Friday, August 14, 2009

Ratherbe's Return

This wasn't looking good. We were at the base of Cannon, ready to tick off Moby Grape (5.8 III), the last great classic on Cannon that we really wanted, when we boldly declared there would be no rescue that day. We then struggled up Reppy's Crack on the first pitch, cruised the second pitch, and I, just under a half second away from pulling away from the Triangle Roof on the third pitch, slipped and fell downward to the slab below; landing awkwardly on my right ankle; feeling the same pain I had felt a few months earlier when I slipped on the ice and sprained my ankle requiring three months of rest; and causing our painful retreat. There would be no repeat of that - we swore - so we spoke of "hoping" to get all the climbs we wanted in North Conway instead of bragging that the climb would go. After we agreed on our attitude for the day, "Ratherbe", upon opening the trunk of her car after pulling into the climbers' lot near the base of Whitehorse Ledge, pulled out her gear and started getting ready for the hike in. I pulled my pack out, looked at her single rope in the trunk and said, "so where are the doubles?"

- "Ratherbe"(with eyes wider than her sunglasses and indignation painted across her face): Are you kidding me?
- Me: No, really, where are the ropes?
- "Ratherbe": Um, when you said on the phone we were using my gear and your ropes, I assumed you'd actually bring them.
- Me: Oh shit.

I was embarrassed. There was so much going on the evening I packed that I had completely forgot to bring the ropes. It was a minor miracle that she even had her single rope. I was still suffering from my turned ankle and I asked her to bring her single rope just in case we decided to aid something if I couldn't climb. So she did her duty and chucked her rope into the back of her car. I, being stressed out and rushed when I was packing, made sure to remember my aid gear, the stuff that I don't normally bring with me, but had left my doubles resting up against the wall in my bedroom, across from the right side of the bed and next to the mirror.

- Me: Well, that's OK, we'll just make the extra rap.
- "Ratherbe": Um, no. The first pitch of Children's Crusade is over 100 feet. My single isn't long enough for a rap that long. Remember, it's thirteen feet shorter than it used to be?
- Me: OK, let's do Lost Souls then. We can make the extra rap off Hotter Than Hell.
- "Ratherbe": I don't think that will work. Do we even know if we can do that?
- Me: We can figure something out I'm sure.
- "Ratherbe" (looking at the climbers racking up at the car to our left): Do you know the route?
- Climbers: Yeah, you need two ropes. There's no way around it.
- Me (sighing): Oh damn. Sorry. I really am. Crap. What are we going to do?
- "Ratherbe" (getting out her phone): Let me call a friend. He may have a tag line we can use.

It was at that point when the climbers racking up from the car to our right overheard our conversation.

- "Savior": What's up?
- Me (feeling like crap): I forgot the doubles, and the routes we're doing require two to get down.
- "Savior": You need a rope?
- Me: Yeah, if we can get her friend to lend -
- "Savior" (before I could finish my sentence): Here dude. Use this.

He tossed me an old, thick, red single rope. I was shocked. Who was this guy?

- Me: Oh thanks man, but are you sure?
- "Savior": I wouldn't have offered if I wasn't.
- "Ratherbe": Holy crap! That's awesome! Thanks a lot.
- "Savior": No problem. Glad to help. It's heavy, so you might want to use it as the tag line.

It was heavy, but I wasn't worried about it. I was just glad to have been saved from a late start (we would have had to driven back to "Ratherbe"'s friend's house), and from being completely castrated for forgetting the ropes. "Savior" and "Ratherbe" exchanged numbers and we figured out how to get his rope back to him at the end of the day. It was a great moment in climbing, I think. It certainly doesn't rank as high as Lynn Hill freeing The Nose, but hey, what other community sees acts of good faith such as this? A spare rope - a lifeline - given by a complete stranger to a pair of complete strangers, saved our day.

Children's Crusade (5.9) - Three pitches - Mixed trad and sport - Bolted anchors (<-- Click here for guidebook info)

Unlike the last time we climbed on Whitehorse the approach was easy this time. We knew exactly where to go because we had seen it three weekends before when we got lost looking for Inferno (5.8). The route looked pretty straight forward once we scoped it out, so I flaked out the ropes and "Ratherbe" racked up. This was going to be a good weekend for her. I was still limping about and I wasn't sure I would be able to lead anything above 5.7. Simply put, I needed jugs to climb on and the 5.9 and 5.10 (Lost souls) we chose for Saturday seemed as if they'd be too hard on my ankle for climbing clean. I also didn't want to take another fall and risk injuring my ankle even more. As a result, she was going to be able to pick and lead most, if not all, the pitches.

Once we were ready, "Ratherbe" headed up the blocky dike at the start and clipped the pin that helps to protect the initial traverse to the right. She then reached over and clipped the first bolt on the route, which is to the right of the pin, and started to move her way up to the second bolt. She gained the rest at the second bolt and looked around.

- "Ratherbe": There's a bail biner here on the second bolt.
- Me: Huh.
- "Ratherbe": And that third bolt is a long way away.

I didn't think much about it because the ledges leading up to the third bolt looked solid from below. Plus, while I knew it might have looked a long way away to her, she had been climbing well all season. It just didn't occur to me that she wouldn't be able to do it. It was only 5.9 after all, and this was essentially a sport climb at this point.

But she was worried about the fall. The math seemed different for us. To me, the distance between the second and third bolt was long but not so much that she'd hit the dike below if she fell. But to her, hitting the dike was almost imminent.

She moved up through the ledges and got to a point where her knot was about two feet above the second bolt, but the third bolt was still a foot or so beyond her reach. The next small ledge up was the last one before the wall turned blank just below the third bolt. There were more ledges after the bolt, but getting to those upper ledges would likely shift the math toward her hitting dike if she fell from so high up. Still, if she could have moved up just another foot or so then maybe she would have been able to reach and clip the bolt from below.

She stayed two feet above the second bolt for what seemed a long time. I was surprised by this because of how well she had been climbing this year, so I wanted to wave it off as route-finding and patience. But she kept talking about how far away the bolt looked, and each time she opened her mouth I heard her hesitancy grow. I soon began to realize that her head wasn't there. She down-climbed to the rest at the second bolt and thought things through. Then she went back up and felt around on the upper-most ledge below the third bolt. Where all the other ledges had nice crimps on them, this last one proved to be a sloper that was best used from below; in other words, it didn't get her up high enough to reach the third bolt, at least not easily or confidently. She was going to have to move up higher off the sloper to a position where she wasn't sure if the sloper would be good enough to clip from, and the math was starting to get on the fringe of her hitting the dike if she couldn't hold on from that position. She down-climbed again to the rest at the second bolt and I could see that she was rattled by the move.

- "Ratherbe": I don't know, dude. This looks hard.
- Me: I think you're fine. I think you can do it.
- "Ratherbe": I'm really worried about that dike though. I can see bad things happening if I fall.
- Me: I've got you, don't worry about it.
- "Ratherbe": It's not you I'm worried about. I'm worried about the ledge.

I still wasn't convinced she'd hit the ledge. For one, I was sure I'd be able to get some of the slack pulled in before the rope pulled taught. Two, I just didn't think she was going to be high enough for that to even matter. I was more worried about some of the small bulges in the rock a few feet above the dike than I was the dike itself. But this didn't matter to her. She was rattled now and I could see that. All I could do was offer confidence from below. She was going to have to make the decision on to proceed on her own. In the end, she decided to use the bail biner and to lower.

I asked if she was sure and she said "yes." So I lowered her. When she touched down she untied and sat down on the rock near where I had taken a seat. Tears swelled in her eyes and she wondered aloud whether our weekend was shot. North Conway doesn't have very many easy routes, and I'm pretty sure we've done many times over all the easy routes worth doing. I couldn't lead anything difficult due to my ankle, so everything either depended on us doing boring routes that we'd already done (and were guaranteed to be busy), her gaining her confidence back or, as she calmly noted, us renting a couple of tubes and floating down the Saco River.

I sat there and looked up. I wanted to get a little bit of climbing in and the moves up to the second bolt looked fun, so I asked her to give me a catch while I worked my way up to, and maybe a bit beyond, the second bolt. I noticed as soon as I got off the dike, however, that my ankle couldn't handle much smearing. I was able to put some pressure on it and make moves but not without a fair amount of grimacing. I hung several times at what I felt was the crux, which was moving from the first bolt up to the jugs below the second bolt, but was finally able to pull the moves to get to the rest where "Ratherbe" had decided to bail. I stood there and looked up: the moves looked fun and I wanted to do them. The thought of me taking this lead had actually crossed my mind before I roped up. I figured that I'd rest at the bolts if I needed to in order to rest my ankle, but I was worried about falling. If I fell and landed awkwardly then that could possibly put both of us in a position of having to get me out of the woods and back to the car - it didn't seem to be an good way to end the weekend so early on Saturday morning. Except for the other parties on the slabs down the path, there was no one else around to help carry me out if it came to that. Still, I wanted to go up to see what the moves were like. I was confident I could down-climb, so I went up and felt around.

While I wasn't as worried about the dike as "Ratherbe" was, I could see why she felt the third bolt was so far away. It was a committing move for sure. Down-climbing was going to be difficult once I committed to the sloper, so I decided not to move up any higher. I was kind of pissed, too, because I felt confident enough to make the moves. As it has been with my head all year, I've felt fine pushing myself. But this was different. I was hurt and hurting myself more was going to cause more problems than if I simply retreated. "Ratherbe" lowered me once I down climbed and we thought about what to do next.

- Me: You know, I saw a foot hold up there that I'm not sure you saw. It's off to the left a bit, and wouldn't be good for a handhold.
- "Ratherbe" (after realizing where I was pointing to): That's already past the point of commitment though. I want something easier that is lower.
- Me: Yeah, I agree, but I don't think that if you fall you'll hit the dike. I really don't.
- "Ratherbe" (the tears came back): I know. I'm mad at myself. I'm mad that I'm worried about it. It's just a stupid bolt. I shouldn't have anything to worry about.
- Me: Well, maybe you just go up there and take a small fall, on purpose. Make sure you clip the first bolt just in case anything happens, but you're right, it's a bolt. You really should be fine.
- "Ratherbe": It's funny because I told someone recently that all of my big trad falls have all come on bolts.
- Both of us: laugh.

We tossed around our options for a few minutes. Lost Souls (5.10a) was out of the question now. We could drive back to Cathedral and play in the North End on some of the easier one-pitch routes that she hadn't climbed yet. Or we could go tubing. It was all up in the air until she stood up and said she was going to give it another go.

She tied in and I put her on belay. She was on toprope to the second bolt, so the climbing was quicker than it was last time. After clipping the first bolt and switching the second bolt from the bail biner to a draw, she paused, chalked up, and move up to the easier ledges below the slopers. I put myself in a position where I wouldn't have to use my right ankle much if she fell, and I waited for her to move. She stayed on the good ledges for what seemed an eternity. When she had gone back up I thought for sure she had removed the panic from her soul and was ready to send. But her arms and legs went tense. Her whole body stiffened up, and then she let go. She let out a little squeak at the moment she began to descend downward but her breathing had slowed down by the time she rested at the end of the fall.

- Me: How do you feel?
- "Ratherbe": Fine.
- Me: See where you landed? You're a good several feet or so above the dike. No problem.
- "Ratherbe": Yeah, OK. I feel better about that now.

She then moved back up to the good ledges and I prepared for a second practice fall. But instead of falling, which she later told me she wanted to do a second time (and I had told her before she started back up that if all we got out of the entire weekend was her feeling good about taking safe falls then it would be a satisfying weekend), she got the urge to keep going. I saw her grab the slopers, hesitate, then move her feet up high with one foot up on the hold I had pointed out earlier. It was a bit of a struggle, and I was completely ready for her to peel at any moment, but after a few seconds of grasping for gear and desperately reaching for the bolt, she clipped it, then she clipped the rope, and she then moved up to easier holds above for a rest.

The distance between the third and fourth bolts was even greater than the second and third, but she found the climbing easier when she focused on making one move at a time. Before long, she had me on belay and I was working my way up.

I really struggled on the climb. My ankle was sore, but I was still able to make the moves. It was odd because it felt more sore when I lifted it off the rock compared to when I weighted it. The traverse at the top made us both nervous due to my instability, but I made it OK and anchored in.

- "Ratherbe": You know, I'm not so sure I want to continue.
- Me: OK, that's fine. But why not?
- "Ratherbe": Well, I just don't know if I'm feeling it. That pitch scared me more than any other pitch I've ever been on, and it was bolted.
- Me: OK, what does this pitch look like. Let's take a look at it and think for a moment.

We looked up and saw that the first moves appeared to be the crux. They were protected by a bolt a few feet and left of the anchor. From there was a series of overlaps. There were no bolts and there was no clear sign of where to go. We hadn't brought the guidebook up with us, but we both remembered that the book said the climb wandered over the overlaps. We felt good that we knew where to go at the very least.

- Me: Well, to be honest, it doesn't look that bad. I mean, there's a bolt here to start off with. That has to help.
- "Ratherbe": Yeah, but the rest looks to be trad. What do you think, particularly with your ankle?
- Me: I can do whatever. I brought my stuff to jug if need be. It hurts, but I'm OK. I can get up if that's what we need to do. I think it's up to you really. I wouldn't worry about me.
- "Ratherbe": OK, but I'm still nervous.
- Me: Honestly, I don't think your nearly as nervous as you were down there.

I'm sure people get to know their partners well if they've climbed with them enough. "Ratherbe" faces self-doubt a fair bit, but I can often see past that by looking at her body language. Sometimes she says things just to get positive feedback, in case she's missing something when she is actually feeling OK. In fact, I was confident she'd do fine as I watched her pick her way up the ledges between the third and fourth bolts. She just looked better and the hesitancy in her voice wasn't the same as it was when she bailed.

- Me: It's your decision. We can do it or go down, but, really, you did well once you got going. I say we keep going. I mean, as you said, you don't really want to have to come back do you?
- "Ratherbe": No, I don't.

She was fine, but I knew that first pitch was still in her head. We had climbed past the scariness, so it was if the demon had already been slayed. Having to conquer that demon a second time was not something she wanted to do again. In fact,it was a pretty powerful motivator, so we switched out the gear, flaked the rope, and she went up. It turned out that the crux was right at the bolt off the anchor, so the rest, despite being somewhat of a route-finding adventure, was pretty easy for her. I followed her up when she got top and again we discussed continuing.

- "Ratherbe": OK, so, this time I'm less scared and more concerned about the lack of pro at the top.
- Me: What do you mean? It's a crack up to that bulge. It looks fine.
- "Ratherbe": Look above that.

I looked up and realized why she was concerned. It was true that there was good protection for the first twenty feet or so, but once that ended there was a blank section that would have resulted in a nasty fall for the leader if she had fallen making the moves on that upper section. Any fall from the upper section would send the leader a decent distance (maybe about twenty feet in total) back into a low-angle slab with a swing into a corner. I certainly didn't want her to take that fall, but the question came up, did we really want to come back up here again? After all, this was the 5.8 pitch, so it wasn't going to be as hard as the other two. We discussed the merits of going back down when she decided it was probably OK to climb up to the blank section and then down-climb if it seemed too sketchy. After all, as we had discussed before, she did not want to have to come back and do this again and this seemed to be a good plan.

She started off and climbed up the first bit in the crack. When she was about half-way up I realized that she was jamming her toes in the crack. "Fuck," I said. "I actually forgot this was a crack." She looked back at me and asked if she wanted me to continue. I thought about it and wondered if my ankle would be able to take the tweaking, but I figured I'd be able to get around it and said she could continue.

She did fine through the crack and the blocky section above the crack. It was the upper section that we had discussed at the belay that made her nervous. There was no pro nor any bolts, and this blank section had a few moves that required her to stretch so that she was just able to grab the upper holds. I really didn't want her to fall and asked if she wanted to climb down. "No," she said, "I think I can do it. Besides, I'm here and it's only 5.8."

She was at a point where she had to be committed. Falling really wasn't much of an option and giving a soft catch was going to be difficult. Either way, if she fell she was going to hit hard on something. I just hoped I was able to keep her from swinging out of control into something after the impact. At first she stretched up and was just able to reach the upper holds, but she was so stretched out that she didn't have much room to move. This meant she was going to have to use intermediate holds when they weren't that good. One slip and she was going to scream back down to the low-angle crack below, possibly swinging into the blocky corner, too. She swore when she realized that one of the holds she had decided to trust didn't turn out to be as good as she thought it would be. "I wouldn't have used it if I had known it was going to be this bad," she said. I didn't say much because I figured she was really talking just to get the nervousness out. She had committed to the hold and now had to move off it.

I admit that I was nervous. We had talked things through all the way up, and I hadn't felt nervous until now. Oddly, I think she looked less nervous at this moment than at any other crux on the climb: she was confident in her ability now, but was unsure about the actual climbing. Still, I had confidence that she was going to pull through. I'd seen her too many times back down only when she knew she could and send when she knew falling wasn't an option. She was smart about the whole thing, and I trusted that.

Finally, after a few tense moments, she grabbed the good holds that she had when she was fully stretched out. She pulled up and mantled to the top (this was the third mantle she had to do, and she was not happy to have done any of them). The climbing wasn't over yet, but she was in a much more stable position now and we both felt better (particularly after she finally placed a cam that was about 15 feet above her last piece).

It was my turn when she got to the top and I basically hauled myself up the crack with one foot. This was the kind of crack that I actually enjoy; it was the kind where I could lock my knuckles and know I wasn't going anywhere. But I couldn't jam my right foot without it hurting, so I smeared off it while I jammed my left foot instead. God that hurt. As it had all the way up, my ankle felt worse when I lifted it up as opposed to when I pressed my weight on it. Still, I was able to get up with ease through the section "Ratherbe" had to commit to, mainly because I could reach the upper holds where she could not.

We agreed that was the end of the day. She was fairly emotionally spent and I was aching for some ibuprofin and the cold-water in the Saco River. We packed up and made the slow hike out. After we cooked dinner and swam in the river, we found "Savior" and returned his rope. We were thankful for his generosity and hope he gets some good karma rewards in return.

The Saigons (5.8+) - Sport / trad - Two pitches - Bolted anchors (<--Click here for guidebook info)

Bird's Nest (5.9-) - Trad - One pitch - Tree Anchor (<--Click here for guidebook info)

Sunday was a slow day. I wasn't feeling ambitious about climbing, so "Ratherbe" ran up The Saigons (5.8+) while I jugged them (NOT an easy thing to do, by the way. I might have found it easier to actually climb the damn thing). We remembered that we couldn't rap down because we didn't have two ropes anymore, so we belayed each other across the sketchy traverse back to the Thin Air ledge and hitched a ride back to the bottom. "Ratherbe" still wanted one more climbing before we headed up, so we went up to the North End wall and she ran up Bird's Nest (5.9-). I taught her how jug after that and we packed up and went home before the rain hit later that afternoon. It was an interesting weekend, and I think we were both glad that it was both over and had turned out the way it did. Yeah, Children's Crusade was scary, but we got through it. Yeah, I was limping all weekend long, but we got through that, too. She knocked off three climbs that were on her tick list and we each got the crap scared out of us. It's funny because when I look back on this weekend I don't see a lot of climbing, but I do see a lot of living life, and that's what is most important in the end.

Click here for all 2009 North Conway photos.

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