Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Blind Leading The Blind

(Photo: Will setting off on pitch two of Arrow (5.8).)

With this year's climbing season in its last days, I wanted to achieve something. I'd been out twice in November and while I'd redpointed one of my longstanding Gunks 5.10 projects I needed more.

Right after my easy Uberfall Sunday with Gail it was due to get pretty warm-- on Tuesday the high in the Gunks was supposed to be 52.

I had to get out again.

I couldn't end the season yet. I arranged to take a day off from work and found a partner on Mountain Project named Will.

Like my other new partner Andy, Will had learned to climb out west and had very little Gunks experience. I was happy to introduce him to some of my favorite local climbs, and I hoped this time to get on at least one 5.10 and maybe something new and challenging as well.

I was thinking about hitting Balrog (5.10b), so we warmed up nearby on Absurdland (5.8). The climbing was free and easy. I felt really good, and much less tired and tentative than on Sunday.

Unfortunately Balrog was wet, so we took a pass on that route. We moved over to the Arrow wall, where we ended up spending the rest of our day. I sent Will up to lead the 5.8- pitch one of Three Doves and he did a fine job. I had only done it once before and I was surprised at how good it was. I think this is one of the best of the lower pitches on this wall. It has two pleasant little overhangs and then an interesting, delicate, it's-all-there, face-climbing crux at the top of the pitch.

(Photo: Will on the 5.8- pitch one of Three Doves.)

I led pitch two of Three Doves (5.8+), one of my favorite 5.8 pitches in the Gunks. The face climbing past the pin is just so good. And the finishing traverse is great too. But this time I decided to skip the usual traverse and to do something new instead. Once I passed the crux moves over the pin I headed left instead of right, finishing on a roof problem at the top of a climb called Hawkeye (5.9+). (Below its roof, Hawkeye is overgrown and does not appear to be well protected.)

(Photo: Hawkeye (5.9+) goes through the big roof at the cleft that is at the center in the above photo.)

Just getting up to the Hawkeye roof from Three Doves involves a thin step up past a horizontal. It is good climbing. And then the roof itself is OUTSTANDING. There is great gear at the base of the cleft that splits the roof, and the move up over the roof is technical, burly and exciting. Clean rock, unique moves, great gear: what more could you ask for? I thought this was as good a 5.9 roof as I have experienced in the Gunks. It is every bit as good as the roofs on Grim-Ace Face or CCK Direct. It is a great way to finish Three Doves.

(Photo: Will just past the Hawkeye (5.9+) roof and about to move over to join me at the Three Doves (5.8+) anchor.)

After we got down from Hawkeye I decided to introduce Will to Feast of Fools (5.10b). I led pitch one and I'm proud to say it felt almost casual. I had no worries at the initial overhang and at the second crux I found it so much easier than the last time to hang in, clip the pin, and then step back down to shake out. As I fired through the moves up the little corner and reached the chains I felt like a different guy from the leader who slowly wormed his way up this same pitch last year.

Vegan POWER, my friends.

(Photo: Will on Feast of Fools (5.10b).)

We ended the day with two of the best climbs in the Gunks. I led the 5.6- pitch one of Limelight (not bad climbing but surprisingly sparse gear), and then Will took the lead for the crux pitches of both Arrow (5.8) and Limelight (5.7).

(Photo: Will at the Arrow (5.8) crux.)

I saw that Will went to the right at the upper bolt on Arrow. This is one of those great Gunks debates. Are you a left-at-the-bolt person or a right-at-the-bolt person?

I have always gone left, doing a pretty tense mantel move on the beautiful blank face-- the same move I worked out the very first time I climbed Arrow (my first 5.8 lead back in 2009). When I followed Will this time I tried going to the right instead and I was shocked to find it much easier than going left! I think if you go to the right at the upper bolt, Arrow is actually 5.8. If you go left it is harder. Who knew?

On Limelight, we had a little bit of drama. Will pulled up over the overlap that begins the crux portion of the route, and then I could see him start to struggle. He was standing on the unusual thin flake, perched on tiny footholds, barely keeping it together. He was tense and kept shaking out both of his hands. It turned out that his hands had both cramped up at the same time. This was a new experience for him, probably the result of dehydration plus the stress of leading. His left hand was clenched up so tight that he couldn't get it to open! He ended up using his mouth to pry his fingers away from his palm.

Eventually he worked through it, placed a piece, and resumed climbing. He sent the pitch.

Good work, Will.

The sun set as we were finishing with Limelight, so our day was done. We packed up and started walking out. By the time we got down to the carriage road it was completely dark out. On the way out I mentioned to Will that I'd never really climbed at night by headlamp, and that it might be fun.

As if on cue, as we passed the Madame G buttress, we heard a male climber yelling from high on the cliff to his partner, telling her that he had alerted the rangers. This got our attention.

We called up to the climbers, asking if they needed help. It turned out that the leader, a climber named Bob, had led the second and third pitches of Madame G (5.6) in one pitch, as leaders often do. But he'd started late in the day and by the time he'd put his partner on belay it was dark. He'd given her his headlamp but she was inexperienced and she was very afraid to follow the climb in the dark. She'd tried to do it but eventually she gave up and retreated to the tree atop pitch one.

Bob had asked her to untie and pulled the rope all the way up. I gather he was planning to rap down and get help. His partner was stranded one pitch up, and all of Bob's gear was left hanging on pitches two and three of Madame G.

Bob's mess was an opportunity for Will and me to be heroes. We sprung right into action, ascending the treacherous (unpaved!) approach trail to the base of the cliff and gearing up for the technical (5.4), lengthy (50 foot) pitch one of Madame G. I took the lead, volunteering for this dark journey into the unknown, my path lit only by my (insanely bright) headlamp. If I could successfully climb to the ledge where Bob's partner was stranded, I would then have the challenge of rigging a rappel in the inky black gloom of night using only my wits (and the fixed rappel rings on the tree).

In truth this may well have been the easiest rescue in the entire history of mountaineering. We had Bob's partner down in about ten minutes. She was a bit shaken up by the whole experience but she was fine. Once Bob knew Will and I were on the case he walked off from the top and met up with the rangers back in the Uberfall. As Will and I walked back down to the carriage road with Bob's partner, the rangers drove up with Bob in tow and we all got a lift back to the parking lot in the rangers' truck.

Will and I had a good time doing a very minor good deed and I finally got to climb at night. So it was all good fun from our perspective.

But poor Bob lost a lot of his gear. I hope he learns a little bit from the experience. He might have been wiser to stick to some single-pitch climbs until he had a better idea of what his partner could do. Certainly doing a long, wandering route like Madame G, so late in the day, was a poor choice. Bob placed himself in a position where he could neither rap down to collect his own gear nor descend directly to his stuck partner.

Bob sure learned his lesson the hard way. He posted to Mountain Project, asking politely for the return of his gear, and it appears he has gotten nothing but abuse for his trouble. Some of the abuse is perhaps justified but I don't think he deserves to lose all of his stuff. I'm sure someone has cleaned all the gear by now but no one has come forward to return it. I hope the person who cleaned the gear is just letting Bob suffer a bit; maybe eventually he or she will return it.

We all make mistakes.

Case in point: I was back in the Gunks on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and had the opportunity to make a big mistake of my own, though my mistake had little to do with climbing.

Right after my warm day with Will, an early-season winter storm came through the area, dumping six inches of snow on the Gunks. The temperatures hovered at around freezing for a few days thereafter, but on Sunday it was expected to reach 46 degrees, which was warm enough for climbing but not so warm that we'd see a total melty slushfest. Or that was my hope, anyway.

Gail thought I was crazy. But she was up at her house in Gardiner anyway so she agreed to climb with me if I really wanted to make the trip.

Of course, I did want to make the trip. Forget the snow-- I was still clinging to summer! And I'd been feeling so good lately, on Try Again (5.10b) and Feast of Fools. Maybe we'd find a dry 5.10 to send. It could be a last hurrah for 2014. We had to climb.

I woke up that morning and as per my usual routine I started to insert my contact lenses. I was using some cleaning solution that I'd never used before. This was a sample-sized bottle that I'd picked up as a freebie at the optician when I'd bought a new supply of my lenses.

I assumed this was the usual saline, but in fact it was a hydrogen peroxide solution. I had never used such a solution before; I didn't know anything about it. I hadn't bothered to look at the directions and I had failed to notice the special case that comes with this type of solution. I soon found out that if you don't neutralize the hydrogen peroxide solution with the special case, the hydrogen peroxide can severely burn your eyes.

Ignorant of all this, I rubbed my contact lens with the poison solution and then put it into my right eye. It was as if I'd lit my eye on fire. The pain was intense. It took all the effort I could muster to pry my eye open and remove the lens.

With the damaged eye clamped shut and the other one in tears, I tried to read the blurry, small print on the sample bottle and saw that it said something about how this solution is not intended to go directly into your eye. There was also some nonsense about the red tip on the bottle, which in theory is supposed to act as a warning. It remains a mystery to me how the uninitiated are supposed to know that the red tip is such a warning.

At the time, believe it or not, my main worry was not my eye but my climbing day. I needed to get moving or I was going to be late!

I flushed the affected eye with some water and in five or ten minutes it seemed like it was improving. I could keep the eye open, which was progress.

I got my crap together and drove off to the Gunks.

When Gail and I arrived at the cliff the conditions didn't look so bad. We were not the only climbers attempting to make a go of it. There was snow on the ground and the ledges but many walls were basically clear and dry.

We walked in and saw a lot of sun hitting the Jackie/Classic wall so we decided to set up shop there. I threw down my tarp, took my gear out and led Classic (5.7) to get us started. It was my second time on the climb this year. Again I was impressed at the quality of the face climbing, with really nice moves for the entire length of the pitch. It was a little bit wet under the finishing roof, and my fingers started to freeze a bit as I held on in the dampness and placed gear. While she was belaying me Gail occasionally had to dodge melting snow bombs as they fell from the trees. But these were small concerns. It was good to be climbing.

(Photo: Gail on Classic (5.7).)

As Gail followed the pitch I noticed my eye was getting worse. It was sensitive to direct sunlight. I couldn't stare up at Gail for more than a few seconds. There was a burning sensation. And it felt like something was stuck in the eye. It was hard not to rub it constantly. It was becoming a struggle for me to keep it open.

Nevertheless I soldiered on. Neither of us had ever done Classy (5.8), a variation to the right of Classic. So we did it. I led again. The first several moves of Classy are shared with Classic but then as Classic goes left, Classy heads upward to a left-facing corner system. There are some interesting moves up the corner system and then a pumpy traverse left (with good hands and thin feet) to the roof, where after one move up you are forced to merge again with Classic for the finish.

(Photo: Gail on the Classy (5.8) traverse.)

Classy is no Classic but it is good, and worth doing. I liked the moves up the corner and the traverse. And the gear is decent. The guidebook says it is 5.6 R before you reach the big corner but if you clip the third pin on Classic and go straight up there I don't think it is worse than PG. The rest of the way there is good gear; there is a great slot for a red Camalot right in the middle of the traverse.

I tried to put my injury out of my mind while I was leading Classy but as soon as I came down I realized it was getting worse and worse. It dawned on me that whatever I'd gotten in my eye was not adequately flushed out and it was continuing to do damage.

Gail and I tried to get some water into the eye at the base of the cliff using my Camelback but this effort was ineffective and a little ridiculous. What were we even doing there? I couldn't continue like this. We had to abort our climbing day.

Gail drove us in my car back to her house in Gardiner. She and Mitch and her son Max were incredibly kind, helping me set up a water bath for the eye in their kitchen sink. I flushed the eye repeatedly until I couldn't take any more. The eye was so inflamed, it felt like a smoking, radiating ruin. Curtis LeMay would have approved.

I needed to get home to Brooklyn but I wasn't sure I could drive. Gail and family had to head back to Philly and they quite reasonably and charitably offered to drive me in my car most of the way to NYC. But I wanted to wait. I hoped that in a few hours I'd be more sure that I could drive. So I insisted that they should go, and I would wait at Gail's house until I felt fit to drive. I could even wait until the next morning if I really had to.

I stayed a few hours and then decided to go for it. I couldn't say the eye was any better but I thought I could force it to stay open for the drive.

It turned out to be really hard to force the eye to stay open. The drive home was a nightmare. I was in pain the whole way and I worried that I was creating a hazard on the road. I stopped repeatedly to flush the eye with more water. When I finally got home I debated going to the ER but instead I sat in a dark room with my eyes closed until I fell asleep.

The next morning it felt a little better, though everyone who saw me was quick to tell me it looked terrible. The eye was still quite red and swollen. I resembled the Hunchback of Notre Dame after a bar fight. I saw the ophthalmologist and she gave me good news. Even though the white membrane covering my eye was distressed and swollen, my cornea looked surprisingly good and I would likely be fine in a few days. She gave me some steroid eye drops and sent me on my way.

The eye has since improved and is pretty much normal again, thank goodness.

What a way to end the year-- with both heroism and ignominy.

It has been a good year for me overall. I had some great climbing trips to Yosemite and the Red River Gorge. In the Gunks I've made incremental progress, working my way just a little further through the 5.10 grade. I've made some new climbing friends and I hope to just continue the same trends right into 2015.

And who knows, maybe there will still be a little more climbing in 2014 yet!

Monday, December 1, 2014

November Chills

(Photo: Working up the corner on BB Route (5.8+).)

We've had a colder than average November this year. We are told this is the result of what the meteorologists call the Polar Vortex. But I like to think of it instead as the Arctic Char. Mostly I use this term because I think it's funny (though my wife Robin has assured me repeatedly that it is not). I also prefer the term because, while I am ignorant of the actual workings of weather systems and the term Polar Vortex means nothing to me, the term Arctic Char, by contrast, provides me with a comforting mental image that helps to make sense of the world around us. I imagine the Arctic Char as a huge, spectral weather fish, hanging in space above our flat planet. The Arctic Char's whims are impossible for mortals like us to understand. But when the weather turns colder than average, we know that, for whatever reason, the Arctic Char has decided to swim over and pay our region a visit.

I, for one, welcome the Arctic Char.

Each autumn, as the season winds down, I tend to get very jealous of the the remaining climbing days. Every day that features a high above forty degrees might be the last such day of the season and whenever such a day rolls around and I can't go climbing I die a little inside. This year has been no different, but the presence of the Arctic Char has lent an air of extra desperation to my typically obsessive reloads of the New Paltz weather forecast. Despite the cold temperatures there have been some good days this November.

Early in the month I got out on a Sunday with a new partner named Andy. I met Andy at the Cliffs at Long Island City. Andy is a 5.12 sport climber and sometime trad leader who recently moved to NYC. His outdoor experience has come mostly out west, in Utah, Colorado and Idaho, though he has also spent some significant quality time in the Red River Gorge. When I met him he had never been to the Gunks so I made it my mission to introduce him to the area.

(Photo: Andy working the thin footholds on the traverse of Pas De Deux (5.8).)

We had a great day outside together. I led almost everything so that Andy could get a feel for the unique Gunks style. It turned out that the style suited him just fine. We didn't do anything that was new for me; I wanted to show him some of my favorites. I ushered him up Son of Easy O (5.8) and Pas De Deux (5.8) and then we headed down to the Mac Wall, where we spent the rest of our day.

I was pleased to finally get the elusive redpoint on Try Again (5.10b). I was feeling good. Andy made it look so easy as the second. Then Andy went to pull our rope and made a mistake: he got it stuck. He'd forgotten to untie the safety knot he'd put in the end of the rope.

(Photo: Andy following my lead of Try Again (5.10b).)

This wasn't a crisis-- it just meant that one of us would need to lead something on the other end of the rope to get up to the knot and release it. This was my chance to step up and lead Men at Arms (5.10b) or Coexistence (5.10d), both of which finish at the same anchor as Try Again. I considered these options for a split second but then Andy immediately volunteered to lead Try Again, which sounded like a fine idea to me! He cruised it on the sharp end. I thought it was pretty impressive. Even if you've just followed it, Try Again is rather stout choice for your very first Gunks lead.

(Photo: Andy taking over the lead to try Try Again (5.10b) again.)

When Andy's lead was done I somehow managed to snag a rope end AGAIN as I pulled the rope from the bolted anchor, meaning that once more I had to try Try Again AGAIN, at least partially. This has to be most appropriately named climb in the Gunks! It was turning into quite the farce. But once I scrambled up the initial easy pedestal I got the rope loose and was able to downclimb back to the ground, after which we were finally done with Try Again. We finished our day romping up MF (5.9) and Birdie Party (pitch one 5.8+).

The following weekend I wasn't able to go climbing, so I was not in the Gunks when a horrific accident claimed the life of a Chilean climber named Heidi.

I never met her but from all the accounts I've heard she was a great climber and person, strong and capable. At the time of her accident she was roped up but had placed no gear while leading the first 5.8 pitch of the Yellow Wall (5.11c). This is a common practice on this particular route. Strong climbers frequently solo the first sixty feet of this climb so that the entire route can be done in one long pitch without too much rope drag.

Heidi somehow slipped from about 30 feet up, with no gear in place, and fell to the ground. She was wearing a helmet but the impact must have been terrible. She never regained consciousness.

The climbing threads about this accident have for the most part lacked the usual chatter from the peanut gallery about how the tragedy could/should have been avoided.

For me this is a tough accident to deal with precisely because I too have no magic prescription to offer. Heidi was thirty feet up with no gear, which obviously is a situation I would advise most climbers to avoid. From such a height a death fall is obviously a possibility.

But Heidi was clearly a climber who was capable of soloing 5.8 under normal circumstances. She had previewed the route the previous week and had had no issues. She had made an informed decision as to how to proceed and felt that her chance of falling during the early potion of the route was close to zero. And she was probably right-- the chance was close to zero. But it wasn't zero.

It would be easy to look at this accident and say "I don't solo 60-foot pitches of 5.8 so this won't happen to me."

And it is true: I don't. Maybe you don't either.

But I know that even if I don't solo, I sometimes take risks similar to Heidi's, and maybe you do too. I climb through territory where a fall might be just as bad as Heidi's, but I consider the territory easy enough that such a fall seems extremely unlikely. I can think of climbs on which I have taken such risks this year: on Proctor Silex (5.9+), on Torture Garden (5.8), and on Deep Lichen (5.8), just to name a few. I'm sure there are other examples where I have been run out and a false move could have led to a very bad situation. If we are honest with ourselves as climbers, I'm sure most of us have been in such situations frequently.

So far I haven't paid any price for these risks but poor Heidi's accident is a reminder of just how high the cost of a wrong judgment call in such a situation can be.

A friend of Heidi's named cjkalman published a blog post called Focusing In On Death in which he wrestled with this same issue. He wrote about soloing and fatalities in the mountains and gave some advice:
Anything can kill you out there – a plane ride, a drive to the office, cancer, heart attack, etc.  I don’t think the point is to go through life petrified of the unknown – in constant terror at the concept of one’s own demise.  I don’t think the point is to quit climbing because it kills.  For myself, and for others who I am close to, climbing is a big part of what makes life so wonderful.
But perhaps the point is to turn it down a notch.  No matter what you are doing, go a touch slower, be a touch more cautious.  None of us is infallible.  None of us is invincible.  And you don’t have to fall far to fall all the way.  When we are climbing, it is incumbent upon us to take an extra step of precaution that at the time will often seem superfluous. 
There is wisdom in his words, and I think the challenge for moderate climbers like me (and perhaps you too) is to realize that this advice applies to us even if we aren't climbing superstars. We may not be soloing or climbing such radical routes as the one that tragically killed Heidi, but we are still engaged in the same game and taking similar risks. Our 5.5 runout might be the same risk for us, statistically speaking, as Heidi's 5.8 solo was for her. The chance of a fall may seem impossibly small but the chance is real. And the consequences of a mistake can be just as severe no matter how easy the terrain is.

Heidi's accident has haunted me. I climbed in the Gunks with Gail during the following weekend and I had a lot of trouble sleeping the night before we were to meet up. Gail had just come back from a long business trip to Asia, so she was far worse off than me-- she was utterly exhausted. I still had that end-of-the-season desperation to get out and climb but I wasn't really feeling like beating the world. I didn't push to hit any projects at my limit.

(Photo: Gail at the crux of Lower Eaves (5.9).)

We ended up sticking to the greater Uberfall area and we did a bunch of climbs that were new for me. Gail had done them all at least once-- she's done practically everything!

We had a nice easy day. I liked almost everything we did:

Lower Eaves (5.9): This climb has a good crux right off of the starting pedestal. There is solid gear that you can reach before you get out there and then I would recommend placing a piece to back up the junky old pin at the lip of the overhang. (I didn't clip the pin at all.) You have several climbing options after you clear the crux. I moved up a cool crack to the right and joined Bridle Path (5.7) to the top of the cliff, staying just left of Horseman (5.5). Good moves all the way.

(Photo: Gail at the crux of Double Clutch (5.9+).)

Double Clutch (5.9+): The last time I tried this climb I couldn't do the big move at all. It is a throw to a horizontal off of an overhanging cleft above the carriage road. This time around with Gail I still didn't get it right away. I tried to work out some beta to make the reach without a lunge but I couldn't do it. Gail encouraged me to really go for it as a lunge/throw-- and there is no reason not to go for it; the protection is excellent. Once I really went for it, I got it. It is a stupid little climb. Worth doing once.

(Photo: That's me on CC Route (5.7).)

BB Route (5.8+) and CC Route (5.7): I'd never gotten around to these short climbs to the right of the Uberfall descent route. BB Route is a good lead with a few tough moves up to the roof, made harder if you avoid the loose block with chalk all over it at the bottom of the wide vertical crack. The roof escape at the end of the pitch is straightforward but committing. We toproped CC Route because we couldn't see any gear. It was okay, but not as interesting as BB. I wouldn't lead it unless I had a few big number six Camalots on hand. There are some old pins but they look like junk.

(Photo: Gail securely wedged in the little chimney that begins Sundown (5.8+).)

Sundown (5.8+): This is a really nice pitch, right next to the ever-popular Frog's Head (5.6-). It has fun grovelly moves up the starting chimney formed by a block and then beautiful face climbing with decent (if spaced) gear. I thought this climb was the equal of all its more popular neighbors like Frog's Head and City Lights (5.8-). It was my favorite pitch of the day.

(Photo: Gail at the crux of Twisted Sister (5.8). The Baby (5.6) crack is visible to the left.)

Twisted Sister (5.8): Another squeeze job, this one right next to Baby (5.6). The crux is excellent, up a very shallow little corner just to the right of the Baby off-width. Good moves, and I got two bomber small nuts in the little corner. After the crux you can contrive to avoid merging with Baby all the way to the ledge but the climbing is much the same, sub-5.6 and not especially interesting.

By the end of the day I was feeling more like myself and wishing I'd done something a little harder. But in the wake of the horrible news from the prior week it was good to dial it back a notch and stick to some more casual fun. I could only hope that before the season was really over I would get another chance or two to hit my projects, with caution at the front of my mind, of course.

Stay safe out there, everyone.