Monday, September 3, 2012

First Descents Day 2: Rock on Out

After my meltdown on Day 1, I was determined to do one of two things: 1) Not to cry again 2) Not to start something and not finish it. No way. It was time for my salvation on the rocks. I diligently packed 3 water bottles, left all books behind, and was set to climb.

We reached our destination only to be met by 2-3 spaces being taken by a busted up silver Subaru Outback. Some tool decided to occupy some of the precious few parking spots with this contraption. Spare Parts ran up (seriously, does this guy have a built in cannula feeding him oxygen & vapor steroids? Damn!) to see what the situation was. Sure enough, as soon as we were wondering around the parking area, the decision is for us to relocate and find another rock to climb.

We pack back into the vans and go back to Mary's Lake where we climbed on Day 1, with constant guide reassurances that we would be climbing different rocks. Indeed, these were not only different, but the rocks were facing one another rather intimately, which proved beneficial in that we were even closer to one another as we climbed. Without question, as we reflected later that day, the ability to look over your shoulder while mid-climb to be able to check on and cheer on a peer provided a wonderful bonding opportunity. To make things even more exciting, we were joined by the incredible Chris Anthony, aka "Chopper," former pro-cyclist, skier, star of 18+ Warren Miller films, photographer, and all-around amazing adventurer, who supports First Descents, chose to document our journey. What a privilege - to not only adventure with Chris, but be a subject in his lens and be part of the story he was telling!

I was just about ready to climb, but that uneasy feeling of being over my head started to set in again. I didn't want to fail. I didn't want to let anyone down. I didn't want the First Descents folks to feel like I was overwhelmed and miserable. I didn't want anyone to feel obliged to cheer me on - you know, that pity-support. So, I jumped at the chance to belay Wildflower & McStillin on the most advanced rope set up. That way, I could contemplate what I was dealing with, see how my fellow climbers handled things, and assess how I could attack the climbs.

Besides, I enjoy belaying people. I really do. I get to understand the climb better. It's as though I can sit back and have a screen in front of me of the climb and I get to take a grease pencil to the screen and draw my lines. I can help map things out for the person I'm belaying at the same time that I can figure out my own route. (Not that I had any intention of climbing this particular peak.)

Wildflower - Photo by Chris Anthony
First, Wildflower went up with a spider-monkey-like climbing style. He's all wiry, flexible, long-limbed and quick. Despite being several inches shorter than McStillin, he could stretch in so many amazing ways! All four limbs were nearly always on a parallel ledge after every move - rarely was he sprawled out. Very stealthy. Very ninja like.

Prepping to belay McStillin
 - Photo by Chris Anthony
Then came McStillin. McStillin is easily taller than 6 foot, much stockier, and, on appearance, doesn't look like the most flexible guy in the world. But as limber as Wildflower is, McStillin is powerful. Where Wildflower started the climb way off to the side in a sitting position, almost using me on belay in a reverse rappel, McStillin just reached up like an NBA player slamming a dunk shot and pulled himself up. The rock became his ladder, and he climbed it as though he were just heading up into his treehouse. What took Wildflower 6 moves to weave up the rock, McStillin accomplished in the same time within 2 or three simply because of his vertical advantage. His style was choppier, but stronger. And equally successful, using a different approach, as Wildflower.

Before I have a chance to come off belay, Little Bits catches my attention and directs me towards the other rock. There, I see a happy little rock, no ledges, no roofs, just a nice sloped rock. I asked if that was for me, and nodded. I clipped in and went. I learned some new techniques, including "smearing," which I explained to Little Bits, since I'm a Jew from New York, will henceforth be known as "schmearing," mantling, etc. I traverse the rock a bit, reach up, and then I've touched the caribiner. It was a piece of cake.

I come down, giddy from my success, and I try and attempt the climb next to me. The real challenge of the neighboring, more advanced climb is the start. It's smooth for the first 7-10 feet. There are no real hand holds/foot holds. Off to the right is a crag formed by the main rock and a boulder upon which several of us were hanging out. My strategy is to make use of this crag and climb up that way, then traverse to the left back onto the main rock.

I forgot to mention the bushes. The bushes, that, despite the lack of thorns, are some of the most prickly things I've felt against my skin in a long time. I come up a few feet, and I get my right leg well situation with a solid foot hold. The challenge arises with the next move - where do I put my left foot? I try schmearing (no lox) my left foot, but that doesn't work. I try stepping up, with my left foot by my elbow, but the angle left to straighten my right leg is too great. Finally, I try and use the small space between the boulder and the main rock. My rope is tightened as I start to move, and then I hear a faint, but distinct *POP* and a sharp, unfamiliar pain shoots up the front of my right knee cap. I realize that as I straightened my right leg, my right foot remained slightly turned in towards the left, but my right knee was clearly pointed outward towards the right. The pop occurred as I was trying to align the joints, but neither wanted to budge. I wail, "STOP! SLACK!" and I slink back down to the ground. Something is wrong with my right knee. With some help, I hobble over to a comfortable rock, and Little Bits & McStillin help me secure an ice pack from Ranier, our medic. I set the ice on my knee and work through with McStillin and Ranier what I did to my knee. Sharp pain when pressure is put on the outside, top right of the knee cap. I can't bend the knee fully.

I have a long history of bad knees - left and right - though left is typically the most difficult knee. But this was a bit different. It wasn't the usual pain. It was sharper and more focused. I couldn't believe it - could I have dislocated my knee? This wasn't a hamstring issue, like I've had cycling. This wasn't a knee cap moving like I used to playing basketball. I just needed to breath through it. Relax. Sense what's happening. I sit, pissed, waiting for the ice to do its magic so I can get back up there. I watch Ranier start an advanced rope set up by Spare Parts, just below where Chopper is taking photos. I look over and Vagabond is starting a climb, along with Glass and Sidetrack. I watch, plotting the courses ahead of each of the individuals in my mind the way that we see instant replays assessed on TV during the Super Bowl - with that imaginary magic marker leaving trails of solid white and yellow, marking the players locations and paths. Vagabond abandons the yellow line I'd plotted for him, and he gets stuck. My mind's eye screen clears and resets a new path for Vagabond. He moves forward and struggles. I look over to Ranier, and she's moving along course.

I'm chomping at the bit to get back onto the course, as I return to the rock that I was last on, and Glass is past the part where I got stuck on the green rope. She figured it out and I missed it. Damn. But she's moving strong. That's it. I gotta go at this.

I stand up and put pressure on the knee. It's not happy, but it's not rebelling. Keeping the ice pack on, I start leaning into the rock, stretching and feeling around for how the knee cap is settling. I know that if I can put body weight on my right leg, it's not dislocated. So it's functional. I start to bend the knee into a lunge. Not as bad as before, but not feeling great. But I can grin and bear this. McStillin, also a medic, looks back and sees me stretched and shouts back, "A little PT for the knee, Hit & Run?" I grit my teeth, smile, and say, "Yep!"

Glass finishes the green and comes down, and I scurry to the top (in the interim, Lilac, who'd fractured her toe the day before, has run through the red line), and clip into the red ropes. Little Bits raises an eyebrow, and I ask if I can run red one more time before trying green again. Little Bits explains that he was thinking that rather than starting with green from the bottom, that we try something new - I'd be clipped into both lines, start red, then traverse the rock and finish with green. I look, visualize where I have to go, and decide that's perfect. I ask to do a trial run of red one last time, this time, rather than taking the course of least resistance as I did the last time, to find a more challenging path. Little Bits agrees, as he calls McStillin over to get ready to belay me on green.

I clip in and call back, "On belay?" I hear back, "Belay on," from Little Bits reassuring voice. I can't put my finger on it, but there is just something so inherently soothing about Little Bits tone. There's a positive lilt to his voice, with a solid, manly timbre, but a comforting, arms around your shoulders quality. He sounds like the older brother I never had whenever he speaks - and not the obnoxious, "I stole all your underwear and hit it under my bed" kind of older brother, but the older brother that is full of encouragement, protection and awe. I forget to shout back, "Climbing" to wait for permission to move and I start climbing. Little Bits calls up, "Climb on!" I start moving up.

I see, off to the left, some dark rock and a crack near the exchange between the red and the green lines. I also see a more challenging path to the top of the red, so I opt for that route. I start moving to the left, laterally, so I can get some more schmearing practice, and I then, rather than reaching and pulling  up with my arms, I realize the ledge at my hips gives me better upward motion, so I place my hands palms down and push up until I lift my lower body up and get my right foot on the lip. Little Bits shouts up, "Good move! That's called 'mantling'!" Confidence level boosts up one notch. I keep moving, and before I know it, the caribiner is being smacked against the rock and I'm shouting down, "Coming down!" From across the way, and from the ravine, this Hit & Run person is getting whoops. Then I realize that I'm Hit & Run. I rappel down, and then clip into the green line.

Sidetrack is still working the line next to the green, and Ranier is still working that complicated ledge. Three J, however, seems stuck on the face where I belayed Wildflower & McStillin. It's the first time I've seen her struggle. I cheer her and Ranier on. Sidetrack seems to be in a zone, and I know how hard it is, sometimes, to get into that zone, so I opt out of calling out her name. (Besides, she earned her camp name, I don't dare 'sidetrack' her.)

When I realize that by clipping into two lines, I'm tied to two men, the naughty side of me comes out. "It's a good day when I'm tied up to two men!" I shout out! McStillin blushes, Little Bits laughs. A few more heads turn. Scenes from "Fifty Shades of Grey" start flashing across my mind, and I'm getting revved up. "OK, boys, ready to hoist me up? Let's get climbing!"

I start going up the red line, following the path I took the second time as I had familiarized myself with the rock. As I get closer to the dark grey patch I'd noted before, Little Bits calls up and suggests a slight change in course. I follow his direction, as now not only am I more confident in this rock, but I'm more confident in my skills as well as hanging in the harness, as I'd seen Three J dangle off the side of the rock, sitting back as though stepping away to regain her approach. I look over to see Ranier getting closer and closer to getting the knot at her harness touching the caribiner - Spare Parts' challenge. I look to my left, and Sidetrack is still scaling the rock, and we're almost side-by-side. Ranier is an agile climber. Her gracefully long arms and legs compliment her strong and lean figure beautifully for this sport. Her fingers seem to have suction cups - every handhold she attempts conforms to her skin. Grit teeth, the occasional grunt, and I can tell she's in a bind in the last 2 yards of this climb.

Photo by Chris Anthony
Chopper is leaning back, shooting her between his knees, which Little Bits and I joke would make a great photo when she makes the final move - her head will be right in his crotch - and I wish I could be above him with a second camera to capture that shot. The dirty jokes come flowing. Vagabond is attacking the same rock that bested him earlier in the day. Three J has just found a small landing and has made a little nest for herself. Sidetrack is now out of the zone and equally interested in what's going on in our small canyon of climbing cancer survivors, so I take the opportunity to call out her name and cheer her on. We both shout over to Vagabond, who's clearly still stumped on this peace of rounded rock that runs from his collarbone to just above his knee. I'm not expert, but I'm also not seeing any clear footholds for him. I'm just as stumped for him as he is. I call out, "Come on, Vagabond!" and I turn back to Ranier. As much as I want to continue to climb and finish the traverse, I want to see Ranier throw back into Spare Parts' face that her knot met the caribiner. Mermaid, our FD photographer, a wild child surfer chick from California, who's half Israeli and endowed with that stunning, rich chocolate Israeli hair that thickens and lengthens at will, sunkissed with golden threads, and the chillest attitude ever, is positioning herself to capture the shot I wish I could.

Ultimately, I realize that Ranier is going to be taking baby steps, so there's enough time for me to finish my traverse from the red rope to the green, so I go back to the task at hand - hitting the dark grey rock and maneuvering to the green path. It's a bit of a stretch, but those lateral moves, no matter how challenging, are so much easier for me than the vertical moves. I look back to see how Ranier is doing, and I see Chopper has just taken a break from her and shot me. I call out to him, "Does this rock make my ass look big?" and I hear a cacophony of laughter from all directions. Chopper responds, "Nah!" and he gets back to shooting Ranier.

Traversing from Red line to Green line towards the Grey Rock
 - Photo by Chris Anthony

I know that I'm close to the top, but I can't help but pause to see how Ranier is doing. Finally, she hits it. I continue on. When I reach the next level, and a small roof, I realize how close I am to the top. Yeah, I could just reach up and go, and I think Little Bits is reading my mind because he calls up and tells me to keep going left, towards the next line over. I keep moving over and I see what he's doing - he's forcing me to try some more challenging surfaces. I hit them. I didn't struggle - I mean - I physically struggled, sure - but I didn't mentally struggle. I could do it. And I did. I made it over a small roof and I touch the caribiner. I look up, and Chopper somehow ended up above me on the rock from the other side of our little canyon. I smile, give a thumbs up, and rappel back down the rock.

Photo by Chris Anthony
I conquered the rock, the rappel, and my fears. I was content to finish the day, especially since lightning was sighted approaching us from The Diamond. It was time to start packing it up, which we did.

But I was entering our rest day with new confidence.

It was a good day.

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