I climbed in the gym last week for the first time in a little less than a month. The body felt fine but the endurance was whacked beyond dead. Still, there's been a weird difference between my outdoor and indoor climbing this year - they've reversed roles.
In past years I've always been stronger in the gym than outside, and this makes sense. But after battling two injuries in 2009 I've been worried about losing strength, endurance, and ability outside, particularly considering I've been climbing like crap in the gym (i.e. - hanging on 5.8 and struggling to clip the anchor at the top...when hanging onto the anchor itself). The gym always helped to build that strength and endurance, but this year it hasn't done it's job and I've felt a bit uneasy with that. I have some goals this year, and one of those goals is to push the grades a bit. If I can barely lead an eight in the gym then how am I supposed to climb harder outside while placing gear? Of course, it might be my attitude.
Inferno (5.8) - Three pitches - Trad - Gear anchor (<-- Click here for guidebook info)
With two days of flailing at the gym after not climbing for a month out of the way, "Ratherbe" and I risked the weather and headed north for our first climbs in North Conway in 2009. The forecast was beautiful blue sky on both Saturday and Sunday with downpours overnight in between. We weren't sure what the rock would be like on Sunday after the rain in North Conway, but we knew two things that sent us north anyway: 1) we were starting to get 'Gunks'd out and; 2) the downpours scheduled for Saturday night in North Conway were going to pound the 'Gunks Saturday afternoon. We figured that one good, solid day of climbing up north where we weren't yet bored was better than a half day of climbing in a place where we knew we'd be back to several more times before the season ended.
There was little to no traffic on the way up Friday night, and we pitched the tent just before 10pm. I feel asleep seemingly worriless about the climbs ahead the next day.
Saturday awoke us early, and we were in the Whitehorse parking lot by 830am. We had directions for the approach to the Inferno area, but we weren't sure exactly what to look for because the guidebook we were using was written in the mid-1990s. Still, I was sure I had been to Inferno before, and I was certain it was a long walk in, but I couldn't remember how we had got there in the past. All I could remember was the large, right-leaning roof feature that makes up the first pitch. I knew that once I could see that feature we'd be fine. Unfortunately, things weren't so straight forward and we were about 30 feet less patient than we should have been.
We walked about 20 minutes in and lost sight of the cliff. This worried us, but we kept going because I had a hunch it was much further down than we thought. But as we kept walking along the trail seemed to fade further and further from the cliff. All we could see now were trees and a few dirty slabs and boulders up the hill above us. It didn't feel right, so we read the guidebook again. The guidebook noted a climbers' path marked by ribbons on the uphill section of the path. We hadn't seen any ribbons but we sure had gone uphill and downhill several times already. We continued onward and checked the guidebook each time we went back uphill just to be sure that we were reading everything correctly. There was still no sign of the ribbons, though, and the only trail we saw really wasn't a trail at all but more of an inconvenient scramble up through the forest instead.
Finally, we reached a point where we could see a faint hint of cliffs to our right. The path went left uphill some more and then it went downhill and away from where the cliffs should be. The cliffs appeared small and everything in between us and the rock seemed sloping and dirty. We believed we had passed the climbers' path for sure because it seemed as if the cliff was now somewhat behind us.
"Ratherbe" took the initiative of starting the bushwhacking back across the leafy and wet forest while I went ahead just a bit to ensure that the main path did actually move away from what realistically seemed to be the end of the cliff. It was a quick run uphill to a flat spot for me, and it was easy to see that the main path continued downhill and to the left. I ran back to catch up with "Ratherbe" and never saw the climbers' path to my left on the way back. I ran a mere 30 feet uphill and the same 30 feet back downhill, picked up my pack off the ground where I left it to run ahead, and tried to follow "Ratherbe"'s path through the brush. I met her at the base of a cliff, but we weren't sure where we were exactly. I certainly didn't believe it was where Inferno was because I didn't see the roof-like feature. She had an idea of where we were based on the pictures in the book and the features on the cliff in front of us. We frustratingly decided that we had not gone far enough and needed to head back whence we came, except this time we'd try to follow the cliff if at all possible.
So back we went along the cliff and we followed the worn dirt beaten down by years of climbers' impact. Then we came to the same wet slab we had tentatively stepped across only a few minutes before,and that led us away from the cliff. We thought we saw a scramble back up toward the cliff, but it looked nasty and worthy of exporing. So "Ratherbe" went first on the wet slab and slipped on the other side. I followed her without slipping, and then we approached another wet slab, this one farther uphill from where we previously had thrashed through the trees before. This time she slid all the way down to the base. She swore at our misadventure while I found another way over the slab. Her frustration grew with each step through the thick brush, and at the same time my apathy kept me calm. She wanted an better day than this, and yet, I didn't really care.
We could both that see the main path was ahead and that we were also 25 feet higher uphill than when we had previously abandoned it. Staying next to the cliff hadn't worked and for a moment we felt defeated. We walked along through the brush to the main path, and then we stood on it, except it wasn't the main path. We could see the main path as clear as day, and it was about 10 feet in front of us. So what were we on? Huh, wouldn't you know it, it was the climbers' path that I had missed only a little while before. If we had simply walked another 30 feet up the main path instead of bushwhacking then we might have already found the path.
There was a little bit of tension in the air when we finally set our bags down at the base of the cliff. But after a few minutes of eating, drinking water, and catching our breath, we unpacked our gear and scrambled up the easy first face to the ledge about 40 feet up, which is where Inferno actually starts. It was my lead, and I was a little nervous about what condition I was in. I remembered climbing this with "Jello" a couple of years back, but I also remembered that he took a more direct route straight up and that route was a harder climb than what I was going to attempt. We checked our knots and harnesses and I set off to the right on a 30-foot run-out before I got my first piece of gear in. I then moved upward about 20 feet without any gear and plugged a cam that I didn't trust. The plan now was to head up left toward a point where the right-leaning roof ended and a left-leaning ramp began and headed up to the ledge above the roof. I spied a good flake to plug a cam, but alas there was a lively hornet nest conveniently hung in the middle of the flake. This was really too bad, too, because this flake offered not only the best protection I had seen thus far, but also it had the best holds for moving up to the easier dikes that led to the point where the roof and ramp met.
I thought for a few moments (in fact, I took a good long look at all of my options because while some of the climbing looked easy, none of the routes had 100% easy climbing and none had obvious gear placements, either). The last thing I wanted to do was stupidly commit to a sequence of moves with no gear. I hadn't climbed in a month and I wasn't prepared to do something so physically challenging that I'd put myself in a position of taking a nasty twenty-foot fall on my first climb back.
After thinking, I decided to climb below the nest and risk running up through a series of dikes that led to a section that I knew "Jello" had struggled on when we did this route before. It was a stroke of luck that I did this and found a fairly new piton hammered into a solid crack. I clipped it and felt comfortable about the gear for the first time in a while. And all the while I fretted over not having any gear, it never occurred to me to be afraid. I simply didn't care enough to be worried. "Just get to the top, Greg," I said to myself. "That's all you have to do." It felt more like work than fun, albeit work that I enjoyed.
But now it was time for the real challenge. I seconded the route when "Jello" led it and pulling the point was a real challenge for me then. It requires a committing layback at an awkward angle and I wasn't sure I'd have the strength to pull it without resting or falling. I placed two cams, one below the point first and another above the point after I moved up higher. I was confident that the gear would hold, all I needed to do was pull the moves.
I scouted the moves for a few minutes and saw two different options: 1) up left through a notch with good feet but crappy hands or; 2) pulling the awkward layback on the right with great hands and crappy feet, with the hands becoming marginalized with upward movement. I decided to try both by pulling through the good hands on the right until I could get good feet on the left. It worked. There was a bit of grunting and worrying, but it went better than expected. I then brought "Ratherbe" up and she commented that it was a nice lead, particularly for my first time out in a month. It was strange to hear that, though. I believe she meant it, but it didn't feel like a good lead to me. In fact, it felt rather ordinary, or maybe it was simply uninteresting. I think the biggest thing for me this is year is that my lead head is much healthier than it has been in previous years. Maybe that's why I wasn't freaking out when climbing on moderate terrain (for me anyway) without much (or any) gear. It may be why I'm simply climbing better outside. Maybe that pitch was simply an uninspiring pitch, too; one that's easy enough to keep me from worrying too much and from having fun at the same time. I generally like all climbing, even when I'm struggling or climbing well below my grade. For me, climbing was about getting away from the world. It confused me why I was so apathetic about having walked ordinarily far enough away from civilization to feel as if I had got away, and I was still unimpressed.
The next two pitches belonged to "Ratherbe" and she sent both crack systems with ease. I highly recommend doing the upper pitches on this route, even if the third pitch isn't as good as the second. The second pitch offers pretty good jamming, particularly for the northeast.
Hotter Than Hell (5.9) - Two pitches - Mixed sport and trad - Tree anchors (<-- Click here for guidebook info)
We then rapped down to the base of Hotter Than Hell (5.9) (which is where the rap off Inferno leads to) and looked up. It was one of our goals for the day, so we decided to tackle it. I felt good on lead earlier, but that first pitch of Inferno was only 5.7 and Hotter Than Hell goes at 5.7 for the first pitch and 5.9 for the second. I gave the second pitch to "Ratherbe" and kept my thoughts about wanting the second pitch to myself. I ran up the first pitch easily and "Ratherbe" came up and started on the second pitch soon after. She did very well despite slab not being her favorite style. There were a few tenuous moments, but all in all she made it up clean and then I followed her.
I got to the top and said that I wanted to give it a go. It took a little prodding from "Ratherbe" to get me to say it, but I wanted to say it all along and held back because I wasn't sure I even wanted to climb let alone this route in particular. It had actually pained me to climb it as the second. I really wanted to challenge myself by grabbing the hard lead as an onsight climb, and to have done it as the second was a disappointment. But I had made the decision to give her the lead and that was what I had to live with. The decision to give up the initial lead probably had more to do with me accepting my place in the world of climbing - as the second and not the leader. I didn't understand this, but I felt it was true. It is important to note that this has nothing to do with my climbing partnership with "Ratherbe", as I'd feel the same way with anyone right now.
I wasn't sure now if my endurance would hold up, but I was going to see just how much I had in the tank. We lowered back to the start of the second pitch and, after taking a necessary bathroom break, I raced through the opening moves.
The pitch was actually pretty easy in the end. I was a little pumped, and I said so as I neared the top (this pitch is about 130 feet of sustained climbing after all), but I never felt as if I was going to fall. Not once was I afraid of the thin and committing moves, and not once was I afraid of the distance between the bolts and / or gear. "Ratherbe" said I cruised it. Maybe I did and maybe I didn't, but I certainly didn't struggle. Later on we both stated that we were somewhat disappointed by feeling good about what turned out to be a sport route (eight bolts and three cams spread over 130 feet). OK, so it was more of an alpine sport route where the bolts weren't placed every few feet like they are at Rumney, but 5.9 is well within my sport range and the success seemed empty.
It was getting late at this point and we called it a day. I'm not sure why I felt this way but I was completely uninspired by my performance. In fact, I was rather unambitious. I felt as if I could have climbed anything and nothing at all at the same time. It was an odd mix of emotions that were swirling inside of me. I worried if I had suddenly lost my passion for climbing.
We drove back to the base of Cathedral to meet up with some friends who we will collectively call "The Bickersons" (individually they are known as "Popeye" and "Astro"). They are an interesting pair who formerly and briefly dated but decided to continue the climbing partnership after the romance ended (similar to "Ratherbe" and I, except we don't bicker nearly as much, nor is our bickering nearly as entertaining). The four of us went into town to grab some food, stayed longer than we should have, and headed back to the tents earlier than we should have, and fell asleep well after the down-pouring rain began. It's easy to tell when it is raining hard - if you're in a tent and under the trees then usually the leaves break up the fall of the raindrops before the raindrops hit the ground. Saturday night's rainfall was nothing of the sort; the rain fell hard and straight from the sky, through the leaves, and deep into the softened dirt and layer of pine needles beyond the protection of our rainflies. None of us figured there'd be any dry rock available in the morning, but after taking our time getting breakfast and coffee Sunday morning, a last minute decision took "Ratherbe" and I up to Toe Crack, a 5.7 that "Jello" and I had also done as an alternate start to Cathedral's Standard Route (5.7).
Toe Crack (5.7) - Two pitches - Trad - Gear anchors - usually climbed as a variation to surrounding climbs (<-- Click here for guidebook info)
The rock on the Thin Air face was surprisingly dry. I thought I knew that Cathedral doesn't dry quickly, and I thought that was true when the rain was as far out as two days let alone downpours the evening before, but I was apparently wrong on this day. There were certainly wet streaks, but the dry streaks were thicker than the wet ones and we decided Toe Crack was going to be a go. We also decided that, depending on the situation at the top, we'd probably finish on the final two pitches of Thin Air to get to a project of mine at the top: Pine Tree Eliminate (5.8).
Since the normal approach to Toe Crack that goes up the dikes on the very bottom of Standard Route was wet, we decided to use the ramp-like traverse uphill and to the left to gain the small tree ledge at the base of the crack, which is about 40 feet up. I took this pitch, and for the second straight day I found myself on sketchy terrain well beyond my last piece with a potentially nasty swing if I fell. The climbing was a little more difficult this time with a no-hands step across onto a long, inch-wide ledge mixed in ten feet past my last piece of gear. But again I wasn't afraid. In fact, I was more annoyed that if I did fall then I'd have to go back and do it again. It turned out that I didn't fall, and despite the fact that I was having fun, I didn't feel as if I was at the same time. I know that sounds contradictory, but it's true; sometimes it is possible to really enjoy what you're doing at any given moment without enjoying anything at all. I wondered if this was because of my diet, that maybe I wasn't eating properly and it was throwing off my psychological balance, but that can't be the case because I eat lots of veggies and fruit on a regular basis and nothing had changed in that regard. I was simply enjoying the moment without enjoying the long-term, with the moment being the same as one move and the long-term being the same as a ten-foot stretch of climbing.
I brought "Ratherbe" up and she ran up Toe Crack like it was nothing new. What is going on with my partners the past few years? Both "Ratherbe" and "Jello" have grown increasingly more comfortable with climbing cracks while I've floundered in them. As I did on Saturday, I climbed this crack clean but not without trepidation. We were now two pitches up and had to make a decision to either continue up the crappy finish to Standard Route or make the long, run-out traverse to the Thin Air (5.6) finishing pitches. There was already a party on Repulsion (5.8), which splits Standard Route and Thin Air down the middle, so we decided that Thin Air was the best way to go.
This naturally left me with another run out pitch. OK, so it was likely only 5.4, but it was also about 90 feet of traversing along thin, wet ledges and crossing over the rope owned by the party on Repulsion. A fall would have been both 90 feet down and back to the right, with the finish being a beautiful leap over and into a crummy gully. Was I even the least bit afraid? No, not at all. The fear of falling never came over me because it simply wasn't going to happen. And again, I actually had a lot of fun, but I had considerably more fun belaying "Ratherbe" over to the top of Thin Air's third pitch and belaying her as she led the final pitch to the top. It wasn't an emotionless day, but to call it anything but cold emotion would be inaccurate. I barely felt anything while I was climbing, I felt more while I was not climbing, and all of what I felt was neither good nor bad nor apathy. I was there, I was doing what I was doing, I had no reason to complain nor shout for joy, and I did nothing while doing something at the same time.
When I finally got to the top I told "Ratherbe" that if we were going to run up Pine Tree Eliminate then I wanted to toprope it. She noted that it was getting late in the day, so we decided to skip the route altogether. And there it went - one of my goals for the year was blowing kisses at me from a few feet away while I coldly and calmly walked past it to the tarred road on the other end of the path. I wanted to climb it badly, and yet I didn't care if I even looked at it again.
We hitched a ride back down to the base, sorted our gear, and took off. I hadn't been on the Kancamagus Highway since I was a kid, and since I wanted to know where another local crag in the area was, and since that crag was near the "Kanc", we took that road peacefully across New Hampshire to I-93, one of the major arteries for Sunday afternoon traffic heading to Boston, and drove home.
Click here for all 2009 North Conway photos