Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Lower Wall Syndrome


Iron Horse - Jens Holsten
To Index climbers, the iconic Lower Town Wall exudes an almost mythical distinction; and when summing up its remarkable density, extraordinary stone, aesthetic architecture, and agreeable proximity, it is no great wonder most visitors focus their time here; except of course for those hearty folk queuing up for Davis-Holland; which is bar none, the most popular and doable of the Upper Wall routes, containing six pitches of irresistible cracks, commodious ledges, and bolted belays –traits befitting a mega classic of modest difficulty.  To the dismay of many, and the pleasure of a few, the local peregrines have now migrated from their former paradise in the Cheeks, and Davis-Holland, including most of the Upper wall is off limits till July, as the falcons repose in relative solitude, upon the suitably named big honker ledge. But, I digress.

Paul T on Like Honey
Ever since I can remember, I’ve had recurring bouts of Lower Wall Syndrome [LWS –a pathological craving for the same Lower Wall routes, common symptoms including compulsive repeats of Japanese Gardens etc.], my proclivity encompassing the expanse between Princely Ambitions and Thin Fingers.  Embarrassing it is, that given opportunity, I can innumerate piece for piece, my preferred rack for almost any of those routes, without the slightest hesitation.  A majority of these climbs I have so ruthlessly wired, that, lying in bed, with lids sealed tight, I can replay every intoxicating sequence, down to the slightest nuance.  Call it what you may, but said syndrome—this pattern to lap routes ad nauseam, has finally eased its grip on me.  Is it early-middle age, hindsight, or boredom?  I'm really not sure.  But, somehow I’ve kicked the habit; effectively leaving me free to get off the beaten track and explore the vast unknown, without feeling remorse for neglecting my long time addiction.  Likely, what this all boils down to for me is this —too much of a good thing, really isn’t much good at all, when it becomes a numbing litany.  But back to the Lower Wall…

LWS amounts to little more than this.

Me on TPMV full.  Andreas Schmidt photo.
 Notwithstanding my raillery against LWS, there yet exist a few uncharted lines beckoning, begging for freedom, for the gauntlet of obscurity to be thrown down.  Greg Collum, Greg Child, Greg Olsen, Darryl Cramer, Max Dufford and friends, in the 80’s and early 90’s were first free ascent machines, and undoubtedly a determined lot.  Aid lines and mossy faces were there for the taking –and with grit, gumption, and camaraderie, they quite literally changed the landscape of free climbing at Index.  It is mind boggling just how productive that era was, and how nary a stone was left unturned.  They have my utmost respect –just to contemplate all the scrubbing required.  To fully appreciate their work: just open the back of Clint Cummins guide to the FFA section, and imagine the time commitment.  Inscribed on those pages you will see their names over and over again. 

13+ crack to Kunselman's...open project.
So what’s left to do at the LW?  Well, aside from a few squeeze jobs, there in fact remain some prominent lines– dangling on the vine so to speak, waiting patiently for harvest.  Keep in mind however, that our predecessors weren’t slouches when it came to performance; therefore, most of what remains is plain hard, or difficult to get at, or a combination of both. 

This January, I was fortunate enough to free a new route at the Lower Wall with the help of Ryan Daudistel, my partner Pat O’Sullivan, and a magnificent stretch of excellent weather.  I named it Nobody Tosses a Dwarf.  It comprises an admixture of the 2nd pitch of Snow White and new terrain.  All things considered, it is far more exposed than most LW routes; and while most of the harder pitches nearby spring from terra firma, NTAD soars high above the ground, weaving a cunning path through inspiring features.  Anything but a squeeze job, it is nestled spaciously between Tuna BoatersTadpole.  Unlike most of my new route experiences, this one dragged out much longer than I could have imagined.  Here is my story.


Thin Fingers
Japanese Gardens - C. Haley
It was well nigh seven years ago that I first played around with the idea; and while lowering off of another lap of Doctor Sniff and The Tuna Boaters, I took some time to scope it out.  Based on guide book descriptions, Greg Olsen had climbed a 30 foot section graded 11d just right of Doctor Sniff, concluding his effort at a long roof capped under-cling, that would eventually lead back into the aid line of Snow White, should it go free.  As I lowered down, I took time to familiarize myself with its holds and do some scrubbing.  After two hours of strenuous effort, I succeeded in finding a solution, albeit a desperate one to this powerful crux.  At the time, it seemed around V7/8 to me.   During my exploration, I also observed some appealing real estate below, which could provide a sweet intro to the route, should I ever come back and get serious.  For the record, there was a good hold that broke at this crux --whether this will affect the difficulty for others, I am unsure.  But, for my method, it made it a bit easier.

A year later, I returned by myself.  It was one of those dreary days, sprinkling on and off throughout.  After soloing up the Great Northern Slab, gear en tow, I scrambled down to the Tuna Boater anchor, and rapped in to scrutinize the lower section.  What I found looked promising.  The aforementioned wall had nice jugs, edges, but also some small bushes and loose blocks, that would need to be eliminated.  Much to my pleasure, an obvious belay ledge roughly two thirds up Princely Ambitions (and to the right) would make the perfect starting belay. 

Usually when working new routes, at some point my motivation gets the better of me, and my doggedness doesn’t give in, until the dust has settled, and either I, or the route are defeated.  It was apparent that I was very psyched to do the route –but things just wouldn’t come together; and through life circumstances, many more years passed by.  I got married, went on a 16-month road trip, went back to school, and mostly indulged in steeper fare.  In effect, I didn’t see Index much. 

However, with the passing of the seasons, I've been increasingly keen to climb more granite.  After sending nearly every route at my local sport cliff of Little Si, even the walk to world wall began to smack of drudgery.  Of the projects I had yet to tick, both were nails hard and notorious seep-fests, and the effect was clearly draining my resolve.  As much as I have gained strength at Si, I was pining for something more adventurous –for a style requiring a technical mastery, balance and subtle footwork, combined with unrivaled scenery and a sense of anachronism, of days gone by.  There was only one cure for my fever –Index. 


Ryan Daudistel.

­­­So, I called up my pal Ryan, and together we logged around five days woring on the new route.  We did our best to clean things up, scrubbing till our muscles ached, working in tandem from two lines.  Loose blocks were pried off, carpet moss uprooted, and some very small snags were extirpated in the process.  After our toils, we worked the route on TR, trying to figure out where best to place bolts, if such were required.  In all, we placed 10 bolts.  It was our intention to establish a route that people would be psyched to climb on, without neutralizing the adventurous character.  The route was ready to go.

Not long after, spring arrived, and oven like temperatures followed suit.  Despite the sultry weather, we went up anyway, being intractable to common sense.  Predictably, blistering heat thwarted us, as frictional properties were outright atrocious, our soft shoe rubber fuming underfoot, oozing, rolling; our essentially good-for-nothing efforts decidedly useless.  At the boulder problem, two exceptionally rounded crimps would quickly wear down our skin without mercy, and within several goes we’d be done for.   Conditions, compounded with the circuitous nature of the route, and the onerous task of cleaning it were serious obstacles.  Back on the ground, our bodies glistened with rank sweat, as we reclined against the wall, totally pooped.   For those to whom memory recalls, it was a ball busting summer of incessant 80-degree temps. 

Climbing came to a standstill.  At the beginning of July I witnessed the birth of our daughter Hazel Sierra Gilkison.  This event, combined with grad school applications took all thoughts and allowances for climbing endeavor out the window.  Also, my knee was still finicky, and all but dependable.   Mostly, I just rehabbed, hiked, and soaked up being a Dad.

On TR- just after the BP.  
Hazel Sierra Gilkison
Without further ado, I came back to the route this January, during an impressive spell of high pressure.  Kevin Newell and I spent an incredible afternoon top roping.  Overhead, the sun provided just enough warmth to keep us from numbing out.  With these improved conditions, my attitude became increasingly optimistic; and we both managed the boulder problem without much fanfare.  Up on the roof, we discovered reasonable sequences –but I found it very taxing on the arms.  Lastly, we went up to the Newest Industry anchor and TR’d the finishing crack.  This section is definitely not 10c, as suggested in old drawings; but rather, more likely 12a, and kind of funky to boot.  Sure enough though, Kevin made it look like 10c. 

Two days later I returned with my friend Pat.  We cruised up the wall, ascending Princely to Tuna Boaters.  It was another perfect day.  And according to weather forecasts, represented a near end to a notable dry streak.  I felt a bit of pressure.  But, after so many years, what did it matter?  Perhaps I was just ready to be done with it.  After hanging a couple draws at the crux, we both lowered down to the belay ledge.  Taking a deep breath, I cleared my mind, and began.

Nobody Tosses a Dwarf leads off with thirty feet of mellow climbing to get the juices flowing.  At a wide ledge, you can sit down, turn around, and simply revel in the austere beauty, absorbing the grandeur of alpine peaks like Baring, Index, and Merchant; or lean back and shut your eyes –just listen: hear the subtle murmuring of the river, the wailing shriek of train whistle, and the energetic badinage of climber jargon, all commingling in the mountain air.  After doing just that, I gave a shout, “here goes Pat, watch me!”.  

On TR- roof entrance
Beta spoiler alert!  Cautiously standing up, I wedged my right index finger (palm up) into a diminishing crack, burying it to the hilt.  With a grimace, I squeezed it into a mono under-cling.  Right foot up slightly to small nub, left foot higher to obvious knob, and then standing tall, I flattened myself out gecko style, left hand straining pinky down into a polished slot.  Calmly smearing on next to nothing, I rapidly fired the rope into a draw dangling above.  And with left foot rooting for dubious traction below, I sprung up to snatch a square cut crimp, oriented perpendicular to the wishbone crack, arching into nothingness.  Tracking my right foot up, I placed my foot gracefully on some rough texture, nothing more than a vague impression, and flagged my left leg starboard, countering the ineluctable urge to barn door.  For the moment of truth, and not a second too soon, I shot my left foot up high, digging every ounce of rubber I could manage into that slot.  Left hand two finger sloper, and with my hips turned out, I fixed my gaze on a rounded edge just out of my reach; and out of this awkward stance, I exploded upwards---suhhhhhhhhh, got it!

Psyched, I climbed nice 5.10+ moves up to the roof, clipping a couple bolts along the way.  At the roof, I paused; my legs splayed out, stemming from steep slab leftwards to the concave surface of a right facing corner, its surface riddled in small pointy knobs.  Roughly ten minutes went by, while I recharged for the roof traverse, waiting in pensive quietude.  I’d only led across the roof once or twice earlier in the year.  And, situated there, at the beginning of it, I was reminded that I hadn’t figured out exactly how I was to let go and clip. 

At the edge of the roof, a convex carpet of slab joins, and slides under, like the confluence of two continental plates.  Little space remains where the two meet.  With hesitation, I ebbed out to the thick of it, feet plastered underneath, fingers searching nervously, looking for something to grasp; all the while, the roof, a two foot rostrum like projection pushed back against my chest, with my arms all but invisible, straining heartily out of sight.  Very carefully, I worked my way across, in a vain a attempt to remember smears, positions, and choreography, which in my current state of mind, weren't one bit of help.  Clipping was awkward on the fly, but I managed it, barely.  With biceps burning, I was nearing the mid way point, when a foot slipped, nearly sending me into space.  But I held on.  Doubt started to gnaw at me, eroding my fragile confidence, and undermining my limited provision of composure.  Far below, I could hear Pat cheering me on; and somewhere in my psyche, I was able to dig into reserves of strength.  With one last effort, I succeeded in latching something meaty, a section where the crack opened up.  Repositioning myself, I conformed my right hand into a hand-jam, got my feet up high, and realized I now had several feet of 5.11 to go, which would deposit me at the last rest.  After a brief respite, I charged on with feet cranked high, arms digging deep, and in utter desperation, and then I was there, at the other end of the roof, perched in the most outrageous position, forearms totally spent, my pulse pounding at breakneck speed.

What I haven’t described yet, was the wind.  On this robust January day, a potent gale was en force, and as I stood there, shaking out my arms, I was nearly knocked off by a strong gust.  It was pretty exciting to hang on in the face of such elemental pressure.  With a prolonged rest behind me, I signaled to Pat that I was casting off.  Separating me from the finish lay 30 feet of bizarre crack climbing.

On TR- the finish.
Although I knew the finish to be easier than the climbing below, I realized it was just tenuous enough for me to randomly slip off, if I wasn’t in the zone.  Left hip in, right hip in, yellow alien high with long sling, back to left hip in, and now a final crux.  It was here that I had a momentary crisis.  In disbelief, I gaped down at my shoes, and observed one of the laces dangling, blowing in the breeze.  In my present position, I was pressing all of my weight on my right shoe at the edge of the crack, which was quite rounded; all the while, my shoe was relaxing its grip on my foot, and I watched in disbelief as my shoe began to slide closer and closer to nothingness. Then the train came by suddenly, blaring its strident whistle, just as the wind decided to rush in, and nearly blew me over.  I was a wreck.  Pat was by now out of view, which didn’t calm my nerves one iota.  But, being so close to finishing this epic route, I mustered the gumption to carry on.  From my position, I reached up cramming one tip of one finger into the crack, then I karate chopped my feet up and tenuously lurched to a bomber finger lock.  Cautious not to trip on my laces, I placed one small stopper, and clawed my way to the anchor.

While NTAD isn't cutting edge by any stretch of the imagination, it does offer some decently strenuous climbing, and provides an engaging journey for those up to the task.  Big thanks to Greg Olsen for getting the ball rolling, Ryan for the work, Kevin for his psyche, and Pat, who was kind enough to belay me!  Hopefully, some other people will be inspired to head up there and give it a go. 

Regarding its grade, it felt around 12d to me, give or take.  Who knows though, perhaps it is only like 11d, like everything else at Index -wink.  Officially, I'm calling it 5.12, so nobody thinks I'm a fluffer.  In comparison, I thought it harder than routes like Numbah Ten, Narrow Arrow Direct, Stern Farmer, and Power Horse.  Please, take all this information with a grain of salt, or a heaping spoonful if you prefer.

Funny, when I sat down to write this, I was thinking of no more than a few paragraphs; just enough text to capture the essence of my experience, and describe the overall process.  Major fail.

On a personal note, after being accepted to three out of four DPT programs, to which I applied, I’ve decided to attend University of Puget Sound, beginning this September!  I feel so blessed and thankful for this opportunity to pursue the field of Physical Therapy.  Big thanks to Chris Allen for helping me shape my career vision, for allowing me to be his shadow, and for his kindness.  Grad school will be an exciting new chapter for me!  Tiffany, Hazel and myself are looking forward to checking out Tacoma, meeting new friends, and staying in one place for more than a year.  For right now, I'm taking my last prerequisite, third quarter physics.  Also, I had minor arthroscopic knee surgery a couple weeks back.  My surgeon cleaned out some likely culprits and I should be back to full speed soon.  It is going to be a great year!





2 comments:

  1. Fantastic account, Ben. Wind, train, and shoelaces... but at least you didn't have any bats fly out of the crack above the crux. (That's what happened to Terry Lien when we first did Earwax.)

    Yup, there are still new lines to do at the LTW. Looks like a real plum you got, but I'm sure there are others, not to mention the barely tapped potential of nearby walls such as the Black Wall/Feathered Wall area and the Lower Lump.

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  2. Ben, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your latest entries. I got to them via Andrew's blog. Glad to hear you've chosen a PT program, and it's wonderful to see a photo of Hazel, you guys's sweet progeny!
    Since I started climbing so late, at about age 50, my slim experience at Index involves mostly following Andrew, but you capture the experience of the rock texture and sequences so well, I can recall the thrill of the routes I managed to get up. I feel fortunate to have gotten even a taste of it. Kind of like an old Neal Young song called Sugar Mountain... at some point a person simply can't be there...

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