One day, you are completely wrapped up in trying to get your hillbilly landlord to just finish the apartment you live in, return a call, or adhere to the conditions of the lease in any way, trying to support yourself and a disabled wife by working at an ancient, decrepit hotel, originally built by slave labor and housing a restaurant that was obsolete by the beginning of the Reagan Administration. When not immersed in the day-to-day folly and frustrations of a decaying southern city filled with and run by corrupt politicians and inbred dynasties struggling to hold life back to the age of The Waltons, you spend a lot of time and effort trying to teach a pig to sing; trying to introduce fresh food and new ideas into a stagnant culture, all while surrounded by the oxymoron of cafeteria-style "fine dining", created by an owner/manager with delusions of grandeur and more mental issues than a lifetime subscription to "Psychology Today".
Life and crisis laugh at planning and routine.
All the tedium and petty annoyances seem precious and golden in the hindsight of sudden, traumatic change. you long for the simple challenges of dealing with crazy, as opposed to the helplessness of facing life and death with no option but to sit and wait, to hope if you must and pray if you still can.
Instead of blowing up balloons and wrapping presents in preparation for her 27th birthday, we instead spent the end of last week with our daughter in the hospital; separated from home, husband, and a two month old daughter of her own. Life went into that sporadic stop-and-start of a bad European film; sleepless nights, early morning, changing schedules and plans while still trying to live a day-to-day routine of necessity.
Friday night, our lass was stable enough to return home, and Saturday, her mother watched the bouncing baby while the exhausted parents relaxed and I prepared coconut shrimp and "drunken" beer-battered tilapia, steamed broccoli and baked potatoes for a small birthday dinner.
Rain soaked the weekend, interrupting the Columbus Day holidays of scores of visiting NoVA and D.C. hikers, mountain bikers, campers and rock climbers. Carloads of timeshare victims slogged past in long lines on their way to musty condos in Canaan and hunt cabins up the North Fork, while tour groups stared out at soggy leaves and rolling clouds atop Dolly Sods and Spruce Knob. Friends who had planned to wed atop Seneca spent the weekend eating at local restaurants and climbing wet rock at Secret Crag #7. Boaters stared in frustration at a river still too shallow to do more than wet the hull between hundred-yard portages. The fall foliage season's promise of economic boon once again faded, settled to earth in a slow sigh of red and yellow leaves.
Monday, stir-crazy and getting creaky from sitting watching the weekenders and the dog hunters and the rain, sorting gear and reading sci-fi, Cindy and I tossed packs in the truck and went to hike a fire road in Germany Valley that we knew would be good for a hike up onto the Allegheny Front, with the added attraction of a short side trip from parking to check on some old crags and climbs. I had a rope hanging there, unfinished business on a steep route from back in 2006 that had I had become determined to finish before the holidays.
After the brisk hike along the shoulder of the road, eyes and ears tuned for the sound of onrushing tractor trailers, we slowed the pace and relaxed; stretching out slowly, adjusting lighter packs as we walked the muddy gravel road in new boots, conversation wandering among our recent troubles and old friends, past travels and crazy settings in which we had camped, cooked, and climbed. Fall was there around us; quiet, muted in the mists and rain, but still gorgeous in her own right, a different sort of beauty from the bright splash of chorus girl colors that attracts throngs of tourons to Seneca and Smoke Hole, the Skyline Drive to the east and the Blue Ridge parkway to the south. Bright crowns of fallen leaves decorated beds of ferns and hung throughout the underbrush of spice bush and red oak, laurel and juniper, while Virginia creeper blazed red where it hung from golden hickory trees.
The road climbed steadily, bringing a burn to disused leg muscles as we wound up through the ancient forest, traffic now far away as the sound of birdsong and the occasional distant dog's bark became our soundtrack. Occasional rifts in the low-hanging clouds revealed deep hollows dropping away on one side or the other, tiny cabins nestled at the base of threads of wood smoke, dreaming above mossy tumbling streams.
Two hours later, we found ourselves at the foot of walls that were impossibly dry after three days of mist and rain. Fox grapes, creeper and poison ivy draped routes soaring 80-90 feet, all of them overhanging to the point that rain was not really an issue. My fixed rope still hung on the steepest line of them all, a wall 80+ feet tall with an overhang of more than 25 feet from top to bottom along the line I had chosen. Recent massive deposits of chalk indicated that either we had seen newcomers, or one of the three or four parties that know of the area had returned for a brief visit and taste of two of the best lines in the cirque. Chalk on several other spots told a tale of exploration... and of hasty retreat in the face of steep, thin, run out lines on somewhat intimidating terrain.
No shame there... some of this stuff scares the crap out of me, and I bolted it. Discretion is the better part of valor.
We clip open one of the trails leading directly to the good stuff and head back to the car and a supper of stir-fry and wild rice, cold brews and anticipation.
The next day we are back early with food and gear, drill and bolts and a determination to climb and move the rope up the old project.
"Rock of Ages" is an incredible line; a 5.9 with a high first bolt that gives the climber clear and early warning of the commitment required to lead this line. A 20-foot dihedral leads to a ledge, above which a steep, sparsely-protected panel offers scattered buckets and an off-balanced mantle move onto another ledge.
From here, over fifty feet above the base, you cast out into steeper and steeper territory, cranking pockets and edges past three more bolts in 30 feet to a final incredible rail clip stance that you reach through a mandatory step out onto a pocket with 80+ feet of air under your heels and the river roaring away another 100 feet below that... massive exposure as compared to the average WV bolted line anywhere except the New River. When you lower off the anchors, the wall falls away from you immediately, and your touchdown is several yards from the base.
We ran a couple of laps on this line, with Cindy climbing impressively and reaching a new high point, fighting through to a final stance almost to the anchors. A snack and a smoke and we sorted gear and lined up on the project, placing a 4th bolt above a good rest stance (finally!), retrieving the old fixed rope and lowering out to land ten feet from the base... and that's just from the 4th of what will undoubtedly be 9 or 10 bolts!
A serious slog out, with heavy packs and trembling legs that required three rest stops in what is normally a slow unbroken march back to the car. Hot food and cold brews led to calls confirming the next day's arrival of Doc Goodwack, primed to send. I sorted my pack and we segued into an early night and dreamless sleep.
Crawling out of bed the next morning, I wondered what I had done, exactly, planning on climbing with the original WV madman after a day on some of the tallest, toughest lines on which I had ever put bit to stone. Cindy answered a "grandma call" and went to babysit the grandchild and help out around the house, leaving me to keep up with the new, streamlined version of Mike Fisher making its debut at our crag.
Mike was out of the car, pack ready and coffee in hand when I rolled in, a hand rolled twist burning in the corner of his mouth as he shook my hand and smiled. We shouldered loads and headed up the hill to warm up on some moderate moves before Mike stacked his rope under the steep broken maw that is the start of La Machina, a line he had bolted back in 2010 and had been working on sporadically ever since. Like the rest of us, Mike's plans had run headlong into the roadblock and detours of Life, and it had been a long fight to finally narrow the crux to three specific areas of contention.
He worked through the moves as always, powerful sequences interspersed with self-deprecating humor, inventive terms like "Parkinson's pop-lock" and "evolved T Rex hold" exploding between long pulls and titanic effort on small holds.
All too soon, I had to run away to work, but promised to return the next day. Mike hiked down to grab his bivvy gear, his plan to throw down at the foot of the wall for the night, as he had many times in the past. I went off to fry wings and burgers and try to make a living in the nadir of employment that is Petersburg, WV.
The next day I was back, after initial technical difficulties, with Cindy in tow and a bag of hot, fresh, homemade breakfast burritos in the top of my pack. A grateful Mr. F chowed with gusto as we tossed down packs and climbed into harness. We warmed up on his moderate Second Rule, debating the relocation of the final bolt for better clipping, reminiscing on the first ascent, enjoying the morning with just the three of us and a sky full of broken clouds.
Mike took a burn on his line, but fell at the fourth bolt. he rallied and sent the rest of the route, then lowered for a rest. Cindy and I ran up the newly-rebolted "Thieves in the Temple", and the new moves and bolts were just as enjoyable as they had been the week before, grateful confirmation of my decision to slightly change the line for reasons of safety as well as aesthetics.
Later in the afternoon, Mike pulled on his shoes, and put paid to a project he has been working on for the last two and a half years.
We celebrated in the small ways that three friends will, enjoyed a little more climbing and a few more hours at the crag, then hiked down the hill and went our separate ways with hugs and handshakes and smiles all around.
Today it's back to the grind; incompetent local bureaucracy, inconsiderate neighbors, idiot landlord, new job, worries for aging parents and step daughter and grandchild, uncertainty and frustration for that colony of imbeciles running our nation into the ground in D.C., watching my hairline and muscle mass recede, fighting old age and pushing through the dross and drudgery of day-to-day.
Until next time...