Saturday, May 30, 2009

One goal shy of a hat trick

I have no clue what's going on. Seriously, there's been a complete reversal of everything I've been as a climber the past several years. The world has been turned nearly upside down, and this is a good thing.

Yeah, yeah. You've all heard about my ankle sprain, and you've all heard about how it's held me back in the gym. I'm flailing on 10a's in there and falling on 5.8s by the end of the night. Last week, I even ran away from a 5.7 for my last climb. "It's too long," I told my partner. "I want something easy." What the hell is that?

But there I was two weekends ago jumping on a sopping wet 5.9 (in someone else's shoes that are three sizes too big for me, no less) when I hadn't even warmed up yet. OK, so it was on top rope, but what does that matter? Anything above 5.9 in the 'Gunks is supposed to be too hard for me. And then I decided it was OK to lead my first 5.8 of the season, which is right at my onsight level there, too. I hadn't led at my level on gear in over six months. Is it possible that my training in the gym in past years had actually set me back as opposed to moving me forward? I'm just not sure how that's possible. Aren't gyms supposed to be these training grounds where one learns acrobatic moves and how to control one's lead head? All these years of trying to get stronger, and all those years of being afraid of falling inside, all of those days breathing in the chalky hair as it smokes away from slapped hands and rises up from the blue foam when skin-tight shoes and red-stained feet pounce at the start and in between the many artificial climbs where the tops lean out above the starts, the hanging draws rock when the ropes get pulled through, and the steel anchors do their sturdy jobs without a hint of complaining while the thousands of pounds yank them downward - after all of that, I'm now stronger outside than inside and, despite the fact that I'm nearly floored by this, I couldn't care less.

I think there are two things going on here. One is that I'm feeling so much less stress in life than I have in years. I'm making a change soon - a big one - and knowing this has relieved me from the worries of normal life. I no longer need to buy a house, sit in my cubicle with boredom, and I have no need for the material items I used to crave. In fact, I'll be selling nearly all my crap in a few month's time and living with only a minimal amount of belongings; there will be enough to get by, enough to hold on to childhood memories, and enough value to store away. Otherwise, there will be nothing. Simply put, I just don't care as I used to, so the nine-to-five no longer inspires and traps me anymore.

The second thing that happened was my foray into aid climbing. Yeah, I know, I lead a freaking bolt ladder and that's it (call me weak - I don't care. It is what it is and I am who I am. Go screw). But it was still an awakening experience. As noted in the Moab Diary series, these were quarter-inch bolts with wing nuts screwed into them. The rusted pitons were the less scary pieces, despite the fact that the mud was so soft chunks as large as my head crumbled down when I tried to partially free climb a move. Whether that is scary to you or not is irrelevant; it was to me and I, for the first time out in 2009, got a good lesson in trusting my gear. I had never done that before, at least not that early in the season. I was very afraid at times, but I also grew as a result. And I cared less. And I grew. It's a dangerous combination.

Sixish (5.5) - Trad - Three pitches - Gear anchors (<-- Click here for guidebook info)

"Ratherbe" and I have been partners for the past couple of years. We've had other partners, but we've been pretty consistently climbing with each other since we climbed together before heading to Yosemite last year. Two of those other partners, "Caboose" and "Blow", joined up with us to tackle the 'Gunks over Memorial Day weekend. We all had plans on what we were going to do, and "Ratherbe" and "Caboose" were going to team up while "Blow" and I had our own projects. But I wanted to warm up first to see how I was feeling that Saturday morning.

We all awoke somewhat early, and were the first on our warmups. "Sixish" was open so I jumped on it and cruised the first pitch with ease. Then "Blow" ran up the second pitch and I was ready for the third, which turned out to be a fun pitch to the top. I don't have much to say about this route except that it is one damn fun route from bottom to top. I recommend it both as a good route for beginners and as a warm up for more experienced leaders. I'm sure others do, too, as the line that goes up it is constant in the heaviest traffic months.

Son of Easy Overhang (5.8) - Trad - Two pitches - Mixed anchors (<-- Click here for guidebook info)

I felt strong, and this meant that my first goal of the season was going to get knocked off. "Son of Easy O" had kicked my butt last year. The first pitch was brutally pumpy, and I wasn't expecting that then. The second pitch was supposed to be even more pumpy than the first, so when my fatigue made my muscles stale, I hung at the pin below the start of the overhang and believed I didn't have it in me to continue without resting first. But then I did it, and was really angry with myself for not pushing ahead. The second pitch, despite being over hung, is nothing compared to the first. In fact, I'm not even sure it's harder than the "Strictly From Nowhere" roof, and that is 5.7. I knew I could not only do this climb clean, but that I could do it in one pitch as well. And after jumping on "Annie Oh" (5.8) recently, I knew that I was ready to climb at this level. It was time, so we went to the base and waited for a couple of folks to finish top-roping the climb.

I bought new shoes recently, and they're still tight on my feet. But they edge well and I'm getting more comfortable with letting them stick on whatever I touch even though the thick soles make it difficult for me to feel the rock. Still, knowing that the first pitch is so thin, and knowing that I'd be putting a lot of pressure on my feet for the first 90 feet or so, I wondered how that would affect me as I moved through the overhang on the second pitch. My strategy was to see how I felt as I approached the second pitch. If my feet hurt, then I'd find a good ledge, take off my shoes for a couple of minutes, rest, and then finish up. If all felt fine, then I'd just go straight up.

The first 40 feet are just plain thin on the first pitch. The gear is good, but specific. You have only those placements to make, and you need to make them good. I was about six pieces in until I finally felt comfortable with a nut in one of the upper cracks. Everything below seemed pretty bomber, but I didn't want to fall because I wasn't completely sure. And the moves are fairly specific, too: the left foot goes here, and the right hand goes here, pull up, lean over, the left hand goes here, the right foot goes there, and so on. It is really fun climbing, but not for anyone uncomfortable with thin feet, off-angle hands, and slightly dynamic moves (at least for me anyway). It's the second half of the first pitch that really gets you. The gear is a little easier to place up there, but also a bit more run out, too. The climbing is also less technical and more burly. You're pulling on larger holds, but they aren't the kind of jugs you'd find on a ladder. The moves are a bit more committing and at this point all I wanted to do was get to the base of the overhangs. I was tired again, but not as much as I was last year. Still, the combination of my arms pumping for oxygen and my feet dying a slow death under the tight leather and rubber pulled tightly across the bridge of my foot by three velcro straps didn't convince me to keep going. I asked "Blow" to tie me off and I rested on a decent ledge with my bare feet awakening like a flower in April. This also gave me a chance to find the best gear for a bomber placement about 15 feet below the start of the second pitch.

It didn't take long for me to get ready again, so I strapped on my shoes and headed up. But boy, I was stupid in how I approached this section. I had three draws left and about 80 feet of climbing to do. I also had several cams left, all with their own biners. There were at least two pitons at key spots that I wanted to clip, and so I saved two of my draws for those. I then figured I should save the last one for the upper section, just in case I needed it for a nut placement or something. One piton and two cams later, as I pulled through the final overhang, I felt the drag of the 100 heaviest offensive lineman in the history of football pulling me downward. I should have extended those draws. I was really stupid to not have done that.

"Blow" arrived a few minutes after I put him on belay, and we both nervously rapped off the anchor that consisted of two rusted pitons, an incredibly weathered tricam, and a clearly blown out and ready-to-die cam all tied together by a tat that had too many pieces looking old, ripped, and torn enough to make a rusty nail look fun to step on. I seriously considered climbing the final 15 feet to the top and rapping off another station, but I wasn't sure what the anchor situation was like up above to bring "Blow" to the top. I figured that since I had seen a man larger than me fall repeatedly at the start on top-rope and another man rap from the anchors before I started that the anchor must be good. Still, my theory on suspect gear is that just because someone else used it safely that doesn't mean anyone after that person will also be able to use it safely. Gear gets weaker each time it is used. Someday it will break.

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

There was a 70% chance of rain in the afternoon on Saturday, and we heard the distant rumbles move in with the suddenly cold wind. It certainly felt like rain, and we felt a few drops here and there, so it was time to quit. The girls would probably be around soon enough, so "Blow" and I decided to seek cover near the Uberfall area. It wasn't quite raining yet and "Blow" wanted to get another route in before the end of the day. We scanned several routes, but because the Uberfall is the 'Gunks version of a gym, we were left with few options. "Squiggles" (5.5) was the only route available and once we learned that it didn't climb up through a dead tree about 20 feet up, and that it traversed right under a roof before heading up the right-side face instead, it seemed a better option than when we first considered and dismissed it as an option. Well, that and, as I noted above, it was open.

"Blow" racked up and worked his way through the traverse to the upper face. He struggled a bit with the lack of feet and not knowing where to climb to (the anchor situation isn't that great), but he eventually made it up with ease once he committed to a line. I followed him up and, as I've been doing all season long on easier climbs, I kept my approach shoes on. I'm not sure if I'll learn, but yeah, I'll definitely get called on this one of these days. Some routes just don't have great feet, and this was one of them. I struggled more on the upper section of "Squiggles" than I did on "Son of Easy O."

Alas, "Ratherbe" and "Caboose" had made their way to the Uberfall area and as we topped out they were finishing up "Ken's Crack" to our right. I went to take a few pictures, but just as I leaned over the edge with my arms outstretched and my camera aimed downward onto what I couldn't tell, the rain started to hit with heavy but infrequent drops. "Blow" and I scurried down the walkoff and waited under a roof for the girls to finish up. When the girls had finished, they had met up with "Sensei" and "Burrito" and we all decided to grab dinner somewhere. I'll have a review of the restaurant we ate at soon, the Golden Fox in Gardiner, but let me say that all six of us were absolutely thrilled with every bit of the service, food, and drinks. This restaurant is a bit out of the way from the normal path to New Paltz, and "Ratherbe" and I had started to drive this way to avoid the normal backup of traffic that heads into New Paltz from the cliffs. I wanted to try something different than what was in town, and this is where we landed. Just trust me on this one: go to the Golden Fox and eat. The burgers are fantastic and reasonably priced. The dinners are more expensive, but not absurdly so, and they have vegetarian options as well. But I have to recommend the garlic and horseradish burger. Holy cow that was good.

After dinner "Sensei" took a fastly crashing "Burrito" back to sleep and the rest of us went into town to Rock and Snow to watch "El Capitan," which is apparently the first climbing movie ever made. It was fun, and I even have a video the next day that was inspired by the pendulum scenes in the movie. I've linked that below.

Three Pines (5.3) - Trad - Two / Three pitches - Gear / Bolted anchors (<-- Click here for guidebook info)

Having brushed aside a demon from the previous year, I was ready to tackle my next test: "Ant's Line" (5.9). This was going to be my first jump into the 5.9s on trad lead in the 'Gunks in over seven months, and the earliest I had ever done so in the season. I wasn't expecting to jump on a 5.9 until mid-summer when I was feeling stronger and more secure, but something was telling to just do it, and so I had committed myself to doing just that.

But first we had to do a warmup, and "Three Pines" had been on "Blow"'s tick list for a long time. We were the first one's there and the plan was for him to do the first and third pitch, with me taking the second. But he realized once he got to the top of the first pitch that it didn't make sense to stop there. So he continued past he first ledge, where one must sling a large tree for an anchor, up to the GT ledge where there are bolts. I came up after he put me on belay and then we walked along the ledge to the start of the third pitch. Because of how the rope was stacked, I let him take this pitch, too, and it was a good one for him to take. There is a rather exposed move about 25 feet up, and I think that was good for him to experience.

I also wanted to check out "The Dangler", a 5.10 that I thought might be a good first 'Gunks 10 to get on. I had been given the beta (moves and gear) and always thought that if I could just hold on for 20 feet that I'd be able to get up it. The fall onto the slabs below also appeared good in my mind: soft, clean, and easy to ascend back to the start of the pitch. But I was struck by two things when I finally saw the pitch up close. The first is that while the fall is potentially soft and probably easy to get back up to the start, it wasn't as clean as I imagined it. There are a lot of bushes and grassy ledges right below the mid-section of the dangled part of the pitch. I had imagined a clean rock face below the roof, but it was much dirtier than that, and I was worried about falling onto a sharper-than-it-appears bush.

The second concern was more about climbing ability than anything else. One of the main ledges, probably in the second quarter of the roof if one divides it into four sections, looks as if it is much more sloping than it is a jug. I was under the impression that the entire line across was one big jug, and that it earned the 5.10 rating because it is pumpy and requires a series of campus and / or heel hooks to get across, and also requires that the climber cut his feet and switch direction at the point where the route stops going out and starts going up. I wasn't aware that maybe the holds themselves on the dangling section could possibly be not that straight forward, too. I don't know, maybe I'm just viewing it incorrectly. This is something that I'll have to think about as the summer progresses.

Anyway, "Blow" finally gave me the rope signal that it was time for me to ascend. I did so and was, at first, pleasantly surprised to see that he had chosen a more difficult variation at the top, particularly when he didn't know what the grade of that variation was. "Blow" is a good climber, but he's still getting his trad confidence up and so he's keeping things easy until he's comfortable to progress. This is a good approach to take, but sometimes one simply has to let inspiration take over and take the risk. Often times, the heart is capable of judging that risk better than we might give it credit for. In this case, the variation was 5.6, and that was harder than what he wanted to lead this weekend. But, he did it with ease and was rather happy with himself after getting to the top. On the other hand, however, he sandbagged me once again with my approach shoes on. I got up the slick, white rock without much of a problem, but I think I need to start working on my abs just as much as my feet. This variation did not feel 5.6 to me and I was breathing heavily when I finally topped out.

Ant's Line (5.9) - Trad - One pitch - Bolted anchor (<-- Click here for guidebook info)

And then it was time. I couldn't say if I was nervous or not. I was nervous, but at the same time I knew I would send. But then again, I was OK with falling. In fact, I wasn't going to hang at all. I knew this, but I was still nervous.

The route was empty when we arrived, but I wanted a little more time to rest and eat a quick snack before heading up. The rock was just as intimidating as the first time I saw it, which was different than how I'd imagine it would be upon seeing it that day. Because I had top-roped it a couple of weeks earlier, I imagined not being intimidated at all. But it didn't look as easy as I'd had in my mind the past 15 days. Sure, there were jugs, but they weren't the same as the jugs on "Son of Easy O." "Would I do it?" I wondered. "Could I do it?" I had flailed so much on top rope. Despite the fact that it was sopping wet that day, I was still not convinced that my confident gut wasn't missing something. "A 5.9 this early in the season? Really?"

"Sensei" and "Burrito" just happened upon us just as I was about to rope up. They sat down for the show and I started up the climb. Firstly, this route would be significantly easier if the damn first crux wasn't so hard and awkward. A person my size has to crawl up to the roof and reach out left and above where the roof ends to pull a layback off weird feet with no place to go. Up is where I wanted to go, but the roof was in the way. I almost fell at the start, and that would have been frustrating to say the least, but I pumped my way through it and felt the blood doing the same through my arteries. "Shit," I thought, "I'm only four moves in and I'm already tired."

I scanned the next few moves and plugged enough gear in to make me feel comfortable. The moves were straight-forward and a bit committing for me, but there was no problem getting to the rest below the crux. It was here that I was worried because the crux involves getting one's feet high in order to use the undercling in the small roof. Unfortunately, the feet aren't great. They're there, but they aren't great. Another issue was that the rest spot is really only good for resting the left foot. The right foot is on a nice ledge while the left is on a pebble, but all of my weight was on the right foot as a result of the angle of the hand holds. By the time I went to make my first attempt my right calf was screaming.

As is my M.O., I worked my way up, felt around, and came back down. I didn't like the feet. I didn't remember them the way they actually were. I thought the crux was the last move getting to the undercling, but in fact the crux was the before that; it was the set-up to the move that gets to the undercling. This wasn't what I had imagined, or maybe I had done it differently last time, but it was now playing in my head. I moved up two or three more times only to back down each time due to mistrust in the feet.

I was tired, too. My arms needed a better rest and my right foot could only be rested for about 10 seconds at a time before my arms needed to rest again. It was a sour coincidence that the good foothold above was for my left foot. I assumed I was going to have to go off that one alone to pull past the roof.

My next attempt was merely to get a cam into the roof. On each attempt before I was either unable to get to the roof or I incorrectly believed I could place the gear from a better stance than I had (i.e. - the crux ended up being lower than I thought it was, and once I hit the crux, I needed to go right past the roof in order to complete it). But this time I knew what I was going to do, so I pulled the cam I needed off my harness, clipped it to my shoulder-gear sling so that it was ready to go, moved up through the crux, plugged the cam, and clipped it. I thought about continuing from there, but I was pumped and decided to head down to the rest instead. This is what "Ratherbe" had done, and this what I had seen another climber do and was recommended by yet another friend. I rested once more and had it figured out. I was going to put my foot "there." I pointed to the hold and told myself, "this is what has to be done. It has to be done. That's what has to be done. I have to put my foot there in order to do this. It must be done like that." And then I moved up, put my foot on the spot, stood up, grabbed the undercling, moved to the left toward the finger pocket and my foot slipped. I could have regained my composure and kept going, but I decided to catch myself and down-climb once again. My right calf was burning and my arms were stale. I had little or next to nothing left in the tank. I wanted to hang and rest. I thought about it several times as I chalked up each hand one after the other and over again until my hands were as white as the chalk itself and were caked as solid as dried paint. I wiped my sweaty brow and instantly my hand was wet again. So I chalked again. And I wiped my brow again, and my hand was wet again. I wanted to hang. I needed to hang to rest my arms. My left bicep would tire while my right one had rested, and then my right one would tire while my left one rested. And my right calf burned while each arm rested, and both my arms ached while my right calf rested. I was all in a flux of nothingness; there was no rest unless I weighted the rope.

I wanted to rest so badly that I nearly let go without asking "Blow" to take in the slack. But then I remembered a story I had read: The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber. My dream is to be a literary fiction writer, and while my intellectual influence is Dostoyevsky and, partially, Camus, my stylistic influence is hugely Hemmingway. I had tired from reading The Brothers Karamazov last year and wanted something easier to read. I flew through A Farewell to Arms this winter and started reading the Finca Vigia complete collection of Hemmingway's short stories. Francis Macomber was the first story in the book and it struck me more in the heart than any other short story I've ever read. In fact, it has been less than a week since I read it for the only time and I can firmly state that it has and will continue to influence me as much as the three most crucial books in my life: T.H. White's The Once and Future King, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, and Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments. These three books were so fundamental in forming my deeply personal philosophies that I largely credit them for helping me to believe in what I believe, but there was always something missing in my life. There was the question of commitment, and I don't mean the personal relationship kind. I'm speaking of the wordly risk kind, of doing what I want to do, of being happy, of not being afraid to break social, cultural, and professional norms. I have been confident in who I am for several years now, but I've never been confident in where I was going. And then I read Francis Macomber and so much came together. There is no running away. It's perfectly OK to not do things. It's perfectly OK to be afraid and not act. It's perfectly OK to be indecisive, but it is not OK to be all of these things after choosing to do so. I was going to choose to do something, then I was going to do it. I wasn't going to choose to do something and then back out. The exception of course was if circumstances changed such that I could decide not to tackle the new feat, but this was not the case here. Nothing had changed. I knew what I had to do. I had to put my foot "there" and I had to go up. If I fell, then that was OK, but I had to fall as opposed to letting go. I had to do this. I decided that I was going to do it, and that meant I had to do it. There was no running away. There was no putting people in a position they weren't prepared to clean up if I messed up. This was my decision, and up I went.

I can't really recall what happened next, except that once I cleared the roof I buried my shoulder so deep in a hole and grabbed the deepest jug I could find to hold myself into the awkward position I was now in. I placed a nut and ran the final 20 feet out to the chains. There was no need to plug gear at that point. The jugs were only good enough for cruising to the chains. Any fall from there would have been an embarassment anyway. I clipped the chains and happily listened to all my partners congratulate me from below.

"Blow" then topropped the route and left the draws for folks to toprope "Ent's Line" (5.10d) if they wanted. I tried to toprope it myself but was unable to get up the upper half of the route due to my fatigue. Instead, "Blow" and I watched "Ratherbe" and "Caboose" work on the first pitch of "Bonnie's Roof" (5.9), some of which was rather amusing. At one point, "Caboose" had fallen of the crux and couldn't swing back onto the route. It was rather fun to watch all of her extremities swing wildly in the air as she tried to get back on the rock. I have a video, but I'll have to post it later once I find out how to rotate the picture (I don't have video editing software).

When "Ratherbe" and "Caboose" came down off the first pitch of "Bonnie"'s, my rope and draws were still at the top of "Ent's Line." "Ratherbe" still had some juice left and she was able to work her way up to the top to retrieve the gear. The end of the day had come, and once again we heard the rumble of thunder off in the distance.

Gelsa (5.5) - Trad - Three pitches - Gear anchors. (<-- Click here for guidebook info)

I was one goal short of a hat trick. The third goal was "Birdland" (5.8) in the Near Trapps, but that was not really a goal for the weekend. It was more of a route that I'd do if I didn't have anything else to do. But that would have to come after "Gelsa", another one of "Blow"'s projects. He hadn't led the third pitch yet and wanted to get that out of the way first. So off we went.

I knew right away that "Birdland" wasn't in it for me. I didn't necessarily struggle through the first pitch, but I felt it in my muscles that I was stale and in need of rest. The second pitch, which I led, secured that notion. I just didn't feel strong. "Blow" led the third pitch fine. He was a little nervous about a couple of his placements, but I told him that I wasn't sure I'd do anything different. He didn't sew it up as a paranoid leader might, but his pieces weren't ungodly run out from each other, either. With me being tired, I decided to walk off instead of rapping. We gathered our stuff and met "Ratherbe" and "Caboose", of which "Ratherbe" was already leading. I suggested to "Blow" that I was done. He said it was OK if we did something easy, but I was done. I had made the opposite decision of what I made the day before on "Ant's Line" - I had made the decision to not climb anymore. But even still, Francis Macomber reared his head once again in the form of an actual decision. I was OK with being spent. It is where I was, and I allowed "Birdland" to be conquered on a later date.

Click here for all 2009 'Gunks photos.

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