Thursday, May 31, 2012

Thirty One

I thought we'd try 31 pitches in a day at Seneca for my 31st birthday, then get home in time to enjoy steak and wine for dinner.

What is it about this stage of life that makes me want to inaugurate my years with cute feats of athleticism?  Must I prove something?  Am I satirizing the impulse that I should prove something?  Either way, it's good fun.

Plus, a day of moderate routes has been on my mind for a long time.  We spend so much time pushing the frontiers of our ability that we seldom revel in the hills we've captured.  This would be a chance to enjoy the freedoms of vertical movement we've worked so hard to earn.

"To be home for dinner at 7pm, we need to hit the road by 4pm.  Assume 2 pitches per hour, up and down--that's 15+ hours of climbing, and we'll need to start by midnight."  The calculus was steeped in optimism, but it offered a glimpse of what we were dealing with.

I should note that Seneca is not your typical crag.  It's not a simple junction of vertical and horizontal with a park-like atmosphere, like something out of a Seurat painting.  It's not the Gunks or the New River Gorge.  Seneca is an MC Esher with ledges, ramps, and walls that connect in baffling ways.  These would be 31 rope lengths in a three dimensional labyrinth.  Who knew how this would go?

We armed ourselves with home-made black bean tacos and a trove of addictive cookies baked by Laura,  waded through the Friday rush hour, and exited the highway by the three giant white crosses, two oversized american flags, and municipal water tank--all arranged upon the hill like a still-life representation of the lands were we about to enter.

The steering wheel of Alex's Subaru tugged to the right.  I knew the tires were near bald from seasons of pushing them north, south, west...maybe this was just a warning.

"It's flat."

We pulled to the side of the road, swapped the tire by the light of a kind WV officer who'd come to investigate our hazards, and continued on our way listening to the whine of the front differential compensating for the doughnut.  Our adventure had officially begun.

We could see headlamp beams draped across the distant wall as we pulled into the lot around 11pm.  We met their owners as we silently marched up the darkened stair cases in the woods, and exchanged a few words.  They had their adventure--finally coming to a happy and welcome close, triumphant over stuck ropes and the uncertainty of darkness--and we had ours, just now emerging from belligerent daydream to the conflicting sensations of reality.



There is a serious flaw in hatching plans when you're fresh from sleep, and mid jolt from your own french press; especially when those plans involve climbing through the night.  That overclocked buzz from the plan's inception will be a foreign memory when it's time to execute, no matter how much gas station joe you drink.  "It tastes like sweat rung from the shirt of a coal miner..."

It was two hours passed my bedtime and my mind was uncomfortably still.  It's a mind I've experienced before; one that exists deep beneath the daytime functions of social interaction, and routine.  I remember it from dewy summer nights past curfew, and on a deserted campus, with everyone else asleep.  It's a mind that dwells upon matters of self-worth and direction; a mind that dismisses more energetic or divertive modes as less authentic.

"The first pitch is yours birthday boy," chimed Alex, dispelling my reverie.

I donned the rack and climbed into my 8' eggshell of light.  The rock was glassier than I recalled, but well faceted with holds.  Looking down, I saw the line connected to my waist disappear in the darkness like an anchor chain in murky water, and I heard the rattle of my last runner far below.  It always seemed far below.  Yet, I found that the night doesn't hinder you much on easy ground.  It only veils what doesn't matter.

The 11 pitches we climbed by night on the west face passed in a warp.

Thais Direct to Pleasant Overhangs (3 pitches, 5.7+)
Old Man's Route (3 pitches simul-solo, 5.2)
Green Wall (2 pitches led as one, 5.7)
West Pole (3 pitches led as one, with a little simulclimbing, 5.7+)

We tagged the summit after West Pole and rappelled to the east face to find sunrise.  There was a joy of rebirth, relief of thawing muscles, and spurt of renewed energy.  I followed Conn's East Direct (1 pitch, 5.8) with attention to every nuance of rock and body position.  I led Alcoa Presents (1 pitch, 5.8) in an almost manic cascade of decisions and movements.  But there were also harsh realities from not having slept.  We got the rope stuck on descent from Alcoa, we stuck a cam and rope on Dirty Old Man (2 pitches, 5.6), and I flailed as I led the 2nd pitch of Soler (2 pitches, 5.7+).  The sun, indeterminate moves, and finicky pro grated my already frayed nerves.

Quitting the east face, we solo'ed to the Gunsight (the notch between the north and south peaks), and simul-climbed Gunsight to South Peak (3 pitches, 5.5).  The shade and cool air invigorated me.  Maybe I was back.  Maybe we would do this.

We rappelled back to our packs on the west face, and stopped for a moment to brew instant coffee, eat bean tacos, and collect ourselves.  It was 2pm.  We'd climbed 20 pitches in 14 hours--23 pitches if you count the ones we had to reclimb to free stuck ropes.  We could finish the 31 pitches, but there was no way we'd make it home in time for steak and wine with Laura.

Steak.  The thought arrived harmless as a breeze, but it was too much.  Sitting there in the sun, the weakened flame of our adventure quenched.  Our effort became a smoldering memory.

We failed to meet our quota, but we felt like we had achieved what we were looking for anyway.  Just climbing through the night was enough.  For what?  It turns out we didn't need to prove anything.  We didn't need to risk and suffer for the arbitrary tick.  We just needed to earn dinner.


Grass fed, grass finished, dry-aged ribeye (from Wagshal's) cooked on my cast-iron grill pan for 3 minutes on each side, accompanied by my own chimichurri.  It was the best steak I've ever had.

"I just ate the fat, and it tasted like candy," said Alex.

Later, Mark and Fiorella joined Alex, Laura and I, and we laughed into the night.  At some point I fell into a hard sleep.










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