Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Whiteside, North Carolina

Dan and I headed down to North Carolina this past weekend for another "Smash and Grab" style road trip. We logged close to 19 hours in the car over a 48-hour period. Our destination: Whiteside Mountain.

In the climbing literature, much is made of the fearsome reputation of Whiteside. "With a reputation for loose rock, steep routes, skimpy gear, and wild weather, Whiteside Mountain remains among the most feared and revered climbing areas in the Southeast," reads the introduction to the wall in Lambert and Shull's Selected Climbs in North Carolina. Or, even more whimsically, Whiteside is "immense, scary and the closest thing to big wall, run-out adventure climbing you'll find in the south. This is the place for you if you wish to avoid the crowds and soil your drawers," quoth Thomas Kelley, author of The Climber's Guide to North Carolina. We didn't necessarily find the climbing to require multiple pairs of undies (at least not on the routes we chose), but there is some truth to the loose rock and runout-climbing rumors.

As is our custom, Dan and I debated for hours in the week leading up to our trip over which routes to attempt and in what style. We ended up settling on Arm & Hammer as our first adventure. We chose this route carefully. We knew that retreat on any route would be difficult given the long pitches and our choice to climb on a single rope. Yet we still wanted to challenge ourselves physically and mentally. A&H seemed a good compromise, as it is near our physical limit at 5.12a, but the most difficult pitches would be protected by bolts -- although they also happen to be the last three pitches of the climb. Bailing for any reason from the top of the climb would be "sporting," to say the least, as we would be several hundred feet in the air on an overhanging headwall. But at least, with the bolts, we stood a good chance of "failing upwards" (that is, admitting defeat yet continuing to make vertical progress by pulling on bolts and gear -- essentially finishing the route in poor style).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Early Gunks Winter

Pat McNally after leading the first pitch of Shockley's Ceiling amid the Halloween snow storm at the Gunks, NY.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Spock's Brain at Seneca Rocks

Seneca Rocks - Spock's Brain from Daniel Ressler on Vimeo.

My first video attempt.  Thanks to Tim G. for the footage, Brian G. for the belay and BurnDown for the track.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Super Glue: a climber's secret weapon

Fingers after a proud effort on the Incredible Hulk in the Eastern Sierras

There are climbing areas where the rock and style of holds conspire to separate your finger from your nail.  Sierra granite and Red Rock sandstone come to mind.  It's like the old torture with the bamboo splinters under your nail.

The good news is that you can treat these wounds with Super Glue.  If you're really smart, you'll foresee the insidious grit and apply the glue under your nail before you climb.  Unstoppable.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Trad and the Self Coached Climber

There's only so much you can climb in a given week.  How you use that time makes the difference between languishing in a comfort zone or thriving as you expand your ability and gain access to more of the world's greatest climbs.

I directed a few questions to Dan Hague, one of the authors of the Self Coached Climber, last week, hoping to apply his work in sport and bouldering towards on-sight trad climbing and larger mountain objectives.  You can find the questions and his response here.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Alpine Starts and Classic Climbs

...Just not in the same place.

That's the magic of the Front Range. Too much ice on the route? Retreat to Eldo. Heavy rain? Down to Eldo. Numb toes? Eldo. High winds? Eldo. Tired? Eldo.

No wonder there are so many accidents there.

On the menu were Pervertical Santuary (IV 5.11a), Syke's Sickle (III 5.9+), The Barb (III 5.10-), and Directissima (III 5.10b). Pervertical had us excited for its hard climbing and prime setting. Syke's won over our aesthetic sense with its direct line up the center of a gorgeous piece of rock, but it left some technical challenge to be desired. With The Barb next door on the same piece of rock representing a classic 5.10, maybe we could ride perfect weather into a link-up. Directissima would be a shorter day option and offer a foray into wide crack climbing. Thus, objectives were formed.
Micah topping out Yellow Spur on its immaculate knife edge
Weather and success would dictate our selections. For Saturday, with a marginal forecast (30-40% chance of precipitation), we would try the least committing: Syke's with The Barb link-up option if time permitted and weather cleared. We made this decision on Friday after my intro to Eldorado Canyon, first the mega-classic Yellow Spur (5.9 6 pitches) and then a bonus, Calypso/Raggae (5.6/5.8, 2 pitches). I took the 5.10 variations on P1 and P5 on YS (the first one I recommend, second one I don't) and smiled widely with the excellent climbing and abundant stopper placements. In preparation for an early start, we left Eldo by 6pm for RMNP. A few campground shinanigans later we were racked and inflating pads.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

First Send

We were finally there, atop the Winnebago-sized boulder at the base of the route, heads fallen back, walking our eyes through the moves up the orange grey wall, reconciling the untold hours of visualization with reality.

It had been three weeks since our last trip to the New River Gorge in West Virginia.  Three weeks of ruminating on every move on Jesus and Tequila, our First "Project."  Three weeks relishing the prospect of unlocking a new level in our climbing.  Now we were back, with perfect Fall weather.

I gripped the stone and began my warm-up.  The start felt just as I remembered.  Then the crux.  I felt more controlled in the crux than ever and became giddy.  I was certain my hopes were about to come true.

I finished and put Alex on belay.

Alex worked the first part and refined how he'd clip the second draw.  Then he worked the crux.


There was an eerie, "Cheep! Cheep!" that made Alex spring from the good stance and fall onto the rope.

"There's a bat in the slot of the good rest!"

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Jesus, Tequila, and Guilt

A climber falls from the crux on Jesus and
Tequila. Photo from MountainProject.
It’s never spoken of in polite conversation at the crag or the gym, but there isn’t a climber on the planet who hasn’t felt it at least once. It’s a terrible, invidious feeling, and it usually starts on the approach hike, or when your partner is tying in at the base of a route. At first it’s easy to deny it; to convince yourself that you aren’t really feeling it. But then, after your partner makes the opening moves look easy and is breathing calmly at the rest jug below the crux, you can no longer plead ignorance. Your guilt starts to overwhelm you while you await his fall with gleeful anticipation as he strains through the crux sequence. But the fall never comes. Immediately, you start to hate yourself for even letting these thoughts creep in, in the first place. After all, he’s through the crux, the send is now in the bag, and you’ve started the process of acceptance. If it’s really bad, you might even start thinking up some outlandish celebratory gesture -- emitting a high-pitched bellow or maybe even playing air guitar while you lower your victorious partner, using the brake strand as a whammy bar. What better way to assure your partner that you’re psyched for his send than to overcompensate by making a total idiot out of yourself? But then, out of nowhere, you sense hesitation. You look up to see your partner’s legs wobbling as he tries to pull the final moves. Could it be? Is he coming off? You’ve seen him make these last moves a dozen times without incident on prior attempts, but lo, there he is peeling off the rock. Your jaw drops as he sails through the air. “Noooooooo!” The echo of his lament snaps you out of your disbelief as you’re yanked upwards by the rope. Thank god for the GriGri. Not knowing what to feel, you lower your partner off in stunned silence. The look of disappointment in his eyes reminds you that a deep, dark part of you was secretly rooting for this only a few minutes earlier, and you feel the guilt creep in again, stronger than ever. You despise yourself, but at the same time, you’re relieved. The pressure’s off.

Although slightly exaggerated, this is more or less the thought process that went through my mind as Dan tied in for his first redpoint burn on Jesus and Tequila this past Saturday. This route, a “right of passage for New River Gorge climbers,” has been the focus of our thoughts and training for the past month. It was the first real sport-climbing project that either of us has ever had, and we both poured a lot of time and energy into the send. When we arrived at Endless Wall on Saturday morning, we were both feeling some measure of pressure to capitalize on all the hard work and put this route to bed.

Thus, it was under these conditions -- fired in the mutual crucibles of psych, impatience, and pressure -- that my contemptible feelings emerged, loathsome and, yet, somehow essential to the human condition. I’m not proud to admit that I felt somewhat relieved when Dan fell on his first attempt. But there’s no question that, with the pressure off, it helped me perform a little better and possibly made the difference in my own success. If I were a better person, perhaps Dan’s potential success on the route would have motivated me (instead of adding pressure) and maybe even provided the fire under my chalk bag to propel me to the anchors. But I guess that’s my point in writing this. None of us is perfect. I’m sure many climbers have felt this same feeling, and as it is in climbing, so it goes in real life. Why hide it away? Maybe by examining it, something can be learned and we can become better partners and better people. Or, maybe I’ve just made the readers of this blog decide that they’ll never want to climb with me again. Good thing our readership is essentially nil.

So there you are, belaying your partner once again, having sent the route yourself just a few hours earlier. There are no more dark feelings, no more guilt. In fact, it’s the opposite. You can’t call it pure altruism, because after all, you won’t feel right celebrating your own send unless your partner also clips the chains. But nonetheless, you’re rooting intensely for him. You feel yourself straining with his every move. You mouth the beta as you watch him work through the crux. You feel like you’re on the route with him. Your forearms even feel pumped as he grabs the jug after the crux move. So acutely do you want him to succeed that your palms get sweaty and you even start chalking up. You feel an amazing sense of relief as he clips the chains. An adjacent party yells up to your partner in congratulations and the sound fills the gorge, but you only smile as you lower him. You wanted this send … maybe more than you wanted your own.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

First "Project"

Walk right foot up to notch in rail above left foot.  Lean back and high-step to good hold above left hand.   Rock up on left toe and undercling blocky knob...

When you climb a hard route, the crux sequence will often replay in your head for days after the effort. The replays can be so vivid that your limbs flex and tense in tune to the memory.  Quickly get comfortable on bad right undercling and bicycle right foot, left, then right onto the ledge.  It's really bad when you find yourself reaching for an absent chalk bag at your waist.

Since I usually pick routes I have a good chance of climbing "onsight," or first-try, the hard sections are short and manageable relative to my ability.  Drop hips, rock over and sit on right heel, maintain balance with two fingers on the pencil-width crimp to the right.  So the replays that echo in mind are usually short.

But this past weekend at the New River Gorge, Alex and I sought a "project," or a route at the edge of our ability that we'd only be able to complete if we relaxed our usual style constraints.  We would hang on the rope to inspect the route.  Slow the heart rate, clip the rope.  We would brush and clean the holds.  Slow the heart rate, get ready for the crux.  We would experiment with alternate sequences and rehearse every inch.

We chose a four star route called Jesus and Tequila, rated 5.12b, which the guide says requires all of the tricks in the book.  Go, no stopping.  You start by stepping onto the wall from a 10' boulder, then launch into powerful, overhanging moves on an arete, a technical and devious face through the crux, and then some long throws to a final roof crux.  Match left hand to pencil-width crimp, cross left foot over right on ledge.  

We spent hours on Saturday wrestling our way to reach the cruxes of the route.  Lean right and catch gaston with thumb.  Then we spent hours experimenting with different formulas to get through them, finding answers to the last problems just as darkness fell.  Peek down and place pointed right toe on low edge.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ha Long has it been since I've had the wind knocked out of me like that?

The routes we'd done so far had been easy.  And for the moment I was happy with how high I'd coaxed myself to climb and release from the wall.  Next I'd back off on the height a little and try a backflip.  It should be a simple hop, crunch, tap the knees and layout for a graceful entry.

Deep water soloing in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
I surveyed the jungle-topped limestone karsts that enclosed our section of the bay, peered down at the dark green water below and buzzed from the morning's dose of potent Vietnamese coffee.  Before my resolve could shake, I was off.  I hopped, crunched, tapped my knees and arched back into a perfect layout, but where I expected the now familiar plunging sensation there was nothing.  I felt sick to find myself looking at the sky again.  This was going to hurt.

In the darkness under water, my mind raced through what I knew to be the worst cases for deep water solo injuries. Broken back?  Ribs?  Lung collapse?  I need to be able swim or I'm done.  Don't gasp.  Wait.

When my face cleared the salty water I heard an animal's drawn-out bray escape my clenched torso.  Did the trauma knock me into some base survival mode?  Maybe this is the wind knocked out of me like back when I was a kid.  Fitting that I should sound like a jackass.

Amid the stinging numbness from my backside, the nauseating ache from my organs, and the almost-popped feeling from my lungs, I found that I could tread water just fine.  That's a good sign.  Really good.

The sound of my back slapping the water had attracted the attention of our basket boat around the corner.  Do I get them to come fast, do I need to be saved?  Or do I let them come slowly while I regain my dignity?

I tried to look nonchalant and assured myself that I was indeed treading water with no problem.  If I can do the heel hook and mantle to get onto the boat I'm going to be fine.

Toenails stained a lovely orange from my climbing slippers.
I hooked, mantled and rolled onto the deck of our dinghy of a boat.  I faced the driver and guide, who could speak no english.  How do you say, "I was trying to do something cool" in Vietnamese?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bailing on life

What would it take to bail on life? Do people do this? Is it even feasible? What would become of me? What would happen if I gave up my cherry government job, my nice Capitol Hill apartment, health care, vacation, and the comfort and reassurance of a steady paycheck? And what if I gave this all up, not to swing like a monkey to another plumb branch, but rather to just exist -- sell everything except for my car and my climbing gear and travel around, climb, see the world … just exist? Would my friends and family be disappointed? Would I regret my decision?

Obviously this has been weighing on me lately. The “why” isn’t essential for the purposes of this post. Suffice it to say that I’ve been enjoying the safety and escapism of having this murmur of a plan in the back of my head for some time now. But only recently has it crescendoed from a distant tinnitus between the ears to a persistent, brassy bellow. It has now become something I must do. But the “why” isn’t essential. The “how” and the “what” are the important questions.

People joke about this all the time. A bad week at work or a lousy run of luck will have any average citizen contemplating dropping off the grid. But does anyone ever really do it? Anyone in real life, that is? Movies and literature abound with characters giving up on the “main stream” and following a more … OK, fuck, I’ll say it … spiritual path. My favorite example has to be the second diner scene in Pulp Fiction, when Jules explains to Vincent that he wants to “walk the earth and get in adventures.” (Approx. 2:15 on the video.)

Spank me and call me n00bie

Photo from
I have rock rash from my navel to my nipples. My fingertips are oozing some kind of clear, viscous fluid. My shoulders feel like I was drawn and quartered. And my left heel is mushy like a bruised peach. All of this, and more, after only a day and a half of cragging. Each ache represents a lesson and a precipitous reminder that I still have much to learn about rock craft.

Each of these injuries-cum-elucidations occurred over a single weekend at the Shawangunks -- my virgin outing onto this storied band of cliffs. And what a weekend it was. Despite only getting on five routes the entire time, I may have taken more away from this weekend than any other single cragging trip in my climbing career. The reason for this is quite simple: failure. Out of the five routes Dan and I attempted, we sent only one -- our warm-up on Saturday, Bonnie’s Roof Direct. On the other four routes, we failed, sometimes spectacularly. Everyone knows that failure is a much better teacher than success. Failure leaves you asking “why?” whereas success has you entreating, “what’s next?”

I will catalogue some of these hard-earned lessons as a reminder to myself -- and hopefully for the benefit of others. But along with that, allow me to share some thoughts and reverie on the excellent climbing in New Paltz!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Define classic.

While Dan and Alex were on hard, high-quality projects at the Gunks, I was busy climbing the worst route I've ever been on: the Southwest Ridge of the Needle (IV 5.8). It's a wonderfully long route (1300 feet of ascent, 13 hrs car to car) in a commanding position, but the quality of the movement and rock are mostly crap. I cursed a lot while trying to navigate such a sea of choss, as did my partner. He said a few things along the way that capture the essence:

"If this doesn't go we're bailing." [during a mid-route block wall circumnavigation]
"That was the best part of the route. And it's not even on route." [regarding a pitch variation]
"This route ****ing sucks."

As I log the climb in Mountain Project, I scratch my head at its classic status. Oh well, chalk it up to training. At least we had a long day out.

Last pitch variation, 5.9 210':
Begin as for the normal last pitch: move off the grassy house-sized ledge through the blocky section of bizarre rock, clipping a pin. After slinging the tree, stay right at the major split (standard route goes up the left gully with pins). Gain the big, lower angle, right-facing corner. Work up the corner, keeping your eyes open for a tree 80' above and left, outside the corner system (can just see the top of it) - it will be your anchor. After maybe 40' in the corner, make an airy step left across the left wall to get out of the corner and onto the face, ending up under a steep groove. Go up the groove, top out of the steeps and move up the final 15' in the dirt gully to the tree. Protection is pretty good (a little spicy at the top) and rock is slightly above average for the route. Call it Redemption after the 1000' of variable garbage you climbed to get there.

Gunks Initiation

Vicious hooligans beat me up in the middle of the night.  They were of the usual New Paltz crowd--mustached, tattooed and friendly with a hint of sarcasm--but they were changed in the after-hours, as if all of their good day-energy required counterweight in depraved acts.  With glassy eyes and a moan, they kicked me in the gut, stomped on my neck, and dragged me so that my palms grated across the pavement.  It all happened while I was soundly asleep, but I knew what had gone down.  It was the simplest explanation for the way I felt upon waking in the back of Alex's station wagon Sunday morning.

It couldn't have been the climbing we did in the Trapps on Saturday.  Sure, Alex had never been to the Gunks before, and I was excited to provide him with a strong initiation.  Yeah, it was brutally hot and humid.  Yes, we spent 4 hours exerting our every fiber on the punctuated V3 cruxes of The Sting (5.11+), with its little finger ledges and giant throws up the wall; and the rest of the daylight scrapping up the three pitches of Carbs and Caffeine (5.11-), Alex taking 30' hero whips off of the final roof, 150' up in the air.  But crag climbing has never thrashed me so.  It must have been hooligans.

That said, once we dragged ourselves back to the wall on Sunday, I was hardly prepared to lead Stirrup Trouble (5.10b).  The unlikely looking climb took every spare unit of my physical and emotional energy.  I hung at the low crux.  I made stupid choices with gear and rope management on the traverse.  I pumped and embraced the plunge on the upper crux.  A black pebbly faced vulture actually landed within arm's reach as I scratched up the last couple of bulges.  It knew I was just about cooked in the hot sun, salted to perfection with dried sweat.

Off belay at the top, I thought it appropriate for Russ Clune, Fritz Wiessner, or some other Gunks hero to pop out of the woods and revoke my climbing privileges.  I bummed that Alex had witnessed the performance.  I used to be so proud of my onsight record--this sullied it all.

I found a new way to look at it over a few cool beers and a schnitzel at the Brauhaus.  Sometimes, when you try really hard, it feels like you're going in the opposite direction.  A proud onsight record is folly in perfectionism.  Bailure is part of the process. photo from The Sting

Monday, June 13, 2011

Stitch Lab: Chalk Bag

Why are chalk bags so luxurious these days? We strive to be hardmen, yet we dip our hands into a cushy fleece liner as if it's our childhood blankie. Every chalk bag I've seen is full-featured -- nice for everyday use but inexcusable overkill for the weight conscious.

Thus, the Alpine Chalk Sack.

The concept is a bare bones farm tractor of a chalk vehicle -- no draw string, no liner, a subtle stiffener, and an overall compact size. I whipped this bad boy up this morning as a very rough prototype. The main body is a simple cylinder, 6.5 inches tall by 4 across, with a roundish bottom. The fabric is old boxers, the stiffener is a double layer of old boxers, and the belt attachment points are from an old backpack strap. The five pieces are held together with light poly thread; the main body uses welt seams and the belt attachments use a bar tack style stitch (forward, back, then zig-zag). Shortcomings are numerous and obvious: the fabric breathes a lot of chalk, the stiffener is insufficient (I climbed this afternoon with it and fumbled to find the opening), I did almost no measuring or planning for the size and shape, and I'm not very good at sewing.

What's next?
  • Material. I'm thinking sil nylon for it's simple durability, light weight, and impermeability. There may be, however, practicality in having the inner surface uncoated to allow a layer of chalk to impregnate, to aid in chalking up.
  • Shape. This one is close. A tapered cylinder, wider at top, may be more useable and reduce excess material at the bottom. A shorter body may make the chalk feel more accessible.
  • Stiffener. A wrap of nylon webbing would surely be closer to ideal, and the detail of how to finish the rim will affect durability (a minor consideration).
  • Sewing technique. The round bottom was very difficult to sew and it came out poorly. The rest of the seams are better but still not good enough. Also, I'm still having consistency issues with the zig-zag stitch. Basically, I need skills.
  • Details. Thread choice, machine settings, seam choice, reinforcements, and assembly order.
  • Excursions. Add a draw string and you have a stuff sack with a solid clipping point.

And, if it proves useless for chalk, it will still find some other purpose in my alpine kit.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Backyard Friction

My first Sandias climb of the season was in February. I took a fall wearing boots on 5.6 terrain when my foot unexpectedly popped (it was clean). Today, the stellar crux pitch of Mountain Momma (III 5.10c) is behind me and I'm breathing easy. In rock shoes, I understood friction properly and employed physics well.

In the mountains, with light and fast as the creed, I tend to slide down the scale to light and slow. That's never a good thing, but today I don't mind it. Today I find myself ignoring my watch. At belays I stare idly across the canyon at The Thumb, and try to keep my eye trained on swallows as they swoop the wall in and out of nest (I think one flew into the upper crux crack with Micah just below). I want the granite to inflate to the size of the day and displace everything else. We often scheme tactics to compress a big objective into a day, so why not stretch a small one to the same end?

At the top we banter on cruxes while looking down on the city. We feel lucky but valid in our position; we also feel sorry for the people driving the matchbox cars on the distant roads, knowing full well that tomorrow will have us equally trapped. Were it not for this craggy hill outside of town, Albuquerque would be just barely tolerable. But we do have the foothills and the crest and the option of projecting hard trad after work, and I can run off for a quiet and contrived mission when I hanker. The Sandias may well be the dirty old cowboy bar of the alpine world -- a brawl is always an option if you're asking, or tuck yourself in the corner and no one will bother you.

I can't identify my house, but what's the difference from up here? Our position on the Torreon has done its job as a filter, stripping away so much of our culture to yield a simple existence, at least for a while. On Monday I will stare out my office window and the mountains will appear as a TV image. I'll be working towards an end I'll never see nor feel, which started in a place I will never really understand. Contrarily, I understand each step I took today as elements of scree and sticks and soil, and I can almost hear the ring of pins being pounded in 1977. Tomorrow, I will be thankful for the cuts on my knuckles.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Backyard Fiction

DC has a lot to offer, but it comes short of providing the ideal backyard.
Nick wags his mouse, taps his password and settles into his chair for another long day sitting at his cluttered work desk and computer.  Knowing the routine, his body fades to the background and fidgets. His mind, on the other hand, runs wild, occasionally lighting upon the work he is supposed to be doing.

At the work day’s close, Nick bends in his chair, unties his brown leather dress shoes and pulls on running slippers.  The refrain of Mr. Roger’s theme song plays in his head, "would you be mine?"  He grabs his pack and races down the stairs, out the glass doors to the outside.

Warm, humid air snaps Nick from his reverie.  Clouds hang still in billowy forms.  There will be a thunderstorm later.  Nick breaks from a walk into a clumsy jog, finding his muscles stiff from sitting.  Walking again, Nick feels his body loosen and warm.

Back home Nick strips off his clothes and hesitates in his dim living room.  The couch invites him to eat, drink and be entertained by shows on TV.  First he would choose the right brew or grape to compliment his thirst, then the right snack to fit the drink, and then the right show to fit his mood.  It would be wonderful, but the next day he’d be back at his desk fidgeting and have nothing to show for his daydreams.