Staring up at 110 feet of frozen vertical candles, thoughts drowning in doubt and fear… This is what we came here for. This was why I left New Hampshire to come to the Catskills. The Advocate is in as good shape as one really could hope for after only a week of cold, but it’s been a brutal, bitter, cold, and I wonder if each swing, or each kick, or the weighting of a tool will blow out the delicate formation above.
Fortunately, my partners are of the same mind as me, and we opt to climb out of the Kitchen and seek other options. I had come down to the Catskills to flee the brutal cold forecasted for the north country. For five days I got to climb in the Catskills, but somehow the climbing didn’t matter. Somewhere along the way a change in venue became a lot more than just pursuing the same game in a different place.
I took the long way down to the Catskills. Stopping in North Stonington to see Mark and Sue just seemed right. It felt comfortable. For 10 years North Stonington has been a second home, and I hope that never changes. This trip was only a quick dinner out with Mark and Sue since T&T were harboring some kind of mutant death virus, so a stop at Sarah and Ed’s was out. From there, on to Darrow – home base for the next 5 days.
Darrow was home for five years. It’s where my professional life began. It’s where my married life began. It’s where my life as a caretaker began. I may live at CHCH and spend most of my time in NH, but somehow, on Darrow’s campus, there’s a feeling that I belong. It’s not the Shaker heritage, the idyllic rural setting, or even the memories though – it’s the people and community itself.
On Wednesday I met up with Ryan and we headed into Platte Clove. It’d been two years since I’d climbed with Ryan, but he’s a great guy to share a rope (and a car ride) with: He’s an all-around mountain bad-ass and full-time guide, a gifted writer, and thoughtful person – all in all, a good guy to spend a day with. Furthermore, he’s psyched just to be out – there’s no pressure to step up and prove your worth to Ryan, which is good, because I got to just follow his lead all day, watching him dance up things I couldn’t even imagine leading in their current conditions.
On Thursday I met up with Cramp and Rick and headed to the Hell Hole. Cramp had put in a new mixed line, which was our starting point for the day. They both led the line, which goes at about M6, but I wasn’t feeling it. I TRed it twice, but the opening moves felt awkward – I was afraid that if I led it I’d fall, a fear I haven’t mastered, even on safe, bolt-protected lines. We wrapped up the day down in the lower Hell Hole, on the 3rd Corner and Smear. Once again I didn’t lead a single line – too cold, too scared, too complacent? It didn’t matter though. Rick and Cramp were more than happy to lead, and I had 3 more days of climbing ahead of me.
Each evening felt like a return home. I got to Darrow Tuesday night and walked into Erin’s apartment (her guest-room/office floor being my bed for the coming nights) full of some of my closest friends. The room swirled with stories and memories through the evening as more friends stopped in. So many people with whom I’ve lived and shared so much over the years – a camaraderie born only out of years of living in intense situations. Our lives at Darrow were all-consuming and isolated – for the most part, there was never any outside force or balance. It was all Darrow, all the time, which has forged friendships in a way that is uncommon in the regular, sane world.
Returning Wednesday night I caught the end of the girls’ basketball game. Being that the gym was mostly empty, I eschewed my usual seat on the floor against the climbing wall at the end line. It was a tough loss for the girls, but it was fun to see Erin and Don coaching again, and the freshmen and sophomores I knew now juniors and seniors. After the game, a trip to the Forge with Erin and Adrienne (mmmmmm wings…), and then a quiet evening catching up with Erin.
Thursday night Erin and I invited ourselves over the Nancy and Andrew’s new house for dinner. We figured Nancy had spent the better part of 15 years on duty Thursday nights, so we shouldn’t let her new-found freedom from the tyranny of residential life go to her head. It was an evening of good beer, good food, a warm fireplace, a ridiculous cat, and great company. Somehow, it embodied everything I had hoped to find upon returning to Darrow. It felt like coming home.
Chris D and Pat W came out Friday morning and we headed down to the Hell Hole once again. No more of this letting others take the sharp end and standing around complacently and indecisively – it was time to send! Somehow, the alter-egos all came out: Le Poseur (the Hulk to pcooke’s Bruce Banner), the Ninja, and Crazy D… There was no hesitation or lack of confidence. I led the steep line of the first corner right off the bat. It felt comfortable and smooth – aided of course by the ridiculous pseudo-French/Spanish/English (Franglish?) vocabulary of Le Poseur. I’m sure the other 6 people down in the Hell Hole thought we were absurd, but we had fun.
Crazy D followed this up with a lead of the second corner, and then a super-funky steep line between the first and second corner. Somehow there were only 9 people in the Hell Hole but the other six managed to make it such that we couldn’t climb for almost an hour and a half. Some questionable decisions and poor communication made an empty crag into an outright junk-show. I did some up and down laps on the bottom of the first corner and successfully convinced one from the other parties that maybe leading Smear wasn’t in the cards for him that day.
We wrapped up our day by going up to Cramp’s new mixed line. I rapped in to pre-place gear/draws (again, big coward). Whereas the opening felt awkward and insecure the other day, this time it felt solid and fun. Hooking tools into the most insecure of smears, torquing them under a roof and into a corner, reaching up and left to hook a crimp… the tool is too far to the right, and I try to hook the right tool to the left of the other… and I’m off! So much for being afraid to fall. I’m bummed I fell, but know it’s good for me. The bolt is right there, it’s a clean fall into space. I laugh and get back into it. This time I place my tools properly and step left onto the ledge with no problem. I fire up the line above.
Saturday we meet Al at the New Baltimore rest area and head up to Buttermilk Falls. We solo much of the lower sections and only rope up for some of the steeper tiers. The obnoxious arrogance of Le Poseur has been replaced by a quieter, more introspective dialogue. This was my 23rd day out on the ice since December 19th. Over the past 8 winters, I’ve probably gotten out somewhere between 150 and 200 days on the ice. There’s no activity I love more than ice climbing, but it runs through my mind that I’d trade every single moment on the ice, both past and future, for a chance to talk to Em.
I’m feeling the weight of the real world and life on my shoulders. Somehow though, soloing up the moderate ice on the falls is the perfect antidote. Every swing, every kick, and the weighting of every point absorbs my full concentration. The meandering thoughts that consume me in between tiers are blocked out. There’s only me and the ice – the only thing that matters is the next move. I’m fully in control, and fully engrossed. I eschew following up the upper tier of Wildcat Falls in favor of soloing up a lesser line off to the left. Wildcat looks fun, but following will not quiet my mind – I need to feel engrossed and completely absorbed.
I meet Chris at the top as he belays up Pat and Al. We talk about life and what’s been going on over the past few months for me. Somehow this trip isn’t necessarily about climbing anymore. It’s about friends, family, appreciating the setting, enjoying the company, feeling loved, and loving the people around me. I can’t think of 3 better people with whom I can share an afternoon on the ice.
The next two evenings are a perfect blend of past and present. On Friday, Chris, Pat, Erin and I enjoy a quiet dinner out at Baba Louie’s in Pittsfield. Erin’s gracious enough to let us all crash on her floor. Saturday we meet up with Jenn, Jenna, Evan, and Kasey for a return to the Forge. It’s an intersection of different parts of my life: Chris and Pat are relatively new friends, Erin and Jenna still work at Darrow, while Jenn and Evan have also left Darrow. Despite the different paths we’ve all taken, this evening at the Forge is a perfect crossroads. I wish we could hang out more, but our ambitions are high, and we’re planning to start early to head into the Devil’s Kitchen to hunt some steep lines.
The Kitchen is dark… cold… foreboding. It’s also called the Black Chasm, and that name actually seems more appropriate at the moment. We can’t even see into it from above. Something dark and scary, subsisting off of our fears, resides there. We leave the trailhead optimistic and confident, we climb out of the Chasm chastened and humbled. The Advocate, Mephisto, maybe even Instant Karma would all go, but we don’t have it in us. We retreat and head into Platte Clove.
We round out the day on Scotch on the Rocks, Tiers of Joy, and Bridal Veil Falls. We run into Cramp, who leads Scotch and then takes photos with his GoPro as I lead up through the spicy start. The climbing is never really hard but is fully engaging. Chris and Al put their combined 55+ years of climbing experience to the test on Tiers of Joy. We all solo up the right side of Bridal Veil to wrap up the day. I dash ahead as the other three take off crampons and shoot the breeze – I sit on a downed tree, take off my crampons, take in the view and admire some trees. I can picture Em standing at each tree, hugging it. She’d love this forest. The guys come up and we walk out. We laugh at the day’s absurdities and appreciate the fun we’ve had all weekend.
I’ve got unfinished business in the Kitchen, and I need to return to Cramp’s line to clean it up. Somehow this week started as a climbing trip in my mind, but it was more of a return home. The climbing was good, even great at times, but the company was even better.
I’d still trade every hour of my climbing life for another hour talking to Em, and I’m probably always going to struggle with the thought that I could have spent more of her limited time with her. The change in venue was good for me this week, not because I avoided the arctic cold, but because it gave me a new perspective on things – recognizing my impatience with fools, my need to be fully engrossed, the comfort of being with loved ones, and the enjoyment of spending time with good people being more important than a false sense of accomplishment.