But I have been suffering from an ankle sprain the past few months and this weekend was the first time since 2008 that I've plugged gear. Add on a complete lack of strength and endurance due to inactivity, and I should have been a complete head case my first time out. But I was feeling competent, and so I took a couple of risks that I normally would not take.
My partners had all gone away. "Jello" was living it up in his new-found freedom in the desert cracks out west, "Ratherbe" was on vacation in Red Rocks, and "KITT" had returned to Germany for professional reasons that still mystify those who like to climb on a regular basis. I knew that I needed to get out this weekend just to fiddle with gear, to get my head back into shape, and to, well, have fun on rock for once. I put out a feeler on rockclimbing.com for partners, and "LiClimbs" responded. I vaguely knew who she was, so I did some homework and determined she would make a good partner for the weekend. We exchanged info and I left work early on Friday to pick her up. We were each 'Gunks bound for the first time in 2009.
I was surprised by how chilly it was first thing in the morning. I had gone to bed without zipping my bag up because the air was too sticky, but by the time my eyes peeled open for the day all was dark where the neck and the hood of my bag met. It took us a few minutes to get up, but once we did, and once we were hiking along the carriage trail, the weight of the heat of the day was was fully upon us. The bugs were also out in full force, and we had each forgotten to buy bug spray at the grocery store the evening before.
Thin Slabs (5.7 start variation) - Three pitches - Trad - Gear Anchors (<-- click for guidebook info)
I looked up at the 5.6 version and saw a blank slab for 25 feet, and then there was a bolt. Did I really want to do this for my first lead? It was doubtful, so I scoped the 5.7 start in the vertical crack to the right. It was harder, but at least it was protectable. I really didn't want to start with a climb that hard. In fact, I wasn't sure I wanted to climb 5.7 all weekend. I just wanted to get warm and remember what it was like to set a cam, nut, and manage the rope. But the 5.7 seemed to offer better protection. I chose it, climbed and plugged gear for about 20 feet, and then gingerly stepped left to the bolt. This was easy, and so was the rest of the pitch, even though it was a bit run out after the bolt. I chose to climb the face directly under the tree instead of the left-facing corner to the right. I cruised, and it felt good to get on real rock for the first time in months.
"LiClimbs" followed and, after some struggles between my last piece in the lower crack and the bolt above it, she joined me on the ledge. She'd take the next pitch, and then I the third. But it turned out that wasn't necessary. It was easy to mistake the end of the second pitch and start of the third, and she combined the two without really knowing that she was going to. I came up and we rapped off.
But we were hot. The temps were in the mid-90s and we had left our water at the base. Our throats were scorched dry, and our shirts and pants were glued to our skin as wet as a bathing suit would be upon exiting the sea. We weren't going to climb much in this heat, so we rested at the base in the shade.
Snow Patch (5.5) - Three pitches - Trad - Gear anchor(<-- Click for guidebook info)
Snow Patch was in the shade and close to our gear, so we walked left about 15 feet and climbed the right-facing corner to the top. "LiClimbs" took the lead, and it was recommended that she go straight up through the corner rather than traverse right about mid-way up. The moves to exit the corner stopped her for a few minutes, but she was able to pull through. I wasn't sure how far away the rap station was from the top, and I was feeling adventurous, so I decided to climb this route with my approach shoes on instead of my climbing shoes (and either walking a long way in my climbing shoes or carrying my approach shoes up with me). I had tossed the idea in my head the entire time she was leading, and figured what could go wrong if I was the second and on top rope? It was also an opportunity to see if I really could climb without my climbing shoes, kind of like practicing lowering someone with a fireman's belay on rappel, or practicing belaying the wrong way with a Grigri for the first few feet of a climb. It wasn't so much a challenge or an act of stupidity but more an opportunity to see what it actually feels like to do so; to see if it could be done in case I was put in a position to actually do so. I found the climbing easy, and my confidence grew.
Middle Earth (5.5) - Three pitches - Trad - Gear anchor(<-- Click for guidebook info)
It was my turn to lead, and I tossed in my head the idea of leading in my approach shoes just to see if I could do that, too. I finally decided to give it a go and, for the most part, it was very easy. I ran into a couple of situations where I wished I had my climbing shoes: the rock became slick about half-way up and the edges were small - requiring precision, often a couple of feet away from each other. I admit that I was afraid for a few moments while the late afternoon heat sapped my already weak endurance. But I pushed on and was able to get to the top with only one slip and no near falls. It was hard work, but I was proud of myself. "LiClimbs" was also impressed, too.
But it was now dark and we figured we did not have time to finish the route. We rapped off and decided to head into town to buy bug spray (the bugs were TERRIBLE!). I normally eat down by Split Rock and enjoy the rush of the waterfall and camaraderie of the end-of-the-day climbing crowd, but the bugs were too much so we decided to eat out. For the first time in my climbing experience in the 'Gunks, the Mountain Brauhaus was nearly empty. We waited 15 minutes for a table, the burger was, as usual, too dry (so was the chicken), and then we left. It wasn't until we got back to the tent that we realized we had left my guidebook at the restaurant. We went back and retrieved the book, and then we settled into our steaming tent, unbathed and all.
Bloody Mary (5.7) - Three pitches - trad - Gear anchor (<-- Click here for guidebook info)
The next day was also hot, and we wanted to leave early so we got an early start. Bloody Mary was the choice, and if things went well then I felt strong enough to jump on a nemesis of mine from last year (Son of Easy Overhang (5.8)). But alas, when we got to the base it was revealed that I had left my shoes in the car. Bummer. That took care of me taking on any challenging routes. It was seconding only for me, unless the route was easy. "LiClimbs" wanted to climb this first pitch, so she went up as easy and clean and she could manage. In fact, I was impressed with her skills. Her gear was solid, and her climbing never caused me any fear. I struggled, but made it up without any falls, even though I had a hard time cleaning a couple of pieces.
We read the book once I got to the top of the pitch and it dawned on my that I had already climbed this route, and had, in fact, climbed the next pitch as well. It isn't an easy pitch for anyone taller than 5'7", so I gave it to her. It was fun watching her first make her way up to the traverse with the tree in the middle, and then I enjoyed watching her pass the tree and clear the roof on the other side. I don't think she knew what she was in for, but I knew it was well within her ability even having only climbed with her for the first time the day before. Besides, she was going to have an easier time on the second pitch than I was due to her height and her having climbing shoes. I used the tree to get through the traverse and damn near fell backward when clearing the roof. It was hot. I was weak from inactivity and sapped of my strength by the sun. We rapped down and called it a day.
The frustrating part of the whole trip was that my climbing shoes were not, in fact, in my car. I didn't realize until the next day when, upon asking folks on rockclimbing.com if they had seen my shoes, several people noted that they had seen my shoes on a coping stone both on Saturday and Sunday. It appeared that my shoes had unclipped from my bag, and that my experiment on Snowpatch was less an experiment and more a study on preparedness.
Click here for all 2009 'Gunks pics