Monday, April 25, 2016

Learning the (Top) Ropes in Lost City

(Photo: That's me leading Resistance (5.10c) at Lost City. Photo by Connie.)

I'm getting frustrated.

"I don't think I can do this," I say.

We are in Lost City, in the area known as the Survival Block. It is ground zero for Gunks hard-man top-roping.

I'm just one move off of the ground and I'm already flailing on an "easy" 5.12 top-rope. I need to get up an overhanging arĂȘte, using invisible Houdini footholds. A juggy rail is just out of reach. I can't find a way to stay on the wall until I reach the good hold.

Perhaps I can forget about advanced footwork and throw for the jug? My partner Andy has just done it this way.

I try for the throw and come up short, swinging out and away from the wall. As I fly outward my feet barely clear the talus blocks.

"Maybe this is pointless," I wonder out loud.

"You'll never know if you don't actually try," Andy says. "You have to do it again, and COMMIT this time."

I know he's right. My throw was utterly half-assed. I set up to try again, and fail again. But I'm improving: I get my fingers on the good hold for half a second.

"You've almost got it and you're still not really going for it," Andy observes. "Stop being such a WIENER about it, and you've got it made."

Again, I know he is absolutely right. What am I afraid of? Is it the harmless swing out into space? Could it be the crowd of onlookers, every one of them (I assume) a better climber than me?

I psych myself up to try again.

"Just do the move, idiot."

Eventually I get the jug.

The rest of the climb goes more smoothly. I don't get it clean but I quickly work out the difficult bits and believe I could do these moves again. Once I am back on the ground, I feel okay about it all.

Resistoflex is a Gunks 5.12. And it isn't that bad! It can be accomplished by mortals.

(Photo: Gabe taking a quick top-rope run on Resistoflex (5.12), with Andy handling the belay. Gabe led the pitch earlier in the day.)

If I come back to Resistoflex and run through it a few more times I might even consider leading it.

I'm still not used to this style of working routes, but I am coming around to it.

*    *    * 

Years ago I dabbled a bit with the Gunks top-rope game and found it maddening, boring, even counter-productive. Twelves in the Gunks seemed cryptic and impossible. Why was I wasting my time shredding my tips on these climbs, which I couldn't do and did not enjoy? I had a mile-long list of easier, leadable routes I desperately wanted to climb.

I recognized that other people achieved rapid progress by working hard routes into submission. But I had a limited number of climbing days and I wanted to spend them doing full-length, world-class routes, not struggling for hours just to do a few hard moves. If slow improvement was the price I had to pay for adventure and on-sight leading, I could live with that.

My way of climbing was very satisfying... for a while. But then I seemed to stagnate at the 5.10 level. I fooled around with the tens for years, having occasional success with the easiest climbs in the grade but struggling with the harder ones. The most impressive tens in the Gunks seemed beyond me and too scary. Elevens? No way.

I wanted to get better, but I didn't want to sacrifice what I found most fun about climbing: going for the on-sight and trying new routes. So for a long time I just carried on in the same way, and didn't really get anywhere.

I finally broke through the plateau when I started treating my climbing as a series of projects. I picked climbs that I knew were pushing my limits. I hoped for the on-sight but if it didn't happen I did not give up and move on. Instead I thought about what I needed to do to come back and succeed. And then I made sure to return and put in the work.

This approach yielded dividends. I sent harder climbs than I'd ever considered possible before. And routes I used to struggle with seemed suddenly easy. I knocked off many of the legendary classics I'd always dreamed of doing. With my horizons broadened to include many climbs that were new and difficult for me, I didn't feel like I lost much in terms of adventure.

And now it is 2016, a new season. In order to keep improving, I know I have to keep picking climbs outside my comfort zone. And recently I've started thinking that if I really want to get significantly better, I need to reassess my antipathy towards working on seriously hard stuff on TR.

So when Andy and I headed up to the Gunks on a recent Sunday, I was thinking about Lost City, the home of the hard top-ropes. Our friends Connie and Alex were coming along, and they also had the same idea, so we were all on the same page.....


I had several climbs I wanted to lead. I figured we would probably get around to doing something on TR eventually. But first I had some unfinished business to take care of with Stannard's Roof (5.10).

(Photo: That's me on Stannard's Roof (5.10) in 2013, struggling to get the wrong cam off of my gear sling.)

I led this route in July of 2013 and I should have sent it on the first go. I fell because I wasted all of my energy trying (and failing) to get a cam off of my gear sling. I remember it as a comical scene. I was fully horizontal in the roof, hanging in there forever in the slimy summer heat. My cams were all behind my back, dangling off of my gear sling into space. I couldn't see the gear. I had to fumble blindly to get at the cam I wanted. Finally I got the cam loose, but then as I reached up to place it I saw to my horror that I'd fished out the wrong cam. It wouldn't fit, and I was screwed.

After this incident I swore off the gear sling forever. I have racked on my harness ever since.

Now, almost three years later, I hoped to run through Stannard's Roof as our warm-up, with no drama. This was April, not July, and there was a chill in the air. The rock felt fine in the sun, but as I approached the roof I went into the shade under the big ceiling. The rock under there was quite cold to the touch. But I wasn't worried about it (cold rock = good friction!), and I tried not to waste any time as I moved out under the roof. I placed one cam, moved out some more, and placed another.

Everything was going great as I grabbed the holds at the lip of the overhang. I just had to rotate my body and reach up to the higher holds so I could stand up above the roof.

I was almost done. Easy peasy.

(Photo: Andy coming up Stannard's Roof (5.10).)

But then I couldn't move. The rope seemed stuck. I looked down under the roof to see what the problem was, and I realized, once again to my horror, that I'd messed up. I had Z-clipped my two cams under the roof! This was a nightmare. Talk about a comical scene. What was I going to do now?

Moving up was not an option. I had to downclimb back under the roof to fix the cams. I couldn't see any alternative. So that's what I did. I reversed the moves, unclipped the second cam, and re-clipped it correctly. Then I had to climb back up and out again, and by this time the tips of my fingers were freezing. They were starting to burn. But I was determined not to blow it and I got out without falling.

(Photo: Andy making it over the lip on Stannard's Roof (5.10).)

I was furious with myself for making such a stupid mistake, but happy I was able to hang in there. I was so relieved to get to the stance above the roof.

(Photo: Andy leading an unnamed (?) 5.10 to the right of Stannard's. This is a good route, with a fun crux at the triangular overlap.)

Andy and I did a few more 5.10 leads and then went looking for Connie and Alex. They had started out climbing nearby, but at some point they'd wandered off. We found them at the Survival Block with some other folks we know from our gym, the Cliffs at LIC.

Gabe, a strong climber who is less than half my age, seemed to be leading the group. He'd set up ropes on Resistoflex as well as on Persistent (5.11d) and Survival of the Fittest (5.13a), and on Gold Streaks (5.11) over on the next wall to the right.

Connie was gamely going for it on Survival when we showed up. The climb looked brutally hard. But Connie was thrilled to be trying something that was a real challenge for her. Kat, another LIC regular, was taking multiple burns on Persistent, trying to pink-point it on lead with pre-placed gear.

(Photo: Kat on Persistent (5.11d), with Gabe belaying her.)

As I watched them gleefully working these routes, I knew that I should be doing exactly what they were doing. If I had the same attitude, I would improve. I felt shamed. So Andy and I did some top-roping.

It went fine. The world did not come crashing down around us. We had fun. Andy and I ran up Gold Streaks (5.11), a wonderful route with poor protection. Then we gave Resistoflex a good effort, which in the end was very worthwhile, and not pointless at all.

Gabe offered me a run on Persistent, but I begged off. I had reasons, of course. I told myself that the climb has great gear; it seemed like I should save it for an on-sight attempt. But the real reason was that there were so many people around. Several of them were strangers to me. Such a big audience made me self-conscious. I felt like I didn't belong.

Honestly, I was being silly. But Connie and Alex had wandered off again, and this provided as good an excuse as any for us to clear out too. We wanted to find our friends. So we moved on.

(Photo: Alex on Gravity's Rainbow (5.12).)

We located them at the far right end of Lost City, laying siege to another 5.12. I'd never ventured this far over to the right before. The trail here comes much closer to the cliff, and most of the rock is on little free-standing buttresses. I don't know the names of any of the routes in this area, but it looks like there are a bunch of easy scrambles... and one imposing, overhanging climb up a smooth face.

This is Gravity's Rainbow (5.12).

When Andy and I arrived, Alex had already set it up on TR. He was now climbing it, and was almost at the top, having figured out the hard bits. He was thinking about leading it at some time in the near future.

(Photo: Connie on Gravity's Rainbow (5.12).)

Once he was done, I watched Connie work her way up the route. It seemed like there were two very very hard cruxes. And one of them was wet.

I started thinking about finding something else to do. I could see a crack climb over yonder. It didn't look too bad, probably 5.9 or 5.10. Maybe Andy and I could go do that one...

But it was too late. Connie was finished. The rope was free. There was to be no escape.

It was my turn to man up and do some more 5.12 top-roping.

*    *    *

I'm getting frustrated again.

Is this really the move?

I'm supposed to hold on to this ridiculously small, greasy crimp? And then I have to rock up over a high heel hook?

This crux is heinous!

I find myself saying it again: "I don't think I can do this."

Andy says he's heard that one before.

But this time I'm doing my best to prove that I mean it. I really, truly, can't do it. I'm failing over and over again. My fingers won't stay on the hold. I can't find the flexibility to get my heel up. When I manage to get the heel up, I'm frozen. I have no leverage to rock up over the heel.

I keep on falling.

I'm conscious of the fact that it's about to get dark. We have to hike out of here soon.

I hate this.

But I have to admit I'm slowly getting better. When I first tried the crux I couldn't hold the crimp at all, but now I can step up, just so, and grab it as if it is an actual hold.

I keep working the angle on the heel hook and finally, after who knows how many attempts, it all clicks. I grab the crimp; I raise my heel; I lock it in. Somehow I'm shifting my weight over the heel hook and I find myself standing, not falling. I have done it.

My three friends cheer, mostly because now we can get our gear back and go home.

But never mind, I take it as validation.

I'm learning.

I can do this.

I can top-rope.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Last Days of The Winter (5.10d)

(Photo: Getting into the overhangs on Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a). Photo by Adrian.)

We live in an age of great environmental peril. Temperatures are climbing at an alarming rate. Ice sheets are melting. Scientists project that someday soon the oceans will rise up like giant gulper eels and swallow our coastal cities whole.

It is enough to make you feel guilty whenever the weather is nice. On days when it is warm and the sun is shining, it is hard to enjoy yourself without feeling at least a small, nagging tug of disquietude.

"What a wonderful day," you think to yourself.

"(We are all going to die.)"

So one might expect that yucky, cold days would provoke feelings of relief. Maybe if the weather is lousy, as befits the season, we are NOT going to die. Or not so soon, anyway. We ought to take comfort in any anecdotal evidence we can get that the end is not so near after all.

But it doesn't work that way. Not for me. When it is appropriately damp and cold in March, I am not grateful. I am resentful. I feel the weight of our impending doom, regardless of the present conditions. And I expect something in return. If my property is soon to be beneath the sea, the very least nature can do for me is to grant me some excellent climbing days before everything goes forever into the crapper.

Is that so much to ask?

I was supposed to take a trip to the New River Gorge at the end of this week. "This week" being practically mid-April, for crying out loud. But with snow (!!) in the West Virginia forecast for Friday, and an expected high of 37 degrees in Fayetteville on Saturday, it looks like we are calling it off. We had a contingency plan-- we were going to push it off for one week if the weather was lousy. But the forecast for next week is a solid wall of rain showers. So it looks like that ain't happening either.

I am feeling grumpy about it all. But I will make the best of it.

Maybe I'll console myself with a day in the Gunks, if it gets warm enough to melt the snow they got this week.

Since my last report, I did get out in the Gunks one time, with Adrian. The temperatures were in the low forties (just warm enough for climbing, in my opinion). Unlike my prior (sunny) day with Andy, this one was overcast and the air felt a bit damp.

My goal was to put Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a) away, once and for all. Adrian was willing to do it with me, so we trooped on down there first thing, hoping in vain that we would warm up on the walk.

(Photo: Adrian getting started on the 5.8-ish pitch one of Carbs and Caffeine.)

It was still cold and damp as we got started. Adrian led the first pitch without delay, but as I stood there belaying him I found myself shivering. I told myself I would feel warmer once I got up on the wall. Soon enough I was climbing and I joined Adrian at the anchor, ready to see if the third time would be the charm for me on the crux pitch.

(Photo: Coming up pitch one of Carbs and Caffeine. Photo by Adrian.)

This time I knew I had the beta. It had been only a week since I'd almost sent the damned thing. I expected that the crux move would be hard but as long as I executed my sequences properly I figured I would get through it.

(Photo: Ready to go for it on Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a). Photo by Adrian.)

Heading upward through the tiers of overhanging rock, I got to the first bolt without a problem. After I clipped it, I tried to move up into the crux right away, but when I made the big reach up to the sloper hold, I didn't like it. The rock felt slippery. I needed to match on the hold but I wasn't sure I could hold on in the current conditions. I stepped back down and tried to shake out beneath the crux.

Then I went up again. Still no good. It seemed like I was about to slip off the sloper. I had to step back down again.

(Photo: Adrian at the 5.11a crux of Carbs and Caffeine.)

If I didn't get on with this move I was going to end up taking a hang. I was shaking out in an overhanging position. I couldn't really rest. I wished I'd found the knee-bar rest at the crux that people talk about. I decided I couldn't afford to wait around any more.

On the third try I forced myself to commit to the match. I thought for a fraction of a second that I was about to go flying but, luckily, I didn't. I stuck it. And then I stepped up to the crimps knowing that I had this climb in the bag if I could keep it together. I tried to stay focused as I moved up the slab to the final challenge.

(Photo: Adrian in the final crab-crawl traverse on Carbs and Caffeine.)

This time I remembered to move up to the good hold in the corner before plugging in gear for the traverse. Placing a bomber blue Alien over my shoulder, I dove out there into space, hoping I would feel as solid on the no-feet crab-crawl as I had the previous week. But in the damp air the traverse felt a little bit harder. I nearly lost it when one of my toes slid off, but again I managed to hold on and with a few more moves I got around the corner to the stance. The pitch was over.

As I stood there backing up the fixed anchor I felt very relieved. And a little bit proud. Carbs and Caffeine, baby! And it was only March!

I was quickly brought back to earth when we moved on to The Winter. This pitch, at 5.10(d), is supposed to be marginally easier than Carbs and Caffeine-- but it is a very different style of climb, so it is hard to make a meaningful comparison. The Winter is a technical corner climb, with some awkward climbing up a slot before the real business begins in the smooth, thin corner.

The route has been a nemesis of mine. I find it intimidating and scary. I've backed off of it twice before even reaching the crux corner. The early going up the slot is kind of in your face (though it is definitely easier than 5.10+), and the cracks for gear are kind of flaring. On two occasions I've made the first couple of moves, and, confronting a committing sequence with so-so cams, I've decided to step back down and walk away.

(Photo: Starting up the awkward slot on The Winter (5.10d) in October 2014. Photo by Gail. The tights were in honor of Eighties Day in the Gunks.)

I'm sure my fear of the upper portion of the pitch has played a role in the urge I've felt to abort. From the ground it appears there are placements in the crux corner, but they are tiny nuts. There is a piton at the end of the hard climbing, but the move to get to that piton isn't easy and on the lead you are going to be above whatever small gear you can arrange in the corner.

This time around I hoped to commit to the move down low and then, once I reached the main corner, I would make sure I got the best pro I could get.

As I started the pitch I managed to place three pieces before committing to the move out of the initial slot. The move went fine and soon I was standing at the base of the desperate crux corner.

So far, so good.

But then it all fell apart.

(Photo: Finessing gear at the start of the crux corner on The Winter (5.10d). Photo by Adrian.)

I placed as much gear as I could manage. I got a good Alien at my knees and then I placed four (yes, four!) nuts in the corner. I liked a few of these nut placements but they were all small.

I had a hard time getting myself psyched up to launch on up above the nuts. I worked out the move but couldn't make myself go. Eventually I took a hang. Then I made the hard move up the corner but got really nervous making the stand-up move to the piton. I fumbled desperately and then took a real whip. The fall was clean, and now that I'd really welded my top nut in place I felt a bit better about climbing above it again. I went back up, made the final hard move and finished the pitch.

(Photo: Adrian on The Winter (5.10d).)

I'm not happy about how it went. I was so tentative. But now I have The Winter all sorted out. And now I know that The Winter is quite safe. The fall is clean and the nuts are good. Adrian had to fight to get some of them out. I think I should be able to go back and fire it off. And then I'll have to try the second pitch of The Spring (5.10d), directly above, which everyone says is a great roof problem pitch. I've never been on it.

I think Carbs and Caffeine and The Winter showed both my strengths and weaknesses as a climber.

On the plus side, I think I have reached a basic level of climbing proficiency (after many years of mediocrity). And I'm persistent, which is also a plus.

On the negative side, I know I have real mental challenges. I have a fear of falling. When the moves are hard I often find it difficult to commit, even when I'm certain that the gear is good. And when I do eventually commit, my fear makes me climb poorly. I get tunnel vision and fumble around because I am scared. It happened the first time I tried Carbs. And it has happened several times now on The Winter. The fear of falling has caused me to give up, to hang, and to fall.

It is a paradox. To some degree fear is healthy and necessary. Especially when trad climbing, you should always be aware of the risks of falling. It would be foolish and dangerous to behave as if falling were not a potential problem. But when reasonable caution morphs into irrational fear, the danger increases because failure becomes much more likely. The fear makes you fall when you might not have fallen otherwise.

(Photo: Feeling fine while running it out on the first pitch of Annie Oh! (5.8). Photo by Adrian.)

I'm not sure what I can do to address the issue except to keep trying hard. I've never been a big believer in taking practice falls, and I don't think my specific fear of falling would be addressed by the type of deliberate falling one does for practice. It isn't falling in and of itself that is the problem. I'm not paralyzed on easier climbs-- it's when I'm at my limit, or when I'm climbing on a style of route with which I'm uncomfortable.

The good news is that, as I push to work on harder climbs, the grade at which I feel free and easy is also getting higher. I think I really need to push myself to trust my gear and go for it more often. If I can do that, I'll have a shot at on-sighting more of these harder climbs, and I may reach a whole new level.

We'll see how it goes when I pick the next project. What should it be? Harvest Moon (5.11a)? No Man's Land (5.11b)? Square Meal (5.11a)? So many to choose from...