Saturday, November 06, 2010

The New (All About Commitment)

The New River from Snake Buttress
 My speedometer cruised at the speed limit on my first West Virginian Deliverance road despite feeling uncomfortably five-miles too fast. The hilly, single-lane road was the short way to Fayetteville according to my GPS, and since I was trying to save money, and since the shortcut was only five minutes longer by time, I took the road less travelled, which raised my eyebrows in two different ways: split between staring around the blinded curves ahead and at the crumbling wooden houses separated by muddy yards, rusted pick-up trucks, and the neatly stacked wood piles that fueled the smoke-spewing chimneys that rose up from the wavy tin roofs on top. I was heading to The New and greatly looking forward to it.

"Rocky" came to meet me when I pulled my car around his sloping green yard to the dirt lot on the side. His off-southern accent threw me; I knew I wasn't blanketed by steely New England atmosphere anymore, but I wasn't expecting the twang to be so novel. It was as if I had never heard a southerner speak before, and it took me at least ten seconds to respond to his query about if I was the dude with the car with Maine plates with a long, drawn out, and wide-eyed "Ayuh." He smiled, shook my hand and welcomed me to his campground by giving me the scoop and telling me how much I'd owe him at the end of my nine days. He certainly seemed friendly enough.

The New River Gorge Bridge
After building my fortress of tent and tarp back in the woods, I wandered over to the fire and sat down to meet the locals. Most were living there and had been there for months, some even with jobs in the area, which surprised me since I was willing to bet it'd be just as cheap to rent an apartment with friends for about $200/month for each person, but whatever, they were living the dirtbagging life and I was a guest at their table so all I did was nod, smile, and listen to their stories. It wasn't my scene, but since "N/A" hadn't arrived yet there was nothing to do but dodge the smoke and gauge the life of the southern rock climber.

The one thing that surprised me the most as the days wore on, however, is that some the dirtbaggers I saw around the Rocky Top Retreat campground weren't your ordinary dirtbaggers. The ones I had seen out in Moab took in the daily free meal in the center of town when they weren't out sketching on crumbling sandstone. In the 'Gunks it was students or the truly unemployed who hitched to town to the local bagel shop just to snare the day-old bagels for free that would otherwise be thrown out. One guy ate those exclusively while he soloed and tried to figure out where he was going to go next when the weather turned cold. I'd seen rusted pick-up trucks in The Valley, real dreadlocks (the kind from a lack of washing over six months or so) in the Adirondacks where camping in the forest is free, and dirt-caked skin in Vegas, but those at the New drove Jags and had souped up thirty thousand-dollar vans pimped to the gills with stoves, stereos, and secondary batteries plugged to the hilt with laptops and MP3 players. These weren't dirtbaggers. They were trustafarians complaining about getting their weed stolen. For the rest of the time I climbed with "N/A" I shied away from the scene just because I neither felt I belonged nor did I want to be; it simply wasn't genuine.
I was sleepy that night, so I didn't stay up too late. My drive had taken me from Maine to Boston to the 'Gunks to Penn State and from there through Maryland to Fayetteville. The road was hilly cutting through the mountains. It was two miles up hill and two miles down, and my fuel efficiency lost a tenth of a mile going up and gained it back on the way down. The foliage was just past peak with there being more brown and grey bark than red and orange floating leaves, but the small towns were still rustic and pretty, and I was glad to have experienced this drive that cut straight through the heart of the east. But it was the climbing I was there for, and when "N/A" arrived the next day, and after he had set up his tent and we figured out where to start out, we hit Bubba City so that I could get a feel for the rock on some moderates mid-week before the crowds jammed the place in a few day's time.

The climbing felt easy that first day, just as clipping bolts always does after a few weeks of exclusively plugging gear. We stuck to the classics at the Tattoo Wall (Zietgiest (10a), The Decameron (10b), and a few other eights and nines along the way) with the idea that there was no reason to get on anything that sucked because I wasn't there long enough to work something uninteresting. The Decameron was my first taste of pure, New River Gorge joy with a thoughtful crux and fun determination that led me to the redpoint. Zeitgeist, on the other hand, sandbagged me a little bit. It is an extension of Crescendo (5.9), which is a slabby route with a balancy crux just below the anchors, and I looked up to the overhangs above and thought, "This looks like an eight." It felt it too, with both me and "N/A" agreeing that it felt softer than the grade after we had climbed it. Naturally this led me to believe that I was about to have a great week. "If 10a feels like this," I thought to myself, "then I should be able to bag my first 11a sport route and 10a gear route before I leave." I was giddy.

"N/A" topping out on
The Decameron (5.10b)
It wasn't until we went to Orange Oswald over at Summersville Lake that I realized the routes at Bubba were softer than the rest of the area. We started on  Hippie Dreams (5.7) and that felt hard for the grade. Then we moved on to Souled Out (5.9) and that felt hard. Chunko Goes Bowling (5.9) went better, but we brought the gear out for The Hell With That (5.9), an old bolted route with chopped bolts at the top, and I hung at the first bolt down below. This was frustrating. Maybe I hadn't judged The New correctly at all. It seemed I was about to endure another week of climbing the same old grades. Barriers were going to have to wait. "N/A" wanted to rack up for an unnamed 5.9 at the right side of the crag. It was a crack below a chimney that was followed by a crack splitting a roof at the top, and it looked intimidating to me. With how I was feeling, it didn't seem a good fit, so I belayed him and watched him clean it on the way down. He had made it look easy just as he had made all the other routes look easy. It was clear that he was a better climber than me, and it was obvious I was lagging behind. I needed something to end the day that was going to leave me in a better frame of mind than what I had settled into. The warm sun from earlier in the day had faded to a cool shade. I looked up at She Got the Bosch and I got Drilled (5.10a) and figured I was going to fall all over the place.

A nice rest
Every overhanging move challenged me, and each clip felt desperate. Route-finding seemed obvious at times and non-existent at others, and all of it was done while "resting" one arm after the other, constantly switching from the high crimp with the right hand to the low undercling with left hand all so that I could chalk up my sweaty palms. I wanted to hang-dog the route. My persona says that's what I should have done, but I decided to play me instead and stuck to the route, finding rests where I needed them and the courage to climb through where I couldn't rest. It probably took me a half hour to move up the 90 feet of overhangs, but when I touched down on the ground I threw "N/A" a high-five and was happy with the way the day ended, clean, without desperation, and mostly static. I was suddenly in a much better frame of mind.

This definitely transferred over to the weekend, which was now the time to plug gear. We risked the weekend crowds and headed to Bridge Buttress where there were a slew of moderate classics that we both felt were in our capabilities. I personally enjoyed the view of the bridge from underneath, but that's less about climbing and more about enjoying your current space.

Our first route was Easily Flakey (5.7), which was an R-rated route that was more fun than scary with an annoying, in-the-way tree followed by an exposed, runout 5.5 traverse. It was a good warm-up for Zag (5.8), which was the supposed first route in The New. As a crack, this route intimidated me a little bit, particularly the off-fingers crux near the start, and I hung twice on lead the first time up. But I also felt good about it for some reason. My distaste for cracks is well-documented, but there was something about this crack that seemed doable a second time around. At 5.8 it should have been a lot harder to me than it felt. The Bubba City feeling was creeping back into me. "Cracks at this grade should completely shut me down," I thought to myself, but again, after yesterday's finish at Orange Oswald, my heart was in a sending mood.

I needed a rest, so "N/A" ran right up it after I did, and I went back up for the redpoint. The finger jams were easier this time around and the chicken-wing at the top was secure as I secured my feet underneath me. My fingers slotted perfectly, my feet got stuck where I wanted them to, and the plentiful rests got me through the strain of climbing the hard sections in that way that I was never afraid of falling. For the first time in a while I actually enjoyed a crack climb. I felt again as if The New was being good to me.

Belaying at Junkyard Wall
All that changed on our next route, however, which was a corner with a slick lay-back roof at the crux. Chockstone (5.9) seemed from the ground as if the crux was down low and the top would be smooth sailing. The gear in the thin, slanting, flaring cracks looked sketchy at the bottom while the layback above the roof appeared to have all the gear one would need. It turned out to be the exact opposite.

"N/A" took the lead and found plenty of gear at each point in the lower section. Naturally, this was good. The problem was that we both thought it would be the last gear he'd get until he got to the roof, so he sewed it up pretty tight through the lower cracks. Then, protected by a bomber cam placement at the base of the roof, the route goes up right into a layback corner with feet that leave much to be desired. He aced this section but quickly discovered that he had used all the gear he needed to finish the route off. He was now about ten feet above his last piece and making the dicey final moves to the anchor above. I was a bit nervous due to the size of the fall, but I knew it would be clean. None of that mattered, however, because he clipped the anchors soon afterward and was on the ground telling me that I should bring a #1 Camalot up with me to protect the final section. However, even that didn't matter. While I cruised the bottoms section, the layback after the roof gave me a lot of problems. I couldn't even aid past it.

Ashamed at making him go back up to finish the route, I lowered and watched him struggle through the crux a bit more than last time. He still got it, though, and when he lowered I suddenly felt the need to toprope it. "It's a 5.9," I thought to myself. "This can't be that hard." I went back up and relied on pasting my feet to the slick rock and my back muscles to keep me into the layback. Damn it was hard, and scary too. Even on toprope I felt the strain of this move. It was clear that I simply wasn't very good at this style of climbing. I was glad to have held on, however, but this was a lead that I was sure I'd think about for a long time going forward.

I was also pumped by the time I got to the top, so my day was over, but "N/A" had one more route in him, so we walked over to Promised (5.10b) so that he could push himself a little more than what we had been climbing. It was a tricky start that required a good, attentive belay with a solid strategy on how to protect and approach the early moves before leaving the ground. If he fell at the wrong spot early on then he'd surely hit the ground. There was no place for me to run without him landing on my end of the rope, so we both spent the next tense ten minutes anxiously waiting for things to work themselves out. They did, of course, but not until it was dark and we were packing our gear into our packs under the watchful eye a single headlamp.

"N/A" on Dreamtime (5.9)
Day four was spent at the Junkyard Wall where we knocked off Chasing Spiders (5.7), Themetime (5.6), Deamtime (5.9), which "N/A" cruised for a very pumpy and daring lead (with its three roofs, this is a route that I really want to go back and lead), and finally New River Gunks (5.7). The last of these routes proved to be a much greater challenge to me than I expected. It was thinner at the bottom than I expected it to be and the wide crack at the top was much more height-dependent than I hoped. I got it clean in the end, but not until we were once again packing up under the moonlight. We walked out, cooked dinner at his campsite and said our goodbye's. The hope was that we'd climb the next morning before he was due to leave, but we both awoke to the patter of rain on our tents and, with a forecast that called for rain until the afternoon, we gave our final goodbyes over text messages. I had really enjoyed my climbing with "N/A" and hoped to climb again with him soon, but now that he was gone I had only to wait for "Limey" to show up for another couple of days of climbing in The New.

The thing about "Limey" is that we both hail from the MacLeod clan (Hold Fast!) and we share the exact same birthday. We were both born at 8am, too, except he was born across the pond in England and me in Maine. Thus, he's about five hours older than me, which ordinarily would mean that I make out in the deal, but I brought the Highland Park (12 year old) and he brought the beer so I think we can call it even (well, to be fair, he did buy me dinner one night and I bought him breakfast the next day, which, as you might guess, wasn't exactly an even transaction. But that's OK. When he travels north someday we can turn it around so that I'm the host, which, as was discussed earlier in the week, was how it also worked out with "N/A").

"Limey" has a great affection for "Rocky," so while "N/A" and I shared a similar anti-social, climb-only mentality, I was thrust once again into the wonderful world that is the Rocky Top Retreat, and I have to admit that this time things felt a little different. For one, the Jag had gone away and the annoying talk about weed going missing was now absent. The folks also seemed friendlier this time around. I don't know, maybe it was because I had been around for a few days and people started to let me into their world, or maybe it was "Limey"'s sociable personality that brought out the openness in me. Whatever it was I started talking with people and enjoying myself there. We all went down to the cave late that night to do the famous swing off the Lactic Acid Bath anchors. Everyone was drunk, so despite me initially saying I'd do it I eventually passed the opportunity to others. It seemed like great fun, but not under those circumstances. Still, we all laughed, told jokes, and had a good time. I'm not the kind of person who can make himself feel welcome with a strange crowd, so it was nice that these folks made me feel as if I belonged.

"Limey" gazes upon The New
Morning came early despite the hangovers, and "Limey" wanted to appropriately go over to the Beer Wall to clip some bolts. The first couple of routes that we did (Microbrew (5.5) and Near Beer (5.6)) were OK. I'm not sure what was going on with me, but I was feeling good that day and I wanted to push the envelope a little more. "Limey" suggested Cerveza Verde (5.9), which was a route that had stumped him a few years before. I felt that getting to the first bolt was the hardest part, but once I got that the rest was fun and technical, which, if it isn't an overhang or a roof, fits my style perfectly. We then walked over to Delirium Tremors (5.11a), which, when I saw the slanting lower cracks and the crimpy and sloping bulges above, caught my attention immediately. I was so curious that I wanted to jump on it on lead right then and there, but something told me to hold off, to get another easy climb in before getting on what I simply assumed would be my first ever 5.11 clean lead. I tossed around in my head what to do and ultimately decided to jump on Beer Wench (5.8) first, even though the start of this easier route looked harder than anything on Delirium Tremors.

While I'm not sure what might have been had I simply jumped on Delirium Tremors first, what happened next was a near crash of all my confidence. The start to Beer Wench was significantly harder than I expected, and I really struggled to not only clip the first bolt but to move past it once it was clipped. That starting crack and the slopers above it were, simply put, not the jugs I expected, and the feet were slick and off-angle, too. Each new body position I tried seemed as difficult as the last; they all had the same problem: I couldn't move past the bolt. I hung, flabbergasted by something that should have been much easier than the route directly to the left, which, even though was listed as a much harder route, simply appeared more straight forward.

Approaching the crux on
Dreamtime (5.9)
I figured it out eventually, and the rest of the route went well, but the start had shaken me enough to think that it was best to toprope Delirium Tremors before I tried to lead it. Even though the start looked easier than the past two routes, both Beer Wench and Cerveza Verde were supposedly significantly easier climbs that had stumped me at the start. The last thing I wanted to do was to blow the first clip and ruin the rest of a six-week climbing trip, so I traversed over to the top of Delirium Tremors, clipped the anchors, and lowered. "Limey" cleaned Beer Wench and lowered down, too. It was now time for me to give this route a go.

My first reaction upon clipping the first bolt was, "Damn, that was easier than I feared it would be!" I was a little disappointed in myself for not trying it on lead at the outset, but then I realized that the crux was actually moving past the first bolt. All the chalked up holds were really crappy slopers or finger pockets, and none of them gave the straight-up-and-down body position I craved. I played around going right, straight up, and left, but nothing seemed to work and, as one might assume, I hung after feeling that first sense of accomplishment float away. But after playing around a bit, I found a sequence that worked for me, and despite the fact that there were still a couple of (easier) cruxes above, the rest of the route had me completely enamored. I wanted this to be my first 5.11. There were other routes at Rumney and Camden, ME that I felt for sure would go down first, but the opportunities to get on these routes never materialized. I simply couldn't let this opportunity pass by.

"Limey" gave it a shot on toprope, hanging the first few draws for me before getting pumped out and lowered. To be fair to him, not only had he led this clean several years earlier, but this was his first time out on rock in months. I really only wanted the first couple draws to be hung, so I was grateful that he managed the first four before tiring out. He touched down and we pulled the rope. It was now my turn to shine.

Celebrating past the business on
Delirium Tremors (5.11a)
Clipping the first bolt was as easy as I expected, but once I did that, and once I made the first move out left to the jug after the bolt (the first move of the early crux), I suddenly forgot what to do next. It was so easy the first time around (once I had figured out the sequence, of course), but now I had suddenly lost my feet. I tried three different sequences and none of them felt secure. The fourth one allowed me to get my right foot up, but it was the wrong way around. I needed my left foot up first to use that crimpy layback up high, and now downclimbing, which seemed to be the only way to preserve the clean ascent, appeared to be more difficult than the move up.

I looked to my right and saw "Limey" at full attention. His hands were ready to pull in slack and give me the best catch he could. I couldn't blame him. Just as I was nervous with "N/A" on Promise a couple of days before, he must have been nervous with me on the sharp end. Despite our common lineage and shared birthday, our brotherhood was only a few hours old.

There was only one chance left to fix my feet. If I blew it, I was going for a ride. If not, there was still a chance. Deep in the back of my head I thought about taking, but I remembered how I felt on She Got the Bosch and I got Drilled, that final route after a bad day at Orange Oswald. Somehow, even on a bad day, I had managed to get through that clean. I was happy to have not taken, and as a result of that experience I dug down deep and managed a very strenuous downclimb before getting the left foot up first, then the right, then my hands on the crimpers, the rope through the gate on the second clip and, boom, boom, boom...I was at the top with a smile that ripped across my face from ear to ear. "Limey" congratulated me when I touched back on the ground and I shouted for everyone (despite there being no one there) to hear. The smile still hasn't gone away. Two weeks and two accomplishments (the other being Modern Times (5.8+)) equaled the best month of climbing for me ever.

The day wasn't over, however. "Limey" wanted to get me on a few classics that he had done in years past. We looked at them and I felt confident in my decisions to not do the routes. I just didn't feel good about the first clip on any of them, so we kept going until we came across Look Who's Pulling (5.11a), which is a left-diagonal pumpfest that looked well within my homerun range. Look Who's Crimping (5.10d) is a three-bolt extension past the anchors, so to knock off both of these would be a serious accomplishment for me. At the very least Look Who's Pulling would have potentially been my first 11a onsite. I was excited, but just as soon as I dropped my pack, "Limey" pointed to a word and diagram scribbled in chalk on the wall: "Bees" with a circle around the word and arrow pointing up to the left, where the route went, was inscribed as a warning to anyone who dared to do the route. I looked up and figured that the last thing I wanted to do was find the nest mid-crux, so, somewhat disappointed, we moved on until we came across our final route of the day, Casper Says Boo (5.9), which turned out to be everything I could handle anyway. Its overhangs at the bottom were incredible and fun, filling the void Look Who's Pulling left behind, but the crux was definitely at the blank section above. The hands were thin and the feet smears. I admit that I was kind of scared. It was only a 5.9, but the commitment felt harder than that because the finger cracks were thin (tips only) and didn't have any good locks. They were straight up and down, too, so that meant I was going to have to layback off them for a few moves (I was about ten feet below the anchor), but the problem was that there weren't any feet to layback from! The only way to do it was to stick my fingers in the crack and trust the rubber on my shoes as they smeared on a featureless blank wall. It took a fair amount of commitment to get to the anchors, and I was glad to have done so cleanly, but I wouldn't actually know how important that commitment was until end of the next day.

"Daywalker" after playing rope gun
After drinking away the classics around Beer Wall, we went to the local pizza shop and had their pizza buffet. A friend of "Limey" had been having a rough time of it lately, so we had dinner with him and listened to his side of the stories we had previously heard from other sources. As is the case with anything, there seemed to be truths and misinterpretations on both sides. I didn't really warm up to "Daywalker" until the next day, however, when he rope-gunned Discombobulated (5.11a) for us as a dry-rock warm-up after a rainy night. The kid is a pretty strong climber, and listening to his tour of the classic hard climbs in the Snake Buttress area was a real treat. I'm definitely a trad, multi-pitch climber; that's what I really like to do, but the single-pitch routes at The New really inspired me, even the difficult ones that I probably will never have a chance to get on. In fact, I was kind of wishing that "Daywalker" didn't need to work so early in the afternoon because if he was willing to put up some of the harder climbs then I was more than willing flail on toprope. This is a very different attitude than what I normally carry with me. Toproping, and in particular flailing on hard climbs out of my reach, doesn't really appeal to me, but the lines he showed us, and the way he described them, well, I was impressed and wanted to play. I can't wait to come back here. Honestly, the way the rock felt on my hands, the high-quality moves, the people I started like more and more as the trip went on changed my mind about a lot of things. I could definitely see myself climbing at The New for along time.

From the top of
Flight of the Gumby (5.9)
But as "Daywalker" needed to work, "Limey" was also starting to think about heading home earlier than he initially expected to, but there was still one climb that he wanted me to get on. He said it was a classic that everyone had to do. Flight of the Gumby (5.9) not only made me laugh at the name, but it also made wonder aloud what would happen if I really took flight on a 5.9 when I had been climbing so well all week long. His description of the route was that it had some of the coolest climbing for the first 90% of the route...and then the last 10% would make me forget about all of it. The route is famous for spitting budding 5.9 climbers off at the top, where the climbing goes from beautiful, sweet, ledge-to-ledge climbing to a sudden stop at the last bolt where the good holds are the bad ones, the bad holds are the good ones, and the best place for one's left foot is about three feet out in the air beyond where the rock stops at the arete. This isn't to mention that a key hold just below the crux, at the last decent rest, was sopping wet and that my fingers were tired, especially when I plugged my tips into the long, thin pockets at the crux and tried to smear up to the top. I tried this move several times (think mantling off your fingertips with insecure, smearing feet) and was at the last bolt for about ten minutes before I finally committed to the final move. While I had perfected the art of downclimbing just about every possible scenario at this point, the final commitment left no room for error: it was either mantle and deadpoint the ledge or take flight. I chose to go all out and was rewarded not only with a beautiful jug for my right hand, but a puddle of water that would have made the eddies on the New River below us proud on the jug that my desperate left hand flailed for. I damn near peeled off at this point both from fatigue and from a lack of grip on the wet rock, but I held on just long enough to clip both anchors and let out a shout of relief.

After that "Limey" bouldered a bit and then we headed up the Kaymoor trail back to the Rocky Top Retreat where I helped him pack, we shared a beer, and bid each other farewell until the next time. I then hung out at the hut with the other climbers until "Rocky" closed up shop for the night. It was dinner time and bed time. I packed up everything except my tent and sleeping bag, washed my pots, put away my food, drank a beer, finished off the Highland Park, and went to sleep. I was off to St. Louis the next day and then to Colorado after that, but in a way, I didn't want to go. I've struggled all year with making climbing fun again, and The New, with its climbs and its people, made it just that, fun, just as I always remembered it being when I was discovering the sport for the first time. In an odd twist, The New River is believed to be one of the oldest rivers in the world, and true to its form, it brought new feelings back to an old sport that will make me return for years to come.

Kaymoor Miner's Trail Bridge


Sam said...

I love the NRG to death. It is hands down one of my favorite places to climb. You hit it right on the head too, the people, the scenery, and the climbing all come together to make it stellar. Glad you had a good time there.

Greg said...

Hey Sam, thanks. Can't wait to go back next year. I think it will be an annual trip now.

Michael O'Hara said...

Excellent write up and awesome pictures. Looks like it was a blast!

Greg said...

Thanks Michael!

馬旖 said...

IS VERY GOOD..............................

Stella said...

Hey now! I think I saw a subtle hint that my dreads aren't real. I'll have you know that I've had them for 3 years and I rarely wash them. My hair just naturally falls out of them. Also, I would have you know that the girl who owns the jag had a full time job for years, and that's how she has it (when you were here, she had JUST stopped working full time, and will soon have to do something about that jag). As for that $30,000 van, I have no idea who they are. They don't live here.

I'm glad you warmed up to us in the end. Come back soon!
-Stella (the girl with dreads who lives at Roger's but DIDN'T do the rope swing that night)

Greg said...

Hey Stella!

Haha! Yeah, I actually never thought yours weren't real and wasn't referencing your dreads at all. I was referencing someone else's.

Yeah, the place turned out to be pretty cool. I might not have been fair in my initial paragraph about how things are there. The awkwardness I felt is really about me just feeling awkward. I am definitely not the most sociable person when it comes to meeting people, so a lot of that is my own insecurity about not being able to meet new people so easily. If anyone took offense, then I apoligize for that.

I, too, quit my job not too long ago, but not to climb so much as to write and paint.

Anyway, I hope you guys made it to Bishop. I just drove out to CO and am currently on the backswing to ME before flying south to Chile for the month. Maybe I'll see you guys next year.

BTW - I didn't do the rope swing either. (hehe).

Jonathan said...

I love the New and nothing beats the morning coffee with Rocky. I really enjoyed your descriptions of the different crags and the people there definitely make it special. I hope you had a chance to stop at Cathedral for breakfast.

Greg said...

Thanks Jonathan. Didn't get a chance to go to Cathedral, we went across the street to The Vandalian instead (owned by the dude who put up a lot of routes there).