Greg Burns - Reader Blog 6

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Jen walking in toward Black Magic (5.8). / Photo by Greg Burns

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Good Partners

3/16/10 - Two thousand ten was supposed to be the new beginning for me, and in many ways it has been. After years of writhing in emptiness, I finally left my job for the excitement of following a dream. The transition hasn't been as easy as I thought it would be, but I've been productive, and I'm making a few friends in the right places. Unfortunately, part of my plan has been put on hold due to the earthquakes in Chile, so I'm still writing and climbing in the US. But that plan is still active, and as soon as things settle down, I'll be on a plane to Santiago for the next year or so, hopefully filling my time with lots of fiction, friends, and climbing in the Andes.

But whenever there is a gain in one direction, there is a loss in another. The losses aren't always permanent, but they are there and they're noticed, too.

I've had several climbing partners who I've roped up with the past few years. Two stand out, though: Jeremiah and Jen. I met Jeremiah on a busy day at Rumney. There were three of us fighting all the other weaklings for the easy routes at Lower Vader. We decided to head uphill, and while I was coiling the rope at Lower Vader my two partners headed there to Upper Vader. When I got there they were already climbing despite the fact that I had all the gear.

"Greg, this is Jeremiah," one of them said to me. We shook hands and then climbed.

The four of us hung out all day, and afterward we exchanged information. He wasn't just some dude out and about; he was in law school and was trying to nudge his way into the climbing community. While he knew a few people from his partner-searching days in the dirt parking lot below the Meadows at Rumney, he didn't really know anyone and I'd like to think our climbing group took him under its wing. From then on it was tough for me to not climb with him, even when he moved out of Boston to the Adirondacks, which are a good five-to-six hour drive away. We meshed pretty quickly and had about the same amount of technical skill, though he was clearly surging past me because he had a strong desire to make climbing a major part of his life. Our senses of humor connected, too. I admit that not everyone appreciates my sense of humor (or my personality for that matter), but I've always been able to tell right away who those people are who don't care about my abrasiveness. He was one of those people, and, as I soon learned that he was a lot like me when I was his age, I forgave him easily for his abrupt style, too. We had epic after epic (I blame him and his strange desire to bushwhack through everything to get to the base of the cliff, and he blames me for my lack of commitment to bushwhack through anything to get to the good climbing), but I learned so much more in that first year of climbing with him than I had in my previous four years combined that I was finally happy to have found such a trusted partner (note: my original two partners were great, too, but one died a few years ago and the other moved to Australia, making the commute to climb with both of them a major bitch). We made a ton of plans to climb here and there and to work on this technique and learn about that method of self-rescue. For me, things were all coming together nicely. Due to a recent life change, I had more free time and, surprisingly, a fair amount more disposable income, too. Driving long hours every weekend just to get out was worth it for once. I figured I had it all worked out.

But then the bastard moved to Colorado.

"That's where the climbing is," he said, and off he went.

Greg in the chimney on Olive Oil (5.7). / Photo by Jen Thistle

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Sure, we made plans to climb together a couple of times a year, and it worked out a few times. But I definitely regressed in my climbing ability while he shot through the roof. Climbing really had taken a hold of his life out west, and I was stuck back east looking for a new partner. Luck would have it that Jen was looking to head to Yosemite at the same time I was. We went there with another person and the trip was somewhat of a success: I certainly learned that I'd love to return to Tuolumne someday and that Lover's Leap outside of Tahoe is now one of my favorite places to climb. There were definitely bumpy moments and I experienced the opposite of meshing with the other person on the trip, but from that trip emerged another great partner. Jen and I climbed nearly every weekend after that for the next several months and, despite the fact that I was injured most of the next summer, we roped up whenever we could then, too.

Then it was my turn to leave town.

This was as big of a change for me as Jeremiah had experienced two years before. Except this time instead of me looking back on my life through his youth, I looked up at his life and said, "Yeah, I can do this." And I did. I left my job and prepared everything to head to Santiago, Chile to write and climb. Of course, we all know now what has happened down there the past few weeks (thankfully all of my friends down there are doing well, though some not without some wave-riding-in-their-tent-after-camping-on-the-beach adventures to tell), so that has delayed things a bit. But when I left my job I found a few things difficult to do: sleep on a regular schedule, not check e-mail and Facebook all day, not play games, and, more importantly, I found it difficult to write, which was the whole point of heading south anyway.

I needed a break, and luck would have it again that Jen was looking to go climbing somewhere for a few days over school break in February. I didn't hesitate. The only question was where: Potrero or Red Rocks? We had both been to Red Rocks before and neither of us had been to Potrero. We both really wanted to head south to Mexico for the first time and get on some of the famously long bolted routes, but while Mexico itself sounded cheap, getting there certainly wasn't. So we decided on Red Rocks.

It took me a couple of extra days to get there. Somehow her flight got out while mine was delayed by snow that night and the day after, but whatever; I can move on from that someday. When I finally did get there we had two days left of our trip. In Red Rocks for us, particularly with the kind of short daylight one gets there in February, that meant two routes, possibly another short one if we got up and down quickly. We went back and forth trying to decide which routes to do and finally settled on Olive Oil (5.7) and Black Magic (5.8).

Olive Oil was a breeze. We were the third party there and that slowed things down a bit (mainly because the first party was having a bit of a lover's spat all the way up, which also had the consequence of definitely keeping us from doing a second route if we had descended fast enough with enough daylight left), but overall it was nice to touch real rock again for the first time in months. It was also nice to remember that the grades out there are WAY soft compared to other places we've climbed. With the exception of me not realizing that I was actually leading a squeeze chimney at the top until I was actually in the squeeze chimney (and ten feet above my last piece, which was kindly a #4 Camalot left behind by the party in front of us because they kinda sorta knew I was going to need it, and which was, oddly enough, also 15 feet above my last piece below that, so that would have been a nice fifty-footer without the #4). I struggled for about 15 minutes trying to take off my Camelbak without dropping both it and me at the same time. Jen was gracious enough to let me know several times during this awkward struggle that she was getting cold, but I got her back at the top. I completely failed to recognize her command "up on black!" and confused it with "I need slack." So there you have it, reason #1 why not to own a black rope when climbing with doubles.

A cold day at the start of Black Magic. / Photo by Greg Burns

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I always get sick in Red Rocks. I know, people think I'm nuts when I say this, but I much prefer humidity to dry heat. In humidity, I always know when I'm going to be in trouble because my body tells me when to drink water. With dry heat, I can drink ten gallons of water and still not be hydrated enough. I was grateful we had climbed in the shade most of the day because the sun would have completely sapped me of all fluids and made the descent more difficult than it was (and possibly put the next day's climb in jeopardy). We and the other party ahead of us (because they were waiting for me to squeeze through that damn chimney - thank god they were Canadian and nice people. Thanks BTW!) had 45 minutes to hike down the descent gully (something that I assumed would take the full 45 minutes on its own) and the flat trail back to our cars. The Canadians got stuck with a $150 ticket two days before and none of us wanted to get stuck with a ticket that night, so we booked it...and made it (thankfully Pine Tree Canyon is at the end of the loop and that the rangers start at the beginning of the route when chasing everyone out of the park at closing time). Jen and I threw the gear in the trunk, went to the condo (thanks to her friend for letting us crash a couple of nights, too!), and ate. I, surprisingly, wasn't sick. I was tired from my first all-day climbing day in months, but I felt fine when I hit the pillow. I was nervous, however, about the next day's climb.

Here's another thing that always gets me: the cold. My fingers and toes scream when the temps drop below 60 degrees, and it's even bad when it is in the 60s in a house when I'm trying to write or type something. Cold weather causes me to lose dexterity both from pain and a loss of feeling at the same time. I know, that sounds contradictory, but it's true. It happens. I both feel nothing and pain at the same time. The nothingness hurts. Our plan for the day was to hit Black Magic on the Lotta Balls Wall in First Creek Canyon. We knew that wall got some morning sun, but we weren't prepared for the morning sun to have completely disappeared by the time we got to the base. And to top it off, it looked intimidating, too.

"I'd almost rather do Lotta Balls," Jen said.

"What grade is that?" I asked.

"I think it's a ten."

I thought it over. Black Magic seemed to be one of those routes where if one was good at a particular style then it was certainly a 5.8, but if one wasn't then it would probably feel much harder. It looked steep and it had two cracks in the start section. I hate cracks and don't climb them very well, and the fall looked nasty too: it was onto a sloped boulder about the size of a coffee table, and there was a 15-foot drop from the boulder to the ground after that. There was no grass or dirt nearby, so the fall wasn't just bouncy and awkward, but hard, too.

Jen didn't want to do it, and I was on the fence. But I looked at Lotta Balls and didn't see anything particularly inspiring about it. Black Magic scared me more because my hands were cold than the grade scared me. If I was warm then I would have had no problem, but I wasn't and that made me nervous.

"Shoot, even this 5.9 here looks hard," I said.

"What do you want to do?" Jen asked. "I'm kinda glad we decided you get pitches one and four while I get two and three."

I thought about that and was actually glad it had worked out that way, too. Sure, the start looked nasty, but if it got cold up there on the third pitch where the second 5.8 section was, and because that sounded like the leader was going to have to climb over a head-wall, and because I was way out of climbing shape and lacked endurance and would likely be A LOT colder up there than I was down here, taking the first pitch seemed a good omen to me.

"Let's do it," I said.

Jen said, "OK," and we got the ropes and gear ready. I looked at the start again and was more nervous than I was when I had decided to do it. The opening moves require pulling outward on a detached flake that looks as if it weighs 300 pounds. If I pulled that off on the first go then that was it, probably forever and more from that moment on. Thankfully, it wasn't so bad and I moved up to the crack. The crack looked hard, though, and my first piece inspired about as much confidence as a fart in a mitten does. I placed it, though, and moved upward to the next section. It was a bit of a layback crack that leaned out left toward where the first bolt was, which was about 20 feet off the deck. It was also about three feet out of reach and the traverse left, which is where the route went, was also just inches out of reach. I backed down for a second and scoped things out.

Looking up P1 of Black Magic. / Photo by Jen Thistle

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"Come on, you got it," Jen said.

"Yeah right I got it," I said to myself. There was no way I wasn't going to get it. The fall looked scarier from up there than it did from down below.

It took me a little bit to figure it out, but I finally did and Jen said, "Nice job."

But the job wasn't done yet. The next bolt was about two feet above my longest stretch and the move to get closer to it required high-stepping up to my chest, campusing on holds of questionable quality, and all of this while fighting a massive urge to barn door away from the only good holds I could see and feel. And oh yeah, it also meant, once I got up to the next section, that I then had to clip the bolt while underneath a suffocatingly overhanging arch that bent back toward where my body wanted to stand straight. "Great."

I slipped and nearly barn doored off the moves two or three times before I decided to risk it all and use the bad holds instead of the good ones. After all, I was at a bolt now. "Nothing like getting that first fall out of the way so early in the year," I thought. I committed to the bad holds and, whattayaknow? - they turned out to be the good holds. I awkwardly clipped the bolt behind me while laying back the arch before I realized I could have simply reached above me to a nice jug directly above the bolt and saved a world of worry and effort.

"Nice job," she said again. This time I felt it was earned and thanked her.

The rest of the pitch was nice (especially that beautiful hand rail traversing back right after the second bolt - wowee that was fun!), if not long. I ran out of draws at one point and that caused some stupid rope drag that I would have preferred to avoid. I also ran it out about twenty feet a couple times because I knew I was running out of gear that fit in the crack (it was a long pitch!) and I couldn't see where it actually ended. Finally I found it and brought Jen up.

She took the second pitch and for 5.6 it seemed a bit spicy. She was cold and really nervous about the third pitch, so this was a brave lead for her. I was prepared to take all the pitches if I needed to, but she went forth and fought her demons, and then we got to the third pitch and looked up.

"Wow," I said. "That looks tough."

"Yeah, and I don't see where there's gear at all going over the roof or around it."

"There's gotta be something," I said. "It's not 5.8X."

"I don't even see the bolt that protects the crux!"

From where we stood it looked pretty run out and a little scary because the wind was howling at what we later learned was probably 35mph gusts and 20mph sustained. We were both cold and we talked about me taking the pitch. But she finally decided that she had to take it. If she got up there and couldn't do it, then she'd back off, but if she bailed now and found it to be easier than it looked then she'd be mad at herself for backing off to early. Up she went and below I stayed shouting emotional support.

It was tough for a while because we really couldn't read the route well. I tried to tell her that after she went right to the arete the first time, the route then went up left before going back right to the arete, but she was convinced she went straight up the arete. Thankfully she couldn't see any placements straight up the arete, and even more thankfully I finally spied the bolt that we had been looking for. I think it also helped that she was shaking from both the cold and fear and if it didn't look good to her from that emotional standpoint then she wasn't going to do it.

Finally, we finished! / Photo by Greg Burns

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"Look straight up," I said. "It's about 15 feet above you."

She didn't see it.

"It's right there, right above you. Right next to the brown splotch on the rock!"

She shook her head.

"I'm going straight up," she said.

"No! You go left up to the arch and then right. I can see it!"

She didn't believe me because from where she stood it didn't make sense. It looked much harder that way, but because I convinced her that I could see the bolt when she couldn't, she trusted my judgment and went up left. It was then that she saw the bolt and freaked a bit more than usual:

"OH MY GOD THAT'S A LONG WAY AWAY!"

I'm not going to get into what was said or how it was said, but let's just say that we had hit a crux and we were seconds from deciding to lower her back to the anchor off a cam that, to her, seemed about as useful as a lead balloon (if you thought I was going to say "fart in a mitten" again then you should know that I learned while I was belaying the third pitch that farts in clothing are actually pretty useful when it is cold).

I don't know what finally got her to move, but she finally saw the bolt and saw a sequence that might work. It scared us both because what she saw was committing, and if she was wrong then she had nearly as bad of a fall waiting for her on the third pitch as I did at the start.

She grabbed the first hold and I yelled, "NICE!"

She high-stepped way out right and around the corner and I saw just how exposed she was now. One wrong move and we were looking at bailing, leaving a lot of gear behind, and a tough, long walk back to the car.

She pulled on the hold and matched hands. "NICE!"

A HUGE gust of wind roared from up the canyon that made me turn away both from the cold and the tears that would have come from the wind blasting my eyes. "Oh god," I said, "don't let that wind knock her off now."

When it died down I looked up and saw her standing comfortably and stable. "Yeah, you got it!" Then she reached around a small bulge, found a hold, stepped right, clipped the bolt and let out a victory scream that Mel Gibson would have been proud of. I shouted cheers back up to her and she finished the pitch as happy as a clam in mud.

I finished up the route and we were then at the top. We were both giddy and cold. We had talked about doing two routes, but we had been through enough already and, as expected, I was feeling sick. The descent was a pain in the butt (four short rappels before a weird scramble / down-climb). The walk out was nice, though. We were in the sun and for a moment I thought about not going to Chile after all. "Maybe all I want to do is climb," I thought to myself. With all my love for individual rebellion and my comfort with isolation, it was days like this that really made me happy and comfortable. And I can't take any of the credit, because I'm just a guy who likes to write when he's alone. I can handle solitude better than Melquiades in 100 Years of Solitude, but when I'm with friends - when I'm with those specific friends who I trust with my life - then I'm truly at my happiest. And as we walked out the thought occurred to me that even though I was very likely heading to Chile to write, and even though Jen had found a new beau who was a stronger climber than I ever hoped to be, and even though Jeremiah had moved to Colorado to follow his own dreams, and even though all of these seemed like losses in a bucket full of gains, I can come back and climb with the best partners I've ever had any time I want, because we've always been there for each other and we always will be.