Saturday, December 17, 2005

When the Going’s Run-out, the Tough Keep Running

Note: This was an essay I wrote, about a climb I did on 9/3/05.

By the third move on the climb’s starting pitch, I had an inkling as to why her first ascentionist might have named her “Bitchy Virgin.” For a 5.5, the holds were no gimme and I could practically hear the rock resisting peevishly.... “No. I won’t be an easy conquest. You make the effort. Think that foothold would be better if it were just a little closer? Tough! Work for it if it’s so important to you. I don’t feel like giving it to ya….!”

Before I’d even reached the crux, I let my partner, Chris, know how glad I was to have chosen to take the second pitch. Though confident I’d have mustered through this one, I knew it wouldn’t have been pretty. I was glad to avoid the risk of showing my whiny side, a part of my personality with a reputation for coming out punching when I feel possibly not up to the task.

The first pitch crux was a bitch, for sure, though for different reasons. Purely a power move, it consisted of a quail egg-sized conglomerate pebble welded to the wall to hold onto with one set of digits, and a micro ledge to mantle over with the other. I don’t recall footholds being existent, but at least the line went up a corner, so opposition was possible.

Gravity nearly got the better of me during the sequence, but I pasted my feet as best I could. With my first day on the job, board-lasted LaSportivas imbued with all the flexibility of a two by four, I stood my ground and pulled through. How glad I was that I had found a way to navigate the rock instead of yarding on the poor little sapling that, through no fault of its own, happened to have been born in such unfortunate geographical circumstances, growing out of a crack dead center in the crux. Especially after “suggesting” my partner would feel better about his lead if he considered the tree off-route. No doubt there had been those before us who had accepted a helping hand from that thin wisp of wood.

Breathing a heavy sigh of success, I announced my relief and my partner congratulated me on a job well done. Continuing to the belay, he said “I’m not so sure you’re going to want to lead the second pitch of this climb.” Intrigued, I asked why that might be. “Wait until you get up here; you can take a look and decide.” He replied.

Wondering what the situation could possibly be, I quickly passed through the rest of the pitch with easy climbing and reached the belay anchor he’d constructed.

I looked up to see a set of double ropes from a party ahead, with all the protection still in place, and the second on his way toward the top. The first piece, a small TCU, was easily 20 feet into the pitch.

“Why didn’t he place something sooner?” I wondered. “Must be some ballsy 5.10 leader bringing up a second who is challenged at this level. Well, I know that I’ll certainly be placing my first piece a hella lot sooner than that!”

My eyes traveled along their line, consisting of sparse gear placements the entire way, and an unsettling feeling began to creep into my gut. As my eyes came back to our own anchor, I focused on the one-inch wide, and probably just about as deep, horizontal channel Chris had used to build the belay. He had equalized the anchor using a red and a brown tricam, along with a small cam. A second leg consisted of another smaller cam. They were all in one solid but shallow groove. And that was what was available. It suddenly dawned on me why I was feeling irked. The rest of this climb consisted of similar shallow grooves, and not really an awful lot of them, until about 15 feet below the cliff top. Remembering the guidebook description of “some loose rocks” in the second pitch, I took a look at the section. “That must be they.” I thought to myself.

“Oh.” And after a long pause, “Yeah, I think you’re right. This seems a little bit scary to me.”

Chris told me he understood if I didn’t feel up to the lead, and that he would be happy to continue. I was off the hook. Or was I? When it comes down to the heart of things, there’s always oneself to contend with.

Taking stock of myself, I asked the questions in need of answer. Was I backing off out of an automatic response? Was I, in fact, technically capable of leading the route ahead?

Only my second season climbing, I’d taken my first lead just a few months previous. Toproping and being on the cleanup committee was fun but I’d found, and as I had heard so many times, the games really did begin when standing at the front of the line. Until that moment, I’d led only G-rated routes, too.

Doing what I supposed a good leader does when deciding how to proceed, I looked at what I felt to be the route ahead of me, eying up potential protection points and the stances that would support me as I placed them. My eyes went, step by step, along the path that led to that first gear placement, and the climbing clearly was doable. Not really challenging, actually. Maybe as easy as 5.3. The difficulty was ethereal because of the sparse protection; it was all the head. “Can I manage that facet of the route?” I asked myself. In the moment of truth, the answer was yes.

Telling Chris I was going to do it, I reiterated the reasons I felt capable. He smiled, proud of me, I think. No doubt he even said as much. Then he offered to take one of the legs form the belay out, so I would have the exact piece we spied as protection above; the Green Alien…. He said he’d placed it as a backup after creating the anchor anyway, that it would not compromise the belay integrity. Instinctively, I understood he was speaking the truth.
That didn’t stop “Mr. Wonderful” from voicing his opinion.

Before telling you what Mr. W. said, I should introduce him. We met last year, when I was toproping a climb called “First Day” over at Peterskill. The climb is rated 5.7, and not only was it the hardest route I had ever been on at the time, it required the use of hand and fist jams, a technique that I had never used but had read about. Unfortunately I hadn’t yet read John Long’s suggestion that “once you set the jam, don’t let it budge!”

Not confident in my jam, I was thinking about what might happen if it failed. Mr. Wonderful chose that moment to step right out of the deepest recesses in my brain and answer my query. With all the gore he could muster, he sent me a telepathic vision. I’ll leave it to your imagination, the painful possibilities he showed me, should my jam not hold.

It’s been my experience that Mr. Wonderful is never in my corner, when it comes right down to it.

Anyway, there I was, about to cast off on this second pitch of Bitchy Virgin, and Mr. Wonderful chooses to tap me on the shoulder, saying “You know, if you fall, wouldn’t you rather have that piece in the anchor? After all, Chris knows what he’s doing better than you…..”

I swear to you I rolled my eyes and sighed. The conversation I had with Mr. Wonderful went something like this…..

“Shut the fuck up, asswipe. Do you really think I can use this anchor the way a boulderer hits a crashpad? I am not fucking going to be relying on it, with or without the green Alien, in case you didn’t realize. Don’t you get it? We are in a ‘Do Not Fall’ situation here.”

Shaking my head at the sheer inanity that Mr. W. always seemed to have, I again understood he just was not really my friend. His comments were never helpful and since I had noticed long ago that there was another, more reliable little voice inside, I sort of shrugged my shoulders and gave Mr. W. the old heave ho. If you are ever climbing Bitchy Virgin, wipe your boots off before you step up, because I think he landed down there in the gully somewhere.

So…..I racked that Alien, inhaled deeply and took one last inventory of the feet sequence. Letting out that breath, off I headed. My first note to self was the realization that, though the feet were practically micro ledges, they didn’t seem to match up with the handholds I was finding. On top of that, I may have had handholds, but they were a far cry from being buckets I could crawl into.

Climbs in the Shawnagunks are well-known for sheerness and overhanging features, but the beginning of this pitch was, thankfully, nowhere near plumb. However, the sense of exposure was a valid concern. One false move and I’d be launched on a maiden voyage like the legendary lead zeppelin. The thing to do was get my feet in place, balance and to forget about the comfort of clingy holds to hug like long-lost friends.

“Get a piece in.” I instructed myself. “There must be somewhere to slot protection before that spot so far away it seems to reside outside of Ulster County.”

“Aha, there it is!” I coaxed myself into believing, just a few steps into the pitch. Flanking what seemed to be a glop of rock cemented to the wall, I kept my eye on that shallow fracture lest it get away and blend into the surroundings. With the self-congratulatory air of Barney Fife, I flicked the biner holding small nuts off my rack, flung them into view, and eyeballed them confidently.

“No, that one’s too big. Nope, that’s too big, too.” One after another I went down the line, the nuts shrinking in size like a melting ice cream cone, until finally there was but one nut to try. I felt like the inept deputy at that moment, but dammit – if there was a bud to be nipped, I was going to nip it.

The rack belonged to Chris and it occurred to me that maybe some of the nuts were not rated for free climbing. I myself kept the three smallest DMM Walnuts on my rack to puff it up like a wild dog does when confronting hostile…er, I mean, to use in opposition against a more beefy piece…..

“Hey Chris,” I implored from my towering perch, standing about five feet above belay. “Are your smaller nuts only rated for aid?”

With a little laugh, he assured me they were as full strength as industrial Drano. He sounded convinced I was capable of the work though, and that seemed to help me feel more self-assured in turn. I separated that littlest nut from the forest of wires and guided it towards the hollow. In it sort of crunched….not smoothly, in the manner of what I refer to as a “Yummy” placement, but….it slotted nonetheless. At least I had a piece in off the anchor, even if it were just a little nut. Setting it as tightly as possible, I hoped the tiny acorn would stay rooted like a mighty oak if I fell and wrenched its wire branches.

With a deep breath and a sigh, onward and upward I went. A few steps more and I found another placement, though I don’t recall what I slotted. With a sense of fair certainty those first two pieces amounted to no more than psychological pro, I thought it best to bank on staying solidly on the rock. Next, I came to what I saw as a fine place for my little green friend, the alien.... Like a junkie with their works, the moment I drove it home, I found relief.

At last I had the courage to face the day. Down I looked, to find my place in the scheme of things. Dismayed, it appeared the belay station below was located a shorter distance away than the other party’s first piece had seemed when I spied it from below. I asked Chris if he thought I had placed in the same horizontal, and he told me it was a ways up. “Que, sera, sera,” I thought. “There’s no way I’m pulling that plug. I will find another placement.”

And so it was to be. I kept climbing, and came to another stance. Looking for a protection point, I came up empty, and did what I knew I must; put one foot in front of the other and continue climbing. Another stance, another chance to see I had no pro. And so it went, until finally Chris hesitatingly asked the question I did not want to hear.

“Do you think you can get something in there?”

My initial reaction was not relative to what he meant. I heard “You’re going for a wild ride if you peel.” but in actuality he meant I’d passed up a spot to place gear. I looked to my left. And then to my right, and then up above, and it seemed to me there was no room at the inn. There was only one direction left to look, and the hell if I wanted to do that! If all the world’s a stage, Chris was precisely on cue as he called out “Maybe at your feet?”

“Dammit” I thought, chiding myself for having run blindly in fear. I gulped, and looked at the horizontal I was standing above. I felt that I’d been had; that the cardinal rule I had agreed to that day was to climb without falling. Not focused on going anywhere but up, here I was, face to face with a glaring loophole. Round one was over and the game had advanced to the next level. To play, I’d have to downclimb and how I wanted to avoid that. The exposure was just so…so….so visceral.

Whatever I said or did, or didn’t do, must have gotten the attention of the party who had topped out above and was preparing to rappel. The leader yelled down some beta, something about small cams, and asked what my smallest piece was. I believe I called out “A Red Friend,” and the look on his face told me I’d not supplied the answer he was looking for.

In turn, I must have looked sketched, for he offered to come take a look as he rappelled down, and though my prideful reaction was “This is my lead!” the words came out of my mouth were something like “Hey, thanks. This is no time for me to be worried about pride. I’ll take whatever help you can give.”

He slid down the rope and as he arrived I handed over my piece. Finger on the trigger, he poked it into a spot just below and to outside of my right foot. While he jiggled the thing, I watched his face and it was apparent he felt a bit menaced. Slotting it further to the left, then moving it again, he remarked that the next bigger cam would be a better fit.

I didn’t have the next size. So, he worked a bit more, and gave me his best look of confidence. I didn’t feel it, but I thanked him and said I was fine. Why he had to then mention the crux coming up was beyond me. I suppose he just wanted to be helpful to a sketched, slightly in-over-her-head new leader. Or maybe to remind me to stay safe. At any rate, he gave me some sort of beta/pep talk which I cannot recall, and off he went, rapping down the wall, past a roof and out of sight.

On the ground, he called “off rappel.” Looking up to his partner, I signaled him to follow. He seemed to be waiting on me and I didn’t want to keep him there, on the clifftop without water and with daylight fading, while I slow-moving-vehicled my way to his side. Perhaps they had discussed the ethics of rapping down over a leader; it seemed as if he were awaiting my permission to pass. I was glad that I had been aware enough to notice this subtle climber’s etiquette, for I had breached protocol before. Twice, I’d finished a pitch and left my poor partner waiting, and waiting, and waiting some more, until they finally asked if I had anchored and they could take me off belay.

Not that I was consciously procrastinating, but once he went by, I realized I had been glad to have the respite. With no obstacle preventing me from proceeding, it was time to continue. The moment had come to entertain approaching that crux.

Moving upward through the horizontals, I could see footholds every step for quite a way. The handholds appeared easy enough; I was climbing a series of parallel channels, after all. But, as had been the case below, they weren’t really comfortable. There were none of those “mmm-mmm, good” grooves I was always just so happy to hang on to. Still, it was just a matter of standing on my feet and walking my way up. The path lay open ahead of me, meandering gently through an indirect course. Even without a breadcrumb trail of chalk to follow, route-finding was not complicated.

At this point, the climbing was not difficult, and I was looking several moves forward, linking sequences, and enjoying the state of flow in which I was climbing. Then things shifted, and the highway I’d been hiking started sputtering to a standstill. The terrain altered as the channels shifted from first and second knuckle-deep grooves to a short section of undulating face climbing. Devoid of positive features, both feet and hands would have to toil through crystals and nubs as I crested the wavelet. I could see where my left foot went, and though it wouldn’t have been called a campable ledge by anyone I’d ever climbed with, I knew it was serviceable. I’d stood up on much smaller features many times before, just not as my primary point of contact.

Of course, by now my last gear placement was in another time zone, and to gain elevation the position for my other left foot was a damned near vertical smear. The good news was that I had an incredible sidepull for my right hand. The opposition worked. Yet, the place I had to place my other hand was just…. simply…. not really within reach. “This would be the crux, then.” I told myself.

Thinking that perhaps I’d simply missed an obvious stance, I took a look around. Nothing. At that moment I felt as if marooned on an island; adrift in a rocky sea. I knew what I had to do. Even as the thought occurred that Mr. W. would suggest an all-out dyno, I was fairly certain that wasn’t the right thing. It was a more simple solution. I just had to grow a few inches.

Hanging off that powerful pull, I checked to see that my feet were still pasted. Next I replaced the smear, just a little bit higher, but not enough to put me off balance. And I reached as high as I could.

It wasn’t enough.

Returning to position, I drew a deep breath, exhaled and made another attempt, only to come up short again. This was aggravating, but I had to make it happen. The next time, as I went for that reach, I insured my “ledge” leg was fully extended. Pressing the pedal to the mettle, I ground my toe down and stood nearly on point. I ratcheted up that smear angle…..not too much; I couldn’t risk losing friction. Then, stretching the vertebrae in my back, practically one by one, my fingers found their way to something sort of solid. It was a shallow contour in the next undulation of rock.

My tips were typing on a keyboard of Gunks conglomerate and I started hunting and pecking but good. Searching for a “Thank God” hold, the thesaurus was coming up blank, and I understood the task would be fruitless. I would have to make do with a scornful “thanks a lot” crimp, if I could even find that.

Settling upon a patch of crystals that I could smear with my fingerpads, I bit down like I was wearing sticky rubber mittens. Pressing my palm into the wall for torque, up I pulled, fully on those fingers, with the heel of my hand camming the wall below. Hard.

I gained altitude.

What happened next, I don’t recall. Apparently I’d gotten past the crux. Finding myself amongst more comfortable terrain, I kept moving. Even though I was scared witless, there was something going on inside that guided me, and I found myself conversing with that unknown entity that has saved countless an ass before mine.

Up I went, scoping placements as I climbed. Fully aware I was running it out, I knew if there was a placement to be had I’d get it. The simple fact was, there just weren’t spots to place the gear I had with me. I hope I found a few more protection points in the next 40 feet, but I have no memory of doing so. My next recollection was coming upon the flaky section I’d seen from the anchor below, tapping on it, and hearing the disconcerting hollow answer of unsound rock.

I thumped other sections, and somewhere I hit pay dirt. Not only was it solid, but there was a spot that accepted gear. I dropped something in, added a tripled two-footer, clipped the rope and headed onward. Not upward, mind you. There was no way I was wiping my feet anywhere near the Heaven’s Door I’d been knocking on, even though there appeared to be gear slots galore on the thing. Off to the left were more of the all too familiar barren horizontals, but by now I had come to terms with their bleak prospects and was no longer shocked by their cynicism. I had become desensitized.

Like a prospector with an eye out for that tell-tale glimmering gold, I panned for a nugget that might be camouflaging a small crevice. Finally I spied it off to the side, about fifteen feet away. I still had that little tricam, Pinky, on my gear sling. Now I’d found his home. Traversing over, it looked like the fit would be tighter than a full-size sofa in a New York City studio, and truth be told, it was. With much finagling, the piece went. Had the space have been the least bit smaller, it would not have gone.

I love tricams, and at that moment I rejoiced in their glory. I was damned glad to be alive, and just about as happy not to be one of those pitiful folks who despise the humble gear. As with my last piece, I clipped a tripled two-footer and was on my way. It was now just a matter of traversing back to the right and over what appeared to be an easy enough bulge to the top out.

As I began to make my way back, I noticed a sensation of tautness in the rope. Assuming this was the result of my partner giving a tight belay, I was appreciative of the attention, but irritated. Concern was one thing, but I could barely move! Besides, I was traversing; the last thing I wanted was a tight line. Unwilling to slow the hell down and take a look around, I was just about to holler for slack when it occurred to me to check what was holding me up. Maybe the rope had snagged a flake somewhere. My eyes reread the passage, and to my embarrassment, noted a perfectly formed “Z” in the rope. My own unextended slings had penned it.

Amused at myself, I told Chris what I had been thinking, which brought laughter from both of us. When we wore down, he asked if I wanted to go back and extend the slings or face rope drag. By now, I just wanted to cuff my arms around the ledgetop tree less than twenty feet above and give myself up. The end was so near, it seemed; what difference could a bit of rope drag make? Tugging on the luggage I had unwittingly packed, I gathered a fat bustle of rope and took off. The tare weight of my excess baggage became quickly apparent and I vowed never again to travel so hastily that I didn’t take the time to plan accordingly.

I edged back toward the line which I knew was the route to the top, playing a game of Tug ‘O War along the way. Once I got directly below the anchor point I found a good stance, relaxed and let go of that damned safety line that had been taunting me. Looking at the rock I easily recognized the route; up and over a gentle bulge in three or four moves of 5.5 climbing. Nothing more, and nothing less. The sequence was obvious, but as had been the case for the entire pitch, there had to be a bit of added intrigue. When I had released the rope I’d been dragging, it naturally regained equilibrium. Now, even so much as shifting my weight in anticipation of a foot placement exerted a tax on the line. In order to make the final exit, I’d have to bustle that heavy train again, and keep a clenched fistful of rope that I’d be able to let out as needed while moving through the sequence. On top of that, the climbing seemed a bit crux-y.

If I’d been following someone, that bit of climbing would have been cake. Even on lead, with solid gear I’d have simply sucked in my gut, saluted the force and sent myself into the skirmish. But my piece was that pink tricam, and though technically it was solid, I had traversed away from it. Attempting to calculate the equation of a pawful of cord plus rope drag added up to difficult climbing. Multiplied with a pendulum fall onto the gear, I had no idea what forces might be applied. I never was very good at math. In school, equations boggled me and I always sort of guessed at answers. Usually I came up with passing grades. Looking at the wash of information I presently had in front of me, I had a pretty good idea of the outcome. I did not want to risk failing, even if it was only 5.5, by drawing a line directly through the bulge.

Like a criminal looking for another way out, I nervously glanced to my right and saw a dead end. “Up is the way it’s supposed to be.” I whispered to myself. “Why, oh why had I not fixed those slings? I should have extended them in the first place!” I gulped and reviewed the sequence again in my head. So clearly laid out, it should have been no more than a small discomforting moment in time. Hands there, smear at that spot and push up. Realign my core to get ready for the next move. Balance….. balance….. breathe….. Release the left hand for the next hold and ….aaaahhhh…..I imagine the rope reeling like a fishing line with a swordfish taking the bait, and I get pulled into the drink!

Calming myself down from the imaginary epic, I regain my senses. Looking to the dead end again, I knew it wasn’t an option. A glance up reminded me of what could happen if I chose that route and I cursed the damned game I was playing. Then I turned my head left, to the only other option, and took in the view. There was a lichen field covering a gently angled face of rock.

I like lichen. I am fond of it because it keeps mum what people haven’t climbed. Like the wrappings on a present, parts of the Gunks cliffs still have patches of the stuff. Often as I walk the cliff base, I gaze up into them, wondering what sorts of gifts they behold. Usually it’s unprotectable turf, but not always, and I fantasize about the day that I can be so bold as to venture forth into these new realms. Climbing uncharted territory is fun stuff. That much I can tell you without a shadow of doubt, even though I’ve done only a small amount of it so far.

But, back to my problem at hand. This lichen off to my side felt comforting to me; reminding me to look closely. Gently. Let my mind relax and see what I can see. And so, I did. Then, as in a fairly tail, a path emerged, and it was much, much easier climbing. A bit circuitous, it is “obviously” off route, but the moves are plainly evident; a pathway to the top that would be, were it just off the ground, barely 5th class work.

Meanwhile, Mr. W. seemed to have found his way to the clifftop and was taking the opportunity to chide me for being a baby. I could practically see him pointing to the route’s more difficult part. Extending his hand over the bulge, I imagined him telling me to ‘buck up and do the climb the way it’s supposed to be done, dammit.’

I looked back at the lichen and, if lichen could talk, it seemed to be giggling. Seriously. As clearly as I had perceived Mr. W., now I heard “Why risk killing yourself, when you can simply take a walk through the park?”

With a bit of shame, I explain my predicament to Chris below. I can’t remember what his response was, probably because I already knew what course I was going to take, but I am sure whatever he said was supportive and positive. One more look at my lichen-covered passage and a thought occurred - “If this is the path of least resistance, it really should be the way the route goes anyway! I’m taking it.”

And so, I did. I still couldn’t fall, of course, and the lichen was a bit disconcerting to grasp and step on. It’s much more fun to spy potential holds and peel the stuff off to see what you’ve won, but I wasn’t cleaning a route. I was getting to the top so my partner could come on up.

Feeling like a hiker skipping through the woods, in short order I was on solid ground with a sling wrapped round the tree. I’d made it; I hadn’t fallen, ripping all my gear along the way. I hadn’t experienced what I dreaded most and worried about the entire pitch – coming onto the anchor below, and catching a slight bit of resistance before hearing/seeing/knowing what I imagine could only be an awful, horrifying moment in eternity. I hadn’t taken a single misstep the entire time. My acts were calculated, cautious and deliberate. And at the moment where I needed to decide whether to follow the trail everyone else had taken or go my own way, I had chosen to pioneer. I had truly led the pitch.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great writing Happiegrrl! Most climbers aren't great writers but you really have the knack for comunicating your experience. Best Wishes and Happy New Year.

from Jennie Long (Supertopo Forum)