Approach (pitch 0)By coincidence, shortly after I'd listed "learn to lead climb" among my goals for this summer, my old hiking buddy Michal emailed me from New York to ask if I'd like to join him and his wife Justyna for a day of climbing in the Shawangunks. Michal was interested in a couple of 5.6 routes. I jumped at the chance, even though, with the exception of one morning of indoor bouldering, I hadn't done any rock climbing in at least a year. I made sure to warn Michal that while I was "confident I can still do 5.6", I'd need lots of rest breaks and I certainly wouldn't do any leading. Luckily Michal didn't mind hauling my useless butt up a cliff, so we quickly made plans for the weekend.
We met in a deli by the Gunks at 9:30 AM. By 10:00 we were walking the Under-Cliff Carriage Road, searching for the climb Michal had selected. "Madame Grunnebaum's Wulst", or "Madame G" for short, was described in the guidebook as being on a "yellow buttress", but we weren't sure how far down the cliff. We passed a few people, asked them what route they were belaying, and figured out our position from there. Eventually we found the yellow buttress, and after reading the description several more times Michal was reasonably confident he could see the line of the route.
By the time we geared up it was past 11:00. Having almost no gear of my own, I was ready first, so I did a spot of bouldering while waiting for the others. I stuck a finger in a crack and nearly sprained it when I couldn't get it out. Not a great start, but I was starting to feel a little more comfortable on the rock. I tried not to look up at how far I'd have to climb.
A minute later it was time to scramble up to the first belay ledge, by a small pine. From below it looked easy enough. Michal asked if I wanted a rope for this section, but I said no. Michal went first, then Justyna. I followed confidently enough for the first ten feet or so, then faced a move where I had to step out around a couch-sized block. The footholds were obvious and large, but I just couldn't bring myself to let go of my handhold and swing my torso past the corner. I was absolutely certain that I could do this move, but I'd lost the confidence that I'd be able to find and execute whatever moves came after that. I wasn't far off the ground, but the talus below me didn't allow for a clean landing. Messy and blood-spattering would be much more likely. Dignity forgotten, I asked Michal to toss me a rope.
It took some time to set up an anchor, but eventually I was tied in and climbing. After the move where I'd stopped, I made a couple of bad route choices and had to backtrack a little. If I had been unroped and nervous, it would have been worse. Having the rope soothed my nerves considerably, and eventually I found my way up, unharmed except in my pride.
Justyna and I were on a big sunny ledge. Justyna was belaying and I was soaking in the sun, stretching my legs and even taking a nap (I'd had to wake up way too early - it's a long drive to the Gunks). Eventually Michal appeared above us and wanted to know if he was in the right spot to set up the "semi-hanging belay" described in the guidebook. Of course we had no idea, and from directly underneath we could hardly see anything. Finally Michal decided he'd found the right place, set up his anchor, and started belaying us up. We were using two ropes, so Justyna and I would climb simultaneously.
Justyna made the move to the first horizontal crack using a fingerhold I hadn't noticed before, and moved on up. It was my turn to do some real climbing. I tried, the first move, and failed. Twice. Michal was keeping me on a tight belay, and since he'd tightened it further while I was attempting the move, I was now almost dangling - still touching the ground, but with much of my weight on my harness. I yelled for some slack, but Michal informed me this wouldn't be convenient. All right, then. Do the move or go home. I grabbed the fingerhold, pretended to find a knobbly spot that would help hold my foot in place, gave a huge grunt (it helps, really), and I was up. I took a couple of breaths, and, without giving myself time to think, yelled "pull!" and made the second move with a little assistance from the rope. I caught my breath again and made it over to the tree without difficulty.
The corner was much more comfortable - I like two walls better than one. Navigation was a non-issue, I simply followed the ropes, cleaning the pro off my rope as I went. After the corner there was one awkward spot where I had to step around some shrubby growths while traversing, but overall my confidence was climbing rapidly.
The belay station, however, was less enjoyable. Michal and Justyna were sharing a couple of footholds below the anchor, but there was not enough room for three. I simply traversed to a spot close enough to clip in (Michal had made me a "chicken sling" with a prussik for adjustable length), but remained above the anchor, awkwardly twisting to avoid an overhang, unable to see much besides the rock a few inches from my face. I waited in this position while Michal and Justyna sorted out the ropes. With three equalized pieces in (counting a fixed pin), two ropes, and three people clipped in, there were a lot of slings and 'biners to keep track of. Michal spoke aloud, and Justyna and I watched and confirmed each move, as he put in an extra piece, attached a belay device to the ropes and to Justyna, and prepared to unclip himself and climb up. "I need to unclip this..." "Uh, wait, that's me!" "OK, that's clipped." "Did you lock the 'biner?" Slowly, steadily, calmly, it all got done.
Pitch 2Eventually Michal was ready to climb up. He made his way around me somehow and I was able to climb down to a spot with some footholds, and where the anchor would catch me if I slipped (without whipping me into the rock or anybody's legs). I was much more comfortable, but I wasn't really "semi-hanging" here either, since Justyna was occupying the spot directly below the anchor, using her arms to belay Michal. My job was to keep the ropes free of tangles. Both ropes were heaped on a very small ledge, and the combined heap hid plenty of tangles. After a couple of false starts (one of which drew a very exasperated yelp from Michal somewhere above us when we weren't able to feed him slack fast enough), I found I could clear tangles as we went along, maintaining a buffer of several feet of clean rope that dangled below Justyna's feet.
By this time we were in the shade of the overhanging, cliff, which faces east. It was breezy up here, and cold. A climber a couple of routes to our right made a remark about this as he drew level. I said something to the effect that he should try standing in our shoes - that is, standing still for a while. "Well why are you standing around for so long?" he asked. I couldn't quite think of a succinct response ("it beats falling", maybe?), so I just shrugged.
Relying on shouted advice from people below, Michal had concluded that our belay station was off-route, and he needed to move left as he climbed. We couldn't see him because of the overhang, but we could hear grunting. Eventually Michal and Justyna had a long discussion in Polish. (I've gotten used to hearing "polski polski polski overhang polski polski traverse polski polski". If I think it's important I'll ask for a translation.) The upshot of this was that Michal wasn't sure about the route at all. At Michal's request I got the guidebook out and shouted up the description of the second pitch. It wasn't too helpful, consisting mostly of vague phrases like "weave around the overhangs" and "drift" to a crack that Michal couldn't see. (We were using the "Gunks Guide" compiled by Todd Swain, in which nearly all the descriptions are similarly useless. The book by Dick Williams, I learned much later, is vastly better.) We shouted down to another passerby on the road. "You're way off!" he shouted back. "You need to go right! A droite!" (Apparently he'd mistaken Michal's Polish for the French spoken by a group of Quebecois who'd been climbing near us. We understood him anyway.)
More grunting from Michal, followed by some cursing in Polish (I do know a few words), and then "polski polski A1". Michal was using extreme measures to get back on route. It was taking a long time. Finally we heard him call, "I'm up!". Phew. "But there's a problem!" Uh -oh. It turned out that a cam had gotten stuck. Since I'm taller than Justyna, Michal thought I might be better able than her to remove it.
On this pitch I was the first follower. The first few moves out of the belay station weren't nearly as bad as I'd feared, the route avoided the overhangs at first. Then I came to a spot with no visible holds above me. Michal, judging my progress by the amount of rope he'd taken in, coached me to look right and left for short traverses - "look for chalk". The chalk was very faint since we were probably the first group up this season, but whenever I got stuck I'd find a big, bomber handhold off to one side, and plenty of footholds. Once in this new position the next move would usually be obvious.
After "weaving" like this for a little while, the overhangs became more frequent. This is where the real climbing began. Because of the overhangs I often couldn't see the next handhold. Once, certain I'd chosen the right footholds, I moved up blindly, reaching for where I thought the handhold should be. It wasn't there. As I lost my balance and shouted out the word "falling!", my hand slid down and found the hold. It was a thick flake, impossible to see from below, but it was a thing of beauty to me. My shout turned into a whoop of joy. This hold was deep, and rough-textured, and extremely positive, and it was even tilted slightly for maximum grip given the available footholds. I pulled myself up with both hands, grinning from ear to ear. The next move was overhung too; the hold wasn't visible either, but when I stretched my hand out, there it was, and it was almost as beautiful as the last one. The footholds were great too. The move after that was more of the same.
Just as my arms were getting tired, I entered a merely vertical area directly underneath a roof. The trail of protection Michal had placed guided me to my left. Calling for Michal to leave me some slack (my rope was hanging directly over the roof), I made a traverse left out from under the roof and to the base of a crack that widened into a scrambly corner that was clearly the exit of the climb. After a few tries Michal and I managed to work together to swing my rope to the proper side of the roof. I started up the last few moves, realizing suddenly how tired I was. I was breathing hard, my throat was dehydrated and sore, my biceps were burning, and my fingers were sending urgent warning signals to my brain. I stopped freqently to catch my breath, but I didn't stay still long - I knew my hand strength was fading fast. On the last few moves I was hanging on to blocks of rock with the insides of my wrists and elbows. Eventually I popped my head over the edge of the last ledge, bid Michal a cheery hello, hauled my tired bones the last couple of feet, and chugged the Gatorade in my pack. Correction: first, at Michal's suggestion, I put on a windbreaker. A very good idea, since the wind was stronger up here.
On Top; RappelNone of the cams on my rope had been stuck; I saw a couple of cams on Justyna's rope but, not knowing which one I was supposed to remove and which ones might be important to Justyna's safety, decided not to touch them. As it turned out, I topped out before Justyna started the pitch. I found out later that she'd had great difficulty removing the pieces we'd used for the belay anchor. (I'd have known this at the time if I spoke Polish.) Midway through her climb, she stopped to try to free the stuck cam. I had nothing to do so I watched the vultures going by, and tried to get a few photographs of them.
When Justyna gave up on the cam and finished the climb, Michal decided to rappel down to rescue his piece. He slung one rope to a tree and began lowering himself. My job was to make sure the rope didn't tangle, and to make sure the loose ends didn't fall down on his head. I didn't understand at first why he hadn't simply tossed the loose ends down; I thought he was afraid the rope would get stuck on something. He repeatedly called out to me NOT to drop the ends of the rope. One time one end of the rope slipped, but the backup knot caught on the lip and I was able to retrieve it. After that I tied the loose ends to the tree.
The mystery was solved when the lead climber of another party joined us at the belay station on top of the route: Michal didn't want to drop the rope onto the other party. I noticed that the new climber was wearing a headlamp. He wasn't sure what time it was, but I could see the shadow of the cliff lengthening below us. My watch and my headlamp were both in a bag at the base of the cliff.
Justyna and I passed the time by talking about Michal's stubborn streak, watching the other party rappel down, and generally standing around shivering with cold. Those shadows kept getting longer.
Finally Michal gave up on the stuck cam and came back up the rope. He set up a double-rope rappel in some bolted rings that I wouldn't have spotted if I hadn't seen the other party use them. The ropes went down cleanly... most of the way. One of them was caught in a tree not far from the bottom. Whoever rappelled first (Justyna) would have to try to free it.
Once Justyna was down by the tree I started my rappel. There's a nice free-hanging section near the top. The rappel went without incident and by the time I reached the tree, Justyna had freed the rope, allowing me to rappel all the way down. Michal followed. Our two-pitch climb was over. Justyna broke out a thermos of hot tea and I checked my watch. It was 7:30 PM.