Greg Burns - Reader Blog 7

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Photo by Greg Burns

Photo by Greg Burns

Exposed in the Moonlight

5/28/10 - Exposed in the Moonlight - Five hours later, when we had quit in the afternoon's heat, and after we swam in the chilly pool at Split Rock, we slept in the shade, read in the sun, gazed upon the shivering women who, upon exiting the cold water, were wet and glistening in the sun, and, after we had eaten at the campsite, we headed to do Arrow (5.8) as our warm up to a 5.6 classic just a few minutes down the path. Then we stood under the darkness of the trees and noted how our eyes had seen the air grow darker by the second. We looked upward without turning on our lamps and tried to make out the shape of the holds and the curve of the line. Above that was the lip of the tree line and, above that, the exposed buttress jutting up into the deep blue, star-speckled sky. The party that was spending the night on the ledge had settled in, and it was then our turn. John roped up and went up into the night.

I arrived at the 'Gunks a couple of days before with no goals in mind. John was new to the area, and I wanted to show him all the classics that I knew so well already. I had climbed in previous years most of what I wanted to to climb there, and the remaining ticks were too hard for my current motivation level so early in the season. As a result, I gave John the money pitches on just about everything we did. He had arrived in the 'Gunks for his six-week stay just a few days before I did, and he had managed to knock off a few of the easier classics already, so when I arrived I upped the ante a bit and we raced up Maria (5.6), Disneyland (5.6), Frog's Head (5.6), City Lights (5.8), Son of Easy O (5.8), the great CCK (5.8), and then, when our new friends Gail and Michael put up Ridiculissima (5.10d) on toprope, he raced up that, too. But it was too hot this particular afternoon. We had baked on the upper pitches over by Maria and called it a day by noon when we felt the sun stinging our tanned necks and shoulders. So we headed to Split Rock to swim and relax, and it was along the way there when we started to discuss what we were going to do once the heat dissipated at dusk.

"I can do anything really," I said.

"What do you recommend?" he asked.

"Jen always mentioned doing High E at night," I said. "Maybe this is a great opportunity to do that."

John didn't even think about it. "That would be so cool," he said, and it was decided then that we were going to do it that night after dinner. The only question was at what time.

Photo by John Wesley

Photo by John Wesley

It was the day before when we topped out on CCK. Neither of us liked the idea of rapping off the single cable with a lonely quicklink that is left of Erect Direction (5.10c), so we headed over to the High Exposure (5.6) rap station and descended to the GT Ledge. Once there, we looked over and saw that it was pretty easy to walk over to the start of the second pitch. John asked if I wanted to do it since we were already there. I said, "Sure," and we walked over and waited for the party of four ahead of us to clear the way. It was a fun time for us on the ledge. The second for the first leader had two Trango Big Bros hanging off her harness, and that sparked a few smirks. I'm really not sure why anyone would need a Big Bro in the 'Gunks, but there they were dangling off the back of her harness like silent, useless cowbells. The second party team made us a little more nervous because the second was climbing outside for the second time ever. Visions of the ridiculous scene a few years ago where a girl freaked out after falling on the upper face played through our heads. That poor girl was so scared, and her leader was so incompetent that he couldn't lower her, that the parties below waiting on the ledge that day felt it was best to build an anchor, tie her into the anchor with a sling, and cut the rope so that she'd swing back into the ledge and, relatively speaking, back to safety. Unfortunately, High E attracts this kind of bizarre activity, so we held our breaths and waited for what seemed like the inevitable. Thankfully, the kid was strong enough to pull through it OK, and we had nothing to worry about.

Then it was our turn, and like we had done on the previous climbs, I left the lead to John.

"But I've done them all so far," he said, "and you haven't led this pitch yet. Are you sure you don't want to have this one?"

I shrugged it off saying, "That's OK. I can always come back. You only have a few weeks." Of course, I had in my mind an ulterior motive: if it was going to be hot later this week, and if we were going to beg off from the scorching afternoons, then we'd certainly talk about doing this at night at some point. And if that was going to be the case, then I wanted my first lead on this pitch to be then, under the moon and the stars with only a headlamp leading the way. Of course, this played out as I had hoped it would

We ate dinner, and it was still light out. With it being June, the sun didn't set until late, and the daylight wouldn't fade until later still, so we decided that we'd do Arrow as a warm up. I know, a 5.8 as a warm up for a 5.6? Well, I knew Arrow well, so I never considered it to be difficult at all. And I also knew that John was showing himself to be a pretty strong climber, so I wasn't worried about either of us flailing or using up too much energy on this climb. In fact, if it was still daylight when we topped out on Arrow then we were going to do Limelight (5.7) and / or the second pitch of Annie Oh! (5.8) as well. Also, a slabby 5.8 with daylight should feel a little easier than an overhanging 5.6 with only headlamps and the moon to light the way, but none of that turned out to be necessary. It was late when we finally got to the top of Arrow, so we decided that was enough of a warm-up and headed to the base of High E.

Photo by Greg Burns

Photo by Greg Burns

The only disappointment was that we found a party heading up the first pitch when we got there. My reaction of course, considering that High E can be as crowded as any climb in the U.S., was, "What the hell? There's actually somebody on this thing?" That turned out OK, though, because they were the first two of an eventual party of five who were going to spend the night on the ledge. In fact, us having to wait for them helped a little because it made things darker, which was what we wanted. It wasn't long then that John went up into the night, leaving me under the trees at the dark base, and, eventually, with a view of him as a single, dark mass topped by a swaying beam of light constantly bouncing between hand and foot holds.

John had the more difficult task by far, even though he led the easier of the two pitches. He had never been on this pitch, so leading it at night for the first time, particularly with regards to route finding on the traverse at the top, proved to be a bit challenging. But he did fine in the end. All the gear was good, and he didn't stop moving upward the whole time. But it was easier for me on the second pitch mainly because we had done this pitch the day before. I knew exactly what I was going to do, where the cruxes were, and how I was going to manage the gear.

When I finally got to the top of the first pitch, I sat there with John and the two folks who were spending the night and I said, "OK, let's just soak this in for a bit...OK, I'm ready, let's go." John laughed because my soaking in had lasted about ten seconds. I usually get nervous when I do things like this, but I was so jacked to go that I all I wanted to do was to get at it, so I did. I walked up the first section easily, plugged two big cams, made the swing out into open space, and asked, "Just curious, if I can't see the ground, does it still count as High Exposure?" One of the kids who was going to sleep on the ledge spoke up and said, "Just imagine it." I didn't imagine it. I couldn't really. It wasn't that I didn't want to, I was just too focused on the task at hand to worry about anything else. That and I realized early that I spent WAY too much time early on plugging gear with my left arm while my right one ached from hanging on. So, just as I thought I was going to do, right about when I thought my right arm was going to fall off, I clipped the pin midway up and ran it to the top. It was fast, it was fun, the sky was blue around me, the moon was white, and it was glorious at the top.

Photo by Greg Burns

Photo by Greg Burns

I belayed John up and anxiously awaited his headlamp's light beam. My heart was racing and I was so juiced that I wanted more. I wished that the route would have gone on forever. It was such a perfect night: the temps were perfect, the light was perfect, the noise was perfect, the execution...was perfect. I simply couldn't wait to share the excitement, but as I waited and listened for his movements; as I tugged the rope up; as I looked and looked, I couldn't see any sign of his headlamp. Patiently I waited some more, and then, without even a hint of what was to come, I saw his green helmet poke over the lip sans light.

"Wait, did you just climb it without your headlamp?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said. "The moon is almost full, so I decided to give it a go. I could see the ledges OK, but I couldn't tell where the jugs were. It made things interesting for sure."

I laughed, and then he topped out. We sat at the top and watched the low, white clouds roll in over the valley and listened to the frogs honk in the pond below. I think we sat there for about an hour just talking and soaking it all in. Even the walk back along the path was full of excitement. It wasn't that anything happened then; we were simply pumped from the experience and happy to have done something special. Was the route hard? No, not at all. Is High Exposure a little over-hyped? Sure. It doesn't even have the most exposure for the grade in the 'Gunks (in my opinion, that would be Moonlight (5.6)). But is High E a classic? Yes. Is High E a route worth doing? Yes. Is High E worth doing at night? Absolutely, and I recommend it to anyone seeking a simple pleasure on harmless, moonlit night.