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The Hizzle of T-Fizzle <br /> <b>Deprecated</b>: preg_replace(): The /e modifier is deprecated, use preg_replace_callback instead in <b>/home/jzero/public_html/troy/wpblog/wp-includes/formatting.php</b> on line <b>82</b><br /> » Gunks

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If it’s not curling, it’s climbing.

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

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Upon noticing that I listed “climbing” as an interest on Facebook, one of my curling teammates (Vince) let slip that he also likes to climb, was planning a trip to “The Gunks” in May and that I was welcome to come along.  After confirming I could make the time and spend the money, I was in agreement.  My usual climbing partner MikeFitz’s hefty travel schedule precluded his participation.  We also had a couple of Vince’s friend’s cancel for various reasons, such that by the time we left there were 4 climbers in all.

We were scheduled to leave from Vince’s house at 6PM Friday.  In a somewhat odd occurrence for me, I managed to be the first to arrive!  Chez Vince is like a classic city house.  It’s really cool.  Almost makes me want to live in town.  At this time I was made aware of Vince’s distaste for planning/preparing too far in advance.  He had not even started packing when I arrived!  I was particularly amazed because given the weather forecast with highs in the low 50s and potential for rain, I really struggled with what to pack!  In any case, Vince went to gather up his gear.  Krista and I watched Top Chef.  Soon after Mike arrived (not MikeFitz, obviously).  Blake was biking over from someplace not far away, but it was taking him a long time to arrive!  Since it was nice out, we sat out on the stoop as we waited.  He arrived around 7PM and after stowing his bike and packing up Mike’s car, we were off.

We arrived in New Paltz sometime near 10PM and checked into the hotel (which was described by Mike as something of a dive, but evidently he has not stayed at the Bridgeport Holiday Inn!) and headed over to the nearby College Diner for some dinner.  We found the Diner and vicinity to be buzzing with activity on account of a Sheriff’s van across the street with lights on, a small crowd of gawkers, and what appeared to be a person lying on the side of the road.  More emergency equipment was quickly arriving.  I later confirmed this in the news, but a man was hit by a car and killed in the 20-30 minutes between us passing that very intersection and returning from the hotel!  Yikes!

Great dinner of souvlaki and some lemon meringue pie.  We didn’t loaf around the Diner too long since it was getting on midnight and we had to meet our guides around 8:30 the next morning, so it was back to the hotel for some rest.

Saturday morning we awake to overcast, perhaps a little light rain, a little cool.  Not the best climbing weather but apparently good enough to go out and play.  We began a morning ritual which consists of picking up snacks and lunch at the deli across from the Diner prior to heading to the EMS Climbing School where we get breakfast at the hip little cafe next door.  It’s actually a strange little setup with the EMS “store” occupying a tiny little bag hung off the side of the cafe.  I wonder which came first?  I had a breakfast wrap consisting of eggs, sausage, cheese, avocado.  Avocado makes everything better.  I know it’s something of a hallmark of “California Cuisine,” but in a sort of eco-friendly-looking cafe I have some doubts about the sustainability of using avocados in everything.

Our guides were Bill and Jay.  They were classic outdoorsy guys.   Stubbly beards.  Tough looking and fit.  Easygoing attitudes.  After picking up whatever gear we needed that was provided with the rental (the rental includes pretty much everything but most of us have some or all of our own gear) and signing away our lives, we hopped in the car and our adventure had truly begun!

It was a short drive to the parking area and a short hike to our first climbing site.  A wall of climbs with names like “Flake” and “Boston.”  Vince and Mike had already taken a few guided trips here and were learning how to set up top rope anchors.  One of their goals for the trip was to cement their knowledge by setting up the anchors under the supervision of the guides to be sure they were doing it correctly.  Blake was going to stay on the ground with Bill for some basics on tying in and belaying.  Since I already knew these items, I figured it would be good to go up top and start learning how to set up anchors.  I followed Jay, Vince and Mike over to a rocky outcropping where they began climbing up without any sort of protection.  I gave it a try, but quickly determined that my running shoes, my fear of heights/falling and the wet slippery rock surfaces were just too risky.  Note to self - get some hiking/canyoning shoes.  I still might not have gone up, but it would have helped!

Back at “base camp,” Bill had pretty much given Blake a solid review and was preparing to lead climb up to the top to set up a top rope anchor for us on “Flake,” so-named because of a large stone flake at the top of a deep crevice in the rock face.  At this particular moment in time, the crevice behind the flake was also serving as a downspout for the rain and resembled a fairly persistent waterfall.  Bill had little trouble making it up and after a few minutes called down that we were clear to climb.  I decided to give it a shot.

Starting out was pretty easy, although I found myself out of practice, particularly in remembering to breathe.  The rain-soaked rock was VERY cold and numbed the fingers very quickly.  I began to ascend the outside of the crevice but ran out of good holds.  I called up to Bill for advice and he said he had tried the same thing to avoid getting wet but ended up going inside the crevice.  So that’s what I did.  The experience of climbing directly up a waterfall was really neat.  And also completely soaked me.  After trying a couple different things I realized that I was panic-breathing and could not feel my fingers and determined this was a good time to return to dry ground.  Blake tried next with similar results. The rest of the team was still at work on the anchors, so we each gave it another go without much luck.

Bill then took us up to the top via a different and less risky-seeming path to see how things were going up there and to give us a chance to rappel.  At the top, we found an amusing sight in the form of Mike standing ankle deep in a big cold puddle as Jay showed Mike how to use a prussik as a failsafe when rappelling.  Bill called me over to Flake, had me tie the belay rope to my harness and hook my ATC to the rappel rope.  I hadn’t rappelled in 10+ years.  When I did it in high school I remember taking a long time to convince myself to step backwards off the ledge and was concerned that I’d have the same problem.  Apparently my mind at least remembered that I felt safe once I had my weight fully transferred, and I actually had little trouble doing it again.  A short trip down (only 30 feet or so) and I was soon joined by the others.

We now had ropes set up at Flake, Boston, and another route in between with a big crack, which Vince and Mike both tried but could not even figure out how to start!  We turned our attention to Boston.  This was a climb that most of us should have been able to do, but the rain and cold really had a huge impact.  There is a crack towards the top that should be easy to wedge your body in and shimmy up. but it just wasn’t working.  As we worked on this climb, Jay disappeared to find some dry stone to use.  After conquering most of Boston, I realized that my toes were numb and put my socks and sneakers back on to warm up.  Of course for my next climb I’d have to put my soaked shoes back on, but at least I got temporary relief.

By the time we moved to the next site, it was after noon.  The rain had stopped but it was still cold, foggy and overcast.  We had a quick bite to eat and then walked back up the trail to find that Jay had set up a pretty impressive toprope anchor with 6 or 8 SLCDs and a bunch of webbing on top of this huge freestanding boulder with a pretty serious overhang.  He assured us that under normal climbing conditions “Benign Behemoth” was only like 5.5 or something and outfitted us with some beta on how to manage the climb.  We each took a turn with limited success until on his second attempt, Vince found the hold hidden deep in the crack that Jay told us about and was able to make it all the way to the top!  It was nice to finally have some success!

Not wanting to expend all of our time and energy on one climb (and wanting to get some more practice setting up toprope anchors), we left the anchor set up at Benign Behemoth so we could come back to it (there wasn’t exactly a line of people waiting on an unpleasant day) and went to set a couple others.  The hike to the anchor points involved more scrambling upon sketchy terrain.  I kept my climbing shoes on this time, which helped, but I was still very nervous making some of the moves, especially while trying to carry a rope with me at the same time.  But, we made it up and got to work setting up two more anchors.  Unfortunately I didn’t get to see the entire process because the main part of the anchor I helped with was set up down a steep incline that Jay and Mike rappelled down to.  There was so much gear tied up at Benign Behemoth that they almost ran out of supplies, but Jay said he had found a way to make it work.  This had Blake and I exchanging concerned glances :-)  The original plan was to rappel down to start climbing, but because of the anchor set up, it was going to be challenging, so we climbed down the same sketchy way we climbed up.

Back at the bottom, Vince was just finishing one of the climbs and had made short work of it.  I tied in and started climbing.  The rock was a little bit drier.  A little bit less cold.  It started to feel more like what I remembered climbing to feel like, although still not great.  I felt pretty solid until I got to one of the cruxes where I just wasn’t sure where to grab or step.  I was feeling more confident, though, so I tried some bolder moves even though they were not successful and sent me sliding down the rock face.  After the third or fourth fall, I looked at my hand and saw blood streaked down my finger.  I had a blood blister and skin flap on my left ring finger, and a cut on my middle finger as well!  Climbing is a rough sport, so I decided to give it one more shot, but my finger hurt and I think the blood had made the hold I was using slippery.  I decided to throw in the towel again.  It was getting late and this was my last climb of the day…I had been blanked on every climb.  Not that the other guys except Vince did all that much better, but it was frustrating to not complete any of the climbs we tried.  Before we left, Mike made numerous attempts on Benign Behemoth and almost made it.  I think maybe Blake did make it at some point, but things are a little fuzzy.

We gathered up the gear and headed back to the EMS Climbing School to drop everything off, then it was back to the hotel where we warmed up and cleaned up before heading into town for dinner.  Dinner was at Bacchus where they have a lengthy beer list and the sort of oddly-varied menu you would expect to find in a town like New Paltz (which, despite sounding like a classic backwater town, resembles New Hope, PA in many ways).  I had a tuna quesadilla which had big chunks of grilled tuna in it and was very good.

The next morning we repeated much the same ritual.  The weather was similar to Saturday, but the weather reports suggested that the rain was done for good and we might even see the sun at some point.  The day before, Vince had picked up a route guide and had spent quite a bit of time thumbing through it before going to bed, identifying routes that had relatively low difficulty levels but high ratings for being “fun.”  The first route was the Northern Pillar, which is said to be the first recorded route climbed in The Gunks.  The book described it as a multipitch climb but since a big part of the trip was for Vince and Mike to firm up their anchor skills for topropes, I figured we would probably find a walkup and set up a toprope from one of the belay ledges.

The hike to the base of the Northern Pillar was awful!  The guides said it involved 200 stairsteps.  I wasn’t counting, but it was a lot, and the stairs are rough-hewn and windy.  Vince and I both had to stop to rest a few times on that climb up.  By the time we got to the “base camp” at the foot of the Pillar, my heart was pounding so hard I was starting to worry that I was going to need medical attention!  I pulled off some of my layers and one of the guides announced that if we had pocketable food or a water bottle we could clip to our harnesses, we should bring these as we would not return to the base camp for 3 or 4 hours!  Holy crap!  They were actually going to take us all the way up the multipitch route!  Winded from the hike and short on confidence after the previous day’s climbing failures, the thought of spending the next 4 hours fighting with the rocks did not seem nearly as appealing as, say, spending the afternoon napping under a tree!  Along with this, I had never done a multipitch before and had no idea what would happen if I got halfway up and realized I was in way over my head!  Would I have to wait, clinging to a narrow belay ledge for the rest of the group to get to the top and then come back down for me?  I told Vince I was holding him responsible for whatever happened up there.

“When you get to the top of this thing,” he said, “you’re going to thank me.  It’s going to be great.”  Vince is an optimist.  That’s why we like him.  In order to keep things moving, we were going to ascend in two trios consisting of Vince and Mike with Bill leading and the other Blake and me with Jay leading.  Jay was taking a somewhat easier path up the first stage.  Jay tied Blake’s rope to my harness and I put him on belay and he went up the climb that was so easy for him, he had to remind himself to put in some protection devices so that we could practice using them!  Once he got to the top and set up an anchor point, it was my turn to start.  I began climbing.  The route was actually fairly easy and the surface was not cold and wet as it had been the day before, so my fingers did not go numb.  It felt more like “climbing.”  I also reminded myself to keep breathing.  Within a few minutes, I had made it to the ledge.  Jay hooked me to the anchor and then Blake started.

The belay ledge was fairly long but only about 3 feet wide.  Perhaps 40 feet off the ground, I had a view over the valley where the fog was slowly lifting away that one part of me wanted to enjoy and the other part of me wanted to shut out because it reminded me that I was now on this route for the long haul and if the height made me nervous now, it was only going to get worse!  Over the next few minutes as the rest of the group made it up to the ledge it became more crowded and more chaotic.  With Blake and I secured, Jay began the second stage since all of us would have to share some of the same route.  In addition to everything else, I now had to belay Jay while everyone on the ledge was climbing over me trying to get situated!  I did my best not to move around too much and keep an eye on Jay as he went. 

Jay made it to the next belay ledge entirely too quickly before my turn to climb came.  Getting started is always a hard part for me, and my fear of being stuck in the middle of the climb made it even harder.  After a couple tentative touches, I found a hold that seemed steady and I started to go up.  The second stage was a little bit harder than the first, but for the most part I again had little trouble.  When I got to what qualified as the belay ledge (a dubious looking rock formation that really just looked like a stack of big rocks in a corner behind a tree) and was clipped in, I was actually feeling a little better.  I was starting to realize that maybe yesterday’s debacles really were caused by the weather conditions and not so much that I just suck at climbing!  The fog was really starting to lift over the valley and Jay remarked that in the next few minutes we would probably be able to see the watchtower on the cliff called Skytop across the valley, and sure enough by the time Blake joined me on the ledge, we could see the whole thing and the view was quickly becoming breathtaking.  I was not nearly as worried now.  The third stage looked to be the hardest portion especially since part of it involved a corner that had rain water flowing down it, but it was fairly short, too.

Jay went up, took up my rope, and I set out.  Again I had a little trouble getting started, although now it was more honest uncertainty and less raw self-doubt.  Blake pointed out a couple of footholds and off I went.  Definitely a harder climb, but still nothing outrageous, I climbed fairly smoothly until I made a pretty tough move right near a piece of protection that Jay had set.  You see, as the middle climber it was my job when I passed a piece of protection to unclip my rope and clip Blake’s rope in.  But in my concentration on the challenging move I had made, I completely forgot to switch the ropes…that is until I got to the end of the rope and suddenly found something holding me back!  I now had to awkwardly reach down to switch the ropes.  This maneuver cost me a lot of energy, but I still managed to make it up to the top where I then had to crawl under a low overhang to get to Jay’s anchor on a fairly wide cliff. I was able to sit on a large boulder and watch the view while Blake made his way up.  I was very excited that I had finished the third stage and finally had some confidence back.  There was a brief scramble up another 10 feet or so and then we were at the top, some 200 feet above our base camp.  You could walk back a little ways and there was another big rock that you could climb to get a great view in all directions.  It was amazing.  Blake, Mike and I hung out up there for a few minutes for a snack before wandering back to where Vince and the guides were discussing our descent. 

The plan was a downclimb of the last descent followed by a single rappel down all 200′.  Jay declared this to be one of the most exciting rappel opportunities of The Gunks.  It’s a long descent from an overhang that leaves you dangling out in space for most of the ride.  By the time I got to the boulder, Vince was trying to get himself situated and Blake and Mike were having a chuckle at his expense as he fought back the fear that comes along with stepping backwards off the edge of a cliff high above the ground.  Your body fights you the whole way!  He made it down safely, though.  When he got near the ground, Bill commented to Jay that the safety rope was a *little* too short and switched to a longer one.  Probably a good thing Vince wasn’t around to hear that, although he was never in any real danger.  Mike went next and then came my turn.  I was REALLY nervous getting tied in, as you had to shimmy around the side of the boulder and stand on a narrow ledge while you tried to pull up the ropes to get them into your rappel device - twin 200′ ropes are HEAVY.  Once I got everything clipped in, though, I was able to channel my experience in high school of a similar rappel situation and had a surprisingly easy time getting my weight transferred.  The twin ropes and the high-friction side of my ATC-XP actually provided so much friction that I felt like I had to actually work the ropes through it as I went!  At the end of the lovely, if too short ride, we sat down for lunch.  “Was it awesome?” asked Vince.  “Yeah…you were totally right.”

After eating lunch, Blake took off for a jog.  Our guides went on lead and set up topropes at “Beginner’s Delight” and “Snooky’s Return.”  Mike started on the much harder latter route while Vince jumped on Beginner’s Delight.  There are two approaches to it, one up along a big crack and the other up on sort of a dihedral.  Vince took the more challenging crack route and in the upper section made a number of conscious choices to do the “harder” of his options and he made short work of all of them.  This was a pretty high toprope compared to what I had been doing at the gym, btw.  After Vince came down I was next.  I began working the crack route but got to a point that I had remembered Vince passing, but the handhold that he used was too high for me to reach.  I weighed a number of options but there weren’t any ways to hang down so that I could perhaps jump for it.  With some encouragement from Vince and Jay, I gave it a shot, but nothing doing.  Jay had me swing along the wall to the dihedral and I was able to make it up this.  There were a couple other points on the climb where I ran out of ideas and, not really being in the mood to fall a lot, announced that I wanted to come down only to have the people on the ground groan at my giving up too easily.  When they groaned I tried to make the move and was actually successful - I made it to the top of this climb!

Mike had spent a lot of time sketching on the much harder Snooky’s Return but had reached a problem that was continuing to elude him and tire him out.  We switched places and he began work on Beginner’s Delight (which he finished) while Vince started on the other.  This was a very fun climb to watch Vince work on.  Rated 5.8 it is probably numerically at the top end of climbs that he could complete at the time.  It took him a couple of goes to get past where Mike got stuck but then he just kept making these seemingly dicey moves and they just kept sticking!  When he got to the second crux, an overhang with a little cave under it, he managed to clamber into the cave and found himself lying belly-down in the crack with nowhere else to go!  But he managed to shimmy back into an upright position and found an undercling on the cave roof that sprung him over.  A few minutes later he had done the climb and was on his way back down.  It was a great job.

I tried it next.  I was not expecting to get as far as Vince had, but I found that a lot of my gym climbing muscle memory was finally starting to return and seemed applicable on a lot of the holds - in particular, finding a solid high foothold and then, ignoring the lack of a good handholds, standing straight up without losing my balance.  I made decent progress but eventually found a spot that I couldn’t seem to stretch my leg high enough to reach even though Vince had done it and pointed out that the motion of stepping the left leg up that high was pretty much a variation on the curling slide position!  I guess I need to start doing that stretch again!

Blake rejoined us and we packed up and headed home.  It was an awesome trip…great to climb “real” rocks for the first time in over 10 years, and in many ways another life-changing experience.  I also realized that climbing in the gym really doesn’t adequately prepare you for the challenges of outdoor climbing.  The holds aren’t obvious.  The feeling of danger is a lot greater.  It’s just totally different.  Hopefully I can get some practice in before the next trip!

I didn’t take a ton of pics since the weather on day 1 was bad and I didn’t think hauling my camera up 200 feet on day 2 was a good idea, but the pics I do have are in the Gallery (click the thumbnail).  Those of you who know Vince can also find pics on his Facebook page and Blake has posted his pics here.