Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Climbing at Rogers Rock: Little Finger (5.5)
(Photo: View of Rogers Rock from Lake George.)
I have long dreamt of rock climbing in the Adirondacks.
But until recently I could never work it out to climb up there at all. It has always seemed impractical. It is too far for a day trip from NYC. And when I get the opportunity for several days of climbing in a row, I always end up picking more glamorous destinations that are further away, like Red Rocks.
This summer, however, I finally got my chance.
My wife's good friend Greg has owned a house on Lake George for the past few years, and we planned a weekend in early July when my family could visit his family there.
As we prepared for this visit, I tried to sell Greg on the idea of climbing with me up the classic 500 foot, three-pitch route Little Finger (5.5), which ascends Rogers Slide, the slabby east face of Rogers Rock. The route would be easy for us both, I told him.
I was really psyched about climbing in such a beautiful setting, on a cliff that rises straight out of the lake. Another bonus is that the route requires an approach by boat. I knew that Greg owns a small motorboat so I thought this would be easy for us to manage as well. I figured it would be a quick ride to the cliff from his house near Bolton's Landing. We could tie up the boat, run up the route, and be be back before our wives and children even noticed we were gone.
Over the months during which I've been proposing this little adventure, Greg has made supportive noises, but I wasn't sure he was entirely serious about doing the climb with me until just before our visit. I told Greg I had a harness, a helmet and a belay device for him, but that if we were going to do the climb he'd need to get some climbing shoes. I was thrilled when he actually went to Paragon and bought a pair of La Sportivas. I could hardly believe it. We were really in business.
Now as you may have gathered, Greg is not a climber, although he has worn a harness before, and has even belayed a few times in a gym setting with an ATC. Prior to our day on Rogers Rock he'd never climbed outside.
When I talked up the climb to Greg, I always emphasized how safe we'd be. I told him he'd always be on toprope, and that I'd build super-safe anchors for us. I also told him that this climb was very easy and that there was basically no way that I would call upon him to catch me falling on it.
I said these things because I wanted him to feel like doing this route with me would be a safe, reasonable thing to do. So I had a selfish interest in saying them: I wanted Greg to agree to do the climb. But I wasn't trying to sell Greg a bill of goods. I really did believe the climb would be easy for us. It is 5.5, after all.
The only hint of concern I had at the back of my mind as I reassured Greg was that Rogers Rock features slab climbing, which is not my strong suit. I have very little experience in slab and I don't feel very secure in the discipline. But the guidebook says that Little Finger is not typical of the slab routes on Rogers Slide, in that it follows a vertical crack which provides great pro and positive holds.
With that information I felt fine about our prospects.
When our weekend visit arrived, it looked like we were going to have perfect conditions. It was rainy towards the end of the week but the forecast was good for both Saturday and Sunday. I proposed that we climb on Sunday so as to have the best chance for dry rock; also we could plan out our logistics on Saturday and prepare. The day before the climb I had Greg try on my spare harness, and I gave him a quick primer on making sure the harness was doubled back. Then I gave him a refresher on belaying with the ATC and told him the few things he'd have to remember on the climb:
1. Feed me enough rope-- do not pull me off of the rock!
2. Never let go of the brake strand.
3. Do not take me off the belay until I say "off belay."
4. DO NOT DROP YOUR ATC!!
After just a little practice I felt like we were good to go.
(Photo: approaching Rogers Rock by boat in the early morning)
We got an early start on Sunday, leaving the Bolton's Landing area by 6:30 a.m. I wanted to get there early to make sure we were the first party on the wall, and to ensure we didn't take up too much of the day.
There was a slight wrinkle that arose from the fact that I know nothing about boats.
I was assuming Greg and I would just park the motorboat somehow and leave it at the base of Rogers Rock. It turns out that this is impractical. Typically people approach by canoe or rowboat and pull the boat up onto the small bit of land that sits at the base of the cliff. Greg's motorboat is too heavy for that, and apparently-- who knew??-- if there is no place to moor the boat it can't just be left unattended at the base. So Greg's wife Peggy had to get up early to drive us in the boat to the rock. (Sorry, Peggy.)
We left our return plan tentative. Luckily there is pretty good (Verizon) cell phone coverage at Rogers Rock. We decided we'd call Peggy later and tell her whether we were going to rappel (meaning we'd need a pick-up by boat) or top out and walk around to the campground (requiring pick-up by car). Greg and Peggy had both heard from locals that people usually top out and walk off after climbing Rogers Rock. Greg preferred the idea of walking off to rappelling, but I was skeptical that topping out would be practical from Little Finger. This idea about walking off was just one of several things they had heard from neighbors about climbing on Rogers Rock, and I didn't have to climb on the rock to know some of the other things they'd heard were false. For instance, they had also been told that the whole route is protected by fixed pitons, a notion I knew to be ridiculous.
I read in the guidebook that the original Little Finger route had gone all the way up, and I saw from the topo that some other less-frequently climbed routes on Rogers Slide do actually top out. But I also knew that Little Finger as it is now typically done stops after three pitches, well short of the top. It is unmarked in the guidebook past the rap anchor atop pitch three. I told Greg that if I saw an obvious scramble to the top I was all for it, but I suspected we'd be rapping off.
The water was calm as we approached Rogers Rock and we had no trouble jumping out of the boat and onto the rocks at the base with my big backpack. I quickly got my rack and ropes out and tossed my pack back into the boat. ("You have to bring all that crap with you?" Peggy asked.) And then, after a tiny bit of engine trouble, Peggy motored away and we were alone at the base of the cliff.
(Photo: My inexperienced but totally trustworthy partner Greg. Reader, I belayed him.)
The start of Little Finger is easy to find. A little to the right of center of the huge slab, the unmistakable vertical crack of Little Finger seems to rise forever. As I stood there beneath it, the angle seemed reasonable and the crack looked very positive. I was very excited to get going. (Peggy later said that in the boat I'd seemed like "a kid in a candy store.")
(Photo: Trying to look heroic at the base of the climb. You can see the vertical crack of Little Finger rising just to my left.)
The first pitch is only 5.4. It is long, though: 180 feet. The guidebook claims, accurately, that after some early difficulties, the angle and the climbing ease as you head up to the anchor.
As I ascended the early bits, I felt a little tentative. A number of things were roaming around in my brain.
I didn't want to burden Greg with too much gear removal, so I tried to limit the amount of pro that I placed, and I avoided placing many nuts. It killed me to eschew the nuts, since the route follows a vertical crack. So I had to place a few. This climb eats nuts! But I tried my best to avoid it. And since I was placing mostly cams, I had to run it out a bit in order to conserve them, which made even easy moves seem serious.
Also, the fall I'd taken just the previous Tuesday on Ground Control (5.9) in the Gunks couldn't help but enter my mind. My confidence was a little shaken, and the two fingers I'd sprained on my right hand were still rather swollen. I tried not to use them. On such easy climbing it was usually no problem, but it still required some mental effort.
Finally, I don't think I was climbing the route terribly well. I'm sure I could have pasted one foot on the slab at all times and comfortably walked up the stupid thing. Instead, since even easy slab climbing scares the crap out of me, I basically crack-climbed it, keeping my hands and feet in the crack almost all the time. This forced my body into positions that, while secure, were likely more awkward than necessary.
Eventually, I just admitted to myself I was a little nervous, stopped and placed a cam, and rested. Then I got over it, resumed climbing, and everything was fine.
(Photo: Looking down pitch one of Little Finger (5.5).)
As I neared the first belay station, at a slightly lower-angled scoop in the rock, I began to really enjoy the climb and the beautiful surroundings. The rock was good and the view was spectacular. There was pro available in the vertical crack pretty much whenever I might want it. The day was pleasant, sunny and not too hot.
I reached the belay and found a fixed cordelette tied to a nut and a couple pitons. I used this station as one leg of a three-piece anchor, adding two cams of my own to make the anchor crazy-solid.
"Greg," I shouted. "I'm off belay."
I watched as Greg took the ropes out of his ATC.
Then he violated rule number 4.
"Uh oh, I dropped the ATC!"
I envisioned bringing him up and having to give him my device, and then belaying him with a Munter hitch for the rest of the climb. Then I'd have to take the device back, lower him off from the top of the climb, and rap down to him...
"Can you reach it?" I asked. "Did it go in the lake?"
"It didn't go in the lake, but I can't reach it."
We had only about ten feet of rope left to play with, and it wasn't enough for him to walk down to where the ATC was sitting. I had tied Greg in; he didn't know how to tie a rewoven figure eight knot for himself. I didn't see a safe way for him to escape the system and retrieve the device. I was about to tell him to just forget about the device when he came up with the obvious solution.
"I'm going to get out of the harness for a sec and go grab it."
This was perfect. He knew how to double his harness back; he'd done it himself already before we got started. I knew I could trust him to do it right.
Once he got the device and put his harness back on, he did fine. He climbed the pitch and removed all the gear, looking for all the world like someone with much more experience. No falls or hangs.
Pitch two was shorter, 140 feet, with a 5.5 bulge not far off the anchor. Probably I was just more relaxed, but this pitch seemed easier than the first one to me, and Greg felt the same way. I even busted out a few slab moves on this pitch. The early bulge was easily surmounted and then lower-angled climbing led to a small stance below a roof, where there is no fixed gear. I built a three-piece gear anchor in a couple good cracks.
(Photo: Looking down pitch two of Little Finger (5.5).)
Again Greg had no trouble following the pitch or cleaning my gear.
As he followed pitch two I looked at the pitch three alternatives. The usual finish to the climb heads right from the second belay, continuing to follow the vertical crack, diagonally avoiding the roof, and then heading up to the finish. It is another long pitch of 5.5, 180 feet.
The original finish heads straight up over the roof instead of heading right. It is a more difficult alternative, rated 5.7+. The guidebook describes this as the best pitch on Rogers Slide, and says it is well-protected. Once over the roof the pitch heads straight up and eventually moves right to the same finishing anchor employed by the 5.5 finish.
I was aware that some leaders will place a piece at the overhang as a "French free" alternative for partners who are not up to free-climbing the overhang. The second can then pull on the gear to get through the crux. I felt sure we'd have no problem with the roof pitch, but I decided not to push Greg. He was doing very well, and seemed to be hiding any fear he was feeling, but I wanted him to finish the day with an air of accomplishment, not failure. 500 feet of 5.5 was probably a big enough test for him today.
(Photo: View of Lake George from the top of pitch two of Little Finger (5.5).)
So I told Greg I thought we should just do the 5.5 regular finish, and he seemed relieved.
It turned out that the first part of the third pitch, even when you go the easier 5.5 way, is still the crux of the whole route. There is a traverse on good but slabby feet (the mental crux) and then a couple steep steps up (the physical crux) before the angle eases again, leading to cruiser climbing to the finish.
There isn't too much gear for the traverse, but I tried to place as much as I could. I warned Greg about the swing potential. There is bomber gear before you move much sideways (I think I placed two pieces after I left the belay), and then it is a couple steps to the end of the overhang on the right before you get anything again. Before moving upwards through the physical crux moves you can get a great cam over your head. After those moves it is an enjoyable romp up the rest of the way to the bolted final anchor.
I could tell as I was doing the crux moves that this part of the climb might be tough for Greg, so I tried to talk to him about exactly what I was doing as I did it, and pointed out some of the holds I was using.
Once I reached the anchor I could no longer see Greg down below the roof, so I could only cross my fingers and wait. As he began the pitch I breathed easier with each inch of rope I pulled in. After a couple minutes he shouted up that he thought he might fall, but as I looked down I was relieved. I could see his hand, which meant he'd cleared the traverse, so even if he fell there wouldn't be any dangerous swinging. He'd fall a foot or two at most.
And as it turned out he didn't fall. He managed to pull through the crux and finish the climb without a single fall or hang. And, even more amazing to me, we didn't leave any stuck gear. Greg was a great partner. I'd take him along again on a climb in a heartbeat.
(Photo: rapping off.)
From the bolts atop pitch three I could tell there was no easy way to the summit. Up above was a big overhang. It wasn't too far to a bushy gully on the right end of the slab, but it did not appear to me that there was a trail over there.
Once Greg joined me at the anchor, however, I thought it was worth a look, so I had him put me back on belay and I went right to the gully just to check it out. I found a lot of loose rock on the little ledges heading over to the gully. And once at the gully I saw that it is very steep with enormous exposure. It would not be at all difficult to slip and fall hundreds of feet. With no obvious trail to the summit in sight, I went back to the belay and told Greg I thought we should call the wives and tell them to pick us up by boat. We would be rapping off.
And even though rappelling wasn't Greg's first choice, I think it was the much more convenient escape, and a much sexier one besides. Three double-rope raps to the lakefront and a waiting motorboat? That is some serious James Bond action! It sure beats a slog down a long, hot trail to a parking lot.
Later that day at Greg's local beach on the lake, his neighbors seemed shocked and delighted that we'd actually climbed Rogers Rock just like we said we would. Greg too seemed to have had a positive experience. I don't think Greg's climbing shoes will be seeing too much more use, however. He repeatedly described the climb as something he's really happy to be able to say he did once, and only once.
I told him our next target should be Deer Leap, another cliff on Lake George that the guidebook authors describe as the "biggest chosspile in the Adirondacks." With an endorsement like that, how can we resist?