How did I get here, I ask myself. Where’s the next move? Will this toe grip hold? Is that the next move? Yeah, ease up into it. This crevice is big enough for my knee. Good. Solid. Move your hand.
Above me loom several massive chockstones in quick succession up through the crack. Centuries of erosion and thermal flux have broken loose the quartzite boulders and here they are — thousands of pounds of fury forged 400 million years ago — hovering over my egg-shell head.
This plastic helmet wouldn’t do a damn bit of good if even one of them came loose, I reflect.
I ease up through the narrowing crack, my partner holding fast to the rope some 25 feet below me. I’m underneath the chockstones.
I contort my body as if I’m an arthritic snake, point like a ballerina on an inch of nubby rock and slowly stretch myself out around the chockstone. Millimeter by millimeter, I reach until my finger tips clear the top of the boulder.
I finally can stretch to reach another toehold hold, but I have to use my left arm for leverage on the chockstone for the next moves.
As I place my weight on the boulder, the grinding CHUNK of shifting rock registers and I instinctively move my weight away.
Luckily, the movement was minor, the chockstone stays where it is, and I leverage it to finish off the route.
“You took the difficult way up that route,” my belayman, Drew Schrock, calls from below as he lowers me down the wall.
That would be my last full climb of the day: the 5.6 rated “Rappel Crack” on Shaffer Rock. It’s a beautiful crag — undulating quartz ribbons like a painting — jutting from South Mountain (the northern terminus of the Blue Ridge Mountains) in Michaux State Forest, Pa.
I was happy. That’s the highest outdoor rating I’ve done. I could’ve matched my indoor 5.7, but I was tired. Of course, Drew (being 13 years my junior) had to show me up. He nailed down the 5.7/5.8 “Yellow Pages.”
It’s 4:30 p.m. We’d been climbing since 11 a.m. We both crave burgers and beer. We retire to the bar.
I’ve said it before, but probably one of the best parts of outdoor adventure is just going and running into people you probably wouldn’t meet shuffling through the grocery store. Or the people you barely look at while sitting in rush hour traffic.
They’re anonymous gray figures in a sooty world, just as you are to them.
Strip all that social conditioning away, expose yourself to the raw elements, and suddenly you’re befriending people you probably wouldn’t make eye contact with on the street.
We met seven fun guys while climbing on May 8 and traded emails before leaving.
Maybe it’s just me and others would prefer to keep to themselves. Maybe they’re comforted by the notion that tomorrow will rise and fall with twice-daily, bumper-to-bumper autos and a paycheck in between.
But there’s something to be said for sharing a rock wall with people similarly willing to put their life and trust in a 10 mm nylon rope and the sweaty hands of another person.
I guess if your leisure activities include adventure sports, there will always be chest thumping. We all act a little bit bigger than we are. Confidence keeps you moving forward (or upward as the case may be).
But it’s good to be cut down every once in a while, watch a friend effortlessly do something that would require a great sacrifice from you. To watch others walk fearless on a granite shoestring, where you would crawl to the edge just to peek over.
My climbing issues, areas needing improvement:
- I move too slow; I linger in spots where I should move faster, which just tires me out.
- I don’t trust my footholds, which causes over-straining and inability to reach places I reasonably should be able to reach.
- My lingering fear of heights, especially someplace new; I have to trust my partner, gear and my meticulous anchor placements.
- I have a problem seeing moves on the rock; instead of spreading myself to get better balance, I end up slithering up the rock, too compact. I’m an ugly, ungraceful climber.
You certainly don’t get to the top of the mountain without first learning humility. I guess the bonus is that I just need to spend more time on the rocks. No arguments here.
But humility pays dividends in pride when your friend says: “You took the difficult way up.”