Closing the Circle
by Michael Gray
Winter had come to the Alleghenies like the unbidden memory of ice, an armor of snow stained black and red along the roadways, broken only by the occasion trail of machines or wildlife, littered with Christmas tinsel, bits of wrapping paper, and diamonds of broken water.
The last patches of blue sky, and with them the fleeting glow of the sun, slipped away as we found a dry spot in the churned mud, ice, and gravel. A battered DeptHiWays road grader crouched slumbering in the refreezing snow under the trees as we shrugged into packs and started the quick march up creek, our boots crunching on alternating patches of cinders and gravel, ice and refreezing slush. The vast torn cloak of clouds drifted ponderously south, driven by arctic winds, empty now of their loads of lake effect snow.
The wind bit hard on exposed cheeks and foreheads, nipping our ears and fingertips as we nodded and cheerfully returned the blank stares of several passing truckloads of dog-hauling bear hunters; racing against the end of the season, jacked up on No-Doze and Red Bull, adrenaline and moonshine and meth, an assortment of radios filling the ether with cryptic hillbilly code words and sportsmen’s slang, dogs with names like Diesel and Slash and Git-R-Done staring mournfully from the bedboxes as they raced by in a flurry of exhaust and spray. A single yelping cry was cut off as the convoy rounded the curve out of sight.
Several smaller sedans passed, either on the main road or along our own track; the insulated, antiquated locals within peering intently through the safety of tempered glass and a yawning gulf of comprehension, their expressions a commingling of curiosity, outrage, and the fear of the unknown. Was this some new government plot to seize more land for the National Forests, some environmental wackos come to count spotted owls or salamanders or measure lichen growth? Black helicopters, poachers, no doubt godless humanist drug addicts and sex perverts, one and all…
We smiled inside our balaclavas and scarves, nodded and waved at them as well as we could, encumbered with packs, swaddled in techno garb, and striding steadily along into the 20 degree wind chill factor that had transformed a crisp but workable 34 degree day into an arctic adventure race against numbness and the dusk.
The trail was iron-hard, steps kicked and shoveled into the previous week’s blizzard now frozen into marble solidity. Following hard on the heels of the Blizzard of 09, the previous Saturday had been a day of laughter and sweating under too many layers while moving cubic yards of the over two feet of powdery snow we had received in just over 24 hours.
The sun had come out early and the base of the crags had been warm enough for shirtsleeves and single tech layers. Sunday had seen the original ground-up onsight ascent of my target line; methodically working out the stances, enjoying the great stemming, exploring conditions and rock quality and placing gear up to the point I’d picked to bail from, a huge anvil horn jutting from the right hand arete of the dihedral at 2/3 height. When I had discovered that the final 20’ of rock was running with meltwater and ground zero for the occasional falling icicle, I shamelessly tucked tail and bailed, pulling rope and leaving the gear fixed with an eye on finishing the route to the rim. Matching action to intent by rapping the finishing section to check for ice and loose rock and installing anchors the day before, I was back on this gray afternoon to see it through with the indomitable Cindy Bender as my belayer.
A week of thawing and freezing since the blizzard, with a dusting of sleet in the interim, had greatly changed the nature of the snow and the trail. We dry-tooled and front pointed up the steep bank to the foot of the first boulders like mountaineers on the shoulders of a glacier, then contoured left and uphill towards the toprope line “Shaved Scamper” sitting smack-dab in the center of the Power Couple Wall. We took our time, enjoying the stability and traction of the stone trail and steps created there by our friends from Linden State College, during the deluge of spring 08. With the laughing guidance of Sensei Jamie Struck and the willing hands of the Curmudgeon, the LSC Lionhearts had constructed a set of stone stairs that had withstood the ensuing year’s traffic without a single failure of stone or placement.
Each of those steps now became an exercise in cautious balance. We continued up through the icebound lower trail, pausing between cruxes to snap pics and marvel at the multitude of fluted, glowing ice draperies scattered across the walls, ledges, shrubs and branches. Shattered crystalline shards on the trail and at the foot of the Reaching Wall climbs told the story of collapse in the previous day’s warmth, and more fell as we dropped packs under the moderate “Thieves in the Temple“. I fished out the hot tea and spices and we shared several cups, swapping layers and spreading out gear between deep, fragrant sips.
Despite our cheerful determination, the wind continued unabated . I watched for a moment as a distant tear opened in the clouds, clipping the few pieces of pro I knew I’d need for the short wall below the anchors to my gear loops, with draws and slings to match. A dusting of snowflakes drifted across my cheek as I flaked my rope onto a groundsheet below the classic if crumbly dihedral where my first few pieces lay in the shadow of the hand crack, above the initial fun sequence of stemming that put you right in front of the gear. The steep terrain and unstable footing of the belay/trail area made location of the belayer problematic, and we spent several minutes shuffling Cindy around for the best combination of safety and visibility.
With her settled into relative safety and a round of verbal and visual double checks, I climbed up through the wide opening sequence of stemming and dropped a #10 Hexcentric into the crack to replace the #2 Camalot I’d want, higher up. I clipped the Hex with a long sling and called “Belay on?” Cindy responded with a shift of the rope and “On belay.” Three more moves and another pair of pieces, one of them slung on a Screamer to reduce impact force on the slightly questionable flake it rests behind. The wind freshened and a few flakes fell away from the rounded edge under my foot.
Several more stemming moves, each a bit wider and less substantial than the last, with surprisingly good features on the face to the left and depressingly deteriorating conditions to the right, then a big reach up to the Spock, matching with a crumbly angular block, a bit of fast foot movement and dancing past some crumbly blocks in the corner… when one of them suddenly began to peel back.
Cindy and I shouted “Rock!“ at almost the same second, as I froze in mid-step, the two-inch-thick, foot square block resting against my left shin and ankle. I was several feet above my last piece, with absolutely no desire to drop this bomb down into my groundfall pro, or my belayer, for that matter.
“I’m going to toss this out onto the trail.“
“Got it. I’m clear.”
“Got a few loose stones first, watch for grit and stuff.”
“Go for it.”
The tone is oddly lighthearted, almost disconnected, as if we can avert disaster by refusing to treat it as such, pushing the balance of karma back with an almost Zen state of no-mind.
I tossed several fist-sized chunks, listening to make sure they stopped, and then yelled “Rock!” and sent the plate down away from the gear and Cindy, hearing it shatter on the talus below. I moved out of the awkward half-step and stem I had been crouched in for the last few minutes, straightened my neck and stretched the kinks out of my spine.
Brushing away dirt and debris, I spent a few seconds blowing off the adrenaline; cracking jokes and succumbing to several seconds of hysterical laughter and bad puns. Several moves higher, the fixed gear smiled out at me so warmly I could almost feel my fingers and hands again as I clip and swap numb meat in the jam, twisting slightly to stare back at the thick gray fleece of the horizon for some break of light and hope of brief warmth. No joy in Cragville, tonight, however. If anything, it is getting colder, and darker, and I see Cindy huddle in her stance as another wind sweeps the crag, bringing a raw chill from the creek below.
“This next bit rocks and rolls, but the rock is diamond and the holds are incredible.” I called down over the rumbling roar of the wind on the opposite side of the gorge, gauging her response time, thinking about the important differences in our cold tolerances, about the interactions of MS and hypothermia. I could feel my shoulder and thigh muscles beginning to tighten with the unrelenting chill of the wind, and wanted to get out of the throat of the chimney and onto open ground to the finish.
“I’m alright!” she yelled, “that wind is just cold!” I’m reminded that, as well as growing up in the jungles of South America, Cindy Bender also spent many fine Ohio winters trudging across fields to skate for hours on end on ponds and rivers. I gave her a big grin and thumbs up as she squared her shoulders and pushed her hood back for a better view. She nodded, all business.
Timeshift: Into the now…
The rock is clean, gemstone quality and flawlessly featured. Big moves, good holds, solid gear. Overhanging moves through incut rails and horizontals, sprinkled with positive grip jugs, pockets and slots. Where it is thin, there are ergonomically correct stemming footholds and the wild perspective of the dihedral, your gear, and the rope swaying there below you. I locked my hips and looked right, along the line of the roof just inches over my head. Eight feet away, the anvil horn jutted out into the cold blast of the wind, the occasional snowflake or falling icicle slowly subliming to the wind on its fairly dry surface.
“Not today.” I whisper, warming my burning fingers on the nape of my neck. I laugh quietly at myself for the drama of the moment.
It’s not like this is Astroman, dude… it’s a shitty little corner on a 20m sport wall out in the middle of West Virginia. Most people who know you will never bother to climb it before judging it to be a silly conceit to require people to bring a rack and know how to judge the quality of rock in the middle of a bolted area. Somebody’s probably gonna come along some day and say “Hey, how come they never bolted this line?” and stick in the five or six bolts you’ve debated once or twice.
A snort of cold air. To hell with all that. It’s each route for itself. It doesn’t have to be Astroman or Separate Reality or even the second pitch of Green Wall at Seneca. It’s the route you found, the route you cleaned and climbed from ground to three-quarter height onsight in arctic conditions, and it’s the line that you are going to finish today.
Let’s get on with it.
I call instructions to Cindy, letting her know that the rope will be feeding slowly and making sure she can see me as I move up and around the corner. She adjusts position and I begin the traverse, short and sweet, out to the lip, stepping up to stand hips against the bottom of the horn, the final wall breaking for the sky over my left shoulder.
I finagle a #1 Camalot in the pocket just above my head and an arms length away, then reverse and clean the mid-traverse piece I had placed. I regrettably decide not to back clean the high corner piece, and fight rope drag the rest of the climb as a consequence. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t optimal.
The move onto the anvil horn proves the biggest grunt of the entire climb, probably the awkward crux if not the technical one. High hands and a crotch-stretching high step with the right foot, and I pull up around the lip to stand on the point of my bail anchors just two days before. The broad triangular surface still holds small pockets of ice and meltwater in the myriad dimpled echoes of an ancient riverbed or beach.
The sun is low behind a solid wall of gray, now, but the sky opens briefly for a rising glow as I pull the moves up to the horizontal #2 pocket, clipping in with a medium runner and stepping right to palm the clean corner edges. A jam beside the piece pivots me up on high feet to reach through with the right to-
“Jug!” I laugh out loud, matching and high-stepping to crank into the next stance, slotting a pair of opposed wired stoppers. I swear under my breath as I realize that I am down to three quick draws, then shrug and clip one into the pair, rolling the rope into the gate with a call of “Clipped!”
Big horns and moves call me up towards the nearing anchors, but in my enthusiasm, I move too far to the side for the short draw and watch as one of my opposing pieces twists out to dangle by my foot. I know the other piece is bomber, even solo, and shrug, focusing on setting my feet on cold-stiffened thighs and calves, my numb hands beginning to fumble as I clip a biner through the paired quick links and follow it with a bight of rope. The smell of lichen and sweat, old ice and cold wood come to my nostrils as I grasp the second mouthful and then lift it away towards the cold metal oval, hearing the snap of the gate with a rising surge of delight and, I realize, satisfaction.
The cold nips at me, and I stand laughing on a featured face, embracing the winter, the wind, the partner below and the climb we have shared and the endless promise of the sky.
This is what I do. This is who I am.
Now, just over a year later, with another season of climbs and trails and friends behind us, we are back, my partner and I. Storms weathered, droughts broken, residences relocated, lives re-arranged. Trails explored and routes besieged and the end result was always capitulation, on the parts of both stone and flesh. Something lost, and still always something gained, if only a lesson.
We chased the motionless river, a ribbon of ice wending its way upward through the hollows and ridges strewn like a rumpled blanket along the flanks of North Mountain, winding along the motionless white ribbon of multi-layered ice, razor edges of perfect transparency and thick white topographies of psychedelic curves and waves. There were stories there, a silent history in ice of each night’s battle between the endless flowing of the creek and the endless hunger of the cold, each day’s gift of sunlight or rain and wind, green moss still struggling through on the occasionally-bard shelf, dark water twisting beneath long winding tableaus of animal tracks and imprisoned leaves and branches.
The story continues at http://roninsroad.blogspot.com/2011/01/supernatural-closing-circle.html