Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Catching Up

It’s been a few month now, hasn’t it?  Life away from climbing.  Life, as it is.  Life, hectic and intense.  Life, rich and fulfilling as it will be melancholy and draining.  A new house that we’re slowly making our home.  A first birthday celebrated, for my daughter.  A brief vacation at the beach.  A few illnesses, and a couple heartbreaks too.  Plans for climbing this summer were ambitious, and life laughed in the face of my plans.

A couple weeks ago, I managed to free up a few hours.  Just enough time to drive to the local crag, hike to the rock, set up one top-rope line, and run two laps each with a partner.  It left me, shall I say, unfulfilled.  To hell with it, I said.  I’m taking a day off to climb and I’m going to get the most out of it. 

Most climbing days, there isn’t much of a game plan.  But since this would be my first day in a while, and maybe only day for some time, I put some thought into it.  Knowing how I get with heights, I set a strict limit on single pitch climbing.  I also decided to break with my usual 5.5 or less pattern and focus on climbing a few grades harder.  For some reason, I’ve always held back in terms of difficulty.

The day started with Something Interesting, a 5.7+.  I spied this route while on Three Pines and thought the line looked beautiful.  The climbing was rather sustained at a moderate degree of difficulty, until the crux.  If I remember correctly, it was bad feet, and overhang, and a long reach to a somewhat sloping opening of rock that kinda resembled a crack.  Or, maybe I’m wrong?  Next, I climbed Snooky’s Return, 5.8.  Named for Oscar “Snooky” Dorfman, not the reality TV star.  This route was made up of more delicate face-climbing movements than Something Interesting which was more “grabby”.  I’m not sure which style I prefer more, but after sending two routes above my normal difficulty level, I was feeling really good about myself.

Which brings me now to Middle Earth, 5.6.  I took one look at this route and decided I was going to lead it.  I haven’t lead rock in a very long time, but was feeling confident in my ability to not only climb a 5.6 onsight, but to be able to protect it.  The route started easy enough before I encountered my first crux, a long vertical crack.  I tried placing a stopper but it was a little too shallow and for a brief moment, I felt like I could take a fall.  I immediately dismissed the thought and made a move, instantly finding solid feet and took the time to place the stopper.  Shortly thereafter I found myself a second crux, a thin face that would require me to climb a few feet more than I’d rather above my last piece of gear.  I susssed out the first moves rather gingerly before committing and eventually got in a stance to place a large cam and rested.  The remaining route was good gear between steady movements.  I wore a Go Pro for this climb and looking back at the footage, I’m impressed with my ability to remain focused and commit.  The holds and feet were adequate but this was no gimme.  It took a tremendous amount of focus to calm my nerves as I climbed higher above the deck.  Once I topped-out, I was exhausted and thrilled.  This was the medicine I needed - to focus, single-minded, and be in the moment and allow the best version of myself to take over.  I’m very proud of this climb.

Next, I climbed Absurdland, 5.8.  Getting off the ground is the crux of this climb and I sent it rather quickly along with the boulder follow-up moves before resting on the rope.  The top section is fantastic climbing.  Claiming this route here was yet another confidence boost. 

The day wrapped up with Jackie, 5.5.  A few years ago, I got stuck on this route…call it fear of commitment.  This time around, I was able to send it but to my surprise this route was a lot more difficult than I would expect a 5.5 to be.  Still, I found it to be a fantastic route but would probably grade it more like 5.7. 

After Jackie, I decided to call it a day.  I was spent from the effort, adrenaline, and heat.  Hands down, my best day on rock in years.  Onsighting Middle Earth was probably my biggest rock climbing accomplishment and I’m looking forward to leading more routes and trying harder lines.  I have a birthday trip coming up in September to the Adirondacks, something I’ll post about once I return.  I’ve been preparing myself physically for some challenging hiking that will occur on this trip, but as far as climbing goes I’m hoping to get at least one more day out and continue on this path of success.
Catching up on Something Interesting, 5.7+

Monday, May 4, 2015

Celebrating 5 Years (of marriage) at Peterskill

This past Friday my wife and I celebrated our 5 Year Wedding Anniversary.  We had planned on taking a trip out west but there’s just too much going on at home right now to spend that much money or time away from our responsibilities.  It’s not an excuse as much as it’s a reality.  That doesn’t mean life is hard, or even unhappy.  And our marriage and family life couldn’t be happier but getting away for more than a few hours just isn’t possible right now.

We decided to spend the day doing things we enjoy – climbing, eating, and drinking wine.  So, we went up to The Gunks, or more specifically, the Peterskill area.  Often referred to as the Little Gunks, Peterskill is everything the Gunks is except for being smaller and shorter.  My wife is actually a big fan of Peterskill for the easy flat approach, short routes, and conveniently located bathroom.  I’m a fan because the climbing is just as good as The Gunks, and because it’s pretty much a sure-thing for my wife to be interested.

We only climbed for a few hours.  A couple laps on the Enterprise Wall climbing Captain’s Log (5.4) and The Kling-On (5.7).  After that, we moved over to the Breakfast Wall for one of my favorite routes, Pop-Over (5.7-ish).  Again, not a hard day of climbing as much as we took our time, relaxed, and just had fun.

The Enterprise Wall

My wife on The Kling-On, 5.7

Breakfast Wall

My Wife on Pop-Over, 5.7

me, just about to top-out.

After we ate lunch at Tuthill House, which is quickly becoming one of our favorite places to eat.  The bartender or should I say mixologist, Darren, once again prepared us our newest new favorite cocktail.  And then from there, a trip to White Cliffwinery with views of the Gunks most spectacular area, the Millbrook Cliff.

Happy Five Years with this beautiful lady

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Adaptive Climbing

This past weekend, my friend and owner of Mountain SkillsClimbing Guides, Doug Ferguson, invited me and others along to join his Adaptive Climbing group, which assists physically disabled climbers, to climb at The Gunks.  Over the past several years, climbing has given me so much…friends, rich experiences, challenges, surprises, scares, as well as purpose.  For me, this was a chance to say thanks, give back, and hopefully share with others some of the intangibles climbing have given to me.  The word “inspiring” is so often cliché when referring to people with disabilities, and I hate to use it but the experience was truly inspiring and I felt like as much as I was giving, I was taking.  Watching someone like Peter, who rolled up in a wheelchair, relentlessly climb to the top of Rhododendron, 5.4 and then repeat it later.  Or Colleen, jug a fixed rope beneath an imposing roof.  And Nate, who needed a cane to reach the base of the wall yet still, attacked a difficult layback route.  It was just a tremendous experience to see such true determination and spirit.  I also had the opportunity to meet other climbers and make new friends.  And, of course, I had the chance to climb some new routes myself.
Me, with Peter
Peter, doing the Iron Cross on Rhodo'

Colleen, jugging with Doug Ferguson

Peter a few feet from topping out on Rhodo'
Nate layback climbing near the crux on Rhodo'


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.


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.