Monday, April 20, 2015

Gorgeous Rocks, Gorgeous WAGs

I officially kicked off Rock Season 2015 with a trip to Gorgeous Rocks at the Lehigh Gorge with my partners Kyle and John.  We also brought along our wives and girlfriends to climb, hang out, and hike out to scenic Glen Onoko Falls.  I’ve been itching to check out Gorgeous Rocks ever since I came I saw in the Holzman Eastern PA Guidebook.  It’s a small area so it’s not a destination crag, but the rock quality is good and the routes were definitely full of challenging movements.

We started with Variety Crack (5.6) and then Kyle lead Blap (5.9) with the crux move being a dyno to a small rock nub just above the 1st bolt.  I took advantage of the bolted anchor up top to take some photographs of this as well as John leading Separate Reality (5.10a), a short but lean face climbing route.
 
John and Kyle

Me, perched up top to get some great photos.

John, Sepearte Reality 5.10a

Kyle, going for the dyno.

Kyle, sticking a dyno.

Kyle, on the lean top moves of Blap, 5.9.
 

Shortly after, we moved further down the cliff to Gorgeous Crack (5.10a).  The start of this route is super challenging.  It begins with a difficult 3-4 move boulder sequence to a decent rest stance and then the crux of the climb – coming out of a small cave to a splitter crack overhang to weak sloping holds.  Kyle attempted this on lead, but got hung up at the slopers.  Alison (John’s girlfriend) and I tried this route too, at the same spot as Kyle.  John was able to flash the route on lead and later, Kyle made it on top-rope.  Definitely an amazing, and challenging route that I’d like to try again.  Once past the crux, the climbing is much easier, continuing another 50 or so feet to a bolted anchor. Definitely a classic.
 
Alison, giving the crux moves on Gorgeous Crack a go.

Kyle, sending Gorgeous Crack on top-rope.
 
Not long after, my wife and Kyle’s returned from hiking to the falls and we decided to wrap it up and get some post climb food and beers.  We visited Red Castle Brewery off of PA 209 and had an awesome meal…schnitzel sandwiches, brats, loaded fries and homemade micro brews.  Excellent way to cap off an awesome day of climbing.  

My favorite, gorgeous partner.

Kyle, John, and Michael


Friday, March 20, 2015

Bittersweet Transitions

Spring is arriving today but so is an estimated 4 inches of snow.  Despite April being a little more than a week away, there still remains some climbable ice in my region.  The ravines in the Catskills still have some ice, and surely further north there’s enough to swing into.  I even got a text this morning, asking if I could get in just one more day this weekend.  Unfortunately, I can’t.  I’ve got too much going on at home, trying to stage my house for selling and looking at potential new homes with our realtor.  Grown-up stuff.  Hey, it happens to even the best of us.

A little over two weeks ago I decided that at some point, despite winter being so generous, that I have to hang up my spurs.  I can only use so many sick/vacation days from work.  I can only get away with leaving my wife with the kids so many weekends.  I wasn’t growing tired of climbing, but the exhaustion of a climbing day…the early starts, the long drives, and the cold starts to wear on me.

I wanted to finish strong.  So I asked August, my strongest partner, if was interested in swapping leads at The Narrows.  Conditions were super-fat and I knew I could handle being point man on all the lower pitches and defer to him the harder headwall pitches.

We started on The Main Gully, and I lead three pitches then went not harder than WI2+ up to the headwall where August took over.  The left-side of the Main Wall has a pretty long, pretty hard WI3+ route that August tackled with ease.  From there, we rappelled down and he gave the right side a go, again on WI3/3+. 

Start of Main Gully (my lead)
 

2nd Pitch of Main Gully (my lead)
Cruising up the last few tiers of Main Gully before the headwall pitches.
 
Main Gully Headwall Left (August's lead)


 
Following Main Gully Headwall Left
 
Right Side of Main Gully Headwall


August, rapping off.

Michael!


Next, we headed over to the Dead Deer Gully, which ironically, had a dead deer at near the bottom.  Again, I took lead on the lower pitch which was a little harder, WI3.  The next pitch was more of an ice scramble, but the two of us remained tied-in with the leader on belay.  When we reached the headwall, again August lead and styled impressively on a WI3 route.  I told him several times that day that his climbing and leading ability is outstanding.  I’m very thankful to have such a solid partner to climb with.

 
Start of Dead Deer Gully




Here's a short POV video of my leading the previously photographed section
1st Pitch of Dead Deer Gully, W12+/3



Icy Scrambling before Dead Deer Gully Headwall

Center Headwall Pitch of Dead Deer Gully


Right now, all of my rock and ice gear is stuffed in plastic storage bins, in a huge pile of bins, boxes, and stuff, being kept underneath a tarp in my garage which is currently under construction.  I’m used to seeing it all on the walls, hanging from pegboards.  I’m in the middle of a series of transitions…ice to rock, winter to spring, as well as preparing to leave one home for another.  The snow that’s forecasted to fall later today will surely be gone by the time this weekend rolls around, since temperatures will shoot into the low 50s.  Most people are frustrated with winter, and just want spring to finally begin.  I experienced my best climbing season ever on account of the winter being so cold, snowy, and icy.  For me, as always, it’s a little bittersweet.     


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Love and Ice

My wife and I celebrated Valentine’s Day this year a week later than everyone else with a romantic getaway that included a concert in NYC, a day sampling wine and spirits in the Hudson Valley, and of course, a day of ice climbing in The Catskills.  This was my wife’s fourth time climbing ice in four years (her first time in two years) and I wanted to make sure she was comfortable so I hired a guide and planned our day around shorter routes we could reach with relatively easy hiking.  I also took advantage of the opportunity to climb somewhere new; The Lower Tier of the Dark Side (I’ve climbed the Upper Tier several times) and Platekill Falls. 

Temperatures that morning weren’t awful, but it wasn’t going to be a warm day by any stretch of the word.  The Dark Side is also dark, so we wouldn’t be getting any sunlight to warm us.  Luckily it wasn’t windy and I brought along extra layers and gloves for her.  She was an absolute trooper.  I know she was cold, but she didn’t complain.

We started with a short, but steep warm-up route (The Escalator, WI2+/3) and it seemed like she was going to do ok.  However when we got on an easier, low angle route, (Frozen Apples, WI2/3), she seemed to struggle.  I was worried she would become frustrated with the climbing but it turns out that she actually climbs better on steeper and more difficult terrain.  We switched over to Gold Leader, WI3+/4, and it seemed like the challenging ice actually forces her to climb better. 
 
Wifey, starting up The Escalator.
Me, on The Escalator
Wifey, with Alpine Endeavors Guide Alan Kline.

Frozen Apples.

Stylin' on Gold Leader!

Me, attempting a varation of Gold Leader that I was considering leading but felt the ice conditions weren't optimal. I'm cool with taking a pass. 
 
We decided to finish up the day by climbing out via Platekill Falls, WI3+.  The waterfall is minutes from where we parked and it would be a great way to end the day.  The waterfall was big and loud, but there was a wide groove variation that looked well within her abilities (WI3).  I took a lap up the waterfall (carrying up her pack for her) and then lowered off to pick up my backpack and climb up a steep section at the fall’s left margin which was a challenging WI4.
 
Happy Couple at the base of Platekill Falls.

Topped Out!

Finishing up a WI4 variation of Platekill Falls.
 
At the end of the day, my wife was exhausted and marveled at how I can do this sort of thing on a regular basis.  I tell her that it’s not for everyone.  She herself says she’s a “once a year ice climber” and I’m ok with that.  The fact that she supports me, and occasional joins me, is good enough for me.  But tying everything we did together, I think this was one of the best winter trips we’ve ever had.  And I know next year, I have her as a partner at least one day again! 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Hidden Gems and New Friends

Last week it was just awful cold.  Friday was a record-breaking day and you couldn’t pay me to ice climb.  There’s uncomfortable cold, and then there’s dangerous cold.  The Weatherman said that Saturday would offer us a brief break.  Temps would be in the 30s but it would snow later in the day, and the snow would turn to sleet and then rain and on Sunday would be in the upper 30s.  Part of that forecast was correct - Sunday was very warm.  Saturday, however, was very cold.  I stepped out of my truck on Route 611, overlooking the Delaware River below Mount Minsi, and the cold air blast was like a punch to the gut.  I was expecting balmy tropical weather, not single-digits!  People might say “well, you’re used to it” and I guess I can tolerate the cold a little better than the average person…but that doesn’t mean I’m not cold.  I just keep a poker face.

The frigid temps however can do amazing things.  Early season ice forms first in reliable spots - shaded, well-fed, and up north in the higher elevation.  And the usual suspects tend to last the longest.  But what about the ice routes that need more time and a combination of ingredients to develop?  The rare routes that may or may not come in?  So late season, it all depends.  How much snowpack is there?  How has the freeze-thaw cycle been?  How cold is it?  A bare cliff from last February might be a dream cliff this one.  A wet drip from a few weeks ago might be a frozen staircase today.

Have we had a lot of snow?  Eh, a pretty decent amount.  Have we had enough “warm” days or sunny days that allow the snow to turn to water and drip over the ice?  Yes.  Has it been cold?  Yes, very!  All this translates into rare ice routes forming and wet or waterfall flows freezing solid.

Two weeks ago, my partners John and Cris met up (without me) in PA to climb Resort Wall (WI2/2+, 60’).  Fed by a mountain stream, this flow cascades down a ravine just below an overlook parking area.  The stream is reliable, but the quality of ice depends on the cold.  Two weeks ago, the margins of the ravine offered solid ice but there was still a lot of water falling.  Today, it was completely frozen over.  Resort Wall begins with a rappel, and when I went to rap down I saw a rope had already been set up and was in use.  A climber had been rope-soloing and was a few feet from topping out.  The climber, Reggie, said there was plenty of ice for two parties to climb at the same time.  I asked him to join us. 
 
Resort Wall (see climber at top in blue for perspective)
 
At the base of Resort Wall.
 
Reggie partnered with Cris, and I partnered with John.  After running a lap on the Resort Wall I set my sights on another climb about 50 yards away, known as the Rail Road Wall (WI2/2+, 30’).  John and Cris had climbed this route a few weeks ago as well, but said it was in much better shape today.  It’s possible to access this route by walking up and around, but I decided I would lead it.  I got a good warm-up on the previous route and felt this climb was within my abilities. 
 
Rail Road Wall.

My short lead up Rail Road Wall.

 
I wanted to lead the Resort Wall, and felt the climbing was within my abilities.  However, there were some sections that didn’t look safe.  Despite being frozen over, near the top there was a large section of thin ice that formed like glass over running water.  This ice wouldn’t be able to take screws and could easily be broken through.  In addition to that, there were two crevasse-like features a little bigger than a boot-length and about thigh deep that would make for a terrible landing if I were to slip.  Given these two factors, I decided against a lead.  I did however run several laps and was impressed by the size and accessibility of this route.  This is a late-season gem that I’ll keep an eye out for.      

Back in early January, when I climbed Slateford Falls with my wife, I spied a headwall off of 611 not far from Resort Wall.  611 is chockfull of little cliffs set back from the road, The Narrows are a great example of this.  The cliff had just a little bit of ice, but the rock was laid out like stairs and was clearly channeling water from the mountain.  I took a picture and held on to the idea that it may end up turning into something worthwhile.  Now, originally, our plans for the day was to head further north to another area almost outside of The Gap’s 70,000 acres but at the last minute, I remember the wall I took a picture of and John and Cris’ recent climb at Resort Wall.  Turns out, Cris had seen the same wall as me and both guys agreed we could start at Resort Wall and change locations later if things didn’t work out.  Our friend Reggie, who has been climbing The Gap for over 20 years, said he climbed that wall before.  He said he would hike in from the back and rappel down to build a top-rope.  The hike back is along a trail, but it isn’t a quick approach.  In addition to the walk, you have to bushwhack to reach the cliff top…and figuring this out from back in the woods isn’t an easy task.  Approaching from the road, it’s only about 5-10 minutes of walking from Resort Wall.  However, this cliff is set back into steep rock, like an amphitheater, and offers no easy or safe walk-up access.  John and I set out while Reggie and Cris finished climbing out from the bottom of Resort Wall.  John and I would get an up close look to see if it was worth climbing, and then we’d look for a way up.  If it didn’t work out, we’d just move on to another area as planned.             
 
January 9, 2015 - take from roadside.
February 21, 2015 - take from roadside.
Right up close.
 
When John and I finally reached the base of the wall neither of us saw a walk-up.  Looking up at the climb I saw it started with a left-facing ramp that lead to a curtain with several columns.  Dead center, the steepest column looked WI3+/4.  To the right, however, I spotted a grove that looked like WI3.  It was short, but it was committing and serious.  I decided I would climb it.  Mentally and physically, I felt good.  I felt strong.  I was confident without being cocky.  I was just sure of myself.  This, I said, is something I can do.  It won’t be easy.  I can’t make any mistakes.  But I know what I’m capable of and I know this is within my ability. 

As I tied-in and went over in my head and with John how I would I approach this route, Cris and Reggie showed up. I had all eyes on me and this was my chance to step up and truly be the leader.  I set a screw a few feet from the bottom, climbed to the base of the crux and then down climbed to remove the screw I placed near the start.  The first screw was placed out of precaution since the angle I started at actually brought me several feet from the deck below.  The screw below the crux would now be my Jesus Piece.  Reset, and protected, I now had all my screws and draws for the upper section.

I remember looking up and not feeling fear but the seriousness of committing to this climb.  I don’t think I ever felt scared, but I definitely felt a stern focus that is hard to replicate in everyday life.  I don’t do stupid things, or even dangerous things.  This wasn’t dangerous, but the consequences could be severe.  I remember taking a big breath before I swung, burying each tool in the ice and kicking each point as deeply as I could.  No panic, just an incredible laser-like focus on every single move I made.  I got in a second screw and carefully shook out each of my hands before proceeding.  Just before topping out, I got in two solid tools on the lower angle ice and I placed my final screw before topping out.  Big swings and hard kicks and I was clipped to a tree.  There was a runnel of ice that continued up another 10 feet, but it was glassy thin and I didn’t feel it was necessary to continue my lead.  I lowered off and received heartfelt congratulations from my partners.  I succeeded on my hardest ice lead to date.  Reggie, who is a local, 50 years old, and has climbed at The Gap for over 20 years, said it was the first time he had ever seen or heard of this route being lead.  I captured one of the proudest and rarest moments for a climber…the Onsight First Ascent.  I’m calling the route Hidden Gems and New Friends (WI3/3+).  The right side is obviously the easiest way up but we set a directional for the hard pillar in the middle which was a WI3+. 
 
 
Onsight First Ascent - Hidden Gems and New Friends, WI3.


Monday, February 9, 2015

Making The Most of a Chill Day

I’ve been eager to climb Buttermilk Ravine.  But this past Friday, temperatures in the Catskills started in the single digits and only peaked in the teens.  Combined with falling snow and wind, I figured climbing the north-facing Ravine could easily turn out to be a frigid suffer-fest.  But, ice conditions throughout the region are nearly at their peak and the south-facing sunnier crags are in optimal shape.  The deep snow, bright sun, and cold nights keeps the freeze-thaw cycle in these areas going strong, constantly adding new ice and filling in kicked-out sections.

I decided to head up to The Playground at Stony Clove’s East Side.  Almost 4 years ago, to the day, my first time ice climbing was at The Playground.  I remember the approach up the mountain being very treacherous with ice and exposed rock.  But this time, it was a deep snow-packed trail and what felt like an eternity years ago maybe took 10 minutes this time.  The Right Side (WI2), the beginner route, was being lead by another party so Doug and I went up a route in the middle and then set up another nearby.  Once the other party moved on, I lead the Right Side.  To think, four years ago I could barely scratch up this route on top-rope and here I am now, sending it with ease on the sharp end of the rope. 
 
The Playground Area

After leading Right Side of The Playground
 
Shortly after, my partner Doug and I traversed the cliff’s top to rappel down a mixed route which completely shut me down when I attempted it.  The start of the route was buried under deep snow, just getting to the base took several minutes of digging and wallowing.  Then, the lower ice was only a thin veneer over slab rock.  I made an attempt to climb a section of overhanging rock right of the ice, but a shoebox-size block nearly crashed on my head when I put my tools on it and so I decided I would try my luck on the thin ice instead.  I made some progress, but with my tools barely able to grab any ice in their serrations, I took a big swing (on top-rope) and crashed through a curtain of ice.  I decided I’d leave this one to Doug, who’s a way better climber than me, and yet even he had a difficult time with this beast.

You can see what's left of the curtain that I crashed through...

Between and rock and a hard place, Stony Clove's East Side.
 
Doug suggested that we finish up the day at Asbestos Wall.  This roadside crag is one of the most easily accessible areas in the Catskills, full of short 30-50 sections of ice.  Often packed with climbers when it’s “in”, we found only 2 other parties there and plenty of room to move about and choose.  This area receives direct sunlight, so it’s not always the best place to climb.  But again, with the amount of snow on the ground and the freeze-thaw cycle working day in and day out, the ice was fat.

I began with a short lead, an easy WI2.  Just like the Right Side route at The Playground, this is a route that is well beneath my climbing limit.  Every tool placement was something I knew I could hold onto for dear life, if need be.  Every step was kicked out to the point where I knew I stood on solid feet.  No mistakes, no falls.  30 feet of WI2 is NOT practice when you’re leading.  There are no safe/practice falls on lead.  On the sharp end, 30 feet or 300 feet, you are 100% committed to not falling.  I have a deep respect for danger and head thewords of those with skill and experience far beyond my own who repeat, vehemently,no falls while leading ice.
 
 
Easy Lead. Short, with plenty of rest in between sustained ice.

After that, Doug and I moved to a longer and steeper route, which Doug lead.  I felt the route was within my ability, but the steepest/crux of the route was high enough off the ground where I felt my nerves could possibly get the best of me so I decided I wouldn’t attempt to lead it myself.  The right-side variation of this route however did look possible.  I decided to do a “mock lead” on top-rope.  Doug would keep the rope loose enough where I couldn’t weigh or rest on it without falling, and I would place screws.  I was able to send it, without falling on top-rope; however I felt that the climbing was at my limit for leading.  This would be pushing it.  Doug told me that he was of the opinion I could do it.  He suggested I leave my screws in the ice and that way I wouldn’t have to place them on lead (called a “pinkpoint” vs. a “redpoint”.).  But, despite his vote of confidence and knowing I was able to send it cleanly on mock lead, I felt that I my fear of falling could possibly compromise my ability.  Again, being 100% confident is essential for leading and based on that principle I decided to pass on this one.   

Doug's Lead.

My Mock Lead.
 
But, that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to get one more lead in. 

Earlier, we passed a section that looked like it would be a good lead for me.  It was a sustained vertical start, which lead to easy walk-up terrain, and the final few feet before the top-out was just steep enough that I couldn’t just cruise through it.  The bottom was just over 10 feet of WI3+, which meant I would be hanging on tools to place a screw.  As expected, I was able to fire in a screw and get over this crux successfully but I definitely felt the urgency of doing so with balance and efficiency.  I say urgency in the respect that you can’t rush through this, but you really can’t take your time either.  Near the finish, I placed two screws because this was going to be one of those top outs where you had to scratch and crawl through the mud a bit (typical Catskills) and this itself is sometimes one of the most dangerous parts of climbing since you’re not as sure-footed on loose dirt and wet mud as you’d be on the ice.  Again, I was on easy terrain so I wasn’t pushing it, but this was definitely an honest lead with real challenges and danger.              
 
Doug at the base of the last route I lead.
 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Super Bowl

I had a lot going on over Super Bowl weekend but with careful planning was able to secure a few hours on Sunday to climb.  Usually, I get an early start.  I like to be out of the house by 7am, and back by lunch.  This past Sunday, I opted for a 9am start.  One of my partners, Cris, texted me at 7am, letting me know he was at our rendezvous spot.  Apparently, he didn’t get my message.  So, I spent the next two hours entertaining him in my living room while we waited for my other partner, John, who was coming from PA.  I explained to Cris in between sips of coffee while we watched a UFC event I recorded the night before (reason for my late start was I wanted to watch the fights in the morning) that John wasn’t crazy or poor, but he didn’t have proper ice boots and would be wearing ski boots.  John is a young college kid and he just started ice climbing this year.  He could count the pitches of ice he’s climbed on one hand.  He has axes, and he has crampons, but he hasn’t bought boots yet.  But, he assured me, that he used the ski boots before and they worked. 

I met John in November.  He’s a Gap regular and excellent trad climber.  He’s also into fly-fishing, so we’ve had the chance to hang out a few times.  And despite my initial apprehension, the ski boot-crampon thing actually worked.  Obviously, it’s not the most optimal set-up but I appreciate the kid’s willingness to go for it.  As I watched John on his 5th, maybe 6th pitch of ice, I  noticed that he has ability.  He’s green, but he moves well and doesn’t make a lot of the tell-tale mistakes you see novice ice climbers make (gets good sticks in the ice before moving, hangs on his tools properly).  After a few burns on Plush and the Corner Smear, I let him have a go at a pretty difficult ice/dry-tool route and the kid took to it like a natural.
 
Plush, in good shape.
Corner Smear, still kicking.
Far Right Mixed Route. Bottom hanger was especially fat and sturdy.
 
For me, it was just another day of training at the local crag.  We all got in a couple laps of ice on Plush and the Corner Smear, and then went for it on the ice/dry-tool route.  This was my second time climbing at the local crag this year, fifth day out climbing this winter.  Bringing new partners along helps with the monotony of climbing the same area, over and over.  I’m too grateful to ever say something like I’m getting bored and I enjoy climbing too much to really ever feel bored while I do it.  So I have a workman-like approach to this sort of climbing where I think more of the long-term benefit of all the repeated laps.
 
Yep, this kid is climbing ice in ski boots.
Cris, carefully scaling the hanger (in brand new boots).
Me, topping out on the hanger (I was the first one to climb it). The overhanging crack above is extremely physical.
 
In a few days, I plan on climbing another Catskill Ravine.  This means a long hike and lots of pitches.  I’m hoping to lead some of the easier stuff as well.  In preparation, outside of climbing, I’ve been hitting the weights and hang board.  I’ve been coming into work early to hit the stairs (today, I did 25 flights up and down) so I’ll have the legs and endurance for the hike in and out.  I know that winter will be over in a few more weeks and all the ice will gone for 10-11 months.  When it’s gone, I want to be satiated.  I want to know I climbed everything I could, and to the best of my ability.  This is my year to grow.