Friday, May 11, 2012

Free Clinics for Climbers on Saturdays in the Gunks

Joe Vitti works for Alpine Endeavors, a guide service based in New Paltz.

I hired Joe back in 2007 when I was first learning to lead trad climbs. Joe gave me two days of intensive training in placing gear and building anchors.  And we did some fun climbing.  I didn't know the cliff at all in those days-- it seems like another lifetime even though it was just five years ago.  Joe took me up several great moderates and only as an afterthought did I ask him the names of the routes we'd climbed.  They were all classics: Hawk, Snooky's Return, Madame G's, and others.  Along the way I learned a ton about how to keep myself safe at the cliffs.

Since then I've seen Joe guiding around the Gunks on several occasions.  He is always friendly, always professional.  He's an all-around good guy.

Now in response to the tragic accident a few weeks ago Joe has gotten together with some other guides to offer free clinics for climbers on Saturdays, at 5:00 in the Uberfall.  (See the flyer I've reproduced above.)  At these clinics these guides will be offering (for free!) the kind of priceless information I got by hiring Joe several years ago.  I would urge climbers of every level to try to check it out one of these Saturdays.  I hope to stop by myself one of the next few Saturdays.

If you would like to attend, email Joe at, or call Rock and Snow at 845-255-1311, or EMS at 845-255-3280.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Gunks Routes: Obstacle Delusion (5.9) & Teeny Face (5.10a) ...but still no Insuhlation (5.9)

(Photo:  Maryana tackling the crux move at the first set of overhangs on Obstacle Delusion (5.9))

I found myself at the Obstacle Delusion/Insuhlation buttress again with Maryana the other week.  Maryana wanted to lead Obstacle Delusion (5.9).  I'd never been on it but she'd done it once before, taking a hang at the first hard roof, then getting lost and bailing off to the right. 

I was excited to try it out, and of course being in this location made me think yet again about heading back up Insuhlation, the climb on which I broke my ankle in 2009.  As it happened, while we were getting ready to start Obstacle Delusion another party was finishing up the short first pitch of Alpine Diversions (5.8).  This other party was planning to do pitch two of Insuhlation, so from my belay stance on the ground I hoped to watch Maryana and at the same time get another look at Insuhlation.

(Photo:  She may not know it, but having grabbed the jug, this climber has done the tricky starting crux of Alpine Diversions (5.8).)

Maryana decided to do Obstacle Delusion as a single pitch.  She ran right up the traditional 5.4 first pitch, placing almost no pro.  Immediately she was below the big first roof.  This was where she'd previously struggled, and unfortunately she struggled again and had to take a hang.  I could see the hold she was going for-- it looked like a pretty big move.  After she rested she got through it.

(Photo:  Maryana in the steep series of overhangs that make up the second crux of Obstacle Delusion (5.9).)

The second crux of Obstacle Delusion seems to involve two different skills:  (1) endurance and (2) route-finding.  Maryana told me that her first time on the route, she'd wandered too far to the right and found herself lost in the 5.10 territory of the variation climb Teeny Face, then moved further right to Insuhlation, and finally bailed to the finishing moves above the roof on Alpine Diversions.  This time, from the ground, we'd looked carefully at the guidebook and she found what I believe is the correct 5.9 route.  In the photo above she is just below and to the right of the shallow orange right-facing corner mentioned in Dick's book.

You won't get lost, I think, if you stay in the numerous overlapping overhangs.  If you find yourself venturing to the right into the flatter, lighter orange-colored face, you are leaving Obstacle Delusion.

Maryana successfully negotiated the second crux through the series of overhangs, and after she put me on belay, I started up the route just as the leader in the other party was reaching the crux of Insuhlation. 

(Photo:  Climber following pitch two of Insuhlation (5.9); it is the same woman who is pictured above leading pitch one of Alpine Diversions.  I regret that I have forgotten her name!)

This climber on Insuhlation seemed like a very competent fellow, but he was struggling with the final roof problem.  And his pro was several feet below the roof. 

I stopped climbing for a moment and watched him.  I imagined his pro was exactly where mine was when I fell there two years ago.  But I had pulled above the roof without finding another placement.  He, more sensibly, was trying to place another piece before going any further.  He worked a nut in at the roof, but I heard him say it was junk.  He didn't clip it.  Instead he warned his partner that he was coming off and let go.

As I watched him fall, swinging down and into the wall, I thought he'd been so much smarter than I had been at that same location, and yet still this was a fall that could easily tweak an ankle.  (Luckily he was fine.)  I decided once again at that moment not to get back on Insuhlation.

But then as I negotiated the many overhangs of Obstacle Delusion-- finding them straightforward and well-protected, but pumpy and sustained (nice lead, Maryana!)-- I arrived at the top to to find the leader on Insuhlation had made it to the top as well, finding other pro and finishing the route.  Once he went back up, he said, he found both the pro and the climbing reasonable. 

The mystery gets deeper again. 

(Photo:  Another climber leading Obstacle Delusion; shot with my phone from the High Exposure ledge.)

After we finished Obstacle Delusion Maryana and I dropped a toprope over Teeny Face (5.10a) and gave it a whirl.  It too is steep and unmysterious.  It is definitely a step up in difficulty from Obstacle Delusion, and it does not have the same obvious protection opportunities.  We both sent it on the first try with the comfort of the toprope, but I don't know if either of us will be leading that one any time soon.  It features very good climbing, and it is totally worth the few minutes' effort to drop the rope over it if you find yourself at the rap tree and no one is coming up the route. 

I'd love to go back to lead Obstacle Delusion. The line is a little indistinct, but the climbing is classic Gunks. Steep reaches between good holds, with great horizontals for pro wherever you need it. And Insuhlation, well.... I'm still scratching my head about it.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Tragedy in the Gunks: Stephanie Prezant, Age 22

(Photo: Stephanie Prezant, age 22.)

On Sunday something unthinkable happened.

A young woman full of life, just a few months away from college graduation, went outside climbing for the first time.  She had no reason to think she was doing anything risky.  She climbed an easy route, and believed the rope to which she was tied was secured to a massive tree on the ledge above her. 

But when she weighted that rope the system that was supposed to protect her collapsed.  Climbers who were nearby reported that the rope didn't catch her.  Instead it (and the slings to which it was attached) came tumbling down.  With nothing holding her weight, the woman fell about twenty feet to the ground.

Eyewitnesses said that rescue personnel came immediately, tending to her injuries and quickly getting her to an ambulance.  Despite these efforts, they could not save her.

Young Stephanie Prezant died. 

I never knew her, but as a member of the community of Gunks climbers, and as an ordinary human being, I feel such pain at this tragic loss. I can only guess at the anguish her family must be feeling.  Being a parent myself, I have the barest inkling of the grief they must be dealing with.  And as for the people who were with Stephanie when it happened, for them too this must be such a terrible time.  I am so sorry. 

I wish I'd been there.  I wish I could have done something to prevent this horrible event before it all unfolded.

Whenever an accident like this happens, we climbers tend to come together and speculate about it on the internet.  It may appear insensitive, but it is inevitable and probably cannot be prevented.   

Part of this phenomenon, I think, is just the morbid curiosity we all share.  But there is a more positive side to the internet postings.  There is genuine concern in the community for the well-being of others.  Another part of it is the worry we all feel as climbers.  We trust our gear with our lives and when we hear of an accident we fear that our trust is misplaced and that we could be the next casualty.  We want to know the details both so that we may avoid whatever mistakes might have been made and also so that we can distance ourselves from the accident.  If we can establish that this accident was caused by one mistake or another, we can feel assured of our own safety because we would never make THAT mistake, whatever THAT mistake may be.

I am as guilty as anyone of participating in this orgy of curiosity and speculation.  When I heard there had been an accident I started a thread on seeking more information.  Mostly I just wanted to hear that the young woman would be okay.  But like everyone else I also wanted to analyze the event, to learn from whatever went wrong.

I guess I should have restrained myself.  My own post on the accident was an example of how these internet feeding frenzies produce misinformation.  I provided the few details I'd heard and one of them-- the name of the climb from which Stephanie fell-- turned out to be incorrect.  And then after some useful information surfaced, the thread devolved into the usual speculations and know-it-all prescriptive arguments, none of which were at all helpful to anyone.  Another thread, on, followed a similarly depressing trajectory.

I hope the Mohonk Preserve rangers who responded to the scene will eventually be able to make some determination of what really caused Stephanie's anchor to fail. 

Here, on my blog, I do not wish to presume I know exactly what went wrong.  Nor do I want to make her climbing partners or family feel any worse. 

Of course without knowing what caused the accident one can offer no formula for avoiding this kind of disaster.

But the temptation to preach is irresistible.

I want to say:

Please, all you climbers out there, do not assume this accident was solely the result of inexperience.  We don't know what level of experience these climbers had.  Even if in this case it turns out they were all first-timers, we all know that experienced climbers too have been injured and killed when they trusted faulty anchors.  Whatever went wrong here, do not delude yourself:  it could happen to you or me. 

Be careful out there.

The systems we employ as climbers are very simple.  But in a brief moment of complacency, or exhaustion, or distraction, it is all too easy to set up these systems incorrectly.   Here I am speaking not just of top rope anchors, but of all the systems we climbers use.  And I speak from experience.  We are all capable of failure.  Even the best of us under some circumstances will fail to double back a harness, finish a knot, lock a carabiner, or attach ourselves properly to an anchor.  Anyone can fail to ensure the ends of the rope are even or that both strands are through the rappel device.  Anyone can load a GriGri backwards. 

It can happen at any time.

Please remain vigilant.  Double-check everything.  And employ a partner check whenever you can.  A fresh set of eyes is so often helpful.  I have no idea whether it would have made any difference in this case.  But it never hurts.

I have been fortunate.  The times when I have screwed up, partners have been there watching for me.  There have been no consequences.  Others, obviously, have not always been so lucky. 

I like to think I have come through to the other side.  That I have graduated from the screw-up years.  But I know it only takes one lapse.  When you trust your weight to your gear, it has to be right every time. 

I want to do right by Stephanie.  I want to honor her memory.  I intend to do so by watching out, for myself and my partners.  And for others.  In the future I may be less prone to walk away from situations that seem unsafe, and more prone to offer some friendly advice to strangers.  It is all I can think to do.

I hope you will do the same.