Monday, December 6, 2010
Fallin' From Grace
Fallin' From Grace- a climbing life snapshot by Mike Gray
January, 2002, somewhere in West Virginia…
Another year, another climb.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
It is cold in the Southeast, this frosty Sunday morning. The previous week’s hint of far-off spring has given way to the solid reassertion of winter’s grip; an onrushing wall of northern air that rolled down over the Ohio River, Cumberland Gap, and eventually the Shenandoah Valley, sending temps into free fall, spilling snow showers over the Allegheny Highlands and ending my dreams of a suntan in January.
The mercury outside my ice-sheathed RV window reads a blurry 22 degrees F. The grass sparkles with a billion frost diamonds as I step out the back door of the Cruiser, a 16-foot long Dodge Cruise Master RV, with galley, bath, shower, and bunk room for three in a pinch. Current number of residents stands at one. I sip at the dark roasted taste of my coffee, savoring the birth of the day, enjoying the feel of the cold air against my face.
Inside, the rebuilt Hilti chassis leans against the battery charger, near the stuffed, scuffed and ever-ready BD Attack pack, bulging with quickdraws, a handful of cams, some snacks, first aid kit, and an extra layer of clothing, including windproof balaclava and gloves.
Wreckage of the morning's breakfast burrito and accompanying dishes is quickly divided between sink and trashcan, and I monitor NPR as the chores eat away the minutes until departure.
The Doctor is inbound.
Right on cue, the silver bullet slides into the driveway. Mike Fisher aka Doc Goodwack, Doctor Doom, The Total Package, sits slumped behind the wheel of his Taurus, grinning through a wave of Dokken as the trunk pops open and he steps out into the cold, coffee in one hand, home-rolled cig in the other. Dressed in layers of Gore-tex, capilene and pile, Mike still looks pretty much exactly the way he did when I first met him, several hundred crazy climbs, a half dozen insane winter bivvies, an uncountable assortment of night bouldering and climbing expeditions and an unknowable number of recon hikes ago. Most men would be withered and bent, reduced to gibbering madness and hammered into shapeless masses of arthritic, frostbitten, chigger-gnawed agony by now, either from the misadventures or my company alone.
Not Mike. Creatures of the opposite sex have been known to approach spontaneous combustion when the good Doctor enters a room, all easygoing manner, soft warm voice, olive skin, wide white smile, dark eyes, and barely salted black hair. I have achieved perfect stealth invisibility, just by walking into a room of predominantly females several seconds behind Fisher. It was as close to non-existence as I have come.
Unlike Mike, yours truly both shows and feels the effects and impacts of the previous decade and the right knee twinges in reminder of its traumatic destruction and reconstruction in a bicycle mishap six years past, as I step down out of the RV with shoulder slung pack and drill. Some mornings, it's hard to believe it's only been forty years since my birth day. Some mornings it's hard to believe it's been more than eighteen. And some mornings, like this morning, I'm caught between the exuberance of my teen years and the aches of my decades.
We push out of Harrisonburg on a wave of music, small talk, and expectancy, cross the first range into Brandywine, whitetail deer and squirrels in motion around us in the National Forest. There is snow blowing over the Highlands, and we both glower at the shroud that stretches out long streamers to the north, near our destination. No turning back now... we are On A Mission. There is a predictable response, any time we have shocked or offended or required far more than baseline intelligence out of the climbing community and/or the world at large, usually by climbing some insane bit of stone or putting ourselves directly in the path of weather that would have turned back Lord Jim-
"Holy shit.... it's the Punishers!"
Down through Judy Gap and the sandstone towers where Howard Clarke and I once pitted muscle and thickheaded determination against gravity and tiny holds, logging more air miles than a Stealth bomber pilot… sweet Jesu, was that really as many years ago as it seems, now?
Past Nelson Gap, once greenbrier and the awe-inspiring sweep of unknown potential on high, distant fins, now a commercial mess, being run with best intentions by a Maryland lawyer.
Winding along the river, past the amazing snapshot back in time that is farm country in the South. Silos and old red barns, some simple and sagging, some grand and multi-dormered, with hayloft lifts and ramps, ancient stone foundations, chimneys, and tilted gravestones peeking through the swaying broom straw, blanketed horses munching a mouthful of hay, cows standing huddled together in the middle of a muddy field.
Past Yokum´s and Harper's and Seneca Rocks, La Belle Grand Dame of WV trad climbing, her fins and corners rimed with a dusting of snow, the shadows of ledges and clinging cedars and pines black against the stark white of the faces. Along 28/55, with a dependably breath-taking view of Champe Rocks as we slow for the curve.
More miles roll by in conversation and music, and in no time we are there. Down the old side road between Cabins and Petersburg, snaking through S-curves and navigating over miles of rough pavement and potholes, through groves of oak and locust, branches stripped of leaves and snapped in the recent ice storms.
Out into the cold, ropes, gear, laughter and memory mingling with our smoking breaths in the frigid air. Quick march over the hill, down through the descending forest to the edge of the Abyss, where the Cirque suddenly comes into view below.
Ice hangs in curtains, falls in crystalline cascades, depends from rotting stone in a single column eight inches thick and sixty feet tall, transforming simple stones and twigs into glass mushrooms and sculptures of ethereal glass.
Fifty yards apart, Mike and I set rap lines and descend into this tiny sanctuary, together and yet lost in our own thoughts as if the other were a thousand miles away. As he frees half-ton blocks from their precarious balance in the middle of a new line, I set the last bolt on my latest nightmare of mixed trad and sport climbing and we meet at the base, huddling in the weak winter sunshine that fills the Hanta Cave for a smoke and a laugh. We brew tea and hunker next to a small, smoking fire for warmth and motivation.
The stone is cold, brutally cold and I try not to think about that as I tie in and run through the verbal double-check.
Good knot, good buckle.
I try to hide in strategy, but the cold seeps into joints too many times abused over the decades, stealing first sensation, then strength, then willpower. I hang at the third bolt, curled fetus-like over my silently-screaming hands, looking up at the sun, shining on the rim so very far above. Mike only nods in sympathy as I ask ten more seconds and try wriggling the pain out of fingers that feel like they have been smashed with a hammer. Arthritis twinges in the first three knuckles, reminder of too many bar room brawls in my tempestuous youth, too many years earning a living as a construction machine, and too many mid-winter cracks in the years before and since.
Deep breath, calm blue ocean. Nothing to it but to do it.
Crimpers lead off to the highstep, a rock-on that almost leaps to an undercling clipping stance. Swap hands, inhale and push the air out hard through the nose, left hand seeking the knifeblade edge above, right foot high, right hand in a dimple pocket. Shift balance, feeling fading as I step up and stab for the two-finger pocket, racing friction to slap for the open ledge above, reset the feet and just do it, finding the surface of the next hold rimed with frost, too spent and far above the last bolt to stop or even care, now, just GO!!!
Big holds, and my face sticks to the rock for a second at the no-hands rest, breath frosting the fossils in front of my panting mouth as I try to pull it back together and rise above the pain. Knives of wind slice through my hi-tech armor and chills warn me that the trade-off for strength is cold muscles and loss of the flame. No can do.
Up now, the stone more highly featured but the luxury of bolts now at an end as I trust an insecure jam and lean out on the protection of my second-smallest cam, reaching up over the three-foot roof to find the splitter crack above, fingers hooked around the chiseled edge, foot set high on a sloping prow that promises nothing of security as I lieback through the overhang, twisting bleeding, frozen digits into a fingerlock that will surely tear them right off my throbbing hand, if my foot should fail.
It stays, and I move up into a deep dihedral corner, stemming and scumming with my right shoulder, breath whistling in my throat as I find the next-to-last placement.
Settle down, now.... one more roof, one more crux, and you're home free, Ronin. Maybe next time you can get it without that hang... sooooo close now, the bitmap in my head filled with nuance and detail, the gyroscope preprogrammed for the next run.
First, though, I gotta get off this thing in one piece.
Zen. No mind, just the stone, the wind, the pain of living, drag of the rope at my waist, the smell of moss and rotting wood from deep in the crack, the roar of the river far below, as I reach over the lip of the roof, fingers too numb to find the sweet spot in the mid-face jug, balance wobbling like a drunken beaver on a frozen pond as I step up and around the corner and slap the top.
Another year, another climb.
The more things change,
the more they stay the same
Everyone’s a saint
until you look the other way
The more things change,
the more they stay the same
All we need’s a miracle
to take us all away from the pain.