Monday, July 28, 2014

Book review: The Great American Dirtbags

Almost two years ago, a late season hurricane and the resulting power outage finally gave me the opportunity to check out Colorado author Luke Mehall's Climbing out of Bed.  Mehall, who also publishes The Climbing Zine, recently sent me a copy of The Great American Dirtbags, his newest collection of short stories, poems, and general reflections on small town mountain life.

It actually would have made perfect morning tent reading for my summer Gunks trips, but now as I spend days on my deck waiting for my foot to heal, the book provided a much needed break from my computer screen.  And hey, if I can't climb, reading about it can be almost as good!

Actually, I have to say I enjoyed the greater focus on climbing this time around, written in a way that simultaneously captures the beauty of the outdoors, the bonds formed with friends, and the personal challenges faced.  This last aspect was especially well addressed, with Mehall never hesitating to call himself out for being terrified on a climb, getting in over his head, or being lost in the woods.  Rather than glorifying his accomplishments and glossing over his shortcomings, he paints both as necessary parts of our overall development as climbers, friends, partners, and decent human beings.  I find these stories especially relevant during a summer of getting back into leading, which has often meant being over my head, scared to the point of nausea, and even pumping out on my warmups, but always walking away more prepared for the next climb.  Mehall's writing is a great reminder that we've all been there, and that those experiences often make the best stories of our lives, and leave us better able to shape the lives of those who come after us.

For more on this and his other writing, check out The Climbing Zine and Luke's Bloggie Blog.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Coopers Rock Climb-a-thon 2014 wrap-up

Funny how the past few days' plans have changed.  Chris Irwin and I had originally talked about spending another week on the road before hearing about a friend's going away party on Wednesday and the Coopers Rock Climbing Guides' 3rd annual climb-a-thon on Saturday.  New plan: climb and party on Wednesday, spend Thursday/Friday at Old Rag or Seneca, and jump over to Coopers on Saturday for some fun toproping.

How it actually went: Pull tendon in foot Tuesday, party Wednesday, sit on my deck all of Thursday/Friday, aside from limping into the doctor's office with the hopes of being cleared to climb Saturday.  I wasn't, but I went out anyway and still had an incredible time.

The climb-a-thon was our first impression of the folks from CRCG, and it was a great one!  Unlike anything I've participated in before, they created something that was fundraiser first and competition second.  In the days and weeks prior, participants set up fundraising campaigns for the adaptive athletic programs of Paradox Sports, in addition to their entry fees being donated to the Coopers Rock Foundation.  By the time of the event, somewhere around $4000 had been raised, and a ton of good raffle prizes had been donated.  Even better, participants received extra raffle tickets based on donations raised, further emphasizing the true purpose of the day.

Chris and I arrived midway through the sign-in, along with my mom, who I was hoping could climb in my place since I wasn't allowed to.  I'll admit I was a bit worried that they wouldn't let her substitute for me.  After all, why should they make it that easy when they could pull in extra registration fees instead?  Whether it was amusement about the 65 year old woman taking my place, or just being good people (I believe it was the latter), they let us make the switch with no problem.

Waiting for the briefing to start, we were a bit unsure what we were getting into.  As Chris struggled to turn off the event planning part of his brain, we looked at the seemingly high ratio of climbers to volunteers, and expected borderline chaos once the climbing started.  Turns out they had worked it out perfectly.

With 35 topropes set up, participants had three hours to climb as much as they could, and it seemed like almost nobody had to wait for a belay when they were ready to climb.  The routes themselves were well chosen and spaced, with something available for everyone.  In fact, there seemed to be several people who had never climbed before, and I loved the fact that the route selection catered as much to them as to the advanced climbers, especially in allowing three falls before lowering.  They even set up an adaptive climb, with participants pulling themselves up a rope to get a taste of what they were raising money for.  The scoring system also leveled the field nicely, with points awarded for vertical feet traveled times a difficulty multiplier, but with categories kept relatively broad.  For example, a 5.11a and 5.12d of equal height were worth equal points in the top category, giving as much advantage to the 5.11 climber as the 5.13 climber, and further minimizing any competitive or ego-driven silliness that would have detracted from the event's philanthropic nature. Participant and volunteer alike were there to have fun, to cheer each other on, and above all for the common goal of giving to a good cause.

Chris Irwin cruising his warmup
Pennie Close stepping high and Chris Irwin resisting the temptation to pull her off
Racing to the top
Pennie Close clocking some roof time
After a great gear raffle, Chris and my mom both got a fun surprise.  Turned out that that she had won a new harness for being the top female climber, and he won a new rope for being top climber overall, an outcome that hadn't occurred to either of them as a possibility.

A huge thanks to all who donated to my fundraising campaign, even though I wasn't able to climb in the end. Glad I was able to at least bring in someone who could do your contributions justice.  Thanks as well to the Hershey family and everyone else from Coopers Rock Climbing Guides for putting on such an amazing event. You took something that could have been competitive and intimidating, and made it into something welcoming and fun, and something that I hope will make regular climbers out of yesterday's newcomers.  The businesses I'm quickest to support are the ones that put community first, and from everything I saw yesterday, you guys could show people a few things about that.  Barring any more stupid injuries, I can't want to come out and climb with you next year!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Coopers Rock Climb-a-thon 2014

This Saturday (7/26), the Coopers Rock Climbing Guides will be hosting their 3rd annual climb-a-thon event, and I'm getting more excited by the day.  As much time as I've spent bouldering at Coopers, I've always thought the longer routes looked really fun, but have never managed to get out there with a rope to give them a try.  With the CRCG setting up 35+ topropes this weekend, and 3 hours to climb as many routes as I can, I plan to make the most of my time!  Even better, the event is a fundraiser for Paradox Sports, an organization that has been a leader over the past several years in the area of adaptive athletics.  As a climber and a special ed teacher, it's been inspiring to me to see how Paradox and other organizations have been able to adapt outdoor technology and instruction to make these activities accessible to everyone, including a growing number of competitive paraclimbing events.  As for the time I've spent climbing alongside some of these athletes?  I'm not sure that inspiring is a strong enough word.

Want to help me support the great work that Paradox is doing?  Click here to check out my fundraising page.  My registration fee goes to the Coopers Rock Foundation, and all additional donations go directly to Paradox, so every bit helps.  To make things really simple, there's no paying me for every climb I complete, or every vertical foot I travel.  It's just a flat donation, and one that you'll make knowing that I'll be spending that three hours climbing my butt off.  And if it rains?  Assuming they don't move it to the rain date (tbd), I'll spend that three hours climbing my butt off on wet rock.  And if they move it?  I'll go back out and... well you get the idea.

Here's that fundraiser page again.

A huge thanks to those who have donated already!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Another week in the Gunks

Got back last night from another week in the Gunks with Chris, one that was just as memorable as our last trip, but often more for the way our plans didn't work out than for when they did.  Still, the unexpected turns often brought us better experiences than what we had set out for, and I certainly learned a lot in the process.  Rather than focusing on just the highlights like last time, here's a day by day breakdown of our mishaps and those moments that made them worth it.


The Failure

Getting to camp and seeing the shape it was in after the 4th of July weekend.

This is just what people were nice enough to leave by the sign, since they couldn't be bothered to pack it out like they were supposed to.  Not pictured is the equal volume of trash that was randomly scattered across the rest of the campground.  We kept hoping that it wasn't climbers who were responsible for this, but the fact that anyone thought this was acceptable blows my mind.

The Redemption

We had the campground almost to ourselves again, and got to enjoy some delicious salads and beer at Bacchus.  I've now had four of their house brewed beers, and have loved them all.


The Failure

With all the rain the night before, conditions were really wet and we didn't get to climb until late afternoon.

The Redemption

Wet days are fantastic for walks, and taking the trail up to the Mohonk Mountain House made me feel like I had stepped into a Tolkien novel.

Once there, we took the Labyrinth walk up to the tower, weaving our way through some crazy rock formations and boulder piles, and finally squeezing out the top of "The Crevice" for some beautiful views of the valleys from the slabs above.

Despite not getting back to the car until late afternoon, we still managed to get in a quick session at the Trapps, where I led Nosedive and made a toprope attempt at No Solution before realizing that I was too tired for climbing and should probably head to Bacchus for more beer and a few games of pool.


The Failure

Taking 4 hours ground to ground on a 180 foot climb, then only getting in one more climb before thunderstorms hit, despite the day's forecast for 10% chance of rain.  Leaving my tent flaps open because of the low chance of rain.  Campfire plans replaced by torrential thunderstorms.

The Redemption

The climb that took us forever was MF, put up in 1960 by Jim McCarthy, Roman Sadowy, and Claude Suhl. Often called the most classic example of Gunks 5.9, it was my first real experience leading the big roof moves that the area is known for, and the thought of doing it over 50 years ago was sobering.  Part of what took so long was my insistence on repeatedly climbing into and back out of cruxes, although Chris pointed out that at least it spoke well of my endurance.  MF was also the site of my first unrecovered (now fixed) gear, which rather than listing as a failure I'm choosing to view as a right of passage, and at least I have the knowledge that it was a solid placement.  Fittingly enough for the location, it was a pink tricam.

Even the turning weather didn't entirely ruin the afternoon, especially when we were still able to fit in a dip at our favorite swimming hole in between storms.

Our postponed campfire plans also turned out okay, since we were able to sit out the worst of the rain with delicious German food at Mountain Brauhaus, and tried an incredible saison from the relatively new Yard Owl brewery.

To top it all off, our campsite was sheltered enough that I even had a dry sleeping bag at the end of the night, and fell asleep comfortably to the sound of rain and thunder above.


The Failure

Completely chickening out on my plans to lead anything hard.

The Redemption

Doing a lot of great moderate routes, including kinds of terrain I'd never experienced before.  We started the day on Bill Shockley and Doug Kerr's 1953 classic Shockley's Ceiling.  Chris linked the first two pitches, during which a copperhead kindly ran away from him when he pulled up to a horizontal only a few inches away.  I got to lead the final pitch, which had really fun movement through a short overhang and up a corner to a great hand crack finish.

Chris did a quick lead of Something Interesting (Hans Kraus, Ken Prestrud, Bonnie Prudden, 1946), which follows 140 feet of beautiful crack up to the GT ledge, with huge feet most of the way.  Even with the final crux wet, the moves were straightforward enough, and it was fun to have that long of a continuous climb.

The other memorable climb that day was V-3, another Kraus, Prestrud, and Prudden route from 1954. Again, something I was really glad to have modern equipment for.

The moves up the initial crack were easy enough, but my momentum stalled a bit when I was placing what seemed like my first solid piece, and an odd buzzing and angry looking wasp face led me know that there was a nest under construction a few inches into the pin scar.  From there, a stretch of chossy rock and a few awkward corner moves led to a flaring chimney.  I'll admit I was questioning the route's classic status for most of the way, but once I was wedged into the chimney it was one of the most fun places I found myself all week. Too bad it wasn't longer!

We finished the day with Chris leading a really fun, and way too short, finger and hand crack called Finger Locks or Cedar Box, then toproped a couple of face climbs to the right, which seem to have been eliminate versions of Hyjek's Horror.

We also finally had a dry night, and grabbed a round of taco yumminess from Mexicali Blue before picking up some wood and settling in by the fire for the night.


The Failure

Pumping out and having to rest on my warmup, Red Cabbage.

What should have been a really easy crack and face climb took a downturn when I struggled to make a shallow nut placement work off a hard lockoff, then realized I was getting tired and instead of pushing through to better holds decided to waste time slotting a second piece right in front of me.  Poor planning, and also unnecessary, since as soon as I was hanging there I saw a perfect green C3 placement about a foot below the small nut.  At least next time I'll be able to get up pretty quickly.

The Redemption

Wanting to get in a few more routes before getting on the road, we walked down the road and toproped Jacob's Ladder, climbed by Phil Jacobus in 1960 as the first Gunks 5.10.  The direct sun made it a little slick, but even in good conditions I would still have been glad for the toprope, and apparently Jacobus led it onsight.

We finished with a toprope on the Chockstone (a.k.a. Pebbles) boulder, which had a really fun looking slab that I had been eyeing up every time we walked by.  I don't know the names of any of the routes, but we did the obvious crack, the right arete, and the right face without the arete.  All were fun, and there seemed to be plenty of other variations aside from the ones we did.

A few hiccups along the way maybe, but it was still a great trip.  Not sure what's next up, but we still have lots of summer ahead of us!

Here's the full list of what we climbed this time around:
No Solution (TR attempt)
Shockley's Ceiling
Ribs (TR)
Something Interesting
Hyjek's Horror (2 eliminate variations on TR)
Red Cabbage
Jacob's Ladder
Chockstone (a.k.a. Pebbles) Boulder (TR on center crack, right arete, and right face without arete)

Thursday, July 3, 2014


It's funny that I could live four hours from such an incredible climbing area and not have made the time to visit yet.  Actually, that seems to be the pattern.  My climbing has mostly revolved around the local, both the well-travelled and the newly discovered, with trips in between to far away areas like Yosemite, Font, and Squamish. I've made the occasional trip to places like Coopers, Seneca, or Gretna, but have somehow never visited the truly world class areas that I can reach within half a day's drive.  Last week I finally made it to the Gunks.

With technical climbing in the area going back to the '30s and fully taking off in the '40s, Chris Irwin and I were excited to repeat some of the early ascents, as well as check out a few of the newer routes while we were around.  Despite the easy grades by modern standards, these early routes often represented the limits of what was then believed possible, and can still be intimidating even with the vastly improved equipment now available to us.

The most well known example of this is probably High Exposure.  First climbed in 1941 by Hans Kraus and Fritz Weissner, the route follows an easy corner system before traversing out to a ledge under a large roof. Originally done in two pitches, Chris chose to link the beginning into a single pitch, as well as to diagonal across the face in the second pitch for more interesting climbing and better views.

Chris heading into the corner, with the roof visible at upper right
However the first two pitches are done, the beginning of the third is where the climber encounters "The Move." I'm really glad that Chris made me lead it, though at the time I was wishing I had more than one lead under my belt since Squamish two summers ago.  When I looked up and saw the small gap I was moving through at the right side of the roof, with treetops swaying far below me and a blind reach to the holds on the other side, I couldn't even comprehend the confidence required to have turned that corner almost 75 years ago.

I kept telling myself, "it's only 5.6, and it was done in the '40s."  At least, that was the internal monologue, though Chris assures me that the words coming out were not nearly as clean.  I'm just glad my nausea remained in check while I was still directly above him.  Finally I pulled myself together and made the move, exiting onto a beautiful face full of good holds and great gear options, with a gorgeous view waiting above. Even after making a wrong turn onto the slightly harder finish of Directtississima, that single move remains in my memory as the hardest thing I did the entire trip, and solidifies Kraus and Weissner as two of the boldest men I've had the pleasure of belatedly following.

Going into the trip, I thought I was going to get a fair amount of bouldering in, and was particularly looking forward to Boxcar Arete.  Had I known how sharp the crimps were, I wouldn't have gotten my hopes up so much.  After about 20 minutes of working it without controlling the last left pinch, my fingertips were already starting to open up, and I decided that it wasn't worth ruining my skin with two full days still remaining.  Next time.

In hindsight, I'm really glad I made that choice, with so many more great routes out there to do.  Horsemen, another 1941 edition Kraus&Weissner masterpiece, made a great single pitch linkup that went from an easy corner and crack system out to an airy arete, then finished through a juggy vertical face.  The climbing was fun the whole way, but my favorite part was probably the gear graveyard near the top, memories of the decades of climbers who have since passed through.

I also enjoyed the collection of routes from the '60s and '70s that we climbed at the end of our first day in a corner near High Exposure.

Chris started by climbing the first pitch of Sleepwalk, which started on the vertical face and then traversed left on horizontals to turn the corner and finish up the slab.

From the Sleepwalk anchor, we toproped both Ent Line and Ant's Line, the latter of which I particularly liked. First climbed in the '60s by Ants Leemets, it combines perfect stemming and jamming moves up a crack and corner system and through a couple of small overhangs.  With such enjoyable movement and solid looking gear the whole way, I think I'd actually prefer to lead that one over Sleepwalk.

Another especially memorable set of climbs came on our final day, when we went to the Near Trapps rather to the more popular Trapps where we had spent our previous days.  I warmed up on Roseland, a 1958 Jim McCarthy and Hans Kraus line that had all the stemming and jamming fun of Ant's Line, but finished with an exciting traverse along a good horizontal and somewhat technical feet.

From there, we toproped a couple of the routes around the corner, and I got my first taste of harder Gunks climbing on Eraserhead, a Russ Raffa and Russ Clune route from 1983.  With a fun mix of the thin technical climbing that I prefer and the big moves to big holds that often challenge me, I only managed the onsight because there were enough good rests to counteract the pump.  Anything more sustained and I would found myself taking a fun pendulum ride!

I also led Birdland (Jim McCarthy, John Rupley, Jim Andress, 1958), a gorgeous face climb that for me involved stemmy moves, high steps, and big gaston presses.  From there I toproped Slammin the Salmon, another Russ Clune route full of powerful crimp sequences between good jugs on a much steeper wall than I'm used to.  I think I got through the actual crux, but still ended up pumping out and falling as I mantled up onto easier ground.  In addition to being a good lesson in harder Gunks movement, it also made me want to get down to areas like the Red where I can force myself to face that kind of terrain more often.

We finished the trip with  the 1944 classic Yellow Ridge (Fritz Weissner, Edward and Ann Gross), with Chris taking the right start variation up a hand crack to the short offwidth and linking immediately into the second pitch rising traverse.  He turned it over to me with vague directions of "go that way," and I found myself on a fantastic ledge walk to a large corner, and then up through small roofs to a finish on slab jugs.

Yellow Ridge starts center and goes up and left to the obvious large corner
If that weren't already a perfect enough way to end our day, we found the descent lined with blueberry bushes. Just enough to hold us over until our stop at Mountain Brauhaus.

I'm not sure how it took me so long to make the trip up to the Gunks, but now I can't wait to get back.  Going during the week was especially nice, since we had the campground almost to ourselves and never had to wait for a climb, even on super classics like High Exposure.  I'm also looking forward to exploring the town a little more, even though we spent our fair share of time at places like Bacchus (hands down the best beer place we visited), Gilded Otter, and had what I'm pretty sure was the world's best pork belly taco at Mexicali Blue.

So many things to do, and summer is just beginning.

Here's the complete list of what we climbed, in order:
Pas de Deux
Ent Line (TR)
Ant's Line (TR)
High Exposure (Directtississima finish)
Ken's Crack
Phoebe (TR)
Phoebe (direct finish) (TR)
Freebie (TR)
Fitchen's Folly (TR)
Shitface (TR)
Eraserhead (TR)
Slammin the Salmon (TR attempt)
Yellow Ridge