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.