How I wish I never had to utter the word.
My week of vacation in New Paltz came to a somewhat sour ending: my first real lead fall of the year, and a minor injury.
Was it really just a few days earlier that I was out with my new partner Parker, sending 5.9's without a hitch?
After our day climbing together, we both had problems. On Parker's next day out he took a surprise lead fall low on WASP (5.9) and hit the ground. He wasn't hurt but now he's spooked and doesn't want to lead anything hard until the weather cools. He blames the heat.
On my next day out, I was with Liz and didn't try anything as hard as 5.9 or 5.10-- well, at least, not on purpose-- but I dealt with some interesting challenges that left me questioning my route finding skills and my overall judgment. Who knows, maybe the heat was a factor for me as well.
Then on the final morning of my vacation, July 5, I was planning to get just a few pitches in with Vass. He and his family had spent the night with us in our vacation rental on their way to their own rental house in the Catskills, and Vass and I planned to get a half day's climbing in before we all left the New Paltz area.
I proposed we head down to the far side of the Nears, because to my shame I'd never been down there at all. I'd never gone past the rotten middle of the Near Trapps; I believe the furthest I'd ventured down the cliff was Up Yours (5.7), last summer. I really wanted to go to the far end to do The Main Line (5.8), a three-star classic. And I was sure we'd find other good climbs to do as well; Williams' most recent guide identifies a whole bunch of other star-worthy climbs in the same area in the 5.7 to 5.9 range.
To get down to The Main Line, we hiked over the top of the Nears on the Millbrook Ridge Trail. It is a nice trail, well blazed with excellent views. After 15 minutes or so on the official trail we found it easy to spot the informal, unmarked trail down the gully to the end of the Near Trapps. From there it was an easy walk to the base of The Main Line.
But The Main Line was wet at the top of the corner that is ascended by the first pitch. I should have expected this, as Williams says in his book that the climbs around The Main Line stay wet for several days after it rains. And it had rained pretty much all day two days before.
We started to look around for an alternative, and quickly found one right next door: Ground Control (5.9).
Ground Control has a 5.8 first pitch, which ends at the same bolted station as pitch one of The Main Line. It appeared to be dry. Dick gives Ground Control two stars, so I thought we may as well give it a go.
I found the first pitch very awkward and not that enjoyable. The first moves are 5.7-ish and go straight up to a horizontal crack beneath a long overhang. I didn't know this at the time, but I later learned that Swain gives this part of the pitch an R rating. Williams gives it a PG and I think I agree with him. I got a good small cam (green C3 if I'm not mistaken) in a horizontal just a couple moves up, and then a bomber green Alien below the overhang.
Once the overhang is reached, the pitch follows a strenuous traverse to the left end of the long roof. The reason the traverse is strenuous is that the good footholds are a little higher than you'd like them to be. It might be less strenuous to ignore these footholds and smear your feet below. But this would likely also be less secure. I placed a great large cam in the middle of the traverse (thank you, yellow Camalot!), and then thought the move up to the stance above the overhang was no big deal. Dick calls this move the crux, but for me the crux was the traverse that came before.
I thought the rest of the pitch was easier than 5.8. It ascends a slab above the roof to a ledge with a bolted anchor. From the stance above the roof you diagonal to the right, crossing another little corner, continuing almost to the far right edge of the slab, where you find decent holds to take you up diagonally left to the bolts.
All this zig-zagging-- left, then right, then left again-- makes for an ocean of drag. Or it did for me, anyway. We were using my single rope. Doubles might help but if you aim to protect the traverses in this wandering pitch I think some drag is unavoidable. By the end of the pitch I felt like I was hauling an elephant behind me. I was really grateful to get to the bolts and even more grateful once Vass began climbing and removed a few of my protection pieces so that pulling the rope was no longer a tortuous exercise.
As I waited for Vass I stared straight up at the huge overhang that makes up pitch two of The Main Line. It was dry and it looked amazing, following a notch up and right through imposing, beautiful orange rock.
When Vass got to the anchor I asked him if he wanted the lead.
"I don't know, man," he said. "It looks really difficult from here."
"Yes, but it's 5.8, so you know it's jug city up there!" I replied.
Vass was happy to let me be the one to test this optimistic theory. He gave me the lead.
It turned out I was was right. It is jug city.
There are great holds all the way up. The crux is at the bottom of the overhang. Getting the jug above the first lip and stepping up are the hardest parts of the pitch.
There is great pro over your head for the crux move, in the big pod right in front of your face as you reach for the jug above. You can get a nice big cam in there (thank you, yellow Camalot!). It goes in at an angle, but I thought it was totally bomber.
Once you pull up into the overhangs, it remains steep, but there are great holds and pro, and the pitch is over quickly, maybe a little too quickly. It is my only criticism of the pitch: it is a bit short. But this is a quibble. It is a great pitch nonetheless. I'd really like to go back and do pitch one.
When we rapped back to the chains above pitch one I gave the 5.9 second pitch of Ground Control a good hard look. It angles left up the slab above the bolts, going up into a right-facing corner. Then you move left out to the outside corner and (crux) around on to the face. From below, the crux looked airy and exposed. It also looked like there'd be a good cam placement in a downward-facing pod just before the crux. And it appeared a fall from there would be clean, into air beneath the corner.
I thought it was worth a try.
So I headed up and placed a bomber cam (thank you, yellow Camalot!) at the base of the right-facing corner. Then I reached up into the corner and realized that the right face of the corner, which I hadn't been able to see from the bolts, was wet.
Reaching for a wet crimp with my right hand, I found it slimy, but it seemed like I could hold on to it. I just needed to step up into the corner. I never really considered bailing. It looked like there were dry holds at the top of the corner, and a tantalizing fixed nut. I would make one move, clip the fixed nut, and then move left into dryness.
I got a foot up and locked off on the slimy crimp, reaching with my left hand for the holds at the top of the corner.
But just like on Raunchy a few days before, I got my foot tangled in a sling. It was the same sort of move too, stepping up a little high into a corner that sticks out a little from the wall, with gear right below the base of the corner. Again it was not at all the crux of the pitch. I don't know why I've suddenly had this problem twice in one week, but I really need to sit down and sort out the spatial aspects of it before it ever happens to me again. It is such a klutzoid thing to do. I've been leading for years, and I should know better than this. It is completely unacceptable.
This time it wasn't the immediate cause of a fall, but I think it contributed to what happened next.
I cleared my foot. But as I reached up with my left hand for the dry holds, my right hand started to slip off the slimy crimp. And then I knew I wasn't going to stay on. Had I not had to deal with the foot issue, I might have smoothly reached up and had it made. I'll never know for sure.
"Falling!" I yelled.
I didn't fall far; I had just moved my feet above the level of my last protection. But as I got entangled on the way up, so I got entangled on the way down. My foot caught the sling below and I flipped over onto the slab, several feet below the corner and my bomber yellow Camalot, which held fast and true.
I really can't thank that yellow Camalot enough. If I have to fall on something, let it be that #2 yellow Camalot every time. You could hang a limousine off that thing. I am filled with warm love every time I place that big ol' bugger.
"You okay?" Vass asked.
"Yeah, I think I'm fine," I said, righting myself. "Oh, crap. I think I sprained my ring finger."
I have no idea how it happened. I can only guess that my right hand smacked the wall as I fell. As I turned myself right-side-up, I could tell the finger was starting to swell. As I tested it for tenderness, I realized that I'd actually sprained not one but two fingers, the ring finger and the pinkie. It didn't seem like I'd broken any bones, but both fingers were swelling up and becoming painful to bend.
Luckily we were at a set of bolts. I moved the few feet over to the anchor and Vass quickly climbed up and down to recover my gear. Then we rappelled out of there.
It has now been three weeks since this incident, and while the swelling has gone down, for the most part, the two sprained fingers are still not back to the way they were. They are a little swollen at the first joint and don't have the full range of motion that they should. I've been trying to take it easy on them, but I haven't totally stopped going to the gym. When I boulder in the gym I find that I can use them, even though I often feel like I shouldn't.
In a way the injury came at a convenient time. It has been brutally hot and we've had a variety of summer weekend family plans so I haven't yet even considered going back to the Gunks. I am planning on being there next on August 13 with Adrian, and I'm hoping that by that time the fingers will feel pretty normal.
I worry, though, that this fall will set me back, and not just physically.
I worry that it will mess with my lead head. There's no way to know if it will. I know that I'm in much better condition than I was the last time I injured myself in a fall, and I hope as a result I won't suffer the same crisis of confidence this time around.
In an effort to avoid mental breakdown, I'm trying to see this incident in a cold, intellectual light, as something to learn from. The lessons are pretty easy to spot.
For starters, I need to watch my feet and their relationship with the slings and the rope. The more I think about it the more instances I can think of in which I've been surprised to find I need to clear my leg away from the rope. Some of my partners seem instinctively to keep their legs out from behind the rope, while mine always seem to be creeping towards the wrong side. I need to bring a new vigilance toward avoiding this problem.
I also should be more alert to potential trouble ahead and quicker to back off. There is no shame in abandoning a pitch. I never really considered backing off of Ground Control, even though I saw it was wet and downclimbing from so early in the pitch probably would have been easy. This was a mistake.
I plan to treat this injury as an excuse to take the break I likely needed anyway. I peaked in my fitness in the late Spring. Since then I've been coasting, less motivated to train (not that my "training" was ever rigorous), but really just enjoying my time outside actually climbing. Now I can start over, rest a bit, and then try to build up towards a new peak in October and November, the best time of year in the Gunks. Periodization is a good thing.
So on August 13 I won't go to the Gunks with any big goals. I'll just take it easy and go with the flow, and hope to be comfortable out there.
But I know you'll forgive me if once I'm there I say "screw it" and hop right on The Dangler. I've been really feeling like it should be my first 5.10, it looks so doable...