A Tale of Four Climbers

Eric on Diminished Gluteal Syndrome (5.12d) at the Infirmary (Photo: Elliot)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the time for strength, it was the time for weakness, it was the weekend of healing, it was the weekend of degenerating, it was a reflection of times to come, it was a reflection of times past, it was the season of sending, it was the season of failing, it was the perfect temperature, it was raining--in short, this trip was so far like most trips, that some of its most boisterous spray lords insisted on it being received, for good or bad, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Chris texted me five hours before we were going to drive down to the Red River Gorge together: he was sick and strongly considering staying in DC.

It's September, 2018. My 2000 Saturn with over 225,000 miles on it isn't the vehicle of choice for an eight drive from DC through the middle of nowhere to the middle of nowhere Slade, Kentucky. I hesitate: I don't want to drive 8 hours solo.

We're meeting Eric and Elliot (we would also later meet Morgan, Lena, and Ed). At the time, Eric, Chris, and I were near equals in climbing; although each of us had our weaknesses and strengths. Eric had unrivaled fitness, endurance, and all around strength; but lacked patience and tended to put down a couple too many drinks a hair too frequently to maintain his shape. Chris was the best boulderer (and trad climber--not that it counts) of the three of us, was lighter than air, knew how to use his legs, and had roof-climbing skills for days; but didn't have a lot of sport climbing experience and tended to heel hook everything. And myself, with tendons of steel and explosive power, but a fear of heights, a stunning lack of endurance, and a strong belief that solution to every problem is a bigger dyno. Elliot was an up and coming sport climber, perhaps too willing to get in over his head on pretty much any climb, with a reckless determination and wry humor. This was a good crew.

If you look really closely, you can see the eight red eyes of the giant cave spider about to eat Elliot.

Chris had never sport climbed at the Red, something we had been incessantly reminding him of the past three months.

Eric and Elliot (who were staying for the full week) were flying in to Lexington, and then camping with us.

Eric calls, asking what I'm going to do. I waver, there will always be more trips to the Red. But he's stoked, and it's contagious. I commit, even if it means driving solo. I guess if my car breaks down, I'll have a good story. YOLO, right?

Sometime around two, Chris calls. He's in.

I leave around three, picking up Elliot's bags in the middle of DC... and promptly hit traffic as I'm leaving. Apple Maps keeps notifying me of a massive slowdown on 395 to Arlington, so I gamble and take the supposedly faster beltway route south. Big mistake. I end up meeting Chris at the Park and Ride at 5:00 PM, in the middle of rush hour.

Chris nasally claims, "I'm OK, it's just congestion," perhaps delirious and oblivious to the two tissues shoved so far up his nose that I thought he was performing a magic trick when he pulled them out. But that's ok, he's sick, I'm not: I'm 32, invincible, and on my way to the Red.

Chris drove the first leg, I, the second. In the middle of my explanation of how hard Lisa's new job in Colorado was, she calls, and lets us know that she spent the afternoon blowing bubbles with one of her students.

Our next call was an 11 PM drunk dial from Eric and Elliot, requesting updates.

We arrived at Miguels at 2:00 AM, set up camp, and went to bed.

We awoke before 7:00 AM, because thats what normal people do in a loud campground when the sun comes up.

I've always found the best way to introduce yourself to a new climbing area is to immediately hop on classics that match your hardest climbs to date. This (1) makes you look like a badass when you show up to the crag, (2) wrecks your ego because you don't actually climb them, and (3) leaves you too worn out to try hard the rest of the day, thereby conserving energy for the rest of the trip.

This trip was no exception, and after meeting the rest of our crew (Lena, Ed, Morgan, and Morgan's German friend, Charlotte), I decided to warm up on Chainsaw Massacre (5.12a).

This went about as expected: I made it to the height of the Crystal City bouldering wall, got flash pumped and scared, and fell at the crux. Thankfully (just to spare me the embarassment), Chris did the same. Charlotte casually cruised the route, which surprised us initially (who is this person casually crushing 5.12 as a warm up?), but ended up making sense when we saw her making big links on Omaha Beach (5.14a!) on her fourth and fifth burns of the day.

Eric hung the draws on Convicted (5.13a) under the condition that I would also give it a shot. Both Chris and I did. It went better than expected, but I lacked both the endurance to improve upon my first go and the desire to do so.

Eric crimping through Snooker (5.13a) (Photo: Elliot)

Morgan convinced us to try her current project, 8 Ball (5.12d). Eric tried it and the neighboring Snooker (5.13a), impressively making it to the top of both with a fall or two... and then tried 8-Ball again. Eric is a machine.

Later that afternoon, Chris found an "easy" 5.12 cool down to finish day (I sensed he was feeling better). It was neither easy nor a cool down. We both punted.

If you have never been to the Motherlode and you climb 5.13, what have you been doing with your life? You must go. Mega routes in the most impressive amphitheater of rock I've ever been in. It's awe-inspiring.

It's so good (steep), you'll have no idea that it's raining until you leave, and will get soaked on the short hike out. Like we did.

This was one of the few days of my life where I sent nothing, but still rewarded myself with one too many beers at the Beer Trailer, and one more for good measure when we stopped for dinner burritos at the Rock House. Eric is a bad influence.

Somehow, we found ourselves back underneath the pavilion at Miguels, prepping for day two by drinking classy whiskey straight from the bottle.

I awoke the next morning feeling terrible, and not only from the alcohol. Chris's 20 year old tent had lost its waterproofing and we spent the night getting soaked (I must admit, my side was drier than Chris's). I had barely slept that night. It was forty degrees out. Cloudy. Still raining. My head hurt and my stomach didn't work. Chris tried to console me by saying he didn't feel solid; only to accidentally utter that this was the best he had felt in the past three days.

Typical great Kentucky climbing weather 

I was of the strong opinion that the weather (through two more days clouds and rain) and I (through peer-pressure and a lack of self restraint) had combined to ruin the trip.

Lena, Morgan and Ed assured us that we would find quality, dry rock. They were right! And they didn't even have to try: in spite of my incessant droning of despair, the base of the Infirmary and most of the routes were dry. I've never gone from despair to joy so quick.

Once again, I warmed up on a 5.12a, and once again, I fell. Thankfully I did make it to the top of a climb without falling on a fun 5.11c nearby (Is it cheating to clip the anchors from where only tall people can reach them, potentially skipping the final hard, reachy crux? I think not).

On this trip I realized that I am terrible at facing my fears, both in climbing and in life. The last time I was at the Infirmary, I had spied an epic line of seven permanent draws going out the middle of a massive 45 degree cave, and thought to myself: (a) that climb must be 5.impossible and (b) there's no chance in hell I would ever try that line.

The climb is Last Rites, a super rad 5.12b. And since Eric flashed it the last time he was at the Red... I wasn't left with a choice. Everybody was trying this line.

Chris on Last Rites. (Photo: Elliot)

I did. It was terrifying. I made it farther than I thought I would without falling. Then I fell at the crux, asked to be lowered, and was left hanging. Literally. My belayer wasn't lowering me, forcing me to climb on. I acquiesced and bolt-to-bolted my way up to the wet headwall where I decided I was done (did I mention the rain?). 20 feet of soaking wet rock separated me and the anchors. Once again, the crowd cheered "It's easy climbing!" and I was forced to continue.

I reached the anchors without dying. Much to my chagrin, the scariest part of the climb was not going up it, but getting lowered off it. There's something slightly terrifying about being slowly lowered to the ground by a 9.8 mm rope, unable to touch the wall in front of you (it's 30' away), unable to touch the wall above you (it's 50' away), and unable to touch the ground below you (it's 50' away).

There's a reason why I'm wearing brown shorts (Photo: Elliot)

We finished the day trading burns on a rad line at Chaos: Swamp Gator. I hung the draws, gave the crew bad beta (it was the best beta I had), and we all punted on it. Another climb for next time.

For dinner we had Miguels, and I drank less.

The final morning I awoke, and wanted nothing to do with climbing. I didn't drink anything the night before, but I still felt terrible.... and the cold/dreary/wet weather wasn't helping. I felt physically and mentally wrecked from climbing a la muerte the past two days in garbage weather. Oh, as I would unpleasantly find out later, I was sick.

This was like that scene in Office Space, where every day is slightly worse than the previous, making every day the worst day of Peter's life. For me, every morning on this trip was significantly worse than the one before. For Chris, every morning was so much better.

The weather was drier and warmer (although it felt equally humid). Chris and I had a half day, because we were driving back to DC in the afternoon. We went to Beer Trailer Crag, which is not known for quality climbs, but has a short approach and even shorter climbs. We were done starving ourselves falling off of four and five star routes (so far, Chris and I had only topped out two climbs without falling); today, we would feed our egos with short, bouldery routes.

Morning Wood (5.12a) (Photo: Elliot)

We started at the left side of the crag, where two 40' overhanging boulder problems on a rope beckoned. Psych pumped through our veins as we all quickly got Morning Wood (5.12a) (I think it took each of us two burns). Eric even got Sluts are Cool (5.12a) first go. Chris followed, and the two of them raced down to grab beers and try the climbs on the other side (Morgan had opined that Darkness Falls was the prettiest climb at the Red).

It was at this point, having no other option but to send and clean this 5.12a so that we could grab our gear, I realized that I felt absolutely terrible (note: I didn't realize I was sick yet, I just thought I was burned out). For the first (and maybe only?) time in my life... I didn't want to climb. The climb didn't even look appealing (recall: grades, not quality). But Elliot gave me a pep talk, so I flashed it.

We then met the rest of our crew underneath Eric and Chris Darkness Falls. Unbeknown to us at the time, a hold had broken at the lower crux, making it significantly harder. A hold had also broken at the upper crux, making it significantly harder. And the easy headwall to the anchors? Deep finger buckets full of water. This was no soft Red River Gorge 5.12d.

Eric fighting before Darkness Falls (5.12d) (Photo: Elliot)

Both Eric and Chris really enjoyed the line, trading insults, beer, and beta. They insisted I hop on it.

If watching me getting flummoxed at the crux with half hearted efforts didn't further douse our climbing stoke, our growling stomachs did. It was past lunch time, so we left.

There's nothing that raises your spirits quite like some sunshine and Miguels' Pizza.

Chris and I headed back to DC, with Chris taking the first leg. By the time it was my turn, my forehead pounded and my nose leaked. Ugh, congestion. It was right around this point that I realized why I felt so terrible: I was sick. I couldn't even taste my dinner at Sheetz. And shortly after darkness fell, I got the honor of driving through the a thick wall of fog separating us from DC. Surprisingly, we neither drove off the rode, nor hit any deer.

Chris, fully healthy, went to work the next day. I, with a full blown cold, slept through it. The trip wasn't exactly a far, far better thing that I did, than I had ever done; but with a good dose of NyQuil, that rest was a far, far better rest that I went to than I had ever known.


Popular posts from this blog

Shelf Actualization (A February Trip Recap)

Part II: An Afternoon in Paklenica

Teaser Trailer