Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Climbs Well With Others - I SWEAR!

A lot of people who live very near the Shawangunk ridge, who say they used to be obsessed with climbing, tell me they moved here from New York City or elsewhere specifically to allow for more climbing days, but once they had been here a while, they came to the realization that they were actually getting out less! Funny, how what had been an every weekend dedication for those people had morphed into the occasional day out or even, for some, a complete hiatus in climbing.

I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that once you can climb on weekdays, the chaotic weekend energy at the Trapps, or even the Near Trapps, becomes fairly unappealing. If one's dance card was previously filled by other weekenders, the transition to partnering with people during the week may not come as easily as one might have hoped, as well. Too, if one has spurned their old stand-bys in hopes of the quietude of weekday climbing, they are likely to find themselves with no willing ropemates when they DO make that booty call.....

Within this type of scenario, I can see how time could fly by quickly, and one might wake up to realize they hadn't been climbing in days, weeks, or even - gulp – months. Luckily, this hasn't been completely my case, but I have to admit that I didn't climb a single day the week before last, and it wasn't because the temperatures were in the upper 90's, as they had been for much of July.

I'm the type who isn't truly proactive when it comes to inter-relationships, and climbing partnerships are no different. I wait for people to call me, or post a request for partners online without answering any of the requests made by others for the same time! I have great days out with most everyone I have ever climbed with, but don't make the effort to set up another day of climbing. Unconsciously, I fear rejection, just as in other aspects of life, but this post isn't intended to be a psycho-self-analysis and I won't be delving into that realm.

My 2010 season has been a bouquet of sometimes old, sometimes new partners, along with sometimes rosy, sometimes blue days for me. I started climbing in the spring of 2004, and though I have partnered with well over a hundred different people, the dedicated partnership has been fairly elusive for me all along.

Some people thrive on that intimate companionship, and the relationship enables them to push harder at their grade limits, and enjoy a lower level of stress, since the partners know each others quirks, strengths, weaknesses and personalities. Personally, I can't imagine climbing each and every route with the same person, even if it were someone I was in a romantic relationship with. I like the diversity of different experiences even at the expense of continuity and increased stress from unfamiliarity that comes with climbing ala carte. Besides - since we're not getting psychoanalytical - people leave; relationships deteriorate, and even worse, they sometimes die(in non-climbing-related situations, hopefully!). I've seen it happen to others - the significant other, or even just another girlfriend or boyfriend moves on, and suddenly they find themselves touching the void, climbing partner-wise. Death, of course, is entirely different; I intended the previous mention in a jocular way. May those loved ones of anyone reading this piece rest in peace.

Nevertheless, with a variety of partners, one has room for the ebb and flow of life's relationships tide. It's OKAY if the person you want to climb with has some commitment that means they can't get out on a stellar day. The fact that they are getting married, attending a funeral(there's that death sentence fragment again - oh dear!), or spending Fathers/Mothers Day with their children doesn't have to ruin MY day....

Seriously though, a variety of partners means a mixture of experiences. I have people I tramp miles into wilderness for FA's with, partners with whom I swing leads, others I teach the basics of climbing, people visiting from other areas, and even a few top-rope troupes. Some are serious Type A's, others debauched drunkards who'd surely have been sailors had they been born when the high seas were still uncharted. Most fall somewhere in-between; light-hearted, fun people just looking for a good day of climbing. I like the mix-and-matchedness.

So - what has my season been like, now that I am in my fourth month of living within walking distance of the famed Gunks ridge? Both pretty good, and not so great, depending on my perspective in the moment.

As has been my tradition, I started the season in Joshua Tree. This year my trip was a week later than usual; I arrived just as March was thinking of renaming itself April, and enjoyed another marvelous early desert spring. Flowers were not in as much abundance as some previous years(remember, climbing isn't only about climbing), and amazingly enough, even though it was Easter weekend and the park campsites were packed, I snagged the very last available spot in Hidden Valley upon arrival. A good site too - morning sun, an interesting backdrop of rock formations, yucca and other brush.

While still in Las Vegas, I checked my emails and had a message from someone answering my request for partners(which I always post on Jtree trips, even though I have developed a nice group of local friends to climb with). Brenden, who happened to also be from New York, had just arrived in Joshua Tree on a leg of an extended road trip, and had about a week before the rest of his group arrived. We ended up with him sharing my campsite, and he cooked most of the meals with ingredients I supplied. He also played the part of rope-gun extraordinaire, leading Pope's Crack onsight, his first day, and first time ever in Joshua Tree.

I also hooked up with James, Brandt, Sonya and Reilly - all locals to the area - for a day or two of friendship and cragging, and though it wasn't a first ascent, I did follow my new tradition of getting deeply into the further reaches of the park with Todd Gordon, Tucker Tech and others, as we wound our way to the southwest face of North Astrodome and climbed a 5.7 sport-bolted rope-stretcher called Let Your Fleak Flag Fly.

Back in New York City, I had two weeks to prepare my apartment for seven months of being sublet while I moved to what is technically within Gardiner, though I have no actual street address. I am caretaker for a second season, living in and off-the-grid cabin with no plumbing, and loving the quarter mile walk to the well for drinking water, and one mile walk to the cliffs.

Within days of getting here, my friend Peter also arrived, and stayed with me on and off throughout May and June. This was as close to having a significant other as climbing partner as I have ever experienced, though our friendship remained platonic, and I can see how easily one slips into the cocoon-like comfort of such a climbing partnership. Peter was leading 5.8's and 9's, and patiently coaching me as I worked my way up the the routes. The fact that he is absolutely beautiful in body and character was an exquisite perk to which I quickly became accustomed. I could wax on, and oh - how I would like to - but the chapters within that story remain untold, and so I will keep the notes private, at least for now. At any rate, climbing with Peter was so enjoyable that I simply had no desire to link up with internet strangers, and though I made some attempts to get out with old partners in the days when he was away, I was happy enough keeping myself occupied with other activities, waiting to return to the high of climbing with someone I am incredibly attracted to.

But like I wrote earlier - the problem having all one's eggs in one basket(now that could be a double entendre if only I'd taken a bit of effort....) is that people leave. Or die. The good news is that he is alive and well; the bad news that he's gone, though I don't assume forever. He's currently out west, traveling and climbing in the mountain regions out west and California.

But, like so many before me who have fallen prey to the myopic partnership, I found I had unintentionally created distance between myself and several partners I climbed with in the past. It should be noted that none of these partnerships were committed relationships that I dodged, and I did keep in touch throughout the time he was here, inquiring about getting out and expressing hopes to do so. Usually, our schedules simply didn't match up.

Nonetheless, I couldn't help but get a sense of some irritation from a few people who asked what I had been climbing since we'd last talked. That hurt; I am not one who is constantly partnered up with someone, dropping my friends until my heart is broken and needing their emotional glue to help me piece life back together. To be treated as such - even if it was only in my imagination - seemed unfair.

At any rate, once I didn't have Peter to climb with, I realized that I was going to have to start from scratch and build new partnerships, just like I had been doing each season previously. As I said, I have climbed with hundreds of people, even here at the Gunks, but not really developed reliable partnerships with any of them.

Partly, it is due to the fact that our initial day of climbing has generally been due to the fact that one of THEIR regular partners was unavailable; I was the fill-in, and amounted to just one number in their address book of people to call when their preferred partner couldn't climb. But I also have to admit that, for whatever reason, I seem not to have the interpersonal skills required to build sustaining partnerships.

Still, I wanted to climb, of course, and posted partner requests on the climbing forums I frequent, and though I would like to say I redoubled my efforts and reconnecting with previous partners, I fell into my old ways, for the most part, of waiting for their calls and wondering why they weren't forthcoming(though in one case I had made the effort, and we did finally get a nice day out recently). The only "old" climbing partner who I easily fell back into routine with was Whiskey Mike, whom anyone acquainted with Gunks climbing is familiar with.

I did get responses, which is nice. But, oh, how I had forgotten the stumble and bumble of hooking up with new people. Though I was as clear as I could be in stating my skill/experience level and what sorts of partners I looked for, I was immediately besieged with people who had been climbing only in the gym and wanted to try outdoors, and others who "definitely wanted to climb a lot this season," but weren't available when I suggested we set up a day(even when I left the dates to their choice). Complementing those, I had at least three who notes from people were coming to the Gunks on a climbing trip, and seemed excited to partner up. Each of them subsequently canceled their trip; often without bothering to let me know in advance.

Out of about 20 inquiries, so far I have only gotten out climbing with one person from the batch. We have been having some nice days in, where I am leading all the pitches and generally setting the day's agenda. This is good for me, since I have always tended to go along with the flow of my partner to an extent which put the burden of decisions on their lap, and I also tended to decline taking leads, since my level was usually lower than theirs to the point I worried they'd be bored following me.

So - here we are, about mid-season in the Shawangunks(I consider my season here to be from mid-March through mid-November), and where do I stand? I HAVE ticked off a few leads I was anticipating(an onsight of Black Fly, and Fingerlocks or Ceder Box, which I had been on once before, as my singular "mock lead" back in 2005). I've followed Peter on several routes which were challenging for me, and fell off some others(he patiently waited while I prussiked 20 feet of the rope on Ape Call after falling out of the corner into the air and being unable to get back on stance). I have repeated some routes and taken note of the increased ease I had in the leading, and backed off one I previously led(first pitch of Snowpatch), swung leads with Pauline, and perhaps most important to my development, I have been the leader of the day with a new partner.

My current agenda is to continue leading the "under 5's which I previously swung leads on, so I have experienced being on the sharp end for all the pitches, ticking off a few previously led routes, such as Horseman, just to check my progress, and working through the 5.5's I haven't yet lead. Then I'll begin getting on some of the G-rated 5.6's and continue my way upward, as is the tradition in traditional climbing.

I've not yet led some routes rated sub-5.5, such as Sixish and Hawk, and with good reason. I'd have tried Hawk by now, but several people whose opinions I trust have indicated that last year's rockfall has made the route unpalatable, and considering it's reputation as a sandbag, I prefer not to ignore their advise at risk of an "I told you so." With Sixish, I asked Pauline to lead for me the other day, as I wasn't entirely sure where the 5.4 route ran. The route has a well-earned reputation as risky for the unequipped leader, and last year I asked someone to lead it so I could suss the line beforehand. That person went up the G-rated 5.6 variation, which nullified the effort for me, since I specifically wanted the 5.4 section. After following Pauline, I think I'll continue to put off that lead. The first placement area is bomber, with room for as many pieces as one wants to use, but one has to climb with no gear to a height where a fall would certainly cause at least some injury before getting there. The second stance for placement comes at an awkward stand that, if blown, is high enough that the risk of injury is again present. And then a bit of run-out. I have no health insurance, and my life insurance isn't even enough to cover a cremation - good thing I've donated my body to medical science!

Since I mentioned Whiskey Mike before, I should say that I will most certainly continue getting out once in a while with him. I am one of his fill-in partners; someone he will look for when a better match for his abilities isn't available. With Mike, I (try to) follow his leads or top-rope set-ups on 5.9's and 10's, and occasionally he will run up an easier route in order to set the TR.

I'll also hopefully get more days of swinging leads with Pauline, which I'm looking forward to. Now that I realize the added stress of making the day's agenda decisions, I intend to be more proactive in offering suggestions for climbs, and will work to resist my urge to decline on leading my turn. Even though I pride myself in being a competent second who does their share of the work, I just hadn't fully realized the added burden it puts on someone who has to take that on themselves. I have a new-found appreciation for all the people I've climbed with who lead the day.

As well, I am still available, and willing, to climb with new partners and old, and also those visiting the area who might appreciate having a partner who is familiar with the cliffs. In September, I head off to Yosemite for the Facelift again. While I don't climb a LOT during those trips, I'll certainly get out a little bit, and am looking forward to that. Perhaps I can even relax my stringent practice of barely allowing myself a day out, and even get in a long route.

And, soon enough, the Gunks season will begin to wane as November approaches. This is going to be a big transition period for me this year, as I have made the decision NOT to return to New York City, and live as a southwestern nomad for the winter. But that's a whole other subject, and one I am sure I will write about soon.

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