Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A rainy start turns out great

"Ratherbe" and I hadn't climbed outside together since our last adventure in 2008, and I had only one weekend outside on real rock, Moab excepted because, well, I didn't actually climb and what I did get up wasn't real rock. I wanted to take things easy, but deep down inside I felt more confident than I ever had been before. My strength had not yet returned after a long recovery from an ankle sprain, and yet things seemed to be clicking inside my head to the point where I was already thinking of jumping on 5.8s, which I normally leave as either projects or until June when I have a few weeks of the easy stuff under my belt. It was raining when we approached Camp Slime, but the rain stopped in time for us to pitch the tent. We crashed, went to sleep knowing that the rain would soon end (and that the rock would be dry when the sun came out), and woke up unexpectedly defeated.

I woke a few times in the night, and I heard the water droplets pop down on the rain fly above me. Most of the time they were soft and intermittent, as if they were rolling off the leaves above us and not falling straight from the sky. But every now and again it was clearly raining: the pops were louder and more frequent, I could hear puddles forming on the ground outside. "Still," I thought to myself, "it's dark and I can't tell how long I've been asleep." If it was still night then there was still time for the rock to dry off by the time we rose from our slumber. The only downside would be that it would dry off later, but that didn't really bother me so much. I'd be fine as long as I got on rock at some point.

I must have fallen back asleep because when I awoke later the rain was really coming down. "Ratherbe" was awake, too, but not just because of the noise. Her eyes were peeled open by the early morning light. It was day now, and the rain had not relented.

- Me: What time is it?
- "Rathberbe": A bit before eight.

Crap. This much rain falling this late in the morning meant we'd be waiting for hours. Yeah, I know, we're wimps. There are a lot of people out there who would rather squirm up waterfalls than not climb at all, but we don't belong to that group. Climbing for me is an escape. Adding wet rock to the equation doesn't eliminate the stress for me.

The rain stopped about an hour later and we crawled out of the tent and into the mist. A thin cloud of precipitation hung over the entire valley. I couldn't see more than a hundred yards down the road.

Breakfast was good, but slow. What do we do?

- "Ratherbe": I wish I had my short rope. We could do self-rescue stuff.
- Me: I forgot my book. I usually have it in my bag's pocket.
- "Ratherbe": I don't feel like getting things wet anyway, not if we're going to use them tommorrow.

We tossed around the idea of going to a movie, or heading into town to do whatever town offered: shopping, drinking, reading books for free at the local gear shop. A hike wouldn't be a bad idea. I didn't want to spend money if at all possible. We finally decided to do some scouting.

Neither of us are particularly strong climbers. A 'Gunks 5.9 is pushing our limits and we'd both managed our first 5.9 leads last summer. It was time to expand on that success and add a few more to the tick list. I was even thinking of a few 5.10s as well. Since we'd both rather be climbing instead of sitting around on good days, we figured it was worth walking around to see all the 5.10s that seemed within our range: it had to be no harder than 5.10a, had to have a couple of stars, and it had to have at least a PG-rating. There aren't very many of those, but we found a few and headed off to get some exercise.

Ant's Line (5.9) - One pitch - Trad - Bolted anchors (<-- click her for guidebook info)

I don't remember all the climbs we looked at, but none seemed doable to us. A couple of the tens that had been recommended to us as good openers to the grade seemed runout, thin, and devoid of good rests, the latter of which was important to gumbies such as us. It made us realize that we were probably dreaming above our abilities. But since we were near Ants Line, the 5.9 that she had conquered the year before, I wanted to take a look at it just to see if it should be added to my list of desired climbs. I had looked at it once before and felt that it was too intimidating for my tastes, but a mutual friend of ours suggested to me earlier in the week that it was much easier than it looked. Was I ready for this? Who knew, but I was going to look at it anyway.

Well, it turned out to be my lucky day. While we were out walking around and pouting and waiting for the fog to lift and the rock to dry, two climbers we knew from the gym were racking up for Ants Line. We had nothing better to do, so we decided to sit back and watch. It was worthwhile to see it, but it was also both comical and nerve-wracking at the same time. The leader is a very strong climber with a good personality. He kept mentioning how wet the rock was all the way up, and sometimes we could tell the hesitation in his voice. I mentioned that I was glad I was giving it a pass on that particular day on lead, but the belayor offered to let me give it a ride on top rope. I was hesitant. I'd have to use someone's harness and I wasn't sure I wanted climb a wet 5.9 in my approach shoes. But the leader offered to let me wear his shoes with socks on. I could have worn them without socks, but I wear a normal size 8.5 and he wears a size 11. The funny thing is that his climbing shoes are supposed to be a fairly high-performance edging shoe, and here I was wearing them with socks. Oh well.

After both the leader and belayor had taken a run, I hopped on the rope and worked my way up. Yep, it was wet; wet and slimey with water dripping through the crux. I took about five times due to the wetness and me jumping on a pumpy climb at my limit without a warm-up, but I eventually made it to the top. I felt considerably less intimidated by this route after I was finished because I realized it had a ton of jugs. Still at issue, though, is what is always at issue with 5.9s, awkwardness. There's just some really awkward positions.

We took off after I climbed and checked out a few other areas before we noticed the weather was turning. It certainly wasn't sunny and warm all of a sudden, but the sun was trying to break through the valley mist and it was getting noticeably warmer. We had lunch and then decided to do one climb once it got a little warmer. We were going to meet "Wonderwoman" and "BEC" for dinner to celebrate "Wonderwoman"'s birthday that evening, and weren't sure what time dinner was going to be. I think we could have climbed later into the evening, but the rain had really dampened our spirits.

Maria (5.6+) - Three pitches - Trad - Gear anchors (<-- click here for guidebook info)

I had done Maria the previous year with "KITT", but we couldn't find the start of the third pitch and decided to head down after climbing the second. We had been told that the money pitch on Maria was the second pitch, and so it didn't seem so bad that we didn't finish it up. However, after that weekend, several folks told us that the real money pitch was the third, and that clearing the roof was as fun of a move as any at the grade in the 'Gunks. Since learning that, I had always wanted to finish that up. Both "Ratherbe" and I are solid enough to climb a wet 5.6, so we headed off and got there just ahead of a family that wanted to set up a top rope on Frog's Head (5.6) nearby. Since we got there before them, and since the first 20 feet of Maria is shared with Frog's Head, they graciously let us go first and up I went.

The initial crack was wet, but my experience a couple of weekends before of climbing in my approach shoes had changed my perspective on what I could do with only a little bit of support under my feet. I moved up through the tricky crux and stepped right into the traverse with relative ease. It wasn't long before I was sitting at the anchor below the large, left-facing corner. I felt solid, and this was good to know.

"Ratherbe" was up next, and she soon discovered that the corner was still wet. I found it odd that she was as nervous as she was considering she is a much stronger climber than I am, but I chalked it up to her spending a week in the dry condition out in Red Rocks and me ready for the instability because I had lost my shoes two weeks before and was required to climb with a little more trepidation. However, my impressions changed when I made it to the crux. It wasn't just the crack that was wet in this specific spot, but also the face on the opposite side. This was the crux because the jugs had ended. Good feet and balance was needed to step through the thin series of moves just below the ledge. I was nervous even as the second and told "Ratherbe" as much when I topped out. We agreed that Maria is no picnic when wet.

But then it was my turn to be hesitant. I racked up and headed up the right-facing corner that is the start of the third pitch. The roof loomed over me, but it didn't look that scary. However, once I got beneath it I realized how awkward and committing the moves are for clearing the roof. It was bizarre that it didn't scare me that much. I should have been much more nervous than I was. Instead, it was a matter of figuring out the sequence. I pivoted out over the corner two or three times before I finally figured out what to do and where the holds were. Before I knew it I was up and over and belaying "Ratherbe" to the top.

We rapped off and headed back to the car with "BEC" and "Wonderwoman" for her birthday celebration. The food was tasty, the drinks smooth, the rain not so much (we were sitting on the balcony when the heavens opened that evening), and the games of pool fun. The evening came to an end and it was time to rest for what everyone hoped would be a better next day.

Middle Earth (5.5) - Two pitches - Trad - Gear anchors (<-- click here for guidebook info)

I had done the first pitch with "LiClimbs" two weekends earlier, but it was too dark to continue up the rest of the climb so we bailed. I told "Ratherbe" that I wanted to clean that up as a warm up for the day's activities on Sunday and she agreed it was a good route to start on. She led the first two pitches fine (she strung them together), and I followed up, again in my approach shoes (as I had done with "LiClimbs"). "Ratherbe" was skeptical of this decision, but she didn't voice much opposition. She was the one leading the first two pitches and I'm not sure she thought the third pitch would be too much of a challenge at the grade. In the end it was my decision, so I went with it.

The first pitch went fine. I had the same footwork issues in the same place as last time, but that was to be expected. Approach shoes don't edge as well climbing shoes and I wasn't leading this time. There was nothing to worry about.

The Williams Guidebook suggests this is a four-pitch climb, but the third pitch is really a walk along the GT Ledge. It's more than a few feet over, so I can understand why this would be described as a pitch, but I just don't see it as such. I walked over to the start and pulled the rope when "Ratherbe" had taken down the anchor. I scanned the pitch above me and didn't see anything overly daunting. It looked to be a quick climb up the shallow corner to the roof, then a traverse left to the jugs, and finally up over the roof. Easy. But then I read the guidebook and it said "This crux is the same as Wonderland - harder if short". "Hmmm," I thought to myself. "I have no clue how hard Wonderland is, but how hard can this really be? It's only 5.5."

I racked up and headed up the face to the roof. The gear was good so far and I could clearly see the line that I needed to take. But things became a little more stressful when got to the roof and discovered that the traverse to the jugs, and the face directly below the jugs, had few options for feet. "I should have worn my climbing shoes," I muttered to myself. It wasn't that it was hard, or that I needed my climbing shoes. Instead, it was more that the hands were clearly very good and the feet very thin. Climbing shoes would have helped to keep me from getting pumped out this early in the day.

The traverse was fairly easy. Both the hands and feet were thin, but the jugs just at the lip of the roof were fantastically large enough to ensure good balance. I placed the best tri-cam I could get in the horizontal crack below the roof and reached up to the obvious ledge that made the top of the roof - wet! Ugh. The rain had obviously stuck around longer than I expected. I backed down to the lower jugs and dead-armed for a few minutes while I chalked up. This was a little discouraging because the feet weren't great and I was going to need the ledge to be solid while I smeared up to foot holds.

I finished chalking up and went back to the ledge, but the ledge wasn't just wet; there was a puddle up there and any chalk that I had caked onto my palm, fingers, and knuckles disappeared the instant I set my hand down. I muttered a few bad words and down-climbed to the jugs. I was tired this time and needed a moment to collect my thoughts. The only place to rest was before the traverse, so I delicately moved back across to the right, asking "Ratherbe" where the foot holds were because I was blinded both by the rock and the size of my springtime belly. I rested for a couple of minutes, thought out the moves, and headed back to the jugs.

I wasn't afraid. In fact, I was confident that I could do this very easily. But what stopped me was the fatigue. The time off as a result of a sprained ankle had sapped me of most of what I had in the tank before I slipped on the ice in February. Its tough coming back from that after so much inactivity. I'm too old to simply start off where I once was. Being in decent shape requires maintenance, and I had cut that part of the budget when things got tight. I was committed, and when I got back to the jugs, I went for it, moving past the slick and sloppy ledge and up to the next hold, which, as it turned out, wasn't the jug I would have expected on a 5.5.

"What the hell?" I thought to myself. The key hand-hold after the freaking puddle was a small, square-shaped ledge the size of my fist, and it sloped slightly to the right and was wet just enough to keep me from getting a good hold of it. My bicep was burning from the semi-mantle off the puddle-filled ledge and so I slowly lowered myself down to the jugs and, trying to ask for less help from "Ratherbe" this time, traversed back to the right for another rest. I shook my head and muttered a few words of disbelief. It wasn't because I was scared! That was the difference. It was easy and I knew I could do it, but my body was so far behind my head that I simply didn't want to trust the sketchy tri-cam at the crux. "For the love of God!" I shouted in my head.

"Alright, this is it." I wasn't going to take no for an answer this time. I was either going to do it or fall. That was it. I didn't care about the potential swing if the tri-cam ripped, or the fact that my body would potentially hurtle down to the large belay ledge below. "No, fuck that. It's a 5.5. Who cares if it's wet?"

I was tired before I even started. My outstretched muscles ached as I chalked up at the jugs. The puddle soaked my right hand and then my left hand as I matched on the ledge and moved my feet higher. I flicked my hip upward and snagged the stupid square hold and held myself there for what seemed like an eternity. "Great," I thought, "I've got the what?" I wouldn't say that my body position was awkward, but it certainly would have been if I had moved any of my four extremities. They all held me in that perfect spot, where I knew I wasn't going anywhere until the first extremity to lose all holding power collapsed with the full weight of my body tumbling after it. I thought about high-stepping with my right foot, but it was too high and awkward for me to do it confidently. To do that would have required putting too much weight on my left hand, the one that was on the insecure square hold at the top. I could have bumped my left hand higher if there were any holds that I could reach. My right hand was firmly pressed deep into the puddle and wasn't going anywhere unless I could move my -

- "Ratherbe": Why don't put your left foot on the jug?
- Me: Oh.

It took me no longer than a minute to finish the pitch.

Arrow (5.8) - Two pitches - Trad - Bolted anchors (<-- Click here for guidebook info)

"Ratherbe" wanted to get on the ultra-classic Arrow and I was all too eager to join her. I had done this route a few years earlier with "Captain Obvious" and had ever since regarded it as one of the greatest climbs I've ever done. The first pitch is about as fun as a route can get: easy 5.6 face moves with lovely gear placements and fun, exposed climbing on gorgeous crimps and edges. We got there just as a guide was about to set up a top rope and we jumped ahead of him before he could get his harness on (OK - so he let us go, but we were quick). I had so much fun on this climb that I professed to a complete stranger two routes over that if I were the king of climbing I'd ban all vertical cracks. I brought "Ratherbe" up and she racked up for the famous second pitch.

I honestly don't know which pitch is better. The first pitch has such nicely spaced out semi-dynamic moves that it is difficult to believe anything could be more enjoyable. But the second pitch, with its similar style is different in that the notch (or the "arrow") at the start is juggy and overhanging, the middle is run out on slick, white, crystal knobs, and the top has what I call the blowjob hold. You get up to where it is and you feel around, but you don't find it. You lower to a rest, move right, and feel around again before you realize there's nothing there. You stand up directly above the bolt and feel around again, but still realize that you have no clue where this thing is. You retreat for another rest and move up again, feeling, feeling, finding nothing, nothing at all, completely and absolutely nothing and you're just about to give up until - OH! OH! OH! God yes! Oh yes! OH GOD! HOLY CRAP! I FOUND IT! I FOUND IT! WOOHOO!! - and you're at the anchors before you can clean up.

Annie Oh (5.8) - Two pitches (we only did the second pitch) - Trad - Tree and Bolted anchors (<-- Click here for guidebook info)

Our original intent was to rap back down to the ledge to do the second pitch of Limelight (5.7), the route that "Ratherbe" and I had chosen as our early-season warmup the previous spring. Back then it was too cold, and I seconded it but with a lot of pain. The crimps and raw temps were brutal on my fingertips, and I swear that I never would have made it up on lead that day. I was lucky to have made it up on TR. But Limelight was taken, and so "Ratherbe" recommended another of her favorite climbs, the second pitch of "Annie Oh."

I wanted to do both pitches, but between "Ratherbe" suggesting the first pitch was terrible and the fact that there were folks toproping it, we decided to hit the second pitch only. It was getting late anyway, and we wanted to head out at a reasonable time in the afternoon. So I racked up and headed up the blocky mess at the start. Easy enough. I then moved up to the more technical climbing and came to the upward-facing and seemingly death-encouraging flake.

I couldn't believe it when I first saw it. This thing looked as if it could be trundled by me breathing on it let alone weighting it, and it was loaded with chalk. I looked at it and the thin horizontal gap in the rock about three feet above. Was I going to have to make a dynamic move off this thing? There was no way I was going to do this. The thing is that my head was so confident this weekend. It just was. I had felt it building up the past few weeks and I thought this was a good thing. The fact that I was taking a step forward was not only something to get excited about but it was also believable. But here I was, staring at a death flake that seemingly required a dynamic move off of it to gain the spicy holds above, and I was about six feet above my last piece. I certainly wasn't going to place a piece behind it. If I fell after pulling off the flake then I didn't want my falling weight to pull this kitchen sink-sized block on top of me.

It had been a while since "Ratherbe" last climbed this route, so she couldn't offer any help. I wasn't going to down-climb. This was a route that should have been within my skill-level, so I said "screw it" and followed the chalk. The funny thing is that this isn't even the crux. I learned that as soon as I grabbed onto the top of the flake and traversed right. It sure looked scary when I was finally directly below it with both hands firmly attached at the top. But just as I was going move upward off it, I noticed a hand-sized horizontal crack to the right. "Hmmm...," I thought. It had chalk on it and it appeared to be far more stable than the flake, so I reached out and grabbed it, moved my feet into a better position below it, and stood up. The upper gap was easily within reach now, and I could happily move up to the real crux at the top.

The next few moves were tricky but easy. I felt so good about them. I was well above my gear at this point, but I felt fine moving through the larger 5.8 moves. I finally found a good spot to plug one last piece and I encountered the crux: a move up to two jugs for feet with no hands, all the while being pushed backward into space by an overhanging boulder sitting in just the wrong spot. The puzzle was fun to guess, but I couldn't figure it out. "Ratherbe" remembered the move, and she offered to give it up, but I refused. I wanted to figure this out. It stumped me though. There were no hands up high for pulling, and the obvious foot holds were both as waist level. Finally I turned and looked down and said, "I'm going to high-step and then do a mantle to get my other foot up, and then stand up with no hands. How does that sound?" She looked up at me said, "You do what you have to do." I was hoping for a little more confirmation. I mean, if I had guessed correctly then the guesswork was over. All I had to do was execute.

It was a little nerve-wracking, moving my feet up high without any hand holds to speak of, but I got my left foot up high and then pushed off the jug on the right side with both hands until I was high enough to match my right foot to my hands. Bingo. I stood up with no hands and once again professed my love for a climb to the strangers who were right above me. To steal a word from Hemmingway, it was grand, as grand as a climb could get, and I was standing on top.

Click here for all 2009 'Gunks photos.

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