Moonlight (5.6) was the location of my first and only climbing epic.
When I think back on that time (which wasn't really so long ago), it is hard to relate to the person I was then. So much has changed. Now I know my way around the Gunks. I know of many landmarks that can help me find just about any route with confidence. I can find the way down from the top almost anywhere. I try to think in advance about potential problems I might encounter along the way. I have some idea of how to deal with emergencies. It is difficult to imagine fumbling around as blindly as I did back then, taking an entire afternoon to do two pitches! Looking back now, I shudder at the memory of all of the mistakes I made.
But climbing by its nature generates these sorts of stories. Part of learning to climb is taking the risk that you will get in over your head. Book instruction will only take you so far. The systems require practice and familiarity before they can become automatic. There is no way to tell whether you are ready except by doing it.
Anyway, is it really so bad to get lost and generally make a mess of things? Isn't making a mess of things the essence of adventure? And adventure is the point, isn't it? So long as the adventure doesn't get anyone hurt...
This particular adventure happened in 2008. I'd been climbing for a couple of years, but had only recently taken on the responsibilities of leading. I was out with my partner Liz, who had a similar level of experience and was not yet leading trad. We'd been outside climbing together just once before. The Gunks was our home area but neither of us knew our way around the cliffs very well.
I had decided to push the grades a bit. I'd led several 5.5's and had quickly grown bored. I had then boldly embarked upon leading my way through the legendary 5.6's at the Gunks. I think by this point I had done three of them. They'd all seemed pretty easy.
I felt like I was on my way to greatness.
On this October afternoon, Liz and I were planning on doing the most impressive 5.6 in the Gunks: High Exposure. But as one might predict, we arrived at the base to find two climbers on the route and a party of three getting ready to go next. It was the usual High Exposure traffic jam. We sat there for a while eating a snack, watching the parties ahead of us make very little progress, and eventually decided it wasn't worth waiting any more.
I had read somewhere about another good nearby 5.6 called Moonlight. I suggested to Liz that we give that one a try.
We walked over to the base. The climb starts up an obvious left-facing corner, but because of our lack of familiarity with the cliff we were unsure about whether we were in the right place. Luckily for us, there was a nice man walking by who confirmed we'd found our desired climb.
Now, I'm sure there was nothing out of the ordinary about this man. But I remember him as a sort of wise-old-man-of-the-mountain kind of guy.
In reality he was probably dressed very much as I was, but in my memory he looks just like the famous photos of French alpinist Gaston Rebuffat, wearing a sweater and crusty, weathered boots and carrying a mountaineer's coil of rope over his shoulder.
This man must have pegged us for beginners immediately. He gave us some much-needed guidance.
He told us about the start of Moonlight, advising us that coming in from the slab on the left to the big corner was good climbing but hard to protect, and suggesting we could come to the corner from the right instead if we wanted an easier way.
He also asked us if we knew how we were going to get down after the climb. (Good question!) Of course we hadn't thought about it at all. Our previous climbs had all ended at fixed tree anchors or bolts. The man told us about a fixed cable with rappel rings at the top of the nearby route No Glow. This rappel station is not in the guidebook. You need double ropes to use it. Liz and I happened to be climbing with doubles so we could use this descent route.
The stranger also tried to help us prepare to find Moonlight's second pitch. The guidebook tells you to move forty feet to the right after you finish pitch one. Mr. Mountain Man told us to look up for an obvious ramp above the GT Ledge which dead-ends into a corner with a roof. He said if we could spot the ramp we'd know we were in the right place to begin pitch two.
Armed with all of this information I led pitch one without incident. I elected to start the route up the slab to the left of the big corner. The climbing looked reasonable and, even though the stranger was correct about the early moves being unprotected, I made it to the corner just fine and did the enjoyable first pitch to the GT Ledge without any problems that I can remember.
After I brought Liz up to the ledge I set about trying to find pitch two. And this is where our problems began.
For the life of me I couldn't find the ramp the man had told us about. Everywhere I looked I saw roofs above us, but I couldn't identify the corner of which he had spoken. I kept walking back and forth, looking up, but I had no idea where the second pitch of Moonlight was supposed to start. Finally I picked a spot that seemed to be about forty feet to the right of where we'd finished pitch one. There was chalk on the wall so I figured this must be the place. Naively and with optimism, I led onward.
Within a few moments of starting the pitch I realized I had made a mistake. I was maybe fifteen feet off the ledge and I'd placed a piece off below me to the right, but I couldn't see any more gear coming up. And although there were holds, they were very small, and the wall was steepening dramatically.
What was I doing here? Was this Moonlight or was it something else, something much harder? I began to get a very bad feeling.
Looking up, I could see a party of three above us to the right, on a traversing climb across a white billboard-like face. Their route looked spectacular. I decided to seek their assistance. I called up to them and asked them if they knew whether I was on Moonlight.
One of them was kind enough to call back. "No!" he said. "We are on CCK! Moonlight is around the corner to your left! You may be able to get to it from where you are, though...."
So it was confirmed: I was partway up the wrong pitch with no pro in sight. Not a good situation.
I had a decision to make. Should I try to traverse around the corner to the correct route, as the climbers above me suggested? Or should I climb down and start over from the ledge? Was climbing down even an option?? I had not thought to make sure I could reverse every move. I looked down and envisioned the downclimb. It didn't look so bad. I believed I could make it back to the ledge, and thankfully I did so without a problem. I later realized upon reading the guidebook that instead of Moonlight I had mistakenly started up a difficult, dangerous route called Crack'n Up (5.11d PG-R)!
Once I was back on the GT Ledge, I took a look around the corner to the left and instantly saw the ramp to the corner and roof that the Mountain Man had described to us. It now seemed so obvious. I don't know how I missed it the first time around.
And so I finally started up the correct second pitch of Moonlight. The climbing up the ramp went fine, but when the ramp dead-ended into the corner I was stopped in my tracks by the escape path to the left. It was scary. I had to move out the left side of the corner and reach blindly around onto the face of the cliff. I had never confronted a situation like this before.
And I couldn't find any decent pro. There was a super-rusty old pin driven downward into the rock off to the right, quite a distance away from the moves. I clipped the pin and looked around desperately for other options. I wormed a nut into a strange little pocket a few feet left of the piton but I knew this nut wasn't any good. I couldn't find any other placements. Nor could I improve the one I had.
I don't know how long I stood there fretting over the situation. I had uncertain moves ahead and really iffy protection that was too far away. The idea of bailing never entered my mind. I thought I had no choice but to carry on.
Eventually I decided this wasn't going to get any easier. I went for it.
I moved left, committing to the sequence. This was probably the first time that I really experienced commitment like this, in the climbing sense. I remember good handholds but smeary feet on a steep wall, and then a hopeful reach around the corner. I prayed I'd find holds over there, and of course I did. Then I pulled myself around to a stance on the face, shaking like a leaf. I had made the moves but it wasn't over. I still couldn't spot any pro. I tried to remain calm. The stance was solid. I stood there for a moment, taking in the air over there. Then I moved up and at last found some decent gear.
Whew! That was easily, without a doubt, the most exciting thing I'd ever done in my life.
I still had half the pitch to climb, but the rest of it was a blur. I had taken so long finding the correct route and contemplating the crux that the whole valley was becoming engulfed in shadow. I didn't know what time it was but I feared it would soon be dark. I wasn't sure we could find our way down if we got benighted. So I rushed through the rest of the pitch. I noticed that the climbing was good, up a nice crack, but I couldn't afford to dwell on it. I reached the top of the cliff and put Liz on belay in a hurry.
I hoped the drama was over on Moonlight but unfortunately we weren't out of the woods yet. Liz still had to climb the pitch. At first things were fine. I couldn't see her but as I pulled in rope I could tell things were moving along, until she reached that move around the corner. Then everything came to an abrupt halt. There was no movement for what seemed like a very long time.
Finally I heard her calling up to me for advice on how to get around the corner.
Then she moved-- and she fell.
There was silence as the ropes came tight. I yelled out to her to make sure she was unhurt. She called back that she was okay, thank goodness.
Once I knew she was unharmed my mind could turn to another worry. Could she get back on? It was all air under the crux. Was she dangling in the air with no means of getting back on the rock? Or might she be stuck below the route and unable to get back to where she needed to be?
What would I do? I was woefully unprepared for this possibility, but now it might be a reality. I tried to put a plan together in my mind. I could lower her back to the GT Ledge, then rap back to her from the nearest tree, leaving some slings behind. Then we'd just have to find the nearest rap station on the GT Ledge. It would likely be dark by the time we figured it all out but we'd be together and safe. No big deal, right?
I waited to see if she could get back on the route, hoping I wouldn't have to execute this plan B.
We were in luck. She got back on, made the moves and completed the pitch.
By the time Liz made it to the top the sun had set and light was rapidly draining from the sky. I sent her to go look for the fixed rap station above No Glow while I collected the ropes and gear. If we couldn't find the rappel station before dark we would be forced to make our own station, leaving gear behind. I did not relish the thought of picking a random point from which to rappel off the cliff in the dark. The other option, walking off, was perhaps even less attractive. It would take a long time. It was perhaps a three mile journey from the top of Moonlight to the walk-off and back again. And who knew what it would be like trying to stay on the cliff-top trail after dark?
Again we got lucky. Liz found the rap station in about thirty seconds. We did two double-rope raps to the ground, during which time I realized just how close we had come to being lost in the dark. By the time we reached the base it was so dark that I could no longer tell which of my ropes was blue and which was pink.
I had never been to the cliffs at night and I was surprised at just how dark it was, so close to civilization. Of course I had no headlamp or flashlight. Liz had a headlamp but the battery was almost dead. Even with the dim light of this headlamp it took us at least twenty minutes to negotiate the talus field back to the carriage road.
I walked away from Moonlight in a daze, both humbled and emboldened by the experience. There had been challenges, for sure, many of which I had never anticipated. But we'd come through them safely and kept our heads. And the climb had been thrilling, like nothing I'd ever felt before. I figured that if we absorbed the lessons of this hard day we could build on the experience and grow as climbers. I resolved to read the route lines in the guidebook a little more carefully in the future and to study lowering and hauling systems.
Of course the main lesson I really should have learned is that it is important to understand your limits, to know when you've got no business trying something, and when you should back off. This lesson I had to learn later, the hard way, by breaking my ankle in 2009 on Insuhlation (5.9).
Fast forward to the present, a beautiful Sunday in May, 2013.
David and I had enjoyed a good day, knocking off a bunch of fun climbs in the No Glow area. It was getting late and I proposed we warm down with something easy. Earlier in the afternoon I had watched from the top of Keep On Struttin' as a leader came around that corner on Moonlight and from above it looked like a lot of fun. I thought about the climb for the first time in a long time. I suggested to Dave that we do it and as he was feeling tired he suggested I lead both pitches.
Standing at the base, I wondered if climbing Moonlight again after all these years would spoil its magical aura. I knew that now it would be easy for me. The climbing would be straightforward and there would be no epics. The thing that made it most exciting five years ago-- my lack of experience-- would be absent this time around. But maybe the climbing would be good enough to offer some of the same excitement I felt in 2008.
I decided to come into pitch one from the left, as I did five years ago, just to see if I still felt like it was no big deal. The climbing begins with a few very easy slab moves, and you can place a piece a few feet above the ground. But then you step up and right to the corner and there isn't any way to protect the moves across. There are obvious holds for the hands and feet so a fall is unlikely but still I would imagine that if 5.6 is your lead limit these moves might feel kind of hairy. I was surprised at how awkward it felt to get established in the corner. Next time I might try coming in from the right.
Once I attained the big corner I found that the rest of pitch one of Moonlight is well-protected and fun. The climbing up the corner was pretty casual and felt very secure.
Starting up the ramp on pitch two, I found the protection here to be surprisingly sparse. But the climbing before the crux is much easier than 5.6. It is like a big diagonal staircase.
Soon enough I reached the spot that had filled me with such awe and terror back in 2008, at the corner beneath the roof. I had to search to find that crucial piton. It is further to the right than I remembered, really rather far from the move around onto the face. And boy is it rusty. This is one junky old pin.
After I clipped the pin I had to search again to find the odd little pocket that provides the other protection opportunity for the crux. It is several feet left of the pin and a little lower. This time around I got something good, a Tricam placement that I believe would hold in a fall. I am pretty sure it was the pink Tricam. This might be one of those rare situations in which a Tricam is the only thing that works.
So unlike in 2008, this time I felt like I could confront the crux with some decent gear, albeit gear that I wished were a bit closer to the action.
And this time around I found the moves far less mysterious. If you stay low, actually moving down from the piton and the Tricam pocket, you'll see a perfect sequence of little footholds right at the lip, going around the corner to the face of the cliff. The moves are not terribly steep, nor are they smeary or blind. The position and exposure are incredible, though.
I think I must have gone too high in 2008. Or maybe in my panic I just bungled the whole thing back then. My 2013 experience of Moonlight was so different from my memories of the route, but still I found it pretty darn thrilling for a 5.6.
And this time I was able to take time to enjoy the latter parts of the pitch, up the crack in beautiful white Arrow-like rock, which leads to a final corner and the top. Really good climbing. Dick gives Moonlight only one star in his guidebook but I think it is a candidate for three. It has awesome, varied climbing from the bottom of the cliff to the top, and one heck of an exciting crux.
Climbing Moonlight the first time around was one of my formative climbing experiences. I got lost, made mistakes, and got my first real taste of the adrenaline rush one can get from executing a challenging crux sequence at some distance from the protective gear. At the time I was chastened, somewhat, by what a fiasco the afternoon turned into, but I also felt vindicated by our eventual success.
Climbing Moonlight the second time brought into stark relief that I really should have felt much more chastened and much less vindicated! I didn't climb or protect the route terribly well in 2008, and I was poorly equipped to handle any of the near-emergencies we so narrowly avoided.
The real question, as I push myself on harder routes today, is whether I have any better sense of my limits now than I did then. I sure like to think so. I certainly make the effort not to get in too deep, and I am not afraid to back off. I climb with much more experienced people who I hope would let me know if I were doing something unreasonable or stupid. But one must remain ever vigilant against complacency in climbing. A creeping boldness, which I have seen in myself on occasion, could quickly morph into foolishness.
All we can do is try our best, right?