Wednesday, June 22, 2011

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!

For all that I had heard about the old-school traditional ethics and sandbagged routes of the Gunks, I still wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from the climbing itself. I knew there would be no shortage of roofs and horizontals, but on the drive up from DC I found myself wondering about the style of movement that would be required. Would the moves be subtle and technical, or obvious and burly? Would the routes be bouldery or sustained? Other than the obvious horizontal cracks, how sparse would the gear be?

I still don’t feel like I can answer any of those questions authoritatively after only getting on five routes. But, for whatever reason (probably just blind luck), most of the routes we got on could easily be considered burly, with the sole exception being Bonnie’s Direct. At 5.9+, it felt a little soft, especially for an east coast climb. I drew the first pitch, which I found pretty straight forward, but lots of fun. A few jams, some solid liebacking, and a few big moves, all over good gear, make this an enjoyable first lead at the Gunks. Dan followed me up the first pitch and then dispatched the short second pitch in fine style. There was one big move pulling out of the roof into a stance, but other than that it was all gravy, with tremendous exposure.

Some guy (who kind of looks like an Italian Dan) on the crux
of Bonnie's Direct. Photo from
After firing Bonnie’s Direct so easily, I think we were both feeling pretty confident. Our plan was to walk east along the cliff and get on a couple classic Gunks 5.10s. But sometimes reality doesn’t always coincide with “the plan.” Along the way, we found a shady spot with a unique-looking line. It bore the familiar Gunks horizontals, but the rock had a wavy, polished white appearance, resembling the Nutall sandstone of the New River Gorge. It was short, but its uniqueness caught our eye and inspired us. We were without a guidebook, so we consulted a nearby party and learned that it was a classic 5.11+ called The Sting. Hearing the grade, we should have begged off and gone on to follow our original plan. Plus, it was hot and humid as all hell. Who warms up on 5.11+ trad in 90% humidity? Well, I guess Dan and I are both suckers for inspiring climbs, no matter what the conditions. You know what else we’re suckers for? Climbs that are right in front of us. So, we flipped a rock, I won the toss, and that was that. I got first lead. Five hours and numerous whippers later, our tips were fried, our shoulders were sore, but neither of us had managed to stick the final crux move.

Lesson #1: If you have any desire to send a hard route, be patient! Make sure you warm up properly and wait for good conditions in cool weather.

We finally bailed and decided to eat lunch. It wasn’t until we glanced at the time that we realized how long we had worked that route, and how worked our bodies felt. Neither of us mentioned it, but I think we both felt like we had blown our chances of sending anything tough in the cooler hours of the evening.

Lesson #2: Working a hard route for 4-5 hours will leave you depleted. Do not expect to climb hard after this!

Alan Alda moves past the first crux on The Sting.
Photo from
Regardless, after some hemming and hawing, we decided we were not going to shy away from testing ourselves, even after an epic session of sprad climbing in the heat of the afternoon. We were near one of our “objective” climbs for the weekend, Carbs and Caffeine, so we flipped again for first lead. This time I drew the first and third pitches -- 5.9 and 5.11a, respectively. Dan would get the meat of the climb, consisting of a long 5.10+ pitch with purportedly dubious protection.

The first pitch was a fun, off-vertical slab with a left-leaning incipient seam for protection. The seam would occasionally pod out wide enough for decent locks and protection options, but never enough to make the climbing feel easy. The paucity of good holds in the crack forced you to make some cool moves to sloping ledges out left.

With little wasted time, Dan cleaned my lead and psyched up for the intimidating second pitch. After a short traverse to a corner system, Dan found himself under several tiered roofs. The first one proved easier than it looked and offered a nice no-hands rest. But that turned out to be merely an enticing ruse. Pulling the second roof was serious business. Dan took a few whips before puzzling out the sequence and making it look smooth. From the belay stance, I went to school on his beta. I lost sight of him over the crux where there was some thought-provoking climbing with sparse protection, but nothing too serious. After a while, I heard Dan shout “off belay,” and I prepared to follow him up.

I didn’t have much time to be intimidated by the massive pitch 3 double roof looming above me when I arrived below Dan’s belay stance. He had already traversed under the roof from the belay and placed the first piece of protection for me. I didn’t even get a chance to clip the anchor. I took a stance below Dan while he slid his remaining gear down the rope to me. I racked up and started climbing straight up into the gaping maw of the roof system. I pulled the first overhang directly into an awkward stance where I placed a key yellow C3. That C3 would catch two big pendulum whippers before finally blowing on my third and final whip from the nose of the roof. On this particular fall, my feet cut and my torso managed to scrape across the nose of the first roof as I fell. I felt a pop and saw something go flying through the air as I sailed into space, passing Dan on my way down. With an expert dynamic belay, Dan softened my landing. Because of the pendulum, I still smacked the wall pretty hard and re-injured my heel, but the skill of my partner kept me from serious injury.

Lesson #3: It's probably not the best idea to take three Factor 1+ whippers on the same piece of gear and the same section of rope. And, if you do, re-inspect your pieces after each fall.

We took stock of our situation. I was in a bit of pain from my bruised heel and torso abrasions, and I wasn’t sure why the C3 had blown out this time, but otherwise I was not much worse for the wear. However, I knew I didn’t have the strength to give the roof a fourth free attempt, so I chickened out and aided through it. By the time Dan got done cleaning my lead, it was pitch black, and we were forced to descend without headlamps. It was damn near 10:30 before we reached my car. The saddest part of the whole experience? The Brauhaus had closed for the evening.

Lesson #4: Always bring a headlamp when you climb with Dan.

We slept in the back of my Subaru for the second straight night. This time, it didn’t take me long to get to sleep. I was out like a light, and morning came too fast. I felt like a rickety old man rolling out of my sleeping bag. Dan and I knew we wouldn’t be worth much, but we tried to keep hope alive. I half-heartedly asserted that I would warm up slowly and give my muscles a chance to adjust. Fat chance. After we hit up the Uber Pooper, we saw a couple of great-looking crack lines and we knew we had to do them. They were both 10b.

After winning our customary coin toss, I took the first lead on P-38, the rightmost of the sister crack lines. It was a little burly, and I called for Dan to take my weight at the low crux after getting flash pumped. I shook out my forearms and got a read on the crux beta. After that, it felt easier, and I managed to get through the rest of the route.

Dan fought an internal battle over whether or not to lead the sister crack, Stirrup Challenge. The gear looked small and a little sparse, and needless to say we weren’t exactly feeling fresh. Once again, the midday sun was slow-roasting the glassy face, making a clean lead even less likely. Eventually, and inevitably, proximity won out over prudence, and Dan jumped on lead. I won’t go into details, but I think if you asked Dan, he’d tell you it wasn’t his proudest effort.

After getting beaten down like a couple of rented mules -- on our warm-ups, no less -- our remaining strength did not measure up to our psych and we decided to call it a day. We wandered the Trapps for a bit and scoped out some aesthetic lines to file away for next time. We toyed with the possibility of getting on an easy classic, but in the end German beer and spaetzle won out over climbing. The Gunks had spanked me. They treated me rough and made me feel like a n00b. I’m sore and sporting all kinds of bruises and abrasions. And my pride took perhaps the biggest lumps. But, despite it all, I think I’m in love. I'm sitting here in my cubicle, wishing I could bail on work and go climbing. I’ll soon be back -- and next time, I'll be armed with a little more knowledge.

Lesson #5: Sometimes a bailure is a success ... especially if there's good German beer to console you.

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