December 30, 2009
Winter has come to the Alleghenies like the unbidden memory of ice; an armor of snow stained black and red along the roadways, broken only by the occasional trail of machines or wildlife, littered with Christmas tinsel, bits of wrapping paper, and diamonds of broken water.
The last patches of blue sky, and with them the fleeting glow of the sun, slipped away as we found a dry spot in the churned mud, ice, and gravel. A battered DeptHiWays road grader crouched slumbering in the refreezing snow under the trees as we shrugged into packs and started the quick march up creek, our boots crunching on alternating patches of cinders and gravel, ice and refreezing slush. The vast torn cloak of clouds drifted ponderously south, driven by arctic winds, empty now of their loads of lake effect snow.
The wind bit hard on exposed cheeks and foreheads, nipping our ears and fingertips as we nodded and cheerfully returned the blank stares of several passing truckloads of dog-hauling bear hunters; racing against the end of the season, jacked up on No-Doze and Red Bull, adrenaline and moonshine and meth, an assortment of radios filling the ether with cryptic hillbilly code words and sportsmen’s slang, dogs with names like Diesel and Slash and Git-R-Done staring mournfully from the bedboxes as they raced by in a flurry of exhaust and spray. A single yelping cry was cut off as the convoy rounded the curve out of sight.
Several smaller sedans passed, either on the main road or along our own track; the insulated, antiquated locals within peering intently through the safety of tempered glass and a yawning gulf of comprehension, their expressions a commingling of curiosity, outrage, and the fear of the unknown. Was this some new government plot to seize more land for the National Forests, some environmental wackos come to count spotted owls or salamanders or measure lichen growth? Black helicopters, poachers, no doubt godless secular humanist drug addicts and sex perverts, one and all…
We smiled inside our balaclavas and scarves, nodded and waved at them as well as we could, encumbered with packs, swaddled in techno garb, and striding steadily along into the 20 degree wind chill factor that had transformed a crisp but workable 34 degree day into an arctic adventure race against numbness and the dusk.
The trail was iron-hard, steps kicked and shoveled into the previous week’s blizzard now frozen into marble solidity. As the ground fairly rang under my feet, I thought about the beginning.
Following hard on the heels of the Blizzard of 09, the previous Saturday had been a day of laughter and sweating under too many layers while moving cubic yards of the powdery snow we had received overnight, two feet in just over twenty-four hours. We watched massive icefall on the Little Khumbu and decided to wait one more day.
The sun had come out early and the base of the crags had been warm enough for shirtsleeves and single tech layers. Sunday had seen the original ground-up onsight ascent of my target line; methodically working out the stances, enjoying the great stemming, exploring conditions and rock quality and placing gear up to the point I’d picked to bail from, a huge anvil horn jutting from the right hand arete of the dihedral at 2/3 height. When I had discovered that the final 20’ of rock was running with meltwater and ground zero for the occasional falling icicle, I shamelessly tucked tail and bailed, pulling rope and leaving the gear fixed with an eye on finishing the route to the rim. Matching action to intent by rapping the finishing section to check for ice and loose rock and installing anchors the day before, I was back on this gray afternoon to see it through with the indomitable Cindy Bender as my belayer.
A week of thawing and freezing since the blizzard, with a dusting of sleet in the interim, had greatly changed the nature of the snow and the trail. We dry-tooled and front pointed up the steep bank to the foot of the first boulders like mountaineers on the shoulders of a glacier, then contoured left and uphill towards the toprope line “Shaved Scamper” sitting smack-dab in the center of the Power Couple Wall. We took our time, enjoying the stability and traction of the stone trail and steps created there by our friends from Linden State College, during the deluge of spring 08. With the laughing guidance of Sensei Jamie Struck and the willing hands of the Curmudgeon, the LSC Lionhearts had constructed a set of stone stairs that had withstood the ensuing year’s traffic without a single failure of stone or placement.
Each of those steps now became an exercise in cautious balance. We continued up through the icebound lower trail, pausing between cruxes to snap pics and marvel at the multitude of fluted, glowing ice draperies scattered across the walls, ledges, shrubs and branches. Shattered crystalline shards on the trail and at the foot of the Reach climbs told the story of another massive collapse in the previous day’s warmth, and more fell as we dropped packs under the moderate “Thieves in the Temple“. I fished out the hot tea and spices and we shared several cups, swapping layers and spreading out gear between deep, fragrant sips.
Despite our cheerful determination, the wind continued unabated. I watched for a moment as a distant tear opened in the clouds, clipping the few pieces of pro I knew I’d need for the short wall below the anchors to my gear loops, with draws and slings to match. A dusting of snowflakes drifted across my cheek as I sorted my rope onto a groundsheet below the classic if crumbly dihedral where my first few pieces lay in the shadow of the hand crack, above the initial fun sequence of stemming. The steep terrain and unstable footing of the belay/trail area made location of the belayer problematic, and we spent several minutes shuffling Cindy around for the best combination of safety and visibility.
With her settled into relative safety and a round of verbal and visual double checks, I climbed up through the wide opening sequence of stemming and dropped a #10 Hexcentric into the crack to replace the #2 Camalot I’d want, higher up. I clipped the Hex with a long sling and called “Belay on?” Cindy responded with a shift of the rope and “On belay.” Three more moves and another pair of pieces, one of them slung on a Screamer to reduce impact force on the slightly questionable flake it rests behind. The wind freshened and a few flakes fell away from the rounded edge under my foot.
Several more stemming moves, each a bit wider and less substantial than the last, with surprisingly good features on the face to the left and depressingly deteriorating conditions to the right, then a big reach up to the Spock, matching with a crumbly angular block, a bit of fast foot movement and dancing past some crumbly blocks in the corner… when one of them suddenly began to peel back.
Cindy and I shouted “Rock!“ at almost the same second, as I froze in mid-step, the two-inch-thick, foot square block resting against my left shin and ankle. I was several feet above my last piece, with absolutely no desire to drop this bomb down into my groundfall pro, or my belayer, for that matter.
“I’m going to toss this out onto the trail.“
“Got it. I’m clear.”
“Got a few loose stones first, watch for grit and stuff.”
“Go for it.”
The tone is oddly lighthearted, almost disconnected, as if we can avert disaster by refusing to treat it as such, pushing the balance of karma back with an almost Zen state of no-mind.
I tossed several fist-sized chunks, listening to make sure they stopped, and then yelled “Rock!” and sent the plate down away from the gear and Cindy, hearing it shatter on the talus below. I moved out of the awkward half-step and stem I had been crouched in for the last few minutes, straightened my neck and stretched the kinks out of my spine.
Brushing away dirt and debris, I spent a few seconds blowing off the adrenaline; cracking jokes and succumbing to several seconds of hysterical laughter and bad puns. Several moves higher, the fixed gear smiled out at me so warmly I could almost feel my fingers and hands again as I clip and swap numb meat in the jam, twisting slightly to stare back at the thick gray fleece of the horizon for some break of light and hope of brief warmth. No joy in Cragville, tonight, however. If anything, it is getting colder, and darker, and I see Cindy huddle in her stance as another wind sweeps the crag, bringing a raw chill from the creek below.
“This next bit rocks and rolls, but the rock is diamond and the holds are incredible.” I called down over the rumbling roar of the wind on the opposite side of the gorge, gauging her response time, thinking about the important differences in our cold tolerances, about the interactions of MS and hypothermia. I could feel my shoulder and thigh muscles beginning to tighten with the unrelenting chill of the wind, and wanted to get out of the throat of the chimney and onto open ground to the finish.
“I’m alright!” she yelled, “that wind is just cold!” I’m reminded that, as well as growing up in the jungles of South America, Cindy Bender also spent many fine Ohio winters trudging across fields to skate for hours on end on ponds and rivers. I gave her a big grin and thumbs up as she squared her shoulders and pushed her hood back for a better view. She nodded, all business.
Timeshift: Into the now…
The rock is clean, gemstone quality and flawlessly featured. Big moves, good holds, solid gear. Overhanging moves through incut rails and horizontals, sprinkled with positive grip jugs, pockets and slots. Where it is thin, there are ergonomically correct stemming footholds and the wild perspective of the dihedral, your gear, and the rope swaying there below you. I locked my hips and looked right, along the line of the roof just inches over my head. Eight feet away, the anvil horn jutted out into the cold blast of the wind, the occasional snowflake or falling icicle slowly subliming to the wind on its fairly dry surface.
“Not today.” I whisper, warming my burning fingers on the nape of my neck. I laugh quietly at myself for the drama of the moment.
It’s not like this is Astroman, Mike… it’s a grubby little corner on a 20m sport wall, down a little side road out in the middle of West Virginia. Most people will never bother to climb it before judging it to be a silly conceit to require people to bring a rack and know how to judge the quality of rock in the middle of a bolted area.
Somebody’s probably gonna come along some day and say “Hey, how come they never bolted this line?” and stick in the five or six bolts it would take to wedge themselves into the history of this place.
A snort of cold air burns my nose.
To hell with all that.
Through the acrimony and laughter, access issues and route closures and cold brews over leaping campfires of the last two decades and more, it's always been each route for itself. It doesn’t have to be Astroman... or Separate Reality or even the second pitch of Green Wall at Seneca. It’s the route you found, the route you cleaned and climbed from ground to three-quarter height onsight in arctic conditions... and it’s the line that you are going to finish today.
So let’s get on with it, shall we?
I call instructions to Cindy, letting her know that the rope will be feeding slowly and making sure she can see me as I move up and around the corner. She adjusts position and I begin the traverse, short and sweet, out to the lip, stepping up to stand hips against the bottom of the horn, the final wall breaking for the sky over my left shoulder.
I finagle a #1 Camalot in the pocket just above my head and an arms length away, then reverse and clean the mid-traverse piece. I inexplicably and regrettably decide not to back clean the high corner piece, and fight un-necessary rope drag the rest of the climb as a consequence. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t optimal.
The move onto the anvil horn proves the biggest grunt of the entire climb, probably the awkward crux if not the technical one. High hands and a crotch-stretching high step with the right foot, and I pull up around the lip to stand on the point of my bail anchors just two days before. The broad triangular surface still holds small pockets of ice and meltwater in the myriad dimpled echoes of an ancient riverbed or beach.
The sun is low behind a solid wall of gray, now, but the sky opens briefly for a rising glow as I pull the moves up to the horizontal #2 pocket, clipping in with a medium runner and stepping right to palm the clean corner edges. A jam beside the piece pivots me up on high feet to reach through with the right to-
“Jug!” I laugh out loud, matching and high-stepping to crank into the next stance, slotting a pair of opposed wired stoppers. I swear under my breath as I realize that I am down to three quick draws, then shrug and clip one into the pair, rolling the rope into the gate with a call of “Clipped!”
Big horns and moves call me up towards the nearing anchors, but in my enthusiasm, I move too far to the side for the short draw and watch as one of my opposing pieces twists out to dangle by my foot. I know the other piece is bomber, even solo, and shrug, focusing on setting my feet on cold-stiffened thighs and calves, my numb hands beginning to fumble as I clip a biner through the paired quick links and follow it with a bight of rope. The smell of lichen and sweat, old ice and cold wood on the wind; I grasp the second mouthful and then lift it away towards the cold metal oval, hearing the snap of the gate with a rising surge of delight and, I realize, satisfaction.
The cold nips at me, and I stand laughing on a featured face, embracing the winter, the wind, the partner below and the climb we have shared and the endless promise of the sky.
This is what I do. This is who I am.
Now, just over a year later, with another season of climbs and trails and friends behind us, we are back, my partner and I. Storms weathered, droughts broken, residences relocated, lives re-arranged. Trails explored and routes besieged and the end result was always capitulation, on the parts of both stone and flesh. Something lost, and still always something gained, if only a lesson.
We chased the motionless river, a ribbon of ice wending its way upward through the hollows and ridges strewn like a rumpled blanket along the flanks of North Mountain, winding along the motionless white ribbon of multi-layered ice, razor edges of perfect transparency and thick white topographies of psychedelic curves and waves. There were stories there, a silent history in ice of each night’s battle between the endless flowing of the creek and the endless hunger of the cold, each day’s gift of sunlight or rain and wind, green moss still struggling through on the occasionally-bard shelf, dark water twisting beneath long winding tableaus of animal tracks and imprisoned leaves and branches.
Along the verge, black cattle graze amid the fading ruins of old cabins and smoke houses, low limestone foundations linking slowly back into the West Virginia heartlands that gave them birth. The will and pride and dreams of the settlers who laid those stones has faded before the endless offers of commerce in distant cities and the focus on the dollar over the value of life and open spaces for both the body and the heart.
Cindy steers her low rider undercover S10 pickup truck, Icy Blue, along the winding backcountry road that parallels the creek with the practiced ease of a country girl who once piloted motorcycles through the jungles of Nicaragua, steered emergency vehicles through the streets of Harrisonburg and the highways of Rockingham County, Virginia, and commuted the backroads of Broadway and Briery Branch while raising two children and working a full-time job. She’s relaxed and happy after the successes of the day and the weekend just past and the miles roll away as classic rock tunes filter out of the radio.
Saturday, we’d rendezvoused with Pyro Pat, our madman rep for the Armed Forces, awaiting the arrival of the Charlottesville/Albemarle contingent while “warming up” on some brutally cold north-facing holds and faces. What was normally a fun hike on stone, Superman, a short, featured 5.7, became an endurance pain fest of frozen digits and mantling on snow. We endeavored to persevere, however, and all had a good laugh/scream at the remembered joy of sensation returning to frozen hands and feet and the faces and cries that inevitably accompanied them. Pat’s early attempt at his first lead in a year yielded to common sense and the brutal truth of the cold and he bailed after a series of determined tries on frozen hands to pull through the overhang above the second bolt. As the only other leader in the group, it fell to me.
With the convenience of two pre-placed draws, I moved quickly up to the sweetly-juggy roof and tried to regain some illusion of feeling in my hands, which had already become as sensitive as a pair of welding mitts. The deep throbbing ache of the cold was sinking talons into my wrist joints as I cranked up with wooden hands to grip holds I could only assume I had grasped correctly because it looked that way, stepped up through big moves onto the ledge and shook my numb hands, grinning and quietly laughing at the rewards for my impetuosity and my incredibly poor choice of a “warm up“.
I finally managed to unclip the wrench I had carried along for the task and loosened the nut on the bolt at my waist, rotating the hanger back to the correct orientation. I had noticed that hard side roping had apparently pulled it out of place the week before when leading the route.
Of course, at that time, it had been warm...
With the hanger straight and throbbing pain announcing the return of feeling in my hands, I took advantage of the decreasing wind to crank through the final featured moves up to the last bolt and casual exit to anchors. The wind ran straight across the snowy top of the climb, a broad, dappled terrace of stone rimed with icy snow and potted with clinging colonies of determined moss.
The cliff band marched away downhill on corners and faces, the ubiquitous top gallery ledge running back and forth above the anchors of most lines, vanishing in a few places to produce truly tall lines like Ryan Eubank’s brutal, gymnastic Grapevine Massacre or Mike Fisher’s amazing Shaolin Mantis. The rising haze to the south ran chilling tendrils of cloud across the sun and the light slowly dimmed across the cliffs as I called for Cindy to lower.
We had spent much of the last two years here, developing routes, building trail, improving and in some cases creating belay stations and buttresses of stone, coming to have the deep personal relationship with an area that comes of months spent in the heat and cold, the rain and snow, the light falling around you or slowly waking the darkness into day. When I had hiked the cliff band for the first time, I found three mystery routes, bolted and in some cases with fixed gear at the anchors. But no sign of recent activity- the webbing was stiff with sunlight and at least three years of exposure had rusted the wire brush and can of epoxy we later found tucked in the honeysuckle at the base near one wall.
We later learned that the routes were put up but a small group of Seneca guides who had been chased off by a threatening landowner. The same charming individual had approached us during our early forays up and down the wall and claimed ownership of the entire cliff band, right down to the base.
A few days worth of legwork, entailing a call and visit to the local National Forest offices in Petersburg and a half hour in the Pendelton County Assessor’s office, proved that we had indeed been on public land, according to both Public deeds and federal records and survey, as well. A short discussion with the local NFS Law Enforcement and a call or two the state had resulted in a complete lack of further harassment.
Never, ever under any circumstance underestimate the importance of doing your groundwork when looking at a new crag. Armed with the facts, you are invincible. Know your local NFS rangers and offices. We are allies in the forest, not opponents.
Back on the ground, Cindy B determinedly changed into climbing shoes and tied on her chalk bag. I swapped back into street shoes and Pat took the belay. Despite the cold, the lady in pink pants was soon standing triumphantly at the top anchors and obligingly clipped the directionals as she lowered away.
Sergeant Pat soon redeemed his honor on the return engagement, dispatching the moves and cleaning gear on toprope, laughing his way through snow-slicked moves with wooden hands, fingers dead as sausages, feet like frozen blocks beneath Stealth rubber that held with gecko grip.
With the half frozen soldier back on the ground, gear was gathered and we moved down to sunnier climbs and times, leaving the rope and draws at the base of the moderate Doctor Taco.
We broke our fast with Ms. Cindy’s home-made chocolate chip cookie bars and Pat’s Mountain House Chili Mac, hot mint tea and a break in the haze that brought the morning sun shining through. Not long after, the Albemarle gang made their appearance and happily jumped on the wall to the left as we finished the fun, casual jugs and face holds of Doctor Taco. Phoebe soon learned of the joys of winter climbing and the horror of both losing and regaining feeling in climbing extremities on the upper moves of the Boneyard Warm-Up.
I mentioned “Thieves in the Temple” as a likely next route for the conditions and group, and Pyro’s interest piqued when Cindy described it as her favorite corner. His earlier humbling at the hands of the gods of pain and cold did not sit well and Pyro was hungry for a rematch with gravity. It had been over a year since injuries had curtailed his climbing to those rare periods when pain, work schedule, and weather did not deny opportunity to get away to the mountains.
Our foray across the steep mountainsides of North Fork Mountain’s southeast flanks had taken place under single-digit to subzero cold, through loose boulders and brush too thick for even bear to pass, to a triumphant conclusion at the base of the Magic Mushrooms. The view of our point of insertion, the Dragon Wall, left us stunned and amazed. The hike out had been a shared gut instinct, following the narrow spur up onto the flank of the mountain, eventually contouring NE to rejoin the Jeep road snaking along the top of the ridge and walk the short distance down to the truck.
Pyro was ready to get back in the game.
When we got to the base of the route, I dropped the rope and moved off to rack up and change shoes as usual, when up ambled Pyro, shoes in hand. I looked at him with raised eyebrows and he nodded back with a smile.
“I think I will.”
Reading about climbing is about as exciting as watching paint dry, or so someone once said. Watching the sergeant lead his first route in a year was as exciting to me as Major League, the Olympics and New Year’s Countdown all rolled up in one. Watching anyone do something they had been told was likely forever out of their reach inspires in all of us the hope and belief that we need, to know in our heart of hearts that anything is possible with grace and determination. That the answer to every prayer is not “No.”
And for Pyro Pat, it was Right Here and Now. He dispatched the stemming start of the route with blustery winds and falling light and temps, growing more confident in his technique and strength with each bolt he reached. Up the thinning face holds and past several awkward clips with numb hands to the ledge and the short runout that is signature Mike Gray. Gaining the next bolt and facing thin face holds, he hung for a moment to beat at his numb hands, pain shooting through his right wrist in jolts that spasmed the limb. A handful of breaths and he cranked up to gain the next bolt. Another brief hang, as the winds roared again and leaves skirled across the open sky above him. One last push, an eternity fumbling rope and metal with hands like stone, and finally “Take!” and he was through the fire, through the wall, back in the game.
The grin on his face was priceless, and Cindy and I both laughed with him as we untied his rope and guided him back to his seat and shoes. Hot tea followed with a chorus of congratulations from the Gang of Three and we finished the day on a sprint up the route by first Cindy then myself on top rope.
As weather closed in, we bailed to a short but riotous stop in Eagle Rock campground to convey birthday well wishes and Cindy’s amazing chocolate chip cookie bars to Kenny “Action” Jackson, and to share several rounds of assorted hospitality with Charlie Dave and a handful of hardies who had braved the cold to join the evening’s cheer. Speyburn Scotch armored us against the worst of the cold, dispensed from a shining flask at Pyro’s hip to prepare us for our sojourn. Nonetheless, an hour saw us biding our “adieu’s” to the gang around the leaping bonfire. A short, winding convoy commute later and we were soon ensconced in the cozy Casa Pinkpants, with drinks in hand, snacks of all kinds, and conversation proceeding at light speed in a half dozen directions. Pyro debuted his video DVD of the Mushroom Tower trip, which received sitting ovations, the audience having passed the point at which standing ovations did not present a public health hazard some time before. The quiet, satisfied glow of well-used muscles, safe harbor and good company seeped into my bones and the evening flowed away in conversations and bright memory.
Up early the next day after a restless night of broken dreams and catnapping, weaving through sleeping forms with a powerful sense of déjà vu, following my nose to the kitchen to find Pyro seated in a chair by the window, the scent of coffee wafting through the kitchen and down through the apartment. Morning light is seeping through the woodsmoke and river mist to pull the shapes of the sleeping city out of the darkness. In the alley below the window, cats prowl and scrap amid the weeds surrounding the dumpster. Out the front, I know the steeple of the church down the block is glowing to life in the sunrise. Cindy soon joins us and we pass an hour or so in quiet conversation, congratulating Pyro once again on the previous day of climbing and watching the weather with gauging regard. The sun is just lancing across the broad bowl of Petersburg when Phoebe staggers up out of the daybed in the next room, fights her way into clothes and trips into the kitchen, hair still spiky with sleep, face screwed up in outraged disbelief at the unfairness of being awake. She speaks but a single word.
Laughing, the veterans of many such mornings soon supply her with caffeine and begin the process of feeding this crew as Simon also wanders into the picture, scrubbing at his face and looking hopefully towards the corner where the coffee machine lives, folowed soon after by Sandy, in Hollywood undercover with big glasses..
Cindy and I go into galley overdrive with practiced ease, and there are soon breakfast burritos and strong coffee for all. Snacks for the day are packed as a handful of climbers shuffle through morning rituals and constitutionals in a narrow apartment and traffic hoots and squeals and roars by outside.
We clump down the twisted stairs and out into the day which has cleared to a few high clouds and a light breeze. Sunlight slants down across the battered brick faces and eroded joints of the alley wall and my nose fills with the smells of the city as I lug the pack towards the street; exhaust fumes, the muddy creek at my back, wet pavement and frying food, the bleached smell of sidewalks and the overall smell of age and decay, blown into every corner, strewn across every field and lawn, pooling in the gutters and soaking into the wood and brick and stone of this tired, pretentious little southern town.
Loading the vehicles and escaping the city to rendezvous at crag parking inevitably involves some level of slapstick and this was no exception. Turning off for a quick hit on the local gas station, Cindy deftly loses the entire convoy, which then speeds off down the road in pursuit of someone who is in fact behind them. But half an hour later, safely reunited in the parking area, we were all once again pulling out gear, lamenting the things we’d left behind, and looking upwards toward the rock, shining in the sun. A veil of high cloud drifted slowly north from the southwest, but we were content to live and climb in the moment.
There was still no sign of Pyro when Cindy and I dropped packs at the base of Internal Dialogue, a fun, sustained 5.8 with an exciting exit under the corner of a huge roof. Sandy, Simon and Phoebe headed on up the hill to warm up on the moderates of the previous day while I sorted rope and draws. After a brief visit for morning cheer and a shared mug of hot coffee, CB and I headed back down to trail with an eye out for Pyro and a mind to climb.
Just as I was lacing my shoes, our final crewmember came trudging up the trail, looking a little pale around the edges. After a fine evening of relaxing with friends and a perfectly normal morning drinking coffee, he’d been seized by a sudden onset of motion sickness just a few miles from the parking area. Fighting to hold onto his breakfast, he’d made it to the pullout and had spent the previous half hour stretched out in his truck seat, fighting vertigo and nausea.
We could only commiserate, offering our few painkillers and hot mint tea. I knew Pyro was fighting not only the physical ague but also the disappointment of not being able to climb another day. Saying a silent prayer for his recovery, I swapped visual/verbal checks with Cindy and turned my attention to the rock.
“Internal” was bathed in sunlight but I could feel a bit of the previous day’s chill still aching in my joints as I pulled and sidestepped up the sustained initial face, each thoughtful crux leading to great holds. Thorns snagged my sleeve as I mantled onto the ledge below the final business, and the breeze was colder in the shadow of the big roof. I swapped hands and shook only briefly before continuing up through the face moves above to perch dramatically on the suspended shoulder of rock to the right, the sun warm on my back as I pulled and stepped up through the final casual moves to the anchor.
Cindy followed on toprope with a calm control that belied the number of times she had struggled through the heady moves at the upper crux. She danced out around the corner and reached the final holds with a grin on her face.
Simon and the lasses soon followed suit, while Pyro and I wandered down the hill with my rack, his rope and a few spare cams he’d loaned me. We stopped at the base of SuperNatural. Flaking out the rope, I told his the story of how I’d had to climb the rig in stages, and just how much the current weather resembled that day. Cindy wandered down in the middle of the tale and nodded, supplying several personal insights on the cold and the first ascent. I wished Mike Fisher had made it out to join us… it would have been great to have the whole FA push team onsite. I shrugged and sent best wishes to Doc Goodwack where ever he was that day… if not climbing then no doubt dreaming of stone and mountain trails.
The climb was like coffee with an old friend. In some ways full of more memory than substance, always over too soon, with predictable laughter, sudden recollections and lingering regrets. A recent rap cleaning session had altered some of the more questionable lower sections dramatically, making the start almost a brand-new on-sight. I soon had several big cams and a solid wired stopper carrying the weight of the rope up the lower dihedral and moved nervously through a highstep to a fractured ledge that had cleaned up remarkably from the first and second ascents but which still presented a mental challenge to climb.
Above the nastiness, I set another pair of pieces and cranked steadily up on better rock with amazing holds and moves. Another rest, and the traverse to the Anvil Horn is dry, a bit gritty but to be expected after a year of wind and thermal cycling. The move is still a grunt and I’m glad to be standing on top of the dimpled platform, again, looking up at the gorgeous stone of the final section of wall. Fifteen feet to the left, the last two bolts of Mike Fisher and Clay Clark’s pumpy line “Apophus” protect the face as the moves break up around the lip of the roof to gain anchors at the skyline. Above me, there is only clean rock and a solid two bolt anchor, up high.
The exit moves are clean and dry, the wind a hand buffeting good-naturedly at my shoulder, the gear simple and cooperative, and the feeling incomparable as I crank through the final overhang and settle into the right hand jam, my left dropping to wrap the rope swaying from my waist, lifting, one finger slipping through the opening of the carabiner to stabilize the spine as I thumb the cord over the nose and hear the gate snap shut with sweet finality, the circle closing.
Later, in the car, just cruising, Cindy’s hand a momentary warmth in mine, alpenglow over Seneca Rocks, rising from the scattered buttresses and walls of the North Fork, deer moving silent at twilight, good friends sent off with hugs and laughter, the most made of a day of cold and sun, snow and clouds.
This is what we do. This is who we are.
December 30, 2009/January 17, 2011