Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Week 19: A little practice for a big thing Nov 7th

I have briefly mentioned my new acquaintance Nate. We had a fairly adventurous day doing some practice aid climbing up near Frederick. Nothing too crazy but a great day out. However I saw in his eyes that day a twinkling of craziness, and if I were to guess I would bet that keeping his friendship would likely involve going on some interesting trips.

I was right.

Nate really wants to do a big wall. And I am not sure if you have been to the mid-Atlantic region but 3000 foot bullet granite walls are not its forte. We do have some big stuff down in NC and up in NY and QC but these are 12 hours away and not really feasible for a weekend trip. However the venerable Seneca Rocks in WV while only 400 feet tall or so, has an air of commitment, and almost alpine feel at times. So for our practice big wall we decided to head into the WV hills.

So what is big wall climbing. To me this generally indicates three things:

-the climb is long enough that you must live on it. This means all the daily chores of eating, sleeping, umm.... relieving yourself. All this must be accomplished in a vertical environment

-The climbing is hard enough to force you to aid climb. This means that you make upward progress not by using your hands and feet and muscles... but you hang on a piece of gear, walk up in a ladder and place another piece to hang on. This three foot at a time process can be exceedingly slow.

-Lastly because you are living up there and you have brought food, water, sleeping gear, camp stove, a ton of climbing gear AND the kitchen sink, it becomes literally impossible to carry this with you on your back. So you are forced to put it in a very large, and very heavy bag, and using various mechanical devices haul this monstrosity up the wall with you. The bag is affectionately called The Pig.

So that bring up the second important question about big wall climbing. Why on earth would anyone want to do something so asinine?

This is a good question. The work required to ascend an equivalent height by free climbing is likely ten-fold. Aid climbing can be mentally draining. You move at a snails pace. However... the usual answer is that big wall climbing allows you to go where you otherwise could not. This is quite true. Lets take a look at my one of my favorite.

El Cap (3200 feet of perfect granite in Yosemite)

El Cap is perhaps the most beautiful piece of stone in the world, and I will never be able to climb it without these tactics. Only good climbers get up at all and only the best of the best can do it in a day, thus negating the need for all this extra hoopla.

However viewing this style as a necessary evil I think is detrimental. As recently related, climbing should be about the experience, and if the actual act of moving upwards by the mechanism chosen is unpleasant, then just being on El Cap is not enough. However in the right mindset, this utterly slow painful process can become quite beautiful in its own right. The manufacturing engineer side of me I suppose helps, but there is a rhythm and efficiency in managing all these complex systems that is quite fulfilling. Doing the same small movements over and over again, and each time doing them a millisecond faster, or using 1 less calorie. Or thinking about the juxtaposition of my 230 pounds sitting on a tiny piece of gear about the size of my fingernail... and somehow this tiny blob of metal is going to help me scale something of such immense proportions. Its the joy of being so tired at the end of the day that the idea of sleeping 2500 feet off the ground means more about the SLEEPING part and less about the 2500 feet of exposure part.

Ok its not the perfect melding of mind and body that I love about pushing myself free climbing, but its close.

Ok sorry to take so long to set the stage. Back to the trip.

We get out later than expected, we had set up the porta-ledge (our means to sleep on the side of a cliff) and probably didnt leave Baltimore till 10pm Friday night. Within 10 minutes of leaving, we are pulled over driving through west Baltimore, apparently a Subaru full of climbing gear and 3 guys in outdoor wear is enough to warrant a stop. The cop ends up talking to us for 15 minutes about climbing! How strange, and we proceed on our way.

4 hours later Nate has done a brilliant job of getting us to the Seneca parking lot, where we start to pack our bags. Now WV is known for its colorful local flavor but I have never quite experienced it like this.

Remember its 2am by now, and we are the only car in the parking lot. Let me re-phrase, were the only car around. A beat up old rav4 rambles up and stops not 5 feet from our car. I hold some mild alarm, but when the window rolls down out appears the most grotesque, inebriated, and decrepit human I have ever seen. Somewhere between the age of 30 and 6 feet under, with 4 teeth and fewer strands of hair.

It seems that we are a blessing from the heavens on this her birthday night celebration. Before our arrival she had harbored no hope of sating her innermost desires, content to drink away the night with her dearest girlfriends. But then as if the skies had opened up and Gabriel himself had deposited three strapping young lads right outside her door. Almost in arms reach... almost. We are careful to keep our distance, and as clearly her motor skills are quite addled it quickly becomes more comedic than scary.

Her advances very quickly move from slightly suggestive to racy, to downright lecherous in just a few minutes. And as we are stuck packing our gear we have no choice but to endure he verbal advances.

For the young readers, I will spare the juicy details, but suffice to say that despite several gallons of alcohol clearly swishing about in her veins she put together quite the elaborate fantasy.

We finally get packed up and bid the fearsome WV mountain cougar a good night as we should our packs and head towards the cliff.

Our packs... I had mentioned that The Pig can get quite heavy. And being the large guy in the group I got to carry the 80lb bag. Now I am not really known as a aerobic powerhouse so the 600 foot hike to the base of the east face could perhaps best be described as soul crushing.

The last 50 feet to Broadway ledge even require us to get out the haul system and haul The Pig up the last few exposed steps. Its about 3 or 330 am at this point and just sleeping on a piece of land I could have hiked to seems a bit lame. Time to do some climbing.

Being the "experienced" aid climber in the group I get the lead. The plan is to climb the first pitch of Pollox usually a wonderful 10a up to some bolts and sleep there before continuing up higher the following day.

Luckily the climb follows a crack so the gear is plentiful and straightforward. I leave the ground and with my sputtering 3 LED headlamp the world suddenly becomes very small. Nothing exists but a 4 foot ring of marginal light, my rope between my legs, and blessedly a perfect crack leading up and out of my field of vision. Perfect conditions to enjoy the things I mentioned earlier about aid climbing. Since there is nothing else to do, getting a good rhythm and working on the sequence become goals in themselves. Too quickly I reach the bolts and set up an anchor to bring up all our stuff.

The hauling goes quickly and amazingly we even get the ledge setup relatively quickly in the dark. I rap down to sleep on Broadway and let the two guys (who have never slept on a porta-ledge) enjoy the night out. As I get into my sleeping bag and begin falling asleep I notice twinge of dawn just starting to lighten the horizon. It has been a long long night.

Kyle waking up in style on the ledge

Enjoying some of Nates' homebrew. This is a notable big wall tradition, usually substitute Pabst for the exceptional home brew. I realize later that I carried and hauled that 6 pack up 800 feet to this point.

See I told you crazy eyes

The next day we practice some of the main tenets of big wall climbing. Namely spending as much time on the ledge eating and not going anywhere, and being as slow as possible doing anything. Our original plans to go up and over descend into a pleasant two pitch day of watching Nate aid up to the summit.

Kyle jugging up to the base of Alcoa Presents

At our blistering pace we have used up most of the day so we rap back down and do the heavy hike back to the car. Thankfully Nate drives and we get home at 9 pm less than 24 hours after we left. Good times.

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