Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Moments Between

I COULDN'T REMEMBER the last time I was this cold.  The wind was whipping in strong gusts, sneaking down the hood of my shirt and coiling itself around my chest.  Another strong gust and the wind lightly powdering my face with bits of icy snow.  My left hand was jammed into a crack, my feet were smeared on granite, and with my right hand, I was unsuccessfully trying to work a purple cam into a seam. The cold rock was sucking the warmth from one hand, while the alpine wind was vigorously at work numbing my other hand.   

All I wanted to do was pull both my hands away from the rock and under my armpits, into the crotch of my pants, anywhere warm, just for a moment.  I looked down at 350 feet of exposure; that would probably be a bad idea.  I pulled my attention back to the cam and numbly tried to place it with fingers that had the dexterity of toes.  Another strong gust, more snow on my face.  I dug my chin into my chest, shrugged my shoulders over my ears, and yelled at the wind “just give me a minute!”
"ADVENTURE TIIIIIIIME" DAN was saying to me as I picked him up after work on a Wednesday.  Dan has a kind rhythm to his speech and walk that exude an effortless cool.  His deep, gruff voice wouldn’t be out of place as a voice over for a surfer in an animated film. Dan is a fighter, literally.  I met Dan while learning Muy Thai and Jiu-Jitsu.  We trained together for years, but over time life and distance did to our relationship what it does to most relationships; we lost touch.  He went on to train for fights in Mexico, California, and NY.  A series of injuries took me out of the sport.  
Dan on the approach to the East Buttress

We reconnected through social media and discovered our mutual passion for the mountains.  One day over a bowl of noodles Dan casually mentioned wanting to climb Mt Whitney via the East Buttress.  Did I want in? 

I didn't know much about the mountain, or even what the route involved, so obviously I said yes.  Then I leaned on years of sports-related experience to get ready for Whitney: train hard and understand the task at hand.   I climbed multiple times a week, built cardiovascular endurance, shed just a few pounds to pull harder, and studied route beta.  Four months and a cross-country flight later, I was picking Dan up from work to head to Lone Pine.  
Hell yeah, adventure time.

GETTING INTO THE Eastern Sierra from San Diego means traveling on 395.  Once you're on that road, you start seeing signs for "Lone Pine," "Bishop," and "Lee Vining."   I've spent so much time in the Sierra, simply seeing the names of these towns bring back memories of skiing waist deep powder and gingerly traversing alpine ice, unroped, 500 ft above a glacier.  Whenever I see these names, reality and the shell it forces me to create around myself melt away.  The names of these humble little mountain towns inspire the humanity in me.  They provide a cathartic release from the sometimes crushing weight of civilization, the weight that often turn out to just be balloons inflated with weightless air.  
I love the Sierra.  As Dan and I were driving on 395 N, the sun was setting to our west, splashing the horizon and mountains with orangish-red, as if a painter was painting the landscape, tripped, and accidentally splashed a coat of orange on the canvas.  There was so much possibility in front of us.  Would everything go according to plan?  Would we epic?    
A friend of mine once told me that our lives today are designed for us specifically.  Cruise the internet, you see advertisements for things you like.  Turn on the TV, just watch the shows you like.  Sit down at the office, the furniture is designed for perfect ergonomic posture and work efficiency.  I think we all understand this in an intrinsic way, and it bores us.  
The mountains, on the other hand, they aren't there to be bought or manufactured.  They can't be anything other than what they already are.  Nor can we mold them to be a reflection of the life we want.  Instead, the mountains serve as a canvas for our honest self-expression.  A ballet dancer can only paint the stage with dance and energy because that's what a ballet dancer does.  So too can we only be who we truly are in the mountains; anything else is impossible.  
The sun had set now, turning the mountains into one-dimensional silhouettes around us.  I thought about this.  Perhaps this idea is what I was driving towards.  Or perhaps this was pulling me towards the mountains.  Or perhaps it's much simpler than all that; the mountains are just an awesome place to be.
"YO SAIF, I feel like Shit"
It was one in the morning and the cold mountain air pressed itself on my face.  Dan and I were squeezed head to toe in a tent on Iceberg Lake, base camp for most parties attempting routes on Mt Whitney and Mt Russell.  

"What's up Dan?" I responded.  
"This headache.  It's really bad.  I think it's this elevation."
"You think you need to head down?  Do we need to go down to lower boy scout lake "  
"I don't know man, maybe."
"On a scale of one to ten, how much does your head hurt?"

My heart sank.  I wanted so badly to summit Whitney.  Months of preparation and hard work defeated by altitude sickness.  This sucks, I thought to myself.  And how would I explain this to my climbing buddies when I got back home, they wouldn't let me hear the end of it.  "Elevation getting to you?" they'd say to me as I whipped on a project at the gym.  I sighed to myself.  Altitude sickness sounds like an excuse until all of a sudden it isn't.  I remember being brought to my knees by it the first time I was at elevation.  I knew what Dan was going through and how real it was.
Saif looking at Mt Whitney's summit 

I dug out my bottle of Advil.  

"Take one, you'll feel better in the morning.  It happens, some sleep and water and it will wear off."  I wasn't sure if I was trying to convince Dan or myself.  

Like a nurse eyeing a patient, I watched Dan dutifully swallow the ibuprofen with a quick chug of water.  Then I laid back down.  I wanted so badly for Dan to be OK.  Please, I thought to myself, let Dan be OK in the morning.  

"HURRY UP DAN, we need to move bro.  We need to get to the summit and down before it gets dark."
"I know man, I know, you don't need to keep telling me" Dan yelled up to me as I belayed him.

Dan's not your little brother Saif, stop treating him like your little brother I told myself.  I was getting anxious.  We weren't making the kind of progress I had hoped for.  The route had stopped being fun and turned into a race to beat the sun and the even colder alpine air it was holding back.  Standing there, belaying Dan, there was nothing I could do but barrage him with my anxiety.  

"We gotta go, Dan, just keep pushing yourself."
Dan just looked up and stared blankly at me.  Eh, I couldn't help myself.

Meeting me at the top of the belay, Dan leaned against the rock.  "Dude, do you have another Ibuprofen?  This headache is killing me."  

I slapped one into his palm and he swallowed it with a chug of water.  As he took the gear off my harness and racked them on his sling to take the next lead, I looked up at the sky.  The Buttress faces east and had lost all sun; the air was cold, the rock was cold, and we were cold.  Working quickly, we both put on all our layers, and I put on my gloves.  The next pitch was the hardest on the standard route.  It consisted of a hand crack followed by a flake.  I took another look at Dan, he was hurting.  "I feel drunk," he said.

Dan's eyes showed fatigue.  He was swaying slightly and had been bent over with cramps in his forearms, screaming in aggravation at the pain.  

Dan excels at climbing hand cracks.  I'm not sure I could even follow some of the cracks he could lead.  So when I saw Dan approach the hand crack very cautiously, I knew he was in a mental and physical battle with the mountain.  

He jammed his left foot and got into the crack, then placed a piece of gear.  Watching Dan take the lead, it curred to me there was nothing I could do for him, this was a battle he would have to fight on his own.  As I saw Dan work up and left through the crack, ginger movement by ginger movement, I wasn't just watching my friend climb, I was witnessing Dan push through the oppressive conditions the mountain placed on him.  He would move, then stop.  Shake out the cramps in his arms, let out a low aggravated rumble, plug a piece, then continue moving, continue suffering.  Following Dan up the pitch, I noticed how artfully he had placed his protection.  He had been able to see through the fog of his overwhelming pain and discomfort to still climb artfully.  

It occurred to me that the mountain doesn't care if you're rich, if you went to the best schools, who you know, what grade you climb, or even where in the world you've climbed.  What the mountain respects, even requires, is character.  Someone with a strong will and positive attitude in the face of challenging and intimidating circumstances to literally rise to the occasion.  That's what it means to be an alpinist I thought to myself.  What Dan did up there, at 14-thousand-something feet... it was inspiring.  

Iceberg Lake base camp

Meeting Dan at the next belay, I could see the the pitch had taken a toll on him.  Mentally and physically he was drained.

"I'm not tryin' to be a little bitch.  I don't want you to think I can't.  I'm trying..."

Dan wasn't completely coherent, but I just placed my hand on his shoulder.  Dan is relatively new to alpine routes.  Climbing for only two and a half years, this was only his second time at elevation.  So much of alpinism is about time in the mountains and experience.  Dan was getting a very valuable lesson now, and I'm sure he'd remember it.

"I got you, man. It's just one more pitch then we'll cruise to the summit.  I'll take them."

THE LAST FEW pitches were supposedly 4th class moves.  Staring at me instead was a 30-foot section of what looked like 5.9 hand crack.  I didn't know if this section would take me to the summit, or if there was yet more climbing after.  I would later learn that the finish was just around a blind corner from the crack, but in that moment all I saw was an intimidating finish.  I felt my nerves wither high in my chest; I don't lead 5.9.  Not wanting to be completely overtaken by fear, I shook out my shoulders and arms, pulled off my gloves, and shoved my left foot ankle-deep into the crack.  I stood up and lay back with my right hand.  Next, I placed my right foot above my left and turned it down to get some friction.  I stood up and reached high with my left hand to what looked like a solid hand jam.  What I found instead was an awkward jam that was slick.  I tried making a fist, I tried keeping my hands straight and shoving my thumb into my palm, I tried a layback.  Nothing felt good.  I looked down at a potential ground fall, "this isn't good" I thought to myself.

In desperation, I went to reach for my yellow cam, but I had worked myself into an awkward position.  My left hip, which had all my hand sizes, was pressed firmly against the rock.  Panic was beginning to set in as I tried to finger the cams with my right hand and blindly identify the yellow.  I tugged at one, wrong size.  I pulled at another, it was pinned between my hip and the rock.  I felt my hand jam slip a little.  My forearms were starting to cramp.  The awkward position was putting a strain on my hip.  Oh god, please don't let me fall, I thought to myself, please don't let me fall.  Please don't let me fall.  I reached up with my hand to resettle my grip.  I tried to move my feet and instead felt my body slip.  The more I tried to move, the more awkward my position in the crack became.  

Once at a seminar, the famous ice climber Will Gadd had said to consider climbing like the health meter on a video game character.  Once that health meter starts to drop, you need to think about alternatives or you're in trouble.  I knew I was in trouble.  I bounced my hip off the face of the rock to catch a glimpse of the yellow cam;  I did it again and this time in one fluid motion I pushed back the gate of the carabiner and pulled up the cam from my harness.  As the energy in my left arm was expiring,  I plugged the cam, slipped the rope through the carabiner, and moved my right hand up to settle myself.  Mentally and physically fatigued, I made a few more moves, plugged another piece, and was at the top.

Dan on the East Buttress
In life, rarely do moments in time matter as much as they do on a spicy lead.  Rarely in life does something have your attention, demand your attention, the way climbing does.

I looked up; I was now in front of the summit plateau.  Four months of training, weekends away from my forgiving wife, training through an injured knee and finishing with my first 5.9 lead at over 14000 feet.  I let out a whoop and a howl.  In that moment, I was the supreme master of my destiny.  Everything, all the anxiety, the worry, the fatigue, it disappeared.  I whooped at the valley below.  As if to acknowledge my cry and congratulate me, it echoed back to me.  Again I howled, louder, incoherently.  Everything I felt for the past few hours, past few months, came spilling out in an orgy of emotions.  I couldn't tell if I was crying or laughing.  Again the mountains and valley acknowledged my summit with an echoing howl.  The louder I screamed, the louder the valleys responded.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a hiker approach me, was I crazy?  I didn't care.  In that moment, everything I had wanted, everything I had worked for, everything I had suffered for, came into focus and the world made sense.  My chest felt light, again I let out another long incoherent whoop.  When people tell you to live in the moment, this, I realized, is what they meant.  Wild with excitement I inhaled for another whoop.  

Then I heard Dan yell up "hey, it's getting cold down here... can you bring me up?"

SOON DAN WOULD meet me at the summit.  We'd high five, hug, and congratulate each other.  Then we'd have trouble getting down the Mountaineer's route, and have to go down Whitney via the hiker's trail.  That would involve appealing to some Germans for a little water and food, hiking 11 miles with the coherence of a zombie, a throat so parched from a lack of water I gagged when I would swallow, and the two of us squeezing into a bivvy for a cold 30 min nap on the side of the trail.  

But all that pain that awaited us, that was all in the future.   Dan cruised through the hand crack and was meeting me now, just beneath the summit; we both finally relaxed.  

"That's the hardest thing I've done in my life," Dan said.

I smiled in agreement.  For a moment we were both staring silently into the distance.  I was so proud of myself.  I was so proud of Dan.  In that moment it occurred to me that the route we sent wasn't extremely difficult; we live in an age where athletes are sending 5.14 regularly.  I questioned if what I had done really mattered or warranted pride.  But it was a fleeting thought.  Instantly it was replaced with the euphoria I had a moment ago and pride in what we had done.  I decided that was the emotion I wanted to hold onto, not self-doubt.  A few weeks later, I would read a passage from the now late Hayden Kennedy's father, Michael Kennedy: "Don’t think about how your life or climbs will look to anyone else. Make choices based on your values, your analysis, your intuition and your dreams.”  Dan had a dream to summit Whitney.  His became mine.  And now on the summit, we had done it.  

Monday, August 6, 2012

Squamish BC - Trip Report from Diedre, Boomstick Crack, and Sunshine Chimney

Talk to climbers in Squamish and ask them to recommend a fun route; over and over, the response will be the same: “Diedre.”  I had heard about Diedre so much, it was like she was everybody’s favorite prostitute.

“Yeah, Diedre is a good time, but gets really busy with parties.” 
“Diedre is a lot of fun, great for beginners.  You should bring lots of protection for practice.”
"You should totally do Diedre."

OK, so I guess I was going to have a date with Diedre too.

You remember that time when you were picking on your little sister in front of your friends, and then she violently pushed you back?  In your mind you’re thinking, “whoa, where’d that come from?"  And “if she kicks my ass, everyone will laugh at me.”  That’s how I felt climbing the first pitch of Diedre. 

Look closely and you'll see people smeared all over the route
The first pitch was supposed to be an easy 5.7 slab climb, I was supposed to just cruise up and own the pitch.  But after climbing almost 20m without a single opportunity to place gear, I was thinking, 'whoa, this is serious."  It was like… well it was like my little sister pushed me back and was about to kick my ass.  If I fell, it would be painful, and I’m almost certain people would laugh.

After slowly, gingerly making my way a few more feet, I finally slung a tree.  I then looked down and saw 3 guys walk up to the bottom of the pitch, nonchalantly throw on their climbing shoes (without actually tying their laces) and walk halfway up the first pitch before traversing right, out of sight. 

OK, what the hell guys… was that really necessary… just then?

A few meters later and I was at the top of the pitch, sharing bolts with another party. 

2nd pitch of Diedre
Before we had started the climb, getting roped up and slinging gear, a party hiked in behind us.  “Hey, what are you guys doing here” they had asked.
“Same thing you are, Diedre” I responded.
“OK, we’ll get in line” came the curt reply.

It’s a funny thing about climbers.  We love to share knowledge and recommend climbs.  We love to find the classics so we can check them off our list.  But when we arrive at the route, we’re surprised and always slightly offended to find somebody else already there.  Go figure.

The whole rest of the climb was the same story.  Parties were strung out like beads on a string.  It was as if someone announced that Reel Rock Tour would be having a showing at the top of Diedre and everyone wanted to be there first.  The lines of people were longer than a verse by Tupac.  At times I would start a pitch with legs numbed from hanging in the belay so long.

I was so frustrated with the delays I (accidentally) lead the last two pitches as one, subsequently running out of gear the last 20m, freaking myself out at the crux, and forcing Joryce to impromptu simul-climb behind me.  Note to self: don’t do that again.

From the top of Diedre we continued up Boomstick crack, a hallowed diagonally running crack that looks about ready to peel off off and tumble down the mountain at any moment.

Finding still more crowds, we decided to admit defeat and make way to camp.  On the way down, Joryce suggested taking a peak at Campground Wall, a section of short, 1-2 pitch climbs.  There we found Sunshine Chimney. The route followed an off-width, and then literally into the rock and came out the other end.

Joryce lead it, and the whole time he was laughing like a baby playing with a rattle.  “Oh man, this is fun” and “wow, wait till you see this move” he kept repeating over and over again.  His laughter was contagious, and at the belay I couldn’t help but smile.  I soon followed, and understood why he was having such a blast.

Exiting from the bowels of the chimney
It was the kind of fun you have in the summer as a kid, running through the sprinklers in your underwear or catching tadpoles in the creek.  And in the depths of the rock, I felt like a big kid, getting dirty inside Sunshine Chimeny.  Stemming with my body, jamming my arms deep into dark cracks, and spitting out the dust that would inevitably cover me after every move.

At the top of the climb, I slapped Joryce on the back.  “Good call man, I’m glad we did that.”
“Yeah, that was fun!” Came his reply.

While Joryce had a snack, I laid back, hands under my head and looked into the distance.  It was late in the day, and the sky was beginning to take on a blue-orange hue.  The water shimmered lazily and the mountains rolled in the distance. 

The day had started with aspirations of linking several climbs in a big multi-pitch day, but ended climbing at a humble crag; and that’s ok.  I was reminded that, for me, climbing isn’t about simply getting pitches under my belt.  It’s about the relationships I build and the simple joy of rediscovering the 5-year-old kid in me who still loves getting dirty.  The masses had Diedre that day, but Sunshine Chimney was all mine.  

Squamish as seen from Sunshine Chimney

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Olympics - Off topic but I don't care, it's my blog

Many of us are drawn to the Olympics because of the real life drama that plays out as we watch; the Fab Five winning gold while the Russians crumbled under pressure, The French comeback victory over the Americans at the 4x100 relay.  We cheer for America, celebrating every gold medal win.  When expectations fall short, we sulk a little, slightly envious of the competitors place on the podium.  After all, why should we cheer for the opposition, right?

However, a different kind of competition is being played out at the ExCel Exhibition Centre, where weight lifters compete for their share of Olympic medals.  One by one, competitors walk through a tunnel, climb a few stairs onto the stage, and attempt their lift.  Throughout each lift, there is one consistent theme: everyone cheers for everyone.  At first, it’s kind of odd.  A largely English crowd gave Lin Qungfeng of China a standing ovation for his gold medal lift.  After Bakhram Mendibaev of Uzbekistan failed to lift 135kg on his first two attempts, the crowd gave such a welcome on his third attempt you would think he was representing the UK.  And when Sibel Simsek of Turkey failed to lift 133kg, a ring of disappointment swept through the crowd. 

After you watch a few lifts, you begin to understand why things are different here. When a competitors walks out, you see broad shoulders and melon shaped thighs indicative of hard work and hundreds of hours of preparation.  You are taken through a mental ritual with them.  Parting words with their coaches, a breath to release nervous energy, chalking up their hands, greeting the crowd, and then the intense focus that seems to overcome them in an instant.  They meditate over the bar for a moment, inhale a breath, and attempt the lift.  It’s an intensely personal moment, alone on the stage publicly displaying their successes and failures, and a relationship between the athletes and the spectators starts to emerge.  You see them as something more than just a representation of a country. A personality emerges; you see their joy, you see their disappointment.  You see how they respond to adversity, and in every athlete you see the most human of emotions, hope.   In their moment, you want every athlete to succeed.  You want every competitor to lift their target weight.  And when they do, you want to celebrate with them.  But if they fail, you want to applaud the attempt.

And maybe, that’s what the Olympics should be about.  It’s nothing short of a miracle, that despite all the political turmoil our little planet experiences, we can manage to gather over 200 countries in one city and peacefully watch their athletes compete.  Why then, should we not see beyond the simple boundaries of nationhood?  After all, the Olympics aren’t meant to celebrate the successes of a single star country, but rather the limitless boundaries of human potential.   

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Squamish BC - Climbing Calculus Crack; A Trip Report (Kinda)

There are days when weeks of hard work come together in an effortless symphony.  When the motto “with hard work, nothing is impossible” rings true.  And you feel like you are, in the words of Leonardo DiCaprio, the “king of the world.”

This wasn’t one of those days.  I was floundering up the 4th pitch of Calculus Crack.  Two pitches below another climber had warned me that 5.8 leaders have a hard time with the finger crack on the 4th pitch.

You don’t say?

My hands were like a fish flopping around out of water as I slapped at the crack, the rock, anything to make some progress.  I slipped the rope through a draw, TAKE!

Oh yeah, I was on lead too.

Christina was patiently giving me a belay, smiling the way she always does, as if to say: don’t worry about it Saif, I got nowhere else to be. Sameer and Joryce (a Frenchman we had met at the climber’s campground) were climbing ahead of us.

I looked down, I had barely gone a few feet and my arms were already pumped… this was going to be painful.  So I did what any climber in my position would do.

“Christina, you’re a better climber than me, you want to just lead this one real quick?”
“There are two parties behind us, that will take too long.  You can do it” Christina responded as she sat onto the anchor.


So I leaned back into the crack.  I jammed my right toe straight down into a constriction, smeared my left foot, and reached up with my right hand and pulled sideways on the crack.  Yes, it was as awkward as it sounds. 

Extend my leg, index and middle finger in a deep finger pocket, left foot jammed sideways into the crack, cam it by flattening the foot, right foot out for balance, right hand on a sloper, stand up. 

I grunted and cursed my way up the finger crack in glorious agony, inspecting each placement before I clipped a draw.  The end of the crack mellowed out to a near horizontal plane where I could stand up, flex my fingers, and curse Squamish.

Squamish, as seen from the Smoke Bluffs (top of Penny Lane)
At home, my desktop image is an aerial photograph of Squamish, BC.  It features a massive, 2000+ foot monolithic structure simply called "The Chief."  It dominates the landscape like Godzilla about to devour Tokyo.  There are climbs all over The Chief with routes dating back to the 60s.  When I first saw the picture, I knew one day I would climb there.

Two years, one flight, a call to Christina and Sameer each, and I was finally in Squamish.  However, the first two days there, we were forced to stare up at the rock as rain poured down all over our juicy granite, turning it into slick slime.

So when the rain finally stopped, and the sun dried out the rock, there was only one place to be.

Sameer on the first pitch of Calculus Crack
By now I was out of Christina’s sight.  The route followed left off the face of the chief and into the shade.  From so high up, the exposure made it seem as if we were climbing an arĂȘte.  The crack had opened up and allowed for consistent hand jams.  I was swimming.  My arms wind-milled up as I karate chopped into the crack and shoved my thumb into my palm; every hand placement was a belay.  On and on it went, and I was at peace.  For once I was able to take my mind off the intensity of the climb and just observe the exposure. 

The breeze had picked up slightly as it kissed the rock and howled down into the valley.  The granite cooled my sweating arms as I placed them into the crack.  I could see the top of an endless sea of moving green trees as they leaned left and right.  

But the magic of the moment didn’t last long.  I moved a few more steps and realized the hand jams disappeared and the climbing suddenly intensified.  A moment later I found myself lying back on a flake, using opposing forces to smear my feet into the rock while I pulled back on my hands.  I looked right and suddenly my heart was pumping pure adrenalin; I had run out the last 30 feet without a single placement.  A fall now would be disastrous.  

I quickly drew a pink tricam off my gear sling and shoved it into the flake.  Whip on a draw, clip the rope, breathe. 

For the moment I was ok, but I knew that somehow I had made a wrong move and that I should be climbing above the flake, not laying back on it.  I kept following the flake up and left and then found myself on high angle featureless rock.  It made a gradual slope, but there was nowhere for me to place gear, and I realized I was going to have to climb far above my last piece again. 

Christina cleaning the 4th pitch
So I moved slowly, methodically, balancing every step and testing every hold to make sure I was solid before I moved on.  Inside of me I could feel an overwhelming sense of panic and fear.  Around me, the exposure was suddenly scary.  I dared not look down at my last piece; my fear of heights would almost certainly paralyze me.  I shut down my peripheral vision, quieted the fearful voices in my head, and started talking to myself.

“Stay focused.” 
“One move after another, you got this.”
“You’re ok, just listen to your hands and feet.”

Push my left toe onto a small ramping feature.  Bend my knee overtop of my ankle.  Crimp with my right hand.  Gradually bring my weight on my left foot.  Reach up with my left hand.  Find a small ledge.  Push back on a vertical feature with my right heel.  Lift myself up.  Match my left foot with my left hand.  Hip into the rock.  Slowly, gradually, stand up.  Breathe a desperate sigh.  I was way out of my comfort zone.

And then, I found the most perfect hold.  It was as if God, while he was shaping the universe, designed a feature in the rock to fit my fist in the most perfect union of anatomical design and rock creation.  That piece of the rock rose out of the ground, from the depths of the earth’s core, just for me.

I slipped my hand into the crack, made a fist, and leaned back on my arms.  It was a beautiful moment; butterflies and bright yellow Jesus light could have burst from the seam. A sense of relief washed over me; I laughed off the tension, feeling it melt away from my body.  The panic and anxiety I had known were already a distant memory.

A few minutes later I was at the top of the pitch.  Sameer and Joryce had moved on.  For a moment I was by myself, a hanging belay on an isolated, exposed section overlooking an expanse of wilderness from hundreds of feet.  Above me the route climbed a flake before settling back into a hand crack; the route would give us one more pitch of slab after that before finally coming to an end.  I pulled up the remainder of the rope, and put Christina on belay. 

As she cleaned the route and I pulled up the slack, the rope made a whizzing sound slipping through the ATC, the carabiners clicked against each other as the friction caught.  Whizz, click; whizz, click; whizz click.  I could have been listening to Mozart, or Bach.  There’s something special about that peaceful moment between leads, when you’re by yourself, secured by an anchor you built, where you can let the noise of a lead just settle, and enjoy the silence.

From the top of Calculus Crack.  Left to right: Saif, Joryce, Sameer, Christina

Related links: 
Calculus Crack Beta
Diedre Trip Report

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Climbing Linville Gorge, NC

A view of Linville

Watching John lead the first pitch of The Prow was like watching Rocky run up the stairs of the Philadelphia Art Museum.  He was cruising up with so much momentum, climbing rock as if they were merely stairs, that Ben seemed to have trouble letting out enough rope at the belay. 

 “Make sure you’re ready, watch the slack on the rope” Ben said to me.
“I got it man, I’m watching it.  I’m tied in and everything.”
“OK, lets go.”

The Prow follows the formation to the right
 The smooth clicking sound of the carabiner indicated that John was now off belay, and we would start simul climbing.  With the sun quickly dipping behind the mountains, we decided it would be faster to skip the first anchor point, hopefully taking one pitch out of the climb.  John would just climb to the next pitch, and Ben and I would try to keep up.  That essentially meant we were speed climbing. 

If you’ve never speed-climbed trad before, the experience is similar to running away from an angry dog.  You know you have to move fast, you don’t always know your next move (other than to know you have to make another move), and you hope you don’t run yourself into a dead end.  Oh, and if you fall, the results won’t be pretty.

Once we were at the top of the pitch, I looked out over my left shoulder.  The sun had set behind the mountains, leaving the horizon smeared with blue and purple pastels.  With two pitches still left to go, it didn’t look like we’d be able to finish the climb before dark.  So we put on our headlamps and prepared for the next pitch.

In front of us was a giant boulder protruding out from the rock face.  It looked like the prow of a ship, and apparently the inspiration for the namesake of the climb.  The climb went up about 15 feet, and then traversed left around the back of the prow.

John went first, a halo of light reflecting off the rock from his headlamp as he searched for holds and traversed around the prow.  With the last bit of light almost gone, I realized that my first experience climbing in the dark would be several hundred feet above solid grand, perched precariously on The Prow.

This thought didn’t immediately please me.  I was tired.  I had run out of water several hours ago, and my mouth was dry, aching for a refreshing drink.  My pants were wet from wading through a creek after we found ourselves lost in the gorge.  Sharp thorns had cut across our skin as if someone had been throwing X-Acto knives at us.  It had been a long day.

Why couldn’t I have been into interior decorating instead? 

So when my turn finally came, I grudgingly walked up to the start. Climbing with a headlamp is very different than climbing in natural lighting.  All the holds appear 2-dimensional, and the act of feeling the rock becomes much more critical to finding the holds.  Sequencing moves, especially around a traverse, is almost impossible.  

“I’m just going to take my time on this traverse here” I shouted down to Ben.
“Take your time man, I’m not going anywhere,” he laughed back.

Preparing for the last pitch of the Prow
As I traversed around the prow to the other side of the climb, I looked down.  The sun had completely set and the darkness seemed to suck the light out of my headlamp.  Several hundred feet below me I could see nothing, but I could hear the rush hour traffic that was the river roaring through the gorge.  I looked up at the canopy of stars that had recently appeared.  Across me I could clearly make out Orion, proudly holding his sword.  The wind was blowing across the rock in calm, refreshing gusts.  I looked to my left for Ben, I looked up for John, I could make out neither of them.  I closed my eyes.

“There’s no where else I’d rather be right now” I thought to myself.

I continued to climb up and met John.  Ben followed shortly thereafter.  I turned off my headlamp and watched John’s fingers nimbly work through the quickdraws, organizing them on his harness under the beam of his headlamp.   Ben’s hands were a blur, quickly flaking the rope, preparing for the last pitch. The shadows they cast seemed to stretch and bend, playing a feisty game of tag with the rock. 

I looked up across the gorge at the blackened silhouette of the mountains across from me and smiled.  This is way cooler than interior decorating.

John leading at dusk