I’m on belay and it’s a bee-yoo-tiful day.
John’s a climbing pop and he’s almost at the top.
Doo-wop. Doo-wop. Doo-wop.
John falls, the line snaps taught and then ... things rapidly go to hell.
Perhaps I should tell you how things got to this point. Put it into some sort of contextual perspective. Like my therapist suggests … I’ll just start from the beginning.
It was a Friday, a little before noon, and I had just been down to the Medical School to give the Keck facility a microarray slide to scan. I was just wandering back to my lab on George St, pondering how I was going to approach handling a 15000 point dataset, when I saw something truly bizarre.
With a grey sweater flapping madly about his sides and his whispy hair blasted backwards by the draft, none other than John Peterson was hurtling down College St on his way to the Med School on a bike. I flagged him down.
“Papers.” I said curtly. We don’t like Computer Science types wandering around the Hospital Quarter ad libitum. I checked them and things seemed in order so I asked him his business. He said something preposterous about having a seminar to attend down near Harkness. A likely story. After we finished our little chat I had him followed by a handy med student I found lurking in nearby shadows.
Incidentally, during the course of the interrogation, he agreed that yes it was an unusually gorgeous day and that we should of course sneak off and go climbing at Sleeping Giant State Park immediately. Almost immediately anyway.
At around 2.30pm we met in the Park’s car-lot and had a brief discussion centering mostly on how neither of us were particularly knowledgeable about any of the lesser classics of Sleeping Giant. Sure we knew Weissner’s Rib and Radamanthus Corner like the backs of our hands, but we didn’t know very much about the other lines on the chin. Despite this we trekked up to the somewhat imposing (well, for Connecticut it’s imposing) cliff and, eventually, settled on a line called …
Frenchman’s Cap (5.9)
From the top of Yvette, move left across the steep face, follow cracks and corners to the arching overlap, and follow the corner to the top. First ascended by John Reppy and Sam Streibert.
[excerpted from an as yet unpublished climbing guide by David Fasulo]
Frenchman’s Cap (5.9)
Ok, Leon and I had looked at this before … we never had any intention of leading it back when we were newbies though. We stuck to that gumby trough to the left of it or the easy-peasy blocks to the right, and they were enough fun for us.
John had followed on it at least once, but he had never led the thing. So there we were, scrambling up to the top of a big block [which holds a short but hard climb called Yvette (5.9+)] and setting things for John to put himself on a truly sharp end.
John stepped onto the line, then went left and up towards the right side of the big arete. He put in a piece and then stood there for a while at turns peering upwards and then rummaging through his sparse rack.
“Uh, dude, did you bring your camalots?” He asked. John downclimbed back and I handed over a couple of my #1 camalots and a three-quarter. He continued his ascent. The first upward steps seemed thoughtful, but he didn’t break his stride until about mid-way. There it suddenly became abundantly clear that this was definitely a hard one.
Because of the tilted angle of the blocks John was constantly on the back foot (so to speak). Higher up it would be truly overhung, but the rock would be trying to tip him off throughout the climb. He had reached a difficult little corner, it had a half-way decent rest stance at the bottom, but John was getting supremely toasted looking for good pro higher up.
Man he was placing a LOT of pro. I have never before seen him jam so many pieces into a route, every single opportunity offered was taken. The problem was that he was rapidly running low on gear. So he would occasionally back-track and retrieve lower items (this is called back-cleaning). In this way he was able to make something like seventeen or eighteen placements with an eleven piece rack.
Ok, so he’s not a complete nutter after all. I mused to myself as he plodded carefully along. For every two steps onward John was stepping one back down and it appeared that much thought was taking place up there. I decided to recline and get comfortable on top of the block I was belaying from, it looked as if we were going to be here for a while.
Anyway, he finally managed to get good pro above that corner, mostly by finding a partial line to the right which enabled him to reach over it and get in a camalot or something. The rope was following a complicated pathway behind him, in fact it was at times looking like the beginnings of a spider’s web. But with all the back-cleaning John was doing it got nicely straightened out in the end. In anycase he felt comfortable enough to move up and into the dreaded overhang.
At one point John found an old pin. Really old. He said it looked pre-Columbian.
Above the little corner things were definitely of a serious nature. Hand and foot holds melted away to nearly nothing, the overhang made itself clear and the crack became so thin it wasn’t certain he could squeeze even the tips of his fingers in there. John was stringing together swear words like an angry old salt and generally foaming at the mouth. I had started to day-dream of the possibility of him taking a fall, and I’ve never seen him come even close to a fall before.
I was aware of the angle of the rope as it left my belay device. I really was. It headed at a 45° bearing leftward for the wall at the lowest piece of pro. This would be the direction of pull if John were to take a whipper, and I knew it would mean trouble for me. So I sort of twisted around a little bit, still pretty much lying down on the block and tried to set my feet up solidly. It all seemed fairly good, although I was wondering if I shouldn’t have set up a proper belay anchor before we started. But it was too late.
John was almost at the top and he was nearly totally burned out. With a frustrated expostulation he said something I thought I would never hear from the great JP.
I held his weight, by no means an easy task … he weighs in at about twelve thousand pounds … but I held him. He hung there forlornly, shoulders drooping, and for a moment not saying a word. Then he did speak to me, explaining what was going on and unflinchingly castigating himself for a performance he personally perceived as poorly.
He tried to finish it again, lifting himself up and managing to squeeze in a final RP wire a scant four feet from the very top, before yielding to the protestations of his body and asking me to take his weight once more. I was getting pretty comfortable holding his weight, thinking that perhaps he wouldn’t be a difficult catch after all.
With a grunt of determination John lifted himself enough to try and finish the line. His long arms bulged with muscle, their great hawsers of sinew were put once again to the test and his teeth ground together with the effort as he moved himself upwards. I was certain that he would make it. Completely certain. Absolutely …
Then he dropped about 15 feet like a four-hundredweight stone.
The force of his impact on the rope lifted my supine form clear of the ledge. Having friction thus removed I was yanked leftward and towards the wall with no more out of me than a surprised grunt. On the way my left hip and hand connected with an interventionist outcropping, which both spun me and flipped me upside down. This resulted, further along my leftward swing, in my shoulder cracking rather hard on a second innocently-bystanding protruberance of stone. By this I was partially righted and further twisted around. With these significant interruptions to my otherwise precipitous progress I thus came to rest, in a relatively gently fashion, against the wall. I was about four feet above the next ledge down.
I looked up and saw an also dangling John Peterson looking back down. His eyes were nearly popping out of his head. So were mine I suppose. Unlike me John hadn’t hit anything during his own brief flight. His paramount concern was that I was still able to maintain my grip on the "brake". If I had let go … uhn … that could have been very nasty indeed.
“Are you alright?” He asked.
I said I was ok (my only injury being a tiny scratch on the little finger of my left hand). So was John. He tied himself off up there and this allowed me to lower myself onto the small ledge below. From here I could stand and belay him.
“Do you want to go back to where you were?” He asked.
Are you mad? “No. I’m ok here.”
So John got back on the wall and tried once again. It was a terrific effort, but he made it. Phew.
When it was my turn I found it to be one of the most sustained 5.9 routes I have ever been on in the great out-of-doors. It is a marvelous climb. The rock is very solid and the pro is definitely there. John asked me ... after I managed to climb it without a hitch by the way ... if I would lead it and I said no way. Well, not yet anyway. The more I think about it though … well … not yet, not yet.
We never did get out that RP nut, the one that caught John’s tumble, it’s welded in there pretty good. John and I both hammered at it for all we were worth too.
John's addition/correction: The Gripped Peterson Motto: "So there I was. A completely decent looking but tiny RP at my waist. The final bucket just 2 feet out of reach. Teeny tiny holds all around. And instead of "Just Doing It" I stopped and placed another piece, just 2 feet higher than the last one. Totally pointless. Especially when I started to make the clip - hanging on by almost nothing, letting go with one hand, just to cut 4 feet off a fall. Madness. And of course I blew the clip. The rest is history. Unfortunately the wrong person suffered for my mistake!"
Why not get a piece over your head, eh?
The Gripped Peterson Motto:
"So there I was. A completely decent looking but tiny RP at my waist. The final bucket just 2 feet out of reach. Teeny tiny holds all around. And instead of "Just Doing It" I stopped and placed another piece, just 2 feet higher than the last one. Totally pointless. Especially when I started to make the clip - hanging on by almost nothing, letting go with one hand, just to cut 4 feet off a fall. Madness. And of course I blew the clip. The rest is history. Unfortunately the wrong person suffered for my mistake!"