Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Running over kittens at Cannon

(Apologies for the lack of photos. We simply didn't take any)

It wasn't long ago when Cannon was a place of nightmares for me. Three rain storms, an electrical storm, a brutally shortsighted hike to the summit, and a sprained ankle had crushed me time and time again. Don't get me wrong, I have made it to the top successfully several times, including on lead under difficult circumstances, but there was always something about that place that made the added risk assessment worth it. Simply put, don't climb there unless you're ready.

Of course, out of friendship, I ignored this advice and for five pitches I giggled my way up Whitney-Gilman (5.7) last week for the first time in over a year (at least). Even the approach felt easier than normal (for honesty's sake, I was still out of breath at the top of the talus field). But somewhere, maybe in kitty heaven, where the walls are covered in carpet and curtains, where an endless ball of string continually fills up as it eternally unraveled, where there are more back-scratchers than dog bones, somewhere up there, hidden amongst the forever fresh kitty litter, there lies a rotting, bitter-smelling chunk of something dear to cats universe-wide that is quite simply out to get me.

There was a point in January when I reached a personal climbing high. With three friends, we managed the first ascent of an alpine route that ended up being a nine-pitch 10a and was the first route climbed in the canyon. My contribution was the 5.8R third pitch. I was afraid, but I was happy, too. While I wasn't there on the summit day, it was still an accomplishment that I am still happy to be a part of. A first ascent like this was a personal goal of mine, and I was thrilled to have reached that goal so soon in my climbing life.

Then I broke my toe. That stupid brown chair, same color as the floor, as obscure in the middle of the living room floor as the night is dark, and as heavy as a bed frame, failed to budge when my right foot struck it dead on the "ring" toe of my right foot. My toe went crack, I went threw the roof with pain, and my Chilean roommate, still learning the subtleties of English, ran out of the bathroom asking, "I've never heard those words before. What do they mean?"

I was out for six weeks at least that actually turned into eight weeks with a little extra recovery time mixed in with bad timing with my partner's work schedule. I climbed one day at the end of my stay in Chile, clipping bolts in Cajon de Maipo on three routes where the first one, a 5.9, gave me trouble, even though I got it clean. The second, a 10a, forced me to hang at the crux, and the third, a 5.9+, actually went pretty well. Whereas my head was still rounding into shape on the first two climbs, it came through on the third and things were looking up. But that was all we got in that day. Three climbs and then it was time for empanadas and beer (that's sometimes the way it is in Chile. The climbing is great, but the beer and empanadas, in the face of the scorching heat, often win out before noon).

A few days later and I was on a plane to Brasil for six weeks. We tried to climb there, but the weather and general timing didn't work out. Even though I had made some climbing connections there, and even though I was eager to rope up, it simply didn't work out. My time in Brasil was short, and I came home at the beginning of June.

One day of climbing over 14 weeks was all I had in me when I went to Rumney for the first time in over a year. Rumney is the sport destination in the northeast, and the climbing is pretty good and predictable. The grades there are softer at my level than they are at the trad areas, so whenever I've gone to Rumney I've felt a little more comfortable there, as if it is a day off or a warm-up for future projects. On this day, however, I was a mess. The things I've onsighted easily before were suddenly uninspiring struggles, and grades I should have flown up ended up being hanging drags of life. I was so uninspired that I wondered if my layoff had sucked me dry of all climbing ability. In short, the day was a wreck climbing-wise.

I was a little depressed about my performance. I knew that the last two weeks of June, no more than 10 days away from that day at Rumney, were going to be two weeks of solid climbing. The first week was set up to climb with "N/A" and his minions in New Hampshire, mostly on trad routes that were not only harder than the equivalent grades at Rumney but also required a heck of a lot more thought and ability with gear. We were looking at Cathedral, Whitehorse, maybe some of the other crags in the North Conway area, and Rumney again. (The second week, btw, would be spent with longtime Boston friends "Caboose," "Blow," and "KITT" climbing in my hometown in and around Acadia National Park.) However, if I couldn't climb a simple 5.9 at Rumney then how was I going to climb the same grade at Cathedral with gear...let alone Cannon, which was the single destination that "N/A" desperately wanted to climb at?

The gang was already at Cathedral when I showed up at about mid-day on Monday. I seconded two routes there, both 5.9s, one of which I had led before and the other is a bit of a project of mine. The one I led went fine (it was the easier of the two), but I hung on the one that is a project. Overall, however, I felt OK. I couldn't have led either of them on that day mainly because I wasn't warmed up yet, but I think I could have managed them if I had really tried. This was a big leap over my day at Rumney. One day was spent in misery and the other in mild satisfaction. Was it the style of climbing that made the difference? It's possible, as Rumney just doesn't inspire me very often, but I wondered if maybe my day at Rumney was simply a bad first day back on bolts and my day at Cathedral was a good first day back playing with gear. Even still, I was nervous with what I knew was going to be the ensuing conversation.

"N/A" only had one goal, and that was to climb on Cannon. Tuesday had a zero-percent chance of rain and the temps would be in the 70s, which perfect for Cannon. I was hesitant mainly because I didn't know where I stood climbing-wise. There was a fair amount of discussion, but in the end there really seemed to be no reason to not go there, mainly because I'd be going up Whitney-Gilman, a route I had already done several times. Perfect weather would take away that risk and me knowing the route would take away the other. All that was left was ability, and I was starting to think that I could manage that, too.

For a little history, Cannon is a pretty serious mountain to climb. For one, it is an alpine atmosphere. The rock is loose, the cliff is tall, the approach is a pain in the ass, and the commitment is serious. The biggest problem is that it is east-facing with no way to see anything at all to the west. In other words, if there is any weather coming in, you won't know it until it is quite literally on top of you. As I've mentioned before, I've  had problems before on Cannon: I've been caught in the rain, made an ill-advised hike to the top, and sprained my ankle. It has not been a kind mountain for me, but Whitney-Gilman is a route that I should have had a handle on. I've even successfully led the final, crux pitch, which, I should note I think is missing the hold that originally made it a 5.7, because now it is harder than that for sure. Harder routes are a different discussion, and I flat out said that I wasn't ready to lead anything on Moby Grape, the 5.8 that "N/A" wanted to get on. So we decided that we'd split the four-man team into two groups. I'd go with one person up Whitney-Gilman, and "N/A" and the other guy would head up Moby Grape. My nerves weren't really jammering, but I was still hesitant. Was I fit? That was a question I couldn't answer until I was there.

We headed up early knowing that Cannon usually takes a full day to go up and come down. The weather was perfect. I was feeling OK that morning, to be honest, even though I knew that the final pitch was going to be a challenge. Still, even if I wasn't ready physically, I knew that at the very least my head was in the game. This, if anything, was worth a thousand points for me. All I had to do was trust that I could do and I'd find a way. I'm not sure how I knew that my head was suddenly back, but sometimes I do get a feel for it and that feeling was simply there.

The hour-long approach up the steep and inconsistent talus field, despite still being tiring in itself, wasn't as hard as I imagined it to be. The scramble up to the start wasn't as awkward as I remembered it, and the first pitch was way easier than I expected it to be. There were a few moves early on that required a bit of commitment (considering it was the warm-up and my first time placing gear since January), but my head was working as I expected it to. Things were clicking early on.

The next few pitches were clicking, too. Former cruxes were breezing below me like the wind was keeping the black flies away. We weren't making great time, but we were having a good, relaxing day. Each pitch was easier than I remembered, just as each anchor was easier to build than I expected after such a long lay-off. Other than a party below us (that ended up passing us because they were in a rush), we were alone on the route and life was really quite good. I paused for a minute or two on the psychological crux (the famous "pipe pitch"), but even that, with the wind howling me backward as I rounded the arrete, was much easier than I remembered it being. We were cruising, and I suddenly felt inspired to climb once again.

Then we got to the final pitch, the crux pitch, where the presumed hold has broken (I don't know if this is true, I just know it isn't five-freaking-seven). Of course I knew this before we had decided on going to Cannon. I've always known this. It is hard, awkward, and the move really lasts about four moves. Clipping the pin after pulling the crux is not just a relief, but a lesson in endurance of not crapping one's pants. Blowing that clip means a long flight down to a shin-breaking slab, and if the belayor makes the catch long, so as to avoid the slab, there is another slab waiting just below that. I stood on the slab, studied the groove above, and decided that I didn't want to try that first.

There's nothing really out to the right of the groove, but to the left there are some tremendous holds. I mean, they're absolute jugs, but the problem is that a lot of the rock in that area is loose as hell. Climbing up to the left requires making a tricky traverse back right, too, so at to avoid the loose rock (climbing straight up the loose rock, I think, is just stupid due to the lack of gear and the loose rock). The problem with going left, too, is that one doesn't really know if the solid rock is really solid either. It feels solid, it looks solid in places, but everything else around it looks so loose that one can't really tell for sure how the loose stuff is going affect the solid stuff. Gulp!

Well, of course, I found the jugs, but I was afraid of the loose rock. So I tried the direct moves up the slot above the slab (no feet, off-balance layback sloper, up to crimps, no feet, high step off crappy crimps, balance on the awkward high-step, pull up on the crappy crimps, grab an off-balance side pull, try not to barn-door when getting the other foot on a bomber ledge, try not to barn-door again while transitioning to a jug hand above, hold the pump, clip the pin, breath...breath...breath...) to no avail. I went left again and found a way, but I backed off out of fear of the rock quality. I tried the direct route again and backed off yet again. My head was fine, but my physical ability was holding me back. I simply couldn't hold the crimps long enough to get my feet up. If I had really committed to it then I knew I was going to be out of gas when I got to the pin. The question was if I wanted to risk going splat on the slab below while trying to clip the pin or if I wanted better stances with less pump on the loose rock out to the left. I had wondered about this all the way up, but it didn't really worry me that much until I got there. I had just figured that if I could "mental" my way through it that I'd eventually get it, but not my mental fortitude was being tested to the max.

The direct was just too hard for me at this point, so I finally committed to going left. There was enough good rock that I felt I could gain a solid ledge, and I'd worry about the traverse when I got there, no need to worry about stuff too far in advance, I thought to myself. It did occur to me that this mindset was a mistake, but I was at a point where I just needed to do something. Between my partner and I, I was the only one who could lead this pitch, so I committed to my plan and went up. Then my foot slipped. A tiny slip and I was off, except that I didn't know it at first. My body tumbled through the air while my hand remained attached to the side-pull jug off to the left. Even as my body started to feel the weight of the fall beneath me, my fingers remained locked around the sharp outer edge of the jug. And then my body caught me and my hand ripped out, swinging me over the slab and with my ass dangling seven hundred feet off the deck. When the fall finally stopped, I hung there staring at my bloodied left hand. Three flappers on the middle section of three fingers. I was dripping blood everywhere.

The challenge now was knowing that I was the only one who could finish this. Damn it was painful. That direct route was even harder now. Not only were my fingers screaming with pain with the added sensitivity from a lack of protective skin, but the blood was actually making things more slick. I couldn't hold the holds I needed, the crimps that I could barely hold before the fall, so I decided that I had to go back out left where I could at least hold on.

I would think most people would not have done this, but I really didn't have much of a choice. I could only hold on to whatever it was I could hold on to, and if I couldn't then there was no reason to keep trying. The only thing that had caused me to fall last time was that my foot had slipped. All I had to do was pay better attention and I'd be up. So I went, and even though I felt a small quiver of my foot as I launched myself upward, I was prepared for the worst and shifted my momentum upward before I could fall again.

Having gained the left-hand ledge, things were better. The traverse was a bit scary, but I managed, and I managed to do it without screwing my partner with added gear (he managed to go up the direct route as the second). At the top I wished I had brought bandages. Water was running low, but I washed my fingers anyway. It hurt (as the did freaking hydrogen peroxide later on). We rested and went down. No events other than that one. It was a successful ascent except for that one move, and even then I don't consider that a failure. In reality, it was a good lesson on commitment and how to manage an uncomfortable, but not impossible, situation. I was hurting, and my second week of climbing in Acadia was now in doubt, but I was also proud of myself for having not only gotten out of a crappy situation, but for having managed the pain, the disappointment, the fear, and the climb all at the same time. We got to the top safely, and my head was able to get us there. That terrible day at Rumney was now long-gone.

My fingers are healed even though they are still tender. With a little padding I should be OK to climb in Acadia. But that doesn't stop me from wondering one thing, even if I swear that I've never driven over a cat, why is it that when, on one of those other disastrous days on Cannon, in the dark or the rain, when I backed up to leave, did the kitten not meow. If it had, then I would stopped. I never would have done it maliciously or carelessly. I had to have been an accident. I love animals, and my family has had great cats throughout my life. But still, on all those other occasions it was dark and raining. It's possible that the windows were up and I couldn't hear the kitten meow. Maybe it did and I didn't hear it. For that, or any other trangressions against cats in general, I am forever sorry. Please, accept my apology, because I even though I swear that I never ran over a cat, I must have done it to deserve this and I have to say that I never meant it, I never would have done it, and the guilt I feel as a result of it is terrible. Give me a sign. Let me know what I can do to turn this curse around. I want just one successful ascent without something going wrong, just once, and then I'll leave you alone. I promise. I promise, I promise, I promise.

Just once...please!

I promise!

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