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!


  1. Nice post. I love that finished to Three Doves.

    Obviously beyond the call of duty but did you consider retrieving the guys gear? Imagine it was getting cold though does seem like a good climb for at night given how big the holds mostly are. I read about it on MP and agree the criticism was a bit excessive and would be nice to see him get his gear back. I think he's learned his lesson by now.

  2. Hey thanks for your comment. I was tempted to take it all the way to the top and retrieve the gear but Will and I both needed to get going and we also wanted to escort Bob's partner back to the carriage road. I thought about suggesting to Bob that he offer the rangers a reward for getting the gear but I decided it wasn't my place.... I think it's all long gone now, though I hope he got it back and just never posted about it.