Heres a highlight tour:
Onsights of Last Gent, Float, Plug n Chug, Re-Norm etc at the Lake; onsight of Positive Thinking, numerous midnight solos of Chouinards Gully after 4 hr drive up Friday nights. Seven lap sessions on Roaring Brook Falls training days; Catskills, LBD, Buttermilk Falls, Curtain etc. The Advocate. Quebec, onsight Pomme D' Or; Frankenstein- onsights of Standard Route and Waterfall, onsights of Welcome to the Machine and Dropline. Dracula, both sides, etc. Rock routes, a lttle bit- onsight up to 5.9 Count Crackula, NJ; a Gunks afternoon enchained- Classic, Drunkards, Strictly, High E, walk back to down climb Jackie. Yosemite, Royal Arches route descend NDG. Like to aid solo with some FAs, and also rope-solo FAs to 5.8.
So follows is the story of a little 5.6 route called the Zipper in Watchung, NJ that to my mind trumps breaking a pick on the last forty foot home stretch of the Pomme D'Or and hanging by one tool, leashed, with both feet cut loose over the void.
Another Day in the Woods
Pogue maneuvered the car into the far corner of the parking lot where the guide book said the trail started. He turned off the engine and in a matter of moments began his ritual transformation from jacket and tie to jeans and leather boots. As he did so, he glanced at his watch; it was after mid-day, but there was plenty of time left to find and scout out the cliff. Pogue finished tightening the laces of his heavy leather boots.
The area was an obscure park and quiet on a March weekday afternoon in the Northeast. It was Tuesday and not another car could be seen in the lot. This adventure was a little reward Pogue allowed himself as a break from the nine to five work grind: a salesman’s perk on the road. He was out to take a look as he had done at so many other “off the beaten track” areas. It was just another reconnaissance mission to a forgotten and neglected crag. He left his shoes and chalkbag in the trunk of the car, figuring he probably wouldn’t climb anything. The moth always underestimates the lure of the flame. The cliff holds a minor place in local climbing history, and a few pioneering regional legends had deemed the area worthy of their attention once upon a time. The desire to explore it burned strongly, and he set out.
The first obstacle in his search presented itself right away. A swift, broad creek without a bridge required crossing. As a kid, Pogue Mahone had spent many hours pitting the skills of balance and nerve against the hazards of rushing water and slippery stone. Streams and creeks always provided welcome challenges that could usually be overcome with a little confidence and a bit of ingenuity and luck. The penalty for failure rarely amounted to more than a wet sock or two. After a bit of easy leaping, Pogue scrambled up the opposite embankment in a dry pair of boots.
A wave of excitement washed over him as he rounded a bend and his eyes first set on the small crag. It was always the same, that first rush of excitement. He felt that gnawing hunger for what might appear around the next corner. With this fresh coursing of discovery running hot in his veins, Pogue stalked along the base imagining the thoughts of those earliest climbers as they eyed the first lines that would go. He then touched the rock. No sooner had the moth put flesh to stone, than the urge to climb sang through him.
He pulled into the first moves almost unconsciously, automatically, though he soon awoke to insecure slanted holds, his heavy leather boots reluctantly adhering on rounded polish. He ignored the warnings to retreat. Once the boots had left the ground, they kept moving up. The handholds were there; they were just tenuous and slopey, offering little in the way of any truly solid purchase. He knew he was broaching a point of no return.
The boots moved on up, though, soon leaving the realm of cautious bouldering behind. The line topped out at around thirty feet with the difficulty well within Pogue’s ability. Still, those old leather boots began to remind him how accustomed he had become to sticky Spanish rubber. Spoiled, even, you might say. The next sequence of moves, though, had brought him a prize: a solid incut hold. “Yes, breathe, just breathe and know where you are,” he thought. At twenty feet he was more than halfway there. He paused a moment. To reverse the earlier nebulous moves by downclimbing now with those cumbersome boots was far less appealing than pushing on and finishing. Ironically, it is the co-mingling of fear and confidence that often drives the decision-making process. Within the context of self-assessed skills, you must decide what it is you fear the most and then act. Pogue, through long experience, knew fairly well his capabilities both physically and mentally. Today, he didn’t try to ward off any lurking demons of fear. Rather, he acknowledged them with familiarity, and yielded to them the respect due formidable adversaries. From previous battles he had learned that you don’t always prevail against these demons, but he also knew that he was more than capable of being their master.
The holds returned to dirty slopers and Pogue began to wonder when the last time anyone had done this route. The polish on the route evidenced much previous traffic, but the buildup of dirt suggested it had been long ago. A serious air began to creep into what should have been a casual affair. Pogue resolved to beat the demons. “No adrenaline”, he commanded. “You must not allow it. Keep moving and keep focused.”
Pogue climbed to within three feet of the top only to arrive at an impasse just short of salvation. He knew he was off-route, too. The easier finish lay three to four feet left from where he now found himself uncomfortably perched. He had deviated from the true line, fooled by some “red herring” holds to the right that put him onto this dead-end course which led to much harder climbing. The top was at once mocking him and beckoning to him earnestly. The ground was now an awful, long way down. As his leather boots scuffed around on sloping holds, Pogue began to feel his strength ebb. Once his momentum stalled, he knew he had only precious little time to act.
The moves confronting him to a direct finish were steep, thin, face moves that did not invite an immediate attempt. Some mere few moves to the left promised a “Thank God” handhold that offered an entrée back onto the path of least resistance. “Breathe. Just breathe,” he counseled himself in an effort to chase desperation back into dark recesses. No, the direct finish would not do. To regain the proper line looked tough, but he resolved to work left. Delicate footwork with indelicate boots would have to get him there. It had taken the eternity of almost half a minute to decide. A first tentative move left pinned his fate to reaching the “Thank God” hold.
He moved. First, one hand left, then a committing step left. One more move up diagonally, then a foot shuffle and…R-E-A-C-H. A long reach stretched sideways as his left arm shot out to the “Thank God” hold. It was simultaneously to be an instant of salvation and damnation.
Pogue heard it as much as he felt it. The pain and the sound intertwined; the stringy fibers of his left shoulder tore like a slowly twisted celery stalk crunching into uselessness. Yet, Pogue fought to finish the moves, somehow managing to hang on as his good hand quickly assumed the burden of keeping himself pasted onto the face. He was at the very finish of the climb with his head and shoulders breaching the top of the cliff. In the immediate aftermath of the shoulder trauma, some muscle function lingered for a brief few seconds allowing Pogue to splay his arm up and out across the top itself. Unfortunately, the arm was useless, except for the minimal friction of its’ own weight against the rock. Although this was something, the arm would be of no help in any attempt to perform the manteling exit moves required to finish the climb.
On some cruel level, Pogue laughed appreciating the comedy inherent in his predicament. “Out of the pan and into the fire,” he thought, just as he was so close. The fingers of his good right hand searched for any hold with which to pull those last few moves. Finding none, they searched for even an indent or weakness that might encourage a gamble. Nothing presented itself. All within reach was a water caressed rock tableau that was silky and smooth like the metal playground slides he remembered as a kid. Time was now a fleeting commodity, and he knew that swift decisions needed careful weighing. It was very simple, really. He would go up or he would go down.
Among the many wonders that climbing can bring us is the instant ability to distill the essence of life to the focus of a mere grain. Not many routine activities require such a concentrated immediate analysis of an individual’s wants and needs. All peripheral demands of life are suddenly stripped away. The human animal is simply left to struggle with the gravity of life and death either through reason or primeval instinct.
Unroped, alone, and injured. Clinging and tiring, Pogue began to bend to gravity’s demand for a timely decision and conclusion. The ground loomed far below and the earth’s pull was becoming more insistent with each passing second. Rest was not an option. Pogue had delayed as best he could, but a reckoning was now past due. His left arm was gone, and soon gravity would wrest all control from him.
The longer he hesitated, the less energy there remained for a climbing effort. From that height, the penalty for falling in mid-sequence would be severe. To fall and land with his body at an angle would mean critical or ultimate consequences from such a height. An off-kilter landing was not a desirable outcome amongst the dirt and rocks that littered the base. Finishing upward seemed to be an “all or nothing” gambit in trying to top out. The top was smooth and featureless. Just one single handhold might have allowed him to grovel up onto his stomach, and, perhaps, worm and thrash his way off. It was not there for him. To attempt the necessary finishing footwork while trusting those leather boots to get the job done was more than Pogue could ask of them.
Did Geronimo break his legs in his fabled leap? Pogue thought not, but reckoned that a broken leg might be more than a fair trade-off as a means of deliverance from this plight. That seemed fair enough. There would be no more climbing today. The odds of a slip seemed too great. If he was going to land, he was determined to do so in a manner of his own choosing, feet first rather than headlong. The decision was made. The legs were to be sacrificed for the good of the cause. In one fluid, relaxed, motion, Pogue released himself from the cliff, gently turning to orient himself to the landing. His fall time elapsed was longer than he thought it would be. Then, with a violent abruptness, the ground rushed to meet him, impacting squarely those large leather boots. Instantly, the rest of his body merged with the dirt and stone at the base of the climb.
Later, dried blood that dripped sideways on his face suggested he had lost consciousness for a bit. He couldn’t reconcile this, though, with his sense that no lapse of time had occurred between his impact and a curious realization as he lay sprawled among the dirt and rocks before the cliff: No wrenching pain of broken bone was evident. Oh, he’d felt better for sure, but he rolled over gingerly, and realized he could bring himself to his feet. Blood on the pebbles beneath him let him know he was not unscathed, but he was surprised that his legs had come through enough to allow him to walk away. A large gash above his eye and some overly taxed legs seemed a pretty good bargain. He’d been willing to pay a little more, but the salesman in him said just walk away from the table and take the deals when you can.
Slowly, he made his way back to the broad creek. With no deference to his earlier game, he plunged into the coursing stream, and walked steadily across splashing along in those big leather boots. He wondered how many stitches he’d need this time, as he ambled along, just another day in the woods.