I'm not a very good climber, yet I dream of doing first ascents. In fact, "Jello" and I nearly had an Epiphanous moment when we first rolled into Moab a few months ago. We looked up at the towering buttress and for a few seconds we were both convinced we were going to bag one of the corners that rose high above the highway below. But then we realized that we didn't have the best gear, and so we drove off with a mixture of somber and relief flowing through our hearts and brains. "Jello"'s part wanted the route adventurously, and my part wanted the route intelligently. We both understood each other's position, and I can't speak for him anymore, but since that moment I've wanted to answer the question, "why did I want it intelligently?"
I've said before that I don't climb for the adventure. Instead, I climb for the escape. But what is the escape if there isn't a bit of the unknown? According to my use of the word "escape" in this context, isn't escaping about getting away from the familiar? If so, then isn't getting away from the familiar adventurous by definition?
I've been saved by my partners more than once. This is partially because I generally climb with stronger climbers. But this is also partially because I know that I climb with stronger partners. I'm not afraid of heading up a route that is too difficult for me because I know that my partner is likely able to clean up my mess if I fail. Look, I know this isn't a good attitude. It certainly isn't one that I consciously take with me. I'm both a budding and enthusiastic individualist, so I want to both make and stand by my own decisions. But deep down I know that I can make certain decisions because I have someone to bail me out. This is why I've always played it safe in life: because I'm not sure who will bail me out if I make risky decisions in life. It is why I plan ahead so much: because if I'm going to live by a decision then I might as well see it through, and planning in advance, for me, is the easiest way to ensure I complete the task successfully. It's also why I don't mind beta on climbs: because I don't care about the surprise as much as I care about completing the task. But alas, without rapping down to see the route first, how can I ever be so prepared for a first ascent if I'm so stuck on planning the damn thing first? I'm not sure the answer is "I can't" because I feel as if it is more complicated than that, and I also feel as if I have a long way to go before understanding enough to answer that question outright. But this weekend I unexpectedly got a taste of what the answer might look like, even if it was on a route that not only was definitely not a first ascent, but it was also a route that I have been on before as a second. It was only a taste. I don't know what the full flavor is yet, but I have enough information now to think hard about what the answer might look like.
Easy Baby Link-up (5.6) - Trad - Two pitches - Gear and tree anchors (<-- Click here for guidebook info)
It poured Friday night, the night we arrived, to the point where "Ratherbe" and I felt the water rushing underneath my tent. It felt as if we were on a water bed, but thanks to the footprint under the tent most of our stuff was dry. "Blow" and "Caboose" were just as lucky, and even though the downpours lasted for hours over night, and even though the rain hadn't stopped until relatively late in the morning, the rock was surprisingly dry at 830am when we all awoke. Still, it made sense to grab breakfast first, so after we ate in town, and when we arrived in the West Trapps parking lot, the rock was even drier and ready to be climbed then.
Probably the most amazing aspect of that Saturday was that the 'Gunks were nearly completely empty. It was supposed to have been a beautiful day in New Paltz, with the sun shining all day and temps in the mid-70s, but it seems that there are a lot of visitors who don't understand how the rock dries there. We didn't care though because that meant more rock for us. There's definitely nothing wrong with that.
"Blow" had the duty of leading our first two pitches. We were worried that there would be a crowd on either "Easy Overhang" or "Baby", the two climbs we were going to link up in two pitches, respectively, but we were happy to see that only one group was on the first pitch and that they were continuing onto the second pitch. We would be doing the second pitch of "Baby", so all was working out as planned.
The first pitch went fine; it was a very easy chimney that took "Blow" no more than a few minutes to climb. I came up behind him, we exchanged gear, and he went straight up for the roof above.
He cruised most of the second pitch, stopping only once before getting to the roof due to an initially unseen high-step midway up. And then he hit the roof. This stumped him for several minutes and he went up and down to the base of the roof several times before noticing there were a couple of climbers ready to rap down the line he was on. There are a lot of loose stones, many about palm-sized, right on the lip of the ledge at the top, so he stepped aside to a good place where he could rest and let the other climbers rap through. It was sunny out, so I turned myself around to face the green valley that lain below the blue sky. It was so warm, and dry, and the air around us was peaceful and quiet. I felt as if this is what it must feel like during the week in the 'Gunks when the crowds are sitting in their cubicles at work.
I looked up to see if the final rappeller had passed and noticed that the rope was being pulled. "Blow" was also three feet higher than he had been before and closing in on the finishing moves of the roof. Within seconds he easily brought his lowest foot above the roof and was calling off-belay. I was impressed because it wasn't his climbing ability that had limited him before, but more his route-reading. Once he read the route it became easy, and it turned out to be a praiseworthy moment: it was his first 'Gunks 5.6, and he did it on only his second pitch of the day. I was happy for this accomplishment because I was with him when he backed off the first pitch of "Shockley's" the year before.
Bonnie's Roof (5.9) - Trad - Two pitches - Gear anchors (<-- Click here for guidebook info)
My confidence was the same as it was before "Ant's Line" (5.9); it was nervous, unsure, and completely convinced that I was not going to fall. I remember walking to "Ant's Line" that day and thinking about not being another Francis Macomber, about not quitting, and about showing up to do the job I had set out to do. I climbed OK that day, but I also climbed with courage. It was probably one of the most courageous days I've ever had. We walked to "Bonnie's Roof" with a spring in our steps. "Blow" was excited to finally get on such a classic and I was running the moves of the crux through my head.
As always, when we arrived I immediately noticed that the crux moves I had imagined in my head were different in real life. The committing section of the corner below the roof was longer than I remembered, and the roof itself was also longer and higher above the committing corner. There were at least six more moves than I remembered and imagined. I wondered how many of those six were actually harder, too.
We stopped and snacked before I racked up and "Blow" flaked out the ropes. I then tied in and headed up the first 12 feet to the ledge above the ground. Now the climbing started, and I moved up another 10 feet or so and plugged my first piece of gear. It was a bomber nut, and I felt good about it.
Two nuts and a cam later and I was standing at the last decent rest before the committing section of the corner. I was pumped and sweating despite the fact that the entire pitch was in the shade. "Blow" had given me some of his loose chalk before I went up, but my hands sweat from the the back of my hand and then through the knuckles and spaces in between my fingers. I can chalk my palms and the front of my fingers multiple times but if I don't move immediately after then the pores on the back of my hand wet the front all over again. I tried to chalk the back of my hands, and that worked for a while, but I was too pumped to move quickly from my stance so the sweat formed again, and I'd chalk again, and before too long I was chalking just to hang on during the rest.
I made two moves off the rest stance and quickly realized I was at the most difficult section of the climb for me. It was the slick and pumpy layback up to a thicker section of the crack where I could arm-bar easily, except that the feet were terrible there, and of course I was going to be too pumped to hang on one arm long enough to place gear and clip in once I got up there. I backed down and rested some more. I tried maybe twice more before I realized this was going to require complete commitment on my part. I finally went up, made it to just below the thick part of the crack, and threw in the first piece of gear that I felt comfortable with in a while (the two pieces below me at that point probably would have held, but if they hadn't then I would have likely hit that rest stance on the fall if the gear ripped). My breathing was heavy and my hands were soaked. The crack was unforgiving with such wet hands, so I chalked again only to realize that my hands became wet just as soon as the other one was chalked up. Resting on two hands seemed easy enough for a while until both hands needed chalking again. I wiped the rolling streams of sweat off my brow and that eliminated any and all advantage I had from chalking up multiple times. I knew I could do this. I just had to try. This the easy part to the roof, right? I wondered.
I stuck my hand up to where the crack continued and tried to jam, but I quickly discovered that there was no hand jam here. Instead it was a shallow section of rock deep and wide enough only for a couple of fingers. I bumped higher to what seemed a better hold, but it was not. It was worse, and I could see that the feet were slick all around me. I knew I was done and that I had no chance of getting "Bonnie's" clean. The cam in front of me seemed solid, so I cautiously asked "Blow" to take and lower me back to the rest stance.
He lowered me and I sat down on the flat section to gather my thoughts. A few minutes of rest would probably do the trick, but I had been battling endurance problems all season due to two injuries and a lack of good climbing weather. I rested for about 10 minutes and headed back up.
The initial moves were easy enough. I had rested after all. I also had the the energy to pull past the shallow holds that had just sent me downward a few minutes before, but then I was pumped again with still the most pumpy moves yet to come on the roof. The climbing past the roof is not that technical, but it does require a bit of stamina to pull through the five (or so) moves to the semi-rest above. I plugged a nut in the wide crack and tried to move up to the undercling crack in the roof. It was further than I thought it would be, so I backed off again to the base of the wide crack. Again, my hands were soaked, so I chalked up multiple times. I wanted to clip the tattered sling on a fixed, old cam jammed up high, but I didn't trust it. Still, I didn't trust the nut I had placed either. The crack above seemed to be a good size for a #3.5 Camalot, so I plugged it. I was worried because the crack was uneven and the lobes weren't sitting nice and pretty liked I'd want them to, but it was what it was and I had to rest once again because I was too pumped to hold on.
The cam held just fine, but it was still too low. I was now looking at hang-dogging my way up this route. There was a good chance that I'd be able to climb up the rest of the corner after the main roof, but I was too damn pumped to get through the next several moves without resting on each piece. However, this was only part of the solution; it was only the end goal. Getting through the roof was another problem altogether. It was so close and yet so far away. Every time I tried to pull myself up to place the next piece of gear I found myself too tired to get myself close enough to reach the upper crack. I wanted to get through this, but I wasn't sure I had it.
It was then that I started to think about the anchors that were about 25 feet to my right. I'm not sure which climb they are on, but I began to convince myself that I could traverse on the huge hands all the way from my position to the anchors, except that while there were great hands there were also no feet for the first 10 feet. Did I mention that I was pumped at this point? How on earth was I going to hand traverse without feet for ten feet when I could barely pull myself upward five feet? The traverse was also largely unprotected, too. If I fell then I was going to swing right back into the hard rock that made up the corner, with the entire swing being caught by the cam that was good for a downward pull but still questionable on a swing. To top it off, there was another corner to the right of me, so if I made it across OK and "Blow" fell then he'd be the one slamming into a corner. It wasn't ideal, but it seemed to be the best solution. At this point I didn't care about getting to the top. All I cared about was getting down without anyone getting hurt and without leaving any expensive gear behind.
Of course, the thought of first ascents was now playing in my head. I was ready to give up, and yet there I was wondering just how I was ever going to get good enough to bag a first ascent. It was completely ridiculous and I felt a fool for thinking such thoughts. I had always figured that if the climbing on a first ascent got too rough then I'd aid it. I didn't care about getting first free ascents, per se. I just wanted the adventure. And there it was, stuck in my head as a beetle in a spider's web - why was I climbing? Was it for the escape or for the adventure? It was even more frustrating when two women walked up the path behind "Blow" and I shouted down "any interest in climbing Bonnie's?" They looked up at me and I was instantly disappointed to learn that the women weren't "Ratherbe" and "Caboose", which I had assumed when I first saw them. Yes, I had even inquired about two other climbers on "Ant's Line" if they wanted to climb "Bonnie's", too, but the turned the opportunity down. At this point I was actively looking for someone to bail me out. I was ashamed. I had reached a point where I knew that first ascents were not in my future. I knew that if I didn't climb with someone stronger than me that I shouldn't push the grade, and I knew that I needed to climb harder routes with someone who could bail me out: "Ratherbe", "Jello", etc. This was nothing against "Blow". This had nothing to do with him at all. It was all about me and my lack of courage and my wealth of incompetence. Just like Francis Macomber would have understood all to unfortunately, I had injured the lion and was willing to let it slowly bleed to death despite it's willingness to fight back. I was being cruel, and everyone who was paying attention knew it. Unlike Francis, however, I knew it more than anyone else.
"Blow" and I conversed several times about what I was going to do. He felt more than confident than I did that he'd be able to do the foot-less traverse to the right, as long as there were large hand holds then he'd be fine. I wasn't sure I could do it, and I wasn't sure I wanted to put him in a position to test himself in that way. I was also sure he could do it, too, but if he fell then it wouldn't have been his fault. In fact, him merely climbing the traverse wouldn't have been his decision because he would have been doing his duty as the second. I thought again about aiding the roof, but I couldn't even get to where the next piece needed to go, how was I going to aid it if I couldn't place the gear?
I thought and thought and thought for a long time. I was at least 20 minutes at the wide crack below the roof when I finally made the decision that it was too dangerous for me to try the traverse and too unfair to expect "Blow" to risk himself on the traverse as well. I had to make it up. Three tries later and I finally plugged my first cam in the upper crack, and I rested. I then moved out left, horizontally to the end of the roof, where the crack also ended and where one exits past the roof, and placed a red Link-cam. "Blow" took in the rope and I rested on that. This was working. I was getting somewhere. I knew that if I just rested a little while longer then I could pull the final moves to the rest stance above. I dangled and shook out my arms. The tide was turning. I had actually managed to pull through a difficult section when I had nothing left in my arms. I was happy, and then -
- CRRRACCKKKK!!! -
- Me: What the fuck?
- "Blow" (about 100 feet below me): What the hell was that?
- Me: The Link-cam.
- "Blow": What?
- Me: Holy shit, I gotta go, NOW!
I threw my hands to the jugs above and hauled myself up. Pain surged in my biceps as I ignored technique and pulled myself higher. There was no falling now. I was not going to fall. My breaths were shallow and quick and I felt my nose and the muscles around my mouth go numb. One jug led to another and before I knew it I was at the rest stance trying to slow down my hyperventilation. I had swore the cam was good. There was no reason whatsoever for it to crack like that. The mere thought that a cam had possibly broken shook me inside. I climbed the rest of the route clean because it was easy and because the adrenaline was shooting through my body and mind. "Blow" came up and commented how stiff that section was and that I shouldn't be embarrassed. But I was, and it wasn't because of the climbing but more because of my attitude. There was a question as to whether we were going to head down because the second pitch is a no-fall pitch in certain sections (lack of decent gear and the fixed pins are a bit sketchy). But I had just gone through one of the more difficult periods of my climbing life and I wasn't going down without leading the easier money pitch.
Just to be clear, though, there was nothing wrong with the Link-cam. It merely moved a little bit as I hung on it. The sound was much worse than it really was. I was relieved to hear that, but it was difficult to get past the fear that the sound had invoked.
Horseman (5.5) - Trad - One pitch - Gear anchor (<-- Click here for guidebook info)
I was completely toast by the time we got down from the top of "Bonnie's" but "Blow" still had a bit more in him. He had already knocked off one of his goals (his first 5.6 lead in the 'Gunks) and wanted to knock off another. "Horseman" is one of those classic climbs that only certain people have ever climbed: those who climb at the 'Gunks when it is not busy, those who are lucky enough to have jumped on the route when it is busy, and those who are lucky enough to remember when the 'Gunks weren't so busy. The rest of the climbers are like me: those who climb at the 'Gunks on weekends and easily resist the urge to climb in the sickeningly busy and loud Uberfall area. But because Saturday was such a shockingly unbusy day, this classic was open and "Blow" took the lead.
Because "Horseman" is so sustained "Blow" took his time working through the traverse and upper face. There were a few moments when he called down to me but we couldn't hear each other due to the road noise down below. Still, I never once thought he was going to peel off the route, and I was impressed at his stamina when I finally climbed up.
By the time we walked down the walkoff, the girls had met us at the base. It was time for swimming and dinner at Split Rock, so we packed up and headed down for some refreshing, cold water and campstove vittles.
Hans Puss (5.7) - Trad - Three pitches - Mixed anchors (<-- Click here for guidebook info)
"Hans Puss" is one of the wildest climbs at the grade that I've ever been on. Each pitch has fun and interesting moves with a unique flair that makes one wonder which one is the money pitch. Add in the fact that the gear isn't always great and the moves aren't always the most predictable, and you've got a climb that gets the blood flowing from the ground to the top.
Because it was "Blow" and "Caboose"'s anniversary, the plan was to climb until 2pm so they could get out of town early. At that point, "Ratherbe" and I would decided what we wanted to climb in the afternoon while the other two ran off to a secret, romantic hiding place somewhere in the Berkshires. And we knew it was going to be hot on Sunday, but just how hot was not something we fully understood.
The walk in was warm, and "Blow" and I hoped the route would be in the shade. We were discouraged to find that the entirety of the first two pitches were in direct sunlight, and it was going to be particularly bad for "Blow" because he was going to lead the first pitch while I was going to lead the second pitch. This meant that he'd be hanging at the bolts at the top of the first pitch the entire time I climbed both pitches. But he racked up and cruised through his second 5.6 lead in the 'Gunks in as many days. He hesitated a little bit at the physical crux where a high step was required to clear some slick rock, but once he found the high step he was fine. He's a much stronger climber than he gives himself credit for, and I felt that on each of the past two 5.6 leads that he did, in each instance where he was a bit wigged out at the crux, he ended up climbing through it easily once he discovered how to climb it. In other words, it was more about route finding for him than it was actually making the move. It was funny, though, because the mental crux is over an exposed, traversing step that doesn't appear to have many holds at first. He looked down at me and asked me to read the route description a couple of times because he couldn't believe that what he was about to do was still at the grade. But he hesitated much less this second time because I think he read the route confidently enough to make that exposed step. Once he did, he was at the anchors in no time. Now, to be completely fair, even though I lead a couple of grades harder than he does, when I got to that same exposed spot I said, "holy crap!" and I saw instantly what he was seeing when he was on lead. The moves were definitely easy, but you have to commit before you see that the holds are good all the way across the gap and around the arrete. It was a bold lead for him, and I hope that he gets more comfortable at the grade as the season progresses.
It was hot at the bolts. The rock was hot to touch and "Blow" was sweating profusely. He had also been on some medications lately and had to stay away from sunburns moreso as a result. I looked up at the roof above me and the left-facing corner seemed harder than 5.7, but I figured that it would be easier once I got up there and checked it out. But the book said to traverse right. I looked right of the corner directly above us and saw another left-facing corner with chalk directly below it. "Well," I said, "if it has chalk then that must be where the route goes." The only problem was that I couldn't see chalk in the corner itself (only below it), and there was a lot of lichen around were I figured the climbing would be. Neither option looked good.
I was a bit nervous because all this year I've been short on endurance, particularly the day after pumping myself on a hard climb. "Bonnie's" had taken the energy out of me completely, or so it seemed. I was still able to climb the 5.7 final pitch and a sustained 5.5 at the end of the day after that, and I felt fine so far on Sunday despite the heat slowly sapping me of my energy. Did I really want to do this harder-than-5.7 corner above me? Did I really want to take a pass on that and risk heading up through the lichen and chalk? I told "Blow" that I was going to head up and check out each corner before committing to one of them. I figured that once I got closer I'd be able to see which one was the right corner to take. So I headed up and took a look.
The first corner looked much harder up close than I expected. I figured that once I got closer I'd see better holds, but there were none to be found so I followed the chalk right to the lichen and took a peak at that corner instead. This, too, had no decent holds, and the lichen was everywhere. There was no clear path up through this corner, at least one that had been climbed in 2009 (or else it would have been a bit cleaner than it was).
I traversed back left to the first corner and rested on better holds. I asked "Blow" to read the description again, and this time we interpreted it differently. Instead of traversing right and heading up 50 feet, we read it as if it was saying traverse right 50 feet and then head up. I couldn't see a corner that far to the right from my vantage point, but "Blow" could see a very shallow corner way off and I decided to head there.
This was a good decision because it turned out to be correct. I later learned that the original corner was actually the second pitch of "Feast of Fools", a 5.10a pitch that "Ratherbe" had actually led a couple of weeks before with another partner. It was her first 'Gunks 5.10 lead, and I felt a little foolish for not remembering her description of the pitch (and where this pitch was located). I also felt a little foolish for not realizing that the reason why there was chalk below the second corner and not up in it was because that chalk was used on the traverse farther out right. It all made sense once I saw how the route went. I shook my head at myself for wasting so much time hanging on in the sapping sun.
Anyway, once I got to the proper corner, I started to play around and realized that the climbing here was harder than I expected. I told "Blow" that I had found the crux, and he confirmed that he had me if I fell (not that he needed to say that, but it's always a nice conversation to have before you crap your pants). After meddling on the rock for a few minutes, all the while that "Blow" remained hanging at the bolted belay directly in the sunshine, I found an easier way around the difficult climbing and reached the next stance. I played around there for a few minutes and once again told "Blow" that I had found the actual crux this time. Again he confirmed his attention to my climbing, and again I found an easier way around the awkward moves. A third stance brought me to the final moves below the ledge. I could clearly see where to go, but it was going to require using a semi-sloper to move up. This was the guaranteed crux, and I made a dynamic move up to the sloper, switched my feet around and shifted my body position so that I could free my other hand to grab the jug that was higher up. It was an exciting move that really got my blood pumping because my hands were sweating enough that I wasn't sure I'd be able to hold on to the sloper for very long. I was exilerated to have done that pitch, and I rushed up to the ledge to build and anchor so that "Blow" could get out of the sun.
He did fine through the entire pitch including the long, semi-unprotected traverse, the three "crux" moves, and searing heat. While the climb seemed fun and challenging enough, we knew that we had little energy to do another climb after this one. Despite what the girls wanted to do, "Blow" and I were ready to jump in the water at Split Rock. We were dehydrated, tired, and the back of his neck was redder than a fire truck. The plan was for him to lead the next pitch, a 5.5, but he was too sapped to do so. I took it on and had another wild experience.
The start of the third pitch is an awkward, yet fun offwidth that is much more comfortable for shorter people than taller people. I had to scrunch myself into the offwidth below a small roof and really commit to leaning way out away from the crack to get up and over the roof. It was only 5.5, but it felt pretty exposed despite being only about 10 feet above the ledge.
Once I pulled past the crack / roof, I stepped up onto a larger ledge and took a look at the right-facing corner above me. It looked pretty straight forward, so I headed up and immediately noticed there was some route-finding that I had to do. Things were a bit awkward for a few minutes while I figured out which of the non-lichen paths I should take, but I eventually found my way up to the blank slabs that lead away from the corner and to the right.
The slabs looked interesting. They weren't as slick as one would expect them to when looking at them from below, but the pins that protected them certainly didn't inspire confidence. I climbed up to the start of the hand traverse that led back left to the top of the corner and the belay ledge. The traverse looked wild with good hands down low and good feet up high. The two didn't match each other well without scrunching uncomfortably, so I tried to go with the good feet and use the crappy hands up higher. That was too pumpy, so I looked at using the lower hands with crappy feet on the slab below. I was surprised at how sticky the seemingly slick rock was, and within a few seconds I had my shoes off and an anchor built.
After "Blow" came up we determined that we were done. "Ratherbe" probably wanted to climb some more, but I was ready to jump in the water. "Blow" agreed, so we rapped off, packed up the gear, and headed up the carriage trail to meet the girls. "Ratherbe" still had her harness and gear on when we met her, but I was relieved to find that she had little to no motivation to climb the rest of the day. Split Rock was our destination, and we all were happy to feel the cold water rinse away the day's sticky heat. We parted ways after that and I felt better about the weekend. "Bonnie's" had still kicked my butt, but I was able to come back and climb a solid 5.7 with committing moves the next day, which was something I was worried about heading into Sunday. The biggest relief, though, wasn't that my endurance might have started to work it's way back, but more that I was able to work my way through a difficult situation without any help. Sure, it came with a lot of second guessing and some embarrassing whining, but I was still able to pull through. Am I ready for first ascents? Not by a long shot, but I'm slightly closer than I used to be, and I know that now, which may mean I'm a lot closer than I think I am.
Click here for all 2009 'Gunks photos (newest are first)