Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Elvis Arm?

A few weeks ago, I was following someone on CCK(Cascading Crystal Kaleidoscope at the Gunks). It was my first time on the line, and though I’d heard it was as spectacular and real as that chick’s breasts on “Seinfeld,” I knew little else about the route other than to expect exposure. At the Gunks, that’s like saying to look for sunny skies in Florida; to expect the expected.

Climbing onsite, whether on lead, following or on a toprope, is my preferred style. I’ve found that, while I like repeating routes well enough, the fun is definitely in the unknown. I’ve also found that, on lines I hope to lead in the not distant future, to know what’s coming sometimes makes me afraid to get on the sharp end! Going in blind puts me on a higher state of alertness that makes dealing with events as I confront them seem more manageable.

But, I lead 5.5, and CCK on lead for me is not going to be happening this year or even probably in the next season or two. My partner that day leads 7’s 8’s and 9’s, which is a good challenging range for me to second. And so, when he asked what I’d like to get on, I suggested the route.

It was a hot, sunny day, and we were behind a party of three. Waiting at the hanging belay before the meat course of the meal, I found myself… a little nervous about the opening moves. Obviously, I don’t want to give away the goods, but suffice to say that…some things I’d have no problem with at ground level suddenly seem rather severe a hundred or so feet up in the air on the face of a near-vert cliff. One could consider that sequence an hors d’oeuvre for the main course at the crux, I suppose.

Giving myself just enough time to build up an appetite for fear, I took the plunge(or rather…I didn’t!), and the feeling of success was exhilarating.

Still, the climbing ahead was what had given the route its reputation as a classic line, and though I am able to block observing sequence information as I belay my partner (it’s actually very easy, if you focus on giving your best belay), I couldn’t help but get the feeling that the operation was a delicate procedure.

Again, I don’t want to detail anything, in case you haven’t been on the route. I will say that I wasn’t completely sure I could grasp the matter at hand and stay on my feet (I wear size six street shoes, and I like footholds that fit!), and the path of trajectory should I slip would be…unfortunate.

Alas, as in all things climbing, the best way through is usually up. And that is where I began to head. Timidly. Very, very timidly. Even my sense of humor was tainted, as I came up with old standby nervous energy chatter. I pride myself in a quick wit, but what came out of my mouth was “I don’t think I like this route! Whose idea was it to climb this thing anyway?” Who hasn’t heard THAT one a million times already….

Compounding matters, there was another party coming up from below, on the direct version of the route(We had taken the original, traversing line). So, there I was, on thin moves facing a penji, with a partially innocent stranger coming into the line of fire. I couldn’t help but giggle(but just for a moment, and I kept it to myself) at the vision of swiping this guy off the face as I tarzan’ed past him. I’d definitely have making SOME sort of guttural scream, and who knows – maybe he’d have become tangled in my vine, I mean my line, and, clinging to me like Jane or Boy, went along for the ride. That was certainly more exciting that the imagery of a dull “thwack” and dead drop, which was more realistically what would have happened.

Scared for him as well as myself(ever the thoughtful one, I am) I told him I wasn’t sure I’d stick. This guy looked up at me with the calmest, just out enjoying a day, eyes I’ve ever seen on a leader. If Disney ever makes an animated climbing film, this would have been a “hakuna matata” moment. Even as he sacrificed himself to the moment, he was in complete control, and had no worries.

He patiently told me he’d wait if I preferred.

I did.

Between his encouragement, and my partner’s patient and attentive belay, I eventually committed to the sequences needed to get out of there. Again - I am not going to give beta, but if you are like me, this climb with have you swearing, crying, wishing for an exit stage left miracle, and generally trying to stay composed at least enough to avoid complete meltdown.

It was pretty ugly and embarrassing. But I know one ethic about climbing is that it’s cool no matter what happens, so long as you don’t fabricate the style you did it in. So let it be known – I stunk up the wall with noise pollution and a traffic jam.

Finally I made some moves and came to a gear placement that held a blue Camalot. I set my stance and pulled the trigger. Out the piece came, easily enough. A perfect extraction.

But then….THEN! Then I couldn’t believe what happened. As I adjusted my finger position to move toward clipping the piece to my harness, I noticed a most unusual sight…… My forearm was doing the rhumba! Or acting like a drunk on Red Bull trying to walk a cop’s commanded straight line. Wasn’t happening.

I seemed to be seeing double, I knew my arm was bent at the elbow, with the cam still trigger-pulled in my hand, but my hand and wrist were just….not…behaving. Mexican jumping bean, the tracers of a fire-dancer at a pagan festival. Use whatever imagery you prefer; the fact was – I was under the effect of Elvis Arm!

What a rip off! I have to tell you(and if you have ever climbed with me you already knew this). I always prided myself in having never experienced the sewing machine leg. Seen it a million time(well, maybe not that many) in others, but I’d never had so much as my foot tapping a rhythm. And I was good about adjusting my stance when I felt a little stiffness too. Hold my heel down, take a breath, make a body shift to reduce tension. Whatever was needed, I seemed to automatically render the adjustment and avoid yet another Elvis sighting from cliff bases across the country.

I just have to be different, I guess. Elvis leg is for….other people. I got the King’s Swing in my front legs, dammit.

And so it was. I was astounded by the betrayal and brought attention to the scoundrel arm immediately. As if it wasn’t a part of me…. I could have stayed there longer, in awe and shock. But of course, I had kept my partner waiting too long already, and the guy below probably would have liked to get on his way too. And so, I continued on the route.

I don’t recall right now if there was still more difficult(for me) climbing ahead. I believe there was. But forevermore, my memory of CCK will not be about the beautiful colors - twinkling quartz crystals glinting in the sun, as it was for the supposedly tripping first ascentionists. Nor a slow-mo recap of the delicate traverse to powerful pull through sequence. It will be the bad, truly campy, impersonation of the elvis leg phenomenon that my body performed that day.

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