Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone: A Climbing Lesson

This past Saturday, after falling, for the proverbially umpteenth time, off a climbing route at The Cliffs in Long Island City, I walked off, wondering yet again, this time loudly enough for gym staff members to hear me, whether it was worse to have never climbed a route in the first place or to keep failing at a route that you have climbed once before. (In case you were wondering, this was a route I had climbed once but have not been able to top out on since then; clearly, the stars had aligned on the day I had climbed it for the first time.) A young man who works at the gym yelled back at me, “The second one!”

He was right. As Cinderella pointed out a long time ago, all the way back in the long-gone eighties, don’t know what you got till it’s gone. And things get worse when you set off in pursuit again of ‘it,’ all the while possessed by a peculiar sort of anxiety: What if the good news I had allowed myself to believe turns out to have just been a beguiling lie? What if the clouds had merely temporarily lifted, allowing for a glimpse of the promised land, and then closed again, cruelly tantalizing and mocking? As my note about the possibility of the stars aligning on the first ascent indicates, maybe my first ascent was just me ‘getting lucky,’ a ‘fluke’ of sorts that said nothing whatsoever my climbing ability or skills. These repeated failures were confirmation instead, of my true incompetence in climbing, my ‘I-don’t-belong-here’ status; they were exposures of this impostor who had dared venture out and up on these climbing walls with their frustratingly distant, slippery, and small holds.  I was a fool to have ever imagined I could be any good at this; shame on me for having let myself believe such a falsehood.

When climbing a route that has remained elusive, I sense a virtuous effort at play; I can easily ascribe nobility to my striving; I have never succeeded here, but I think I can, so I must keep trying; again and again and again. My perseverance and its accompanying failure acquires its own particular grace. But when I’m climbing a difficult route I have climbed before I am beset, quite easily, by the doubts and anxieties noted above.

A task that is potentially repeatable, and yet non-trivial–like a climb–thus allows us to inspect this interesting variant of anxiety and self-doubt. The positive counterpart to these worries is well-known: if you’ve done it once before, you can do it again. But we all know that not to be true; sometimes we grow slower, less adept, less skilled; we can’t always do it again.

Such anxieties and the variants I make note of here, are not easily conquered. They do, however, confirm the wisdom of the adage of staying in the moment: enjoy each moment (each success on each route) while it lasts; it might not be yours again.

Volcanoes In Ecuador: Thwarted But Happy

Climbing volcanoes in Ecuador has been a long-held dream of mine. From January 13th to the 19th of this year, I took a few baby steps toward realizing it: I traveled to Machachi, Ecuador to try to hike and climb Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, Ecuador’s tallest volcanoes. I failed; both volcanoes were not prepared to receive me on their summits; the weather did not co-operate and was well and truly ‘socked in’ with persistent rain and snow higher up. I traveled partway up Cotopaxi, returning from 5300 meters after snow conditions were deemed unfit for us to continue; the Chimborazo attempt was called off before commencing thanks to reports that avalanche conditions prevailed on its slopes. Still, I managed to squeeze in hikes–of varying levels–of three other volcanoes in the region: Corazon; Illiniza Norte; Ruminahui. I also spent a rewarding week at a lovely hostel–the Hosteria Chiguac–in the town of Machachi, and a wonderful weekend in Quito with an old friend. Like all occasions to travel, this one changed me emotionally and physically; I fell in love all over again with the mountains and renewed my gratitude for the folks I meet when I travel,–this time around, a pair of fire fighters from Idaho, Canadian climbers, English schoolboys, a German young man–who fill my heart with their affection and amaze me with their kindness. The world is a big place, and I will remain in awe of all it contains.

I arrived in Quito on Friday, January 11th, and after being picked up by Manuel from Andes Climbing, was driven to Machachi to check in at the Hosteria Chiguac. Next morning, my guide Marco arrived to accompany me on an acclimitazation hike to Corazon. The hike begins from a parking lot at 4000 m above sea level and continues on to the summit of Corazon–with a funky little rocky scramble requiring some care along the way. The summit is at 4780m; we were accompanied by a dog–Senor Perro–who proved to be a remarkably skillful scrambler and hiker. After a quick lunch, we headed back down, or rather, we were chased off the summit ridge by an impending thunderstorm. The next day, Marco and I headed off to climb Illiniza Norte, the less-technical of the pair of Illinizas. This is a class 3 scramble that turned into an alpine adventure thanks to the fresh snow; the most excitement came along the traverse ‘El Paseo De Morte’ and in ascending the final couloir to the summit; we roped up and Marco expertly belayed me on a couple of sections. After the summit, we ‘surfed’ our way down a scree slope to pull off a little slippery, slidy, shortcut. After a day’s rest, Marco and I attempted to scale Cotopaxi.

The day before our attempted climb, Marco and I drove to the parking lot for the Jose Rivas Refuge, and hiked up to the refuge, our jumping off point for the summit push. We ate an early dinner, checked our gear and turned in for the night at about 630PM. Wake-up was at 11PM; I drank a quick coffee, geared up, and headed out. One indication of the trouble we were to face was that we had to put on our crampons at the refuge itself, as opposed to the usual ‘crampons-on’ point at the the glacier forty-five minutes up the slope. Later, the snow grew deeper, wetter, and slippier, making progress up the slope harder and harder. Two hours and 1300 feet up the slope, our luck ran out, as Marco and other guides with other parties decided that snow conditions made it too hard to carry on. Our Cotopaxi plans having fallen apart, so did our Chimoborazo ones; besides, scouting reports made it clear avalanche risk was too high. I settled for a substitute hike to Ruminahui Central on a day which summed up the weather for the week; it began and ended in dampness, and we were chased off the peak by an approaching storm.

My hiking concluded, I moved to Quito for the weekend to meet an old friend and spent a couple of days of blissful indulgence, eating ceviche and various barbecued meats, strolling around, drinking delicious black coffee with coconut oil and sugar, and enjoying, all over again, the sensation of being amazed by this world’s offerings. The mountains did not co-operate this time around; but I’m patient. I’ll be back.

 

Winter Climbing In The White Mountains, Redux

This past weekend, I traveled to New Hampshire’s White Mountains for a little guided winter climbing. (This excursion took place almost exactly a year after my trip last year–which had featured some basic snow and ice skills lessons in bone-chilling cold and a failed summit attempt on Mt. Washington; this time around, my guide was Carolyn Riccardi of Eastern Mountain Sports, who had also guided my family on an outdoor rock climbing trip to the Gunks this past September.) We had planned to do some snow and ice climbing on Mt. Willard and Mt. Webster on Friday and Saturday; the first plan came off, the second was modified. This was my first stab at multi-pitch ice climbing and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

On Friday, Carolyn and I met at EMS in North Conway, got our gear together (ice tools, crampons, a climbing rack; I already owned a helmet, harness, and mountaineering boots), and discussed objectives and expectations for the day. Once set, a short drive brought us to Crawford Notch from where our ascent to Mt. Willard began. A short approach hike brought us to the lower section of Hitchcock Gully, which required some moderate snow climbing. From there on, we traversed to the right across some snow covered rock slabs to Left Hand Monkey Wrench for our first ice climb; this was a good learning experience for me (though I didn’t help matters by dropping an ice screw while dismantling an anchor; I had to rappel down to bring it back up, a mortifying experience.) Thereafter, we moved on to The Cleft; the crux move on this involves moving over the Chockstone, a boulder that blocks the slot and presents an interesting obstacle. It took me several tries to get over this and my final move was an undignified one that saw me plant my face right in the snow. Good times. Thereafter, a short climb brought us to the Mt. Willard summit trail from where we made a right to head back to the car. (A short walk would have taken us to the summit, but time was running out–thanks to my learning curve on removing anchors, tying clove-hitch knots etc–so to avoid the dark, we high-tailed it.) All in all, a very satisfying day.

(Below: In Left Hand Monkey Wrench. Photos by Carolyn Riccardi)

On Saturday, we dropped our plans for Mt. Webster and headed instead to the Silver Cascade–a frozen stream bed and falls–for some more ice climbing. The snow here was quite thick, making our movements quite slow at times. Still, the ice climbing was relatively easy and enjoyable. We headed up for a bit, exploring the Cascade’s different features before finally calling it a day and bushwhacking it back down to the road.

Below: Climbing in the Silver Cascade:

I’ve still got a very long way to go on winter climbing; I’m still struggling with moving smoothly and keeping all the various pieces–equipment, clothing, my body–together. Still, it was an amazing experience to be able to make progress on some alpine skills, and I look forward to putting these together on some bigger routes in the future.

An Irresponsible, Yet Edifying, Adventure

A couple of weekends ago, my family and I set out to hike Breakneck Ridge in the Hudson Highlands just outside New York City. I’d hiked the Ridge for the first time the day before we went and judged the route–sometimes exaggeratedly described as “the hardest hike around New York City”–to be doable by my almost-five-year old daughter. It was; the scramble up to the top is indeed steep and rocky at points, but nothing that a little hand-holding would not ameliorate. The greatest environmental hazards and barriers were the large weekend crowds from the city; hundreds of folks accompanied us on our hike, making us feel, more often than not, that we were concert goers heading up for a recital on the ridge’s exposed ledges. Enroute, on a flatter portion of the ridge, we stopped to watch a few youngsters doing some bouldering on a large rock structure with a crack running down the middle. One young man had already scaled the feature; another one was attempting to scale it. After a few tries, he gave up, joining in the laughing and general merriment that seemed to be characteristic of this young, adventurous group. My curiosity was piqued; I decided to give the route a try.

There was a minor problem with this decision. The bouldering underway was proceeding without a protective pad, the kind used to cushion falls when boulderers slip or dismount. The ground beneath was not rocky but the route was long and exposed enough to ensure that a fall could hurt badly. Nevertheless, I began my ‘ascent,’ wedging my fingers into the crack for my starting hold and moving on from there. I had lost sight of my wife and daughter; they had moved on ahead and up to the top of the rock. After a couple of false starts, and one partial retreat, I began inching my way up the face. As I did so, I realized with some alarm that the time for safe descents was past; I had to climb this rock in order to be safe. There was no way but up. All around me, my spectators had gone quiet. They had perhaps realized this fact too.

At that moment, a curious crystallization of my thoughts took place; I was gripped with a terror of sorts, but also a tremendous clarity. I had no choice; I had to make it. Every point of contact with the rock became measured; every movement became precise. I did not make any tentative moves; there was no attempt to use a hold that did not seem like it would work. I could see the ‘promised land’ just a few feet away, and sensed out of the corner of my eyes, the young man who had climbed the rock move toward me to extend a helping hand in case I needed it. But he would not be able to help me if I slipped, and certainly no one below me would be able to cushion my fall. I was simultaneously terrified and determined; I had to make this. Or else. That clarity made me climb on. Successfully.

A few seconds later, I was up on top, high-fiving folks. My wife fixed me with a stony glare, and told me to never try that again. She was right; had I fallen, I could have suffered a broken bone or two, a painful and inconvenient injury up at the top of Breakneck Ridge. We were hiking with our daughter, and we had to get her off the ridge as well. It was an irresponsible move on my part. And yet, for hours, I could not stop smiling. Those few moments of absolutely crystalline concentration of mind and body, of utter absorption in the task, of experiencing such acute sensitivity of touch and hold–all mingled with a peculiar terror–were indescribable. Yet again, climbing had delivered; I had been transported.

A Momentary, But Edifying, Lapse Of Focus

This past Friday, I went climbing in the Shawangunks with my wife and daughter; we were guided by Carolyn Riccardi of Eastern Mountain Sports and received some wonderful instruction throughout the day. My daughter attempted some elementary routes as did my wife and I. I also attempted and succeeded in climbing a slightly harder route–for me: the 5.7 rated Nice Crack Climb, whose most tricky part is a bouldering move to get off the ground. It took me six attempts to get past that; a very satisfying if exhausting accomplishment. A little higher up, a crack needs a little work as well, and here, I spent a little time figuring out how to move up. Finally, I saw what had to be done; I would have to twist my body sideways bringing my left hand across to the right and then as I pulled myself across laterally, to reach up with my right hand to a very useful little hold that was now visible. I reached across and moved up–and then, in the very next instant, I had slipped and was dangling on the rope in mid-air, expertly and safely belayed by our guide below.

I had started my celebrations a little too early–and I had paid for it. Not for the first time, I was rudely reminded that it is best to wait till the finish line is reached before tooting one’s trumpet.

In that fraction of a second before I slipped, I had experienced a surge of elation. I had figured out how I was going to get out of this jam and move on to the top of the crag’s face. Till then, I had been tired, a little sweaty, my hands scraped and blistered in a couple of spots; I had started to experience some doubt about my ability–as a very inexperienced climber–to solve this face’s challenges. And then, when the ‘solution’ presented itself to me, I thought I had glimpsed the promised land, the end of the route. I had already started to imagine the backslapping and congratulations I would receive once I had rappelled down. And in that fraction of a second, my mind and body weren’t working together. And so I slipped.

I got back on the route and finished it, this time making sure that I remained focused on completing the move. And I did indeed, celebrate with the rest of my climbing companions once I got back down. That glow was worth basking in; but the most important lesson hadn’t been the fact that I had completed my first challenging route in the ‘Gunks. Rather, I had gained insight into something I had read in many accounts of climbing: that it requires concentration and focus at all times, that the worst mistakes happen when you take your eyes off the prize. Many climbers write of how this intense focus can be intensely pleasurable, allowing them to feel a level of awareness of their body and mind that they do not experience elsewhere. I think I have the faintest glimmering of an idea of what they are getting at now. For this permanently distracted person, that focus seems especially alluring. It sends out a siren call of sorts, beckoning me away from my desk.

Learning To Live With The Fear Of Heights

I’m terrified of heights; vertigo, nausea, fear, and anxiety instantly make an appearance as I near an airy ledge of any kind. Cliffs in the wilderness, building balconies, these all induce these effects in me. My fear of heights bothers me; I like hiking, I like mountain views, and the best ones are always up among the regions where my fears are at their most insistent, clamoring for attention, demanding control of my body and brain. I gaze at photos of mountaineers on ridges and summits and ice walls, and I’m thrilled and nauseated alike. I want to be up there, but I know what I will feel: terror. During my boarding school years, in the tenth grade, I took up rock climbing in an effort to try to either master, or co-exist with, this fear. Those motivations were quite conscious; I hoped to move on past the worst aspects of those sensations so I could enjoy the mountains. My rock climbing was elementary but I did achieve a moment of acute insight once while abseiling down a training cliff: my feet slipped momentarily, I swung back hard into the rock face, and panicked. Around me, mists swirled, and below me lurked a seemingly bottomless chasm. As I called for help, my instructor yelled at me to push away from the cliff and continue moving down. I was not going to be rescued. A few seconds later, I came to an overhang, pushed out, and smoothly swung down to the floor to come to rest; I was exhilarated. I had encountered trouble in a scary place, and somehow, I had moved on–despite my fears. I had seen a glimmer of a better place; perhaps by controlled exposure to heights, I could learn to live with my fears well enough to be able to travel to places I wanted to see.

Over the years, this insight faded; I left my boarding school in the hills, returned to the plains, graduated from school and college, migrated; I’d gone back to my old ways. I continued to hike in the mountains, but I never took up any kind of climbing again. I remained scared of the heights.

Sometime last year, I began resolving to push myself back to the heights, to train, formally and informally, to get back to trying to ‘master’ those old fears of mine. I took a climbing course in New Hampshire, and an ice climbing course in the Catskills; neither of those classes involved exposure to great heights, but I hoped to start learning those skills and techniques which would let me make a foray to places where I would encounter them. I also hoped to start pushing myself to, er, ‘expose’ myself to, exposure.

This past week’s hike to Mt. Yamnuska–while ostensibly an elementary recreational jaunt, one that thousands of local teenagers pull off every year–thus constituted an integral part of this strategy; the tiny cabled ‘via ferrata‘ section on its approach had filled me with much trepidation when I had first read about it, and so it made eminent sense to attempt it. Online guides said it was not for the ‘faint of heart’; I thought I recognized myself, the very faint of heart. The evening before the hike, I was suddenly struck with fear and doubt; What if I slipped? What if I fell? What if I looked down?

On the day of the hike, the cabled section finally made its appearance; one hiking partner went first, and I followed next. Because the cable is strung tight, it affords a comfortably secure grip as the ledge is traversed; there was one tricky section where the slack in the cable sent me alarmingly into open air. I hung on, slid my hands across, as I hung on tight and moved on. There was some genuine fear in there for a second, but it subsided. A second later, I was done. The summit was a short scramble away. (Interestingly enough, because you have to concentrate on your grip and the placement of your feet, there is little time to think about the exposure behind and below; a very useful lesson.)

I feel faintly ridiculous as I write these words; all I had done was walk across a short section of a cliff ledge, all the while hanging on to a cable. But these sorts of things add up, I suppose, and I can only hope they continue to. I don’t think I’ll ever ‘master’ my fear of heights, but perhaps I’ll learn to live with them in a way that will allow me access to those regions up among the clouds that do so much to lift my spirits.