Shoulder Season

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“And I ain’t seen the sunshine. Since, I don’t know when…”

I’m positive those Cash lyrics rang through the whole campus’ ears as they rolled out of bed that October morning. Three weeks of walking to class under cloudy, rainy skies had left many of us sitting in the library praying for some atmospheric release. The temps had finally dropped to perfect climbing conditions in the Adirondacks, but rain thwarted any attempt to get out and enjoy it. I would spend my days staring through the small holes of a window screen as raindrops padded the lake, waiting for this fateful day.

That morning I rolled groggily out of my covers to grab my phone and check the time. As I slowly opened my eyes I let the brightness of the screen blind me in an early morning haze. I slowly came to and noticed blue skies outside my window. It took me a second to fully realize that it was true. A fresh, light snow nestled itself between blades of grass and dead tree branches. The bluebird sky was momentarily foreign to my senses, but it elated me. That was all that it took to wake me up, I knew that minute I would find a way to go climbing. …Next thing I knew I was at a hanging belay, three pitches high, knocking my wood frozen toes on hard gneiss praying for some sense of feeling to return.

It’s a funny thing, the suffering we put ourselves through to squeeze out the last days of a season. Climbing season was slowly winding down, but there was still no sign of skiing on the horizon. I feel so lost during these times, pawing my way through whatever remaining days on the rock I can get. When times get real tough my friends and I will ski frozen leaves, just for the sensation of carving. Kids on campus pass by and stare, confused by our idiocy, as we cut our edges through hard mud. There is no real sense to it, but it is clearly something we feel overwhelmingly compelled to do.

In my wondrous stupor that morning I immediately texted my roommates and said, “get up, we’re going climbing at Pitchoff today.” Both texted me back, describing in various ways how stupid the idea was…

After some poking and prodding I was able to convince Dylan to go. How could one resist the chance? We only had one day on the rock in the past three weeks.

The temps for the day hovered from the high thirties to the low forties. Pretty low temps to do much more than bouldering, sport was a maybe, trad may have been miserable. I promised Dyl’ that we would only do single pitch trad at a south facing cliff, with the only possibilities of multi-pitch being no wind. No wind, in the Adirondacks… laughable.

 

Cascade pass greeted us with a soft blue sky beaming against freshly fallen snow atop Cascade Mountain. We drove down the winding road poking fun at the number of hikers wandering around the Cascade trailhead, a famous local pastime. Continuing down the pass we craned our necks to see all the cliffs in the pass before finally arriving at ours.

To be honest, we were both kind of weary about what we were getting into. As we parked at the pull-off I stepped out of the car and strolled down the narrow shoulder to take a look up high at the cliff. The entirety of my time spent gazing was merely an art in convincing myself everything would be fine.

“Yeah, the sun is shining on it, that means it will be warm…”

“It doesn’t feel too windy down here…”

“The sun is only going to get warmer…”

The convincing worked. I was suddenly sitting on belay while Dylan was leading the second pitch of ‘Pete’s Farewell’ on our way up to the ‘PF Flyers’ finish. At this point the sun was still peeking out above the cliff and warming our down covered bodies. It was beautiful out and we were climbing, and that was all that mattered.

Dyl’ yells down to me, “There’s ice on some holds! It feels like I’m alpine climbing! This is sick!”

There was certainly an alpine feel in the air, a few pitches high, snowy holds, and our puffies on. The only true separation in our minds was the roar of cars on the road below, a sure reminder that civilization was still relatively close. Each car that sped down the road left us with a momentary lapse in our ability to have conversation, followed by a repetition of what the other didn’t hear.

I was excited Dylan was having so much fun, but with icy holds I got a little nervous about my own pitch. I sat at the belay trying to warm my butt from the cold rock I was sitting on and talk myself down a bit. Clouds passed over the sun causing shade to come and go. Every now and again I would hear the wind pass through the tops of trees above, a fair warning that our judgment may have been off.

My nerves didn’t hang out too long though, my mental game clicked on and I felt confident. Soon I got up and followed the second pitch, clearing snow from the tops of ledges and warming my hands along the way. I gained the final corner to the belay ledge and stood at a good stem to warm my hands. It was much colder on this cliff than I thought it would be. I would shake out one calf, loosely holding a hand-jam, then shake out the other. Then I would stem and bring my hands in and blow a little into them. The rock was cold. I pulled the final moves to the belay and put my gloves on.

My pitch beckoned. I had never seen it before. I saw a lot of blank rock, a sole bolt, and the finishing, easy finger-crack. Off the belay I stepped up the steep slab a ways to gain the bolt. The next moves looked impossible. I sat shaking out my failing calves as I worked out what to do. With a lack of confidence I grabbed the small sidepull, got a hip-high foot and pulled. Then popped off.

What the hell is this? I thought to myself. I got back up on the slab, pulled my hands in and blew some more. That side-pull felt like nothing but a crystal on my fingertips when they were cold. I had to get warm. I blew and blew, put my hands in my armpits, and waited until they were finally warm. Meanwhile, Dyl sat on belay below totally exposed to the wind, but didn’t say a word.

Round 2: I stepped up, got the hold, got the foot and ripped with all my might. It was such an awkward position. It felt as if I was locked into a contrived ball with no way out except to pull the draw above my head. Somehow the move worked out, after enough struggle, it was as if my body hit a balance point and I was able to rock up and hit the jug up high. The crux was over. I threw a nut in behind the jug, thuggishly ran my feet up the blank face and hit a handrail.

I sat at the rail and tried to shake out, next thing I knew I was at a second crux. One high foot and hands growing increasingly numb I threw a cam in and started to struggle my way across the handrail to gain the crack. I couldn’t feel what I was holding. I tried to hand-jam the horizontal, find some small feet, anything.

I fell again.

I shook my head in angst, warmed my hands and jugged the rope, “I can’t believe Dyl’ isn’t frozen solid.” I thought to myself. He just kept his head down with his hood covering his helmet. If he was miserable he wasn’t griping about it too much. I soon realized I needed to move a bit faster for his sake. I gave the rail another go and hit the crack, sent it, then finally belayed Dyl’ up.

Dylan yelled up to me, “I just stepped on a dime size foot and it felt like a ledge! My toes are so cold dude!”

We were both frozen. I couldn’t feel my toes any longer. I would knock them on the rock and try to do anything to encourage circulation. The sun went behind the cliff and the wind had picked up. I would sit and listen to the wind approach as it ripped through the pass before finally hitting me with full force. All I could do was curl up and shield my face. Dyl’ stood below the crack cringing as blood slowly pulsated back through his fingertips. Screaming barfies hit him full force, and it was still only October.

Dylan got to the anchor, said he was never doing this again and led out across the exposed fin to safety. I sat there organizing the anchor and then he belayed me over. Feeling was long gone from my toes; I could wander around without pain while in my Muiras. It was time to go. We rappelled out as fast as we could and sprinted to the car. Finally the climb was over.

We got our fix for that week.

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