The following tale took place in October of 1999; at the time, it was a great adventure. What I had no way of knowing then, was what it marked the beginning of, in my life; and while that's a more personal and still-evolving story, I wanted to at least record its origins, for my own sense of posterity.
------------------------- "Dances with Lichen" ----------------------------------------------------
I seem to meet the strangest people on rap ledges.
One fine Saturday at the Gunks, my partner Dick and I had the pleasure to watch one truly obnoxious guy piss off three separate parties of climbers, while we climbed Arrow. Anxious to avoid getting tangled up with said guy on rappel, we walked the cliff-top to find a kindler, gentler place to rap. At an intermediate rap tree, I struck up a conversation with a guy belaying his second while I waited for Dick. In retrospect I should say that the conversation was struck up with me; this person as I now know him will carry on with anyone and everyone, it seems, and there I was. In what I also later came to know as his unique style, he soon launched into a semi-autobiographical monologue, in which, talking to or about himself somehow, he revealed that his name was Emmett.
*YOU'RE* Emmett!" I now introduce Emmett to others as 'Emmett, whose fault this all is
Emmett is a fixture on the gunks.com discussion board, and had posted, earlier that week, an open invite to the gunks.com-munity. Near his family vacation spot in the Daks was a backcountry slab that he'd been eyeing for years. Research had revealed no knowledge of climbing routes on it, so the opportunity was ripe: Emmett posted that he wanted to assemble a group of unacquainted climbers to put up new routes. I'd ignored the post, a crazy idea. Then I met Emmett, who reissued the invitation on that rap ledge. To make another long story short, I'd had a very similar experience with mountain-bikers in my area not long before, going into the woods with complete strangers, and it had evolved into a whole community for me. My friend Liz vouched for Emmett's sanity
.Plus, I set routes in my local gym, and the possibility of putting up a route outside seemed pretty cool. So - heck, why not?
A flurry of logistics-emails followed in the next few weeks.
Emmett's suggestion as to how I explain to friends and family why I'm going into the woods with a bunch of strange men for 5 days:
*> Now, we have to think up a suitable story for mom.... You have been assigned a secret mission
*> by James Carville to follow George W. Bush to record his reactions as he campaigns for the oval
*> office and learns that "Bubba" is not a proper name, "Howdy" is not a recognizable greeting but
*> is the first name of a wooden puppet, whose owner, Buffalo Bob, sues him for trademark
*> infringement, and finally, you are there when his medical advisors say to him "No George W.,
*> telling them you did not inhale will not restore the septum in your nose." Tell mom all of this
*> will take up about five days, but what the hell, your country needs you.
Mike, another enlist-ee:
*> As I told my wife yesterday when she questioned the wisdom of such a trip:
*> "Well, we kinda know each other's personality from the Net. 'Course there could be an
*> axe murderer in the bunch..."
*> Mike "I carry it to clean up old rap stations. Honest."
Bob, and my reply:
*>> > You guys are starting to scare me. I'm def. not seeing The Blair Witch Project
*>> > before I go on this trip.
*>> October, 1999: A group of strangers head into the woods.
*>> A year later their ropes were found......
To round out numbers, Mike's friend Brad, a newbie, was enlisted:
*> Welcome Brad! I don't know if you are up on the genisis of this trip, but in honor of the
*> passing of the millennium, and the fact that this is a "non-compliant" affair, it is referred
*> to as the "KY2u2! Expedition". Now that Conrad has found Mallory, and Alex and the
*> boys made it up the Great Trango, there is only one last major mountaineering objective
*> to be had before the closing of this century -scaling the slabs of Tirrell Pond! We should
*> accomplish our goal quickly because it is our intent to put the least experienced person on
*> lead [Hey, that's you isn't it!]. If the fates are with us we should be out of there before the
*> ice sets in on the lake.
*> Your comrade in adventure, Sir Emmett Shackleton. "God, Save our Queens!"
Emmett set the ground rules:
*> Will you guys promise me that you'll keep your BD items secured in your bags at night.
*> It's one thing to see cams walk when I am climbing, but I don't want to see any sleep walking
*> cams when I'm sleeping.
Weeks after that chance rap-ledge meeting, I found myself driving up the Northway, again questioning my own sanity. I was on the tailspin of a wicked flu, still coughing and otherwise fighting to breathe. What was I thinking, could I even walk, much less carry a pack five miles? Not to mention the dubious situation of being the only gal to go into the woods with a bunch of guys I'd never met
.and after all, when you find yourself getting coffee from a KFC, you know you're in dire straits.
Well, hell, I can take care of myself in the woods, so I figured I could always just walk away if need be.
*> Late October. A family emergency has me leaving Queens, NY, instead of my home in NJ,
*> near midnight, turning a four hour cruise into a six hour sleep-fighting nightmare. Sleep wins,
*> but fortunately only in a couple of rest stops. I get to a campground I've never been to -- hell,
*> this is a part of the Dacks I've never been to -- at about the time I said I would. Everything is
*> wet and chilly, except the the folks I conclude are my climbing and camping partners for the
*> long weekend. Oh yeah, I've never met any of them either.
Despite my common sense, out of simple Taurean stubborn-ness, I followed the directions Emmett had emailed, far into a place I'd never been, down a long and dark dirt road, to a campsite that indeed had a Jetta parked in it. Emmett was there, smoking his pipe by the fire, and made me a cup of tea while I set up my tent; the hospitali-tea made me feel a little better about the whole idea. The others were due to arrive at various times; tired, I hit the sack. It poured that night. I find being tucked away in my tent in the rain incredibly comforting for some strange reason, and I slept like a log.
Mike's arrival woke us up, and he and his son Ryan (our official photographer) made pancakes from the back of his minivan, as his contribution to the gourmet-food theme of the weekend. OK, nobody seemed like an axe murderer yet
*> Coffee is drunk, introductions are made, plans are sorted out. Some joker named Emmett
*> had seen some slabs over the summer and thought that some first ascents, or at least first
*> recorded ascents, would be just the way to spend an extended October weekend. Some guy
*> named Mike had been in the area a while before and thought the rock there was worth
*> checking out. They both seemed sane enough in person, and everyone else too.
*> The hike in has some options and I take one that will have some people catch up to me if I
*> dawdle. I don't dawdle enough and have the trail all to myself. Too much time to think of my
*> recently deceased step-father. A great hiker, he would have loved this trail. Maybe he'd even
*> been on this trail. I can't ask him, ever again. He probably hadn't. I describe it to his memory.
We're going in packed for 4 days, with monster racks and plentiful ropes given that none of us know what we're in for. Heavy packs, but Bob is 'training' for his trip to Denali, which sets the machismo bar for the rest of us. Mike, Ryan, Brad and Emmett hike in from an alternate trail; Steven sets out ahead of us, and I wait as Bob dawdles with his pack. Sitting on Bob's bumper, I confess to feeling sick and really-not-up-to-this, but for the grace of god, here goes I. We chatter the whole way in, my spirits (and oxygen-saturation levels) lifting all the while.
After setting up camp at a lean-to next to Tirrell Pond, we re-organize for the climb. Ryan films our departure, as we walk single-file along the sandy shore of the lake, each of us contemplating the formidable slab birthed from the hill in front of us. [TWO PICS HERE!!!]. After an hour's bushwhack, we split into three pairs to assault our objective.
Mike heads up on gear that I can see is bunk, but gets to a solid stance [PIC]. Once he puts me on belay, I weight my tired legs, feeling the hike in, and remember that slab climbing entails lots of leg strength that now seems absent in me. I've survived the walk in, but can I climb? Soon I encounter pleasant chicken-heads, and eventually the belay. We take turns TRing a section below us that had looked interesting but X-rated for purposes of leading. Mike then continues up very mellow, exfoliating, scantily protected but positive rock to the top, with one well-placed tree providing an intermediate belay. We traverse over to see what our fellow fools had gotten themselves into; we've all had a fun afternoon playing in the sun, and the views from the slab were outstanding.
*> The approach is the usual Dacks, alternating between a wet trail and less-wet bushwhacking.
*> Partners are chosen. I'm climbing with Bob. Hopefully I'll get an attentive belay. Slabby rock.
*> Gear obviously minimal. What lines there are are mostly grassy and dirt-laden. There's a vague
*> flake system that's marginally clean and hopefully around 5.7. It's not like I'm a great slab climber.
*> It's not like this has been my boldest season. It's not like I've gotten much sleep.
*> I climb a pitch and I'm feeling better. Bob's a perfectly competent partner, and slabs are often
*> hardest near the ground. I bring Bob up. The rock sucks though. Somewhere in the next 30 feet
*> I remember that slabs are often easiest near the ground. The cliff gives new meaning to "exfoliation."
*> It goes something like this. See a nubbin that looks like a decent foot. Bend down to brush away
*> the dirt. Brush away the dirt. The nubbin is gone too.
*> It's getting late, and this is getting hard and spectacularly unprotected. Bob and I decide we're
*> done for the day. There's a big flake coming up that promises pro, but it slopes the wrong way
*> so the stance is going to suck royally. We can do this tomorrow. I make a huge traverse,
*> warning Bob that we can just leave my high piece, otherwise he'll be utterly unprotected following.
*> He agrees, then comes up and cleans the high piece. Luckily he's a pretty good slab climber, in fact,
*> lord knows why he wasn't leading the whole thing.
Once down with almost no incident, we reverse the bushwhack, in falling darkness. I almost get stuck in one nest of branches, feeling slight panic as I watch the others' headlights wobbling away. Soon the trail emerges, and we're safe; one beknighting spared.
Back at the campsite, Emmett reveals the fruits of his previous day's labor, pounds of shrimp, pasta, and vino he'd walked in already. He was serious about eating well! I take my water filter and some pots to fill, and sit on a rowboat by the water's edge, in chilly moonlight. Bob joins me eventually, and we work on my clogged filter together.
Dinner was a feast of shrimp and pesto ziti, fortified by red wine and befitting names for our new routes. Sleep fell easily once more, in cold and crisp air.
Sunday Mike awakens us again
.it's gray and rainy. We come to the consensus that all three of our routes are about 5.6R, and more climbing would be more of the same; so we take advantage of a rainy day to walk out. Roughly 24 hours after leaving the cars, we're back at the cars, victorious (PIC).
A report was anonymously filed to the awaiting gunks.com-munity:
*> A runner arrived from basecamp with the following report: 0800 hrs Oct. 10 - "Expedition
*> KY2u2 pushed 3 new routes on the west face of Tirrell (aka "Peak 6"): "Alien Shrimp" 5.5 R*;
*> "No Nuts - No Seaplane" 5.5 R; and "Chicken Soup" 5.6 R-X*, the latter two being full-length
*> (3 pitch) routes to the top of the smooth west face of Tirrell Mt. Highlights sure to make the
*> final cut of the expedition video, if we had thought to bring a video camera that is, include:
*> Julie stepping in mud over her boot tops. With both feet. Brad pulling off the 40 lb rock (that
*> Emmett had pulled himself up on minutes earlier) into his lap, and asking "Now what do I do?".
*> To which a concerned Emmett replied "Drop it!!". Whereupon the rock bombed into the trees,
*> continuing another few hundred feet before it stopped. Emmett preparing to rappel, when the
*> ledge/dirt clod under his feet collapses, leaving him dangling by the prusik sling he'd attached to
*> the rap line a few seconds earlier. Steven, Brad, and Mike peeling hot shrimp by the hundreds.
*> Nice clean fingernails, guys. Steven, 2 lb bag of Starbucks held high, being attacked by the
*> caffeine dependent expedition members. Bob "Training for Denali" Monty bent under the
*> weight of his 80 lb pack, watching wistfully as the seaplane flew out the fishermen camped
*> nearby. OK Bob, here's the $55. 1800 hrs Oct 10 - Sunday morning was light rain as the team
*> hiked out to the cars. Mike, Brad, and Ryan had to return to civilization. The others headed
*> further north, mumbling something about Poke-o-Moonshine and an espresso bar.
So Steven, Emmett, Bob & I, game for more climbing and/or adventure, caravan to Poke-O, with a mandatory coffee stop in between. We end up at a picturesque campsite for the night, post-season so we have it all to ourselves, by the side of a wide river [PIC] lined with trees showing their fall color.
I serve up grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner, with Steven's addition of hoummus and chips, and we desert upon well-roasted wool socks.
Next morning the skies are still gray. We dawdle at a great roadside diner, where our orders appear headspinningly fast and the coffee springs eternal. Eventually we head to the cliff, hoping to hop on FM or Gamesmanship. They're occupado; so we wander to the base of Sunburst Arete and Paralysis. Emmett racks up for the sun, and has one of those out-of-element days, placing gear in every possible place, downclimbing, backcleaning, resting, climbing, etc., but eventually making upwards progress. From the first belay, we get a free shower from a waterfall above that's soaking the potential traverse between Steven and Bob's route and ours, and we watch Bob get Paralyzed as he follows Steven's effortless lead. Having found his mojo, Emmett leads our next pitch; it's wet, ugh! As I follow, I'm glad for the rope from above. I lead the top pitch, which should have been easy but was again wet, and get the 'not-a-gimme!' compliment from Emmett. The Cliff Gods allow us to rap without complication.
*> After Paralysis we climbed the first pitch of Sting (5.8). This is a great climb! We started
*> on the Gamesmanship crack and traversed left along a finger crack to the vertical crack of Sting.
*> Again, Steve did a super lead. If you haven't done Sting, plan to do it. It's just a really nice climb.
Base Camp had relocated to the base of Poke-O; Bob amazes us all with beef stroganoff and biscuits for dinner. From scratch, on a campstove. That man will make someone a great wife someday J
*> The last day we mostly watch Emmett flail his way up the beautiful corner that is the first
*> pitch of Fastest Gun. With the comfort of a toprope I show everyone how I learned to do it
*> in the Valley. Pretend the corner is a chimney. Chimney and stem, stem and chimney. Emmett
*> goes back up and does it right, casual 5.9 instead of desperate 5.10. We end early for our long
*> lonely drives home.
Bob and I climb Fastest Gun as well; Bob insists on pure crack technique, while I rely on the old flexibility/footwork standby and stem like mad.
Noonish, we part company. Bob and I have corn soup for lunch while gazing up at the slabs of Chapel Pond, then head towards VT, since we're both headed generally east then south. We catch the last ferry across Lake Champlain, at sunset as it turns out, and have a last supper in Rutland before we split up for our long hauls homeward.
*> Was it an efficient four days? Of course. If you get to climb an inch of new rock, I mean
*> really new rock, not just new to you, then it's going to eat up a bunch of time. Getting to
*> climb new-to-you classic Poke-O routes is a bonus. But the real work of the trip was
*> meeting and making new friends. Getting to know new people, getting to trust them,
*> getting to *like* them, is as much important preparation as brushing off a foothold before
*> stepping on it. And unlike the nubbins on Tirrell Slab, these friendships have staying power.
Somewhere in the course of that weekend, I not only established some very high-quality friendships but at some point, perhaps on that quiet ferry ride at dusk, I began to realize I'd found a soulmate as well.
But that's a whole 'nother story.