Thursday, October 07, 2010

In the Shadow of Giants

The North Side of Looking Glass
It was a cliff I had only seen in vague pictures. Random snapshots showed immaculate, laser-cut granite. Daring aid lines, hard free climbs, the North Side of Looking Glass has both. This six hundred foot, overhanging shield of rock has been toying with me for the last few years. It stands as an objective, a true test of abilities. It was a trip I had always wanted to plan but have never made happen. It still hasn't. However, now I have seen it with my own eyes. The pictures do no justice. I am ensnared.

Our plans that day were born out of constraint. “Fearless Leader” had wanted to go sport climbing in Tennessee, but I had to be back in town for a concert by eight. Atlanta traffic made that a tricky proposition. I offered up Curahee and Mount Yonah, local granite crags, but “Fearless” wanted to spend his limited climbing time on something better. Eventually, we decided on Looking Glass. The hot weather precluded us from the Sun Wall, leaving us with The Nose Area and the North Side. Having had our fill of The Nose's eyebrow paddling in previous years, we decided to go with the North Side. One route in particular had caught my eye for the day.

The Sperm (5.9+ III) marks the far left end of the North Side on a section of the cliff called the Cornflake Crack Buttress. Although not as tall or sheer as the North Side proper, this little section still packs quite the punch. Of the cliff's six routes, The Sperm is the only one with a sub 5.10 grade. As I always try to be as humble as possible once I step into North Carolina, that was the route for me.
The Sperm's first pitch.

The approach itself was easy, short, and uneventful, but its ending was not. Out of nowhere, the cliff appeared. Nothing but trees and small boulders filled my vision only seconds before, yet here was this sublime cliff. Six hundred feet of overhanging granite bore down upon me. I felt like Dr. Grant in Jurassic Park when he first saw the dinosaurs, overwhelmed, ecstatic. I had previously planned to get straight to the climbing, but this was far too much to take in. I dropped my pack and started walking the base of the wall. My wandering was duly rewarded. Imposing roofs, steep splitters, and blank bulges all looked down upon me. I was an ant, maybe smaller. Never have I spent a better hour, so much reward for so little work.

Reunited with my pack, I made my way towards our objective. I had planned on getting on The Sperm first due to our time constraints, but the 5.8 first pitch of Safari Jive (5.11c II) looked too good to pass up. It proved to be an excellent warm up with jams from sub-tips to off-fists, but nothing could prepare me for what was coming next. After eating a quick lunch, I headed up the first pitch of The Sperm. The pitch starts with a fairly easy slab but soon funnels you into narrowing slot. After placing a nest of gear, I stepped out of the chimney into a nice vertical finger crack. I was not going to chimney if I could help it, but sadly, this alternate route brought me right back in. Now there was no debating. It was grovel time.
"Fearless" cruising the chimney.
The first few moves went smoothly, and I found myself lulled into a false sense of security when suddenly the chimney narrowed to a tight twelve inches. I was stuck. I couldn't move my legs. I couldn't move my torso. I could barely move my head. I wanted to bail. I wanted to cry. I had never felt so immobilized. The chimney was so strenuous that I soon ran out of energy. This is when I found out how hard it is to fall in a squeeze chimney. My body went limp. I expected the rush of air. The grating of coarse granite, but it never came. I simply hung there, my hips jammed against the wall. That is perhaps the oddest feature of a squeeze chimney. It takes bounds of energy to move just an inch, but just sitting there takes none at all. Progress was slow. I would find some little micro chip and be able to move another inch up, but then I could not move my legs. For every three inches of upward progress, I was falling two inches. It seemed like an eternity. I was caught in climbing purgatory. Finally, dripping sweat profusely, I reached up and grabbed the jug that would pull me out of the awful thing. For all my trouble, I was greeted with a small sloping ledge and a flaring little horizontal to build a less than confidence inspiring anchor.

Fearless Leader” cruised right up the chimney. I am fairly certain that he did it to make me angry. However, revenge would soon be mine. The next pitch was a hundred feet of flaring hands in an obtuse corner. Of true sport climbing stock, “Fearless Leader” avoids jamming like his life depends on it. After racking up, I enthusiastically set off towards those wonderful rattly jams. Since the first fifteen feet of the crack are throughly vegetated, I had to do some classic NC, unprotected slabbing to get to it. The most positive aspect of slab is that you can always stand up on something worse than you think. The worse part of slab is that part about the thinking. Not terribly satisfied with the prospect of factor twoing onto “Fearless Leader's” head, I nervously committed to some sad looking smears and plugged in a three inch cam. At the risk of being repetitive, the bad thing about flaring cracks is that the placements are never as good as you would like. Luckily, nothing provides a better foot jam than a flaring hand crack and I paddled easily up the next twenty feet. Somewhere in that section I placed my only .75 Camalot. This turned out to be a rather large mistake. Every time that the crack turned difficult, I needed one. I could have easily placed four on the pitch. Alas, I was content to be scared. Finally, after a thorough calf burning, the crack pinched to locker fingers and I jammed my way to the anchor.

Unburdened by the fear of a nasty fall, “Fearless Leader” scampered up the initial slab like a professional. He even was using hand jams in the crack. Even though he refused to jam his feet, I was still impressed. It all got screwy when the crack got steeper, however. In a most extreme effort in crack avoidance, he started chimneying the corner. I was amazed. He was chimneying a 130 degree corner. I could never dream of doing something like that, simply amazing. This strenuous maneuver did not work out for him in the long term, and he eventually conceded to the crack. As a matter of principal, he kept his feet out.
"Fearless" looking for some relief.

Once “Fearless” arrived at the belay I began scoping out the next pitch. It looked like a piece of cake, and I wondered if I had accidentally linked the last two pitches. The third pitch was supposed to be the crux, but this looked so easy. It was a bomber finger crack with amazing feet. There was no way that it was the crux. I didn't even bother getting all of my gear back from “Fearless”. Pleasantly surprised that I had inadvertently completed the difficulties, I started climbing the cruiser crack. Reality check. The rock was steeper than it looked. The crack was thinner than it looked. Still, I was optimistic. I fiddled in two small offsets, and stood up into the corner above. Bad news, the crack decided to conveniently end there. Putting my faith in balance. I maneuvered a high step, and reached towards the sky. I barely reached a thin, sloping horizontal. There I was, feet fully extended, above micros, a wonderfully exposed position. I carefully planted my foot on a horizontal far to the right, and with all the finesse I could muster, stood up into a delightfully shallow flare. To my delight, I found a perfectly serviceable yellow friend in situ, which I happily clipped. The next few moves were fantastic, a delicate symphony of oppositional force and frictional faith. Soon, I was out of the crack and into a field of eyebrows.

For those not familiar with eyebrows, I will give a quick summary. Eyebrows are the trade mark feature of Looking Glass although they do appear sporadically at other granite areas. Although they look like bomber horizontals from the ground and appear to create easy jug ladders from the sky, nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of them provide no purchase as a handhold. Occasionally, they will be useful as an undercling, but they are rarely parallel enough to fiddle gear into. If the gods of the tricam cult are smiling upon you, you may find yourself fiddling in the sketchiest looking tricams imaginable. Overall, they are great fun. Some, such as “Fearless”, find them monotonous, but you owe it to yourself to try them out at least once.

Once into the brow laden slabs, I clipped a cool Leeper Z-Ton and broke left, following the path of least lichen. The climbing was tricky, yet not overly difficult. Thanks to plentiful gear, it was not even scary. Over a hundred feet past the belay, I plugged a gold Camalot and made a few moves. I now found myself in a tricky situation. I had a slopey, quartz crimp for my right hand but no good feet. I high stepped on a small dish, and cranking as hard as I could on my right, began the process of standing. Immediately, I felt the rope. It stretched as I moved then contracted. The jolt yanked me from my delicate position and I began to fall. Somehow, a miracle is not out of the question, I caught myself on that greasy crimp and an eyebrow. I yelled down at “Fearless” but could not hear his response. I yelled again, telling him that I needed slack. Now I prepared to make the move again, this time, pulling the rope up first to make sure. It went smoothly, and now, I was on significantly slabbier ground. The route eased up considerably, but eyebrows tend to be far more positive on steeper rock. On this slabby stuff, there was not a single piece of pro to be found. That combined with the fear of short roping made the last fifty feet of the climb a real test of nerves. I cannot say that I was not relieved when I reached the fixed anchor, a nut and a small wired hex under a boulder.

Happy to be on the summit.
After taking a few falls, “Fearless” made it to the top, and we made the two double rope raps to the ground. On land once again, I checked my phone and was shocked, It was almost five. We were supposed to be on the road an hour ago. I was going to be late for the concert. To make matters worse, we would not even have time for our Mexican food ritual, not to mention me being in trouble with the lady back home. We packed up our gear and ropes in haste and began the hike out. Both of us were completely thrashed, I by the the chimney, “Fearless” by the crack. It is funny how malleable time is. The hike on the way in seemed to be all of five minutes before it ended abruptly. The climb, which in reality took almost five hours, was over in a flash. The hike out, however, dragged on into infinity. The faster I walked, the longer the path became. The slight downhill grade that made the approach such a delight came back at us now with a vengeance. Still, I was not discouraged. All we could talk about was the future. Cracks, big walls, even sport climbs, everything was before us. Nothing beats sore bodies, optimism, and the first wafts of crisp fall air.

The classic third pitch crux of The Womb (5.11 III)

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