entertaining journal going on here! It's a pleasure to read and I look forward to installment five! Haggiz really gets around!

GB said...

Thanks, man. It'll be a few days before it is posted, but the next segment (three parts in all) will be fun to read by the end.