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.

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